GDC 2015 (a first attendance pov)

I arrived late. I fumbled my way up the stairs of the HiHostel, otherwise known as the “indie hostel”, and pushed myself through the door to the room I’d call home for the next week. I didn’t want to wake my roommates (two of which are my friends), but I was so excited that I definitely did. We hugged briefly, and I threw my disheveled mess of a self into the top bunk, happy and unable to sleep properly.

I shared the room with Allison Cole, an amazing game designer who is ⅓ of Tweed Couch and made In-Tune, Amanda Wong, a Master’s student in Communications and Culture at York/Ryerson, and Ida Toft, a media artist and game designer who is currently pursuing a PhD at Concordia University. And, as intimidating as these three amazing individuals are, they are also kind, welcoming, and each have unique takes on the world around them!

The first day of GDC was a bit of a blur. We all woke up at the crack of jet lag and dispersed. Passes were collected and Amanda and I became fast friends. We attended many of the same talks, bonded over food, and went on adventures. Close comrades Stephanie Fisher and Anne Farmer guided us through many avenues of GDC as well, and I met many, many more amazing folks along the way.

It would be impossible for me to go over everything, but I’m going to try to encapsulate as much as I can. I’m going to break up the info into reflections and insight on GDC as a whole, and some specific talks that I went to.

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The Good, The Bad, and the Blah

I attended a panel, led by experienced community manager Tony Jones, and unfortunately titled “Conquering Community Toxicity like Genghis Khan.” The talk was as problematic as the title, and I chose not to stay through it. However, there were some key points that I’d like to mention in regards to this.

The first is that the use of Genghis Khan as model for community managers was troublesome because it was used to emphasize the “good” parts of the man who conquered most of Eurasia (1206-1227 roughly). The speaker made a few jokes aimed at addressing the fact that Khan conquered and united by massacring enormous populations which did very little to explain why Khan was a useful exemplar for others in this field.

Moreover, Jones’ talk centered on the game design teams who are often the target of community toxicity. As someone outside of the games industry, I found this a particularly important point because rarely are we privy to a talk about community toxicity aimed at community managers and the labourers within game design teams. Employee morale, for example, is affected by how the community responds to a game. Identifying and understanding that players as well as game developers encounter harassment and toxic behaviour can create solidarity.

Jones defined community toxicity as “any [act] driven by frustration, dissatisfaction or irrational behaviour that has significant negativity.” This definition reduces toxicity to a broad form of negative behaviour. The danger of a definition like the one that Jones provides is that it could apply to any number of negative behaviours. Toxic behaviour often reinforces more toxic behaviour, and it is often about continuous, repeated harassments – most often verbal and personal – to the point where abusive language and action take precedence in a space.

I chose this talk because I have been wondering, and continue to wonder, if there is a place for me in games industry. Community management and QA testing are often the most cited employment opportunities for those just entering the games industry. This was the only community management talk I was able to attend. It was an important one for raising awareness about the potential backlash of being a community manager. But I think rather than learn from Genghis Khan, Jones and other community managers may benefit instead from the understanding and cooperation outside of games industries to combat toxicity.

Choices and Game Game Narratives

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The next talk I attended was titled “All Choice No Consequence: Efficiently Branching Narratives”, led by Cassie Phillips. Cassie works at Pocket Gems, and her talk focused largely on the game Demi Lovato: Path to Fame, an interactive story-driven game that focuses on player choices. The games’ system is tablet/mobile, and I thought this was really neat. The talk was in one of the larger rooms and was packed. I found it a bit refreshing to have a large presence for a game like Demi Lovato: Path to Fame. My own games bias is that mobile/tablet games are still considered “less than” PC/console games and that mobile/tablet games are often gendered. Indeed, Demi Lovato may appeal to a younger, more feminine games community, and I really enjoyed that there was respect for that in a space like GDC.

As Phillips pointed out in her talk, branching narratives are becoming a popular game mechanic. Therefore, the key question is whether or not it is really worth it to have branching narratives in a game. Some of the takeaways from this talk are about answering this question and how best to incorporate branching narratives effectively.

