Hyper Mode: GDC Diaries, Part Two

Games Features
Share Tweet Submit Pin

Our game editors spent last week at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. Assistant editor Maddy Myers’ recollections will run in three parts through the end of this week. Read part one here.


12:45 PM ? The Connection Between Boys’ Social Status, Gaming and Conflict
Rosalind Wiseman and Ashly Burch co-hosted a talk about what Wiseman called “everything we’ve been told but never specifically taught” by society when it comes to gender roles. Wiseman acted as the evidence-providing, fact-sharing authority on sociology, whereas Burch stepped up interstitially to translate Wiseman’s sociology studies into, well, words any ol’ gamer could understand. I doubt that’s how Burch would have put it herself, but it’s definitely how the talk came across. Ashly Burch is best known among gamers as a voice actress and as the star of the web series Hey Ash Whatcha Playin’. That said, anyone who follows her on Twitter would know that she also cares about social issues (I would guess that this is because she is a fairly visible woman on the internet, and if you do that kind of work for long enough, you will eventually start to notice patterns. You can either keep your head down and go with the tide, or stand against it.)

The talk focused on how masculinity, specifically as interpreted by high school-aged boys, encourages stoicism and exclusion, and how videogame protagonists enforce that dynamic, perhaps unwittingly. The typical male hero of a narrative game is athletic in the “right” way, has the “right” amount of muscles, and so forth, but most importantly of all, he doesn’t show weakness in front of his peers.

High school boys who have “high status,” at least according to the responses to the surveys that Burch and Wiseman gave to students, tended to be social rule-followers, which means they do their best to obey the “right” traits of masculinity. Burch and Wiseman explained that this anti-feelings, pro-exclusion construction of masculinity is damaging teen boys and, eventually, adult men; the insistence on stoicism exhibits as a fear of emotion as being “feminine” or “gay” (as though either one of those is inherently bad, anyway.)

Burch used Master Chief as an example of a stoic character, and posed a question to the audience: What if Master Chief were “okay with showing pain, okay with needing help”?

During a brief question-and-answer segment after the talk, a man in the audience made it clear that he didn’t agree with Wiseman and Burch’s analysis at all, stating that allowing Master Chief to show emotion would make him “like a girl,” which — he specified — would not be okay.

After that, I heard from other attendees that Burch and Wiseman had a great response to this man, but I have no idea what it was because I was too busy feeling like I wanted to sink deep into the core of the earth and never re-emerge.

2:00 PM ? How To Think: Critical Thinking and Analysis in Game Development Programs
Brendan Keogh — critic, academic and author — moderated a discussion between Ian Bogost, Mattie Brice and Mary Flanagan (who also appeared on the Teaching Games With Games panel.) Bogost dominated the panel, despite kicking off his introduction by asserting that it could be “dangerous” to discuss this topic too much; he did not elaborate on what he meant by this.

Shortly after a round of introductions, Brice told a story about how Games Studies’ students evaluated her own game, Mainichi, in comparison to responses to the game from students in Women’s Studies courses. The Games Studies students had not picked up on Mainichi’s narrative and thematic elements, instead focusing to drill down whether her game was “really a game” or not; the Women’s Studies students were unconcerned with the question and instead chose to discuss the game’s content. Bogost took issue with Brice’s anecdote, as he believed Brice was implying that the Games Studes students had fallen short in some way, or that they needed to learn more critical thinking tools. Bogost explained that different people have different “frames of reference,” and that critical thinking simply required an awareness of these “frames” — no frame should be seen as superior or inferior to any other frame, according to Bogost. (This is not the first time that Bogost and Brice have gone toe-to-toe on the topic of identity politics and object-oriented ontology.)

Partway through the panel, Brice took Bogost to task in return for not “being honest,” and in particular, for not discussing the financial stakes at hand for games studies students. Do these programs focus on turning students into triple-A game creators, she asked, or critical thinkers? Can critical thinking even be codified into “value-add” terms? (As soon as Brice brought up money and class consciousness, three men in front of me got up and left the panel. They weren’t together; they each left separately. GDC may love to talk about monetization, but talking about class consciousness is only allowed in the advocacy track, apparently.)

