Australian Game Developers Are Being More Open About Not Drinking

Image: Nina Faelnar/Kotaku

Gaming conventions are always a good opportunity to catch up, and PAX Australia is no different. And whenever there's a gaming convention, there's a party, an afterparty, and a networking event or three. And all of these events usually involve one thing: alcohol.

Australians already have a penchant for drinking too much, and that's as true within the gaming industry and gaming development as much as it is anywhere else.

Take last week. Here's just some of the public and industry-focused events that form part of Melbourne International Games Week (MIGW): PAX Australia, Game Connect Asia Pacific, the Education in Games Summit, GCAP Loading, the Australian Game Developer Awards, a Unite Melbourne conference, and more.

That's a lot of catching up, a lot of fast food, and, typically, a lot of booze.

But developers of late have been more open about drinking less. Drinking was addressed directly in multiple presentations at GCAP this year too, multiple developers told Kotaku. The vibe was best summed up by this tweet from Assault Android Cactus developer Sanatana Mishra:

"I get a sense of a mounting frustration to be honest," Lance McDonald, the creator of Black Annex, told me. The general gist is that drinking and networking are one and the same.

"I don't know a single gamedev meetup that doesn't happen at a bar," John Kane*, the Sydney dev behind Mallow Drops and Killing Time at Lightspeed, explained. Another developer, who wished to remain anonymous, said that "the expectation is you drink, and you want as little friction as possible when networking".

One of the most valuable elements of any convention, and a crucial lubricant to the games industry: coffee. Image: Alex Walker/Kotaku

Part of the problem is that so many gatherings - and this is the case for regular gamers as much as it is devs - take place at pubs and bars. They're the only public venues with enough space to accommodate everyone.

Chad Toprak is the director of Australia's Freeplay Festival, and the curator of the Contours Exhibition. "I know many developers who don't drink, for a broad range of reasons. Some are okay with hanging out in bars while others are not," he told me.

"A lot of MIGW after hours events are inaccessible or not welcoming to [those who don't drink], whether it's because they're too loud, go on for too late, don't serve non-alcoholic alternatives, or because they're full of people who may have had a bit too much to drink."

Toprak's also a Muslim developer, which makes many developer meetups difficult. Like many people who don't drink, hanging out in public venues where everyone else is drinking isn't that much fun. But it's problematic: if you don't attend industry gatherings, you also don't get the chance to network, catch up with friends, or see international guests that might not be in town for another year or two.

Alayna Cole, founder of the Queerly Represent Me research organisation and database, agreed.

"Networking and chatting with people at MIGW seems to take two forms: over coffee or over alcohol. If you don’t like either of these things, you are essentially excluded from Australia’s major games event," she outlined.

"While I don’t mind a drink or two, I often find myself leaving these networking evenings early before I have to deal with any potentially problematic situations -- and there always seem to be some. In an industry that already has issues with its inclusion of minorities, encouraging people to drink can lead to questionable behaviour from some individuals that further excludes these groups."

Gaming can often glorify drinking as well: here's an instance of someone drinking beer from a shoe on stream at IEM Sydney. Image: Kotaku/Twitch

Game development already has enough issues with self-care. It's a hard, hard business. It often involves long hours, excessive amounts of crunch, rubbish pay, burnout and little regard for the health of its employees in general. And alcohol being part and parcel of doing business doesn't help.

Crunch Time: Why Game Developers Work Such Insane Hours

In February of 2011, fresh off nine months' worth of 80-hour work weeks, Jessica Chavez took a pair of scissors to her hair. She'd been working so hard on a video game -- 14 hours a day, six days a week -- that she hadn't even had a spare hour to go to the barber.

Read more

So devs have started organising competing industry meetups and events focused around not drinking, just to provide a space for developers to meet up where they don't feel pressured to drink. And other prominent devs were making a point of encouraging their peers to look after each other, another way of saying: have fun, but don't go overboard.

Black Annex creator Lance McDonald stressed that the focus on not drinking isn't because people want to eliminate it altogether. "For some people, getting extremely drunk once in a rare while is good for their mental health, and I think that's also important to focus on."

The idea was more to create spaces and gatherings for people to be comfortable not drinking, instead of encouraging people not to drink at all. "Sobriety can be extremely uncomfortable for a lot of people at major events," McDonald added, noting that catering for teetotallers was generally a niche that was generally overlooked.