Philips pointed out right away that having choice matters, and it matters much more in the feeling than that those choices are impactful. It’s important to find major branches by assessing the major changes in scenes and characters and the unique ways to get to the same goal. Avoid getting hung up on small branches. Choices present in dialogue should contribute to the development of characters with clear, unique voices; choices should be succinct and with purpose; and there should be clear consequences and goals. Phillips was quick to point out that the consequences did not need to be major, but that any feedback produced a positive reaction from players. Finally, one should avoid using false choices. There’s a lot more I could say, but my notes below are a close transcript of the talk.

One of the most interesting points that Phillips brought up was player reaction to feeling that they were “wrong.” By this she meant that there are many players who feel that they are being called out for having made a mistake or choosing something that they feel reflects that they are “bad people.” When they feel judged in the game, these players will often stop playing the game. In Phillip’s talk, she is referring to this data as a means of emphasizing effective game design. One typically wants to maintain audience base and popularity.

This, to me, is a fascinating piece of data because PC/console games quite often feature protagonists who occupy problematic subject positions (GTA, Amnesia, Man Hunt), or are designed to have explicit binary gameplay where you can choose to play as a bad character or a good character (Fable, Papers, Please, BioShock), or contain choices that do not always have explicitly binary, moral outcomes (Fallout: New Vegas, Undertale, Oxenfree, This War of Mine). Game design focused on experiencing moral and ethical decisions within a narrative space has the potential to affect the person playing the game. Typically, we see these explorations positioned squarely in a fantasy for enjoyment (most media is designed for enjoyment). So what happens when we play outside of this fantasy? How can we experiment with media that evokes difficult feelings, even judgements, without losing a player? Is it possible, and is it something that should be tried at all?

One response is that there are options outside of formal industry. There are wonderful examples of games not made for profit or that are independently developed that do play with these themes (I’m thinking of Squinky’s games, for example).

As Phillips concluded: “What is the value of being wrong?”

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Uncomfortable Conversations

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My next talk was on Life is Strange and was titled “Life is Strange: Using Interactive Storytelling and game design to tackle real world problems.” It was presented by Raoul Barbet and Michel Koch.

Like so many that filled the room, I was ridiculously excited about this talk. The studio’s first game was Remember Me (one of my favourites). I’d only started playing Life is Strange a few weeks back, but felt quite differently about it than I had about Remember Me. The game is story driven and thus has exceptionally well-developed character, character voices, and game mechanics to highlight these things. But, even though I felt strongly that I should have been enjoying playing Life is Strange, I kept getting this weird prickly feeling at the back of my neck whenever the protagonist (Max) or other female characters (such as Chloe) spoke. I did a bit of research and found that all the writers are men. I think that this is an emerging and interesting “problem” in the goal of better inclusivity and diversity in games.

Is it enough to have female characters? Are those female characters white? Are people of colour present in games, or non-binary people, or people with different physical attributes? Who works on games, and how do they identify? Representation and diversity is more than an in-game presence; it is about respect, collaboration, and hiring within the industries as well as what’s in the games.

Barbet and Koch’s major hypothesis was about how to deal with difficult subject matter such as euthanasia in a game. According Barbet and Koch, “if a scene presents neutrally, [players] can interact and think differently.” Both developers as well as their team were interested in maintaining respect and thorough research practices before and during the game. This attitude was refreshing and stayed consistent throughout their presentation at GDC as well.

In sharing their research practices, Barbet and Koch also presented clear and attainable outcomes for other designers interested in pursuing meaningful discussions about uncomfortable subject matters in games. Their approach was consistently top-down, and focused on data, speaking with doctors and professionals, creating mood boards, and assessing the huge economic cost of medical attention.

However, like many academics and industry professionals, a top-down approach emphasizes a distance between researcher and researched. Part of this may be that it is difficult to receive ethical clearance to engage vulnerable subjects. Like issues of diversity and inclusion, doing the research is a huge and important step towards real structural changes. But even though it’s an important step, it remains problematic to have unequal gender and racial representation in the room, especially when a game’s subject matter is specifically about underrepresented or marginalized people. Life is Strange features female protagonists, but there was no female representation on the game’s writing team or on the GDC stage (that I can find).

