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  • Walter Hill

Lessons From GDoC 2019

It's been a long week since I left the 2019 Game Devs of Color Expo, and I've done a lot of thinking about what I learned and how to carry those lessons with me into my senior year game projects and beyond.

First though, if you haven't had a chance to attend, I highly recommend it. The energy in the Schomburg Center was infectious and the venue was packed. I played board games and tabletop RPGs about queer dating and a game with plastic fish wired to work as controllers. Nintendo had a booth, and Niantic as well among the dozens of smaller independent and student developers. Most importantly, I met a lot of new people, and made some good connections that I hope to grow in the future.

Just a few of the business cards I gathered at the expo

My favorite talk I attended was the Hip Hop and Games talk. A couple of developers and three high profile recording artists sat on stage for about a hour having an honest and fun discussion on the intersection of hip hop culture and games, how games fall short in their depictions of black culture, and telling their own games and hip hop crossover stories.

Sammus, Davionne Gooden, Open Mike, Megan Ran, & Shawn Alexander

I gathered two things from this talk that I want to take with my as I continue my journey as a game developer. The first was a big one for me, and it was something that I had felt, but hearing it really struck me. At the intersection of games and hip hop is the love and elitism and gate keeping around the use of creation tools. The talk arrived at the conclusion that the tools don't make the artist. And that's something I feel hasn't really been translated into games in the way it is in rap. For example, Madlib produced his most recent album all on an iPhone. I often see developers raising their noses at less popular or well known tools. From my experience in games, it's easy to become wedded to a tool. Going forward, I want to try and not be beholden to the tools (Unity, Unreal, etc). I want to focus more on how I want my game to look and feel and then decided the proper tools for the job from there.

The second thing I took from the talk was the realization that I want to incorporate more hip-hop into my games in a musical sense. I've had that cross my mind often. Big-budget games just don't use hip-hop in their soundtracks and I listen to a lot of rap music. In the games I make going forward, I want to make a more conscious effort to have hip hop music on the soundtracks. Davionne Gooden, one of the developers on stage really hammered the need to pull more of hip hop into games through music. His game She Dreams Elsewhere's soundtrack is steeped in hip hop music. The talk really inspired me to make games that aren't afraid to be wrapped in hip hop to their core, instead of just sprinkled on with stereotypes and caricatures.

Key art from Emma Kidwell's Half

I also played a lot of wonderful games at the expo. I really enjoyed Emma Kidwell's Half, a narrative game about life as a person of half European and half Japanese descent. Another great game I played was Fallen Angel, a game made by fellow student developers out of Drexel University. It was great to see other students at the expo demoing their games, drawing a crowd, and being successful. The game had Hyper Light Drifter vibes in the art style, but with a little more hack and slash in its veins.

One of the core things I learned was about myself. It came from a conversation I had with a developer about my plans after graduation (he's working on a first-person horror game The Lighthouse). He told me something along the lines of showing up is half the battle, that by making it down to New York City for the expo, with lessons to learn and connections to build, I had broke through the invisible barrier between games student, to Game Maker.

Looking back, that moment made me realize that I had come down to the expo quietly hoping to find some kind of affirmation, some assurance that after graduation, everything would work out. Part of me hoped I'd make a magical connection that led to an instant job offer. That didn't happen, and I'm not sure it ever does. That developer I spoke with didn't offer me that comfort; he told me the road making games is difficult and uncertain, and fun and rewarding.

A week later, the only sure thing I know is that I will continuing to learn and continue to create. I have a whole year of school left to improve as a developer, and I plan to make big strides every step of the way. When the time comes after graduation and my number is called, I plan on showing up.

Photos courtesy of the Game Devs Of Color Expo twitter account.

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