Bogost responded to Brice with another question: “Where are the resources coming from? The financial collapse of many of these programs recently — those factors are at play, here.” Bogost also made some points about how some professors may want to do more but will face a variety of obstacles, such as bureaucracy, lack of time or lack of interest on the students’ part.

For example, Bogost’s students have told him they “don’t want to take that Shakespeare class,” but he forces them to take a class on Shakespeare anyway because “the kinds of observations you would make about literature or about art or about anything … exercise a critical muscle.”

Brice brought up the possibility of focusing on analog games like tag, as well as other non-digital games, to teach students about the social dynamics that arise when playing in-person multiplayer games. She also emphasized the importance of teaching students that their work is always political, even if they don’t realize it.

Bogost then brought up a college class at another school that focused entirely upon a close reading of the television show The Wire. He then challenged, “do we have those kinds of scholars and critics in games who have that level of depth and knowledge in a specific work? In some ways, we’re all dabblers doing all sorts of different things. If you’re a Joyce expert, then you read Joyce, and the students know. But I’m not sure that we have room to do that kind of thing [with games].” Somehow, moderator Brendan Keogh — perhaps the only existing “expert” on a single game, Spec Ops: The Line, about which he wrote a book — managed not to speak up in response to this assertion.

Flanagan then brought up the possibility of game mods as a teaching tool, describing a three-player version of chess “about conflict and negotiation and time,” in which the pawns are a team, and the two sets of “royals” are also teams. “Redesigning is a good way to pick something apart,” Flanagan said.

Bogost then summed up the panel, or at least his stance on its topic, by concluding: “It’s great to make games. But sometimes it’s good to just look at what’s out there and say, ‘what the hell is going on’?”

3:00 PM ? Male Sexualization in Games
It’s funny how something as simple as the seat you choose in a room can affect how you interpret a presentation. I might have really enjoyed Michelle Clough’s talk on how including attractive men in games “sends a message of inclusivity” to more players than just straight men, but I watched this panel while sandwiched between several obviously straight men who spent the panel exchanging glances with one another, laughing at inappropriate times, and displaying “I want to get out of here” body language like looking all around the room, changing positions and so forth. I was on the aisle, and I think they just didn’t want to have to look me in the eye in order to get out of there.

This talk, like many other talks at GDC, emphasized that it would financially benefit game creators to include this content — but it also emphasized the necessity of acknowledging alternate sexualities besides, well, the one catered to by “the male gaze” of your Soul Caliburs and God of Wars.

I’m a bit of an expert on this topic, so I want to clarify that I agree with Clough’s central point. Fortunately for Clough, I’m pretty sure I was the only person in the audience who didn’t laugh at the talk and learn something new while laughing. I blame that in part on my seat-mates, who I can only hope learn how to stop being uncomfortable about the idea of people being attracted to men.
In general, though, GDC’s atmosphere put me in no mood to laugh at the idea of women having sex drives, even if it was a woman telling the joke and an audience that included some women laughing at it. That laughing audience was still almost entirely men, and presenting that panel — complete with all of its jokes about “exploding ovaries” (kind of tasteless to the folks in the room who don’t have ovaries and still like to look at sexy dudes, by the way) — took on a different tone due to the context in which it was shown. And that context was, as always, GDC.

The whole talk also had an underlying emphasis on the fact that it makes good financial sense to put sexy men in your game. Of course it does, but the fact that we have to make extremely basic levels of inclusivity sound like a dire financial necessity in order for triple-A developers to even consider it is just sad.

4:00 PM ? Love/Hate Relationships: New Approaches to Game Romances
Chris Dahlen could also have titled this talk “What Games Can Learn From Romantic Comedy Films,” and that may have been a bit more apropos. He warmed the audience up with several videogame allusions first before taking a deep dive into romcoms.

Dahlen began by discussing the concept of “kindness coins” in games, as exemplified by a Persona 4 quote in which the protagonist is told that in order to succeed with an in-game love interest, “you have to keep telling her exactly what it is she wants to hear.” In videogames, this may work — but in real life, it definitely doesn’t, and in romantic comedies, it doesn’t usually work that way either.

