GameLoop 2010: Boston-based developers discuss their craft

"Large." "Medium." "Medium." "Large." "Extra Large." "Women’s Extra Small." "..."

The first interaction I had at GameLoop 2010 – the all-male check-in desk shouting out attendee’s requested shirt sizes – was a reminder that I am an exception. Every shirt was just a size, except for the handful of women's shirts. When will the omnipresent "Women in Games" panel become obsolete? Probably the same year that the T-shirt table needs to say either "men's" or "women's" every time, because "woman" is no longer the weird exception to the rule.

At PAX East, I saw the diversity of gamers in action. Sure, there were plenty of white males between the ages of 15 and 25 at PAX, but there were also a lot of women, people of color, and people of all ages. After all, 40% of gamers are female, and looking around PAX will prove that stat to you … but PAX is a con for gamers. GameLoop is for the developers. And if GameLoop 2010 is any indication, the diversity of development teams has a little bit further to go.
GameLoop had about 200 attendees, about 30 of which were women (see: their attendance record at I'm not sure of the racial stats; it wasn't a total whitewash, but it came close. Have the game industry's demographics become more diverse in the past decade? Sure, but the minorities in the community still believe more can be done. Concern about the lack of diversity in the games industry manifested itself in the conference's panels.

GameLoop is an unConference, which means that nothing is prepared in advance, other than the basic premise (in this case, video games). After we got our T-shirts and name tags, we ate the provided breakfast and gathered into the Microsoft NERD Center's biggest room. Darius Kazemi and Scott Macmillan, GameLoop's organizational duo, briefed us on how an unConference works. First, everyone in the audience took turns suggesting potential titles and concepts for panels. Scott threw all of these ideas up onto a white board, and once that was finished, each attendee took turns putting a tick mark next to the panels he or she wished to attend. Once a panel got "enough" tick marks (over ten or so), the person who had pitched the panel could transfer the event onto the official schedule white board. There were six time slots and seven rooms of varying size to choose from. Plus, there was a blocked-off hour for a catered lunch.

I had expected that most of GameLoop’s panels would focus on programming and design – after all, the con’s name is a joke about video game programming – but several panels discussed narrative as well, not to mention the demographics questions that I mentioned above. Two panels tackled diversity in both game characters and on the development team. One panel discussed catering to disabled gamers. There were also several abstract, thoughtful panels about narrative techniques, the effect of player agency, and interactive metaphor. These panels, all of which were voted for by the developers present, indicate how much careful thought goes into making a game ... contrary to what those "it's just a game, you're taking it too seriously" commenters on the internet would have you believe.
The Women in Games panel, moderated by Julia Smith and Maura Wright of Lantana Games, gave me my first taste of unConference madness.  There were about 30 people there (mostly men, actually). There was no organized line for Q&A, no table of panelists, no real "experts" – in short, nothing at all like the Girls & Games panel at PAX East. The two moderators had their hands full trying to grapple with a room full of people wanting to discuss a huge range of topics.

The panel's original intent was to discuss female characters in games, but some of the women wanted to discuss their negative experiences in the workplace instead. Some people wanted to talk about how they didn't think gender should matter as much as it does. Some wanted to talk about how gender mattered immensely and should be taken into account in both the workplace and in games. Some wanted to talk about first person vs. third person experiences in games, and whether either of these "objectifies" women, or men for that matter. Some advocated gender neutral games like Mass Effect and Fallout 3, and others preferred games like Persona 3, which offers a different experience based on the gender you choose.

Almost no questions were answered or even discussed for longer than a minute at a time, resulting in a hodgepodge of talking that was both enlightening and incredibly disorganized. Unfortunately, this epitomized a typical panel at GameLoop. Panels with fewer attendees did better, because the discussion didn’t get too out of control, giving the moderator(s) an easier time organizing the topics at hand. The Discrimination in Games panel fared better than the Women in Games one, partly because fewer people came to it. Larger panels, like the one about Player Agency, devolved into fannish discussions of games that are just plain awesome. The Journalism panel was so unspecific as to be almost laughable (although at least I got a copy of the amazing Kill Screen magazine from Chris Dahlen afterward). Moderators seemed unwilling to browbeat attendees into staying on topic, especially when the proposed topic was too vague to pin down in the first place.

The real reason to go to GameLoop isn’t the panels; it’s the networking. The panels served as jumping-off points for later conversations, and one-on-one talks in the hallways proved more interesting and productive than the bigger discussions. I met a lot of folks I'd never have met otherwise just wandering around during lunch and during the panel slot that I skipped out on. If I actually wanted to work in game development, I probably would've ditched even more panels and hung around in the halls, shooting the shit with execs and putting faces to names. Whether you're aspiring or hiring, GameLoop is a good place to meet open-minded people who care deeply about their art and who believe that games can and will get better and better.

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