I am acutely aware of the fact that my heart is beating. Hard.
Deirdra Kiai, sole creator of adventure game Dominique Pamplemousse, has briefly paused between thunderous bellows of their #1ReasonToBe GDC panel speech and the room is pin-drop silent. Am I scared? I think I might be scared. The atmosphere of the room is not tense, but rather intense. It's like hearing Gandalf in Lord of the Rings scream, "YOU SHALL NOT PASS" for the first time, only that is the entire movie. Over and over and over. And it never loses its impact.
Deirdra Kiai is treating the podium microphone like a megaphone. Their anger and sadness and resignation and rage is twisted into these perfect vocal spikes. There's almost a rhythmic cadence to it, a melodic rise and fall that punches like death metal.
"Making games is EASY. Belonging is HARD."
It echoes all around, and I feel small.
I'm at a party talking with a fellow games journo and a rather well-respected developer who works in triple-A. We're arguing over two-year-old gaming controversies, like you do when everyone around you is trying to pretend they're a planet away from stress and jobs and work. (The planet, in case you are wondering, is called Alcohol.)
The controversy in question? Tomb Raider, or rather that scene in which Lara fends off a man who it is heavily implied wishes to sexually assault her, or rather the version of that scene that was depicted before the game came out, which led to further questioning, seriously poor word choices, outrage, and arguments.
At the time, countless blog posts were written about it and—regardless of how the scene ultimately turned out in the final game—it became a huge focal point for Tomb Raider pre-release. Naturally, there was a lot of anger (though it absolutely wasn't all anger).
"I just think it alienated potential supporters and allies," says one member of our impromptu pow-wow. "All that anger scared people away or made them mad. You need to pick your battles."
"People don't want to feel like they're bad people."
Deirdra Kiai explains that they're actually happy to have not won an Independent Games Festival award for the videogame they painstakingly hammered together all on their own. That seems all wrong, but they let out a resigned sigh over the truth of the matter:
"The thing is, being recognized for awards like the IGF means being seen. And being seen, when you're a person who looks like me, is a double-edged sword. The more attention and notoriety I get, the more I start wondering when all the 4Chan trolls are going to come out and get me. Like they've done to, oh, pretty much every single person I like and respect in games."
"Maybe it's better to be invisible. I know invisible. I can live with invisible." - Deirdra Kiai
"I've already started to see them pop up on Steam. I know they're just trolls, and I'm just supposed to ignore them. But honestly? I'm terrified."
"Maybe it's better to be invisible. I know invisible. I can live with invisible."
A pair of well-known indie developers argue over breakfast. Well, it's really more of a lunch at this point, but who's keeping track? (Me. And also apparently the chefs, as my breakfast burrito tastes like it was cooked during breakfast hours five hundred years ago.)
Are things getting better for non-white, non-traditionally-male members of the gaming industry and community? At GDC? In general? They ponder this question back-and-forth, at first passing it gently like friends playing catch in the park, but then lobbing it with a little more English as things heat up.
"It's not good yet, but things are improving," says one developer.
"I'm not so sure," replies the other. "I got called someone's girlfriend twice in five minutes. Also, there were no female speakers on the Independent Games Summit."
"That is a problem," concedes the first, "but things are getting better overall. Slowly. There's even an entire panel track dedicated to advocacy now. Improving the environment for everyone is clearly a focus."
"Sure," the second offers, "but the sessions I went to weren't very well attended, and those who choose to go to that stuff already agree with it anyway. If they totally hated it, why would they go to something with advocacy in the title? Who's benefiting?"
"But it is something," says the first. "That's how change works. Slowly."
"That's how change works. Slowly." - A Prominent Indie Game Developer.
"All I know is that I still didn't feel comfortable walking around the show floor," the second retorts. "I also talked to two new female game designers who attended the show and both told me, 'I don't think I want to go into game design anymore.'"
I think to myself for a moment and then I reach my conclusion: they're both right. And that's kind of sad.
"...But at least they threw the guy out," I hear a rather exhausted-sounding developer telling a couple other people at a small indie gathering/pizza party.
Of course I'm curious, so I ask what exactly happened. Apparently some guy groped a woman at a Sony gathering. It's not the first time I've heard tell of this tale on this particular day, but it is the first time I've heard it from the mouth of someone who was there to witness the whole fiasco.
