Students, This Isn’t Your One Shot

USC was Right to Postpone ‘Legends of the Game Industry’

On April 20th, 2016, just four hours before it was set to happen, USC postponed a panel where students could listen to ‘game industry legends’ because it was going to have all men and little minority representation, which clearly does not reflect the inclusive culture many of us in industry are fighting to have. In what probably feels like the biggest ‘No’ from an interested party (the first one always does), there are a lot of angry students. From the outside, we can tell they are frustrated. It seems like the press insists on focusing on student frustrations instead of talking about this for what this is.

This is a perfect teaching lesson for leadership played out in real time.

This is not about one opportunity to get a contact you can later show your portfolio, meet these professionals, or network. I know that is hard to understand after working so hard on awesome projects.

All male panels lacking in minority representation isn’t an issue unique to USC —many US games colleges are looking at USC right now. Each one has overloaded professors whose job it is to aid career development and provide a consistent pressure to local industry asking favors like “‘Does your executive leadership have the time to give to students portfolio reviews this year? No? Then, does anyone on your team have time to sit on a panel and let them ask you questions?” That is a huge request and despite working this into their schedule, all of these industry leaders understood why it was postponed.

Leadership means more often than not you have to make a call that isn’t dependent on the immediate ramifications but the long term social-cultural, brand, or community effects that a decision will have. It means people may be hurt no matter how many times you try to figure out a solution that makes everyone happy. It means I may get a lot of angry rebuttals to this post. It means people will overlook how many hours organizers spend e-mailing women or minority panelists last minute in panic to try to slot them before suddenly your brochure is circulated and all anyone is talking about the next week is that your organization supports ‘manels.’ When you are running your own game studios, and I have faith you will, leading your own programming team, defending your character designs to the press, or teaching your own students — you will be Tracy Fullerton, and you will absolutely hope that those around you have your back.

It’s easy to think in your portfolio or advanced game project class that this is your one shot — you gave it your all, you’re graduating, you’re panicked about getting a job, and it feels as though everything depends on the now and your ability to network. You may be suffocating in student loan debt. You probably haven’t slept while working on your incredible projects. You don’t know where you are living next month. This decision hit you personally and that completely sucks.

But missing an opportunity is going to happen to you over and over and over. Every time you will give it your all. Every time you will go back to the drawing board. You will hear ‘no’ infinitely more times than you will hear ‘yes.’ What you do with that ‘no’ immediately after says a lot about who you are. What doesn’t happen for many women and minority groups in games is having their work respected so that they are then able to become those legends you so covet or asked to speak on panels about their work. Despite how crushing that continues to be, I, along with many other women and minorities, get up every day and focus on opening three new doors for every one that closes.

In the next few years, your team will have RFP response after RFP response, grant proposal, or terms sheets rejected. You will get fired from jobs. You will lose that startup pitch competition to golf apps. You will have investors tell you games aren’t profitable but still dangle the carrot and ask you to pitch anyway. Your company will get turned down for a bank loan. You will wait years to get a line of credit for your business. You may walk into work one day and find out your department is being shut down from the press before corporate has sent the notice. You may have a colleague pass away at a game jam. You may have to fire a friend. You may have a publisher pull from a project and lose more ownership than you meant to. You may have your company downsized to a skeleton team. You may have to write a community post to one million angry players. You will be forced to do jobs you don’t want to do or don’t quite fit in your role. You may work with ‘fuck-why-isn’t-this-deprecated’ code. Of course, this includes telling comments from a former employee like ‘some hack I found on quora’ if it includes any at all. Your future games work will be so amazing your student work will disappear. But then again, your work may be so NDAed that when you put in your two weeks notice, you’re escorted out of the building and have nothing to show for your last job. Missing this one opportunity to hear people speak on a panel is not going to destroy your career — not listening to the heartbeat of the tech industry and getting stuck on ‘no’ absolutely will.

Tracy Fullerton wasn’t just doing the right thing. She was trying to show you what it means to do the right thing in the face of complete risk and adversity.

You can choose to remember this moment as the person who did nothing when the rest of the collegiate community was watching or enlightened that opportunities are rarely handed to anyone, but more importantly: Hearing ‘no’ is not the end — what you do with that ‘no’ is everything.

It sounds like another event is in the works and all I see is opportunity for USC’s students. What would it have said about USC if they had elected to still run “Legends of the Games Industry” with the panel in its former iteration once you are an alum? Ask yourself “Will I ever be one of those legends?” Instead of looking at this as ‘USC postponed a panel and removed this opportunity for its students’ I would encourage you to be looking at it this way: What can I do to help USC create a better panel that includes not just these legends, but even more legends making all kinds of games by all kinds of people? How can I help this move faster and support this leadership decision instead of making it more difficult on everyone involved? How can I thank these panelists for doing the right thing and turn that into an opportunity? How can I help my soon-to-be alma mater to create a better event, since after all, they are doing it for me?

Are you ready to be a leader? Then when one door closes, open three.

Special Thanks: Thank you Elaine Gomez for fact-checking this article and providing insight. You can find her on Twitter @sailorchzbrger