Going to GDC Without Really Going to GDC

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Years ago, my friend Courtney Stanton said to me “GDC is crunch for your social life,” and while she has moved on from the industry this observation is still very much Truth. I’m currently in recovery mode after spending all of last week in San Francisco at the Game Developers Convention, trying to cram as many brunches, lunches, drinks, dinners, parties, and karaoke jams into six full days in order to optimize my exposure to friends I usually will only get see once a year. After working in the games industry and weathering layoffs and studio closures, many of my local former colleagues who I enjoyed the company of have been scattered to the winds, to places like Seattle, Baltimore, Irvine, Austin, Montreal and the Bay Area. It’s gotten rather lonely in Boston and I have a lot of catching up to do in a short amount of time.

Part of this hyper-socialization process is that I don’t buy a GDC badge. I was a volunteer Conference Associate at GDC Online 2011 back when it was still in Austin, TX and got to see some talks there. Two years ago I had purchased a Narrative Summit pass on my own dime. During these past two conferences I’ve found I get more enjoyment not being tied down by the vast schedule of panels and instead catching friends while they’re out and about. I’ve heard this jokingly called “Parks and Cafes All Access.” And eating out for an entire week in San Francisco is expensive enough on its own, so I direct my money towards indulging myself in that regard instead. I don’t really recommend this pass-less tactic if you don’t already have past GDC or industry experience, as it hinges on already knowing people who are going to be there and making plans with them first and foremost.

In a repeat of last year I’m staying at an AirBnB about a ten minute walk from the Moscone Convention Center with my partner and six other formerly-of Boston friends and/or coworkers. We’ve nicknamed our base AcidHaus, not for any sort of recreational activity that occurs there but because the space’s decor looks like it is the product of said hallucinogen. Animal heads made of cardboard line the walls, where third-eye gems have been placed on every single one of their foreheads. I’ve counted at least three mannequins in the place, at least one of which is painted gold, and the rest are accessorized with Halloween masks. The bathroom is Michael Jackson and shark themed. We love the place and give tours to friends. Their initial reactions are always priceless to witness. Most of the residents arrive on Sunday and it was a delight to discover that this year the owner had moved a bunch of stuff around and had made some tchotchke additions.

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I have a few can’t-miss events and parties hard-scheduled throughout the week but most other planning is ad hoc. I’ll usually run into someone I haven’t seen in a long while when walking to the park along the crowded sidewalks next to the convention center and we’ll decide to immediately go grab lunch together. Or maybe someone who I didn’t know was around will ping me on Twitter or I’ll notice them asking if anyone is up to anything and I’ll offer a suggestion. It was pretty effective this trip as I can only recall a single breakfast where I was able to eat by myself. And luckily our place was close enough to GDC that I could easily go hide on AcidHaus’ enormous beanbag for a snooze and then pop back out during the evening. But this self-care didn’t exactly stave off the oppressive haze of exhaustion that kicked in by Tuesday. I soldiered on.

Since I didn’t have a badge I specifically queried all people I spent time with about what sessions they attended and enjoyed, because I was genuinely curious. One talk that kept cropping up was Rosalind Wiseman and Ashly Burch’s “Curiosity, Courage and Camouflage: Revealing the Gaming Habits of Teen Girls”. While the data presented was something myself and my other developer friends working in the visual novel sphere were already aware of, the straightforward statistics are very much needed to help convince others. Not even among just girls, I saw it in practice later in the week among other women my own age. At PAX East, Blizzard announced one of their new Overwatch characters, Zarya, a stunning looking pink-haired bruiser of a tank. And I watched the indie comics women I follow on Twitter suddenly buzzing with interest and approval. I myself am now contemplating the game, which I had been lukewarm on before. These women I follow are the types to go to events like SPX and TCAF instead of PAX, and express adoration of their current game obsessions through fanart on Tumblr and fanfics on Archive of Our Own. And they have just as much expendable income, impressionable eyes, and hardcore passion as any of the other already pursued demographics. Ignoring them is foolhardy and I’m glad this study shows quantifiably that money is being left on the table through indifference.

One gaping hole in my heart this GDC was the lack of Unwinnable at High Tide. It used to be an informal event on Monday nights where the contributors of that fine site would invite their friends out to take over a tiny dive at the edge of the Tenderloin, where the bar’s proprietress would swat your ass if you left a beer resting on her pool table. Good times. Last year got a bit overwhelming and we were overflowing into the streets. I always wondered what the local patrons thought of the situation. This year we made due by heading to the Golden Gate Tap Room, where I heard the Narrative Summit’s Write Club would be held. I put my name on the writing competition’s list and tried my damnedest but it’s difficult to come up with a good pun with a time limit of two minutes. Games writers sure like puns. We get bored and tried to follow a housemate to the Aussie party but our accents weren’t convincing enough. Instead by chance we intercepted game designer Chris Avellone leaving the joint and excitedly escorted him half way up Nob Hill, back to the Tap Room where we started. I originally met Chris back at my first GDC in 2011 at a similar Narrative Summit get together (RIP Ginger Man) and I always enjoy catching up with him at assorted conventions. He is Party Cat incarnate.

gdc wild rumpus.JPG Wild Rumpus

One of the biggest must-go-to GDC highlights for me was That Venus Patrol and Wild Rumpus Party on Wednesday night. I think for the past two years my partner and I closed down the venue and this year was no different. I don’t dance or anything and I never go clubbing but I do like hard music and artsy indie games, and the fun people those attract. This was the first year I actually ventured out onto the patio. I was relishing San Francisco’s completely reasonable average temperature of 50 degrees because I had been enduring Boston’s hellish 9-degree eversnows for much too long at that point. It was actually hard to drag myself away at 2:30 AM because a lot of fun Telltale Games folk had rolled in from their other party and I was busy attempting to convince a video guy from Polygon into watching JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure.

