Should the GDC Move to Canada?

I am a Muslim. I am a game developer. I am not going to GDC this year.

That seems like defiant political posturing, but GDC simply wasn’t in my travel plans for 2017. If it had been, I’d no doubt rethink my passage given the present climate in the United States. I’m not from one of the seven countries impacted by Trump’s suspended travel ban. I live just moments from the U.S. border, cushioned by the multicultural comfort and acceptance of Canada where I was born and raised (on the playground is where I spent most of my days). But when I meet up with U.S. Customs officials? I’m a coffee-colored man with a suspect middle name and a generous amount of facial hair. For now, entering the U.S. is not worth the trouble.

These feelings are common. Distinguished Muslim game developers like Rami Ismail say they feel the U.S. is no longer open for business. Many travelers, both game industry personalities and digital civilians, are reluctant to enter the U.S.. Even non-Muslims are unwilling to enter the U.S., either out of solidarity with their fellow men and women, or a simple fear of what they may have to endure. There are threats of privacy violations for everyone, with Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly openly stating that visitors should have to give over their phone passwords and discuss the sites they visit. This is not a hypothetical. Already there are Muslim Canadians who have been turned back at the border after an interrogation and phone search.

Thanks, no thanks.

For game developers, it doesn’t have to be this way. While the U.S. may be recoiling into an isolationist position, Canada is very much open for business. In fact, we’re the third largest producer of video games in the world. According to the Entertainment Software Association, there are more than 20,000 Canadians working in the games industry. Bleeps and bloops contribute more than $3 billion to our GDP. Canadian game developers see exceptional levels of support from both provincial and federal governments. We’re a country of gamers and game makers, by the people, for the people.

So why not move GDC to Canada?

Despite the facts and figures mentioned above, Canada has always suffered from a dearth of industry events. With the exception of the Montreal International Games Summit (MIGS), no attempts at major industry events in Canada have managed to stick. GDC Canada was tried in 2010, but never again. Pocket Gamer Connects came to Vancouver in 2016. This year they chose San Francisco instead. It’s hard to keep the big-money-play-ahs interested in the Great White North.

The reasoning behind this is up for debate, but most Canadians I’ve spoken with agree — attendance falls short of targets because budgets are limited. If a Canadian developer is only going to attend one event, it needs to offer maximum visibility to U.S. publishers and partners. And U.S. attendees are the cool kids in short supply because they have enough parties to go to already. In short, our lack of major industry events is a very real extension of something that every Canadian is familiar with: being stuck in the long shadow of America.

But with the current state of U.S. — World relations, there’s a very real opportunity for Canada to skate out of said shadow and into the limelight. And I’m not the only one who thinks so. Speaking with Jillian Mood, head of partner and member relations for the IGDA and owner of the upcoming Capital Gaming Expo in Ottawa, it seems Canada is rife with potential to house guests from the U.S. and around the world.

“Industry events are a crucial part of building your business,” Mood told me, “and Canada is a world class destination. With the level of talent we have in this country, it would be a shame to keep it to ourselves. While we’ve been able to showcase it through events like MIGS, CGX and the (now-defunct) Ottawa International Gaming Conference, seeing a major player like GDC move its main event to Canada would give the industry a fresh pool of talent to dip into, while simultaneously giving those outside of Canada the chance to showcase their very best to a whole new world of partners.”

If you’re concerned that Canada may mirror policy decisions like those in the U.S. that would be hostile to travelers, think again. In fact, it’s starting to look like Canada is bracing for more than just visitors. I recently spoke with Canadian immigration consultant Sean Polden to get his take.

“Canada is deliberately positioning itself to be the landing pad for those displaced by changing American immigration policies. The companies I’m working with are having no issue moving their skilled workers into Canada in preparation for stiffening regulations, and are adapting their
 employment strategies accordingly. The government’s messaging in Canada is clear and consistent. Canadians are open to working with the industry’s need for highly skilled labor, regardless of where in the world that labor is from.”

Major cities like Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver are only an hour from the U.S. border. The weak Canadian dollar (at least at the time of this writing) provides a fiscally beneficial alternative for event planners and travelers. And, for real, aren’t you getting a wee bit tired of spending time in The ‘Frisco? Don’t you like maple syrup, Canadian bacon (no, we don’t call it that), and people who say “sorry” when you bump into them?

I understand that most of the games industry is located in San Francisco, but the fact remains: the industry is pushing back. Companies are keenly observing U.S. policy and doing everything they can to mitigate the impact. Devolver Digital in particular deserves some applause. They’re making sure everyone who can’t attend GDC in San Francisco this year in light of travel restrictions will get their games seen. Despite the best intentions of the industry, it’s entirely possible that changes in U.S. policy will make it a difficult place for international game makers to do business.

Let’s shake things up in 2018, GDC. Canada welcomes you with open arms.


Faisal Sethi is the founder of The Frosty Pop Corps, a boutique mobile games studio in British Columbia. Their latest games include the arcade hockey experience Slap Shots!, and Puff. — an action game of bullets, jumping, and recoil, coming soon.

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