GDC 2018: Hosting GDC in San Francisco Hurts Marginalized Devs

This is part three 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 engages in and their negative impact on the industry.

GDC has taken place in San Francisco continuously since 2007, and that has become more absurd year after year. There’s a lot to say about how expensive San Francisco is, particularly when it comes to accommodation, but the reality of the matter is that devs coming from other major North American cities would find it a little pricey, while devs coming from outside the US and Europe would find anywhere in North America expensive.

Would it be more sensible to host the conference outside the bay area, maybe in a mid-sized city like Seattle or Chicago? Yes, it absolutely would be. But this isn’t my major issue. My issue is with hosting GDC in the United States at all.

The United States has for a long time had one of the most hostile and dehumanizing immigration policies in the world. I want to be clear that this has not been an issue for the last two years, but for the last hundred or so. The very first immigration law in the US was an explicitly racist one (the Chinese Exclusion Act), and it gets no better from there.

For virtually anyone without an European, Canadian, or Australian passport, travelling to the US is an uncertain and humiliating ordeal. You have to apply for a visa, which generally involves going to the consulate and explaining, in English, what you plan to be doing in the US. When you disembark your plane in the US, American authorities have wide latitude to detain you, interrogate you, search your belongings (including now the digital contents of your devices), and decide at the last minute that you won’t be allowed into the country after all and instead are to be deported.

At every step in this process, you have to pay your way; there are fees for applying for a visa, airport fees, and of course plane tickets and conference passes. Planning to go to GDC as a developer from Latin America is not very far off from sitting at a roulette table and putting a couple thousand dollars on black. All the money you spend might evaporate because some CBP jackboot didn’t like the look of you; and in the current climate, it looks increasingly likely you might lose your investment because they didn’t like the look of your Twitter feed.

Even if you are allowed in, you will be subjected to a traumatic and humiliating display of state power over your body, your possessions, and your identity; a process that is particularly prohibitive if you have a disability, if you’re a person of color, or if you’re trans.

This was already the case in 2016, but of course the Trump administration made it much worse. It was understandable not to move the conference over it in 2017, given the time scale. But after Trump started his mandate by literally trying to ban Muslims from entering the US, it became completely absurd to hold a supposedly international conference in the US at all.

Pretty much every wealthy Western country has racist and exclusionary immigration policies that make travel difficult, but the US is literally the worst in that regard. Canada requires visas from a lot of countries, but the risk of mistreatment, detention, and not being allowed in is much lower. Europe requires visitor visas from a much smaller proportion of countries (and notably allows most Latin Americans to travel without a visa). Hosting the conference somewhere else entirely — Asia and Latin America are obvious places to go — would do even more to change things. And it would also make GDC significantly cheaper to attend for a lot of devs.

This is obviously never going to happen, because it would be good for the industry and help people, and GDC isn’t in the business of doing good for the industry or helping people; it’s in the business of funneling money to UBM shareholders who don’t know video games or care. UBM has determined that San Francisco is the most profitable place to host GDC. I don’t necessarily understand the business reasoning behind it — it’s possible they have a long-term sweetheart deal on booking the Moscone center, it’s possible that the cost of changing things creates a lot of inertia, who knows. But it’s transparently clear that it’s purely a business decision; there’s a game dev community in San Francisco, but no more than the ones that exist in other major North American cities. And of course, game development in SF can be expected to dwindle as people who aren’t making tech industry salaries (and even some people who are) get priced out of that city.

This specific business decision highlights that GDC’s claims about inclusivity and social responsibility” are utter bullshit. Hosting the conference in the US at all is a fuck you to international devs; hosting it in San Francisco adds insult to injury. It’s an expensive city, a particularly expensive city to visit, and a city that is expensive precisely because of the violent gentrification it’s been subjected to, gentrification that GDC is an active participant in.

Of all the issues I’ve talked about so far, this is the most far-reaching one, and the one that GDC’s advisory board has the least power to affect. But that, to me, just calls into question the point of indie figures legitimizing UBM’s parasitical role in the industry by participating in such a board: Whatever you say, whatever you think, whatever principles you may have, you’re surrounded by AAA and hardware vendor people who don’t give a shit. And ultimately UBM’s business calculations override any attempt at injecting humanity into the process. Don’t confuse proximity to power with power, and don’t confuse being coo-opted with being involved.

Yesterday: how GDC’s Byzantine pass system reinforces class divisions and hurts the industry. Tomorrow: why stealing labor is bad.