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Inspiration, Emulation, and Diversification at the 2016 Game Developers Conference

The annual event in San Francisco is less about the games on show, more the people who are making them.

Developer Robert Yang's GDC talk was about the games industry's attitude to sex. All photography courtesy of the author

"Something about how GDC makes you feel excited for games would be just super."

I sat in the departure lounge and stared at my phone for some time in consideration of this brief. I've been playing video games for 27 years now, and making them for about eight. In terms of knowing how the sausage gets made, I work in a butchers and spend my weekends abusing pigs at home. What, if anything, still excites me about games in the space year 2016? Amid the echo of ethereal voices ushering travelers on to parts unknown, I boarded a flight to San Francisco in search of an easily communicable answer.


The Game Developers Conference (GDC) is an annual conference for people who develop games. That much should be self-explanatory. What's often lost on people is that it's quite a dry, high-level event, organized by and for industry insiders. Free from the commercial razzmatazz of public-facing events such as Gamescom or EGX, GDC carries a sense of peaceful sincerity that makes it far less traumatizing to attend—and, worryingly, harder to relate to consumers at home, whom we train to associate "progress" with exclusive trailers, booth babes, and free T-shirts. What, by comparison, does progress look like from the inside?

Progress is Tasneem Salim's story from the #1reasontobe panel, in which she laid out some of the social barriers facing female gamers in Saudi Arabia (where men and women are often segregated, and gaming conventions were usually restricted to men only) and described how she and her friends pushed back by setting up GCON, a games convention exclusively for women. The situation in Saudi Arabia seems reminiscent of the social bias female gamers struggle against in many societies, albeit more formalized. It's inspiring to hear how Tasneem and her friends worked to effect a practical change, and the question now is what can the global community do to support them.

Progress is the work of archivists and historians like Frank Cifaldi, who delivered a strong defense of emulators (software that makes one computer function as if it were another—such as making your PC pretend to be a Dreamcast) as a means of preserving our cultural history. Emulation has long been maligned by the industry as a gateway to piracy, but with technical standards in this business shifting every five years or so, the cost of supporting old games in perpetuity is prohibitive. This point was illustrated with an eye-opening comparison of two second-string classics from 1989: DuckTales for the NES (which is currently only available—in a sense—by way of a recent HD remake, produced at great expense) and the John Candy/Macaulay Culkin vehicle Uncle Buck (a film that continues to be released on every major format, thanks to the inexpensive nature of re-encoding video).


'Spelunky' maker Derek Yu, reading from his book about said game

Progress is the expanding frontier of games criticism, offering overdue adult feedback on our work. In one memorable session on Thursday afternoon, Katherine Cross read an extract from her forthcoming book about the need for more "immoral women" in games—fleshed-out villainesses who antagonize the player for considered reasons, and not just because they were brainwashed by a magic sword or some such hand-wavy bollocks. As someone who grew up arguing that games should be given the same kind of consideration as books and films and the like, I find it a huge relief to see more people doing exactly that; this growing marketplace of opinions is what cultural relevance looks like.

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These are the highlights, but of course, the bulk of the conference is about people sharing stories about what they learned during their last project, or what they're thinking about doing next. We learned that Rez is about being a sperm, the average American player of the Monster Hunter series is almost ten years older than his or her Japanese counterpart, and that the standard gesture used to quit virtual reality games going forward may be to eat a burrito.

For my money, the most interesting game I saw during the week of GDC was probably Walden. Made by Tracy Fullerton, it's based on Walden, a book by the 19th-century transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau.

People playing the new NES game, 'Super Russian Roulette', currently on Kickstarter

The book is a collection of Thoreau's reflections on a two-year period of living in the woods near his home. The game is a slow-paced exploration affair that at first glance seems similar to Dear Esther, but in reality has more in common with survival sims like DaDayZyZyou must forage for food and fuel, maintain your clothes and shelter, and so on. But it marries this earthy, tactile need for basic survival with sudden highbrow skewers of audio log-style extracts from Thoreau's book, and some endearingly forgiving safety net features for players who can't hack forest life. If things start to get out of hand, you can slink back to the family home to pick up a homemade pie and drop off some clothes for your mom to wash and mend. It opens up the possibility of a brilliant alternative telling of Thoreau's story, where he sets off into the woods, bottles it, and starts sneaking back home each night while faking the rest of his experience.

So how does all this help answer our original question? What is it about GDC that makes me feel excited about games? It isn't the technology, or even the games. It's the people.

Be they developers, players, critics, or whoever else, more people are getting into games from every conceivable angle, and they're bringing new perspectives to the table. Competitive gaming, eSports, and spectating play in general, is becoming a major global phenomenon. Virtual reality is set to redefine what it means to be human (or might just sputter out embarrassingly, again). Whatever your interests, whatever your level of experience with games, I guarantee there's something out there you would enjoy. And if I'm somehow wrong, it's easier than you think to make a game yourself. Games culture is becoming richer and more diverse with each passing year, and nobody can stop that.

Owen Grieve is a game designer and co-founder of the mid-brow games blog Midnight Resistance. Follow him on Twitter..