Thinking Outside the (X)Box

Brian Taylor

On the narrow sidewalk outside the building where the Game Developers Conference was held, a group of enthusiastic marketers offer free t-shirts that say “0% THE MAN 100% INDIE.” It seems like a call to arms, but a tiny bit of research unearths that it's a new campaign by Samsung to attract game developers to their app store. Sure, Samsung may be an underdog in this realm, when compared to Apple, but you gotta admit the Korean phone giant is at least 30 percent The Man. This style of borrowing progressive language in the game industry is quite common—as noted and skewered in a presented “rant” during the conference by game designer Chris Hecker.

The Game Developers Conference is held each year in the Bay Area, taking place during the last week of March this year. It's the major professional conference of the video game industry, where the people who make games gather to network and give presentations about the year's successes and failures. GDC is the most inwardly-focused of game industry events, with shows like E3 aimed at marketers and media, and the Penny Arcade Expo oriented toward fans. Presentations include topics like a “Classic Game Postmortem” for the legendary adventure Myst, “Tokyo Jungle and Japan's Gaming Potential,” or more technical talks like “Contextually Driven Interactive Music In SSX.” Thousands of developers attend, as well as hundreds of media, and there are roughly a dozen presentations occurring at each point in the schedule.

For an unabashed left-winger like myself, the two-faced nature of GDC can be tricky. I went to a college with the motto “Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity,” and the empty capitalist spectacle of the mainstream game industry can make those victories seem very far away. But I'm not alone in wanting the industry to be more than it is. Indeed, if there was a theme to this year's GDC, it was the increasing demand for a video game industry makeover—especially when it comes to diversity.

At panel after panel, speakers decried institutional sexism. There is a pervasive idea, both within the industry and among people who see it from the outside, that games are made by young straight white men, for younger straight white men. The stereotype isn't true, hasn't ever been true, and grows increasingly further from the truth as time passes. For example, one “Essential Fact” from the Entertainment Software Association: “Today, adult women represent a greater portion of the game-playing population (30 percent) than boys age 17 or younger (18 percent).” Yet inherently conservative gaming institutions combine with vocal fans to push back at anything that seems to threaten the entrenched male dominance. The environment is toxic enough that, at his “Sex In Games” presentation, David Gaider, creator of the popular and acclaimed Dragon Age series, asked “How about we just decide how not to repel women?” It wasn't a rhetorical question.

 

GDC's turn toward self-examination isn't at all a surprise if one's been immersed in video game Twitter, where controversies occur almost daily, particularly controversies based on gender politics. This isn't speculation: two of the most overt feminist presentations—“#1ReasonToBe” and “Secret Sauce: How Diversity In Your Game Narrative=More Players and More Money (oh, and and a better game, too)”—were explicitly Twitter-inspired. The idea that Twitter, as a medium, could force people in power to see where others disagreed, was very much on display at the conference.

For example, at his “Secret Sauce” talk, presenter Tom Abernathy, the writer of Halo: Reach (a hit game in a series with a reputation for being played by dudes in frat houses), described how he became an inadvertent spokesperson on the failures of the video game industry to include female characters after a brief Twitter rant.

Yet that discussion was tiny in comparison to last fall's #1ReasonWhy hashtag on Twitter, an explosion of pain and solidarity among women and allies in gaming, attempting to explain the reasons they felt alienated by the game industry. That huge discussion led directly to the #1ReasonToBe panel at GDC—the shift in title indicates a switch from describing the past to attempting to improve the future—where several women described why they did what they did as women in the industry.

Brenda Romero, a game designer with over 30 years of experience starting with the seminal Wizardry games, was one of the #1ReasonToBe panelists. She animatedly spoke about how uncomfortable some aspects of the industry, like the focus on using attractive women to attract young men, made her feel: “I founded this fucking industry, you motherfuckers. I felt like I was receiving a lot of gazes I didn’t want to receive.”

The contradictions within video gaming, however, would give Romero an eventful week. The #1ReasonToBe panel took place on Wednesday afternoon. On Wednesday night, the International Game Developer's Association (IGDA), the largest professional organization of game developers and one of GDC's chief sponsors, hosted a party with scantily clad women dancing. A party like that is not abnormal in gaming—one hosted by “Notch,” the public face of the Minecraft phenomenon also caused some controversy. The IGDA party was singled out as a problem, however, as it's supposed to represent the interests of all game developers.

Romero resigned her position as co-chair of the IGDA's Women In Gaming group in protest on Thursday morning. Hers was the highest-profile of many acts of protest against the oversexualization of women at that event. At lunch on Thursday, that same group she'd just resigned from gave her a lifetime achievement award. And to hammer home Brenda Romero's symbolic role at GDC, on Friday at the rant session, game developer Anna Anthropy read a poem called “John Romero's Wives,” about the invisibility of women in the game industry. The title refers to a news piece in which Brenda Romero was described as the wife of Doom designer John Romero, instead of a 30-plus year industry titan in her own right.

Romero acknowledged her odd symbolic position at GDC with a tweet that said “Hello new followers. You may be disappointed to learn that I am not, in fact, Galactus.” It seemed impossible to turn around at GDC without encountering some new facet of the war against institutional sexism. These aren't new issues in the video game industry, but they boiled over at the 2013 conference. Yet there's a long way to go, as a recent post at the Border House on gender and wage discrepancies noted. Just 11 percent of game designers are women.

