A Seat at the Table

GDC is always a mixed bag of usefulness and frustration. There are great sessions to hear and participate in, but also disappointments and stinkers.

While writing in video games is kind of my thing, I don’t typically find value in attending the narrative roundtables. The useful bits and helpful advice tend to get overshadowed, at least for me, by frustration. There’s always some amount of  complaining from writers who feel slighted by the development process, or who lament the lack of narrative gigs in the business. It’s not that I don’t sympathize with these points of view, but the roundtables can devolve into venting sessions rather than outlets for creative collaboration. Others may disagree. Your mileage may very.

So it was with trepidation that I attended a narrative roundtable at this year’s GDC. And whether my fears proved true or I simply turned it into a self-fulfilling prophecy, the talk became what I expected. I seethed in sullen silence, wanting to speak out but electing to remain quiet so as not to  come across as the jerk in the room.

(To be clear, I have nothing against the participants or organizers of this session. I’m sure many others found it both useful and delightful, and I’m just being a jackass. I apologize to my industry colleagues and promise to have a better attitude next time. Maybe.)

There was one memorable moment that transcended my grumpiness. I sat down at the main table a few minutes early, near another developer I knew. As we talked, a smiling, fresh-faced young man nearby introduced himself. He was the GDC prototype of an eager student in the midst of several indie projects, graduating soon and trying to make connections. Curmudgeon that I am,  I’m not so cynical that I want to discourage up-and-comers trying to make it in this often thankless business. My colleague and I both chatted with him about his projects and schoolwork.

As the session was about to begin, the student looked around at some of the people filling in chairs at the back of the room. Somewhat guiltily, he said he was going to go sit with them so that someone more experienced could have his seat at the front. As he stood up to move, I pointed to him and said in a stern voice, “Sit down, kid.” I told him never to give up his seat at the table. He put the work in. He claimed the spot. In this business you don’t give up your position to anyone. Make the most of every opportunity.

With eyes wide, he nodded and sat down.

When the session ended, I got up to leave. The student came up and thanked me for what I told him. He said no one had encouraged him to stand up for himself like that before, and it was a lesson he was going to remember. I shook his hand and offered one last bit of advice: companies come and go, but his career is his alone. No one else is going to look out for it the way he will, so he should keep hustling and making connections. Even with grumpy old shits like me.

Maybe it wasn’t the most conventional way to pass along knowledge at GDC, but I felt, for that day at least, that I had done my part.

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