This year, I went to the Game Developer’s Conference for the first time. Everyone told me how much I was going to love it. That it was so much fun, and I would meet amazing people whose friendships would last forever. That I would learn so much about making games. That I would get to rub shoulders and talk to some of the most interesting and creative people in the industry.
They were right, of course. I did meet amazing people. I did talk to some amazingly talented and creative people. And I did learn a lot about the games industry. But not the things I was expecting. And I didn’t love GDC.
Sure, I experienced lots of casual sexism—from being asked if I was there because my boyfriend made games to only being engaged and asked questions once I change my outfit to a more “credible” t shirt and sneakers—but that wasn’t really what ruined it for me. And I had a hard time articulating what it was until the fantastic #1reasontobe panel. In that panel, Colleen Macklin called for game developers to rise to action to help shape the industry. The system is broken, she argued, but we design systems. And when they’re broken, we fix them. If anyone can change games, it’s us.
And she’s right.
Photo courtesy of GDC Official Flickr
While I sat at a VIP table at the IGF awards, snacking on mini-quiches and drinking complimentary wine, Nathan Vella joked that game designers are “the rockstars of our industry.” I looked around and realized how deeply the industry seems to want to believe this. Hundreds of people sat in crammed rows of chairs while I got the star treatment at a spacious table, only because I happen to be someone’s friend. Underneath the flashing LEDs of the stage’s lights and the proud strutting of VIP badge-holders, I saw an industry of outsiders who have suddenly “made it” drunk on external validation and the praise of other outsiders, trying desperately to be Hollywood.
The term rockstar is so overused in recruitment and PR as to be meaningless, but games seem to really want these cult of personality types. Popularity is complicated, and there is nothing wrong with people liking you, but it astonishes me how much of the industry—from GDC to the media around games—seems bent on artificially elevating people. People who know anything about movies hate the political jockeying and plastic veneer of the Oscars, and we seem hell-bent on recreating it, right down to the “relatable minority” host. We look to Hollywood—and more broadly cinema—as the more legitimate big brother of our industry. But Hollywood is broken and floundering. We can do better, and we should.
What, exactly is emulating Hollywood doing for us? What do we gain from VIP culture? We’re reinforcing a caste system that the underrepresented among us are desperately trying to break so that they can be heard. There’s a reason that the most interesting conversations are moving away from GDC and happening at grassroots events like Critical Proximity and Lost Levels. Those movements are heading in the right direction, but we need to be doing more. The Games Industry (which has really become synonymous with the AAA Games Industry) wants to feed young designers a myth of success that depends on the celebrity status of certain designers. But the myth is bullshit. We can do better.
The myth of the senior game designer is attractive because it looks a lot like the myth of the American Dream. After all, America doesn’t have a proletariat, just temporarily embarrassed millionaires. So too with game design. The industry runs on the dreams of millions of young designers hoping to one day “make it.” Maybe once upon a time, it worked for the veterans, but the market and the landscape have changed since then. There is a lot more noise, and it’s nearly impossible to be heard when everyone is standing in a room shouting. The Dream is a lovely roadmap that simplifies the process and rewards hard work, while completely downplaying the role of luck and politics:
Come to GDC as a student. Of course, you can’t afford it, so volunteer your time just so that you can be around the cool people. If you’re lucky, maybe you’ll get the chance to talk to someone that works for a company you’ve heard of about the games you’re making!
According to the myth, if you’re really bright, very talented, and are willing to work exorbitant work weeks, you too can intern for a company you’ve heard of. Probably for free. But hey, look how much cooler you’ll be! You can say you interned for Playstation! Being cool is almost as good as rent money!
Then if you’re really good at that, maybe you’ll be hired on for actual money when you graduate. Of course, it probably won’t be for a company you’ve actually heard of, but if it is, and you ship some titles as a peon, you may just be promoted to a Senior Peon! Maybe you’ll even get to design games one day! And when you do and you’re good at that, you too might be as successful as those people walking into the speakers lounges and sitting at the VIP areas of the awards shows. Maybe you’ll even get to the cool parties!
But let’s look at the successful revolutionaries in games; how many of them actually did this? The real creatives, the real Artists are not climbing gaming’s corporate ladders; they’re making their own. They’re developing totally new mechanics, making things on their own. A lot of them are very vocal about not fitting in. This isn’t a coincidence.
I had a really hard time articulating to myself and others what about GDC turned me off. It wasn’t the sexism, it wasn’t me feeling like I didn’t know enough people. It was actually the way the entire event is structured. In stark contrast to Critical Proximity a few days earlier, which was painstaking about its sense of inclusion, all of GDC was designed to cater to a few rockstars while telling everyone else to keep trying to become one of the elite. It was everywhere, from the lines of hopefuls with resumes in hand outside of the Playstation recruiting booth, to the volunteers at each event fiercely checking badges for the correct status. Critical Proximity’s twitter backchannel featured amazing (respectful!) debates, which had dominated my feed with thoughtful discourse, was now replaced with selfies taken with VIPs and tweets of exclusive parties and awards granted in closed-door events.
This VIP culture is toxic to our conferences, and feeds the worst insecurities of our industry. It creates an environment in which some voices are more important than others. It artificially imposes celebrity. And to an outsider, it comes off as the ridiculous. This dynamic will exist whether we foster it or not, so it seems ridiculous to actively cultivate it. The game design equivalent of this would be to give the person in first place in Mario Kart a speed boost that makes them 20% faster than other players. Sure it’s great for the person in first place, but what if you’re in 6th? What if you’ve never played before?
Being visible in the game industry is a privilege*. Being famous is even more of a privilege. And before you reach for the tired “I got my fame on my merits” argument, understand that I’m not attacking the famous superstars of the industry. Many of them are extremely talented and wonderful people. But I do strongly believe that they have an obligation to empower others who don’t have the same platforms they do. They have a responsibility to listen to and amplify the voices of new designers, new ideas, and new approaches. Giving up their VIP lounges would be an amazing start.
*As an industry, we seem to all be sitting around wringing our hands over privilege. Depending on your place on the political and social spectrums, you may either be actively trying to empower those with less privilege or be terrified that your own privilege is in jeopardy or somewhere in between. Privilege is nothing to feel guilty over, and the most productive conversations are focused on exposing privilege so that we can be aware of it and work around it.
I stood in line waiting for the fantastic #1ReasonToBe panel to be seated. As I stood in line one of the volunteers—presumably an aspiring game developer—approached me and asked if I would like a coffee. It was in the afternoon, and I was beginning to feel the general tiredness that always accompanies a conference, so I happily accepted. The volunteer gave me a cup and gestured toward a table with fresh hot coffee. I poured and got back in line only to hear a guy behind me say “Oh, I’d love some coffee!”
“I’m sorry, sir. The coffee is for All-Access badges only.” Seriously?
I gave him mine and got another.