interview series

The Power of Play

Rami Ismail

In this series of conversations, Peter Gould explores deep topics with creative leaders, designers and spiritual teachers from around the world. Here, he interviews video game developer and activist Rami Ismail.

Celebrated as much for his fight for inclusion as he is for his game design leadership, Rami Ismail is a true pioneer of the gaming community. We spoke about his passionate pursuit of a better, fairer industry, how he came to be a champion for indie developers around the world, and why play is a fundamental part of the human spirit.

As a video game enthusiast, I have long been a fan and admirer of Rami Ismail. 

The co-founder of independent games studio Vlambeer is not only a highly-successful indie developer, with titles such as Ridiculous Fishing, Luftrausers and Nuclear Throne decorating his impressive résumé, but he has also been a dynamic and influential advocate for change; working tirelessly to improve diversity, representation and inclusivity within the gaming industry.

As well as his own games, Rami has collaborated on dozens upon dozens of other titles, and consulted for numerous developers and studios – as well as being a major draw at international conferences, where his talks, panels and workshops have won him widespread acclaim. 

He also has hundreds of thousands of social media followers – most notably on Twitter – and is co-host of popular gaming and media podcast, The Habibis, alongside fellow developers Fawzi Mesmar and Osama Dorias.

It’s hard to imagine a gaming community without Ram, such is his renown and influence, but it wasn’t a foregone conclusion that he would turn his passion into a career.

“I’ve kind of known I wanted to be a game developer since I was very young — I just didn’t know it was possible, because there was no evidence to suggest it was,” he explained.

“Everybody in game development was very different to me, so it felt like this borderline magical thing. I was making games at this point, programming and designing things, but I didn’t feel like there were jobs like that for somebody like me. I just thought it would be a hobby.”

"Everybody in game development was very different to me, so it felt like this borderline magical thing."

The moment that changed Rami’s trajectory was learning about the Utrecht School of the Arts that taught game development.

“It was the first time that it dawned on me that it might actually be a thing you can do,’ he said. “If there’s a school for it, there might be a job for it, right?

“One memory I have from very early on was trying to get to the school’s open day. I had to convince my parents to take me to this video game school, and they obviously saw what was coming. I was a smart kid and they had very high dreams for me, and here I was going off to make Mario.

“But being in that school building and seeing all these other young adults that had this vision of going into the games industry – that was the first time I really felt at home in a place.”

Learning the value of support

Rami’s education experience up to this point was, by his own admission, fairly nondescript. He says people thought of him as a “helpful nerd who helped people with their homework; but that was the extent of what I was known for”.

Behind the scenes, however, he was developing the foundations of a life-long appreciation for teachers, support, and guidance, which would shape his later career.

“There’s this really strange story from when I was really young,” he says as we explore how he found his path into game development.

“I was previously married, and when I got married my dad gave me a suitcase of things from when I was young, including a few files. When I was younger I was pretty socially awkward, so my parents took me to have me tested and see if there was anything that could be diagnosed. So in these files there was a report from these appointments saying ‘Rami isn’t socially incapable — he convinced the entire group of kids to mutiny so they would get their cookie before the session rather than after it’. 

“Apparently I had convinced a group of 11 kids that none of us would participate in the exercises until we had received our cookies. And the recommendation in the file was that I had sort of a natural ability to convince people that a certain path or direction is the right path or direction – and it’s a skill that will need to be managed so that it becomes a positive force rather than destructive force. 

“I never knew that file existed, but looking back and seeing how my good teachers handled me, and the way school support systems handled me, I think a lot of people in my life had insight into that file, or naturally arrived at the same conclusion as that file. And it gave me tremendous respect for teachers – people who can teach and feel what children need to become a good version of themselves.

"It gave me tremendous respect for teachers – people who can teach and feel what children need to become a good version of themselves."

“You can go back through my life and see the little nudges that helped me. For example, a teacher when I was younger created a chess program and allowed me to help the other kids, because I picked up chess really quickly. And I believe that my desire to teach, and to help others, very much comes from that.”