Lauren Clinnick, one of the founders of Lumi Consulting, noted that devs had become more open in general about discussing their health, mental and physical, and the effects of industry culture.

"Today, there is a greater honesty among game developers - about what we care about, how we feel, what makes us uncomfortable," she said.

"It’s increasingly accepted to be vulnerable, and that acceptance of vulnerability has (I feel) led to several of us being able to suggest that we diversify the kinds of events that spring up around events like MIGW, or highlight that we aren’t completely comfortable with alcohol served as the default."

Liam Esler, one of the event managers at the Game Developers Association of Australia, explained that this year's GCAP Loading networking event was alcohol-free, primarily because of the aforementioned issues.

"The global games industry drinks fairly heavily at events," Esler said. "The Game Developers’ Conference in San Francisco every year is a hugely alcohol-fuelled event, which — while it’s a lot of fun, isn’t always the most positive thing."

It helps create a culture where not only is drinking commonplace, it's expected. And while it's fine for people to drink - nobody who spoke to Kotaku suggested otherwise - all too often it teeters on the verge of dependence, which can exclude people who don't drink, or make those who don't feel unwelcome or uncomfortable.

"My hope is that as we move forward as an industry, we can build more events that don’t have a reliance on alcohol - to help make our community even more inclusive and welcoming to people from all backgrounds and temperaments. It’s so important that we create spaces that include everyone, rather than just those who like to drink."

Image: Alex Walker/Kotaku

Venues are getting on board, too. Bar SK, a popular spot for MIGW attendees, made a point of expanding its non-alcoholic offerings at their Halloween party this year.

Louie Roots is the founder of Bar SK, which opened in Collingwood just over a year ago. According to him, the bar gets about a 50/50 mix of gaming folk and non-gaming folk, although it skews more to the former during convention season.

He's tried to make Bar SK accessible for non-drinkers, but it's a catch-22. Bars need to be popular in order to survive. Alcoholic drinks also sell more, and make more money, than non-alcoholic ones.

But the venue's increased traffic during MIGW and other exhibitions has allowed Bar SK to branch out a little.

"It's hard because I've already picked a side, in a way, so when I see people asking for more non-drinking events I feel I'm not the person to make those happen," Roots explained. "However, games week, and certain exhibitions, have allowed me to make small gestures away from alcohol, and while that has been lovely I'm still finding the ideal middle ground between boozy and non-boozy events."

Roots put forward a creative alternative: offering drinks that pundits can add alcohol to, rather than having alcoholic drinks exclusively as the base option.

"So maybe you do mocktails, smoothies, that kind of thing for a hawaiian night, and allow drinkers to add booze. Or you do nice teas, and serve something like port or whiskey for drinkers. You can totally match the mood with a non-alcoholic drink when the mood isn't just 'get shitfaced'."

But the thorny topic isn't that drinking exists: it's the reliance on it, the excess. Roots reasoned that making a climate comfortable for non-drinkers was no different than making a space welcoming for everyone in general.

"Give people a good incentive to come to your event that isn't related to drinking, and give people thoughtful and nice alternatives to booze," he said. "Games have a habit of being nerdy and excluding non-gamers, and that divisiveness can totally carry over into booze/non-booze crew."

It takes a joint effort to combat divisiveness, especially when the issue is more widespread. Tony Albrecht, a GCAP keynote speaker and a Riot Games engineer, noted that many conferences offer free drinks.

"It's a societal issue. The availability of free alcohol at conference shows is definitely open to abuse, but it is also an enabler for those that are a little shy," Albrecht said over email.

Roots added that the image of alcohol plays a part as well; non-alcoholic drinks just aren't as cool.

For now, one option is to broaden the environment in which events take place. "We just need to take some action and make larger scale public events that take place during MIGW that are welcoming and alcohol free," Toprak told me.

Cole agreed. "Rather than just encouraging people to drink less at events with open bars, let’s provide people with networking options that are held in less alcohol-centric environments," she said.

Whatever happens, the can of worms has been opened. As Clinnick put it to me via email, the relationship with alcohol is just one piece of a broader conversation about gamedev culture. And as that continues to play out, so will the scrutiny around alcohol.

Disclosure: John Kane has worked with Allure Media previously, developing The Iron Controller Twine game for Kotaku earlier this year.


Comments

    "A lot of MIGW after hours events ... don't serve non-alcoholic alternatives."

    This would be illegal and a breach of licensing conditions.

