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Rafif Kalantan’s mission to champion MENA and SWANA devs

Each year, the organisers of London Games Festival showcase the work of Black, Asian, and underrepresented games professionals working in the UK through the Ensemble initiative.

Curated by author and artistic director Sharna Jackson, the Ensemble initiative features a new cohort each year, with their talent being showcased at exhibitions in various locations across London.

Part of 2024’s cohort is Rafif Kalantan, an emerging narrative and game designer from Saudi Arabia who spoke to about her journey from studying computer science to winning the 2023 Yugo BAFTA Student Award for her puzzle game Eros Xavier’s Love Solutions.

Prior to moving to the UK, Kalantan studied computer science at Effat University. During this time, she took a game development course which became a catalyst for her to consider a path into the games industry.

However, Kalantan found difficulty in actually finding a suitable career path in Saudi Arabia once she graduated.

“Unfortunately for me and for other people from the Middle East and North Africa, it’s a lot harder to try and get bigger studios to take you and your experience seriously,” she explains. “When I graduated, there weren’t any studios in Saudi Arabia that did game development. So I worked in VR for around three years, then I did my master’s course in games design and development here in the UK at the National Film and Television School instead of just continuing on working on my own project to try and showcase my talent.”

Kalantan certainly did just that, with her final year project receiving the BAFTA Student Award for Games at the Yugo BAFTA Student Awards 2023 which celebrates the creativity and works of students across various creative industries.

This win marked off many firsts for the category, with Kalantan being the first female director, first non-European, and first Arab to receive the accolade, as well as it being the first win for a British school in the category. On top of that, she also made it on the MCV/Develop 30 under 30 list last year.

This success is what led her to become part of the Ensemble cohort, which she hopes will help boost her career but, more importantly, a project she is currently working on to provide help and support to developers in the MENA/SWANA region.

Kalantan co-founded the Gamedev Initiative for the Global South (GIGS) with Nifty Craft developer and writer Ashraf Abi-Said. The mentorship program aims to help budding developers in the region.

“GIGS is going to be a centralised platform for game developers by game developers,” she explains. “It’s all about providing support, courses, education, and mentorship to people in the MENA/SWANA region, from people in the region itself. That way, people can see themselves in the people that are helping to educate them.”

The idea initially came about when she and Abi-Said were talking about how they wished they had a program like that when they were aspiring developers.

“I don’t remember seeing other Arabs or North Africans in the industry that I could look up to and be like, ‘There’s people who represent me that I can see myself in a similar role.’ And he was thinking the same thing, but from a different perspective of looking at games courses and seeing that not a lot of them were taught by Arabs or North Africans – at least when he was growing up. So that’s what led us both into creating this initiative.”

While Kalantan found her way into the industry by studying relevant courses at university, it’s something that she finds difficult to recommend to young people wanting to take a similar path.

“It definitely depends on where people are coming from,” she says. “I think there are a lot of people who don’t necessarily need to get a degree, but they have enough experience of doing something like QA design or they were able to be somewhat involved early on or transition from a different industry.”

For those wanting to follow a similar path by studying for a degree, Kalantan explains that she feels there’s still biases for people of colour when it comes to the application process.

“It feels like non-people of colour are still being prioritised for a lot of roles because [employers] think they probably won’t need to get them a visa. It’s a lot less money that they might end up paying, which is just unfortunate,” she notes.

As for how this can be prevented, Kalantan says it’s a difficult topic to approach due to the complexity of visa regulations.

“That’s not going to get easier anytime soon,” she says. “But I think one of the things that, as far as I’m aware, is a bit harder to do in the UK is hiring freelancers from abroad. Maybe that can open up the way if, let’s say, you have a project that you think there’s someone who’s really appropriate to work on it – you can hire them for a certain amount of time remotely.

“And based on that, you can decide if you want to invest into bringing them in on a skilled worker visa or not. I think that’s the current solution that might be okay if there was a way to even hire someone from outside the UK without the right to work in the UK.”

As for her own plans, Kalantan sees herself either getting a full time role in the UK or heading back to Saudi Arabia and starting her own studio by the end of the year. Whichever she settles on will be underpinned by her desire to tell narrative-driven stories, which is how she wants her voice to be heard. One game that Kalantan has recently drawn inspiration from in this regard is Spiritfarer.

“The story; every time I start understanding any of the character’s stories I just want to sob, it’s so good,” she says. “Spiritfarer does this very well, telling these emotional narratives in such a gentle way. It ends up being a really great way to deliver these stories that might be very hard to talk about in real life.

“I think games are a wonderful way to deliver stories in a way that you can’t experience with movies or TV shows. I like these sort of emotional stories about relationships with other humans but also the world, the environment.”

One way Kalantan wants to do this is by telling stories infused with the mythology and culture of where she grew up.

“One of the biggest problems is that there’s a lot of people who think that the only thing MENA and SWANA have to offer is either presenting it as being in a constant state of war, or basically terrorism.

While Kalantan notes that these regions are “actually developing very well nowadays,” she says it may take the boost of other countries for them to experience their full potential.

“It might be doing a lot better in some countries compared to others, but hopefully this will eventually bring the industry up enough so it also highlights the industry in neighbouring countries within MENA and SWANA.”

Kalantan also hopes that developers can use the rich, deep culture and mythology of these regions to create enriching narratives, highlighting Ubisoft’s approach with Assassin’s Creed: Mirage as a template for other studios to follow.

“There’s a lot of things that developers can actually include in games, and the first way to be able to do that properly is to include people in the conversation,” she says. “Like what Ubisoft did with Assassin’s Creed: Mirage was great, it did very well – zero complaints there. They did their fair share of research, they were involved with multiple museums from the region, for example. If it takes effort, the effort is going to be reflected in the reception at the end.

“And I think, especially in the current climate with what’s happening with Palestine, it is actually good to try and use games as a means to deliver stories from these regions and get our voices heard.”

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