At Home in the Level Design Community

Several weeks ago, I wrote that I had stopped playing games. I wrote that I didn’t know when I would return. Now, after a week at the Game Developers Conference, I am playing games again. As an explanation, there are many thoughts I want to unpack. For those of you who make games, I hope these thoughts are useful for your own journey.

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Since moving to Canada in August, I’ve sought community. Living in a new country alone is difficult, and in my attempts to balance my life with my work, I’ve needed a life, a community.

At my work here I may be the youngest member of the level design team. My coworkers have families and houses. For them, the studio is their second, or third community. And for me, these coworkers serve as mentors for how to live a life in balance.

But because of our differences, my work is also a second community. To seek a life outside of work, I’ve connected with the arts scene through poetry readings and theater. This is a slow process, but half a year since arriving in Canada, I feel I’m at the threshold to a community here.

Then, two weeks ago, the Game Developers Conference happened.

In November, when I was still failing to find a community, the Level Design Workshop at GDC announced an opening for talk submissions. I pitched my talk on applying playground to multiplayer level design. In the submission form, they asked why I wanted to present. I said that I care about the level design community, that this community has given me mentors and friends over the years, and that my talk is one small way to try to give back. Later that month, the Level Design Workshop accepted my pitch, and I set to writing.

As GDC approached, my life and my efforts to find community shifted. I stopped playing games. I fell out of touch with the mod scene and the Quake community on which my talk relied for many of its examples. I felt a reckoning in myself from the debts of overwork in games, and I felt cynical.

With each email GDC sent about biz-dev networking opportunities and talks about optimizing monetization strategies, I felt my cynicism deepen. One cold email invited me to talk over coffee about “competitive intelligence within the mobile app landscape.” Considering I don’t work in mobile games, and that “competitive intelligence” means nothing to me, I have to assume this email was one of thousands weaseling for business opportunities.

To be clear, I’m not a capitalist. Each day’s news that the planet is warming faster than expected pushes my socialist tendencies toward anarcho-communism. To me, the game industry’s eagerness for profit and growth has no rational place on a dying planet. In these critical years before our carbon-emissions pass the point of no return, it seems unlikely that game development is the best use of my life. But all of my skills are in level design, though this may be a sunken-cost fallacy.

So, receiving these emails from GDC, I felt a dissonance within me. On one side, I was committed to present my talk and give something back to the level design community, as I had promised. On the other side, I felt a repulsion to the business, the tech-obsession, and the history-rewriting carnival of the games industry. I don’t believe games are the highest medium for art, nor that games could, or should replace books in the classroom. I don’t believe in inevitable progress, or that the newest technology is best. But these beliefs are at the heart of GDC. It is a business conference, after all, and there is a self-righteousness in these values that I don’t accept.

If you are steeped in the culture of games, or if you are a student eager to work in the industry, you may not understand this. I may sound entitled, ungrateful. Here I had the privilege to attend the biggest conference in games and present a talk. There are many who could have made more of this opportunity, appreciated it more. And if my cynicism had persisted and I had phoned-in my talk, you’d be right to fetch pitchforks and light torches.

In that first day at GDC, I felt like an imposter, not for want of skill or knowledge as a craftworker, but an imposter like an atheist attending church.

Then the night before the Level Design Workshop and my talk, we all met for dinner. As a bunch of level designers in a room are wont to do, we talked shop, we talked the stresses of the job, and we turned nostalgic toward the mod scenes and the tools where we had learned our craft.

When I mentioned Unreal Engine 2.5, I got a laugh of recognition. When I said the Quake mod scene is still active and thriving, there were smiles of delight. As dinner carried on, I observed I was the most animated I’d been in months. I wondered if this was my response to the crowds of San Francisco, my travel-stress turned raw energy. But our conversations were exciting. Now, more than a week back from GDC, I am still excited by the ideas we shared.

As a group of level designers meeting for dinner, we left our company loyalties at the door. We met like freelancers gathered in a moment of peace. Most of us there were employed on long-term contracts, and some were with studios where they have worked for years. But in games, we are all freelancers in the long term. Our industry is turbulent, layoffs are frequent, and we are all trying to find our place. Later that night, one of the veteran designers told me he never expected he would be in games this long, yet there he was, still finding ways to do meaningful work.

In the conversations at dinner and in the days that followed, I felt at home in this community of level designers. This is a specific subset of the industry, not just level designers, but the small group of us who feel absurdly compelled to share our knowledge, give talks, and explore the craft. We are an academic bunch, not businessmen. Many of us come from the anti-commercial folk-traditions of modding. We are the historians of our craft because who else will care, if not us?

When I call this a community, I mean we are a group where I feel I belong. For me, community describes a feedback loop where my work has value as part of an ongoing conversation, and community offers other voices from whom I can learn. There is the sense of safety in a strong community, to explore new ideas. Above all, this community is unified by the curiosity to explore the possibilities of our craft.

For some developers, GDC is about renewing a faith in games with fresh inspiration. This was my experience when I presented a talk in 2018. But this year, this was not about faith. This year, the Level Design Workshop within GDC reminded me of the community where I already belong. After months of seeking a community in Canada, so slowly, GDC reminded me of the community I already have.

This troubles me in many ways. The level design community has its problems. We are skewed toward white men and fail to support or remember the work of women and people of color. We are skewed toward English-speakers who can afford to spend a week in San Francisco. As a subset of the industry, and a subset of GDC, we share in the larger biases of game development. These biases limit the conversations our community can have, and they limit our potential as a craft.

I am also troubled because this is a once-a-year community. We carry on our conversations by shouting around the loud dinner tables and bars of San Francisco. This leaves me wanting more: to talk longer, more clearly, more often. But GDC ends and we return to our studios across the globe until the next year. If the community where I belong is there among level designers, I’m horrified how we are splintered over distance and time. If this is my community, then my community is broken.

To say this troubles me is an understatement. I feel something closer to horror, or despair, like discovering I am on an island alone. I feel reminded that we are all freelancers in the long term, that making games takes a kind of homelessness. In an industry this turbulent, the only lasting community may be this broken thing we have together.

And, frankly, I’m not sure what to make of this, or what to do.

Returning to Canada from GDC, my thoughts could be summarized as “well, shit.” If the community where I belong is a collection of international level designers, then our once-a-year reunions may be as good as it gets. The arts scene in Canada I’ve spent months pursuing may only ever be my second community.

However, I realize for us level designers separated across the globe, part of our conversation is through our work. It may be a year till we talk again in person, but we are still in conversation so long as we listen.

When I wrote a few weeks ago that I had stopped playing games, I said I didn’t know when I would return. Now that I’m back in Canada from a week at GDC, I find myself returning, slowly at first, to the study of games. For now, this is the way I know to keep in conversation with the community where I belong.

Thanks for reading,
-Andrew

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