April is Arab Heritage Month, and Ubisoft is honoring it with the theme of “Leading with Empathy” to remind and encourage others to be kinder to each other. It’s a theme that resonates with Ubisoft’s Editorial VP Fawzi Mesmar. In his role, Mesmar oversees the creation of multiple projects in Ubisoft’s portfolio of games across western Europe – a long way away from his native Jordan, where he began his career as an independent developer working on a Game Boy Advance game. From there, his career grew from game designer, to creative director, and eventually to head of design at EA DICE, all while working in the Middle East, New Zealand, Japan, and Europe.
Apart from his duties helping to advise and guide Ubisoft’s creative teams, Mesmar also serves as the Executive Sponsor for the Salaam employee resource group (ERG), for which he provides guidance and mentorship. In celebration of Arab Heritage Month, Mesmar discussed the need for representation, the importance of being a leader, and how a joke between friends turned into Arab game developers’ most famous podcast.
The theme for Arab Heritage Month this year at Ubisoft is “Leading with Empathy.” As someone who is in a senior leadership position, what does that theme mean to you?
FM: It resonates with me a lot. The fact of the matter is that everything good that happened to me, whether in my personal life or professionally, happened because somebody took a chance on me. Somebody went out of their way, or took the time during their day, to either talk to me about something, to give me a sense of responsibility, or to say, “I see something in this guy, I want to give him a shot.” All of that resonates with me a lot in my type of leadership. I've often been described as having a “servant leadership” style. The servant leader means that your views of management don’t follow a traditional hierarchy; you are serving your team to get them to perform at their best. What things can I remove out of your way so that you can really perform, and how can I empower you to perform at your best? I always look at ways to empower people. I have been my entire career. So, I default to trust, and I default to finding ways to pass that trust on to others, and I have rarely been disappointed. I found that the more I did it – the more you trust people and the more you empower them – the more they feel responsible for that trust.
As someone who grew up in the Middle East but then moved to countries like Japan and New Zealand, what was that transition like? Did you experience culture shock?
FM: It was very interesting to observe, because it happened in a lot of different cultures. When I was working in a room full of Jordanians, like me, there's a lot about me that I never had to explain. It’s just inherited and shared knowledge across the board. But when I started working overseas, there was a lot that I had to explain and correct. Some people had an opinion, or maybe a different idea, about what I should be like because of what they've consumed in media, and then they were kind of surprised when I did or didn't fit that mold.
I think that ultimately, we all want to feel that we belong; we all need that feeling. When you're the only person who really stands out as different, it can be a bit tough. You find yourself thinking, “I wish there was someone else like me to tell me what to do.”
I grew up amongst Arabs, but we didn't have that much game development going on. So for me, I wasn't sure that I was a game developer. I think I was working in game development for six years, and I'd made a bunch of games, and I still wouldn't have called myself a game developer because I'd never seen one. I was like, “Am I really a game developer? I don't know what that's like.” And then when I was working with other game devs, like “Oh OK, maybe I do actually know some things. And they're kind of like me. They're also figuring stuff out as they go.”
You came up in games without having a role model. What does it feel like now to be that role model?
FM: I don't know if I’d call myself that, but what motivates me is that I always want to be the person I wish I met growing up. A lot of what I've learned has been through trial and error, and I’ve had a lot of self-doubt. If there's anything that I could do to help people get over that for themselves, I would want to do that, because I wish someone did that for me. It's a big reason why I want to do the work that I'm doing. It's a big reason why I want to work with ERGs across the company. It’s why I'm doing a lot of work outside of the company to talk to people, teach, and work with local communities in a lot of different places of the world.
You wrote the first book about game design to be published entirely in Arabic. How did that come about? Surely you realized you were a game developer by that point?
FM: It was after that time for sure [laughs]. I spent a bit of time working in New Zealand and Japan, and during that time I couldn't visit the Middle East that often. And when I moved to Europe, I managed to travel back to Jordan, and one time I went back to Jordan for a visit, and there was a flourishing game development scene. During the time I was away, there were a lot of grassroots projects going on, and there were a lot of local dev teams. They invited me to speak at the seventh iteration of this event . I still remember the first iteration, it was me and nine other people in the back of a Burger King.
FM: Yeah, we would take the corner seat at the Burger King; we bought two Coke bottles and would refill them the entire day so that we could just sit there and work, because we didn’t even have an office or anything like that. But back to the seventh iteration of the event: I go up on stage and there were about 600 people or so in attendance. They were game developers ranging from a 14-year old kid who had made a game, to adults of all ages making games. I thought, “Wow, there are so many people going into this. If they are anything like me, then they’re trying to get their hands on any book they can.” I thought there should be something in which people don't need to learn another language in order for them to get that knowledge. As I looked, there wasn't any book in Arabic, and I realized it was time, so I spent the next two to three years working on that. Then, three iterations of that event later, I sent a whole batch of my books over and we distributed them to everybody that attended. That was a really important moment for me, to realize that there was something I could do.
People of color in these spaces so often encounter impostor syndrome. As someone who went from not even thinking of themselves as a game developer to writing a book on game design, how do you manage to overcome it?
