GDC 2015: on community, family, and loneliness

Last week was my seventh year attending the annual Game Developer’s Conference in San Francisco.1 I’ve been around long enough to notice that a lot of things have changed since then, to the point that this year, it felt like there were actually two conferences happening. There was the one where people were apparently really excited about VR, to which I didn’t really pay all that much attention. And then there was the one about the real world we live in, in which that-gate-that-shan’t-be-named and those complicit have been, and still are, destroying our community, and what do we do now?

As game makers, we think in systems, and the problem many of us are trying to solve right now is, how do we fix this so that we can go back to happily making games without fear of harassment? But there’s no easy solution, and in fact, there are even deeper problems. Marginalised gamedevs have being harassed and ostracised since way before 2014, not just from the outside, but from the inside, too. Even those of us who are ideologically similar in that we want game-making and game-playing to be accessible to everyone can be horrifyingly quick to turn on one another over the most trivial of slights. We talk a big game about inclusivity, but as soon as we feel included, very few of us actively continue to lend a hand to those still trapped in the margins.

After this year’s #1ReasonToBe panel, now a GDC tradition, wherein Amy Hennig and Adriel Wallick talked about other gamedevs feeling like family to them, I couldn’t help but feel a deep pang of loneliness. When I expressed this, others were surprised: I appear to be popular and well-connected in games. I certainly know a lot of people. The fact is, there are many people I’ve met through games whom I consider dear friends, and games communities have historically been the spaces in which I’ve felt most comfortable being myself. The very friendships that outsiders maliciously paint as “collusion” have, in fact, been my lifeline. I am immensely grateful for that, and I don’t want to seem like I’m not.

But the closer you are to people, the more potential they have to hurt you, and that frightens me — even more so when the personal and the professional are so intertwined. Families can be wonderful safe spaces, but they can also be dysfunctional and abusive, replicating the very toxic power structures we were trying to get away from in the first place. And so, I’m careful with whom I trust. I create walls and an outgoing, charming, and snarky persona to protect myself, lest I wind up trapped into depending on others for my livelihood for wearing my heart on my sleeve. I feel safer this way, but I’m also lonely.

The weekend before GDC, my parents came to visit and expressed that although they don’t completely understand me, they love and support me unconditionally. After many years of fearing their rejection for going against their values and beliefs — let’s just say that Coming Out Simulator 2014 hit me a little too close to home when I played it — to hear this from them was overwhelming and powerful. Yes, it is still exhausting to have to explain myself to them at times, separated as we are by a generation and several cultures. And yet, here we are maintaining a relationship, even if to some, it would seem easier not to.

I wonder if that is what we ought to mean when we say gamedev is a family: not all of us are automatically going to coexist harmoniously and agree about everything and be the bestest of pals all the time, and to expect everything to be easy will only lead to heartbreak, disillusionment, and pain. But if we do the hard work of building bridges, and mending bridges we have burned, in solidarity for a common cause — and I stress, this work must be done by everyone, and can’t fall solely on the marginalised, as it often does — then maybe we’ll actually get somewhere.

I think about what Katherine Cross said about the “third way” between enduring the game industry as it is now and leaving games entirely — that is to say, supporting non-industry-based game-making and games criticism. Creating paths to success that aren’t about how many copies a game sells, through alternative models of funding, distribution, and curation. Patreon isn’t perfect — it often feels too much like a popularity contest — but it’s a start. But what if people at larger, more capitalistically-oriented game companies who really wanted to promote inclusivity, instead of only focussing on issues such as hiring for diversity and broadening target audiences, also supported and promoted those of us trying to find our way outside the system, not in the sense of a return on investment, but just out of the goodness of their hearts? I’m not confident that this will happen, but I can dream, and hey, I’ve been proven wrong before.

In the meantime, I’m striving to be kind to others, even those I don’t agree with. I’m learning to strike a balance of using humour to critique oppressive power structures without taking cheap shots at actual human beings. I’m learning to be better at trusting people and at the same time, learning when it’s more appropriate to keep a healthy distance. I’m discussing issues in good faith with people who genuinely seek answers, while refusing to fall for troll bait. I’m taking more opportunities to travel to events where I can deepen the in-person connections I have with the friends I mostly talk to on the internet. I’m attempting to be more approachable to new people who want to make games and meet other gamedevs but are shy and scared. I’m co-organising small, radically inclusive game-making events. I’m learning how to be a good teacher and mentor. And, obviously, I’m still making games.

I can’t pretend I have any answers or convenient takeaways. I still have a lot of questions. But I can kind of see the possibility of a better future if I squint and look into the distance, so maybe that’s enough for now.

  1. I’ve been going since 2007, but skipped a couple of years in ’09/’10 because, ironically, I had a game industry job that didn’t give me enough vacation days to go, and then got laid off the next year and couldn’t afford to go.