A Beginner’s GDC Experience

Jack Ford
Jack Ford
Mar 23, 2017 · 6 min read

A few weeks ago, I was invited to attend a games writing workshop in San Francisco by the creative department at Telltale Games, just a few blocks from the Moscone Center and this year’s Game Developers Conference. It was a week of firsts for me — first trip across the country by myself, first GDC, first time my writing was recognized by creative professionals as having worth. But the most revelatory thing about this trip was the surreal feeling that came with seeing adults talk about game development in a professional setting. The night I arrived in San Francisco, after checking into my hotel and changing out of my sweaty travel clothes, I decided to walk to the convention center and get a feel for the area. Within five minutes of going outside, I overheard a conversation between a few young developers about how they should spend their evening. This was about an hour after the Game Developers Choice Awards, so many GDC attendees were at various after parties in the area, put on for badge holders and invitees. One of them said they’d “feel weird” going to the Unity party, because he uses Unreal Engine.

It was a weird moment for me. Not only was this a conversation that would likely make no sense to the average bystander — that I understood — but it brought a conversation I had only ever seen on the internet into the real world. And that became a recurring theme of my time at GDC: game development is real, and it’s so much bigger than me. Obvious? Sure. But knowledge takes on new meaning when it physically surrounds you.

The next day was the Telltale workshop. While there I met people from across the country and even overseas — northern and southern California, Seattle, New Orleans, Florida, New York City, the United Kingdom. They came from all walks of life, some of them students, others industry veterans, and several people who worked entirely outside any sort of creative field. People of all ages and genders. And all of them had a passion for writing and games.

Then we come to the people actually hosting the workshop, and they were just as diverse. Writers, designers, programmers, and executives all had the same creative spark. I had my work critiqued by someone who had worked on the original Fallout. I spoke with a woman who used to work as a producer on Disney animated TV shows. There were people who had worked for Telltale for over a decade, people who had worked there for less than a year, and one person who had been there only a few days. And everyone was kind, excited, and intelligent.

Suffice it to say, this was an amazing group of people, and I’m so honored I got to spend the day working with them. I learned a lot about writing for games and got to see so many different, equally valid approaches to the same challenge. What struck me most though was, again, the surreality of being transported to this place where video games and creativity became a common language, and where making games and telling stories with them wasn't some distant, rarely-understood fever dream but a largely unremarkable reality. I felt so happy to be among those people but still scared, because this was all new to me and every time someone referenced a game I hadn't played or a show I hadn't seen, or mentioned an incredible career accomplishment the way I talk about getting a B on a test, I felt the water rise a little further above my head. I know this is mostly my anxiety getting the better of me, but it’s hard not to feel overwhelmed in an extraordinary situation like this. There were moments when it felt like none of this could be real, followed by moments where I’m so glad it was, followed by feeling like I wasn't accomplished enough or deserving to be there, and so on.

All of this is to say that this trip felt like a defining moment for me. Not in that I think writing video games is definitely my calling or anything, but in that I’ve “taken my first step into a larger world.” That what I used to look up to, I am now looking forward to.

The next day was Friday, the last day of GDC 2017, and my one day on the show floor. After buying my student pass that morning, the first thing I did was attend a panel session called “Advocacy Microtalks,” which gave twenty speakers five minutes each to address a topic related to advocacy in gaming. One person talked about how to design, write, and code games in a way that makes them easier to localize; another reflected on their experience trying to help young people in juvenile detention centers by teaching them game design; and another talked about how their organization was working to make eSports more inclusive, especially for women. It was a beautiful, eye-opening panel that showed just how many people there are working to make games and game development a more inclusive, open, and healthy place.

The session ended with one last talk that again made my GDC experience feel surreal. When going to this panel, all I knew was the title and a brief description — enough to have me interested already — and I didn’t have any idea of who specifically would be speaking. I hadn’t heard of any of the first 19 speakers before. Speaker 20 was Anita Sarkeesian.

Chances are, if you’ve heard of anyone I’ll talk about in this post, it’ll be Anita Sarkeesian. A feminist critic and speaker, Sarkeesian was most well-known for her YouTube series Tropes vs. Women in Gaming, and the vitriolic response to it from a highly vocal minority of the gaming community. Since then, Sarkeesian has been featured in The New York Times and The Guardian, as well as been interviewed for The Colbert Report and Nightline, never backing down on her beliefs — she continually advocates for better representation of women and minorities in video games, despite receiving thousands of rape and death threats. In a way, she has become the poster child for a subcultural movement in the gaming community, with female journalists, developers, personalities, critics, and average gamers alike all speaking out against the treatment of women by the #GamerGate-ers who regularly attack and threaten them. There are dozens of better, much more well-researched summaries of this story elsewhere, so I’ll leave it at that. For now, though, understand that Anita Sarkeesian is one of the most important figures in gaming and online culture in the past decade.

Knowing all this, it was pretty incredible seeing Sarkeesian speak in person. Her presentation was expectedly great, having the confident demeanor of someone who’s done this kind of thing many times before, and knows what she’s talking about. It’s inspiring to see someone so passionate about improving the world, and so unflappable in her dedication to the cause. Sarkeesian’s talk was a pleasant surprise to end an amazing panel, and marked the moment when I realized — this is “the room where it happens.” I had made it to the big leagues, even if only in a small way. The University of Texas motto is “what starts here changes the world,” and it dawned on me that this is one of the places where the world-changing gets done.

The rest of my trip was a blur of gigantic industry booths, awesome indie games, friendly people, and great conversations. I met and bonded with another college student/aspiring game dev, and we played a crazy survival horror co-op game at the Alt.Ctrl.GDC area (my favorite part of the GDC floor). I talked excitedly with a Swiss game developer about his original fantasy universe for at least a half hour before trying his awesome VR game out. I played a game at the Indie Megabooth while sitting next to the guy who made it. I got verbally guilt-tripped by an impatient quiz AI.

All in all, it was an incredible trip. I may not have been at the conference for long, but it was long enough for me to learn a lot about both the industry and myself. I saw so many beautiful things. I played weird games with strangers and felt instantly comfortable. I got to talk to passionate, creative people about the works of art they poured their souls into. By the end of it all I was physically and mentally exhausted, and while game development seemed bigger and more imposing than before, it also felt more exciting and welcoming. And that’s really all I could have hoped for.

Jack Ford

Written by

Jack Ford

Writer // game designer // UT Austin '18 film school grad // can almost adequately explain the plot of Kingdom Hearts jackmakesgames.com

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