FM: It never really goes away. But somebody once told me something that really stuck with me: “If you think of yourself as an impostor, either you're really good at lying to people, so keep on doing it; or you're really good at what you're doing, so keep on doing it. Either way, just keep on doing what you're doing, because it's working.”
You have a well-known podcast called The Habibis with two other Arab members of the games industry, Rami Ismail and Osama Dorias. How did that come to be, and why did you want to start it?
FM: Rami, Osama, and I were friends long before we started The Habibis. We got to know each other originally because we were often advocating for very similar things. We want to help developers make games, we want to make sure that we do our best to have good Arabic representation in the industry. We come from similar yet different backgrounds, but we are all Arab game devs, so it's only natural that we end up meeting, and also only natural that we became friends, and all of us are very active within the industry outside of our day jobs.
During the pandemic, we were all playing a game together online and chatting, and during the chat we were talking about all kinds of stuff and we were laughing about it. And Osama said it would be funny if we just recorded ourselves talking and released it to others and I was like, “Yeah it would be three of us, the habibis” and the name just stuck. Osama and I were laughing and Rami and his usual self was like, “I just bought the domain and we’re going to start doing this thing.”
So we got our microphones and we started recording ourselves chatting during the pandemic and releasing episodes, and then the community started to grow. Initially, we thought we’d just talk about game dev and the games we play, and then as we started recording the episode, we quickly found ourselves going into tangents. We’re talking about our life experiences, Arab culture, Arab heritage, Arab representation and food, for the most part. We were touched by how many people actually resonated with the stuff that we were saying, which sort of told us, “Oh, this is not just us fooling around, there’s something here for people to feel a type of connection to.” We’re now coming up on episode 100 and have been doing it for more than two years now.
What kind of feedback have you gotten?
FM: We get a lot of emails, and it’s so touching, because a lot of times it’s people telling us they feel seen. People tell us they see a lot of what we say in themselves, or they find moments of laughter because we would say something about a certain ritual that we have with our family that they relate to, or that they have with their families. A lot of our listeners are game devs, and hearing about what we do in our day jobs as well as what we’ve done in the past inspires a lot of people to either pick up game dev or to push forward. Since we did this, I have a lot of people either walk up to me or send emails saying, “we got into game dev because we’re listening to The Habibis, and we really appreciate what you guys are doing.”
I think one of the moments that really made me feel how many people we’ve reached was when I joined Ubisoft. When I first joined the company, I logged into my computer for the first time and checked our intranet forum, and there was a post telling people that I joined the company and there were a lot of comments saying “We have a Habibi in the house!” [laughs]
Arab Heritage Month has coincided closely with Ramadan this year. What does Ramadan mean to you, and has that changed since you stopped living a predominately Muslim country?
FM: Ramadan is a month from the lunar calendar that has taken religious significance because of Islam, but it affects everybody who lives in Islamic-majority countries. It becomes tradition and culture, regardless of what religion you practice, as long as you live there. I think for people who are practicing, Ramadan has a very significant and special religious feeling and atmosphere. But for everybody, Ramadan has a very specific cultural celebration. Everything changes in Ramadan when you live in the Middle East; there are a ton of festivities going on. The best shows are on TV; everybody who works in the movies, TV, or music business works their entire year to make sure that they have their stuff ready for Ramadan, because that's when they get the best viewership. It's a big showbiz moment, and even a lot of the local game companies now make sure that they have their releases ready for Ramadan, because it's a big celebration and a big occasion.
It also affects your day job or your school timing, because most people are fasting; they need to be home before sunset, so that means work hours change, so you have shorter work hours. Food is generally a communal thing in the Middle East, but Ramadan is even more so, because everybody's really hungry. They all want to get together around the meal. So, people invite each other over for meals more than normal. Giant feasts of dozens of people surrounding big tables stuffed with food everywhere are a commonplace occurrence.
You do that for a month, and then Eid comes in, which is a massive celebration. Everybody's in with their new clothes and outfits. Everybody's visiting relatives, and as kids you get all kinds of toys and gifts. I used to get money as a gift, so you start to go around visiting all kinds of relatives and collect the cash so you can buy that toy that you've been thinking about the entire time, and you can eat and drink as much as you want whenever you want. So, it's a big celebration that follows an already very special month. It’s a very unusual time of the year that is celebrated from a cultural point of view, whether it's religious or otherwise.
When you’re abroad, it’s very different, though I'm starting to see a lot more cities embracing Ramadan and celebrating it with the local Muslim communities, I was recently in London and I saw in the streets they had “Ramadan Kareem” signs and decorations in the center part of the city, which was very touching. It's always nice to see when a minority is recognized within a world-famous city such as London. It's also super-nice to see cities, companies, and cultures embracing their local Arab and Muslim minorities, and really celebrating them as well. It's very heartwarming from a humanistic point of view. It’s really where we come together as a species and we go, “This is important for you. I want to make it special, even though I'm not necessarily part of it.” I think it's beautiful, and I would love to see more of that.
For more about Ubisoft’s ERG’s and cultural observances, visit our Inside Ubisoft news hub.