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An Upstart Unconference Is Changing the Way We Talk About Video Games

Inside Lost Levels, the "salon de refuse" curation of uncured speeches.
Attendeees watch on as Liz Ryerson gives her talk "FUCK MARIO." Image: Colin Snyder

Most of the talks last about five minutes. The mini speeches are all submitted via a Google forum, and then transformed into sticky notes. Attendees can write their own topics on stickies, as well, if they’d also like to speak. They're arranged, color coded, by the amount of time each takes.

Welcome to Lost Levels, a yearly gathering of game dev folks of all stripes in the public park adjacent to the Moscone Center in Yerba Buena Gardens, site of the recent Game Developer's Conference. Think of it as a multi-day foil to the more lucrative interests that have come to be associated with GDC proper: Without microphones or podiums, projectors, programs, or schedules, Lost Levels gathers the world’s leading minds in games to speak about whatever they like. But it's not just GDC. As I realized this year, romping though Lost Levels, the spirit of this sort of uncoference stands to radically realign the existing paradigm for today's top-tier gaming conferences.

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After last year’s debut, Lost Levels returned for GDC 2014, this time armed with a permit and three separate tracks. “GDC is, perhaps understandably, on the more business-focused and expensive side of things” Lost Levels organizer Robert Yang told me. “But that's just one vision of what games are. We like the idea of articulating different, diverse ideas of what games can be, and sharing those ideas.”

Some context: Every year, thousands of game designers make pilgrimage to the Bay Area for GDC. Not just designers, but writers, students, production outfits, suits, the whole lot. From humble beginnings, the conference has grown to gargantuan size; it holds place among other gaming conferences as a time to meet and discuss our trade, and yet it differs from something like E3, which is about marketing, and PAX, which is about fan service. Overlaps exist, of course. But GDC seems to be most favored by developers and game creators, with some stiff competition coming by way of IndieCade.

Along the way, concessions have been made in order to sustain the conference. It needs sponsors, an expo floor, an award show, and very, very expensive passes. It’s a small price to pay for many in attendance, when studios have significant buying power, or for those where back room deals make careers happen. This, of course, is hard to swallow for the independent creators in the ranks, and so a counterculture has emerged: creators who flock to San Francisco for GDC without attending the conference at all.

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It's a “salon de refuse” curation of uncured speeches. The discussions and talks range from the serious to the absurd, all of which have found a better home at Lost Levels than on the various conference tracks indoors, just yards away. 

A small band of academics and organizers have created an “unconference”, a free, “radically-casual” stake in the ground for those who cannot afford the conference, don’t want to attend, have not been chosen to speak at the conference, or who chose not to. A “salon de refuse” curation of uncured speeches. The discussions and talks at Lost Levels range from serious dips into the state of the industry, to the absurd, all of which have found a better home at Lost Levels than on the various conference tracks indoors, just yards away. This year’s conference was facilitated by San Franciscoan critic and developer Mattie Brice, Melbourne’s indie dev & Free Play festival director Harry Lee, NYU GameCenter MFA candidate and Different Games organizer Toni Pizza, Seattle indie dev Ian Snyder, and New York-based indie dev and teacher Robert Yang.

There aren't too many rules.

Some people rely more on traditional methods of speaking: Carnegie Mellon professor and Molle Industria designer Paolo Pedercini read aloud an essay of his called “Invisible Walls, Puffy Clouds, and the Unheavenly World Behind Them,” about the limitations of space in game worlds. Andi McClure gave a quick lecture on M-theory.

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Others focus on playful performance: NYU GameCenter MFA candidate Ilya Zarembsky shaved his three-year-old beard and collected locks from the crowd into a giant hairball, a performance he plans to continue at next year’s Lost Levels. Polish developer Sos Sosowski, creator of McPixel, performed and conducted a short dance to the tune of Pokémon’s “Professor Oak Theme.”

Irreverent attendees made several criticisms of the big boys next door. One attendee had fake conference badges designed, printed, and distributed featuring the name of King.com CEO Riccardo Zacconi, a way of taking the man’s name who famously tried to copyright the words “Saga” and “Candy” for his Candy Crush Saga empire. In fact lots of attendees refused to use the lanyards distributed with their actual GDC passes, not wanting to be emblazoned with King.com advertisements.