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Be Afraid

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The next talk I attended was by SOMA’s creative developer, Thomas Grip. The talk was called “Crafting Existential Dread.” Full disclosure: I am a horror maniac. I love horror games with the kind of fervor that only a Lacanian psychoanalyst could. My feelings on the game itself stemmed largely from inconsistencies in the use of horror elements that contrasted uncomfortably with the existential and provocative elements of the game’s narrative and its settings.

My feelings on the game aside, I knew that I felt a particular kinship with this talk the moment that it began. There was a palpable excitement in the room and from the stage. Grip said that he felt Amnesia was a failure to produce an examination of consciousness from its players. Be still my heart! Grip’s enthusiasm about these explorations into human consciousness was immediate. In direct contrast to the Life is Strange talk that felt muted, emotional, and full of a deep and profound respect, SOMA’s creative director was deeply enthralled with experimentation. I found this difference refreshing and complimentary – both teams have different approaches, and both approaches produced very different games.

Grip, and by proxy the Frictional Games team, have emotional and psychological goals in their games. In SOMA, the team’s goal was to produce existential dread in the player. They had a large number of ambitions outside of that (examples I caught: horror, puzzles, underwater) and (I think) a hard time deciding what to include and what not to. The AI and deaths were included at the very end, and this makes total sense to me because it felt that way in the game as well.

In order to develop around existential dread in SOMA, the developers constantly tested and received feedback from players about specific instances. With delight, Grip noted how emotionally players reacted to the [SPOILER ALERT] euthanizing of an innocent, non-sentient robot. Their game design technique, unlike previous talks I attended, was: “how do we communicate our theme on a holistic level?”

Even though both Life is Strange and SOMA tackle emotional (and uncomfortable) subject matter, SOMA’s direction spoke to me on a psychoanalytic level. Frictional’s preoccupations with being underwater (the unconscious), deterministic mechanics (fantasy), and including too many puzzles (subject presence) all led to an exploration of humanity within a horror game space. There is even a moment where the character in SOMA can clean a mirror in a bathroom and look at themselves. They experience the horror of seeing their subjectivity personified in the body. It’s fucking awesome.

The SOMA talk reminded me of one of my favourite conversations with game designer Cameron Kunzleman. When I first came into game design, he and I were talking, and I was going on and on about wanting to make an anticapitalist game or a game that was specifically about psychoanalysis. Cameron told me something that still guides me today: that the ideas, subject matter, and curiosities that drive me would come through in my game design regardless of how consciously I was trying to create them, and that I would produce something better from that unconscious creation.

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Identity and GDC

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I was thrilled to see that Indigenous game development was represented at GDC. Renee Nejo’s talk, “Everyone’s Silent Enemy: Shame and Vulnerability” took me by surprise. I didn’t get to go to any talks on Middle Eastern game development. I didn’t see many talks that spoke to how I identify as an Iranian-Canadian. My mom is Iranian and I’m close with her and my extended Iranian family. My father passed away when I was in grade 12 (a very long time ago). We lived abroad for most of my young life and I had very little contact with his family. I don’t remember how or when I found out, but my father had Native Canadian blood. My second cousin, Jay Odjik, an Anishinaabeg comics artist from Kitigan Zibi connected last summer at the Creative Writing Camp where I was teaching. I was and am very emotional about this. He and I traced my lineage and discovered that our great-great-grandfathers were best friends. I often wonder it would have been like to have met my father’s side of the family, to know more about my heritage.

I didn’t expect that I would bridge more of this gap at a talk at GDC. But, Renee Nejo’s talk about her own experiences coming to terms with race, representation, and vulnerability exposed the vulnerabilities of myself and others in the room, helping us to connect with pieces of ourselves that we often suppress.

