GDC, Assimilation and Opportunity: What A Free Event Ticket Costs When You’re A Marginalized Developer

As the majority of marginalized developers risk financial stability to attend industry events, our primary goal, too, goes ignored: building the resources and capital to finance our work.

by Veve Jaffa on March 14th, 2016

This week, thousands of games industry professionals will pour into the Moscone Centre in San Francisco for the annual Game Developers Conference (GDC), the largest and longest-running conference of its kind. Given its enormous scope and access to some of the industry’s greatest resources, attendance is considered essential for game developers pursuing publishers, financing, and careers. However, with ticket prices costing up to $2,099 for an all-access pass, and a conference location set in the most expensive city in the U.S, the financial toll is significant. Fortunately for developers like me who can’t afford admission, GDC doles out stacks of tickets to non-profits for distribution to developers who meet their criteria for “diversity.” But without stipends for airfare, travel, accommodations or food, a free ticket is the extent of financial assistance marginalized developers receive.

For months leading up to GDC, I’ve watched the very public displays as corporations and organizations gave away their free tickets, and the equally public praise heaped upon them for their “generosity.” What isn’t so publicly acknowledged, is the resulting slew of crowdfunding campaigns launched by ticket recipients to cover the cost of travel and accommodations for the week-long conference. With giveaway tickets valued at $1,599, it’s easy to feel like a financial hurdle has been cleared, but putting that ticket to use can end up costing more in travel expenses alone — something Rami Ismail explored in a recent post on GDC scholarships provided to international visitors. Meanwhile, for GDC organizer UBM Tech, giving away batches of tickets to non-profits not only is a negligible cost to them, but allows them to take credit for the results: many companies and conferences are happy to push diversity initiatives, as long as it doesn’t cost them anything.

Dozens of blue tickets.

Photo CC-BY Alyson Hurt, filtered.

As corporations vie for token representations of inclusion, the presence of marginalized people at publicized events portrays a public image of progress, even though no real resources are moved in our direction. A free event ticket is poised as an opportunity, but making use of the ticket requires access to financial resources that are non-existent for the intended recipients of these tickets; for example, young queer and trans people make up an overwhelming majority of unemployed and homeless people in America, yet organizations focus on ticket allotment to LGBTQIA recipients without financial resources on offer.

Many game developers in the trans and queer community are struggling with essentials like safe housing and employment, free from the harassment and violence that is an ongoing threat in our lives. Considering the enormous economic gap between our cishet counterparts is essential in serving our communities effectively. Closing that gap — by providing connections to safe job opportunities and tackling basic resource allocation like access to hardware, safe work space, and supportive mentorship — should take top priority for non-profits serving our communities, above and beyond ticket “giveaways” that carry a real cost in the thousands of dollars.

Assimilation At All Costs

Computer generated, glowing pyramid made out of shiny baubles against a background of sand dunes.

Photo CC-BY Mario Guo, filtered.

As an industry conference, GDC’s lack of real, tangible resources for marginalized developers is unsurprising. What is more surprising and troubling however, is how non-profits continue to promote models of top-down capitalistic progress, and why assimilation into high-barrier corporate spaces continues to be a top priority for community organizers, even at the cost of its members’ well-being.

Non-profits run by people significantly more privileged than the communities they work with has been a long-standing issue for games and tech organizations, resulting in major discord between the community’s needs, and what leadership deems beneficial for the growth of the non-profit. This time last year, I watched my game being used in a fundraiser for a GDC convoy that neither resulted in a ticket for me, nor travel expenses for the ticket recipients. Despite $14,000 being raised in one night towards this effort, I watched the same scramble on social media to crowdfund plane tickets, the same anxiety engulfing the holders of these tickets, terrified as I was this year to let the expensive and important opportunity go to waste.