I didn't directly hear the words “seize the means of production” stated at the conference, but economic concerns were almost as prevalent as diversity concerns at the conference—and often tied to them. At one panel, called “Curating the DIY Revolution,” game developers Terry Cavanaugh and Porpentine hailed the benefits of making free games, and insisted that people who write about games pay more attention to more diverse forms within the medium. “It isn’t that women and queers and people of color aren’t making games, it’s that they aren’t being covered sufficiently and they are not being recognized,” said Porpentine.

GDC itself had its conventional economic system highlighted thanks to an un-conference called “Lost Levels” organized on Thursday afternoon and set in a park adjacent to the conference center. Unlike the professional conference, which cost over $2,000 to attend on a full pass, everyone could attend. Anyone could sign up to give a five- or ten-minute talk, and they did so, standing on grass surrounded by whoever wanted to listen. With talks like “The Game Industry Must Be Destroyed” and “Messages from Queer Insects About Play,” Lost Levels demonstrated its radical roots, but it also included more straightforward subjects, like “What Videogame Designers Can Learn From Pinball.” While The New York Times inanely described it as “People gathered in a park across from the convention to talk about gaming,” gaming outlets closer to the subject could speak to its success as an open, accessible event.

 

Despite the large number of panels and often-inspiring discussion of ways to improve the game industry, I still felt somewhat politically alienated. Diversity in the game industry is an important goal for those within the industry, and it can help gaming to become more and more popular. But the intense focus on the issues of gaming itself occasionally gave GDC a self-absorbed feeling. Certainly it should work to make itself better, but there's a world outside of gaming waiting to be made better too. At last year's GDC—my first—my anxiety about whether I could stand the show's politics was assuaged by a presenter who made a fiery demand that game developers pay attention to technology that could analyze and combat climate change. The 2011 game Fate Of The World, a superb and important strategy game on climate change, was cited multiple times. That focus on the external world was largely missing from this year's GDC, replaced by internal discussions of identity and diversity.

One panel, oddly titled “Responsibility to Youth and Staying Competitive in the Global Marketplace” attempted to bridge that gap. It focused on the increasing need for people to fill STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) jobs, and the huge gender gap resulting from girls losing interest in those fields as they get older. The confusion of the panel's title manifested in the presentation itself: the need for people to fill STEM jobs was presented only as an economic and individual good—the importance of those jobs themselves for making the world a better place went unsaid.

On the other hand, one cannot fault a presentation from Jane McGonigal, gaming's most ardent evangelist, for being confusing or muddled. McGonigal's presentation, “There Is No Escape,” focused on the insufficiency of the concept of “escapism” to describe and create games with. “We are not escaping, we are expanding,” she claimed, as she bombarded the audience with the results of study after study on the effects of games. The most interesting and counterintuitive of them: that scary games for kids can increase their emotional stability. McGonigal even found a way to demonstrate the expansive power of Call Of Duty, a series usually cited as the platonic example of the bloated, violent spectacle of modern blockbuster gaming, with a video of a young man introducing his grandfather to the game and bonding over it.

It's easy to be carried away by McGonigal's charisma—or also easy to see how she herself might get carried away at times—but her constant reference to scientific studies to justify her claims is superb to see, given how often debates about games start and end with people spouting “common sense” conventional wisdom as truth. As someone who's played games most of his life, and feels like they do help increase my focus and relieve my anxiety, it's great to see that other people are studying and demonstrating those concepts beyond my subjective experience, and it's equally great to have someone like McGonical publicizing and popularizing those ideas and facts.

My internal tension between loving video games and wanting to win victories for humanity was most assuaged by a late, relatively sparsely-attended presentation by Erin Hoffman, most famous for her role as the “EA Spouse.” In 2004, with her partner working ridiculously long hours, Hoffman exposed the poor working conditions at massive game publisher Electronic Arts during months and months of 70+ hour work weeks called “crunch time” via a LiveJournal post that went viral across the game and tech fields. Following her presentation, which was focused on her personal journey before and since the EA Spouse controversy, audience member after audience member stood up to thank Hoffman for her contribution to gaming and tech culture. This included a lead producer on EA's tremendously successful yearly football games, Madden NFL and NCAA Football, who said reforms put into place after her screed had dramatically improved the work environment, with a maximum of 50 hours per week of work allowed.

Hoffman had inspired me, too, though not as EA Spouse. Her feminist writings on video games encouraged me to write serious, politically-oriented video game criticism, which has become a large part of my career as a freelance writer. She did so again during her presentation, describing how one of her friends had told her “when you get angry, you get smarter,” a phrase that could describe me and so many of my activist friends that I had to smile.

It was a welcome note of hopeful historical perspective, between the demands and controversies. It said a politically-aware person can, in any industry, work to make the world a better place, even if it's not explicitly their intention. That's a message that made 2013's Game Developers Conference hopeful: that somewhere in all these battles about diversity and feminism and economics, the people fighting for social justice would deliberately or even accidentally make the game industry better, make video games better, and maybe even make the world better.

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