She explained that we have made very real progress in diversity and inclusion, but there is still a LOT more to be done. She explained how blood quantum (also the name of her upcoming game) works: about how in the United States, you carry a card that tells you what fraction of your blood is Native. She spoke of walking two worlds and of not looking exactly like a specific population, or having a name that didn’t sound like the names of people that share your heritage.

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Nejo described how shame and guilt make it feel impossible to talk about problems. She talked about how in games, marginalized and underrepresented people in particular are making themselves vulnerable and how terrifying this vulnerability can be. For Nejo, game design that attempts to tell stories about and for underrepresented people is about returning to the concept of “us versus them” and conceptualizing it as a conversation between player and designer. Nejo’s major goal in doing this is to better communication between different perspectives.

It takes strength to do something without any guarantee of its success or of its impacts. And the major takeaway from her talk as it relates directly to game development is that it is important to show others, not just tell them, in order to break the binary between “us” and “them.”

Jane Ng is a Badass

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I really want to talk about how Jane Ng is a badass and how her amazing talk, “Making the World of Firewatch” gave me a boost of motivation to conquer more artistic processes in a large gush. I’m going to try to do my best to explain these feelings more coherently, but I’m attaching my notes because the talk gave real tips on how to develop in a small 10-15 person team in Unity.

Jane Ng is a badass because she wears multiple hats and wears them well. She was the environmental artist and jack-of-all-trades for Campo Santo’s breakout hit, Firewatch, senior artist on The Cave, and a senior artist on Spore (to name a few). I could relate to Ng’s jack-of-all-trades position because I’m someone who tackles multiple projects at the same time, and often takes on various roles within those projects. Ng wove her expertise into the making of Firewatch’s world through art as well as optimization. Whereas I had heard and seen other game developers talks about process, Ng’s talk delivered information about Unity, her process, and optimization – extremely complex concepts – in real, digestible ways. If anyone wonders about the purpose of meaningful representation, they should refer to Jane Ng’s talk. I never thought I would understand Unity, let alone be inspired to push my 2D art into more 3D space. But Jane Ng made a huge impact.

I have different thoughts on Firewatch that you can read HERE.

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Advocacy Ripples

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Throughout my journey at GDC, I stayed close to the advocacy channels, friends who push for diversity and inclusion in games, and met developers and artists working in these areas. The culmination of many of the disjointed and positive experiences at GDC was the talk by Stephanie Fisher, Rebecca Cohen-Palacios, Zoe Quinn, Sagan Yee, and Gemma Thomson – “The Ripple Effect: How Women in Games Initiatives Make a Difference.” I met Stephanie Fisher recently through my own work with ReFIG and felt refreshingly at ease with her. When I moved to Montreal in 2014, I attended my first game jam, GAMERella, and met Rebecca. I met Sagan around the same time that I met Stephanie, and Sagan, Carolyn Jong (a researcher, game developer, and activist) and I are collaborating on the Game Curious project in Montreal. I met Gemma at the start of GDC and I confess that I fangirled pretty hard when I met Zoe and she was remarkably kind despite my large, sparkly eyes.

The panelists are all exceptional and the panel was organized to both explain the different types of initiatives that came from each person’s projects as well as to highlight what to do if you are interested in establishing a women or non-binary initiative.

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Across the board, each person explained how their unique backgrounds in animation, web design, maker culture, identities and mental health, game jams, activism (to name a few!) led them to the Difference Engine. Sagan, for example, wasn’t able to find work in her field and stumbled into the Difference Engine for the love of learning … and for the free food. In fact, having support, free attendance, and free food for 6 weeks was a common source of excitement amongst all the panelists.

There continues to be a tremendous amount of devaluing of women in games initiatives, of the support systems that accompany these initiatives, and of the bonds that are formed. On this matter, Sagan explains that seeing representation means the ability to walk into a space without fearing how to navigate it. There is an opportunity to learn new skills, feel passionate, and not feel like you are being tokenized. There’s real power in that.