“Running Lost Levels during GDC works nicely because we get such an incredible range of people attending," Toni Pizza, another organizer, told me. "We had AAA devs and indie designers from the main conference as well as folks hanging out in the park, and even other people who were in San Francisco for the general GDC festivities but not the main conference.”

A standout had to be prolific New York-based game designer Naomi Clark, who debuted “Ric Chivo” and his Ten Responsibilities of a Game Developer. Donning a magic-markered pencil beard, her adrenaline-pumped, hyper-masculine, AAAuteur and design veteran alter-ego showed indies how to step up and start making real fucking games. No doubt, all lessons Chivo has learned in his 25-year career making hit games like “Dinosuck Thundergun” and “Dinosuck Thundergun Infinite.”

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The character is an amalgamation of the “Straighter, Whiter, Duder” machismo of game devs that have been responsible for the direction console and PC games, and more importantly, the unscrupulous business practices that games have taken. Chivo poked fun at the ills of publishing environments, and the particularly loud, obnoxious voices of designers like David Jaffe, that Kixeye exec, and other headphoned tradeshow hypemen. The bit also featured voiceover artist Sarah Elmaleh as Chivo’s booth babe. The lady on her phone with a clipboard? (See above.) She's either an actress of impeccable talent, or a very confused passerby.

Which doesn't belie the fact that running an event like this can be difficult without electricity or sound equipment. Some talks were naturally hard to hear.

“That's probably one of our major weaknesses," Yang admitted. "Our lack of equipment and resources to support people. We're aware of it and hopefully we'll improve on this somehow, or negotiate a sound permit [for next year].”

But the crowd made due. There was a certain resolved charm in the way there weren't any microphones, It felt surreal to walk around the park, having three separate “stages” where people are shouting about videogames to small crowds. It felt arcadian, no pun intended, like another time.

Lost Levels organizers had to secure a permit this year in order to avoid hassles from the park officials. Even though they took these precautions, after such a large crowd amassed, the park staff started getting a little anxious. Eventually, they forced the Lost Levels speakers to relocate down the hill in a more open area of the park.

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“They said we were over-capacity by a couple hundred people according to the terms of our permit," Yang went on. "Given that they probably could've directed their security to shut us down, we chose to comply with their order. Turns out, many attendees didn't even really mind nor care about the move.”

“They said we were over-capacity by a couple hundred people according to the terms of our permit. Given that they probably could've directed their security to shut us down, we chose to comply with their order. Turns out, many attendees didn't even really mind nor care about the move.”

And they didn’t. Attendees jumped in to help move tarps and bags and belongings away from the concerning areas and the talks resumed moments after. Aside from minor scrambles to find whatever talk was interrupted, the audience was happy to continue on. “The park is okay with us being there next year, and now we have a lot more experience with working with them,” Yang said. “Who knows? Lost Levels might be something different next year.”

A four-minute long hug.

Games are going through an explosive period of reconsideration and reformatting, largely for the better by the independent community. Wild Rumpus and Lost Levels are two incredibly important parts of GDC, but they're lasting legacy will perhaps be in their active work on expanding games by bringing new ideas and new faces into the flock. Having an open platform for discussion is an incredible way to expand the community.

Some might say that social media fills that need most of the year. But the beauty of Lost Levels is a feeling. It’s not spectacular. It’s not always about ground-breaking ideas. Yet there’s this sense of warmth that comes from such engagement. We spoke to one another, supportive one anioter about what matters to the individuals of the community in a way that you can’t just scroll past, or click through. Hell, I even jumped in and gave a talk, more of a question really, about if game developers and creators should unionize. What would that look like? How would that function?

We’re there, from all over the world, many people being reunited, others meeting for the first time, but we’re all a part of this greater community. Lost Levels reminded us that we’re all human beings working towards a better future. That we can listen to each other, that we can band together to do what’s best for this medium, and that we can change it as best we can for those who will come after us.

Developers from all over the world have different business models at practice and it was really great to have a chance to speak with them about their ideas on the subject. We’re all gathered together to discuss co-ops and unions and other support networks for independent game devs and maybe even for some of our big industry brethren. It takes something like Lost Levels for these types of ideas to come together. And that's a good thing.