The language of play 

Combining this desire to teach with his passion for game development, Rami became deeply interested in the nature and importance of play.

“At the heart of games sits this concept of playfulness,” he says. “Of creating safe conditions to resolve conflict, to explore, to educate, to learn, to compete – all through play. 

“I firmly believe that play is probably the most defining trait of human existence. The idea that it must have evolved us to where we are now is fascinating. That somebody who threw rocks at a tree to see if they could hit the tree would become more likely to hit a target while hunting. That somebody who would climb trees for fun would be more likely to escape a predator than somebody who didn’t.

"I firmly believe that play is probably the most defining trait of human existence."

“We know the earliest civilisations played, and we still play today. It’s a global constant of humanity, and I think it supersedes a lot of contemporary ideas of what life is — what is good, what is bad, what is moral, what is just —  in that we can playfully explore many of these things.”

Using video games as his focal point, Rami references some examples of what he means, including Papers Please as an exploration of corruption, and This War of Mine as an exploration of survival. 

This makes total sense to me. In the same way that literature, movies and other mediums have helped people to get to grips with lofty or abstract ideas and concepts, so have video games – with perhaps the added advantage of being much more interactive. 

And taking a step back, computers and games were certainly integral to my own learning growing up – not least in my journey to becoming a designer. 

As a young boy I was fortunate to see the rise of the first generation of home computers and games consoles. I was so taken by them that I invented my own fictional games console company, drawing and describing the consoles, games, specs, adverts, and everything in between. Taking this thread onto the computers themselves, I started to use Photoshop to make artwork and posters, and would buy computer graphics magazines to help me along the way. 

As time went on I learned to code and build websites; all the while playing and taking inspiration from video games. 

I became obsessed with digital art, computer graphics, and game graphics, and when I got to high school, I was asked to give mini workshops to teachers to help them understand how the school’s new computers worked. 

Like Rami, this love for computers, games and teaching helped to shape my future career. As well as using games to help clients ideate and develop plans and strategies, my teams and I have produced board games that teach young people about life planning, and help rekindle Islamic knowledge. We’ve also designed online games, including one for Greenpeace’s Ummah4Earth campaign, and have prototyped a game designed to help people learn about the spiritual concept of khayaal

Games and play are undoubtedly a powerful gateway to learning, discovering and creating – a gateway that many of us have walked through first-hand. But for Rami, there is a hurdle. 

He argues that our natural inclination towards play, and the benefits we can receive from it, are unnecessarily blocked from us as we get older.

“At the heart of play is this idea that there’s a language which is fluent to every human being. But what happens throughout our life is that we are convinced we should not speak it,” he says.

“As we get older we are convinced that we should get less playful, be less creative, be less explorational. To be more in line with what society expects — to not just burst into dance on a street corner, not play tag with a friend, or not play hide and seek just because we feel like having a good time. 

"As we get older we are convinced that we should get less playful, be less creative, be less explorational."

“This idea of playfulness kind of disappears, and it’s not until we see a child being playful that we realise we’re missing something. When we see a child have fun with a toy car, we think, ‘I used to be like that — I used to be able to grab that little car and drive around imaginary worlds’. 

“The sort of structures of play we create in video games are a way for a lot of people to reach back into themselves and find that playfulness. So for me it’s a very important mission – making sure that everybody can have access to speaking this language of video games.”

Creative fingerprints

After hitting the big-time with the now-closed Vlambeer (alongside co-founder Jam Willem Nijman) Rami found himself in the privileged position of being able to travel the world to speak at conferences and events, and in doing so developed a passion for diversity and representation in gaming. A passion that helped to define and expand the mission he had set out on.

“I was getting invitations from all round the world to speak, but a lot of the places that invited me couldn’t afford the airfare or hotel, so I would have to skip because I couldn’t afford it either. When Ridiculous Fishing came out and did well, I asked my co-founder if it was OK that I took some of the money we made and put it towards visiting all the places that I couldn’t visit before. He approved it, so I went and started travelling.

