It is Saturday, the day following the close of this year’s Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. A few weeks ago, I believed I would be coming here to desperately look for a job (again) while possibly drinking myself to death. Instead, I had a great time spent mainly in the company of other people, gave a couple talks, ate some good meals, and had some overpriced cocktails. A great week by any measure.
As was pointed out to me in the last few days, GDC is in a curious position among all our yearly games-focused industry events. There is a lot of homosocial hugging and tenderness I’m not accustomed to seeing out of either studio bro-culture or consumer bro-culture. There was a ‘living exhibit’ where you could play Doom deathmatches with John Romero himself, and yet more people seemed interested in attending the talk he gave with wife Brenda Romero (Train, Wizardry), Richard Lemarchand and Warren Spector about transitioning from game dev to pedagogy.
That’s not to say that there isn’t an oppressive musk of masculinity over much of GDC — the lack of diversity in the Indie Games Summit is a particular sore point this year — but it was great to feel at least mostly at ease and among friends at any given point during the conference, even if it meant I was mostly off in my own corner. I have spent so much of the last five months feeling isolated and forced to bottle up emotions under a guise of ‘professionalism’ till it all exploded, violently and messily, from behind my ribs. To feel loved and appreciated — and to see love and appreciation going on all around me — was exactly what I needed.
There is just so much hugging, though. I think I said as much to Ben at one point. “Gosh, there’s so much hugging,” I told him.
“It’s because this is the one time out of the year when a lot of us see each other,” Ben explained. “It’s kind of a reunion.”
It is, really. It’s also catharsis and ritual. It felt like coming home.
So, because I don’t want to go days or weeks before writing a lot of this down like I did last time, here are my favorite moments from this year’s GDC.
- Critical Proximity: The first-ever games criticism conference showed us all that this is a diverse field and that there is an equally widespread interest in talking about it. Organizer Zoya Street projected an event of maybe 30 people — instead we had over 200 attendees and hundreds more tuning in via our Twitch livestream.
When I spoke and thanked everyone for supporting our Patreon, the applause I got was unexpected and touching in ways I can’t adequately put into words. Everything about Critical Proximity was the culmination of many wonderful things.
- Michael Abbott makes a surprise appearance at his own dinner. Each GDC for a number of years now, Michael Abbott (The Brainy Gamer) has organized a large dinner of fellow critics and cool people in the field. This year, he had to step away from co-organizing the event due to issues affecting his health, and he was unsure whether he could even attend. It was unfortunate, but it was even more important for Michael to look after his health, so while a Brainy Gamer dinner without the Brainy Gamer seemed a little bit improper, we went ahead. Then, after most of us had already been seated and were chatting away, there he was.
As a relative newcomer to this scene (I didn’t appear online as a games critic till 2008 and didn’t get involved in Critical Distance till 2011), it’s at times hard for me to appreciate just how significant some of these early players of our current games criticism circles really are. Witnessing everyone drop their forks and knives to applaud Michael’s arrival — something I took part in — was incredibly moving, and just drew into even sharper focus how meaningfully some of us have touched each other’s lives.
- Deirdra Kiai’s microtalk at the #1reasontobe panel. Deirdra (hereafter: Squinky) was one of the first individuals to make me feel like coming out as non-binary would be okay. They’re a role model for me in a number of ways — including dress sense, which I cannot hope to emulate. For their #1reason talk, in which they articulated the intense feelings of placelessness, invisibility, and anonymity felt from not falling within the gender binary (either emotionally or physically) was deeply resonant for me. It is the first time a conference talk has brought me to tears — actually, the first time any public speech of any kind has done so. And I’m so grateful for that.
Sidebar: Squinky’s game, Dominique Pamplemousse in: “It’s All Over Once the Fat Lady Sings!” was up for four Independent Games Festival awards this year. It didn’t win any, which I’m sort of bummed about, but Squinky’s take on the situation is on point: visibility when you are any kind of minority (sexual, racial, etc) invites untold harassment and other abuse. It shouldn’t be that way, and with any luck one day we’ll be better than this, but I understand their feeling of relief for not having won. I attended the IGF awards and when Dom-Pam came up I was the only one in my entire section who cheered — and I got dirty glares for my trouble. Even acknowledging the game’s existence, much less singing its praises (pun intended), was asking to be ostracized. But no amount of sick gamerbros can stop me from being elated that this game exists and was in the running for the same awards as other, more grandiose titles.
- Kate Craig thanks her wife during Fullbright Company’s Game Developers Choice Awards acceptance speech. If there is one single moment from this year’s GDC that sums up recent sea changes in games development, it is this one. In amongst the IGF and Game Dev Choice Awards’s near relentless parade of straight white cis men, Ms. Craig stood up on the stage with the other core developers of Gone Home — which had just won an award for ‘Best Debut’ — neatly and succinctly interjected with ‘I would like to thank my wife.’
That’s it. The cheers that followed (again, not from my section of the audience, despite my best efforts) indicated that the message had been sent, loud and clear.
- Naomi Clark’s talk at Lost Levels. I missed witnessing this one in person, but thanks to the power of smartphones and social media, now everyone can enjoy the game dev wisdom of Ric Chivo.
Pay particular attention to the businesswoman behind Clark who starts taking notes (in apparent earnestness) at one point.
- Stickers! Buttons! Postcards! True to my word, I gave out roughly two sets of Night Vale scout buttons this last week, as well as several iron-on patches. I totally did not anticipate the cool things I would receive in return! Lana Polansky gave me a great set of origami paper, while Miguel Sternberg (he of They Bleed Pixels) gave me this amazing (legitimately licensed!) sticker set of Hello Kitty as Sadako from The Ring. JUST LOOK AT IT!
And of course, there are the artisanal postcards designed by Maddox (Mr. Joyboy):
And selfie stickers from Christine Love’s Interstellar Selfie Station:
- Richard Lemarchand and Phil Fish using their DJ set to speak to each other through music. These two have been a feature of the Venus Patrol/Wild Rumpus parties at GDC for years now, but this was the first year it felt like I could get a raw, clear sense of the two’s personalities through their setlist.
Tagteaming at the turntable, their music selections spoke about generational differences and hard times and mutual respect, and would it surprise you to know there was hugging at the end? There was hugging at the end.
- I was able to walk into a drug store and buy a magazine containing my byline. As primarily a web-based writer, I still get a weird little thrill at seeing my name in print. It so happened that the new issue of Official Xbox Magazine, for which I wrote a retrospective on Saints Row IV, hit the stands the same week as GDC.
(I was tempted to buy another copy to send to my mother, but I’m still afraid of having to explain what a ‘dildo bat’ is.)
- Unwinnable House. This is my second year staying at the Unwinnable House, a bifurcated three-story building about 20 minutes from the conference center with beds, too few power outlets, and at least one exploding toilet. Utilities mishaps aside, as populated as the house is by radicals, punks, suits and Australians, there’s really never a dull moment at any hour of the day or night.
This year’s defining moment: playing Assault Android Cactus with Richard Terrell. He’s really good, by the way.
- Getting mistaken for Kris Graft at a party. I had no idea this was such an easy mistake to make, but I suppose with enough alcohol and general amounts of cluelessness anything is possible.
When I booked my flight for GDC, I was thinking of this as being kind of a last hurrah. I was out of Gamasutra, the chances of securing a press pass again seemed slim, and the odds of getting any sort of work at all were getting thinner all the time. Instead, it feels like I got exactly what I needed to get a second wind. I’m still painfully introverted — as are the vast majority of GDC attendees, I expect — but I’m definitely reenergized, which is quite possibly a first, coming from a week spent around people.
I miss my cat, though.