Anam Sajid and Bisma Zia were thrilled when they received invitations to attend the upcoming Game Developers Conference (GDC), a massive San Francisco-based event in March that attracts game design talent from all over the world. Through a scholarship awarded by the International Game Developers Association Foundation (IGDAF), they were given passes to the conference. There, they could network with big-name developers, as well as attend keynotes and workshops on game design. It was a phenomenal opportunity for the young, up-and-coming game designers from Islamabad, Pakistan. It soon dissolved, however, when their visas were rejected, preventing them from traveling to the United States.

“When my visa was rejected I thought maybe it was because of some mistake I made,” Sajid, 22, told The Washington Post. “But when Bisma’s visa also got rejected, who had a completely different experience, we thought it probably had something to do with the fact that we are Pakistani.”

Zia’s visa rejection fell on the same day as a Global Game Jam, an event in which participants compete to create a game in an allotted time. The two joined and made Trying to Fly, a game about repairing what they see as a broken visa system. Zia, 25, said she had “huge feelings of frustration, annoyance and sadness” that she initially didn’t want to explore because they were “all very raw at the time.” In the end, though, the two felt it would help to funnel those tumultuous feelings into something positive.

“Funnily enough, only a couple of days before our rejections, Bisma and I were discussing making a game together,” Sajid said.

In the game, players take the form of a bird, which “represents the applicants’ dreams and aspirations for the future,” according to Trying to Fly’s download page. Then they are asked a series of questions about employment, their ethnicity and where they’re from, just like Zia and Sajid were asked during their embassy interviews. Depending on how you respond, you will either be accepted or rejected.

Travelers like Sajid and Zia have long faced increased scrutiny from customs officials when attempting to enter the United States.

Sajid and Zia are not the first international would-be attendees for GDC that have been unable to attend because of immigration issues. In 2017, developers from Iran, Syria and several other countries were unable to attend. Conference organizers promised refunds to those affected.

Applying for a U.S. visa was a first for Sajid and Zia, and they were both told during their interviews at the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad that they would not be admitted to the country.

“I was asked about my purpose of traveling to the U.S., for the GDC acceptance letter and for my travel history,” Sajid said. “Then after half a minute of typing, the interviewer returned my passport saying he cannot grant me the visa. Shocked, I stood there for a minute thinking those were definitely not enough questions to determine strong links to my homeland.”

Zia said her interview was done in English, because she’s fluent, but she said it began to take a turn for the worst when she brought up that she was employed (she works as a user experience (UX) designer at a software house, Switch Communications).

“He asked me my position and salary. I’m an entry level employee at my company, so it’s not a very high one,” Zia said. “He reconfirmed my salary at least three times. I could tell the interview was going stale now. I said everything I could think to say, but eventually I just stood there silently.”

Upon receiving visa rejections, both Zia and Sajid contacted IGDAF. Zia said their contacts at the organization were “all understandably outraged on my behalf, and really supportive.”

“At the International Game Developers Association Foundation, we work tirelessly to ensure that the game development community is representative of, and welcome and inclusive to, every person who wants to make games,” the IGDAF wrote in a statement provided to The Post. “We are currently looking into the recent events surrounding the visa rejections for further clarification and working to provide resources to our young scholars so they may succeed in their career goals. We will continue to support IGDA Pakistan’s platform to unifying students and developers and make programming more accessible to our global community beyond GDC.”

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