I did a lot of crying at GDC this year. Maybe it’s because I processed so many interactions — met so many good people, caught up with so many friends, cheered on so many heroes — that I am overwhelmed. From the distance of the internet I can usually manage it, Twitter and Facebook and however many internet comments I can stand to read, but in person sometimes it’s a lot. I am conditioned, like Pavlov’s dog, to hovering red notifications that demand addressing, to conversations that seem, in those moments of intimacy between my screen and I, to need immediate responses.
I live on the internet, really; I talk a lot, but I write even more, and the one week a year where nearly everyone in my world convenes on one whirlwind of a week, is anxious-making. Sometimes they bring years of history with them; sometimes they’re people I’ve fought for, other times fought with. I’ve known them through their games or through an online avatar, a name on the screen suddenly delivered to me in person. We all have a lot to talk about.
It’s a lot. It’s a lot. It’s a lot. I feel incredibly vulnerable. And yet this year, it seemed all right to be vulnerable, or at least it felt that when I came to look at the games industry this time, I felt that I stood at the rim of a world that was beginning to prize vulnerability, authenticity. Maybe I cried a lot because I felt I could, because people were listening.
I’m curled in my room; it’s been an unusual three days since I last had a drink, but I needed it, after GDC. I needed to take a break from drinking. Maybe more than that, for the first time in the day-in-day-out years I have spent feverishly arched over this tiny keyboard in the service of video games, I didn’t feel I needed to drink. I needed instead to sit here and search for the words to talk about why this year GDC made me feel exhilarated and overwhelmed and mostly really, really glad to be in video games again. Kirk, one of my dearest friends and a person who has seen me cry a lot, had the words.
And yet I still feel overwhelmed from processing so much interaction. Video games are about processing interactions, really. I think so many of us came to video games because we were confused about how to live and to be in the world, and so we were drawn to these realms where every input had a predictable response. Living among people is hard, and when you collide with another human form, there is no algorithm to predict the result; that is a thing only video games can do. You cannot redo that time you said or did the wrong thing; you cannot practice it until you solve the situation. Hurting and being hurt by others is a frequent and inevitable lose condition that sits permanently on your heart. Only in games can you restart, correct, and master. Only in your closed, pretend world can you reload a save if you break something.
In life you can devote yourself to improving some element of your spirit with all your heart, but find you always feel you’re failing. Only games can tell you, with scores or feedback or response, that you are getting measurably better, as a person engaged with a system. The system is entirely yours and you are at its center; in the tangible world it spawns unpredictable enemies, allies turn on you, the interface is opaque and unknowable units swarm invisibly. You don’t know what will happen when you encounter them.
In games, there is always the possibility that we can win, at times when winning at life seems impossible. In bleak times I think about how I can never “win” my life; I will do some good things and some bad, I will be sad sometimes and happy others, and then I will die. I don’t know when. There will be no cutscene, no soaring crescendo, no cathartic credit roll, except for in my games.
We have turned to games because they are fantasies where we are invulnerable. In life I am a short woman with a loud mouth; no matter how much I talk and how loudly, I am vulnerable when I speed-walk home in the dark, as I pass lazily-circling cars and hear voices hissing vulgarities from dark corners. In games I can be a silent man with a gun.
In games, I can only say so many things to other characters, and a menu appears before me and lets me think and choose. That’s why I write too — for control. I can follow these branching trees through my noisy head and pick the one I most assume will lead to the outcome I desire. Before I was a writer I studied acting, performance. I never learned how to do anything else.
We usually call games “power fantasies” like that’s a bad thing. I want more from my games than male power fantasies, I have said a hundred times. I can acknowledge, now, that we all have fantasies of power. Games, the playing them or the making them — especially the tiny, individual games about personal experience that throbbed under this year’s conversation like moving water waking up underneath ice — games, games gave power to so many of us who had none. Who needed some.
And now there are some of us who are beginning to have the freedom, the support, the courage to be vulnerable. I cried at a panel as Brenda Romero told people that to make a game with her is her daughter’s childhood dream, and people applauded uproariously. I cried because I felt people were starting to realise we have the ability to empower others, not just to feel powerful ourselves.
I was on that panel too, and people were clapping for me, and I hadn’t really realised how much I had been waiting to really feel cared for here before. I have played a character in life, as in games.
I cried because I have been talking all of these years without truly feeling I could be authentic, and all around me were people championing authenticity: Make sure your game is telling the truth, said Emily Short. We can do more than make power fantasies, said Manveer Heir. Character stories that are just fixated on gaining optimal outcomes, where you’re manipulating people as pieces, are just psychopathy, said Karen Sideman. We can be genuine. I watched IGF winner Richard Hofmeier spraypaint his own IGF booth to present Porpentine’s Howling Dogs, and I thought, we can be real.
I cried because I have been talking and talking about “more games for more people” for years, and when I played Gone Home I had the stunning realisation that there could be a game for me. Someone can make a game for me.
It’s not a game that makes me feel powerful. It’s just a game that makes me feel understood. And other people are excited about this game, other people care. Someone is listening. We’re sharing this.
And now what? It is scary to be vulnerable. When you have permission to be truthful, to make things that represent yourself, you have the sudden vertigo of possibility. What will you say now that you can speak? What would you make in a world where you could make honest things and have people care? I cried when I heard Anna Anthropy read her adaptation of Cara Ellison’s personal, raw poem; I cried because Anna was so full of emotion, and the room rose to its feet for her. I had never heard Anna’s voice at that volume before.
Prior to her reading I had sat beside her outside and found myself talking to her about my secret social anxiety, my overwhelm. I am afraid to engage in interactions that I don’t know how to control. I noticed my hands making tiny movements over my legs. I had never noticed that behaviour in myself before. I interviewed another game-maker I admire for the truthfulness of her work, and as she spoke to me I noticed her hands making the same kind of movements across the surface in front of her. I used to be an actress, but my body is learning to do things I haven’t rehearsed. I am a little scared and mostly relieved, and so I’ve been crying some.
I always lose my voice every GDC; I always took it as a sign I need to talk less and listen more. That’s still true, and it is my ongoing quest, but I can talk less now because I am heard more. It is OK not to control all the manifold interactions I have engaged with this week. Games are becoming a place where there is more room for expression and vulnerability and not just the fantasy of power. Games can be about people sometimes, and not just the avatars that sometimes protect us from the pain of being people.
Sometimes it is OK to feel I have no power, because I think I can be mostly safe here, eventually. I remembered that I love games. I cry because I’m happy.
Leigh Alexander is editor-at-large at Gamasutra, columnist at Edge and Vice Creator’s Project, and contributes gaming and culture writing to Thought Catalog and Boing Boing, among others. Her work has appeared in Slate, NYLON, Wired and the AV Club, and she blogs intermittently at Sexy Videogameland.