March 16th 2018
GDC 2018 Post Roundup
This year, I took some time to better articulate some criticisms of GDC that I’ve hinted at on Twitter and elsewhere. This took shape as five posts about GDC:
- About GDC’s cynical “advocacy track”.
- About GDC pass systems as class in a microcosm.
- About how San Francisco might be the worst place on Earth for an international conference.
- About GDC’s exploitative labor practices.
- About how the profit motive prevents addressing those issues.
If you’ve written something about an issue that I’ve missed or wasn’t able to address, contact me and I’ll add it to this list.
March 16th 2018
GDC 2018: UBM Just Doesn't Care
This is part five 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.
Here’s how much UBM cares about you, me, and everyone else in the games industry.
On the front page of UBM’s website, on the week before GDC 2018, GDC shows up only on a carousel (a web design trend that should be a capital offense) alongside ten other upcoming events including the Istanbul Jewelry Show and the Licensing Expo taking place in Las Vegas.
If GDC weren’t upcoming and you wanted to find it, you might have to dig a little. You’ll find that although video games are a multi-billion dollar part of the entertainment industry, UBM hides “game development” as a sub-sector of “technology.” GDC is the only games-related event that UBM promotes, not counting VRDC (which they categorize separately under “virtual reality” even though it happens as a sort of appendage to GDC).
Point is, UBM is not in the video game business and doesn’t care about the video game business, let alone video games as an artform. It describes itself as promoting “market-leading B2B” events. B2B (“business to business”) is an interesting descriptor to apply to the man-made disaster that is GDC.
B2B typically describes events such as trade shows, which are meant to connect retailers or manufacturers to suppliers. This somewhat describes GDC expo, which is indeed a trade show for companies that make middleware, game engines, and other game development tools. The value proposition of a trade show is that you buy floor space and then people further down the chain from you walk past that floor space and hopefully this leads to sales. If you’re down the supply chain, maybe you have to buy a pass; that pass gets you access to potentially valuable suppliers. UBM themselves don’t own the floor space; they rent it, for however many days the event lasts, from the owners of a convention center. Profit, organizing costs, and overhead all come from the markup between what UBM pays, and what exhibitors and attendees pay for floor space and access. There are other components of GDC that have a clear value proposition — publishers have meetings with devs, and showing your game at GDC generates press (though not as much as a more public-facing event like Pax). A lot of this is just an externality of having everyone (who can afford to be there) in the same city for a week, and not really something that UBM is making even though in a way they are selling it.
Because those centers are usually owned by a local government (The city of San Francisco, for example, owns the Moscone Center), this is a form of public-private partnership. Or, in honest terms, this is a form of using a public good for private gain. There’s no public data on how much GDC pays to book Moscone, but it is obviously much less than what they take in by selling passes.
Compared to a trade fair, the value proposition of GDC the conference is… fuzzy. If you’re a big studio, you send people to GDC in the hopes that they’ll improve their skills and this will translate, way down the line, into improving your product. If you’re an attendee paying your own way, you hope that the networking you do at GDC will improve your odds of getting jobs in the future. If you’re a speaker, you’re hoping that speaking at GDC will improve your, or your game’s, profile and lead to either jobs or sales down the line. All of those effects are hard to measure, especially on the margin; they’re hard to quantify. And they’re uncertain. Some people go to GDC and come out of it with nothing to show for it, and some people go to GDC and it bootstraps their career.
UBM paid a pathetic £43m in UK taxes in 2017, for an effective tax rate of 16% over profit; lower than the marginal US income tax rate on households making $50K a year, and less than the effective federal tax rate on a household making $80K a year. Also in 2017, UBM paid £5.3m pounds in executive compensation alone, a good chunk of which (probably around £2-3m) would likely go to the group’s CEO, Tim Cobbold.
There’s no moral universe where this isn’t theft: UBM’s workers, and capital they mostly rent on the cheap from governments, generate £1b a year; £200m of those get skimmed off by shareholders, who do nothing of value, before those workers are even paid. UBM benefits from exploitative public-private “partnerships” (particularly in emerging markets) to generate revenue, which shareholders pocket. UBM paid its directors last year enough money to pay for roughly five hundred years of college tuition in the UK.
Every corporation engages, by definition, in this form of state-sanctioned theft. UBM engages in a particularly vile form of it at GDC: So many of UBM’s workers are underpaid or unpaid “volunteers” or “speakers” who contribute to this grotesque profit but get compensated in conference passes… a commodity with an inflated price set by UBM itself.
It’s a system not very far off from getting paid in company scrip. That comparison might seem hyperbolic; game developers are not, no matter how similar certain arrangements, 1900s coal miners.
