Rafif Kalantan’s Pioneering Journey in the Gaming World: A Beacon for MENA and SWANA Creatives

In the heart of London’s bustling creative scene, the London Games Festival annually shines a spotlight on the talents defining the future of gaming. Among its initiatives, Ensemble stands out, celebrating Black, Asian, and underrepresented game developers in the UK. Curated by the distinguished Sharna Jackson, Ensemble invites a fresh cadre of talents to London, displaying their work in exhibitions that traverse the city’s vibrant locales.

A standout figure in the 2024 Ensemble showcase is Rafif Kalantan, a rising star in narrative and game design hailing from Saudi Arabia. Kalantan’s journey from a computer science student at Effat University to clinching the prestigious 2023 Yugo BAFTA Student Award for her innovative puzzle game, Eros Xavier’s Love Solutions, is nothing short of inspirational.

The decision to pursue game development crystallized for Kalantan during her undergraduate years, thanks to a pivotal course that unveiled the potential of gaming as a powerful medium of storytelling and engagement. Despite her newfound passion, the path to a career in game development in Saudi Arabia was fraught with hurdles. “The landscape for game development in Saudi Arabia upon my graduation was barren. There were no studios I could turn to for a start in the gaming industry,” Kalantan shared, reflecting on the challenges she faced post-graduation.

Undeterred, Kalantan immersed herself in virtual reality for three years before embarking on a master’s program in game design and development in the UK at the esteemed National Film and Television School. This move was driven by her determination to hone her craft and make her mark in the industry, “Working in VR was enlightening, but I craved more – I wanted to push the boundaries of what I could create and contribute positively to the gaming world.” Her dedication and innovative mindset bore fruit when her final project, a testament to her exceptional talent and creativity, won the BAFTA Student Award for Games at the Yugo BAFTA Student Awards 2023.

Kalantan’s victory at the awards was unprecedented, marking her as the first female director from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region to clinch this honor, setting a milestone for representation in the gaming industry. Reflecting on her achievement, she noted, “Winning the BAFTA Student Award was not just a personal victory; it was a beacon for aspiring game developers in the MENA and South West Asia and North Africa (SWANA) regions. It underscored the potential within us to excel and innovate in the global gaming landscape, despite the odds we may face.”

Her insights underscore a broader issue within the industry—a lack of representation and mentorship for aspiring game developers from the MENA and SWANA regions. “Growing up, I seldom saw Arab or North African figures in gaming that I could aspire to or see my future self in. The recognition I’ve received is a step towards changing that narrative, providing a figure that upcoming developers from underrepresented backgrounds can relate to and be inspired by,” she elaborates.

Kalantan’s story is not just one of personal success but also a clarion call for greater inclusivity and support for underrepresented talents in the gaming industry. Her journey from an ambitious student in Saudi Arabia to a trailblazing game designer in the UK is a testament to the boundless potential that lies within every passionate individual, regardless of where they come from.

Through initiatives like Ensemble and the creative courage of individuals like Rafif Kalantan, the gaming world is steadily becoming a more inclusive space, where diverse voices and visions contribute to the rich tapestry of digital storytelling and entertainment.

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