The Past, the Present, and the Absent: Reflections on GDC 2018

There’s a young queer Asian woman who works at the coffee stand up the street from my apartment, let’s call her Lou, and sometimes when I swing by for a morning cup, she and I make a bit of small talk about games. Last Friday, the final day of GDC, she asked me what I’d been playing lately and I told her that I’d just picked up Skyrim for my Switch. She got excited, said that she loves Skyrim, and pulled up her sleeve to reveal a tattoo on her upper arm, an emblem resembling a stylized, serpentine dragon, its wings angling into sharp points on either side. Skyrim’s logo. Yep, Lou loves games all right, even if games haven’t always loved her, or even acknowledged that she exists.

The Past

Two days before, I’d gone to a talk by Michael Cranford, designer and programmer of two games that were significant to me in my youth: The Bard’s Tale (1985) and The Bard’s Tale II: The Destiny Knight (1986). They’re notoriously difficult and, to be honest, I never got very far in them, but they created a colorful first-person fantasy world that I could explore, and that was enough to fire my imagination. I’d pore over the beautiful packaging for the games as if they were ancient relics or magic portals to another realm, and I’d use the bits of the games I’d managed to access as jumping-off points for my own epic adventures, which took place entirely in my mind.

In his talk, Cranford mentioned that people had sometimes approached him over the years and told him that The Bard’s Tale had really impacted their lives. This didn’t surprise me at all, of course. They were extraordinary games for their time, taking the barebones foundation of the early Wizardry games and bringing it to life. Cranford said that he wanted his talk to convey to attendees his philosophy for how to create games that might change people’s lives. I was intrigued. But by the time he was done speaking, I felt that his ideas about this were narrow, and belonged back in 1985 alongside his innovative masterpiece.

He spoke of how he’d wanted to create a game in which you could overcome limitations to become immortal and tremendously powerful, to experience “an existence without limits.” This, he said, is what we all want. He talked about building his fantasy worlds on a “familiar” mythos, much as Tolkien did in drawing on elements that were familiar to the people of England when constructing Middle-earth and writing The Lord of the Rings. There didn’t seem to be any consideration on his part of the question, “Familiar to whom?”

In fact, he explicitly said at one point that he doesn’t build games on “alternate” myths like Hindu myths because they’re not as familiar to people. It seemed as if he, like so many game designers of the 1980s (and 90s and 2000s and the current decade) treated game design as if the only people in the world who mattered were white westerners. A Christian-inspired mythos is standard. A Hindu-inspired mythos is “alternate.” When, during a Q&A after his talk, a young man challenged him on this, Cranford told him that he made a good point and that he’d never want anyone to feel excluded from his games on the basis of race or cultural background or gender or socioeconomic status or any such thing. There had clearly been no conscious malice or ill intent in his framing of myths rooted in the cultures of predominantly white, predominantly Christian European countries as normal and myths from elsewhere as something other. His response was the sincere response of someone who had simply never considered the bias in his own viewpoint before.

I was puzzled, too, by the way Cranford spoke of power fantasies in Tolkienesque worlds as a thing of the past, as if the games industry had forgotten how to give players these life-changing experiences. In fact, this is the guiding philosophy of some of the most successful, widely played games of the past few years. Skyrim is all about becoming a figure of tremendous power, one who can turn the elements against your enemies, move objects with your mind, and conjure magical weapons from nothingness. In Diablo III, my crusader can call down a divine light to smite her enemies. This is a game in which you literally go to heaven to help the angels cast out the devil and his demonic legions, so yeah, you could say it draws on a Christian-inspired mythos.

Cranford said that in games, you want to offer people “the sense of becoming what they are meant to be,” and “fulfilling their fantastic potential.” If the chosen-one narratives and tremendous powers of games like these aren’t all about doing exactly that, I don’t know what is. These games tell you you’re special, you’re better, you’re meant for great things. You deserve an existence without limits. Like most games, their mechanics support an extremely individualistic worldview. Sure, you may be “selflessly” questing to save others, but the real reward is being told that you’re the only one who can fulfill this quest, and becoming increasingly more powerful as you do so.

The Present

Contrary to what Cranford’s talk implied (whether it’s what he actually believes or not), these aren’t the only kinds of games that can have a profound impact on people’s lives, and I’m so grateful that more and more games are being created that understand this. At a talk on the wonderful Night in the Woods, Scott Benson, one of the game’s co-creators, spoke about Mae, the game’s protagonist. Mae is expressly not the ubercapable hero of so many video games, the one who fixes everything, conquers the almighty evil, saves the world. Mae, Scott said, “is not smarter than you. She’s not more capable. She doesn’t make better life choices.” This is why I loved her. Scott said that one thing art can do is tell people that they are not alone. That’s what playing as a character like Mae does for me.

As someone who doesn’t exactly have all her shit together 100% of the time, a game in which you play as someone who’s struggling to make sense of things, struggling not to hate herself, maybe struggling sometimes just to get out of bed in the morning, can say a lot more to me about my life than a game in which I’m the best at something, or — as in the case of Skyrim and other Elder Scrolls games — potentially the best at everything. It would have been deeply dishonest of Night in the Woods to make its hero such a figure. Her town of Possum Springs is suffering because the mining industry has dried up, and that’s not a problem any individual can just waltz in and solve with a bit of magic or a high charisma stat.