"But like I said, he did get thrown out as soon as people noticed," she continues. "That's better than before, back when nobody did anything at all."
The circle of listeners—myself included—nods in agreement. It's a good nod. A vigorous nod. A nod that says, "Yeah, I'm totally on board with that thing you just said and I'm going to strain my neck muscles to prove it."
"So then some friends and I went to another party right afterward," she adds seconds later, "and the same exact thing happened again. Different dude, different girl, but the same exact thing."
Everyone stops nodding.
Deirdra Kiai made a (fantastic) game all by their lonesome. This was not necessarily their choice. But when a whole industry shrugs its collective shoulders and decides it doesn't really have a place for you, there aren't a whole lot of other options.
At this point, their voice begins as a slight, disappointed tremor but grows—with each word—into a bitter shout. It's like a stampede closing in from a distance, a tidal wave about to crash.
"I released my first completed game in high school. I got an industry job right out of undergrad working on a game with Ron Gilbert, the guy who created Monkey Island. If anyone was a great fit for the game industry, it was me. Except, the truth is, I wasn't. I'm not. I don't think I ever will be."
"If you've ever made a game before, you know it isn't really easy. But compare that to not fitting in, not being one of the guys, AND not being one of the gals either… well, I could make A MILLION GAMES with the energy that trying to belong takes out of me."
"I HATE how people who aren't straight white cisgender men are treated in the game industry. I HATE that so many women can't come to a professional event without getting hit on by some creepy dude… and I HATE that it never, ever happens to me. I mean, who even thinks this? Shouldn't I feel happy that I'm not getting hit on?! No, I feel like SHIT. I start to wonder, what's wrong with me? I clearly don't look manly or bearded or stubbly enough, so I don't get to be treated like a real human, but I'm also not hot enough for any of their creepy attention. I'm like invisible or something."
It's GDC awards night, the most magical evening of the year for rampant Twitter snark. Hundreds of developers, press, friends, and families are gathered around the glow of a lit stage, many sporting the finest in attire you can shove into a suitcase and throw on over whatever you were wearing to appointments and meetings all day.
I'm sharing a table with Kotaku's own Stephen Totilo and Kirk Hamilton, and a jovial mood is in the air. It's actually a night of two back-to-back award shows, you see, and the one that just wrapped up, the Independent Gaming Festival, was full of moments both uproariously funny and heartfelt. Given that other landmark gaming award shows include the notoriously dispassionate, egregiously commercial Spike TV VGXs, I think it's fair to call the IGF and GDC awards a breath of fresh air. The crowd is pleased, drunk on relief. And wine. There is a lot of wine.
This year's GDC awards host is Titanfall developer Respawn Entertainment's Abbie Heppe, and she's quick to establish exactly what's going on here. She is the first woman host in the history of these awards. And if you're not OK with that? Well, you can just deal with it, she says with a confident smirk.
Then she brings up a full-on big-screen projection of female anatomy, warning that she is a woman and that means she has a vagina. The audience giggles with schoolchild glee, both at the joke and in the way that one might as part of a secret club no one else knows about. Here is our industry's collective victory. Sexism is dead! We overcame it together. Bring on the wine!
But there are other voices elsewhere, and they are quieter. "I watched a picture of a uterus displayed on the big screens of the awards show," outspoken critic and developer Mattie Brice would later write. "I was right next to the stage. I laughed. I realized that I laugh whenever someone assumes I relate to vaginas, fallopian tubes, breasts. I don't have them. I never will. I laughed when I meant to scream. Scream at what people thought was progressive. Scream at people trying their best. Scream at look how far we've come. Instead I laughed in fear of my life."
Later in the evening, Tropes vs Women in Video Games creator Anita Sarkeesian takes home the Ambassador Award, and Gone Home environment artist Kate Craig thanks her wife in an impassioned acceptance speech. There is laughter. There are tears. And all the while, the crowd claps on.
"I didn't last in the industry very long, as you can probably imagine," Deirdra Kiai continues after a long pause. "I was pushed over to the margins, where I quietly worked alone on my own projects, desperately struggling to find my voice."
"They could exclude me all they wanted, but they couldn't stop me from making games."
