Why I Cried at GDC

Illustration for article titled Why I Cried at GDC

I did a lot of crying at GDC this year.

Maybe it's because I processed so many interactions—met so many good people, caught up with so many friends, cheered on so many heroes—that I am overwhelmed. From the distance of the internet I can usually manage it, Twitter and Facebook and however many internet comments I can stand to read, but in person sometimes it's a lot. I am conditioned, like Pavlov's dog, to hovering red notifications that demand addressing, to conversations that seem, in those moments of intimacy between my screen and me, to need immediate responses.


I live on the internet, really; I talk a lot, but I write even more, and the one week a year where nearly everyone in my world convenes on one whirlwind of a week, is anxious-making. Sometimes they bring years of history with them; sometimes they're people I've fought for, other times fought with. I've known them through their games or through an online avatar, a name on the screen suddenly delivered to me in person. We all have a lot to talk about.

It's a lot. It's a lot. It's a lot. I feel incredibly vulnerable. And yet this year, it seemed all right to be vulnerable, or at least it felt that when I came to look at the games industry this time, I felt that I stood at the rim of a world that was beginning to prize vulnerability, authenticity. Maybe I cried a lot because I felt I could, because people were listening.

I'm curled in my room; it's been an unusual three days since I last had a drink, but I needed it, after GDC. I needed to take a break from drinking. Maybe more than that, for the first time in the day-in-day-out years I have spent feverishly arched over this tiny keyboard in the service of video games, I didn't feel I needed to drink. I needed instead to sit here and search for the words to talk about why this year GDC made me feel exhilarated and overwhelmed and mostly really, really glad to be in video games again. Kirk, one of my dearest friends and a person who has seen me cry a lot, had the words.

Illustration for article titled Why I Cried at GDC

And yet I still feel overwhelmed from processing so much interaction. Video games are about processing interactions, really. I think so many of us came to video games because we were confused about how to live and to be in the world, and so we were drawn to these realms where every input had a predictable response. Living among people is hard, and when you collide with another human form, there is no algorithm to predict the result; that is a thing only video games can do. You cannot redo that time you said or did the wrong thing; you cannot practice it until you solve the situation. Hurting and being hurt by others is a frequent and inevitable lose condition that sits permanently on your heart. Only in games can you restart, correct, and master. Only in your closed, pretend world can you reload a save if you break something.


In life you can devote yourself to improving some element of your spirit with all your heart, but find you always feel you're failing. Only games can tell you, with scores or feedback or response, that you are getting measurably better, as a person engaged with a system. The system is entirely yours and you are at its center; in the tangible world it spawns unpredictable enemies, allies turn on you, the interface is opaque and unknowable units swarm invisibly. You don't know what will happen when you encounter them.

In games, there is always the possibility that we can win, at times when winning at life seems impossible. In bleak times I think about how I can never "win" my life; I will do some good things and some bad, I will be sad sometimes and happy others, and then I will die. I don't know when. There will be no cutscene, no soaring crescendo, no cathartic credit roll, except for in my games.


We have turned to games because they are fantasies where we are invulnerable. In life I am a short woman with a loud mouth; no matter how much I talk and how loudly, I am vulnerable when I speed-walk home in the dark, as I pass lazily-circling cars and hear voices hissing vulgarities from dark corners. In games I can be a silent man with a gun.

In games, I can only say so many things to other characters, and a menu appears before me and lets me think and choose. That's why I write, too—for control. I can follow these branching trees through my noisy head and pick the one I most assume will lead to the outcome I desire. Before I was a writer I studied acting, performance. I never learned how to do anything else.


We usually call games "power fantasies" like that's a bad thing. I want more from my games than male power fantasies, I have said a hundred times. I can acknowledge, now, that we all have fantasies of power. Games, the playing them or the making them—especially the tiny, individual games about personal experience that throbbed under this year's conversation like moving water waking up underneath ice—games, games gave power to so many of us who had none. Who needed some.

Illustration for article titled Why I Cried at GDC

And now there are some of us who are beginning to have the freedom, the support, the courage to be vulnerable. I cried at a panel as Brenda Romero told people that to make a game with her is her daughter's childhood dream, and people applauded uproariously. I cried because I felt people were starting to realize we have the ability to empower others, not just to feel powerful ourselves.

I was on that panel too, and people were clapping for me, and I hadn't really realized how much I had been waiting to really feel cared for here before. I have played a character in life, as in games.