Actually I had a lot of fun at the Wild Rumpus because of my new business cards. This year I had printed on them the cute phrase “Ask me about dating sims!” and it actually did spark up some good insights from the people I discussed the genre with. There was this one guy near the Fangamer booth at the party who took my card and read the line back to me, proclaiming he didn’t have any questions about dating sims at the moment. We then proceeded to talk about Hatoful Boyfriend for the next ten minutes. I also later infuriatingly remembered another guy having some really good insight into Western perception of visual novel play style and I cannot for the life of me remember exactly what it was. I just remember excitedly proclaiming to him how good it was. Write useful things down, kids, even when you’re drunk! Type it into a scratch file on your phone. Lesson learned.

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Another repeated highlight of my GDCs are the Women in Gaming luncheons that Microsoft puts on. These are always at one of the nicer hotels and you get to sip on free champagne while decorating your name tag with stickers featuring cute Korean characters. It sounds a bit too much but debating sticker choices is always a good conversation starter. It’s also a pleasant change of pace being at a significantly sized event with 95% of attendees being women. I bumped into writer friend Mattie Brice there and we end up sitting next to each other when lunch is served. We got to talking about Persona 4 fandom, a discussion we had actually started between us nearly a month earlier while at IndieCade East in NYC. We then promised to make a lunch date for the next day in order to talk about the topic more in depth. It honestly doesn’t take much to convince me to talk about fandom over lunch. If you build it I will come.

gdc women in games.JPG The Women in Gaming luncheon

Whenever I’m in San Francisco I end up making multiple trips to Japantown in order to buy assorted anime goods, usually with curious dev friends in tow. I adore the Kinokuniya bookstore there, particularly because it caters more to women than the locations in New York City and San Jose. You walk in and there’s just a huge wall of assorted charms and blind boxes containing characters from series that are popular with girls, such as Uta no Prince-sama, Free! and all the other assorted sports animes. The book section has many different art books and magazines about otome games, which are dating sims for women. The back wall also stocks way more BL (yaoi) manga than any other place I’ve physically seen, in both English and Japanese. Additionally this location even stocks plenty of doujinshi, fan-made comics of licensed properties usually sold at special conventions in Japan. I find some JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure doujin to bring back for a friend in Boston and grab some Haikyuu!! and Yowamushi Pedal ones myself. The fujoshi spirit is alive and well in San Francisco.

This GDC week was a bit weird because by Thursday a lot of people had to reluctantly leave to fly to the goddamned other side of the United States in order to attend a poorly scheduled PAX East. One friend took a red eye to Boston on Thursday night and then worked his company’s booth on the show floor after arriving Friday morning. I don’t know how he survived. I remember doing the reversed PAX East to GDC shuffle two years ago and I swore never ever again. It sucks to miss people when they are in your neck of the woods since you can be the good host and show them all the nice places to go out but I have plenty of things to do while still on the West coast. The eversnows can wait. And I found that getting back in to Boston even as late as Monday afternoon there were still plenty of people lingering around the area to keep my post-GDC evenings busy.

This year at GDC I had a first: karaoke. Usually I dodge the invites because last time I did karaoke it was a public one at a bar and I had a Bad Time, but this year one of my oldest friends who works in the Bay Area tech industry insisted and he wanted to meet some of my industry friends. Since it was Japanese-style private room karaoke being offered, and since I love my friend, I agreed. But he needed a headcount for the reservation. Do you know how hard it is to get anyone to commit to something multiple days in advance during GDC? Very fucking hard! It’s not their fault, you have to be open to better offers and priorities shifting. I got a rough estimate and I think it changes three times throughout the week. Planning doesn’t help because then Aevee Bee rolls in with her Katamari‘d up crew and we’re suddenly cramming 8 people in a 5-person karaoke booth. It’s an intimate venue to drunkenly belt out “Danger! High Voltage”. At this point in the week my voice was already a raspy husk, but it’s totally worth it.

GDC has always been really good for me. And I’m aware that’s not the case for everybody. Some of my friends prefer not to go anywhere near the loud Wednesday night parties and instead get together for quiet board games in a hotel lobby. Others are wise beings who don’t succumb to the pressure to push yourself and drink hard every single night of the week. And San Francisco can be an extremely expensive, oppressively depressing and sometimes dangerous city. At times I feel guilty that I genuinely enjoy to wallow in it and I’m completely sympathetic to people who dislike that aspect of the tech industry. But events like these have introduced me to so many people I would have never met otherwise, people who inspire me. So I kind of need these annual, taxing GDC weeks to drive myself to go back home and try to create things the rest of the year.

My one regret of GDC this year was that I didn’t get to play as much Monster Hunter with people as I had wanted to. But I did get a lot of StreetPasses!

AM Cosmos used to work in the games industry but now she just occasionally writes about media that interests her—particularly animation, comics and games made by and for audiences of women. And she gets real emotional when thinking too hard about sports anime. Follow her on Twitter and read her website.

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