Hyper Mode: GDC Diaries, Part Three

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Our game editors attended the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco last month. This is the third and final recap from our assistant editor Maddy Myers. If you haven’t read ‘em yet, you should first catch up on part one and part two.


10:00 AM ? How to Subversively Queer Your Work

This panel offered several suggestions to developers about how to include queer characters in their games. If it had any one firm lesson to give developers, it was this: “Talk to queer people before/during/after writing a queer character.” Ideally, hire queer people to help you, but if you can’t do that, at least pay them on contract for consulting, because you are going to need some help. Almost every single speaker on this panel — Mattie Brice, Todd Harper, Samantha Allen, Zoe Quinn and Christine Love — included a phrase like “talk to queer people” in each of their micro-talks. Not just “talk to a queer person,” but ideally, “talk to queer people.”

This panel distinguished itself from the prior day’s talk about inclusivity in games from Manveer Heir primarily because of its overall emphasis upon diversity among a game’s staff, or at least, the importance of reaching out to minorities. It’s going to take a lot of work on the part of current development teams, given the lack of diversity at mainstream companies — and just asking your one gay friend to look over some dialogue probably won’t do the trick.

The panel began with a five-minute micro-talk from each of the panelists, followed by a spirited question-and-answer session with the audience. Mattie Brice kicked off the talks by referring to the work of sci-fi writers like Ursula Leguin and Octavia Butler, and challenging developers to seek out work that explores the queer experience in art forms besides games, since the games industry is sorely lacking in terms of queer representation (although playing the games produced by each of the five panelists would be a good start). Brice also emphasized that depictions of queerness have changed over time, and that games need to catch up: “Queerness in 2014 looks very different from queerness in 2004 and queerness in 1994,” she said. Games made about the topic also do not need to be “a manifesto,” per se, but rather “a meditation on someone’s own life and how we could possibly change” — which is why Brice believes sci-fi, fantasy and futuristic settings can serve developers well.

Todd Harper went next, opening his talk by stating that he believes including queer content in games should be about supporting the moral good — as opposed to, say, hoping for a financial reward from queer audiences. Writing well-rounded and realistic queer characters, Harper said, will require developers to “actually put in the work. It is work…You have to want to do it. If you don’t want to do it, then maybe you should go…The ability to say ‘this doesn’t seem like it’s needed’ is another way of saying ‘I don’t feel like I need this’.”

Harper further elaborated that researching and understanding the queer experience would require practicing empathy, which he compared to exercising a muscle. Harper began his analogy by defining empathy as “the ability to see what matters to other people,” then explained: “Empathy is the muscle we use to lift everybody up… you have to flex it and use it over and over until it becomes strong.”

Samantha Allen offered two pieces of practical advice in her talk, the first of which was, “don’t use tokenism as an excuse for total exclusion.”

“When people think about tokenism, they’re only thinking about the characters within the economy of their own game,” said Allen. “They’re not thinking about their games as being part of a community of other games.” Some creators may not have more than one queer character in their game, especially if their game has a small cast; this is no reason to give up on including queer content entirely.

Allen’s second point was about character customization in games like Dragon Age and Saints Row, which allow the player to design a more diverse character on their own, but which also tend to provide very similar story-lines regardless of what the protagonist looks like. “Folks are starting to see character customization as a panacea,” Allen said. “I want to see authored queer and women characters.”

Zoe Quinn, developer of Depression Quest, described her experience of creating a “blank slate” protagonist and still having her players assume that protagonist was a straight man. “If you don’t explicitly state in some way what a character is in that frame of identity, people are going to assume straight white male because that’s what we’re used to,” Quinn said, elaborating that she has been doing a lot of thinking about how best to present a protagonist’s gender and sexuality in her upcoming game. She emphasized the importance of “talking to other people” to bounce off ideas on these topics — particularly “people” in the plural. “Don’t just have your one lesbian friend that you base everything off of,” she said.

Christine Love gave the final micro-talk of the panel, opening by discussing her game Digital: A Love Story, with which she had a similar experience to Zoe Quinn on Depression Quest. Because the protagonist of Digital is never specified to be anybody besides “you,” many players assumed it was a straight man.

“It doesn’t matter if the majority of my heterosexual male fan base got the wrong idea,” says Love. “If any queer women played it and saw themselves in it, that was enough.”