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For Rebecca, the power of one’s own identity and the creation of women’s only spaces has been a crucial part of her journey after the Difference Engine. Together with Tanya Short, Rebecca co-founded Pixelles in Montreal, and in January 2013 they helped 10 women make their first games. The incredible popularity, support, and games that have come from the Pixelles is demonstrates the necessity for and positive outcomes from a women’s initiative. Pixelles continues to expand and learn. One of the most challenging and difficult components of creating an advocacy-driven initiative is openness, continued learning, and strong communication. The Pixelles is a space that supports these goals.

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Zoe’s work has been diverse. She has worked on making tools available and resources for women, non-binary, and marginalized people interested in games. Her work involves the creation of tools and support for people facing harassment and mental health. A point that rung home for me was that there needs to be continued support after someone initially makes a game – there is further work to be done. In Zoe’s words, it’s about planting seeds and then nurturing them so that they flourish.

Gemma’s work in the creation of spaces is also about ensuring that men can explore non-binary roles. Gemma has created ongoing game jams like Game Jam Stockholm, as well as programs such as Diversi and LadyCADE.

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All the panelists spoke about how having women- and non-binary-led game development programs has not limited the number of men present at events. It merely provides the majority or equal access to women and underrepresented people. Visibility and trustworthiness is a staple of each panelist’s goals, and they work hard to have structures in place to address microaggressions, racism, or other issues that arise.

Creating supportive spaces can be as simple as fostering low-pressure jams, pronoun badges, access to food, and avoiding bars or the expectation to drink. Most importantly, you do not need money or a big budget to create or support communities dedicated to diversity and inclusivity. There is a lot of power in community and grassroots organizations. In fact, Rebecca pointed out that opting for official non-profit status can incur new fees and create challenges for taxes and labour.

The final takeaways from this panel are that it is crucial to teach people how to negotiate, whether that be for job opportunities in tech and games industries or elsewhere. Reach out to people and celebrate their work, not just their struggles. Lived experience *is* experience. However, for me, the point that stuck out was that each individual on that panel took a different approach to how they develop spaces for new game makers. There was genuine respect and friendship between all of them, including their differences.

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Eat Your Vegetables!

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Squinky opened their talk, “Designing Discomfort” with a painfully uncomfortable look into the eyes of a total stranger on our left. The exercise was accompanied by the most perfect lounge music, and Squinky’s clear, unfaltering voice, asking us to imagine we are at a Middle School dance. Squinky is a game designer, developer, writer, advocate, and academic. We recently connected about being half-Iranian (Squinky is also half-Filipino) and it was one of those moments that shows how powerful representation matters. It’s not that every single person who identifies similarly to someone will mean that they are instant allies, share the same ideas or history, or be friends, but there is an instant rush – recognition – that comes with having someone one can relate to. I am also really happy to say that I absolutely do identify as Squinky’s ally (and friend).

Squinky’s talk, in a large room at GDC, was full. A few others have noted that the advocacy talks at GDC were often in smaller rooms. Many of the gender, sexuality, and more political talks and meet-ups were in rooms so small that supervisors had to turn people away. I was able to attend the LGBTQ+ SIG Roundtable, but there were people standing lined up against the walls and many who could not even enter the room because it was at capacity. It is easy to understand why these spaces are so important, and GDC’s organizers should recognize and accommodate this necessity. I was happy to see Squinky’s panel so full, and that GDC made that space available.

Discomfort, for Squinky, is an essential part of game design. Many of the talks beforehand focused on implementing fantasy spaces devoid of continuity errors. In some cases, this fantasy structure was also meant as an opportunity to engage in difficult material (like the SOMA and Life is Strange talks).

I’ve come at games horizontally, meaning I have no formal training. I love 2D art and design, have played games since I was 4 years old, enjoy critical discussions around games, and love fostering more communities around independent and experimental games. I’ve had never seen Jesse Schell’s model of the Flow Channel from “The Art of Game Design” until Squinky’s presentation. But the immediate chortle that surged from the crowd in unison was evidence that game developers are quite familiar with the following model:

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The model is intended to demonstrate that there is a specific zone that games should aim for their gameplay to be situated in – the Flow Channel. It is neatly between challenge and skill and anxiety and boredom. Keeping gamers entertained, of course, is integral for capital gain.