But: How many people speaking at GDC are jumping from freelance gig to freelance gig and have no safety net? How many people speaking at GDC are doing so at the behest of a large employer who will dump them as soon as their current project ships? How many people are scraping together just enough money to buy a conference pass? How many people are travelling to attend GDC as “conference associates,” taking a financial loss on a supposedly paid position in order to try and get access to the industry?
Gilded age precarity isn’t far behind the veneer of knowledge-worker affluence, and the sooner you recognize you’re being exploited, the sooner you can do something about it. Because UBM is exploiting game industry workers. It’s exploiting them through a grotesque system of tiered passes that cuts off the most useful access from the people who most need it. It’s exploiting them by pursuing the cultural cachet of neoliberal “diversity” while doing as little as possible to improve the makeup of the industry. It’s exploiting them indirectly by using public goods to make a buck. It’s exploiting them directly by using their unpaid and underpaid labor to generate virtually all of the value of GDC.
GDC is an awful squatter sitting on this industry skimming money off while dangling promises of dubious value in front of people’s heads. And the kicker is that it matters so little to UBM that it’s not even mentioned in the publicly available investor results they released in 2017. It’s folded into “technology,” which accounts for about 14% of exposition revenue.
As far as I can tell, UBM is not at all transparent about how much they make from each conference. But looking at the information they do publish about attendance and size for those events, it’s a reasonable guesstimate that UBM makes somewhere in the low eight figures from GDC; back-of-the-envelope math suggests about £20 or £30m in revenue. This is not including the money they make from the paywall on the GDC Vault or ads on Gamasutra (a site that relies on publishing unpaid “blog posts” from game developers and promoting them).
Again, to reiterate, those are very rough estimates arrived at by looking at publicly available information and making some informed guesses, so don’t take this too seriously. But assuming GDC generates £25m in revenue, and 20% of that is profit (which is UBM’s overall margin): UBM’s shareholders take in enough money from GDC itself to pay each GDC speaker a $11,000 speaking fee, or more than double CA pay.
Our entire industry warps itself around a week-long yearly event that exists largely to funnel unearned money into the pockets of shareholders who don’t know we exist or care.
In the same results report, UBM touts its profitability gains from killing off underperforming or lesser events (read: laying people off). From UBM’s perspective, GDC could easily get killed off after a couple of bad years for revenue. GDC Europe indeed was killed off a couple years ago without much fanfare.
Frankly, maybe that would be for the best.
March 15th 2018
GDC 2018: How GDC Exploits Industry Veteran and Novices Alike With Shady Compensation Schemes
This is part four 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.
This isn’t a complicated point: GDC is built on unpaid and underpaid attendee labor.
The more visible component of this is speakers. GDC categorically refuses to pay speaking fees or even help speakers with travel expenses or accommodation. Speakers get a GDC pass, and that, barring a few ad-hoc exceptions (that GDC is not transparent about), is it.
On the face of it, this might seem like pretty okay compensation; after all, a GDC all-access pass goes for an eye-watering $2,349. But speakers will commonly spend 20-40 hours preparing their talk, and they have to pay their own way to attend GDC in the first place; if you’re travelling internationally to attend it, going GDC might still leave you deeply in the red even as a speaker, even if we take the monetary value of GDC passes as a given.
And we shouldn’t, actually, take it as a given. Because paying someone in a commodity that you control and set the price of is a particularly awful and exploitative practice.
Here’s the deal: GDC Expo passes cost $249; all-access passes cost $2100 more. That $2100 is the difference between being able to attend sessions and talks, and not being able to attend them; that is, the value of those $2100 comes entirely from talks and sessions — value created almost entirely by the unpaid labor of other speakers. GDC, in typical parasitic fashion, is getting a bunch of people to work for them for free and paying them with access to one another’s labor; and then turning a gross profit on charging others money for the same privilege.
Speakers theoretically get intangible benefits out of it, but those benefits definitely vary widely. If you’re a salaried AAA developer, giving a talk about your game isn’t really helping promote that game for the audiences you’re trying to reach; maybe it helps you get a job after your studio fires you once the game ships. If you’re giving an advocacy talk, it’s entirely possible that nobody with hiring power anywhere sits down to listen to you. Giving a talk at GDC isn’t very good value, for networking, compared to simply attending GDC. There are airy motivations for doing it (wanting selflessly to advance the medium, say). But GDC is taking advantage of people in that it’s still packaging and selling the product of that.
And of course, if you want to advance the medium, giving your talk at GDC only will keep whatever information you have to share right out of the hands of anyone who isn’t already deeply enmeshed in the industry, particularly if your talk takes place at one of the conference tracks. GDC’s profit motive makes it so that people who go to GDC to impact the industry are less impactful than they would otherwise be. If they’re giving a conference or summit talk, that’s given to the small audience who can afford to be there (in terms of passes, travel, and being able to attend any given talk in an overcrowded and exhausting conference). And then video of it is put behind GDC’s incredibly overpriced paywalled content website. If it’s an advocacy talk, it’s made more accessible — but also cordoned off from the “real” discussions about making video games. GDC’s sheer size makes a GDC talk impactful, but GDC doesn’t operate to maximize that; it dampens the effect of its own scale.
