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 loved #MIGW but I wish we would stop pushing drinking as our universal networking tool, the pressure to drink in Aus games is immense.
— Sanatana Mishra (@SanatanaMishra) October 31, 2017
"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.
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.
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.