      "I'll just have an orange juice thanks"
      "You mean, orange and vodka right?"
      "No just orange"
      "We don't serve your kind here, get out"

      Wouldn't it depend on the event? If it is a standard bar/pub sure but if it is at a conference centre or something and are just serving drinks. I've been to openings that have only served champagne and no other alternatives.

        If you'd asked for water and they'd refused they would have been big trouble :-)

        Nope. As far as I am aware RSA laws apply no matter where alcohol is served, unless it is a private residence, where just about anything goes. This is in NSW at least, I don't have a Vic or QLD/rest of Aus RSA so I cannot comment there. Like in NSW they have to be able to offer you some kind of food at a bar/pub/club/tavern from where the alcohol is served to comply with the law that you had the option of food available whilst you were getting intoxicated.

        A good example, local tavern up until recently their offering was a sausage roll or pie, which they had in a warmer on the counter, which was apparently fine by the OLGR & that served as them meeting the requirement of providing food. Now they have a burger restaurant attached to them, so there's a better standard of food available to them now.

    Minimal drinking is my goal after drinking heavy for 10 years, drunk just doesnt appeal to me anymore... it is psycologically addictive, too easy to get and widely accepted as the norm to have a good time... can have good time and even better without

      I think that's actually a big part of the problem. A lot of people equate drinking with getting drunk. I used to get utterly sh*tfaced in my younger days. These days that doesn't appeal to me at all, but I am perfectly comfortable having 2 or 3 drinks at a social gathering. It is perfectly feasible to drink without getting drunk. If you pace yourself with the drinks you do have, and intersperse them with water or other non-alcoholic drinks then it's quite easy to get through a few hours at a gathering without things getting ugly.

      I also think these days people are a bit more accepting of those who don't drink for health / cultural / preference reasons. Although I'm not sure if that's a societal change from 20 years ago, or just others my own age also choosing to drink less as they get older. Certainly when I was in my late teens / early 20s, people would look at you a bit funny if you didn't drink at a gathering.

        This a million times, I cannot handle hangovers. They suck. Happy to have just a couple of drinks with a softie or water in between.

          Yeah, when I was 19 I could stay out until 4am getting utterly maggotted, come home and crash, wake up at 9am fresh as a daisy.

          The last time I got really trashed was over 10 years ago at my bucks night when I was 30. I was hung over for two days. I swore I'd never do that again.

        I agree I am some one that regularly drinks but is rarely drunk. Technically I have a problem but as I don't drink to excess "getting blind" it's not viewed as a problem.

        I think that's how it's worked for a few generations now.
        The majority binge in our youths and fall in to normal social drinking as we get older.

        Our last boys weekend started with the the usual ritual of stocking the fridge with alcohol, but then we had to make room for the probiotic yogurts, temperature sensitive medications and plenty of Powerade.

        It was a good weekend, but nothing like the insanity of our twenties.
        At one stage I walked in on a mate sprawled out on his back and asked if he was a little drunk, no, doing back stretches xD

    Yeah, if you don't drink coffee I think you get as much or more pressure than if you don't drink booze.
    I don't really enjoy either, I'll have a few wines a year with a meal, but that's about it.

    I always feel the pressure in work/social events when you don't take caffeine or grog.

      In my experience there's definitely way more pressure to drink alcohol than there is to drink coffee.

      I don't drink at work events at all anymore. I only drink with my wife and if I'm watching a good TV series and want to enjoy a glass of whisky. I can't really trust myself to not drink too much around friends, especially when I've done some terrible out-of-character things while drunk.

    Refuse to drink here. Aussie drinking culture is pretty nuts. Drinking is not essential to life. Gimme some water instead.

    I think it's just Australia in general. I work for an engineering/science consulting business and every company event we have is open bar. Our CEO doesn't drink but cab charges are distributed liberally to make sure no-one drives when they've had too much.

    Also whenever I go to conferences (automotive industry) there's a dinner that's open bar.

      We used to use that to our advantage. Instead of going out drinking or to the strippers we'd find out what our guests enjoyed doing and do that instead. It got us a ton of business. If someone wanted to go out drinking it was an option, but when a rep spends most of their time on the road they appreciate taking the day off and doing something dumb like the Zoo At Night.

      ...Except at conventions. It just didn't work. Everything was drinking which was fine for us, but with Crown across the road and the strippers a five minute walk away we couldn't avoid it.