It is true, of course, that GDC provides services that make the conference possible. A venue, for one thing. GDC is also not transparent about how much they pay the city of San Francisco to use the Moscone Center, but it seems probable that this is not something GDC is paying full retail price for, as is traditional in “public-private partnerships.” GDC also provides the organization and operation of the conference itself… well, sort of.
Onsite, GDC is largely run and organized by its small army of “Conference Associates” (CAs). GDC’s website describes the CA program with a particularly slimy paragraph of text:
So your crowdfunding missed its target, you’re a student with limited funds, your company can’t send you, or you just want to lend a hand. Whatever the reason, you may still be able to attend this premiere event by becoming a Conference Associate. Are you willing to earn your attendance (and a little extra money) by doing about 25 hours of on-site work? Apply to be a Conference Associate (CA)!
Struggling to make it in the games industry? Come do underpaid service work for us! GDC describes this exploitative arrangement as doing people a favor. Instead of hiring temporary labor at a normal market rate, GDC exploits the apparent desirability of games industry employment to get cheaper labor. GDC isn’t transparent about how much they pay CAs, but I somehow doubt it’s very much more than a stipend to eat lunch at Moscone every day of the conference. CAs of course get an “all access pass,” the utility of which is cut by two thirds because they’re expected to put in 25 hours of work during GDC week.
Frankly, the whole thing makes my skin crawl. People have all kinds of reasons to want to go into the games industry; some of them are based on misapprehensions (like thinking we’re all over here making a ton of money), some are based on genuine and valuable desires (like wanting to make art in a medium they love). A lot of people are desperate to get into the games industry, one way or another. GDC exploits those desires to make money.
Curiously, UBM doesn’t seem to have similar programs for its other major conferences; probably because there isn’t a mass of young people who are really eager to get into, say, content marketing or enterprise communications. Those conferences have similar pricing to GDC and somehow they do just fine paying people to run the conference. Again: The CA program is a predatory way to make a buck, not a necessity to keep the conference economically viable.
And the people being exploited this way are often young and vulnerable people at the margins of the industry. How many CAs travel to GDC and find themselves in the red after an exhausting week? How many CAs go to GDC once and then don’t come back because they didn’t get enough out of it to start any sort of career? As far as I can tell, GDC doesn’t collect, mention, or publish information about outcomes for alumni of its CA program, which definitely suggests that it’s a grist mill. GDC in this operates a lot like a for-profit college, predatorily making a buck off people’s hopes of improving their lives.
Now — lots of academic conferences and fan conventions rely on unpaid or volunteer labor. But the problem is that those are events that are often small, nonprofit, or generally don’t have the resources and reach GDC has; letting that normalize GDC’s use of unpaid labor and predatory payment-in-kind is just wrong.
GDC is a for-profit enterprise, and the company that organizes it (UBM) raked in over $270 million in profit in 2017. I have a more detailed post on their finances tomorrow, but GDC absolutely could pay speakers, and anyone who says that paying speakers would require a smaller or less broad conference is lying to you. GDC isn’t using unpaid speakers and underpaid CAs to put on a bigger and more useful conference; it’s doing that so UBM’s shareholders can pocket the savings.
Yesterday: On the many problems with running GDC in San Francisco. Tomorrow: the root of all GDC evil.
March 14th 2018
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.
March 13th 2018
GDC 2018: On Class & Passes
This is part two 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.
GDC passes are bullshit.
GDC describes itself as the “primary forum” where video game industry professionals “gather to exchange ideas.” But if you wanted to design a system to prevent meaningful exchange of ideas from taking place, you could do much worse than designing GDC’s byzantine system of tiered conference and expo passes.
First there’s the arbitrary separation between “conferences” and “summits,” with correspondingly separate passes for each, as well as the profusion of special interest and scholarship passes with their own arbitrary limitations. The result is that the people who most need access to instruction and connections are kept out of conference sessions by the high cost of conference passes; and people on one side of the summit/conference divide aren’t allowed to cross-pollinate their knowledge and experiences with people on the other. This is not a system designed to lift people up in the industry or to help the sharing of knowledge in a muldisciplinarian and collaborative medium.