In order to encourage players to go through her game Analogue: A Hate Story from multiple perspectives, “I put in an achievement for it” — players get half of an achievement if they play as a man, and the other half if they play again as a woman. As a result, a lot of people did play through the game twice in order to see the subtle differences in the narrative. “No matter how your game is perceived, even if people think it might just be for straight people, you can clearly have a strong impact,” said Love.

The Q&A section of the panel involved Brice, Harper, Allen, Quinn and Love dropping a lot of knowledge and specialized advice on the developers who stepped up asking for help — several of whom identified themselves as straight men with no idea where to start. Here are a few of my favorite quotes from their answers:

“We are all not exactly like the dominant image. No one identifies with the space marine. The people we see that are represented are fictional in many ways.” — Mattie Brice

“If you make a character who experiences any form of marginalization, it’s instantly more relatable … A lot of game narratives center around power, conquest, victory. How can we make game characters who are down on their luck, who have experienced something terrible, or who have a secret?” — Samantha Allen

“You’re gonna fuck it up. Accept it! It’s gonna happen. But when you do, listen. And go back to that empathy.” — Todd Harper


gdc maddy samantha lost levels.jpg Maddy Myers and Samantha Allen at Lost Levels

Lost Levels takes place outside in an office park near the Moscone Center; it began in 2013, and re-emerged this year with a totally legal park permit (paid for by crowd-funding). It went on from 1 pm to 5 pm on Thursday, and I ducked in and out of it. I did a talk myself there with Samantha Allen, then helped Naomi Clark fix up an eyeliner beard in preparation for her fantastic in-character talk as fictional games industry veteran Ric Chivo, which you can watch on YouTube. Her talk served as a palate counterpoint to the faux-inspirational, finance-focused GDC talks given in all seriousness a mere block away for a much steeper price than Lost Levels, which is free, of course.

I’d be curious to know whether Lost Levels still manages a more diverse line-up or audience than GDC proper, however — not that it’s really possible to keep score, since Lost Levels doesn’t sell tickets or do attendee surveys after the fact. When you have a completely open conference at which “anyone” can pitch a talk, you’ll end up with a diverse line-up, but it turns out it’ll still be dominated by the same people who already feel safe and confident about pitching talks. I liked that if I was watching some 20-something guy spew boring crap about first-person shooters I could just get up and walk to another talk, since Lost Levels always had at least three talks going on concurrently, but the most popular talks got harder and harder to “attend” because of the lack of amplification for presenters. I doubt the park permit would ever allow for megaphones, though. My only suggestion would be that more talks be filmed via camera phone and posted online for folks who don’t manage to snag an up-front seat.

4:00 PM ? #1ReasonToBe

Much has been said — and rightfully so — about Deirdra “Squinky” Kiai’s rousing talk at the very end of this panel, which can be read in its entirety here. Kiai’s talk closed out the panel, which featured several other great speakers, including Leigh Alexander, Anna Kipnis, Colleen Macklin, Laralyn McWilliams, Brenda Romero and Lauren Scott.

That final name on that list might be the least recognizable, and yet Lauren Scott’s talk was the one that hit me the hardest. I’ve long enjoyed her interview series at the Border House, incidentally, but her talk wasn’t about that at all — she told a straightforward, no-frills story about growing up with a father who was a programmer and a sister who played games with her. At that time, Scott joked, “the games industry was 100% black and female,” since for her it consisted of only herself and her sister. However, the “real” games industry outside of Scott’s home was and still is predominantly male and predominantly white; Lauren Scott’s father saw that trend developing even when Scott was just a girl, and he didn’t want his daughter to have to play games that didn’t represent her. So, he made a game himself, starring his own daughter, so that she would never feel like she didn’t belong and wasn’t a hero.

This story devastated me. It’s not that I thought Lauren Scott was “lucky” — on the contrary, I think what she got was exactly what everyone should already have: The normalization of your own experiences and the ability to see someone like you succeeding. Just as Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman to travel in space, cited Star Trek’s Lieutenant Uhura as her inspiration, so too could Lauren Scott now cite this simple game made by her own father as a partial inspiration for her interest in games and her subsequent career choices.
It’s sadly still necessary for most people to see a bunch of studies that “prove” how pop culture affects people and changes their lives and minds and dreams, or perhaps a list of estimates that somehow “prove” diversifying media will increase a company’s bottom line. But it should be so much simpler than that. It should be as simple as letting people grow up in a world where they can envision themselves succeeding, not failing, based on the evidence they see around them. This is a very simple solution that requires no less than a complete overhaul of absolutely everything. No wonder it’s taking us so long.


