GDC was busy times, so sorry for the relative radio silence during the conference proper. If you are interested to know how my own talk at the Narrative Summit went, Polygon has a really nice writeup! Thank you to Colin Campbell and everyone else who was there, and I hope that you enjoyed it! From my experience, it seemed to go well and it was a lot of fun to be part of the summit.
In addition to my own speech, and meeting up with some great developers at GDC, I also attended a few panels when time permitted. Here, I’d like to talk about the GDC Microtalks, and the #1ReasonToBe panel. The Microtalks are here because I really enjoyed them and took pretty good notes, and the #1ReasonToBe panel is here more just because I have thoughts and I’d like to share them. Onward!
The GDC Microtalks were opened by Richard Lemarchand, who gave a Microtalk explaining the process of the Microtalks. (Photo credit Gamasutra)
The first regular Microtalk was by Emily Short, who is one of my favorite authors of Interactive Fiction. As one might expect from someone with her background, she talked about the need for stronger interactive stories, a topic also near and dear to my heart. Video games mostly have interesting villains, or a lot of backstory. But it’s challenging to imbue a protagonist with narrative agency in games.
Short’s suggestions for increasing story agency involved borrowing some story mechanics from “Storygames,” the genre of indie tabletop roleplaying that often adds mechanics to promote narrative twists. This was a design idea that was also explored at Stephen Hood’s talk during the Narrative Summit, along with examples of how to apply these techniques. Short mentioned several games by name that she says are worth looking at for inspiration: Polaris, MonsterHearts, My Daughter the Queen of France, Microscope, and Fiasco as examples.
Up next was Lisa Brown, talking about development process. For a short project with a small team, she wanted to devise some processes that would create greater accountability in an agile environment. She decided that the best approaches involved using a design log to track contributions, weekly builds, and doing live streaming for fans. Developing in public can be hard, but you live stream something, and make a promise to change certain things by the next weekly build and stream, it means that you are creating real deadlines that will keep a project moving. Basically, creating additional deadlines and accountability means that things will actually get done, instead of spinning in circles on a prototyping phase. A common thing that everyone who develops games deals with!
Matt Boch spoke next, and this was a return to discussion of game narrative and character. He said he was interested in exploring theory of mind, particularly as it relates to game NPCs. Often, NPCs in games don’t really have value as characters, but what if they did, and had their own motivations to participate? Often in romance systems, for example, we only think about what an NPC wants with an eye toward what reward we’ll get if we fulfill those needs. It might be more interesting to have an NPC whose needs were decided more algorithmically, so it wasn’t possible to just bypass the phase of understanding how a person thinks by going straight to a walkthrough that explains them. Dwarf Fortress is an example of a game that does this.
Naomi Clark gave a talk about “broken” games and how we need more of them. In her view, bugs and strangeness are fun. It’s weird how our industry sometimes elevates certain bugs, perhaps those that turn out to have unexpected gameplay effects (rocket jumping) while dismissing others as a sign that a game is just bad or ruined somehow (such as bad mesh deformation). She invited developers to make “cantankerous or obtuse” games on occasion, just to see how far this can be pushed.
(Editorial aside: As long as they weren’t show-stopping, some of the bugs in Skyrim and Alpha Protocol just as examples were part of the entertainment package of the game, to me. But Clark used the game Problem Attic as an example of one game she thought was noble in its brokenness. I have to confess that I tried, but I couldn’t wrap my head around this game. I hope I haven’t just admitted now that I’m bad at appreciating true art, but that’s my story.)
The next speaker was Tim Rogers, whom most people know as a game critic, though he is also a developer. He talked about what it’s like to make games after writing about them for so long. He said that joking about what he disliked was a good way for him to decide what he did like. In that way, his old game reviews almost functioned as “early design docs. I think this is a great insight, something I’ve noticed since I’ve been writing about games for probably longer than I’ve been making them. Being a critic and developer can go hand in hand and sometimes the lines do get blurred.
Holly Gramazio then stepped up and gave a talk with a very different format. She very quickly listed a bunch of new suggestions for game designs – analogue, mechanic-focused, often without any game pieces even required. An example: 50/50: get a group of people together, and have one person come up with some kind of moral dilemma. The goal is for the person to come up with a dilemma that the rest of the group will be exactly split on. They score a point for every person that is imbalanced (as an example, if 6 people went with one choice and 4 the other out of a 10 person team, score 1 point), and the lowest score, ie, the person who gets closest to a pure 50/50 split, wins. This was maybe my favorite of the Microtalks, though it went by so fast and there were so many good ideas in such a small space that it was difficult to take good notes about the games she suggested.