I cried because I have been talking all of these years without truly feeling I could be authentic, and all around me were people championing authenticity: Make sure your game is telling the truth, said Emily Short. We can do more than make power fantasies, said Manveer Heir. Character stories that are just fixated on gaining optimal outcomes, where you're manipulating people as pieces, are just psychopathy, said Karen Sideman. We can be genuine. I watched IGF winner Richard Hofmeier spraypaint his own IGF booth to present Porpentine's Howling Dogs, and I thought, we can be real.

I cried because I have been talking and talking about “more games for more people” for years, and when I played Gone Home I had the stunning realization that there could be a game for me. Someone can make a game for me.

It's not a game that makes me feel powerful. It's just a game that makes me feel understood. And other people are excited about this game, other people care. Someone is listening. We're sharing this.


And now what? It is scary to be vulnerable. When you have permission to be truthful, to make things that represent yourself, you have the sudden vertigo of possibility. What will you say now that you can speak? What would you make in a world where you could make honest things and have people care? I cried when I heard Anna Anthropy read her adaptation of Cara Ellison's personal, raw poem; I cried because Anna was so full of emotion, and the room rose to its feet for her. I had never heard Anna's voice at that volume before.

Prior to her reading I had sat beside her outside and found myself talking to her about my secret social anxiety, my overwhelm. I am afraid to engage in interactions that I don't know how to control. I noticed my hands making tiny movements over my legs. I had never noticed that behavior in myself before. I interviewed another game-maker I admire for the truthfulness of her work, and as she spoke to me I noticed her hands making the same kind of movements across the surface in front of her. I used to be an actress, but my body is learning to do things I haven't rehearsed. I am a little scared and mostly relieved, and so I've been crying some.


I always lose my voice every GDC; I always took it as a sign I need to talk less and listen more. That's still true, and it is my ongoing quest, but I can talk less now because I am heard more. It is okay not to control all the manifold interactions I have engaged with this week. Games are becoming a place where there is more room for expression and vulnerability and not just the fantasy of power. Games can be about people sometimes, and not just the avatars that sometimes protect us from the pain of being people.

Sometimes it is okay to feel I have no power, because I think I can be mostly safe here, eventually. I remembered that I love games. I cry because I’m happy.


Leigh Alexander is editor-at-large at Gamasutra, columnist at Edge and Vice Creator's Project, and contributes gaming and culture writing to Thought Catalog and Boing Boing, among others. Her work has appeared in Slate,NYLON, Wired and the AV Club, and she blogs intermittently at Sexy Videogameland.

Escalator images in this post are mostly from the official GDC Flickr stream. The Lego ad was photographed by game creator Richard Lemarchand during a talk by fellow game designer Robin Hunicke.


I know this feeling.

It is a good feeling.

I feel the games I value have died, though. The games that let me really be someone else. I feel like people are pushing towards a social, mobile future, towards all kinds of things I personally don't have any interest in.

I think people might be making a mistake.

There's this idea, one I find hard to explain... it's as if people assume all I, as a male, want, are power fantasies. It's absurd, reductionist, and, yeah, sexist. There's this idea that these games are being made for me. As a male, I derive very little from most of these games. What, is Uncharted or Half-Life 2 or whatever targeted at me? Doubtful.

In games where I can pick, I often take the female character, because, you see, what I want is to be someone or something else entirely.

Who I am is not my gender.

Time and time and time again, people seem to assume this is the case. As a person, I'm diminished, told that people make games for me, that I should just shut up and be happy, because so many other people aren't being represented, and that's just not true.

I enjoy Dishonored, but it's not because I play as Corvo, a white male who may or may not be Emily's father. It's because I can explore. Because that's who I am: I'm the explorer, the problem solver, the... so many other things. When I played Dishonored, I actually thought it would be a lot more fun to play as an empowered Emily, orphan of a murdered empress, most sought-after heir in the entire kingdom. Someone who grew up in a cage. To suddenly be able to explore Dunwall might have made it a more beautiful world.

So, I guess what I'm saying is that I empathize. I know what it's like not to have games made for you, because in the past five years or so, there have been a grand total of... two: Deus Ex: Human Revolution and Dishonored. The games I enjoy the most are almost exclusively older than that.

I don't suffer an overabundance of games targeted for me. I envy those who do. Right now, games are targeted at the Minecrafters, the Team Fortressers, the online players, and the mid-teen console gamers who want as cinematic experience as possible.

I can't wait to watch the market widen up and accept me, you, and everyone else.

It will be awesome.

Today, I began building a level for a game for me. Nobody else was, so I decided to do it myself. It's hard. It's fun. This should be good. It'd be cool if people stopped making games for other people and started using games as expression of themselves. That's my intent.