GDC 2018: How the "Advocacy Track" Fails Devs

This is part one of a series articulating criticism of GDC, in the week leading up to it. I know several people who attend GDC, and I don’t begrudge anyone for attending, speaking, or otherwise working with GDC; you do what you have to do, and make the value evaluations that you need to. But since I’m not attending this year, I thought I’d take the opportunity to speak frankly about the harmful practices UBM promotes and their negative impact on the industry.

The advocacy track” is bullshit.

Two true things: Every system of categories is an exercise of power, and every system of categories eventually grows miscellany” out the side of it. GDC’s advocacy talks combine the worst features of both of those phenomena.

Advocacy, as a category, implies a separateness of diversity” and representation” issues from the actual business of making video games. As though not defaulting to female characters clad in boob armor isn’t a character design issue. As though representation isn’t a narrative and writing issue. As though crunch and overwork aren’t management issues, production issues. As though inclusivity and accessibility aren’t design issues. As though the presence of developers from emergent [ie, colonized] territories” in the industry isn’t a business issue, a design issue, an industry-wide issue. As though, God help us all, ethical monetization design isn’t a design issue.

Advocacy” functions to signal that the talks contained within are not important, that they are not practical, that they are not about the art and business of making video games but about something other; about vaguely-defined social responsibilities or about inclusion as a back-of-the-box feature. Advocacy” functions to signal to people with decision-making power that they don’t need to bother to show up because those are not the talks with bottom-line-impacting takeaways.

Advocacy” tries to pursue the cultural cachet of seeming like a progressive industry without actually integrating progressive thinking into the practices of the industry; it’s meant to ensure that if you follow your assigned conference track, you don’t encounter social critique of the work you’re doing. UBM might claim that advocacy” gives access to these talks to people who wouldn’t otherwise have it, because those talks are not gated behind conference passes like talks in other tracks; to which I’ll respond by saying that the system of siloed passes is an exploitative monstrosity in the first place. You don’t get to use the fake scarcity that you created as a token to trade away for goodwill; and of course, this open access” policy, under said tiered system, also serves to signify that advocacy” sessions are less valuable.

Advocacy” also works as a place to whitewash the interests of industry corporations into grassroots movements, or to equivocate issues. This year, the din about unionization has gotten to the point that the IGDA deigned to a roundtable being led by Jen MacLean, the executive director. This is an organization that quietly dropped questions about unionization from its survey as soon as it became clear a majority of devs supported it. The talk purports to discuss what unionization could mean for game developers-including outcomes both good and bad-and intended and unintended consequences of a push towards unionization”. I’m sure this won’t be a shameful display of bad faith arguments and both-sidesism. I’m sure this isn’t taking advantage of a public forum where working devs might be intimidated from taking openly pro-union stances. (Incidentally, if you are attending this session and would be willing to let me know what went down, I’d appreciate it; DM me).

Meanwhile, the IGDA is also promoting a real money gaming” talk which as far as I can tell is literally just instruction on how to implement gambling online games without running afoul of gambling laws. And a censorship” roundtable that explicitly puts the idea of loot box regulation under the heading of censorship”. IGDA is putting out a talk that pooh-poohs the idea of gaming addiction” two hours after an euphemistically-phrased talk about implementing gambling mechanics in games. Yeah, I feel very represented by this organization that supposedly works for my benefit.

UBM and GDC’s management view advocacy” like any corporation views social movements: As another market segment to exploit. It attracts a class of attendee and speaker that might otherwise skip GDC entirely, without scaring off the large crowds of indifferent white men who make up a huge chunk of the audience GDC is targeting. It adds value to those lower-tier passes they want to sell without threatening to crowd the important” sessions reserved for summit and conference pass holders.

There is no way to make social progress without having difficult conversations, without challenging people’s assumptions, without changing the way things are done. By separating advocacy” out into a sort of holding pen, GDC attempts to prevent any of that from taking place. Some people have been able to wedge legitimately useful critiques into this mold, or into GDC talks elsewhere, but their speech has to live side by side with (and be equated to) a lot of chaff. Even the word itself, advocacy, has a connotation meant to dissipate the authority of anyone speaking under that rubric.

Tomorrow: Why the system of tiered passes sucks.