Up Close, But Always On The Outside: Why I Go To A Conference For Video Game Nerds Every Year

In which I discuss my hatred of parties and men who refuse to make eye contact with me.
Publish date:
March 18, 2014
sexism, games, GDC

I’m not a person who goes to parties. I’m just not. Crowds in general make me edgy. Crowds where most people know each other already and I mostly don’t know many people at all make me downright neurotic.

In fact, I very often do whatever I can avoid parties altogether, because what I am is the person who may have a good time in the moment but who will go home and second-guess everything. I avoid parties and other large group social situations if only to save myself the inevitable trouble of later trying to recall everything I said and did and ranking it all in order of potential for embarrassment and overall terribleness. And it is so easy for me to say something terrible sometimes.

I am just not a person who is naturally nor easily outgoing. I accept this about myself. While it used to bother me that I dreaded the social events other folks seemed to enjoy, I’ve since come to realize that even the person who seems to have the most fun at parties has moments of self-doubt. I am just not a person who requires a ton of social interaction to be fulfilled and happy. If I felt like I was suffering for it, I might be motivated to try to change it, but I don’t, so I’m not.

It could also be that I have been to some lousy parties.

Every year I explain this again: every year I go to a conference in San Francisco for video game developers, and other people who think hard about games. It’s called GDC, and it’s like a weeklong sleepaway camp for game nerds. I write about it.

It’s probably an unexpected choice, and it’s true that attending this conference is always a peculiar experience for me. ­­It is, after all, situated in a culture and community of which I am not technically a member. While I do play a lot of games, I don’t create them (well except for the one Twine I’ve finished) and neither am I a person who "counts" as a game journalist. Although I do occasionally write about games and game culture, I don’t write for a prominent videogame website, and I don’t often get to share in all the cool-kids insidery details. Like many people who spend their lives building expertise in a very specific field, game journalists often take their field very, very seriously. I am, ultimately, a spectator. A tourist. A hanger­-on. Worst, a wife.

This last is literal: my husband DOES write about games. The only reason I started going to GDC was because of him, because what he described sounded like something I would enjoy. He’s in this circle, and I’m out of it, but he holds my hand across that divide anyway, pleasantly and excitedly introducing me around. It’s a strange sensation, this standing in the shadow right next to the spotlight where everyone else is gathered, watching it all like a show.

I enjoy it, because it’s nice to be anonymous sometimes. I like being in a space where I have no expectations and therefore no one knows what to expect from me. “What site do you write for?” “I’m Senior Editor at xoJane.” SILENCE. Nobody quite knows what to say; often, many of these people being men with very narrow interests, they have no idea what xoJane even is.

Saying “women’s lifestyle site” -- a term I dislike but one that is ultimately the clearest description I have -- sends people struggling for some means of connection. Those aformentioned men in particular will sometimes blurt out something vague about women and games, and I get the sense it's something they read on the internet once. I’ve had developers suddenly change tacks and try to sell me on covering a game because of an allegedly lady-friendly color scheme, or because you can change the avatar’s hairstyle.

Because I must be here to make this a woman thing. Maybe I am. I mean, they’re trying. But what it comes down to is that there are a lot of men at GDC, and almost none of them know what the hell I do, or how my audience applies, or what xoJane is even for, because they’re all so busy believing that the world of video games is a tiny special subculture that only they understand. And as much as this serves to perpetuate the unfortunate notion that video games are simply not a thing women DO, there’s also freedom in that, for me.

Being at this conference with my husband means I get see this world up close, but always from the outside, like walking through a house that belongs to a family of strangers, trying to piece together who they are, and why I should care about them.

Indeed, my favorite thing about GDC is NOT avatar hairstyle news -- it’s that this is a gathering of incredibly passionate creative people who want to show you their creative stuff, and most of them­­ are nothing less than effusive in showing off the rad things they’ve made. Virtually nobody produces compulsive and obsessive apologies for their work, or diminishes it with dull modesty, no matter whether they’re making a bazillion dollar epic with a team of hundreds, or a tiny personal game as an individual human, in their free time. Indeed, people often describe their spectacular failures with the same enthusiasm as their successes.

Do you know how rare that is, in writing by and about women? Even extremely successful women are often publicly sorry about the things they make and do, or will meticulously identify and catalogue everything wrong with what they’re showing you, or at the very least are desperately afraid of what will happen if they trumpet their own awesomeness too loudly or too often. Of course, there are self-identified impostors at GDC as everywhere, but for the most part even the most uncertain and insecure participant is trying to be proud of their work, and trying to get over their fear of showing it to other people.

And the famously ­sexist world of video games and their attendant culture can be difficult enough when you’re a woman who is actually knowledgeable on these subjects ­­-- being largely unknown in these circles, I am sometimes ignored, and sometimes patronized, and sometimes just terrifically misunderstood. In one interaction today, beyond the initial introduction, a male art director for a big-deal game chose to bluntly ignore me while speaking exclusively to the man I happened to be with. I mean, he literally did not even make eye contact with me once.

When a short time later, a male creative director for another big-deal game spoke to me like I was an actual human being with a brain who might have a legitimate interest in his game, I felt gratitude -- followed quickly by disgust that I was in a situation where I could feel grateful for something as simple as being treated like a human being with a brain.

You can probably guess which game I’m more enthusiastic about.

It’s a complex environment even in the best of circumstances, but add to this that I am not even an expert ­­-- like, not even close to an expert ­­-- on the subject everyone is there for, and the ability of a lot of people to take me seriously kind of plummets. Which is not a tremendous surprise, although it is still disappointing. I am kind of a nobody in this world. I’m not going all impostor syndrome here myself, exactly, because I know I am good at what I do. ­­It’s just that this isn’t what I do.

Tonight I went to a party -- a PARTY! at a noisy crowded bar! -- celebrating the fantastic geek culture site Unwinnable -- which has just launched a Kickstarter, by the way, for a new subscription-based weekly digital magazine, and I hope like hell it succeeds because it’s such a bitch to make thinky web content pay. And you know, every year I come into San Francisco for GDC with a mixture of excitement and dread -- excitement for the potential of hearing awesome talks and seeing awesome games, and dread at the potential for being treated like a spectator, a tourist, a hanger­-on, or a wife.

And every year I rediscover that for every eye-contact-avoiding developer who seems happy to pretend I don’t exist, there are so many excellent, friendly people who are legitimately thrilled to see someone from outside of this tiny insular videogame world coming in, however tentatively, and trying to describe their work to a different audience -- an audience that diverges from the male demographic that 99% of game stuff is aimed at.

The party I was at tonight was full of these people, and that has reminded me that sometimes, social isolation is not a destiny, but a choice, and one that we make together.