GDC Diary, Day 1: Lesley in Nerdland

I'm at a video game developer's conference and feeling weirdly left out. It gets better?
Publish date:
March 7, 2012
video games, nerdery, GDC, meeting new people and trying new things

You guys, I am so tired. Already. I arrived in San Francisco late Saturday night, and the full force of subsequent (and upcoming) events has yet to unleash its fury upon me, and still, I am exhausted with the exhaustion of finding oneself in an alien world and trying to make do.

What am I talking about? Why am I here? I’ll tell you.

I had been peripherally aware of the Game Developers Conference (hereafter GDC) for a few years prior to 2011, but that was the year I really got a sense of what it was about, and even then it was by proxy. My husband is a freelance games journalist -- yes, there is a whole little offshoot of niche media expressly about video games, more on that later -- and attended GDC in that capacity last year.

I came along, as I tend to do anytime he travels for work, because one of my life philosophies is that if we’re already paying for a hotel room for my husband in a cool place far away from home, I’m damn well going to enjoy it too. That was my first-ever trip to San Francisco, and I still sort of relate to San Francisco as the west coast’s hipper answer to Boston, albeit a Boston with more recycling, less rudeness and fully articulated R sounds.

I enjoyed the city, very much, and I swear I saw every last museum, gallery and other means of presenting art in the downtown area, and had a good time with it too.

What I didn’t do, however, was attend GDC.

Every evening I listened to my husband tell me about his day, and I was intrigued. There were panels and lectures on game-related topics from the impossibly technical to the academic. There were big-deal game demos and independent designers hustling to show their work. It sounded like something I might enjoy; a little beyond my ken, a little weird, a little challenging, extremely nerdy. I am so into that.

The original Computer Game Developers Conference first took form in a living room in San Jose in 1988, with 27 attendees. It has since expanded (and dropped the “Computer,” as it now features games made for all conceiveable platforms) to draw over 19,000 people from all aspects of the game development industry, from graphic designers to coders to marketers to passionately-committed indie devs dedicating years of their lives to creating something meaningful on a dime and with help from one or two other people.

In spite of my own credentials as a gamer, I worried that attending would make me an interloper. This is a professional conference. Being a person who enjoys games does not make me a developer, nor does it even necessarily make me a person whose thoughts about games are of any use or appeal to anyone else. I’m not a professional. I’m just curious.

Also, I wasn’t quite sure about spending a chunk of money on a conference that really had nothing to do with my career and would be exclusively an opportunity to explore a culture and community in which I had an interest, however keen that interest may be. Depending on level of access, passes cost between $200 to nearly $2,000; attendance is a privilege in more than one sense of the word, and many folks save up meticulously in order to attend.

This year, when the time rolled around again, things had changed. I now technically have a job in the media, although with a gun to my head I could not call myself a journalist and keep a straight face (again, more on this later). Nevertheless, GDC gave me an all-access press badge, a gift so heady that I regard it with equal parts guilt and embarrassment. Despite my media credentials I have not yet mastered the art of getting shit for free, and I wonder if I ever will; I chronically feel the need to apologize for it.

Unlike what I do, games journalism is mostly serious business. Games themselves are a more profitable industry than many realize. In 2010, consumer spending on games and game-related products exceeded $25 billion. For comparison’s sake, television ad sales represented an annual revenue of $41 billion in 2009. On the other hand, movie ticket sales generated just over $10 billion in 2011.

Given the money spent on this medium, it’s natural that a robust and authoritative form of journalism would spring up to discuss it, just as any other art form would inspire. There is a wide variety of writing about games, from those who imbue it with gravitas and intellectual rigor, to those who treat the subject with irreverence and humor.

People who write about games form their own little sub-sub-culture, and with this evolves a complicated co-mingling of competition, high drama and supportive camraderie. Curiously, those who write memorably about video games are sometimes as elevated as the game makers themselves. It makes a strange kind of sense, as in a social world of nerdery it is as valuable for a person to understand and communicate what is great (or terrible) about games as it is to create the games themselves; because what most of us who spent any portion of our lives as social outcasts really want is to know that someone else understands, that someone else can articulate why we find something our larger culture ranks as intrinsically ephemeral -- that is to say, a game -- to be so meaningful, so important, so intense, and so critical to our life experience.

Games journalism could be described as a living body walking around with a massive chip on its spindly little shoulder. It is a field too often disdained by “real” journalism (not unlike a lot of so-called "women's media"), and by those who wonder what of merit and importance is there to say, really, about a video game? It doesn't help that games journalism has done much of its recent evolution online, and writers about games are often dismissed as "just bloggers" and not people doing work worth valuing. Therefore it’s not surprising that folks in the field may feel a little defensive, a little protective.

Of course, there are gaps. There are so many dudes. So many. Video games in general continue to be stereotyped as a male pastime -- never mind that the Entertainment Software Association (ESA) reports that 42% of gamers are women -- and I won’t even attempt to put a percentage on the number of women writing about games versus the number of men. There are some outstandingvoices, but far fewer than there ought to be.

All notable exceptions aside, the majority of faces representing games media are male, specifically white and male. This has certainly been true of my experiences thus far at GDC; indeed, most of them look either like Jonah Hill or Colin Meloy, or like a possible offspring of the two, an endless parade of Hill/Meloy Punnett squares roaming the Moscone Convention Center like some out-of -control genetic experiment by hipster scientists.

It’s hard to forget that I am an outsider here, even amongst the media. Especially amongst the media. People peer at my badge curiously and ask what "xoJane" is, suspicion in their eyes. For the most part, the people who write about video games exist in their own little dominion, a small kingdom with very high walls. There are more people than there are jobs to occupy them, which results in an atmosphere that mixes both camaraderie and competition in equal amounts.

There is also a powerful undercurrent of meritocracy; those who enjoy success are expected to have worked for it, to have paid an acceptable number of dues. You do not gain authority here without lots of people already knowing your name.

Add to this the fact that many of the people doing the writing are nerds of the first order -- often nerds who faced social repercussions for their game-playing nerd-being ways for some portion of their formative years -- and you have a significant group of individuals hard-wired to lash out at any perceived challenge or slight. Indeed, you have a few dudes so full of their own self-importance that they provide living testimony to the idea that a little bit of power is a dangerous thing.

Fortunately, they are the minority. And I don’t mean to suggest that the games journalists I’ve met haven't been friendly -- the majority have been extraordinarily so, or at least, they were before I wrote this piece, but some seem reluctant to interact with me. Is this the wages of a life lived on the margins, all the while fighting for space in the public square? Is it me, personally? Or something else?

I can’t say for sure. What I will say is that the common crux of nerd life is a difficulty connecting; this is why we fall into books, and television and movies, and games. This is why some of us take to writing instead of talking and some of us take to creating our own worlds instead of engaging with the one where everyone else already lives, the one where nobody seems to understand us. We learn to be careful about who we trust; we learn to be suspicious of outsiders, even when they are well meaning. Like me.

I can understand that. GDC is a safe space for people who love games; a place where games are lauded, valued, recognized as the technical and artistic accomplishments they are. It’s natural to want to protect that, to keep it sacred. And maybe my outsider status is as much in my own head as it is reality; I am, after all, a nerd too.