“The thing that I realised was that when you go to the different communities that are making games, talk to the people and see their way of life, you start to see the fingerprint of that location, that culture, those people in their games.

"You start to see the fingerprint of that location, that culture, those people in their games."

“Take war games, for example. The ones from the US have a very US-centric way of looking at war, which is that the army goes somewhere else around the world to fight for freedom. Because as far as I know, the US has never fought a foreign invasion on its own territory.

“But this is so different to a war game made in Germany. For example, Spec Ops: The Line was made by a German studio, and there’s a distinct German flavour to it. Even if you win the game, you lose. The whole point of it is that there’s no winner in war – everybody loses. And there’s a feeling of shame that’s relatively unique to Germany, where war is treated as a shameful, negative thing. 

“And then you have a Polish game about war, such as This War of Mine. Poland’s relation to war in modern history has not been that they go to war, it’s that war comes to them. And they don’t fight wars, they survive wars. So This War of Mine is a game about surviving a war.

“So I started looking at games and I started seeing these fingerprints. In South Africa, for example, games are often quite sarcastic. The country has had to deal with so many things in their recent history that are very difficult to talk about, so they find metaphors and other ways to talk about them – very often with poignant humour or biting sarcasm. So a South African game looks like Broforce, which is a game mocking the United States in a way I don’t think most people in the United States fully recognise.

"I realised that games are more than just fun or interesting; they are a reflection of the people who created them."

“Noticing these fingerprints was really special to me. That’s when I realised that games are more than just fun or interesting; they are a reflection of the people who created them. They reflect the truth and reality of the people in that place at that point of time. 

“And this is one of the reasons why diversity is so important in games, and why I have been so passionate about it over the years.”

A beacon for change

Rami’s activism in encouraging and supporting diversity with the industry has been truly inspiring. 

Speaking out on issues of fairness, opportunity, representation, and giving a voice to developers around the world, he has helped change the face of gaming, and in the process has garnered a well-deserved reputation as a bastion of positive change.

As well as developing presskit() and distribute() – free online tools that help indie developers prepare and distribute press kits, demo games, and marking materials – Rami co-founded gamedev.world: A “collaborative effort to limit the effect of the language barrier on the growth of games development in countries with large non-English speaking populations.

He also gained international acclaim for the #1reasontobe panels he hosted at the Game Developers Conference between 2016 and 2019 – which focused on women in gaming, developers who are denied travel and work opportunities due to their geographic location, and other key industry topics – and has been the worthy recipient of the Game Developers Choice Ambassador Award. He has also been included in Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list, named as one of GamesIndustry.biz’s People of the Year, and recognised by the King and Queen of the Netherlands at an annual event that celebrates extraordinary accomplishments.

This is but a fragment of his tireless work and widespread praise over the years. And having worked closely with creative teams across Indonesia and elsewhere, I for one have seen the impact of his efforts. To see designers, artists, developers, and illustrators around the world get the recognition, platform and success they deserve frequently reminds me of the importance of his mission, and the incredible creative diversity it fosters.

But despite the good he has done for others, becoming such a prominent voice in the community was something he struggled to come to terms with.

“I had a really hard time coming to terms with the idea that I was now important – that my opinion mattered. I was never that kid that anybody listened to, but suddenly I had to be careful with what I said because it could hurt people.

"I had a really hard time coming to terms with the idea that I was now important – that my opinion mattered."

“Somebody told me ‘think of yourself like a statue’. The truth of statues is that they do two things. Firstly, they act as a beacon, and the point of a beacon is for people to know that this ‘thing’ has existed or exists. It’s a representation of what it stands for. For me, what I stand for is for this industry to be better than it was.

“But the second purpose of a statue is that it will eventually get pulled down. It will be toppled. And the act of toppling a statue is a culture saying that it has moved beyond that thing that it stands for. 

