Sore Thumbs


The developers of the hit game Block Party.

During this year’s “1 Reason to Be” panel at GDC, Colleen Macklin showed the audience some footage that she had been covertly collecting during the first few days of the conference. Her video showed GDC attendees riding the escalator in the Moscone Center, moving through the hallway, walking the show floor.

“You’ll start to notice a….pattern,” Colleen intoned as the video started looping.

And indeed there was a pattern: dudes. GDC was an ocean of dudes. Escalators of dudes, hallways of dudes, dudes, dudes, everywhere.

It wasn’t a surprise. I’ve been to plenty of gaming conferences and conventions; I know what to expect by now. But after the first few days at the conference, it was strangely relieving—like unbuttoning your jeans after a heavy meal—to be able to laugh at the disproportionate number of men in attendance. We were all relieved, I think, to finally hear someone loudly acknowledge a fact that had been silently discomfiting us for days.

We acknowledged the sea of dudes amongst ourselves, of course, in notes, whispers, text messages, and bathroom conversations. We certainly couldn’t ignore it! We were trying to breathe in an atmosphere that wasn’t ours. We had to keep our space suits on or suffer the consequences.

When my roommate Maddy Myers (assistant editor of Paste Games and developer of the hit game Block Party) and I woke up each morning, we would eat our scones and recount the previous night’s stress dreams. But soon enough, we could feel the dude sea starting to close in on us from the outside. We knew we had to leave the hotel eventually. We knew what was coming. And so each morning we braced ourselves, body and spirit, to step into that sea.

The most frequent question posed during those innocent morning moments: “Should I wear a dress?” This wasn’t a simple question of style. A dress at GDC is a chain reaction of conspicuousness; a dress sends an unmistakable signal of femininity through an ocean of straight dudes, triggering all of the icky consequences that accompany that heightened degree of visibility.

But this year, we were going to stay true to ourselves. Maddy had written a tremendous article over on Paste called “How to Be Visibly Femme in the Games Industry” in which she issued this challenge to herself:

So, I’ve decided that at GDC, I’m going to wear clothes that actually make me feel comfortable. I don’t mind jeans and t-shirts…but the thought of wearing them for a week straight makes me feel bored and depressed. I’d much rather wear clothes that make me feel like myself.

As a fellow femme, I had decided to join Maddy in an effort to stay true to our shared gender expression, despite the attention that comes with the territory. We called our cause #femmeDC. And so the answer to the morning dress question was always “yes” even though we both understood each other’s reservations.

photo 5

The morning scene.

Each day of #femmeDC fell into a pattern. Before we left the hotel, Maddy and I would glam up and stow our badges in our bags. We’d walk in step to the convention center, waiting until the last minute to put our badges on. Then, a collective deep breath as we opened the door.

The rest is a blur. We could walk past the inappropriate looks but we couldn’t stop men from approaching us. Some were men we wanted to talk to. That was nice. Others were men we didn’t know. That was sometimes less nice.

[If you’re a man and you’re reading this, I want to take a brief interlude to give you some tips. When you approach a woman at a gaming conference, know that her guard is instantly up and that she’s trying to categorize you as quickly as possible: friend or foe, ally or creeper. The sooner you make your identity clear, the better everyone will feel.

And first names are not enough! I can recognize women in this industry by their faces and first names. This ease of mutual recognition is our consolation prize for staying in a field this hostile. But you, male reader, are but a molecule in an ocean of dudes! “John” isn’t going to cut it. Follow Brian Taylor’s example and say, “Hi, I’m Brian Taylor.”

One more tip: women and queer folks are not trading cards for you to collect at conferences. If all you want to do is say that you’ve met someone, at least prepare a bit of small talk for our time together. Here are a few sample questions: “What did you think of the panel we just watched?” “How is your conference going so far?” “Where did you get that eye-catching rainbow lanyard for your name tag?”]

Suffice it to say, many men at GDC did not have our comfort in mind when approaching us. You can be the most courageous, self-denying feminist ally in the neighborhood but some forms of knowledge are skin deep. Most men have not had to think about feeling conspicuous in gaming spaces and, even if they have, they’ve only thought about it in the abstract. They lack the sort of embodied knowledge that so readily facilitates women’s empathy for other women.