Celia Pearce talked about what video games can learn from the 20th century avant garde art movements. She specifically discussed dada in greater depth. Art recontexualizes utilitarian objects, or collages unlikely objects together to create new juxtapositions, and she’d like to see more of that thinking in games.
Cara Ellision, best known for her Embed With and S.EXE writing, discussed intimacy in games. This was less about sex games in specific, and more about moments of intimacy that occur in unexpected places. Some games do a great job capturing intimacy, but it’s rare and sometimes feels like it’s even an accident. The intimacy that your character feels with an alien in Another World is an example, as is the relationship between Wanda and his horse in Shadow of the Colossus. Journey creates an intimacy with another player, while Shadow of Mordor creates intimacy between you and your rival orc. The latter example is interesting because that intimacy comes from hate and violence, but it’s intimacy all the same.
The final microtalk was from Rami Ismail, who talked about language in games. This talk was actually a small segment or preview from a larger talk I didn’t see in person, but hope to catch on the Vault. Ismail argued that game development is a process that favors English speakers above the rest of the world, creating barriers. Often art in games is meticulously detailed, but then when it comes to having a bit of Arabic script in the background, artists just write some nonsense that doesn’t translate to anything. It’s sad that this lack of detail happens, and Ismail says it takes him out of the game because he can read Arabic and is always disheartened by the errors he sees. He’s starting an effort called gamedev.world to help non-English speakers have access to better game creation tools, as often the best tutorials and documentation are only available in English and this often closes out game development for those who do not read or speak English fluently.
When I sat down to #1ReasonToBe, I didn’t do so intending to write about it. I figured that other sources would already handle that, and I was correct. GamaSutra’s writeup handles it well. But I’ve decided to write this anyway, both to spread some additional awareness, but also (mostly) to insert a few of my personal thoughts.
After a short introduction from Brenda Romero about the origins of this panel, Leigh Alexander, the panel’s other host, began the proceedings at #1ReasonToBe by talking about her new Offworld initiative. She’s trying to create a place where people who feel marginalized by current games writing spaces can do their own critique and tell their stories. You can see more about what that’s about at her own blog and at Offworld.com.
Elizabeth LaPensee was the next speaker in the panel. She talked about the need for more native games – more games made by indigenous people. This talk was full of lovely visuals of native artwork. The message mostly bounced off of me, because I’m not an indigenous person, but I can’t see anything to disagree with about her points either.
Following her was a surprise guest called “The Empty Chair.” This guest was just a PowerPoint: one with short statements from women who felt uncomfortable speaking or were not allowed to speak at this panel. The audience was very quiet while it rolled, and the segment was very powerful. A video of this segment was posted onto YouTube so you can see the statements and hear the silence they brought about:
Constance Steinkueler was then up next, though she had a tough act to follow. She talked about her work with the Obama administration defending games. I thought her role in our government, and her speech, was fascinating. Video games have often had a very contentious relationship with the government and Steinkueler discussed the work that she was doing to make sure that games were given their due First Amendment rights. When games are under fire and targeted for censorship, she was there to stick up for them. She declared that we have the rights to make the games that we want to make, no matter who we are. She also snuck a Portal Gun into the White House office; maybe you’ll see it on CNN some time.
Following next was Amy Hennig, director of the Uncharted series among other games. She gave a talk about her own career, starting from film and cinematography and moving into video games. Perhaps shockingly, this seemed to be the most controversial of the talks. What Hennig explained was, while the anonymous commenters on the internet can often be toxic, she has found the game industry, itself, to be a world of opportunity for women. She discussed how mentors in game development helped her career to grow, and described the game industry as a “shining castle” of opportunity, even if that castle is sometimes surrounded by thorns. Hennig expressed some concern that, while harassment does exist, focusing so strongly on it in our narratives about the game industry is having a chilling effect. Young women, who might otherwise find a lot of opportunity in this field, see it as too dangerous a field to enter because of the bad stories that they’ve heard.
Sela Davis, an engineer from Microsoft (my home company) discussed imposter syndrome. She at first, when she was asked, questioned her qualifications to be part of #1reasontobe. But of course, it’s common for people in the games industry, especially women, to feel this way. This is definitely something I identify with too. Davis encouraged everyone to be support of and congratulatory to one another, because sometimes people need to hear compliments and know that their work is valued.
