I was supposed to go to GDC.
A couple of wonderful people recommended me to speak at a panel to represent my country. I was thrilled, deeply happy, as someone who wasn’t anyone got noticed. I live in the Pearl of the Orient, a nation with a lot of talent but restricted by opportunities and a red passport. This is what I was going to talk about, the trip was sponsored (hotel, passes, and flights), I had just started a game studio, I have assets to go back to (house, car), and have been in the game industry for a while.
But I had to get a visa.
Cute Single Person Problem
A month before the conference, I was in queue at the US Non-Immigrant line. With no phones allowed, I had to watch the looping slideshow which I found really funny.
- Myth: Only cute people get granted visas to the United States.
- Fact: Everyone can get granted visas to the United States.
I thought to myself, reassuringly, “this is going to be easy, people say I’m cute.”
And how wrong was I.
During the first interview window, the first question to me was “Are you engaged to an American?” to which I answered “No.” The interviewer then asked me “Where will you be going?”, I said “San Francisco.” I handed the invitation letter from the conference organizers and the speaker agreement. They asked for my US visa photo, looked at it, looked at me, then gave back all the stuff.
In the second interview window, I had to be ten-printed.
In the third interview window, a man started asking me questions about my family, my bank statement, my employment record, and what I do for a living. “I make video games.” The interviewer looked at me, “like mobile games?”. “Yes, video games.” then handed me a blue paper stating my visa was denied.
“Why am I denied?”, I asked.
“Your paperwork didn’t make sense. There’s no assurance you’d go back to your country” to which I showed him the taxes we pay yearly for the house we’ve lived in for 14 years.
“You can try again at any time. Sorry, it just doesn’t make sense to me. Maybe to another interviewer” which meant 4 business days for another appointment, and $160 USD.
A lot of Filipinos received 10 year B1/B2 visas during the Obama Administration and renewing is as easy as dropping it to your nearest mail courier. I have a close friend who got awarded a 2- week B1 visa because he represented the Philippines at a trade show in the United States.
So why was I denied a visa?
Not once. But thrice.
Third World Priority
While not recommended, there is a higher chance of approval if you show flight tickets while applying for visa — both departing and returning flight tickets. This, however, still does not guarantee your visa approval.
Filipinos can fly to 63 visa free countries. However, you cannot get passed the local immigration without a return ticket. During a flight to a game conference in Singapore, the lady at the check-in counter laughed at me because I was booking my return flight in line. She said, “your passport has a lot of stamps and visas, I think I can let you go. You can book right before immigration.”
Because that’s a thing– we cannot leave our country without a guaranteed return flight home. We cannot say yes to a trip to a game conference even in visa free countries without getting asked “When do you plan to return?”, “How many days are you staying?”, or “Where’s your invitation letter?”. This also makes it hard for conference organizers who want to give platforms and opportunities to game developers from developing countries. Because the reality is, people from third world countries have to meet certain requirements and sometimes, be subjected to an interviewer’s decision.
All this really means for us was having to keep proving we are educated, financially capable, worthy of a one page visa, and that most importantly, we will come home.
There are a lot of Filipinos who fly to Spain/Europe undocumented, who go to the US to find themselves a token American for a green card, who overstay in Japan, all wanting a better life, better opportunities, and a better future. Despite the fact that we were colonized by three different countries, we are still treated with diplomatic hostility. This is a symptom of a problem beyond the video game industry. This is what makes it hard for people like me, who are more than willing to go the bureaucratic route but are still subjected to harsh judgment and scrutiny.
I love my country, I was supposed to speak about the efforts the community has, how I wanted the local industry to grow, and what we can show to the world.
But I can’t.
It is exhausting to have to wake up early, line up three times, be looked in the eye, then handed a blue paper. I have paid my dues. While it would have been noble to keep on pushing through, I took the reality of the situation with grace and looked at the bigger picture. I owe the organizer assurance and less heartbreak. So I found the panel another speaker who already had a 10 year visa.
He will go to GDC, and I won’t. It doesn’t have to be me. This is bigger than me. I was told reassuringly, “the US doesn’t know what it was rejecting.” I can’t imagine how many people have been in my place
Currently my US visa situation, as stated stated by one of my interviewers, is very dependent on the subjectivity of my next interviewer. If he or she can make sense that I have no plans of staying and finding myself a husband in the US, then maybe I can go.
Luckily, we all live in a time where the internet destroys all bounds. The reason why I got recommended in the first place is because of the wonderful people I met online. It’s efforts like #notGDC, and the aim to make information accessible to everyone by the people in the industry that reminds me why I love the world of game development. In here, I do not feel like a single cute person looking for an American husband for a green card. Right here, I feel like a person capable of making change.
I would not be where I am if not for all these people from the internet who have given me opportunities, who noticed nobodies like me, and have given us platforms. I would never trade my third world passport for anything else. I will always come home. The sad reality is there are more opportunities in this world if we weren’t strapped by red tape. But how do we change these things to ensure that video games can make the world a little closer, a little together.
My visa is denied but resilience is my best friend, if anything, game development has taught me to embrace the art of failure and to keep moving forward.
A denied visa doesn’t define me or you.
We all live in the internet anyway.