Confirmed by first-time and veteran GDC attendees who live outside the homogenous realm of white cis hetness, there is little more available to us than the ambiguous allure of opportunity. While sitting in the same room as a host of investors and publishers certainly improves your odds of having a discussion about financing, proximity to wealth has never proven as beneficial a connection for marginalized developers as it has for our socially privileged counterparts. GDC is a sensible route for developers in capitalistically viable positions, with enough capital to purchase rental space to market their financed games, or enough connections to capture the attention of publishing partners, but there are no “ins” designed for those of us who exist outside of the mainstream socially and economically privileged realm. The dissemination of tickets to non profit and community organizations proves nothing more than a desire to be seen pursuing marginalized people, with no intention of using funding to ensure our attendance. The very act of gifting free thousand-dollar tickets to the industry’s poorest, underrepresented members without so much as asking how we will put it to use, not only betrays the ignorance behind the majority of outreach efforts, but the lack of commitment to see them succeed.

As the majority of marginalized developers risk financial stability to attend industry events, our primary goal, too, goes ignored: building the resources and capital to finance our work. For AAA studios or larger indie games, that can amount to hundreds of thousands or even millions. For small, independent and experimental game designers, our budgetary needs are significantly less, and if met, would mean gaining the financial stability to make our work full-time. For many, being trans, disabled and of colour means we are statistically less employable than our white, cis, and abled counterparts; financial stability through our work is often the most viable option to stay afloat. Focusing on improving the realities of marginalized developers is an investment the games industry has refused time and time again to make, and instead uses our tokenized appearance to improve its own public image.

Free event tickets is little more than a push towards forceful assimilation, using our presence as a cheap band aid to cover industry failings like a diversity-lacking, majority white cis male workforce and hostile working environments. To successfully integrate diverse developers into the industry requires significant financial resources, shifting the millions spent on huge industry events and often ineffective “outreach” initiatives to talented developers already working tirelessly in this industry and struggling to break every conceivable ceiling just for a seat at the table. Marginalized developers need funds for better local support and industry mentorship, with tangible connections to the venture capitalists and corporations currently funding non-profits who continue to fail us.

If the industry wants better representation both in employee statistics and media content, it means funding production for our work, and giving us the means to finally take on leadership positions in our own communities.

Allyship Plays An Essential Role, But Only If It’s Real

Door knobs with a figure reflected in them.

Photo CC-BY Hernán Piñera, filtered.

Instead of cajoling marginalized community members to take huge financial risks — like spending thousands of dollars on GDC hoping it will pay off — community organizations could instead focus on efforts tending to intra-community stability, like raising funds for small project budgets, or hosting locally organized meetings with publishers and job recruiters. Small project stipends in the hundreds or thousands to support game developers struggling to continue or complete their work would make for insignificant donations from huge sponsorship corporations like Intel, yet diversity initiatives continue to revolve around one-off, superfluous events like luncheons and open bars. Nonprofits’ ongoing preoccupation with inaccessible assimilation underlines an all-too-common disconnect between self-appointed leaders and community, especially when the goal is to secure resources for marginalized people. We have a right to expect more from the organizations supposedly representing our interests, beginning with advocating for more than free admission to a costly event.

Diversity initiatives such as GDC ticket giveaways create a false equivalency between opportunity and access. Presenting the opportunity of a ticket without addressing the deeper issue of access results in two things: community members with considerable privilege benefiting foremost from the opportunity, and the rest left to scramble, too broke to bankroll attendance. Besides the considerable labour that goes into creating and maintaining a crowdfunding campaign and engaging in tireless self-promotion, social capital is a precarious privilege that needs to be handled delicately. When I considered crowdfunding my trip, I took my long-term goals into consideration, realized the capacity to successfully raise thousands of dollars more than once was unlikely given that I’d never attempted to raise so much money, and decided it was best not to exhaust that option on a one-time expense.

Ultimately, non-profits need to better serve the communities they represent instead of themselves. This means moving away from supporting and encouraging large one-time, high-cost events like “ladies luncheons”, “open bars” and international convention tickets, and instead focusing on local issues like poverty, homelessness, education, and provision of hardware for marginalised developers. It means questioning the pervasive need to assimilate and break into traditionally inaccessible spaces, and address persistent community deficits. It means offering community members equal access to resources, instead of pushing white cis men and women higher up in the queue without solutions to address inaccessibility for others. If you are in a leadership position above people who possess considerably less privilege and resources than you, it is your job to be our advocate, not your own.

I want to be optimistic about the opportunities a conference like GDC can offer, and hopefully even restore my faith in the concept of opportunity. However, until opportunity includes access, we will not truly see the impact that real opportunities can make for diverse creators.