“For me, this was a very profound metaphor and helped me understand and accept my role. I wouldn’t say I’m the statue — there are and were lots of people fighting for improvement in the games industry. I may have been a statue — people saw me as a beacon for this idea of global equality. But I think a year or two ago that statue was toppled. Not because people don’t believe in the mission any more, but I think that if you’re trying to globalise an industry, make it more fair, try to make it democratic, that you can’t have a statue of somebody who has been trying to do it for several years. That’s too much power, too much influence, too much centralisation. 

“And if it’s an industry that’s trying to be fair, then it shouldn’t be a Dutch guy — even if he’s half Egyptian — that’s the face of it. That’s the opposite of what we’re trying to achieve. The faces we need are the people in Paraguay, in South Africa, in Indonesia. And the beauty of it is that this is what we’ve been seeing. More and more developers around the world are getting that visibility and speaking for themselves.”

"The faces we need are the people in Paraguay, in South Africa, in Indonesia. And the beauty of it is that this is what we’ve been seeing."

Having passed on the torch, however, has not meant stepping away. For Rami, the long-running theme of support continues.

“I’m still a loud voice, I think, and I still speak for what I believe. But my job now is to support others. If people want or need something, I can help them out, I can connect them, I can do something for them. And I am very thankful to have the opportunity to do that.

“Ultimately, if you want to help, your main goal should be to not be necessary. The idea that you’re not needed or helpful — that should be your ultimate goal. I’m not sure that’s where we are as a culture, but by God, it’s much better than it was before.”

Freedom to express

As he settles more comfortably into this new paradigm, Rami has some very clear hopes for himself and the future of the gaming community.

He explains that he would like to be more authentic in his own work – “more explicit about ‘me’” – as he didn’t feel he had the freedom to do so while at Vlambeer.

“I wasn’t ready to take that on before. When you’re of a marginalised or non-standard identity, you often have to be in either a place where you have nothing to lose, or a place of power to be able to tell your story. You can’t be in the middle of your career, you can’t be in the growth of your career and tell those stories because it’s risky. It’s risky to your career, it's risky to your opportunities, it's risky to how people see you. 

"When you’re of a marginalised or non-standard identity, you often have to be in either a place where you have nothing to lose, or a place of power to be able to tell your story."

“While I was at Vlambeer, I was very focused on just building my platform. And I think part of that is because when I was young my dad would always tell me that as a Muslim in the Netherlands it would be good to just shut up about things. You don’t know how people will react, you don’t know whether they will be tolerant or respectful, whether they are racist, whether they are discriminatory, or Islamophobic. So you just keep quiet. You can say you’re Muslim, but don’t make it a big thing. Don’t talk about how different the world looks from Egypt. Don’t say that the Netherlands is not particularly loved for its colonialism. You don’t bring these things up. 

“At Vlambeer I was very aware of this fear that just being ‘me’ could negatively affect my career.

“The thing I want from us as a collective is to not have people ever feel like that. To me, the whole point of games is that they are a global language that anybody can speak. It is preposterous to me that anyone in games should be fearful of being who they are. Whether that is for their sexuality, their religion, their cultural background, their social status, economic ability, disability, gender, language, age, or any of these things. These should not be limiting factors to creating and expressing through this human-defining medium. 

“So for me that is the mission,  even though I know I won’t get there. There’s no way, because everything attaches to this. Racism attaches to this, sexism attaches to this. Politics, economy, culture, language, education — everything. 

“But if we can’t fix everything, and we can only make a small dent that makes things better in this tiny corner of the world, then that might just be good enough.”

With his sincere and dedicated approach to gaming, inclusion, indie developers and play, there’s no question that Rami has made substantially more than just a small dent. 

The impact of his work and his advocacy has been unquestionably profound, encouraging far-reaching change for the games industry, and inspiring countless global developers, designers, studios and publishers along the way.

I truly appreciate Rami, and see him as a wonderful example of heart-centeredness in action. By working with such integrity and excellence, he has not only risen to the very top of his profession, but he has made a genuine and tangible difference to people’s lives.

Not bad at all for a “helpful nerd” who didn’t believe a future in game development was possible.

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