Romantic comedies may not be realistic, but they approximate romance — or, at least, the excitement of it — in a more thrilling and narratively effective way than games have managed to do, in Dahlen’s opinion. “Attraction in romantic comedies is two forces at once,” Dahlen explained, going on to quote Emily Short, who wrote: “the conflict has to arise from the romance itself … What’s needed, from a gameplay perspective, is a romantic partner who is sometimes also functionally the villain.”

Dahlen chose “two forces” for the upcoming romance game he’s making: “respect” and “rivalry”. He showed a variety of graphs to represent how those qualities might rise and fall to create tension — and, maybe, a romance — between the two game characters.

Dahlen also went on to describe some games that tell unusual or compelling romance stories, even if they do use the “kindness coins” model. Dragon Age’s story with Alistair, for example, relies upon the element of surprise in the form of a heart-wrenching break-up — but only for certain character classes. Players who happen to choose the “right” class will never see this tragedy, but many other players will be taken aback that they said all the right things and still didn’t get the guy.

Dahlen admitted that romance games have some limitations that other kinds of games don’t have to worry about, like the appearance of the love interest: “What if the player just doesn’t like glasses? Should we let them pick out their rival from a crowd? This isn’t a factor in romantic comedies, because those are static stories that we aren’t participating in.”

Above all, however, Dahlen emphasized his belief in the importance of letting the player make mistakes: “in romantic comedies, the leads always do something wrong, but they still get a chance for a happy ending.” That doesn’t mean every game needs to only have happy endings available — but more allowance for mistakes will allow players to feel like they can role-play and make different choices, rather than feel pressured to “tell her exactly what she wants to hear” and obey a boring, static “kindness coins” model.

5:00 PM ? Indie Soapbox
GDC put the Indie Soapbox at the end of the day as a form of torture, I think. The room was completely packed to the brim, and I left covered in sweat. Too bad, because GDC’s “soapboxes” and “rant apocalypses” and “microtalks” tend to the best hidden gems. Here are the highlights.

Zach Gage’s talk, done via video, centered around an “indie is about bravery” theme, as well as an extended metaphor about games being like friends. “The games we play represent the kinds of friends we want to have around us,” he said, describing Candy Crush as a people-pleaser and Spelunky as a cool, punk-rock introvert. Gage argued that games would still retain these original “personalities” even if their developers don’t have the same social status — “even if Derek Yu becomes the Kanye West of videogames,” for example. Indie games are a place where developers can “be themselves”, essentially, and let their games also “be themselves” — at least, in an ideal world.

Leigh Alexander made the evening’s second reference to Kanye West in her talk, which was about how games journalists and game developers have more in common than developers might realize. Both are creators speaking in increasingly accessible channels, struggling to be heard, and struggling to decide on publishing platforms and payment models. We are not at war.

Lea Schonfelder told her own life story through the lens of her love of “playing pretend,” from growing up idolizing princesses as a form of escapism from her impoverished childhood, to finding that adulthood came with its own fantastical dreams and impossible expectations — like being a “perfect mom” as well as a successful professor or CEO and “having it all”. She then held up her ideal version of happiness in the form of her own grandmother, who had a difficult life but who now lives by herself in comfort and quiet solitude. This simple, happy ending bears striking contrast to what “winning” tends to look like in games and in our own escapist power fantasies.

Ethan Levy got up and admitted that he works at what all the artistic indies in the room would see as an Evil Corporation; his part-time day job involves contract work as a monetization design consultant. He did a talk about what he calls “the indie shame spiral,” which was not only about his “sell-out” job, but also about his own inability to convince himself that his own personal creative work is worthwhile. He offered tips to the other indies present to help prevent burnout, such as being realistic about how much can actually get done in a day, and also using “commitment devices” like entering a game into a presentation or contest before it is fully done in order to ensure that it will be finished by the deadline.

Then Shawn Alexander Allen stood up and made my jaw drop by just straight-up saying that he didn’t believe GDC cared enough about racial representation or gender representation, in terms of the panels they accept or in terms of the panelists they have presenting. “I see sales talks, tech talks — where are the talks about cultural relevance?” he asked. Allen told the audience that he had pitched a panel to GDC about the black and Hispanic gaming audience, and it was rejected. In response, Allen chose to use the rest of the space in his talk to signal boost games made by developers of color, such as Beta the Robot, Valdis Story and Joylancer. He also named Tyriq Plummer, Arthur Ward, Lauren Scott, Shawn Pierre, Richard Terrell, Diana Santiago and Manuel Marcano as minority voices in the games industry that don’t get the recognition they deserve. Allen then shouted out the organization Code Liberation, which teaches women how to code. Allen concluded his talk by coming down hard on GDC once more for not featuring more diverse voices or topics in its programming, saying that GDC should refuse panels that do not have multiple women and/or multiple people of color present, and that attendees should not bother to attend panels that do not have diverse speakers.

