Figures that Boston’s other annual gaming conference would be held in a building called NERD. Last Saturday morning, 150 programmers, designers, artists, testers, academics, and students gathered at Microsoft’s New England Research and Development center overlooking the Charles River for GameLoop Boston. Now in its fourth year, this “unconference” is masterminded by developers Darius Kazemi and Scott MacMillan. Fortunately, these gents were kind enough to let us lazy writers in too.
Here’s how GameLoop works. In the morning, everyone gathers in a big room, coffee in hand, and brainstorms topics for hour-long talks. Scribes hustle to record potential session titles as attendees throw out ideas: Embracing Failure In Game Narrative, Surviving As An Indie, Pitfalls In UI Design, Working With Execs Who Don’t Get Games. This year we voted for the sessions we most wanted to attend by placing stickers on their cards; the cards with the most stars made it to the Big Board. Whoever suggested each session is then charged with leading a roundtable discussion, although volunteer moderators were on hand this year to help keep things on track. At 6:00, after the last session, everyone gathers again in the briefing room to provide feedback on what could be improved for next year. Then we all go get beer.
Cambridge-based Goodjers Rob Zacny and J.P. Grant were on hand for GameLoop 2011. Here they share their conference takeaways on project management, mental health, and sex—with or without druids.
JPG: So, another GameLoop down. What’d you think of this year’s event?
RWZ: As always, an interesting and unconventional experience. I think the unconference format allows for a level of frankness that you just don’t find other places, except perhaps personal blogs. For better and worse, but mostly better, participants are free to speak their minds at GameLoop in a way that more structured events might not encourage.
Perhaps it’s because there is no explicit agenda or point to GameLoop. It’s not like a professional conference, which is all about networking and knowledge-sharing. While there is an awful lot of talent and expertise at GameLoop, it’s really too small and too diverse to let people cloister with like-minded colleagues. In a group of less than 200 people, you have indies, students, writers, managers, designers, artists... it forces people to talk across gaps in outlook that are all too easy to forget about when you are caught up in the workaday business of video games.
But just like last year, I also wonder if that’s entirely a good thing. A mixed group like GameLoop brings together also seems to encourage more general, basic-level discussions than an industry veteran might enjoy, and I always pick up on a little frustration on the part of some participants. Did you detect any of that?
JPG: Maybe a bit, but much less than last year. Folks seemed better prepared to give their talks this year, and the topics that made it to the Big Board were less vague. I thought there was a good mix of hardcore technical topics and broader themes. Engineers could geek out debating Unity vs. UDK, indie studio managers could trade war stories, and artists could compare notes on meeting demo deadlines. But those of us not making games for a living could still find plenty to enjoy and contribute to.
I did notice that a few bigger themes emerged from the sessions that made it onto the Big Board. Free-to-play monetization, HR (hiring, managing talent, building communication), and mobile game development jumped out to me. Anything stand out to you?
RWZ: My day was fairly eclectic. I guess if I had to pick a theme, it would be "Unsolvable Problems." I went to talks on “Embracing Failure in Narrative,” mental health issues in the industry, and Danielle Riendeau’s talk on games for change that “don’t suck as games.” In each of them, there was a strain of pessimism about removing the obstacles to progress in each of these areas.
What talks did you end up attending? Did you encounter more optimism than I did?
JPG: I managed to hit sessions on project management, games for social change, game design ethics in the freemium model, and a few others. Generally, attendees were really good about keeping the conversation productive and relevant, even without moderator help. For example, the project management session, led by our mutual pal Courtney Stanton, could’ve turned sour quickly—the actual title was “How to F*** Up Your Project”—but I was impressed with how deftly Courtney and the participants used their horror stories to tease out practical strategies for efficient project management.