10:00 AM ? GDC Micro-Talks
Anything that happens at 10 AM on the last day of GDC will have to do a lot to keep attention spans going, and this hour packed with ten smart micro-talks did the trick — just barely. (I was pretty tired. Forgive me, reader.) Here are the highlights:
Game critic (and Paste contributor) Lana Polansky gave a talk about videogame difficulty as a metaphor for capitalism and the “bootstraps” ethic; if you work hard enough in a game, you’ll always come out on top, but how responsible is it for creators to include a lesson like that since real life doesn’t work that way? Polansky also discussed the possibility of games including other kinds of “difficulty,” such as emotional difficulty.

Harry Lee, indie developer and also one of the founders of the Lost Levels un-conference, did a talk about what he called “the toxic monoculture” of GDC; his talk ran the gamut from anecdotes about all of the other Asian developers with whom Lee had been confused that week, to his disappointment that “the indie games summit at GDC featuring zero full-length sessions by women.”

Elizabeth Sampat delighted in telling the audience that her talk would not be about “women in games,” as her other talk had been. Instead, she advised the audience to step out of their comfort zone in terms of the games they make, particularly with regard to personal games: “The story of you isn’t you. You are not the nouns, you’re the verbs. Make games that scare you.”

12:00 PM ? Expo Hall
I finally got to play a game with the Steam Controller! And I was terrible at it. I chose to play a racing game instead of waiting in the Portal line. I do not recommend that anyone play a racing game with a Steam controller.

Samantha Allen and I also got to play Couch Knights for the Oculus Rift, which is a virtual reality game in which you play as a man sitting on a couch playing a game. The game is a fighting game, and instead of virtual avatars, you have miniature three-dimensional avatars fighting in front of you, in your living room. The controls were very simple — block, fireball, sword-slash — and I felt like there was some delay between when I pressed buttons to perform moves and my little fighter actually executing them. Or maybe I’m just making excuses because Samantha Allen kicked my butt; I only won one match out of four.

2:00 PM ? Mini-Postmortems

Bennie Terry, Greg Lobanov and Zoe Quinn each gave a 20-minute post-mortem of each of their games — Ninja Gaiden Z NRZ, Perfection and Depression Quest, respectively. The strangest part of this was the vastly different interpretations of the term “post-mortem” among the developers, in part due to the games they had created. Bennie Terry, for example, did a highly technical talk about problems he’d come across in development that all went over my head. Greg Lobanov spent comparatively little time discussing the development of his game, instead focusing on his experiences with the games studies program he’s currently enrolled in at Drexel University. Lobanov described how he made indie development work in tandem with his full-time student status, by “hiring himself” as his own intern for the mandatory internship program that his program required (incidentally, Lobanov seemed wise and responsible beyond his years all the way up until his final slide, on which he revealed the name of his company: Dumb and Fat Games.) Quinn closed out the trio by describing an entirely different set of difficulties that she faced in making Depression Quest, the first Twine game ever to be Greenlit by Steam. In making a game about a disability that one in ten adults in America suffer from, Quinn felt particularly worried about misrepresenting depression, particularly since no two sufferers have identical experiences. The most Quinn could do was to write about her own experiences, but also, to carefully navigate the “win state” of the game; Quinn did not want to make it appear to players as though there was any real way to “beat” or “cure” depression, and yet she wanted a multitude of endings that felt realistic and logical based on the player’s choices. Quinn also emphasized that she hoped that the people who felt that their stories weren’t represented by her game would tell their own stories, especially given how many people are affected by depression.

4:00 PM ? Crowdfunding — How to Make It As an Unknown

This panel was not for me. I get cranky about crowdfunding in general, because I’ve noticed that it has become coded as the Last Vestige for Unusual People as well as The Saving Grace of Diverse Voices — and that just doesn’t sit right with me. To me, the fact that creators who stray from “the norm” can only succeed via crowd-funding indicates that our current financial institutions (in this case, videogame publishers and media corporations) have failed to discern what people actually want.
I don’t think that diverse creators should have to rely upon crowdfunding. Very few game developers need to; GDC’s own industry survey indicated that very few GDC attendees (11%) plan to use crowdfunding in their games, but that is a biased sample for a variety of reasons. (The indies who are most likely to feel they “need” crowdfunding would, I’d theorize, not be able to afford to go to GDC.)

So, I sat at this panel with my metaphorical arms crossed (my actual arms were busy holding my laptop), waiting for someone to say something that would make me feel differently about crowdfunding. It didn’t happen, but I was obviously going into this with a closed mind, so there is that.

