Gamer and developer Tasneem Salim wanted in on her country’s gamer conventions. The only problem? No girls allowed. So Salim and her two co-founders, Felwa Al Suwalim and Najla Al Arifi, created their own, girls-only version: GCON. The event, sponsored by tech titans Sony, Nintendo and Microsoft, brought 3 thousand women together in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia April 2012. Recently, the team behind GCON has put together all-female art and development competitions to help lady gamers enter the industry. With the second GCON coming up this fall, Salim chats with Red Herring about the event’s genesis and how the community’s developing behind it. Our edited transcript, after the jump. And for more info, check out their community website here.
RH: Tell me about GCON.
TS: GCON started out late 2011 when we had the idea of having a girls’ gaming convention in Saudi. The gaming conventions here are usually male-only, and we’re not allowed access, so we’re kind of left out from that community. And there’s a huge female gamer community here, [and] us being gamers we definitely wanted to be part of these events, so we decided to host our own event…We came up with the idea and went through with it and somehow, we actually pulled off the first girls-only gamers convention here.
RH: What challenges did you encounter, planning GCON?
TS: We had around 3,000 people attend the event last year. Actually, the numbers are a bit messy because there was a storm that day, and we kind of had to shut down for the first day. [Laughs] That was one of the challenges we faced. But it was around 3,000 female gamers. We had very little marketing budget, of course…but if I have to go back probably the main challenge was convincing the companies that there actually is a female gamer community. I remember sitting in meetings with Sony, Microsoft and just saying ‘Really, we’re here, we exist, this is a good idea. We invite you to participate, please take place in this event.’ That was probably the first obstacle we faced.
RH: If companies didn’t know you’re out there, do you feel the separation of female gamers is an awareness issue, or one more embedded in social and cultural pressures around girl gaming?
TS: I would say it’s a little bit of both. It’s not exactly very ladylike to be a gamer. For a lot of people it is like that, not for the new generation, but for older generations that’s one thing. Another thing is, it’s like you said…they don’t know that these gamers exist because they don’t see them at events, because the events are male-dominant. So they assume that they don’t exist.
RH: Was GCON a way for girl gamers to announce their presence?
TS: Yes, we basically wanted to say ‘We’re here, we exist, and we would like to be paid attention to.’ That was our main point from last year’s event. Everything in the event last year was free. It was just about saying you know, there is a society, it’s right there, and we’re just putting it on the map.
RH: Right off the bat, you were sponsored by some of the biggest names in tech: Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo. How did you get their attention?
TS: Access was not easy at all. I used to work in telecom, so I have some contacts in that area. But literally, we had to go knocking on doors and emailing info emails, and emailing someone who knows someone who might know someone who can connect us to that person that we need to talk to; in order to actually get their access was a bit difficult. Especially that we were females and…wasn’t really taken seriously at the beginning. And having actually achieved the fact that we’d managed to get them, all three companies, under one roof was huge for us. Even though it was varying participations––some of them went really big, like Sony, they went all in; other companies were a bit more shy––still, the fact that they were all there under one roof was a huge achievement for us.
RH: Did you feel like acquiring those sponsors validated your idea?
TS: Yes actually. Following the first event, especially Sony, they’ve been a huge supporter for us…last year, with our help actually, they created the ladies gamers day, and that was the first time ever they’ve done that. And this year they went all in with us, collaborating and making us an official event for them. Instead of just having GCON and ladies gamers day, we’re now officially partners with Sony for the event. So that was a milestone for us. Other companies…well, some of them basically don’t have females on their agenda, yes? In terms of the demographic that they want to serve. But there has been some attention. We’ve definitely gotten the media attention and at least now that they actually acknowledge the community. And it’s not just the gamers community by the way, we’re heavily focused on the developers’ community as well.
RH: So GCON’s also an opportunity to network.
TS: That’s what we’re trying to do, but our objective is mainly to get them working in the industry professionally. We don’t just want them to have this as a hobby. We don’t just want them to be gamers who occasionally do fan art. We actually want them to take those talents and put them to good use and get them in the industry.
RH: Have you seen progress?
TS: So far, we’ve noticed that there’s an abundance of talent when it comes to art, and many of those are now being requested. We get requests from companies that, if we know any artists who’d be interested to work on projects…once they’ve actually started putting their art out there, through GCON, through other channels, they have been getting offers to actually start doing this professionally. That’s on the art side. On the development side the community is still pretty new. We’ve had the competition with Verso, Verso is a local business incubator for educational projects. We approached them since our theme for the development competition this year was education. So we approached them and they were very supportive actually. And they offered incubation for the winning projects to help them get the games going and publish them and so on.
RH: What drives you, personally, to pursue this passion?
TS: I wanted to have these opportunities presented for me, and now that I found myself in a place where I had the ability to make them available for myself and for others––I’m a developer as well. I began developing last year. I used to be a CS student and really didn’t know what to do with a CS degree, at some point. It’s like, do I work as a programmer or do I just get into marketing like everyone else does? So having these opportunities available for me would have been a great help at that time. So I feel that if I can make them available for me and other people as well, then, yeah, it’s worth it.
RH: What future developments do you hope to see in your region and sector?
TS: Right now, what we’re working towards is seeing the first game developed by a woman published locally. We haven’t had that yet, so that’s our mission. Whether it’s someone from our team or ourselves personally or one of the developers that we’ve been working with––we need a success story, and that’s what we’re focusing on for the next year. Hopefully after that we would be able to expand a little bit around the Middle East. We’re focused on Saudi Arabia for now as we’re based here, but we’re hoping to expand a little bit and maybe take the Saudi experience and customize it and share it around and, different countries where we see this pattern could actually work.
RH: In a far-off future, do you see GCON going co-ed?
TS: I don’t see that happening in Arabia. I mean we see them around, you’ve seen them in Dubai, you’ve seen them in Jordan, and the fact that the community––it’s not really about having an all-female event, it’s just more about having a more specialized event that focuses on women. That’s it, really. But I don’t see it happening in Arabia any time soon.
RH: Is that something coming from GCON, or do you see that as specific to the Saudi Arabian culture around tech and gaming?
TS: No, it’s very cultural, not just gaming. It’s a matter of, it’s what the general preference here. And honestly, it’s working for our advantage.