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Game Developers Conference: Are We Misogynists, Homophobes?

GDC wants to offer a social critique, but the summit is still largely about the craft and business of gaming.

Eric Johnson / Re/code

With session titles like “Minorities and Startups,” “The Connection Between Boys’ Social Status, Gaming and Conflict” and “Misogyny, Racism and Homophobia: Where Do Video Games Stand?,” the 2014 Game Developers Conference, which kicks off today, is taking on a decidedly introspective tone.

Thorny questions like these are all the more poignant as the very definition of “gamer” expands beyond the hardcore audiences of console and PC players. Millions of new players who never would have called themselves gamers in the past have flocked to platforms like Facebook and mobile. With 23,000 developers descending on San Francisco (bringing some $46 million in value to the city with them), the identity and character of its audience and of the people who serve them merit deeper analysis.

GDC organizers are hoping answers will emerge from an expanded “advocacy” track of conference sessions focusing on social and cultural issues around game development. From a distance, this makes some sense: GDC is something of a melting pot for the industry, with developers both big and small convening to discuss diverse trends ranging from programming to marketing to monetization. Why not also talk about the industry’s long-running problems with gender, race and sexuality?

“The main goal for most GDC sessions is to teach developers how to make better games,” GDC general manager Meggan Scavio said in an emailed statement. “Designing games that are more inclusive and socially responsible helps achieve that just as much as learning specific mechanics or techniques.”

The hope is that developers will at a minimum think about social issues, if not solve them. The advocacy track, which starts tomorrow, includes sessions like “How to Increase Game Dev Diversity,” “How to Subversively Queer Your Work” and “Sexism and the Game Industry: An Empirical Study.” But many of the 52 advocacy sessions overlap with one another, with hundreds of other sessions also competing for attendees’ attention.

The vast majority of the conference sessions will cover similarly weighty, but less socially rooted topics, like how the industry is changing in the wake of two new major gaming consoles; how other new platforms, including virtual reality headsets and Valve’s PC-gaming-on-TV initiative Steam Machines, may create even more competition for gamers’ attention; and how companies are trying to reach and make money off of those millions of gaming newbies. Sony is rumored to be introducing its own VR headset to compete with the Oculus Rift tomorrow, and the week is packed with “postmortems” offering lessons for new games from the successes and failures of games past.

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