The Thing About Me & GDC
Crossing the Bay Bridge between Oakland and San Francisco I changed my Twitter name to Matt “Do the Dewhammel” in a short-lived moment of what I hoped would be killer irony to mask my earnest excitement. I quickly changed it back, then back again, then finally settled upon “Matt GDuhamelC” in the hope that would still be witty without skirting with disaster. I did all this because I wanted to seem cool on twitter. Making fun of myself to mask the fact that I felt both dumbfounded and childishly excited about what was about to happen. I do this a lot actually, try to be something on twitter. This point will be important later in this story.
GDC, or the Game Developer Conference, is the largest annual pilgrimage of white dudes in the world. An estimated 1.2 billion white men descend on Moscone Convention Center to partake of the sacred ritual that is video game conferencing. An all-access pass for the 2015 conference cost $1,995 on the website, $2,095 at the door. The cheapest pass, an Expo pass (which only allows you the privilege of having game companies attempt to sell you their wares in a very large hall of bright colors and bored booth buskers), still costs $250. This is ontop of the prices for food and lodging one needs to pay in order to merely exist in the fourth most expensive city in the United States. To attend is not only a rite of passage for new game developers or a yearly ritual for those tired veterans that remain, it is a symbol of belonging. You pay to show that you deserve to be there; you pay to be seen as much as to see.
When I chose to attend GDC this year it was after a summer of struggles. Thanks to a high-deductible insurance plan and several back-to-back panic attacks my savings was reduced to zero. I lost my job as a Q/A tester dude to said panic attacks and my wife and I were living on a combination of her $12/hr salary as a Q/A tester and the unending generosity and patience of my mother-in-law. When I purchased my train ticket I did so only because it was 50% off and even then the $120 cost reduced my bank account to nearly zero.
Why did I do all this? Because I’d been watching GDC happen every single year since I left college in 2010 and I wanted to belong for once. So this year I decided to get on a train and go. No money for food or a place to stay, much less a pass. I figured I would attend Lost Levels, visit the open corporate parties to get free food, and see if I could sleep in a quiet corner of Yerba Buena. I am not one known for making such daring decisions but I was tired of feeling left out.
What happened in the week before I crossed that bridge changed everything about my trip.
First it started with a friend suggesting I email Leaf, the creator of Itch.io, and ask to stay with him. Having never done more than favorite his tweets I did and despite that he agreed. Then another friend who was a speaker at GDC offered to give me a spare all-access pass. Finally, an unexpected tax refund filled my account enough to pay for meals.
What was going to be a harrowing and desperate week turned into nothing short of a life-altering experience. Because I had a pass I got to meet life-long heroes and talk to them in a way that humanized them in my mind; because I had money for food I was able to enjoy edifying conversations with people that will likely turn into life-long friends; because I made those friends I was given access to groups of wonderful people who were willing to listen to my ideas about games, critique my designs, and encourage me to keep making games. I was told over and over in a myriad of ways that I belonged.
But what bothers me is that I cannot be sure why. Not why I belong, no, I know that; the reason is that the games industry is a place we all belong in. What I don’t understand is why I was given the privilege of being reminded that. The fact is that I really shouldn’t have needed to have anyone tell me that because the entire structure of the industry says in bright bold balloon letters, “YOU, YOUNG WHITE HETEROSEXUAL MAN, BELONG HERE.”
While I was having one of the most affirming weeks of my life, a person I respect a great deal was having a hard time. Mattie Brice has written eloquently and honestly about her week so I don’t need to say anything except stop reading this right now, go read that post, and come back.
We good? OK.
Mattie and I met briefly at a party on the last night of GDC. It took all the energy I had to not break out into tears and thank you for her years of service. I wanted to sit her down and tell her how important her words of scathing critique had been to me, but it was a loud party in a tight kitchen and I was a random white dude and it would be totally uncool for me to violate her space like that. So I say it here, now: Mattie, I will never be as important to this industry as you are. Please never forget that.
The problem is that she isn’t the only person who had a really shitty week. From Zoe Quinn feeling unsafe at her own panel to woman designer friends being asked if they were the girlfriend of a dev GDC was a series of troubling, frustrating, and downright inexcusable moments of microaggression and disrespect for so many.
