Samantha Sellers' GDC Report

Humor among game developers is different than that of any other group in the human population. There's a punchiness to it, an evidence of lack of sleep. But there is also a certain edge to it, an edge that is summarized by my father's favorite industry phrase: "I make computer games... but I'm not bitter."

I suppose I should introduce myself, since I'm not a regular member of RPGamer's staff. My name is Samantha Sellers, and I have been in the computer game industry for about six years, which is something when one considers the fact that I am only 20 years old. How did I get involved in the industry at the age of 14, you ask? One word: indenturehood. When I was 14, my father, Mike Sellers, started Archetype Interactive in our basement, for the purpose of creating the first online massively multi-player visual MUD: Meridian 59. (It was released before massively multi-player games became the rage, in a time when one could play Quake online with 11 other people, a number that Meridian blew out of the water with 2600 players in the same world at once.) My father did the creative design of the project, and enlisted almost all of our family to help in one way or another. I did customer service for our Alpha and Beta testers after I finished my homework each evening, trading off with my mother so she could go start dinner. I was also a constant play tester during the early development phases, since my bedroom directly adjoined the "office," and because my father has always been very conscious of making his games female-friendly. When 3DO bought Archetype in the spring of 1996, I was allowed to go back to being just a teenager, at least for a little while.

I now work for Maxis, doing customer service for The Sims website. Despite my running trend of customer service work, this is not my final destination, I assure you. I am currently working on my bachelor's degree in Social Psychology and Computer Science, so I can do what I really love: study internet communities. I won't take up bandwidth here to go in-depth on all of my theories about how social psychology changes‹and doesn't‹when the socialization is online as opposed to traditional offline interactions, but if you are really interested, email me, I would be more than happy to talk (er, type) your ear off.

To wrap up my self-introduction, let me say that I am a gamer, and always have been. Some of my earliest memories are of my parents' gaming group coming over for table-top role-playing games, and having to go to bed because of it. By the time I was 9 years old, I convinced them that I could game too, and I have been ever since. My (current) favorite console RPG is Chrono Cross (one word: Harle), my love of which is only surpassed by the online-community based on the game that I have been a part of for the past six months.

Despite my years in the industry and love of gaming, I wasn't entirely sure what to expect from the Game Developers Conference. This is the first such conference I have attended, but I don't think it will be the last. When we arrived (late, because my horrible sense of direction was not improved by having Matthew and Andrew in the car with me ("Wait, was that the on-ramp?? That didn't even look like an on-ramp!! ...That was totally the on-ramp.") Thursday morning, we signed-in in the spiffy "Press Lounge," then proceeded directly to a general interest panel discussion entitled "Consoles vs. PCs: is the PC really dead?" Thanks to Andrew's awesome crowd maneuvering, we got seats literally front and center, less than fifteen feet from the panelists. Although no consensus was reached in regards to the posed question, all the panelists made interesting‹and valid‹points.

We split up after the general interest panel discussion, and I proceeded on to a roundtable discussion about women in the gaming industry, entitled "More than a D-Cup and a Laser Pistol: Women in Game Development." I arrived early enough to snag one of the twenty seats at the table (which was actually square, oddly enough), for which I was very grateful, since we filled up even all of the standing room before they closed the doors. The discussion group was co-ed, with women making up the larger percentage of the population, though there were certainly more men in attendance than any of us expected.

Early on it the session, we decided to avoid all "horror stories" of examples of women game developers being mistreated in the work place, and instead focus on what we can do to change the industry for the better. Because the issue was not overly controversial (at least not among the members of that particular group), the roundtable turned into a brainstorming session. We made a list of actions that a committee could take to improve the work atmosphere, including ideas such as research to study game studios with high percentages of women employees (such as Maxis), letters to expo booth managers to discourage the use of "booth babes," and mentorship programs in schools of all levels.

Though the roundtable was only scheduled for an hour, we went quite a bit longer than that, continuing in the hall even after they kicked us out of the room, organizing an email list so that we could continue the discussion later. The exuberance and dedication of the group was far greater than Sheri Graner Ray, the woman who chaired the roundtable, had expected. Honestly, I had feared I was walking into a lion's den of radical femme-nazi game developers, who would think that my ideas of equality were weak. Thankfully, this was not the case at all; I even had some of the other roundtable members come up afterwards and talk to me about my views on the subject. With all the studying that I do in this area, it was gratifying to be able to test my theories out on members of the industry, and to have them reciprocate so positively.

Directly following the Women in Game Development roundtable, I managed to get into another roundtable, this one entitled "Creating Emotional Involvement in Interactive Entertainment." This was another highly productive, highly informative roundtable, which was particularly fun for me, since my father, Will Wright, and about half of the staff of Castle Marrach, the Forever Winter, were in attendance as well. Most of the ways that the group came up with to involve the players emotionally in the game are reasons that we play RPGs in the first place. The final list of ways to emotionally involve the player looked something like this:

 · Create a narrative to go along with the game
 · Character attachment
 · Personal risk for personal gain
 · Shared community
 · Recognizable and repeatable experiences
 · Empathy and sympathy with the characters and the landscape
 · Immersion in the character and the environment
 · Depicted relationships between characters
 · Faith in the fairness of the game, that the game isn't trying to beat/hurt you
 · The ability to change the game world, to leave your mark
 · Identifying with characters other than your own
 · Music, and other environmental additions
 · The more complex the choices, the higher emotional involvement

For most of the rest of the conference, I tagged along with Matthew, and as he is a much better reporter than I, you can read his journal of the conference here. Because I knew I wasn't going to be depended on for the large chunk of the reporting for these events, I spent most of my time observing the people at the conference, the game developers themselves. As I said before, humor among game developers is an odd thing, and as the end of the week neared, it only got stranger. The oddest of all the humor was unquestionably the high occurrence of Zero Wing references, including a T-shirt and two references in lectures. The strangest of these was when, during the entitled "Consoles vs. PCs: is the PC really dead?" Trip Hawkins, CEO of 3DO (try saying that three times fast!) who was moderating the panel discussion, leaned close to the microphone and asked "All your base are belong to us??" It was completely out of context, at least from my point of view, but it did get a good laugh out of the audience.

Maybe game developers' humor is not so different after all.

by Samantha Sellers    
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