    It doesn't surprise me that it has become a crutch; getting a bunch of typically introverted nerds together and ask them to be friendly with what is essentially strangers isn't going to be so simple. Sure they have common interests but yeah, anything to dull those inhibitions would be welcome. I know I rely on it - not a big drinker myself but I always do at these events just so I can feel relaxed and personable.

      Sure they have common interests but yeah, anything to dull those inhibitions would be welcome. I know I rely on it - not a big drinker myself but I always do at these events just so I can feel relaxed and personable.

      Ironically, that does the exact opposite for me. Case in point: The Twitch Afterparty for PAX. They took over one of the Crown Bars and had free bowling and laser tag. Around the bars I just felt awkward and uncomfortable as hell, seeing as I generally don't drink. When actually playing Laser tag and bowling though? Comfortable, getting along with people fine. When the focus is on drinking, ugh.

        Well I have to admit that many of the events don't actually include fun stuff like that to do.

        Also I think a lot of the burgeoning inhibitions that make it so difficult without lubricant is that these events, at their soul, are usually more than just friendly gatherings: as developers, these people have got together to network, show off, and meet people they usually very rarely are in contact with - they're making themselves vulnerable to strangers. Everyone is trying to break the ice, put their best foot forward and not make things uncomfortable. Everyone knows it's a small industry and they'll either cock up or fade away so we all do as the Romans and drink when they drink and be explicitly merry and friendly for it.

        Last edited 03/11/17 1:50 am

    Also drinks are expensive. It was $11 for a cider at the one industry party I went to over PAX weekend.

    "In an industry that already has issues with its inclusion of minorities, encouraging people to drink can lead to questionable behaviour from some individuals that further excludes these groups." I thought the games industry was actually really diverse... no in fact it is really diverse and there are no inclusion issues.

    Lol this is within any industry in Australia not just gaming... Maybe these devs just can't handle their drink ;)

    I was fortunate enough to go to the Wolfenstein II Launch party the night before PAXAUS in Melbourne and i have it say its interesting to see an article about this. Let me set the scene: in an alley bar / speakeasy in the middle of Melbourne was an invite only launch party for the release of Bethesda's Wolfenstein II: the new colossus, the only thing that would let an outsider to the games industry know that there was anything to do with video games happening in this bar was a standee and posters depicting said game, otherwise it was an open bar with a selection of wine, beer and if you asked what else was available some locally sourced artisan softdrink, of which they would have had possibly 2x6 packs of the 3 flavors on offer, otherwise it was Peroni and a selection of wine as far as the eye could see. Having worked in hospitality for a number of years I could say that there where roughly 100 people in a room designed to fit at the most 80 and every single person had at least 2 drinks in their hands, I myself being unable to drink beer and not having a fondness for wine stuck to the pop, which ran out rather quickly. I noticed a few of the industry folks from various review sites and such getting royally stuck in to the sparkling wine as their moods elated as the night went on. What I am trying to say is if this whole ' the games industry are trying to shake the image of not being pissheads' thing is going to work, you might want to tell them, because from what I could tell first hand... alot of them missed the memo!

    "the image of alcohol plays a part as well; non-alcoholic drinks just aren't as cool"

    WTF? Since when was alcohol 'cool'? Are these things populated by the idiots from high school who apparently stopped ageing? Doesn't matter what's in the glass, you're still just holding a glass.

    Anyway, I can definitely see how this is an issue. Some idiot commenter above mentioned bars having non-alcoholic drinks, yet failed to read the article where it mentions being around other drunk people or in an alcohol heavy environment can be very uncomfortable in itself. As a non-drinker I can attest to that, I can't go to after work drinks or house parties or anything like that because it makes me very uncomfortable to be around people who are drinking. I have basically no networking as a result and I don't think it should be that way and it certainly doesn't strike me as professional conduct.

      WTF? Since when was alcohol 'cool'?

      Since it was the mainstream thing to do. You go out, go to a pub and drink alcohol.

      When you don', it's generally awkward. People feel the need to point out to others that you're not drinking. "Oh yes, get him a coke, he doesn't drink."

        I just imaged the music stopping to audible gasps, a glass breaks somewhere in the horrified crowd and a several people begin crying as the bartender fumbles with a coke can like a monkey with a rubix cube.

        Seriously though, most people don't care what others are drinking, I just need to know what I'm carrying back to the table.

        ......can you give me a lift home?

Join the discussion!