The Independent Games Summit, AI Summit, Game Narrative Summit: All of those separate the people working on those subjects, and their concerns and expertise, from the “mainstream” subjects of business and design that “belong” in conference tracks. The implied lesser/special-interest status of summits is particularly grating when it comes to narrative: Writers and narrative designers are a big part of the industry, we’re a key component of every AAA game and huge segments all across the industry, and “narrative” gets shunted off to a summit. It’s kind of insulting, but of course it also enables people to attend those sessions who couldn’t otherwise — because summit passes are cheaper, reinforcing what GDC thinks is the value of those subjects.
At least they’re notionally worth more than the advocacy sessions, which anyone can go to.
This is a system designed to sell conference passes, make the basic passes as worthless as possible, upsell the more expensive passes as much as possible, and get as much money out of wealthy companies as possible. Expo passes have such a low perceived value that I’ve seen more than one person telling others to not even bother to get one and just hang out at Yerba Buena and go to GDC parties. Or, to put it another way, GDC is so uninterested in making expo pass holders get something out of the conference that the ancillary social systems built up around GDC have had to pick up seemingly 100% worth of slack. Most of GDC’s value to attendees comes from labor GDC never pays for or externalities GDC had no hand in creating.
Of course, a system of widespread sharing of passes has also grown up around this because GDC’s pricing is basically unrealistic. Entire indie studios attend GDC on one person’s conference pass, meaning that people from the same small studio often can’t go to sessions together. It’s a class system like any other, constantly reinforcing to everyone what place in the ladder they are at.
GDC offers a panoply of “scholarships” and other programs to help people get passes, often by selling those passes at a discount to various organizations which them give them away to people lucky enough to be able to travel to GDC in the first place and who can also successfully convince the heads of those organizations that their marginalization is the most significant one that needs to be redressed this year. This practice belongs to a particularly vile tradition: Create artificial scarcity then make a few charity exceptions and milk them for social capital. Much like the advocacy track, this enables GDC to burnish its image while doing as little as possible to actually change the destructive class systems within the industry. GDC is a for-profit enterprise and they don’t do this for their health.
And to reiterate: GDC passes are simply expensive. Summit passes, the bare minimum to attend any tutorial or “technical” talks, cost $929 for GDC 2018. Conference + summit passes cost $2049. This isn’t out of the ordinary in the world of tech conferences, but games aren’t part of the tech industry. Here’s a fun graph from StackOverflow’s developer survey. Game programmers make the worst money of all categories surveyed. And programmers are often the best-paid positions on development teams. Video game workers are not making tech industry money. Whether you pay your own way or your employer buys you a pass, GDC passes are priced at the very top edge of what the economic realities of the industry can support. And when it comes to devs from colonized territories or simply outside the US, costs of attending GDC quickly become ridiculous.
GDC’s ostensive mission is to further the technical and artistic development of video games as a medium, but that’s a transparent lie; GDC’s mission is to make money for UBM. And tiered passes make it crystal clear how much the latter mission overrides the former. Two years ago, Emily Short pointed out that the games industry is constantly reinventing the wheel:
I see methods presented as cutting edge at GDC that have been solved problems in the IF community for 20 years, and UI solutions in the IF community that come from 1994. I see assessment techniques applied in academic research, and AI techniques at the AI summit, that people in IF seem totally unaware of. I also see toolsets being made in academia that are very hard to imagine using in actual game production situations, and seriously proposed and tested hypotheses about choice design that make me wonder whether the authors have ever read a single work of craft writing from the IF community. I see commercial toolsets being built that claim to be ground-breaking, but are if anything a step backward. Every single time I link to Sam Kabo Ashwell’s CYOA structures post I get someone reacting like I just sent them a map to the location of the Grail. It’s a great post! But it’s also not news! Or it wouldn’t be, if the circulation of knowledge (together with the financial and social means necessary to keep working) were as smooth as I wish it were.
A few days later, in an interview with Austin Walker at Giant Bomb, I said:
In the games industry we rely a lot on conferences like GDC to trade information… and it doesn’t work. It doesn’t accomplish enough.
I think after a couple years in this industry, what GDC suggests to me through its system of passes and pricing is slightly different. It’s not supposed to accomplish enough. GDC is a capitalist enterprise and so it treats knowledge like a commodity to be sold to the highest bidder. GDC is woefully insufficient because it’s designed to keep people operating in different economic conditions away from each other. It’s designed to keep people in different fields away from each other. I mention in that interview that people at the margins of the industry struggle to even be listened to, even if they can go to GDC in the first place. But it’s also true that, within GDC itself, the conference operates to keep these people away from access and sessions where they might have a chance to be heard in the first place.
GDC dangles the possibility of being heard, of making connections, in front of vulnerable people and then sells them expo passes that are only marginally better than hanging in a park for the right week of the year.
Previously: How the advocacy track fails devs. Tomorrow: why holding GDC in San Francisco is an awful practice.
March 12th 2018
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.