Finding the Lost Levels

A new game industry conference is open to everyone -- and that's the point.
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"Have you ever heard of the interesting number paradox?" asks award-winning, 20-year-old Australian developer Harry Lee after being told he might be one of the most interesting people working in games.

He doesn't like that idea.

"Is there such a thing as a least interesting number?" he asks. Declaring a most interesting number is theoretically possible, he says, as it would have the most number of variables or be the biggest number you could imagine. The problem is declaring a number as having no value whatsoever.

"Of course, if it were actually the least interesting number, it would still be interesting due to the fact it was the least interesting," he says.

Pause.

"I think everyone is interesting."

Someone with a cursory knowledge of the game industry may not have heard of Lee, but there's a better chance they've seen his work. His iOS puzzle title Stickets won critical acclaim in 2013, especially in his home country, and his first game, Impasse, was played over one million times online. He's won several commendations for his work, including a prestigious grant — the Qantas Spirit of Youth Award — when he was 18.

Lee is also a co-facilitator of a radical games conference that is beginning to turn heads. In fact, its co-founders and supporters say it isn't a conference at all. But in its second year, Lost Levels is gaining traction as a popular space for the discussion of games and how developers can make them more inclusive, radical and meaningful.

Lost Levels is "hyper-inclusive," meaning anyone can give a talk about anything. Attendees take the invitation literally. On the second to last day of the annual Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, a collection of developers, journalists and randoms descend on a nearby park to share insights on everything from goats to Jeff Goldblum.

"We are fostering a new sense of community," Lee says. "Lost Levels was born out of a background of frustration, but centrally, celebration — celebration of diversity and things that weren't being recognized."

Such a diverse and seemingly unrelated group of talks is unusual. But after all, Lee says, "everything is interesting."

Finding the lost

It started with a tweet. In early 2013, someone — neither Lee nor the other organizers can remember who — mused on Twitter about making a separate space at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco where anyone — anyone — could give a talk about whatever they want. Lee quickly responded in the affirmative, and things started rolling.

The group was tired of GDC, so Lee says the idea gained traction quickly. While the conference does some things well, he says, it's also a huge event — this year GDC hosted a record 24,000 attendees — and the group felt alternative views and ideas weren't being heard.

"It's easy to feel inferior at GDC," says Robert Yang, an independent game developer, writer, academic and co-facilitator at Lost Levels. Yang is an adjunct instructor at the New York University Game Center — a hub for experimentation of play and design.

Yang says there can be a barrier between speakers and attendees at GDC: "Like you're not the one at the big podium or at the right party, so you don't deserve to be heard.

"I don't hate GDC; I'm just disappointed by it."

"I don't hate GDC; I'm just disappointed by it."

The Game Developers Conference started in 1988 and has since become the industry's main event for professional development. In an array of talks, workshops and parties, developers discuss the previous year and share their knowledge, insights and failures. Industry veterans with names such as Spector, Romero and Schafer and Bleszinski wander the halls. Independent developers display their games on the show floor. Students try to make connections with potential employers, and business cards are handed out like candy.

Such is the value of GDC — some studios send their entire development team for the week. But that's an expensive venture — the cheapest full conference tickets run several hundred dollars and all-access can run over $2,000. Yang posits that's well out of reach for many.

"The total cost of attending GDC — pass, hotel, transportation, food — is prohibitively high for poorer developers who don't manage to win the Independent Games Festival or who don't have companies or institutions sponsoring them," says Yang.

"I think 'poor' probably describes the vast majority of students, educators, critics and developers who do valuable work but cannot attend."

Yang accuses GDC of an "incessant need to turn a profit," something he says taints the conference's entire agenda.

GDC is run by a publicly listed company, United Business Media. It's part of an index known as the FTSE 250, which is comprised of the largest 250 companies on the London Stock Exchange and claims to be the world's second-largest events company.

During 2013, UBM earned over half its $1.3 billion revenue and over 70% of its profit from events — events like GDC.

Profit doesn't come without cost. Hiring San Francisco's Moscone Center for a week is expensive even before you pay for the staff and resources to handle more than 20,000 attendees. Many sessions are staffed with techs who put the talks online, accessible to many pass holders.

And accusations of profit mongering have been swatted down by GDC leaders before — last year, General Manager Meggan Scavio told Polygon the conference turns down corporate money "all the time," particularly with regard to sponsored content.

