Games are the stuff of fantasy. But making them is part of the real world. At next week’s Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, we’ll find out just how much the real world is going to intrude on the fantasy image we have of the video game industry as a wonderful thing. This time, developers are going to address some ugly truths — like sexism, Internet haters, racism, and homophobia — about their industry head-on.
The GDC will draw more than 23,000 attendees who want to understand the pulse of the industry. Prognosticators and craft experts — including, for some strange reason, me — will give talks about the state of the industry and its possible futures. At GDC, we learn what the industry cares about — or what it should care about. This year, the GDC’s leadership chose to put its “advocacy track” front and center in the hopes of generating honest conversation. Even the people who buy the less expensive “expo passes” may attend the advocacy sessions about the human side of the game business.
“This is the most exciting thing we’ve done,” said Meggan Scavio, the general manager of Game Developers Conference events. “Developers are really focused on changing the culture around games.”
Developers are still locked in debates about whether they should make console or mobile games. And this transition is creating a great deal of angst, Scavio said. Advocacy issues might seem less important to the billion dollars that come into the industry. But they are not falling by the wayside as easily as they did in the past thanks to the Internet.
“Social media and the Internet have done a tremendous job of bringing these problems to the light fast,” Scavio said. “If we are not there to react, we are covering our eyes and ears. It is neat that our people want to take them on.”
Just because the game industry has always been sexist doesn’t mean it still has to be. Women who speak out about sexism in games don’t have to receive rape and death threats over the Internet.
This advocacy trend was in full force last year at the #1reasontobe session, where game developer Brenda Romero — one of the most renowned and longest-tenured women in game development — asked if it would ever be safe for her to walk the aisles of E3, the largest industry video game tradeshow, without exposing her to shockingly sexist game imagery and underdressed “booth babes” that publishers use to grab attention to their displays.
“We are repeating that session, where there were people in tears last year,” Scavio said. “That doesn’t happen often. It’s a passionate topic. You usually don’t get in front of hundreds of your peers and discuss these intense topics.”
One of the women in that session is Laralyn McWilliams, the chief creative officer at The Workshop Entertainment, who recently was involved in a controversy that exposed the ridiculous sexual advances that a game journalist made toward a female game developer.
“There are still some things to be said,” Scavio said.
Manveer Heir, a gameplay designer at BioWare in Montreal, will also give a talk entitled, “Misogyny, racism, and homophobia: Where do video games stand?” Heir will examine a few popular games from the perspective of how they depict such issues. Heir may make some game developers uncomfortable as he dissects their games in front of them and their peers.
“That’s not an easy thing to do, but it’s a good discussion that will prompt developers to think more deeply about what they are doing,” Scavio said.
Other interesting talks include a session on accessible games for people with disabilities, “How to depression-proof your studio culture,” and a talk by Adam Orth, a former Microsoft developer who lost his job after a poorly worded tweet and an Internet mob scene that followed it.
We’ve come off an amazing year in video games with titles like the Fullbright Company’s Gone Home, which has a lesbian relationship at its center. Sony‘s blockbuster The Last of Us had Ellie, a 14-year-old girl, as one of the most memorable characters in video game history. BioShock Infinite had Elizabeth, a young girl who was the constant companion in that critically acclaimed game. But even in these titles, you can find flaws. And that’s worth discussing.
Some companies will try to hijack the GDC spotlight with corporate announcements and competitive posturing. The 300 companies exhibiting are taking more space on the show floor with bigger booths. Companies like Epic Games and Valve will have large booths for the first time to advance their own agendas.
“This is a year for courting developers,” Scavio said.
Sony has a session on Tuesday evening where scientist Richard Marks and other game leaders will talk about innovation. Their topic is rumored to be a new virtual reality system for the PlayStation 4. Virtual reality startup Oculus VR will talk about its latest prototypes for delivering an amazing 3D experience with virtual reality goggles. It will be hard pressed to stay ahead of all of the other virtual reality, augmented reality, and wearable startups that want to steal some attention. Microsoft will show the stunning visuals that are possible with DirectX 12, a foundational technology for 3D graphics on the PC and Xbox platforms. And Microsoft will give a postmortem on the launch of its Xbox One video game console.
These announcements will capture attention and steer our minds back toward the wonderful fantasy of gaming.
But make no mistake. The soul of this GDC is going to be about something a lot more basic than new hardware or software. It’s going to be about how we treat each other as human beings. That might seem like a distraction from the craft of making games. But it’s not.
“It’s all about how to make the best games possible,” Scavio said.