Boston GameLoop 2012: Making your own

The Microsoft NERD Center hosted the fifth annual iteration of GameLoop, a gathering for game developers run by Darius Kazemi and Scott MacMillan, on August 18th, 2012. It's an un-conference, which means all attendees can raise their hands and pitch panel ideas at an opening meeting. Then, everyone votes for the panels they'd most like to attend. This process results in a schedule packed with tough decisions.

In contrast with other local gaming cons like PAX East and Arisia where attendees tend to play games rather than make them, GameLoop attendees work in (or hope to work in) the games industry. GL also stands apart from gaming's big industry cons like GDC and E3 due to its small size (attendance is capped at 150) and its democratic panel-pitching methods.

Courtney Stanton's "Why Video Game Conferences Suck" panel brought home many of these differences. Even relatively small conventions often feel like unpleasant slogs, with just enough bursts of brightness thrown in to make the experience seem worthwhile. If you've been to a con, you know the discomforts involved: expensive registration and hotel fees, unappetizing food options (if any at all), and a crowded and expo hall packed with sweating strangers, many of whom are as sleep-deprived, hungry, and grumpy as you are.

Paying $60 for one day of GameLoop would seem a mighty unfairness if this con suffered from the problems as other cons. But unlike the notoriously repetitive panels of PAXes and GDCs gone by, GameLoop's voting system ensures panels are fresh and relevant to the attendees at hand. GameLoop's ticket price also includes both breakfast and lunch (with vegan and vegetarian options! and coffee!), a T-shirt, and a well-publicized anti-harassment policy. You'll leave this con with a full, happy stomach that isn't churning with hatred for the games industry.

Stanton's "Why Video Game Conferences Suck" panel also reinforced the difficulty of what GameLoop has hoped to achieve by delving into the common problems that con organizers face (and, often, do not solve): how to make events and spaces accessible to those who can't afford them or can't physically access them, or those who feel unwelcome or unsafe for any number of other reasons. Stanton and the attendees at her panel proposed some solutions, including making your own con (Stanton's No Show Conference returns for a second year September 2013, and the next iteration of her monthly Women In Games Boston meet-ups happens tomorrow night).

Many other panels I attended also asked questions without easy answers. The "Women In Games" panel - which focused on women who work in the games industry rather than lady characters in games - provided a necessary platform for women to share uncomfortable and unsettling anecdotes about sexism in their workplaces, as well as a sprinkling of disconcerted rebuffing from a few men in attendance who either didn't believe these incidents could have happened or did not want to believe ("are you sure that happened only because of gender?" and so on). GameLoop provided a place where women felt safe enough to share their experiences with other industry workers, but even in this environment, many seemed to feel that their concerns weren't heard and acknowledged. The panel did end on a hopeful note when Zoe Quinn brought up her Dames Making Games initiative, which seeks to provide a support network of sorts for women who work in the industry.

The panel that I have thought back on the most since the un-con was Todd Harper's panel about making an LGBT game that didn't seem like "an after-school special." As Harper explained in his panel intro, stories about coming out of the closet are important and universal stories, but what if we made games that told about a wider diversity of stories and experiences -- be they exceptional experiences or unremarkable-but-humorous ones? In the panel, attendees discussed the nuances between different stereotypes and tropes of LGBT characters, what makes these portrayals useful or not, and whether or not such games need be "useful" towards any particular end beyond creating visibility. Needless to say, opinions varied. (We also came up with several million-dollar ideas for games like a Rock Band-meets-Dance Central show choir game and an RPG called Drag Queens in Space.)

After the panel had spiraled down a wormhole about what LGBT/QUILTBAG games should or should not represent or achieve in society, Philip Tan piped up to say, "perhaps what we need is many small games." This concept, along with Courtney Stanton's theories in her game conference panel about how folks should make their own meet-ups and cons everywhere (as Stanton has with No Show Conference and WIG Boston), as well as Zoe Quinn's discussion of her Dames Making Games initiative in the "Women In Games" panel, all seem linked together.

If you hate the game, you need not necessarily take your ball and go home. You can go out and build your own playing field, re-invent the rules, and invite new players with all manner of skills.

There are, of course, barriers to entry. Not everyone has the resources, financial or otherwise, to go out and make their own game, or even their own game conference. But events like GameLoop make that initiative feel more tangible, more achievable, and far more important. After all, we signed up for this un-con and made up the panels ourselves. Who knows what else we can do?

Even if you can't go out and make your own by yourself, you might meet someone who feels the same way you do at an event like this, someone who might help you or host you. After all, GameLoop exists. And we need more like this.

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