My favorite moment in that talk was when one developer shared the “pig and chicken” metaphor. A pig and a chicken decide to open up a Bacon & Eggs restaurant. “I’m committed to this,” the pig says to the chicken, “but you’re just involved.” The challenge for a lot of developers, especially indies who have gone all-in on their projects, is to convert stakeholders from chickens into pigs, to foster genuine investment in the effort, and to navigate all the responsibility that entails. It’s a massive challenge that often requires a lot of “managing up,” balancing optimism with planning for worst-case scenarios, and being able to learn from failure.
No wonder one of the sessions that made it into the schedule was on mental health. I had to duck out of that one early, but you stayed. What were your takeaways?
RWZ: It really underscored why quality-of-life issues are so important in the games industry. For a lot of the people who work in games, they can have a profound impact on their well-being.
A common thread was that people dealing with issues like anxiety, depression, and bipolar disorder don’t have just one thing that works for them. They need to adjust their activities to suit their current mental state, and they need to watch for signs of trouble. Most workplaces aren’t that flexible, especially for lower-level employees. Even if they are, it requires a lot of trust in the workplace. People worry about not being seen to work as hard as everyone else, about being written-off as a non-contributor, if they start taking personal time or keeping their own hours.
It’s frustrating how self-reinforcing a lot of these problems are. Partly because there is a stigma attached to these issues, and partly because a lot of people who work in games are just shy to begin with, it’s hard to address mental health openly. Darius Kazemi was trying to figure out what he should be looking for, and how, as a manager, he can make sure employees use the mental health resources available to them. But concern can look like prying.
This is all symptomatic of a broader failure to understand and address mental health issues, but these issues might loom larger in games. For one thing, games attract the creative and the passionate, and those traits often occur along with a predisposition to mental health problems. For another, this is an industry that often abuses its human capital, and takes advantage of that earnest passion to push people beyond healthy limits. When you have so many people, especially so many young people, learning how to live with mental health issues while working in an industry like that, the stakes are very high.
I wonder if that’s why so many of the games that emerge from outside the mainstream deal tangentially with guilt and anxiety. Certainly your session on uncomfortable games was like “show and tell” for your nightmares.
JPG: Yeah, the first uncomfortable thing was realizing, “Oh crap! I’ve got to give a talk!” But I was thrilled with how well the session turned out.
My original idea when I proposed the session in the morning was a little nebulous. It came out of the way I’ve changed my playing habits over the past year or so: I’ve found myself seeking out more games that unsettle me in some way, that take me out of my comfort zone, whether through mechanics, aesthetics, or real-world connections. I’ve written at (copious) length about how Deadly Premonition played that role for me, and how I’ve grown to prize those occasions when a game knocks me a little off balance. I was curious to see whether others valued those moments in the same way.
We started by going around the room briefly describing gaming moments that made us uncomfortable, for whatever reason. While each person talked, I tried to distill their experience into a word or phrase describing what was unsettling (pic of the whiteboard here). You kicked us off with a terrific example, the tension of running out of air above ground in Metro 2033—feeling helpless as your gas mask cracked and your filters ran out. People’s suggestions ran the gamut from encountering decomposing, mutilated bodies in-game to real-world guilt over griefing someone in an MMO. This activity took a while since the room was full, but we had a lot of laughs sharing experiences. The moment I knew I was onto something? When one attendee brought up having to role-play a sexual encounter in D&D—awkward enough on its own, but even more so because she had to seduce a druid. Apparently that’s not fun.
It was fascinating to see how many of these moments were in-game versus in person, particularly in multiplayer games. From there we were able to further distill themes we saw across our experiences: loss of control, paranoia, surreality, body horror, relationships with others (in-game or IRL). I wish we’d had more time to address the final idea: How have these moments changed the way you play, or the types of games you select?
Still, it was awesome to have such an eclectic mix of people in the room, all fired up to share their ideas. And that’s kinda what GameLoop is about, don’t you think?
RWZ: Definitely. It’s also great to have something like GameLoop to break down those boundaries and get us talking across disciplines. It’s easy to get caught up talking to the same group of people all the time, based on occupations or interests. GameLoop always reminds me of the broader context, and all the different ways we relate to games.