Night in the Woods is also one of several recent games that bucks the longtime trend of creating a world that feels like it exists entirely for you to play in, plunder, or conquer. Scott spoke specifically of wanting to create the feeling in Night in the Woods that the world doesn’t need you, and that even if you didn’t walk down its streets, other residents of Possum Springs would still be going about their lives, which aren’t inherently any less meaningful or valuable than your own. After decades of games devoted to telling players that they’re the center of the world, the only person that really matters, it’s so great to start seeing more and more games that cast you as just another person in a community of people who, in their own ways, are all struggling, and who in some ways need each other.

I’m writing this just a few days before the release of the film adaptation of Ready Player One, a book that’s heavily influenced by games and that sends gamers the harmful message that so many games have always sent them: you’re the one who really matters. Games that do that aren’t gonna go away any time soon. I just started playing Far Cry 5, in which the decent residents of a Montana county were utterly helpless to resist or overthrow the evil cult that had taken over the region until I showed up. I think it’s time games started encouraging players to see themselves not just as individual, all-powerful saviors, but as members of larger groups and systems, too.

The Bard’s Tale, Skyrim, Diablo III, and Far Cry 5 are also all part of the long tradition in which you kill things to get better at killing things. They are games about being skilled practitioners of violence who steadily become even more skilled practitioners of violence. We’re going to continue getting plenty of games like this for the foreseeable future, of course, but GDC 2018 was thrilling for the abundance of different kinds of games, and different ways of thinking about games, that one could see and hear all over the event. Thank goodness for Untitled Goose Game, in which you play as a mischievous goose, and for Knights and Bikes, in which you play as a young girl embarking on imaginative adventures with her friend, and Don’t Make Love, about praying mantises in love who want to have sex but fear the potentially deadly consequences. Thank goodness for those who encourage us to think about games in different ways and to consider new possibilities, like escape room designer Laura Hall (who we interviewed for our newsletter last year) who spoke of her work as an extension of a practice of nonviolence, and Leighton Gray, one of the co-creators of Dream Daddy, who set out to create a game that was both fun and that challenged the dating sim genre’s “cis-oriented, straight-oriented tendencies.”

The games, they are a-changin’.

The Absent

And yet, we still have so far to go.

I had the privilege of hearing several women, queer folks, and trans folks speak at GDC, a wonderful indication that we are carving out a space for ourselves in this medium we love so much. And there were games about people and places that games have historically ignored, like Night in the Woods, which is deeply concerned with the economic woes of Rust Belt communities, and Butterfly Soup, about “gay Asian girls playing baseball and falling in love.” It’s an encouraging shift.

But we must remember that there are still so many important voices that aren’t heard, so many games that don’t get to be showcased on the GDC show floor. If the Rust Belt setting of Night in the Woods has historically been treated by games as flyover country, a place like Lebanon has never even been on the industry’s map, except perhaps ignorantly to serve as a backdrop for some modern warfare.

At the #1ReasonToBe panel, host Rami Ismail of Vlambeer referred to a map on the show floor. Attendees were encouraged to pick up red stickers to indicate where they’d traveled from to be at GDC. A few days into the event, the map looked like this.

Ismail presented a slide that reduced the map down to only those areas attendees had marked. It offered a perceptible outline of the United States, and some concentrated splotches of red across Europe and in parts of Japan and China, but so much of the world was utterly invisible. As Rami told us, what this revealed was not a map of the world at all, nor a map of everywhere that games are developed, but rather a map of those places in which people have the financial and political privilege to attend GDC.

He proceeded to ask all of us a series of questions, things like:

How many of you do not own a house?
How many of you have a criminal record, or have used any form of drugs in your lifetime?
How many of you are not married or engaged?
How many of you do not have children?

I met several of the conditions he listed. Then he asked those of us to whom any of these applied to raise our hands.

All of us with our arms raised, he said, fulfilled reasons why some people who should have been present at GDC, people with “stories and passions and perspectives that are worth sharing on this stage,” had had their visas denied. In fact, of the six people he initially invited to participate, three of them had their visas denied. Of the three he then invited in their stead, two had their visas denied.

Attending GDC is not just something game devs do for fun. It can be a vital opportunity to make connections, to get your game in front of people, to seek out funding or other forms of support. Rami reminded us that there are so many people around the world who lack the political or financial privilege to have that opportunity, and as a result, whole swaths of the global game development community essentially go wholly unrepresented.

One of the speakers, Lara Noujaim of Game Cooks, spoke of a neighborhood in Beirut, in her home country of Lebanon. This, she said, is what the TV series Homeland will tell you it looks like:

But this is what it actually looks like:

The implications are clear. Misguided notions that the Middle East is nothing but a run-down, war-torn region — notions reinforced by media like Homeland and countless video games — contribute to the industry’s tendency to write off the region as one where worthwhile game development could possibly happen. But of course it does. We just don’t see it. We don’t hear the voices of those doing it. And the industry, and those of us who love games, are all diminished as a result.

We need to hear these voices. We need to see these games. We need the game development community to truly be a global, interconnected one, where developers have the infrastructure and support they need to do their work, no matter where in the world they may be. Because only then can we finally lay to rest the absurd notion that is still all too common in gaming, that some people’s cultures and experiences are meaningful and valuable, and others are unworthy alternatives to that.