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The video game industry is back to in-person events, for better or worse

(Samantha Laurey/San Francisco Chronicle via AP)

SAN FRANCISCO — Hundreds of video game developers mill about a cavernous expo hall. Booths for everything from established industry giants like Amazon and Unity to cash-flush Web3 start-ups gleam, glitter and flash, all vying for attention. This week, the video game industry convened for the Game Developers Conference (GDC), an annual gathering of video game creators from across the world that in most ways resembled a return to the good old pre-covid days — save for the masks on everybody’s faces. Well, on almost everybody’s faces.

GDC, which hosted its inaugural event in 1988, has been a pillar of the video game industry for decades. It was also one of the first dominoes to fall when covid began to sweep the United States in 2020, with organizers announcing the show’s cancellation in late February, mere weeks before it was set to begin. Now, after an all-digital event in 2021, the conference — which consists of both an expo floor and numerous talks in which creators share hard-earned wisdom with their peers — has returned to an in-person format at the Moscone Center in San Francisco.

The landscape of booths and panels is representative of the industry’s hottest topics: different talks might promote or criticize NFTs and Web3; executives at companies like Sony and Ubisoft extol the virtues of their approaches to staff management, while the Communications Workers of America (CWA) union has a booth advocating for better treatment of those same reportedly exploited workers.

This comes at a time when video game studios have initiated plans for workers to return to the office, albeit optionally in many cases. Nonetheless, some developers remain wary in the face of an emerging new variant, BA. 2, and the looming threat of long covid.

“I definitely think we’re rushing things, and in a way that puts the burden on the most vulnerable members of our community,” said Ted DiNola, a developer relations engineer at Meta who chose not to attend GDC this year due to his proximity to immunocompromised family members. “We all desperately want to 'get back to normal,’ but things have changed.”

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While developers in attendance said they were able to accomplish a lot online, there’s still an added appeal to face-to-face gatherings — even if it’s inadvisable for their faces to be closer than six feet apart.

“It’s really exciting to see some of these people I haven’t seen in years. It’s really exciting to be back to something that feels like it used to,” said Ryan Wyatt, former head of YouTube Gaming and current CEO of Polygon Studios, who has Crohn’s disease and is, as a result, immunocompromised. “The hard part about it is if you don’t come here, you start to feel left out of what’s happening. So it’s balancing these emotions of, ‘It is awesome. It is exciting to be back. But it’s also nerve-racking.’ ”

Crowded industry conventions like GDC are infamous for attendees catching colds and flus, suggesting that covid could easily take root as well. After February’s smaller-scale DICE Summit in Las Vegas, many attendees claimed to have contracted covid. This year, GDC’s health policy requires all attendees to be fully vaccinated, including a booster shot, or to present proof of a negative coronavirus test if they’ve been unable to obtain a booster. Additionally, attendees must wear masks at all times while indoors at the Moscone Center, except when eating or drinking.

In practice, however, the mask policy has not been well-enforced. For every 20 to 30 people walking around the expo floor, at least one is maskless. In crowded, cordoned-off talks about games like “Cyberpunk 2077,” it’s not hard to spot developers with masks below their noses, compromising their effectiveness. The sheer size of the event means people are often bunched together in crowds. On the show floor on Wednesday, after somebody coughed in the distance, heads immediately turned, as though trying to find the source and flee in the opposite direction.

Elsewhere, developers gather en masse at parties and in the lobbies of nearby hotels almost entirely unmasked. One longtime independent developer who chose not to attend GDC due to their immunocompromised status has been disheartened by the many maskless selfies they say they’ve seen peers posting on Twitter.

“I’m sick of everyone putting business over people,” said the developer, who chose to remain anonymous due to harassment concerns. “I hate capitalism and everyone parading without masks or organizing movie get-togethers at GDC right now, and those are literally good friends of mine.”

