Un-GDC 2013: Lost Levels

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This year’s GDC saw innovation and advocacy not just in the unique variety of games showcased, but within the mechanics of the community as well. The new Advocacy track brought together a host of speakers to discuss equality and diversity in games and gaming culture, and how to better improve the public image of the industry, a conscious effort made on the part of GDC organizers to highlight and discuss these issues in a professional environment. It felt like a running theme for that week, something that was definitely on the minds of a lot of attendees. While valuable in its own right, though, the very nature of GDC is still somewhat exclusive. It’s largely business-oriented, strictly but understandably structured, and it’s god damned expensive. Because of this, crucial voices in the games community are harmfully understated and underrepresented. Taking advantage of the con’s disadvantages this year was Lost Levels, a free event that hails itself as a “radically casual unconference” about games and play, with the intention of being financially and socially hyper-inclusive. It was organized by Robert Yang, Fernando Ramallo, Ian Snyder and Harry Lee.

Lost Levels was held Thursday afternoon, after a lot of the excitement of GDC had begun to die down. We’d been around the expo floor multiple times, seen a good share of talks, been handed reams of flyers by the booth babes that caused Brenda Romero and others to resign from the IGDA mid-week. We’d witnessed impromptu speeches in the conference halls by impassioned designers, emotional post-panel QA sessions and ideas exchanged over free beers. I saw Richard Hofmeier offer up his Cart Life kiosk to Porpentine’s Howling Dogs following the IGFs, using his success to promote others. The atmosphere was awesome, but we were tired, and Lost Levels was a great way to wind down.

While Jared was off in Chinatown doing god knows what, James and I waited on some steps outside a Metreon cafe waiting for some sign that the event was starting. It was to take place in the Yerba Buena gardens, right near the convention center, a grassy expanse dotted with trees, clusters of locals and tourists here and there lounging in the soft mid-day sun. We weren’t quite sure what to expect.

While waiting, an elderly woman approached us asking about our badges. We explained that we were attending the Game Developers Conference, which sparked a conversation we were also not quite expecting. The woman was curious about the industry, the scale of it and the work involved. She wanted to know things about games, and we wanted to give her the answers. She spoke only briefly about herself, mentioning why she was there – she enjoys sitting at that particular cafe and watching the people go by. She’d been seeing a lot of us badge-wearers, and was struck by how many of us there were.

It was an interaction that actually sums up part of what Lost Levels is about pretty well. Gamers are not well-represented in the public eye. While the pervasive stereotype of the anti-social, basement-dwelling nerd is starting to change, it still exists, which is partially why the people who organized Lost Levels chose to hold it outdoors. Games, as a medium and an art form, have been striving for accessibility, whether that be in the development or consumption of. Lost Levels was a way to make games approachable as a community. The park is a physically open, public space, and any kind of gathering within it naturally incorporates anyone in the general vicinity. It’s a spectacle that allows for spectators to become participants. It’s social, it’s inviting and it excludes no one.

Not even Jared, who showed up later with a katana.

Lost Levels wasn’t just a gathering of gamers in a park, though, as the New York Times suggests. There was some basic structure to it as a so-called “unconference.” In the weeks preceding GDC, people were asked to submit ideas for microtalks, which would be 5-10 minute segments dedicated to anything they wanted. These ideas were scribbled on post-it notes and stuck on a piece of posterboard in a charmingly haphazard way of organizing sessions into three separate tracks – called “worlds.”

The microtalks heard in each world covered everything from dating sims to how screen-shaking can improve your action game, from accordion solos to gender as a function rather than a boolean, from erotic game mechanics to pinball. It was a rapid-fire session of ideas and mini-theses, suggestions, brainstorms and ramblings. Some people came prepared. Some didn’t. But more often than not, you could hardly tell the difference. This was not a formal event. In place of stages, we had tarp spread over the grass. Some speakers sat along with us. Some stood out to distinguish themselves. But after every talk, they would always come back to join the crowd once again. Lost Levels was an open forum where ideas were free and aplenty.

I was able to attend a few talks, but not all, which was actually something the organizers intended.

“In terms of format, I think this pseudo-anarchic unconference structure is really helpful,” said Harry Lee, indie game dev and one of the event’s four organizers. “It also provides a sense that you’re not quite seeing everything, and that’s really important, and something we wanted to focus on. It gives people a reason to come back to talk about their experiences, stories to tell and share, and it creates an engagement in a game-like structure.”

This certainly worked. I realized that my group of friends were kind of drawn apart as the three worlds were established, each of us gravitating towards whichever ones sounded the most interesting to us. Between talks, we would all regroup and discuss what we’d seen and heard, always meeting again in the space between each world.

A lot of people, before, during and after Lost Levels, referred to the event as a sort of anti-GDC. The organizers see it more as a complement to GDC, an event that can offer people for free what GDC, even with its hefty price tag, cannot.

“GDC is really expensive,” said Ian Snyder, “and a lot of people whose voices we think need to be heard can’t be heard in a space like GDC. Nothing against GDC – we’re not trying to compete with it – but it is a highly expensive and highly exclusive space. We want to create an alternative – a parallel space – beside it, that is highly inclusive.”

“And that’s not to fault GDC,” added Robert Yang. “I think GDC is exclusive, but not because it wants to be evil or something. I just think the nature of that professional convention structure just – by its nature – keeps some people out. It’s just bad at some things, and it’s really good at some things.”

“We are bad at some things, like organization,” said Snyder, which was met with laughter, “and we’re good at other things, like being open and inclusive.”

While Lost Levels felt like an all around success, having had an excellent turnout with some amusing last-minute talks added by people just stopping by, there are still some things the team felt like they could have done better. Next year, they’d like to work towards having a more game-like structure, with more actual games and less concrete talks. They also don’t want to confine the event within a specific structure and risk it becoming an “old, tired ritual.” They have even considered removing themselves from the organization process and allowing other people to take over, turning Lost Levels into a tradition that can be passed on to new minds each and every year.

I know I personally can’t wait. GDC was awesome, but Lost Levels was something else entirely.

“It’s playful, right?” said Lee. “There’s a playful sense pervading this area. We would love to hold it longer. We’re gonna take the failings of this year and hopefully turn them into something even more beautiful next year.”

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