But Squinky dares to ask if that really is true. Is it necessary to stay in the lines?

Squinky explored several games like Papers, Please, Depression Quest, and Fitzwilliam Darcy’s Dance Challenge and how each game is playable, all are situated outside of the intended flow channel, and all with unique designs and focuses. The talk ended a little prematurely for me. I wanted to hear more about how the different games that Squinky highlighted mattered for Squinky, seasoned game developers, and newcomers to game development. Squinky’s talk was aimed at uncovering whether or not it truly is necessary to pander to specific fantasies in games. “We have to train gamers to eat their vegetables!”

Outside of the Talks

GDC was a confusing experience for me. On the one hand, I feel extremely privileged to have partaken in the conference. It would not have been possible if I had not won a pass and funding through the Pixelles in Montreal. Conversely, I think that Mattie Brice’s recent blog about boycotting GDC is extremely important. It highlights, amongst other things, how conferences like GDC piggyback off of the labour of marginalized and underrepresented people:

This model was created by professionals who had jobs that assisted and benefited from participating, creating something that benefited a community. But marginalized people often aren’t part of the community, they don’t have industry or academic jobs that support them, with their skills and viewpoints not yet valued by the mainstream enough for networking to land them work. Since industry is always looking for something new, outsider groups are taken in only for their social cach but not in trade for work or other methods of sustaining their practice. Meaning, our current system is a flawed band-aid on a deep wound, and deserves a lot more open challenges than it currently gets.

Brice, 2016

The presence and importance of community, grassroots, and non-profit organizations dedicated to improving marginalized populations at events such as GDC cannot be undermined. But indeed, as Brice suggests, a lot of people (myself included) do not know where we stand and have no idea where to go afterwards. I wasn’t even aware that speakers – including the speakers that inspired me the most, who are underrepresented or marginalized folks – were not actually paid for their time at GDC other than having received passes to attend parts of the conference. Cost is a big problem, and there is a deep feeling that one should take on costs one cannot afford if it means that one is able to attend privileged spaces like GDC. By comparison, TwitchCon (also an exploitative structure), had a far larger number of attendees and was visibly more diverse – except for many speakers and panels.

Even at the earliest entry into GDC, I felt alienated and out of place. When one registers for GDC, there is an elaborate form to fill out. The form asks for your role and connection to games, and for those of us who are completely adrift in our professional careers, this was an anxiety-producing moment. I have been (and continue to be) looking for work in games and creative industries, but I’ve been unsuccessful thus far. If I were able to pursue a career in the games industry, I believe it would be really beneficial for learning new skills and for (I hope!) contributing both my artistic work as well as my interests in better diversity and inclusivity. I’m also comfortable not being part of these industries and pursuing independent game development and community building, but without stable employment, it is difficult to do much of anything. My live-streaming, writing, and community work also falls outside of games industry proper. I didn’t know what to put for what my position in games was, and so I put my little “company” title for my freelance work and hoped that I’d be able to have more in-depth conversations when the time came.

The biggest revelation for me at GDC was finding like-minded people. I spent most of GDC with people who identified as people of colour, women, trans, non-binary, and Indigenous. I never went to any parties (by choice), but threw myself into talks, lunches, small adventures around San Francisco, and expo halls. Truthfully, I felt exhausted. I wasn’t sure what my place was even though I loved many of the talks and felt inspired. At the end of it, I wondered if I had let people down by not figuring something out.

There are some serious issues with for-profit conferences like GDC. Exclusion via income sets up a dependence on money, corporate sponsorship, market success, or games industry status. The talks at GDC, however, were the most compelling when they were led by people from different backgrounds. The popularity and necessity for activist networks in games can mean the difference between having a support network and safer spaces for employment, community work, or artistic/experimental games. As so many of the speakers pointed out, the problem is becoming more about sustaining involvement and improving inclusion. If GDC is one of the only large hubs dedicated to work in games, then it’s time to reassess who is benefiting from the conference.

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