Still others, especially many non-cis, non-white, non-hetero developers couldn’t even afford to attend the conference or the many after parties that require a paid ticket at the door. I met many of these people at Lost Levels. Lost Levels is a radically-inclusive unconference where anyone can speak and attend free of charge. They were meeting in a space not far from Moscone in an attempt to provide a safe space for those people who were shut out either because they could rightly not stomach the oppressive atmosphere of the conference or they couldn’t afford to attend at all.
This was the conundrum that bothered me on the train back home: how could I know that all these awful oppressive things were occurring and still feel like my week had been positive and edifying? Why was I sitting on a cloud of enthusiasm and encouragement when so many were feeling erased? Honestly, I still do not have a clear answer, but a good shorthand is privilege.
The thing about privilege is that when you realize you have it, you immediately have the moral obligation to wrestle with it. Sometimes that means wrestling with doubt. When I was given a pass, a place to stay, and encouragement, was it because I deserved it, or was it because my skin color, gender, and sexual orientation (which have allowed me access over years and years to people and places) culminated in my receiving those generous gifts? The answer is probably both. The people who shared what they had with me were not driven by a desire to perpetuate the status quo — quite the opposite — but the fact that we all met in the first place was the result of my privileges.
I’m privileged because I am white, and no one brings my race into the discussion of my work.
I’m privileged because I am straight, and the way I express affection doesn’t bother anyone.
I’m privileged because I am a man, and no one was surprised I had a speaker badge.
I’m privileged because I am an American, and am married to a Canadian, and we have a mother with enough wealth to support while we foolishly attempt to make video games instead of becoming a pair of tradespeople.
I’m privileged because I could walk around San Francisco on my own two feet, climb stairs, speak, and access all the facilities I needed easily.
Are these the reasons I belong? Are these part, or all, of the reason I was placed in a position to be given even more privileges?
Is that OK?
I don’t know.
Should I give up what these privileges have accrued me?
Maybe. Yes. No. Fuck I don’t know. Wait, yes I do.
A psychologist and part-time theologian I sometimes read, Richard Beck, said that “to exist is to be morally compromised.” As much as I wish it wasn’t true I’m pretty sure I agree. When I took that pass, instead of giving it to any of the countless super-fucking-important voices in games who are denied a space, I was compromising. When I used that tax refund, and my mother-in-law’s years of support, to make video games about space and essays about the police, instead of feeding the homeless or paying the bills of people in crisis, I was using my privilege selfishly.
I try to justify it. I claim that one day, when I make a hit game that brings in more than just enough, I will use that wealth to help others. I talk excitedly with friends about one day having the money (and consequently the time, because money buys time) to build an inclusive space for alternative voices in Seattle. I keep saying to myself “someday Matt, someday.” The problem is that someday may never come — and people need help right now.
There are people making that difference now. Two white dudes I have much respect for — Nathan Vella & Tim Schafer— stood up and against GamerGate and the public assault on non-white men in the games industry. Two women I admire and cannot thank enough — Leigh Alexander & Laura Hudson — are relaunching Offworld, a video game culture site, to focus on the issues of women and minority voices in gaming. These people are not waiting around for a better opportunity to make a difference. Why the hell should I be any different?
Someone once got real chuffed at themselves and said “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.” That’s a real pat-on-the-back phrase isn’t it? It fails to acknowledge that the arc is long because we are selfish things. We may try and understand, and undo, the damage our privilege causes inside oppressive systems because often it is our personal desires that win out. So we settle for slow progress, and we applaud ourselves for it.
Companies shouldn’t be patting themselves on the back for placing a token amount of money into women-in-STEM programs.
White dudes shouldn’t be pleased with themselves just because they can define phrases like intersectionalism or have cogent discussions about feminist issues.
We shouldn’t be content with the progress we’ve made.
I shouldn't feel proud just because I wrote this essay.
Instead, each morning I need to wake up and remember what my privileges have cost so many, look that oppression straight in the face, and do what I can in the moments between selfishness to try and make things better. It’s the very least I can do, as a human being.