"They could exclude me all they wanted, but they couldn't stop me from making games." - Deirdra Kiai
Kiai explains that they found their identity in games despite an industry that built roadblock after roadblock in their path. First it was Monkey Island as a kid, which is where they picked up their nickname/handle, "Squinky." It wasn't until many, many years later, however, that they really saw a reflection of themself in games or the gaming industry again.
"When I was 25, I started playing a browser-based RPG called Echo Bazaar, which has since been renamed to Fallen London. As I created my character, I discovered that, along with the standard 'man' and 'woman' options, I could also choose to be a 'person of mysterious and indistinct gender.'"
"When I realized that choosing that third option felt more right than anything, that I didn't have to be a defective woman or a defective man but just myself… something inside me just unlocked. Slowly but surely, I started to dress and present differently, so that when I looked in the mirror, I started to see someone who looked more like how I felt."
"I started to embrace the use of singular they. Who cares if it's grammatically incorrect?"
One of my best friends returns from taking a shower sporting clean clothes, a soapy scent, and a facial expression that'd lead you to believe someone just died. She's utterly shaken. Devastated. "I look in the mirror, and I just don't like what I see. These hips, this chest—they don't feel like they're mine right now. It's been happening a lot more lately," she intones lowly, disappointment running rivulets through each word.
This friend has struggled with gender dysphoria for most of her life, and this is far from the first time I've seen her miserable over it. This thing that many like to write off as a first-world problem—something only those born of privilege have time to fret about—really isn't. It's identity.
I've witnessed my friend struggle to get out of bed because being uncertain about such a defining element of oneself is paralyzing. It makes work and university life an insurmountable task for her on some days.
She is not what I would call a weak person. But everyone has a breaking point.
Much later—in a better moment—I ask her how games impact her experience. Many modern games offer robust character customization options, but there's an inherent binary - not just in terms of physical characteristics, but implied aspects of your personality and orientation. Which big, strong man do you want to be? Which hyper-femme woman catches your eye the most?
"Gender presentation and style tend to be more important for me than presented sex," she tells me. "Example, Borderlands 2. I usually play the assassin class, because even though there is a female character to choose, she is presented in a way that's still overly femme for me."
"I often end up defaulting to whatever the more androgynous, thinner designed male option provided is and do not often see female designs that hit the same mark. So in my experience, the options are play the sex pot, or play the less masculine male."
Her assessment of how poorly games handle character creation on the whole, exceptions like Saints Row aside?
"VERY. THE ANSWER IS VERY."
Deirdra Kiai is more than a he or a she or a they. Deirdra Kiai isn't a category or a demographic. Crowd applause gives way to attentive silence as they explain:
"All these feelings that were bubbling up got poured into a game of my own, a game in which I vented my frustrations with binary categories, my desire to be seen as a person, not a stereotype… and that game later went on to be nominated for four IGF awards."
And then, one last explosion of voice. A slow-mo build to a crashing finish.
"I've been able to do these things, but only IN SPITE of the industry's social pressure not to. Imagine what I could have done if I'd been encouraged instead of IGNORED. Imagine how many other brilliant, talented people could be making weird, wonderful games along WITH ME."
"Imagine what I could have done if I'd been encouraged instead of IGNORED. Imagine how many other brilliant, talented people could be making weird, wonderful games along WITH ME." - Deirdra Kiai
"One day, I want to see a game industry that understands this! I want to see a game industry that tells its young and up-and-coming developers that their stories are valuable, that their unique creative voices are worth cultivating. I want to see a game industry where people are still making games when they're old. I want it to be okay to make things that are authentic and true and weird. NO - not just okay, but IMPORTANT."
"There are so many of you here, right now—artists, critics, academics—who stand for the things I stand for. It's like I was waiting for you all this time, and now you've arrived. Now we've arrived. Belonging is hard. But maybe it doesn't have to be."
The crowd goes nuts. And maybe these people already agreed with Kiai, maybe a certain vocal sect that misconstrues passionate, angry critique as a personal attack will rankle at the very notion of it all, maybe the industry still has a long, long way to go, but in that moment Kiai is triumphant. It is such a beautiful picture of what tomorrow could be.
You can read the full text of Kiai's speech on their blog.