At the annual Game Developers Conference (GDC), the big game industry question that comes up every year is “how”. As in, “How is the venison sausage made?” Topics such as platforms, engines and middleware dominate GDC’s five days of panels, full of artists and programmers trying to understand how to run games on as many devices and marketplaces as possible.
But in more recent years, the insider conference has turned a blind eye to another, more awkward question: “who.” More specifically, who does the modern game design demographic encompass? What does that demographic look like?
Before Colleen Macklin, a game design professor at the New School at Parsons, began answering that question at a GDC panel, she queued up some camcorder videos she shot at this year’s conference. “I’m going to play this loop as an ambient track during my talk, and you might start to see some patterns,” she said.
The primary pattern consisted of groups of white men gliding up and down escalators or strolling the corridors of GDC, occasionally intersected by a group of Asian men, a person of African descent, or a woman.
Despite years of growing GDC advocacy tracks celebrating more diverse game makers, this demographic breakdown was still present during the 2014 show, and it probably surprised no one in the audience. But for Macklin and the other diverse playmakers and educators in attendance, simply asking “who” wasn’t good enough this year.
“We are designers!” Macklin said. “We are talking about systemic problems. Instead of saying how hard it is to create diversity, let’s prototype a welcoming and diversified field. Let’s test them.’
The first call came from the same panel. Titled #1reasontobe, the panel sought to convey the dynamics of a 2012 Twitter conversation in which the gaming industry’s minorities spoke out about why they persevered in the face of hiring and attitude barriers. Interestingly, one of the most notable contributors this year confessed to taking a different stance.
“I always felt like I was part of gaming because the people who raised me always made me feel welcome in the game,” says Lauren Scott, a game design student at UC Santa Cruz. She told a story about a particularly nerdy upbringing, and she showed photos of her and her younger sister bent over a game of King’s Quest. “Until recently, the global gaming audience was all black and all female,” she joked.
Her father, a programmer at Oracle, got his daughters computer access from an early age, but he did them one better: years of gaming, he took the tools at his disposal and made this. Scott gestured to an image from a 1997 Java coded game her father made starring his daughter. “When I was five years old, I knew that a black girl could be a character in games.”
Her childhood interest endured and she now studies with game design legend Brenda Romero at UCSC. Her call to action was therefore not intended for her young colleagues, but for the veterans who were about to leave the profession. “Your calls to action are working,” she said. ‘But you must stay. Your knowledge is valuable. We’re talking minorities of women in gaming, but female veterans are just as rare. We must study under the masters to hone our skills.”
“Post-White House, I’ve become an asshole”
Romero herself spoke at GDC’s annual Women in Gaming luncheon earlier the same day, where she was asked for advice. For the most part, she adhered to gender-neutral tips, including the importance of public speaking, while other lunchtime panelists took a more aggressive stance.
Former White House gambler Constance Steinkuehler was candid about her hiring prospects: “The game is rigged and weighed against women. If you haven’t turned 40 or had kids, you’ll find it. So, after the White House, after my tenure, I became an asshole. Now, yes, if I see two similar candidates with the same credentials and the same chops, I’ll hire the girl.
Xbox Entertainment Studios producer Lydia Antonini took a broader stance on hiring, explaining that her former Hollywood jobs required “almost a rapport” of diversity when looking for a job, a proactivity she said the top echelons of games should achieve. hiring industry. “That forces you to rethink how you hire staff,” Antonini said. “Now you go to LULAC, other organizations, and you meet people; otherwise you will get the same crowd of applicants every time.”
On the #1reasontobe panel, Double Fine programmer Anna Kipnis spoke about this feeling, but in a more understated, studio-specific way: “Until a month ago, I hadn’t tried to make a game myself, even though I’d had plenty of opportunities. ‘, she says. She described Double Fine’s regular Amnesia Fortnight series, in which staffers pitch ideas for prototypes that are voted on and turned into short, team-driven projects—an intimidating prospect for someone who’d never done more than fill a place on a larger design team .
Once she got over the fear that her ideas weren’t fleshed out enough, she realized that her pitches actually had an edge over most of her design peers. This year’s Amnesia Fortnight included her pitch, Dear Leader, as a top vote-getter. So she had a message for the top game studios: minorities on staff could use an extra push in terms of participation and inclusion. “Cheer on everyone pitch matches. Even office managers and IT. Make sure everyone feels involved in the creative process.”
The New School’s Macklin spoke like a designer, understanding that expanding the diversity of an entire industry requires a concentrated playtest. First stop: GDC itself. Such experiments cannot only take place in the “advocacy” panels, she stressed, because “if this song is so successful, it will eat itself and be the cause of its own obsolescence.” In addition to their personal experiences, I also want to hear design conversations from these people.”
She compared designing a new player experience to opening up a sign-up process to speakers, and compared pre-production efforts for experimentation and diversity to having conversations with potential new speakers. “Let new voices speak on their own terms rather than fit them into the takeaway structure that already exists. Let’s burn this panel down.’
“Maybe it’s better to be invisible”
While the day’s talks were highly proactive – full of high-spirited ideas and calls to action – frustration and dissatisfaction bubbled up, and rightly so. Most panelists included either a slide or a reference to nasty, anti-diversity comments online or through real-life encounters. Macklin sighed at men in the comments section of an industry insider site trying to explain why more women weren’t working at their companies: “The discrimination has to do with their ability to do the job; programming doesn’t interest many women; gender and sexual orientation is an issue, but it is exaggerated.”
It’s not. Two of my gaming industry colleagues told me that they were aggressively spoken to and groped by complete strangers at this year’s GDC. No matter how much work, effort, brilliance and creativity they put into their work, they still left GDC wondering if they were present as game designers or as objects at the mercy of the men of the conference.
Still, it wasn’t for me to scream, be loud, cry, and be mad at the bullshit that some of the most brilliant members of the game design world go through. But it was definitely Deirdra “Squinky” Kiai’s place (Kiai prefers the gender-neutral “she” pronoun and will receive that courtesy for the rest of this article.)
Kiai closed out the #1reasontobe panel by thanking the show’s IGF Awards for not rewarding their amazing point-and-click, Claymation adventure game Dominique Pamplemousse in one of the four nominated categories. “The more attention and notoriety I get, the more I wonder when the 4chan trolls will get to me, as they have with pretty much every person I like and respect in games,” Kiai said, in a voice that louder with every word. “Maybe it’s better to be invisible. I know invisible and I can live with invisible.
Despite tinkering with computers since age three, releasing their own adventure game at sixteen, and getting a job in industry straight out of college, Kiai was completely convinced they would never be a good fit for the games industry. “Games were never meant for people like me. They were always someone else’s story. I couldn’t make games about myself because I didn’t even know who I was. I have never seen myself represented anywhere.”
Not until Kiai found the browser-based RPG Fallen London at age 25 that they felt a touch of inclusion when they were allowed to choose “person of mysterious and unclear gender” as a character option. “I didn’t have to be a flawed woman or a flawed man. Just me.” From there, Kiai rode a wave of other game makers who had defected from an unsavory gaming industry to create their own games, and in Kiai’s case, it was one they could pour new senses of identity into.
The takeaway, Kiai said, was that other men and women could create more inclusion in the industry, a greater safe space in which studios large and small expand their diversity, without swiping any of the anger, frustration, or disappointment under a gigantic , digital carpet.
“Authentic, true and weird,” Kiai said. “That should not only be okay, but important.”