But even apart from our daily handful of awkward interactions, there was something demoralizing about living in male-dominated space, about receiving a daily, eight-hour long reminder—as loud as an air raid siren in your ear—that you aren’t surrounded by women because they have been actively excluded. And while that siren was sounding loud and clear, Maddy and I still felt like femme fish in a dude-water aquarium. It didn’t matter if we got approached or not. We still got the wrong kinds of looks wherever we went. We were the exceptions to a visual rule and, like Maddy said in her own recap, we stuck out like sore thumbs.

At the end of each day of GDC, we were eager to escape. We’d remove our badges as soon as we left the Moscone Center—that way we only had to deal with the stress of being women on the street without the added stress of being recognized as GDC attendees.

Kris Ligman to the rescue.

Kris Ligman to the rescue.

We didn’t do a lot of partying either. We were exhausted, if only by the emotional energy that each day required. Back in our room, we found solace in wine, ice cream, Murder, She Wrote. We only braved the outdoors to make frequent trips to Denny’s with queer games scholar (and honorary girl for the purposes of our girls’ nights out) Todd Harper. The nights were a time to recover and relax just in time to do it all over again the next day.

When your demographic lacks the sort of critical mass required to produce a built-in sense of community, you have to build your own miniature worlds. Men (especially white men) at GDC are always among their own wherever they go. No one else gets to feel that way. We have to find alternative sources of support and friendship.

Queer theorists Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner observe that queer people almost implicitly know how to build temporary, foundationless worlds: “mobile sites” that are  fulfilling but also“fragile and ephemeral.” Queer people know how to be fugitives, they say, finding temporary homes in a bar or a dance or a parade. The tragic beauty of queer worldmaking is that these worlds disassemble as quickly as they are built: the bar closes, the dance ends, the parade disperses. But queer people keep building them over and over again because they need a place to call their own. It might seem Sisyphean but it’s necessary for survival.

Women in games have also learned how to build temporary worlds to survive conferences like GDC. We know how to stick together and how to slip away. We know how to make the Hotel Metropolis into a home away from home and we know how to hug each other so tight that we can feel love and recognition in the middle of a scary day. We know the secret call to summon the dashing Kris Ligman to our rescue and we know how to dance to Nicki Manaj. The moments when several of of us can congregate are so rare and too fleeting. But we cherish them while they last.

My #femmeDC was about worldmaking in male-dominated space. It was about carving out moments and glances in which we could feel acknowledged, understood, and loved. It was about having a hand to hold and a shoulder to hide on. Most importantly, #femmeDC was about temporarily forgetting where we were and feeling safe enough to laugh and cry and sing and be ourselves.

On the second to last day of GDC, Maddy and I stopped by the Lost Levels “unconference.” While Lost Levels did seem to attract most of the women and queers in attendance at GDC, the park was still predominantly a sea of dudes. Unbeknownst to ourselves, Maddy and I had been scheduled to give a talk, a postmortem of our game Block Party. Block Party is a game that Maddy and I made for just ourselves; it is, as she describes it, an “opaque, stat-heavy Twine game” that no one else understands. And like our friendship, Block Party is silly, exuberant, and feminine.

To give our talk, we had to stand on a tarp in the middle of a circle of mostly men—friendlier men than the Moscone Center crowd, to be sure, but still men who had important things to say about serious games. At first, I had reservations about our Block Party postmortem but as Maddy boasted about our silly game and about the joys of making things for yourself and your friends, I could feel the world around us pull away and spin around—like the climactic shot of a romantic comedy— as we formed our own beautiful, unabashedly femme world of friendship in the center of that circle.

Gaming conferences are a place where men get to be boys. Their eyes light up at the tech on the show floor. They geek out in that particularly boyish way when they meet the creators of their favorite games. As a woman, however, I’ve always felt like I’ve had to keep my poker face on at conferences in order to be taken seriously.

But as I stood in that circle with Maddy, pretending that Block Party was the most important game ever made, I finally felt like I could be not a woman in games, but a girl. I could be an irreverent girl who thinks the boys sometimes take themselves too seriously, a young girl who hasn’t yet realized that the world isn’t going to be kind to her, and a shy girl who believes more than anything in the strength, beauty, and courage of her friend.

That talk was our temporary world. We built it just in time to take it back down, to drag our feet back into the Moscone Center. But while it lasted, that talk was the spirit of #femmeDC wrapped up in a moment: proud, feminine, and perfect.




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