Investing such large amounts of money, in theory, allows those big-name developers wandering the halls to dedicate their time and effort to giving talks, which helps advertise the conference to students and other members of the industry.

Many of these talks are billed as containing valuable insight from the development process of commercially successful games. For instance, this year's GDC featured talks with the designers of games like Hearthstone, BioShock Infinite and Battlefield who talked about how those games were made — complete with stories about their embarrassing failures along the way.

"The Independent Games Summit featured zero full-length talks by women."

However, this is something Yang also critiques.

"Supposedly [GDC needs] to stay expensive and exclusive to ensure high-quality talks," Yang says, although he questions whether some are as high quality as GDC advertises them to be. "[Then] they go and broadcast Ken Levine rambling on basic questions about procedural narrative — questions that other designers have been studying for decades?"

This is why Lee says some developers and other attendees feel left out. Many who attend Lost Levels are making games that don't receive mainstream recognition, but they feel their contributions are on the bleeding edge of gaming and therefore worthy of just as much attention and discussion. Using tools like Twine or GameMaker, they focus on individual stories and authorship to make games that expose human stories and vulnerability with an aim to evoke empathy, not just fun and not even necessarily a profit.

These games are regularly displayed in alternative conferences such as the Different Games Conference or GaymerX. These are critical spaces, Lee says, for helping people feel wanted — and he believes that GDC, even in its position as the largest and most influential conference, doesn't always achieve that goal.

"Consider that, this year, the Independent Games Summit featured zero full-length talks by women," says Lee. "While this is indicative of larger systemic problems, the IGS is a curated event that has the opportunity to change the status quo."

Controversy at GDC

The organizers of GDC have been attempting to place more of a spotlight on the industry's diversity. In 2012, GDC introduced the Advocacy Track to focus on talks that "address new and existing issues within the realm of social advocacy."

Over the last three conferences, speakers in the track have rallied attendees to address issues of sexism, racism and homophobia in the games industry while highlighting smaller, more nuanced games not seen in the mainstream.

Some have even received mainstream attention. This year, BioWare developer Manveer Heir received widespread coverage in games media for his talk on stereotypes in games. He earned a standing ovation.

It's presumably the type of space where the makers of Lost Levels would fit nicely, and some of the organizers have even spoken on panels in the Advocacy Track before.

But they say it doesn't go far enough.

"Speakers are carefully selected, which confers prestige and increased pressure to perform well," says Lee, arguing that this perpetuates an environment in which the safest talks are chosen above those that might rock the boat.

The answer, the way the Lost Levels organizers see it, is to have no curation whatsoever. Robert Yang invited attendees last year with a rallying cry, encouraging this type of diversity: "We are especially fond of the weird, the unusual and the silly." As long as a talk isn't directly attacking anyone (corporate structures excepted), everything is fair game.

The talks have ranged from introspective explanations of spiritual beliefs to poetry readings and musical performances. Some are completely off the wall. Some have spoken about the importance of representing diversities in gender, and this year, one speaker shaved his beard and collected hair from attendees into a giant ball — to show that materials to make games are "all around us."

These types of activities don't appear on the GDC schedule.

Mattie Brice, one of the co-facilitators of Lost Levels, says the structure of GDC is always going to highlight certain people and create barriers — even if that barrier is as simple as a podium.

"There's often a feeling that, well, 'you're a bottom person, and you're a top person, and we can never communicate.'" But here at Lost Levels, you can, and we want to build a feeling of good faith," she says.

Changing the shape of the cage

Despite Harry Lee wanting Lost Levels to become a place for anyone to be interesting, he's not exactly convinced he has much to say. In fact, he states it outright: "I'm not what people should be looking at."

Yet Lee is an accomplished developer. His game Stickets won the Best Australian Game award at the FreePlay Independent Games Festival in 2012. His Qantas Spirit of Youth Award is a coveted prize.

His personal life has been no less fascinating. When Lee was a child, his home in Indonesia was targeted by a terrorist attack. (The attack wasn't directed at his family, who were there for Lee's father's work as a government consultant, and they weren't in the country at the time.)

"There are greater and better examples of history and art people have never heard of," he says, referring to himself. He doesn't particularly enjoy talking about whether his games have made him a living either, suggesting financial independence is only one criteria for success.

Games represented a space where people could learn more about what made others feel pain, love, or any other emotion.