Zoe Quinn, the developer of Depression Quest, gave a talk about internet harassment and how although many people say “don’t feed the trolls,” ignoring harassment is not really feasible for indie developers because “the internet is our workplace … for some devs it’s the only community they’ll ever have.” In researching her talk, Quinn asked self-identified former trolls to come to her and describe their experiences with getting over their habit of bullying strangers on the internet. Their stories had some similarities; for example, many of them told Quinn that “they didn’t see the person on the other end of the screen as an actual person.” Some changed because they “got better friends” who looked down on them for harassing strangers; others changed because they began to see their targets as human beings. As a result of the latter, Quinn advised other indie developers to be open about the harassment they suffer and to admit publicly if harassment is bothering them. Showing humanity should not be seen as a weakness, especially since your “haters” may not even realize how much damage they are doing, nor even see you as human in the first place.

Robin Hunicke concluded the soapbox series with a soft, gentle talk about “butterflies,” and about “making games about feelings that are hard to deal with or write about.” Hunicke’s talk was somewhat experimental in nature; she showed a series of slides with various emotions on them, such as “affection,” “desire,” “lust” and so forth, challenging the developers in the room to be unafraid of exploring those sentiments in their games. Roughly around Hunicke’s “lust” slide, I felt for the second time that day like I wanted to be in any other place on earth besides sandwiched in a horde of sweating, exhausted men. That said, however, I very much hope that those men go home and make games about their feelings.

I ended my Tuesday by spending an evening surrounding myself almost entirely with women. We traded stories about where we bought our dresses, downed very fancy drinks, and danced to pop music; I asked the other women for advice on how to deal with the terrifying emails I’d been getting; you know — girl stuff.


11:00 AM ? Women Don’t Want to Work in Games (And Other Myths)
Elizabeth Sampat’s talk has been published in full on Gamasutra, and it’s worth reading, although seeing Sampat do the talk live was a sight to see as well. She wore a necklace made out of spikes. Spikes, people. If you’re wondering why she felt the need, check out the 100+ comments on her Gamasutra transcription.

3:30 PM ? Misogyny, Racism, and Homophobia: Where Do Videogames Stand?
Manveer Heir’s talk was not “for” me. I know where videogames stand on social issues; I need only look around GDC to see that games are made by people who have been largely unaffected by discrimination. Most people remain largely ignorant to the plight of other people, in part by choice, because thinking about social issues is “hard.” But Heir works at BioWare, which is one of the few large game developers that actively has tried to do better in these areas, and I was curious about what he’d have to say.

Realizing that your life is better than other people’s lives is hard, especially when you feel like there’s nothing you can do about it. But if you are a game developer, you do have control over society in a pretty tangible way. You have control within a huge facet of pop culture. You have social power. That’s not nothing. Heir focused his talk on this theme almost exclusively; he chose cleverly by preaching to the people in power, rather than the disenfranchised, because that’s his audience at GDC.

Heir spent his talk empowering the powerful: He told the room it was up to them to start being more inclusive, to start doing a better job, because the media that they make can change people’s minds and even change society. Heir used a lot of studies to make his point. A LOT of studies. They all basically said the same thing: Media has power over people. Media can change people’s minds. Pop culture matters.

At the end of this talk, Heir raised his voice more and more to hammer home his message. I wrinkled my nose and shrank back into my seat. I was shocked to see men rise to their feet and applaud at the end of his talk — applaud.

Where were these men at Elizabeth Sampat’s talk, I wondered? Why didn’t that talk — still far and away one of my favorites of GDC — get an immediate standing ovation? Because a room full of white men wants to hear that they can still save the world. Being told that maybe they should hire some diverse voices — ehhh, that’s a lot harder.

For more thoughts on Heir’s talk at GDC, click here.

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.