The Game Developers Conference (GDC) is hailed as the conference for those in the gaming field. Since its 1988 start in a Californian game developer’s living room, the annual event has ballooned into a huge industry event; over 26,000 people attended the 2015 conference held in San Francisco last month.
Attendees talk about the annual pilgrimage to San Francisco with the same reverence as a child’s first trip to Disney World. GDC is the Magic Kingdom for adult nerds. The weeks leading up to the conference are full of discussion about which parties to attend, and how best to make an impression on people who could be useful in furthering your game development career. The weeks following are filled with breathless, tell-all blog posts recounting just how lucky their authors were to be at GDC.
When I was still a games student, and unsure of where my place in the industry might be, I attended one university lecture consisting entirely of a teacher’s photographs from his week at GDC. Mainly, his photos showed hundreds of delegates gazing rapturously towards a speaker at the front of a large conference hall, punctuated by the occasional snap of an attendee enjoying a free beer at the Microsoft-sponsored onsite bar. Somehow, the message of this lecture was that anybody with any desire to be part of the games industry needed to go to GDC. Later, when I became a games journalist, the same message was often repeated to me by writers far more experienced than I.
So, in 2012, I went to my first GDC. It was as inspiring as everyone had told me, and affirmed my decision to pursue a life filled with games.
But here’s the thing: going to GDC is super expensive. This year, a regular all-access pass cost US$1995. Passes to specific events at the conference, such as the expo (a cavernous hall filled with companies promoting their products out of towering, noisy booths) or individual conference tracks, still cost hundreds of dollars. In many cases, attendees’ passes are paid for by their employers, but it’s a hefty fee if you’re an independent developer paying your own way – and these sorts of developers are the ones who stand to gain the most from the networking opportunities offered by such a large event. As Matt Duhamel says in his GDC wrap-up, ‘You pay to show that you deserve to be there; you pay to be seen as much as to see’.
Of course, with networking the main priority for many attendees, who says you can’t just attend the numerous parties thrown after hours? There are ways around the exorbitant cost of access: developer AM Cosmos wrote about attending GDC without a pass, something I’ve observed many indies opting to do. In 2013, I befriended half a dozen guys who split the cost of an all-access pass between them, taking turns to wear the lanyard into conference sessions and then meeting at the end of each day to attend parties and networking events together.
But even if you forgo the conference pass, attendees from outside of San Francisco still need sufficient funds to cover a week’s accommodation in the city, as well as the return flight there. An Australian developer wanting to attend GDC will need to pay at least a couple of thousand dollars for flights and accommodation in a shitty hostel before they even consider which conference pass to buy. At networking events, developers are often required to pay a fee for the opportunity to exhibit their game to potential interested parties.
The games industry has long been troubled by limited and questionable portrayals of minorities, but claims are often made that it is becoming more inclusive – and in some ways, that’s true. This year’s conference included a record high number of women speakers (though let’s be honest, 20% women is still rather sad); and featured presentations that raised awareness for the LGBTQI community, gamers with disabilities, developers over the age of 50, and even the portrayal of fat characters in games.
But those without money are strangely absent from the sprawling story of game development. Critic Mattie Brice notes that while the industry is quick to claim support for minorities, its tunnel vision favours only a specific subset of minority developers. Large companies donate a few thousand dollars to women-in-STEM programs and claim to be ‘doing something’ about under-representation, while doing little to initiate actual change.
One independent Australian developer I met with at this year’s GDC articulated his discomfort with the massive event – watching uplifting speeches on the power of games, in rooms full of largely privileged developers, and then exiting the conference hall to be confronted with the homeless living on San Francisco’s streets.
Those who are able to attend GDC – an event that developers assign a Mecca-like importance to – are highly privileged. The voices of thousands of incredibly talented developers are missing from the event, simply because they do not meet the financial requirement that the industry unofficially requires.
The games industry needs to acknowledge that this is unacceptable, particularly in a sector whose work is heavily based in technology and high-end communications. Why does this odd attachment to San Francisco persist? The games industry could certainly take a cue from an organisation like the Digital Writers’ Festival, whose sessions can be viewed by anyone with access to the internet. The Melbourne-based Freeplay Independent Games Festival has introduced an online program as part of its tenth year running, and many independent games organisations are beginning to make positive changes – but it’s time for well-attended, heavily sponsored events like GDC to sit up and take notice too.
Image credits: Official GDC/Flickr