On Sunday, I attended the Wizard World Convention in Philadelphia. It’s been years since I attended such a big con, and about ten years since I’ve been to the one in Philly. Conventions have changed considerably since then. You used to be able to get a star’s autograph by the simple, but not easy, expedient of waiting in line for an ungodly long time. Now you have to pay at least $50. You can’t even glimpse him signing someone else’s autographs because he’s hiding behind black panels!
One thing hasn’t changed, however, and that’s the opportunity to attend an interesting and valuable panel. I attended a panel called “Be Impactful: Your Influence in Video Game Communities and Game Development,” and I couldn’t have been more pleased with what I had to hear. The panel was made up of knowledgeable folks from different fields of video gaming. They were well-spoken, and I walked away knowing more than I had before, and with a new respect for programmers who genuinely consider the conundrum of how (and when) to program games for women.
The panel was moderated by Genese Davis (@genesedavis), an author and online personality, who is an avid (and adorable) gamer. The panel members were Johnathan Wendel (@FATAL1TY), a world-class gamer better known as “Fatal1ty;” Jamey Stevenson (@dreamlogician), of Tech Valley Space and his own Spoony Bird; John Spatola (@LakeEffectApps), of Lake Effect Applications, the creator of Trigger Fist; and Jason Hayes (@JasonHayesMusic), composer for Blizzard Entertainment. The panel description in the program read as, “Guess what? Your voice and your opinion matters in the gaming industry more than you might know! Video game development blossoms from many different points of inspiration that affect not only our entertainment choices, but how we approach our daily lives as well… you and the video game community impact each other and game development at large.” Our impact on gaming was discussed, but we also learned how to get into game development, why it’s hard to program for women and tips for navigating the gaming community.
Davis kicked off the panel by asking each member how they got their start in video games. Wendel said that he began gaming as a way to relieve stress. Back in the day Quake was his game of choice. Years later, he’s been able to make his hobby his profession by selling mouse pads designed to avoid repetitive injuries and partnering with other companies selling gear. Stevenson said Final Fantasy was the game that introduced him to a way to escape into another world and bond with friends. He said that, as an introvert, the introduction of the Nintendo 64 multiplayer console was very exciting because it allowed him an easy entree into friendships with other gamers. Spatola said that he was able to use games like Clash of Clans to hone the leadership skills he uses in business today. (The entire time he was talking about giving orders to other players and developing leadership skills, all I could think was, “Lee-roy Jen-kins!“) Hayes talked about his first video game obsession, Zork, and how much he loved text-based video games for their creativity, and for letting players use their imaginations. Davis said her first love was also Final Fantasy, and that she was overwhelmed when she was accepted into the gaming community. She said that acceptance gave her a confidence that translated into real-life communities.
Next, the panel members talked about how they started making a living in the world of gaming. Jamey Stevenson knew he wanted to make games, but didn’t know how. He gravitated toward programming classes in high school. Later, he taught his own classes and started speaking to school kids about developing games. He said he loves to see people’s faces light up when they realize they, too, could make games. John Spatola explained that making a job in video gaming your goal can help you possibly achieve other things. He said video games can inspire people, become a teaching element, a positive force. Jason Hayes said he met someone in college who was animator and wound up working at Disney. The person’s success inspired him to buy a Mac and start making music. He ended up flunking his last semester of college because he chose to do something unconventional; he went out on tour.
Then Davis asked the panel members for advice on how someone can influence gaming? Hayes said to start by using the tools that are already available, like making mods of existing game engines, such as Minecraft or Blizzard’s Defense of the Ancients. Spatola recommended filling a gap in the world of gaming. For instance, he created a first person shooter as a mobile app, Trigger Fist, when he couldn’t find one that he liked. He also suggested starting with available tools, like building a game using Unity. Stevenson talked about how others have had success by piggy-backing onto successful games and branching out, like making Machinima movies. He also suggested getting familiar with free tools that don’t require programming knowledge, like Twine and Gamemaker. Johnathan Wendel told his own story, how he created a name for himself in the gaming world (Fatal1ty) and used that cred in the real world to make connections and, eventually, money.
Then the panel talked about negative impacts in gaming communities, especially how newbies can feel attacked when they enter a game for the first time. Jason Hayes shared his experiences, talking about how brutal it is when you’re new, and how you can become intimidated by more experienced gamers in an online world. They discussed how people can feel too comfortable behind their online anonymity and use it to attack others. Genese Davis agreed, saying she didn’t like “getting yelled at” when she tried first person shooters for the first time. John Spatola said that he only plays multiplayer games, like Call of Duty, with his real-life friends. (He also suggests that you don’t use Internet anonymity to blast a game developer.) Jamey Stevenson said that he liked playing single player games in the beginning, and couldn’t imagine starting out in a multiplayer game, like DotA. Johnathan Wendel recommended announcing to other online gamers that you’re new to the game, so that they can adjust their strategies to accommodate your game play. He also said he picks small goals for himself when he’s learning a game, like getting the first kill or only using a certain weapon during a round of play.
Davis asked the panel if game developers listen to fans when it comes to making changes or updates to games. Hayes said that at Blizzard Entertainment, the game developers do listen to what’s being said in forums, but in an aggregate way. They filter through the comments to find trends. Spatola said that listening to outside comments can be two-sided. As a game developer, you can’t listen to the wishes of everyone because pretty soon your game will change too much, that all games would be too similar. Wendel agreed, saying he likes learning different games. He likes training for new games, finding out what’s unique.
At that point, a woman in the audience asked how she was supposed to identify herself as a gamer, when she’s not welcome in online multiplayer games, because she’s a woman? After an awkward silence, the panel jumped in with thoughtful responses. Jamey Stevenson referenced Gamergate. He explained that many people are reluctant to identify themselves as gamers becase they’re worried about the baggage that comes with it. He realizes that girl gamers sometimes don’t self-identify as gamers, although he wholeheartedly supports diversity in gaming. Jason Hayes said that he feels gaming is going through an evolution, catching up to stereotypes and moving beyond them.
When the woman in the audience asked why avatars and characters are almost always men, John Spatola jumped in to explain that it costs twice as much to create two different body frames, especially in a 3D video game, and that most businesses make a conscious decision to save money by only creating one. He also said that small companies like his can’t afford to turn the tide when it comes to creating games that appeal to women, but larger companies with more revenue and capital should lead the way; they can afford to make those changes.
Another audience member asked what was being done for gamers with disabilities. Jason Hayes answered enthusiastically about sound-based games, for example Journey, which uses a players actions to build on themes; characters can only communicate by chimes. Every panel member said this is an area of gaming that needs to be explored. Jamey Stevenson said he looks forward to seeing games that are developed by people with disabilities, for people with disabilities.
The panel wrapped up with friendly good-byes. I walked away feeling impressed by the panel members who were not only knowledgeable, but also friendly and helpful to anyone looking to get into gaming.