Brenda Romero, who was also one of the panel organizers, did a short intermission talk about a metaphorical mountain lion. The parable: There was a mountain lion on her property, she said, that she was a hundred percent sure was going to kill her. But then she thought about it, and realized the chances of the mountain lion killing her were more like %0.0001. All the same, the fear of that very small percent made her worried about going outside and exercising, or just enjoying her life. In short, what’s really holding her back is the fear, which she has to overcome, because the mountain lion itself is not going to go away…
Adriel Wallick is an indie developer and the creator of the Train Jam. She started taking indie development very seriously last year by creating one new game every week. During the process she also became nomadic, inserting herself into various different indie game development communities around the world, to meet the people behind the games. In this way, she’s learned to appreciate game development as a community, as well as creating games herself and helping others to create. After seeing her talk, it occurred to me that though I knew about her story and process, I hadn’t checked out any of the games, so here you can dig in and see what one game a week actually looks like.
Katherine Cross was the final speaker. She discussed the part of her career that focused on video game criticism. This was a good place to end as it presented a strong call to action for everyone. She realized that people were becoming increasingly cruel about her contributions to games writing, and she had to deal with a lot of toxicity. As a result, she resolved not to back down, and “Write about games more than ever”:
She’s actually posted her entire address up on Feministing, so if you are interested, please take a look! (Above photo is from that source.)
I think it’s really valuable that #1reasontobe is a panel, because this allows people to see different perspectives on women in the industry. One person’s comments on their experiences shouldn’t stand for everyone. We need a variety of experiences represented. #1ReasonToBe, as Brenda Romero explained at the panel’s start, was started by a hashtag on Twitter that was fueled by another hashtag. When someone asked, “Why are there so few lady game creators,” the initial response was #1ReasonWhy, a hashtag about why it’s difficult for women in games. But #1ReasonToBe was started as a counterpoint, for why we stay with it. That can be any reason, from “I’m happy and I have a community here” to “because I want to show people that I can” or anything else outlined above.
I will say that I found myself agreeing strongly with Amy Hennig’s talk, and I was among those that stood up to applaud for it. I guess I found her statement very refreshing, especially after the emotional kick that was the Empty Chair segment. It’s easy to lose sight of the good things about games and about the world when discussing the bad things. I have personally said that an overwhelming focus on toxicity discourages people who might otherwise thrive from even trying to make it. It’s wrong to ignore the experiences of those who feel lonely and alienated, or derided and attacked. But I will say that everyone talking all the time about how lonely and alienated they feel often makes me feel kind of lonely and alienated. Though I’ve always done other stuff in addition to working on games, I’ve also found an incredibly welcoming community in game development and in this industry, and it’s nice to occasionally hear from someone else who feels that way.
The world of games is a bit of a roller coaster right now, but I came away from GDC feeling really inspired. If you’ve made it down this far and you’re a developer, please check out my own blog where I’m going to be making a few more in-depth posts about the technology side of GDC in the upcoming days.
Email the author of this post at aj@Tap-Repeatedly.com. And since this post doesn’t have a lot of photos, look at some nice GDC photos at the Official GDC Flikr.
Thanks for the nice summary of everything going on there this year.
Wow, this was a great writeup and an incredible array of speakers. Reading some of these makes me regret the years I haven’t been able to go to GDC for one reason or another.
The Microtalks were (I think) a fairly new thing last time I was there, and they were still catching on. It seems like they’ve really come into their own as a platform, with talented speakers distilling a concept down into the space they have, almost like a presentational Tweet. Especially in the context of a larger topic-based discussion you can see really cool things. Plus many of the speakers might prefer something like this rather than preparing an hour-long lecture. That’s a big time and pressure investment.
The #1ReasonToBe panel makes me so happy. I worried that it had been a flash in the pan, and its messages might not be covered in the long term, but it seems like there’s still a lot of motivation. That Powerpoint was incredible – moving, scary, sad, and occasionally funny, but in the same way a horrible joke is funny. An “oh my god I can’t believe that, but I do” sort of funny, which really isn’t that funny at all.
The opportunities for women in game development, as described by Amy Hennig, can’t be ignored, and I’m glad that viewpoint got attention, especially from a woman who is well-qualified to discuss it. There’s an interesting contrast to what she said in Brenda Romero’s mountain lion. When the mountain lion turns up, your first thought is “I’m 100% sure it’s going to kill me.” Only later does your rational mind recalculate the odds, and the act of doing that can’t erase the initial conviction that the worst will happen. So both together make a strong argument that it’s a vast world of opportunity that women rightly feel uncomfortable with.
I enjoyed Polygon’s writeup of your talk too, AJ. Any chance there’ll be a video of the whole thing? Yours is one of the first formal studies of actual moral segmentation in players, and it’s a telling piece of work.
Thanks, Steerpike! I’m glad you thought the survey study was cool. There will be a video of the talk in the GDC Vault. I can only speculate if it will be one of the public or locked ones, though.
I’d like to do more work with this topic, but right now I’m focused on more building and creating stuff and interviewing devs. But I got some great feedback about the talk and new avenues I’d like to explore with it.