An Amateur's Guide to Crashing GDC: Part 3

Part 1 | Part 2

San Francisco is an anomalous place. It feels dense in a way larger cities don't; it's expensive in a way larger cities wish they could be; it's idealistic in an unmistakably jaded way.

Six months ago I came within moments of making the commitment to moving my life out to San Francisco. On paper, everything looked to be in order: I'd exhausted my career options at my job in Austin and the only way up, seemingly, was out west. So I charted my course to the land of venture capital and countless photo-filtering startups, each imbued with the conviction that somehow, in some intangible way, they were going to save the world.

But something didn't feel right at the time. I agonized for days while I struggled to figure out what wasn't sitting well within me. In the end, I somewhat uncharacteristically decided to go with my gut: I didn't move to San Francisco. Instead, I left Facebook. My girlfriend and I piled all our things into a storage cube and drove right past the bay up to Seattle.

In the intervening months I've been learning a lot about where to focus my energy and trying to build a cohesive narrative around my move from Austin to the Northwest. Most of the pieces fit automatically: I felt like I was ready to take on the challenge of jumping into something new and teaching myself the skills necessary to do a kind of work I believe is truly important, and everything else follows from there. But there's one essential question that remains unanswered: Should I spend my life making games?

So that's why I'm giving this whole game-development thing an honest try right now. And that's why I needed to get out to GDC: to play primatologist to game developers in their native habitat.

Coffeemaking that borders on fetishistic at Blue Bottle Coffee

Coffeemaking that borders on fetishistic at Blue Bottle Coffee

I mentioned previously that I decided not to pay for the exorbitant full-conference passes to GDC this year. I wasn't sure if it was worth taking the trip out at that point, even with cheap flights and lodging, but I decided it'd be valuable just to go to the social events surrounding the conference itself — to see what it's like to talk shop with people who've committed to making game development a significant part of their lives.

GDC is night-and-day from PAX, at least in terms of the extracurricular side of things. There are far fewer gaming enthusiasts hanging around, and instead you're surrounded by people who are focused on making games. And at events like Lost Levels, these weren't 9-to-5, fair-weather game developers who sought to defend the status quo, either. These are idealistic, thoughtful people who care deeply about making the gaming world — its community, content and development aspects — more inclusive and meaningful for everyone, and quickly. It's a mission I identified with at once.

It would've been the perfect trip, I thought, if I had something to prove myself with. Some game with my name on it, audacious if imperfect, that proves I care about pushing the boundaries of gaming and making a unique statement with force and poise.

Of course, that game doesn't exist. I only just began learning how to work with Unity a little over a month ago, and while I've pushed out a few completed games in that time, they're nothing to be proud of. One's a clone of an incredibly simplistic one-button game, and the other's a broken and frustrating take on a genre with decades of history behind it. I've got plans for several games I'd love to develop, games that I feel better represent what I'm trying to do, but they're all going to take weeks (if not months) to do properly. I had lots of great conversations with awesome, thoughtful people, but I couldn't shake the suspicion that I didn't belong there. Not yet. Not until I could do what they'd done.

From the Clarion Alley Mural Project in The Mission

From the Clarion Alley Mural Project in The Mission

The mainline games industry as we know it is strong in the Bay Area. Like many other tech companies that have taken root in the south bay and the city itself, they move fast and accrue (and spend) massive amounts of money. It's not hard to see why this culture has drawn so many supporters and so many detractors.

I've ridden the infamous corporate shuttles that populate the streets of San Francisco, but this was my first visit where I wasn't hopping onto a luxury Facebook bus first thing in the morning. Instead, I saw them pass me by as a curiosity — towering, sleek vehicles that seem starkly out of place in a city so steeped in its history of distinctive architecture and rickety old trolley cars.

I'm not smart enough to know whether there's a tech bubble coming or if we should all be panicking about the business models of emerging tech that many other communities are adopting from San Francisco. But I do know San Francisco is a divided city. And when I think about what I want to do with my life, I can't do it in a way where I exercise my privilege at the expense of others. I can't spend my time reinforcing that divide.

That's why the independent developers give me so much hope. They're not in it to get rich — and realistically, very few of them ever will. They're doing it because they believe in the importance of games that represent more diverse voices. They believe in the importance of spreading literacy of games and how they're made. They believe in fostering a culture that promotes inclusion and understanding above profiteering and vague notions of heroism. It's the sort of culture I can believe in, too.

So if there's one lesson I took with me from GDC, it's this: It's time for me to start doing my part.