On the show floor, one of the most prominent booths was helmed by the Communications Workers of America, sitting alongside Activision Blizzard employees. The red booth, emblazoned with CODE-CWA, the name of the union’s campaign to organize digital workers, had its own pro-union arcade game and free merchandise. It’s the first year that the CWA has had a booth at GDC, and this year, volunteers have been eager to talk unionization with their peers.

“I’ve been going through all the booths and whenever someone reaches out to talk to me about their game or their product … I turn around and I ask them, ‘Hey, are you a developer? How big’s the studio? Have you considered organizing? How are work conditions? How’s crunch?’ ” said an Activision Blizzard quality assurance tester who requested anonymity out of concern for retaliation.

At the CODE-CWA booth, volunteers handed out mousepads featuring an image that has become a meme in video game organizing circles in recent weeks. The image, a copy of a PowerPoint slide titled “Types of Employees Unions Exploit,” was originally created by the law firm Reed Smith, which Activision Blizzard retained after a union drive began among their employees. Reed Smith had published the presentation — which labeled union-supporting employees as “lazy, non-productive” and “footloose and fancy-free” — on its website.

“The content of this presentation was created for a workshop in 2013 by lawyers who no longer work at the firm," said Phill McGowan, director of corporate communications at Reed Smith. “It does not reflect the way our firm thinks about the rights of employees and employers. These slides have no bearing on the pending CWA representation petition, and were not prepared or used by the lawyers representing Activision Blizzard.”

Attendees of this year’s show have questioned why elements of it needed to be exclusive to the in-person event, especially when last year’s event was entirely online. GDC is already gated by cost; badge prices range from $349 to $2,199, plus travel and lodging for the better part of a week. To avoid further inaccessibility of valuable information due to disability, covid concerns and similar issues, GDC also offers an “All Access Online Only Pass” for $749, but it remains prohibitively expensive for some — and it still excludes some talks and panels that can only be experienced in-person or on YouTube months after the event.

“The only thing preventing those relevant talks from being accessible is someone caring enough to understand that there is a wide swathe of the games industry that would actively benefit from accessing that knowledge,” said Javiera Cordero, an indie developer attending GDC for the first time after winning a raffle from women-focused nonprofit Pixelles Montréal that footed her bill for an all-access pass. “We would have better games, we would have better leaders, we would have better managers, because everyone could be better informed about more equitable ways to treat people and run organizations.”

These discussions weigh heavily as developers at major video game studios ponder returning to their offices.

“It would seem wholly irresponsible to demand everyone come back to the office right now,” said a developer at a Triple-A studio in Texas that is currently allowing employees to come into office if they want, pending vaccination. The developer asked to remain unnamed out of concern for retaliation. “But it would also seem irresponsible depending on your company size or history to say, ‘F--- it, we’re going full remote’ unless you’re starting something brand new or you’re a relatively small company that can let go of a lease easily. I think the companies that offer people the most flexibility to make individual choices are the ones that are going to be able to hang onto their employees.”

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During a virtual panel broadcast as part of GDC, Jen MacLean, GM of creator partnerships at Microsoft, said the company is offering flexibility to retain talent in the midst of both the pandemic and a growing industry-wide talent shortage.

“Flexibility and prioritizing people over presenteeism is absolutely critical in supporting all of your team members and really retaining your top performing talent,” MacLean said. “I think what this means is, first of all, as an organization, really and deeply committing to supporting your talent wherever they want to live.”

MacLean went on to say this has to be part of every decision, all the way down to how individual meetings are conducted. However, she noted that companies, Microsoft included, are still figuring things out.

Since the pandemic began, the video game industry has been forced to reevaluate its relationship with in-person events and work structures. With many events — including the once-unassailable E3 convention in Los Angeles — moving online or drying up entirely, it’s forced many in the digitally oriented industry to reckon with the limitations of doing things the old-fashioned way.

“Online-only events have been amazing for all sorts of accessibility, alleviating gates caused by location, finances, and disability,” DiNola, the Meta engineer, said. “In our rush to return to normal, not only are we endangering folks for whom covid remains a very real threat, we’re also rolling back a lot of things we learned about building truly open accessible spaces. I hope we slow down and reassess.”