Zoya Street kicked off the panel by talking about his successful IndieGoGo campaign for a book called Dreamcast Worlds, which expanded upon his 30K-word thesis about one particular Dreamcast game called Skies of Arcadia; the full book features analyses of two other games as well (Phantasy Star Online and Shenmue), as well as a section on the history of the Dreamcast itself. Street was the biggest (smallest?) “unknown” on the panel, in that he had the most leg-work to do in terms of his Twitter follower count and overall visibility within the industry. Street went to conferences and did his best to market the campaign, but as the IndieGoGo neared its deadline, all hope appeared to be lost. At this point, Street told the audience that he chose to open up and reveal his humanity a bit more with regard to the campaign; rather than using “marketing speak,” as it were, he was honest about his own disappointment. These moments of humanity were what he believed ended up resulting in a final push of support for his work.

Tyriq Plummer and Samantha Kalman described more familiar trajectories in their stories of crowdfunding; Kalman in particular emphasized the importance of having a charismatic, eye-catching video in your Kickstarter pitch, which is something that I’ve read before in crowdfunding advice pieces (I may be cranky about crowdfunding, but that doesn’t mean I don’t know my stuff). Michael Cox, the fourth person on the panel, works as a crowdfunding consultant for indies who can afford that sort of thing — which didn’t appear to describe anybody else on the panel, not anybody who might identify as an “unknown.”

I suppose it is fitting that I concluded my time at GDC with a panel that, once again, was all about money — how to get it, how to prove you deserve it, and how best to spend it. My week had finally come full circle, ending with a round of talks by people who I believe deserve all the success they’ve had and more, speaking in extremely technical terms about how they went about convincing strangers to give them money. Instead of publishers, instead of venture capitalists, instead of “angel investors” (whatever those are — don’t tell me, what I’m picturing is probably a lot prettier than the truth), they went straight to the fans.

The fact that crowdfunding is seen as a necessity — or, worse, as the only remaining resort — for so many independent creators and artists depresses me, if only because it means that all other institutions have failed us. But, more importantly, because I know that crowdfunding suffers from the same problem that Lost Levels did: If you open up a platform to everyone, the people who already feel safe everywhere else will feel “safe” there, too. As a result, all of the projects that we see that are most successful on Kickstarter and Patreon are the projects run by the same guys who could have succeeded in other ways, elsewhere. All the people at the top of the heap still look the same. And the fringes, the “alternate” types, are still separated and treated as specialized, as exceptions that need to pull out all the stops prove they’re “worthy.”

I’ll conclude by saying that while I understand that GDC’s “Advocacy Track” is seen as a marker of success by some, I dearly hope that it disappears in the future. I hope that all of its panels’ content gets reabsorbed back into “normal”/“technical” GDC. The best panels that I saw at GDC this year were preached to a nodding choir, sadly. Am I saying I believe the rest of GDC should be “tricked” into watching supposed “Advocacy” content? Yes. Yes, I am.

The complaint I heard about GDC before I went was that “the talks are the same every year.” I doubt that’s actually true, but I can understand why it might seem that way, especially given GDC’s own seeming reluctance to venture outside its comfort zone. For example, GDC’s system of encouraging attendees to vote on which talks are good encourages stagnation; if a person is already good at public speaking, then they’ll presumably get to keep coming back and speaking again and again and again, forever (sort of like that one guy at the arcade who can keep playing the cabinet forever because he’s good and who cares how many people are behind him in line, he’s good, okay?). Whereas a person who isn’t as good, who’s new to the scene, who isn’t as confident — that person might not even submit a talk, and if they do, they might not perform well the first time around, what with GDC’s atmosphere of “you don’t belong here” constantly bearing down on them.

In spite of GDC’s stagnation, or perhaps because of it, I believe the conference is falling to rust. Its beams are groaning under the pressure. You can hear its tension in the Rant Apocalypses and Soapbox events, where minorities get shuffled off to do five-minute “rants” instead of full-length sessions — micro-talks that will surely, eventually get them “ready” enough to be worthy of full-length talks and bigger stages. Meanwhile, the rest of those GDC “normals” can’t possibly stand to keep watching the same old talks over and over again, can they? It can’t go on. It’s just too boring. The rest of that line is going to get their turn.

Hyper Mode is an occasional column by Paste’s assistant games editor Maddy Myers. Her work has also appeared in the Boston Phoenix, Kill Screen and at the Border House. She also blogs at her personal website Metroidpolitan and tweets @samusclone.

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