And for someone who, as an adult, is so focused on highlighting video games and the people who make them, Lee says he only had a cursory interest in the medium as a child.

"I tried playing games. I remember trying to play Donkey Kong, but I would associate with the character so much," he says. "If anything bad happened it would cause me visceral pain."

Yet it was that empathy with his on-screen counterpart, and his love of learning, that drew him back to games in his teenage years. To Lee, games represented a space where people could learn more about what made others feel pain, love, or any other emotion.

"My first few video game projects were experiments in code and philosophy: a pong variant based on The Myth of Sisyphus, an abstract drag-and-drop picture book puzzle inspired by The Great Divorce, a one-room RPG exploring Kantian ethics involving a puppy," he says.

Lee's Stickets is a puzzle game requiring the player to connect different colored blocks, but each move carries a soft chime; when the player completes the puzzle, a warm musical tone sounds. It's relaxing and inviting.

It's the type of game Lee enjoys making because it helps people — even if it's just to relax for a minute. He wants to see more games like it.

"We now have, more than ever before, games about personal expression and explanation," says Lee. "It gives me great hope that even though the top 10 Xbox titles still have guns and shooting as their main mechanic, we are moving toward a future where not everything is centered around those violent interactions."

Initially, Lee picked medicine as his chosen career but dropped it after a year. The established traditions of the profession repelled him, especially those that he felt restricted progress and improvement.

"I was making games at the time, and I was also just getting very disillusioned with systems of medicine and noticed that being a doctor, although hopeful in one sense, and allows a louder voice in conversation, was also introducing an incredible amount of bias in my position."

It was this frustration that led Lee to volunteer for the Lost Levels cause in early 2013 — and to his own cause of making games that are about more than simply having a good time. He wanted to help people in a practical, tangible way.

But Lee doesn't intend on spending a lot of time in games. He's too eager to try other things.

"I'd be very surprised if I stuck around in games forever," he says. "I don't like the idea of being stuck doing something."

In particular, he says, he doesn't feel as if he needs attention. Lee adopts the Lost Levels philosophy to a point — he finds everything interesting except himself. This is partly why he isn't comfortable with the idea of being profiled in the first place. Lee is wary of being contrasted as a key personality, which detracts from the collective of the Lost Levels gatherings.

This plays out in their media guidelines: At least three of the five facilitators must take part in any interview.

"The western world celebrates auteur theory and celebrity culture to a startling degree," says Lee. "We look for the Miyazaki over the Ghibli, whereas I hope to be a signpost to point to the people who are doing more interesting things."

A day on the green

On the green lawn of Yerba Buena park on the Thursday afternoon of GDC this year, various groups gather around, chatting about this and that. People from every aspect of the industry are there relaxing and talking to one another.

It's a diverse gathering, both aesthetically and representationally: About half the attendees are women, and the smart polos and buttoned-up shirts of GDC have been swapped for a mix of colorful shirts and, in one or two cases, jackets, ties and suspenders.

The organizers stand in the middle of this hive, hunched over a bright piece of cardboard covered in Post-it notes, designating the different conference tracks or "worlds" from each other and scheduling the order of the talks, up until the last minute.

This poster is the only representation of any sort of schedule or order. Lost Levels is fluid, constantly moving, even as the talks themselves are taking place.

As a larger group huddles around the organizers, Harry Lee's soft-spoken demeanor is put aside:

"Welcome to Lost Levels!" he screams, met by a raucous cheer.

For its own definition as an unconference, Lost Levels is fairly organized. Brice and Lee walk around the various groups, asking after the next speakers, making sure they're ready to start several minutes before they begin.

The talks and their performances are varied, as the Lost Levels website promised. Writers Maddy Myers and Samantha Allen give a talk about how they developed a game of their own that embodied their friendship, and hey, maybe you should try it too. An independent developer, Andrew Yoder, presents a talk on poetry and why more developers should take the form as inspiration.

There is a dance-off to the "Professor Oak Theme" from Pokemon.

Last year, Ryan Green and Josh Larsen, the duo at the heart of That Dragon, Cancer, gave a talk on the importance of including personal narratives in games and the difference between "honesty" and "truth." At one point, Green evoked his spiritual beliefs explicitly: "But if I pursue what is true, what is noble and what is good, if I shine a light on truth, then it will set me free and it will set us free," he said at the time.

All of this paints a diverse, accepting culture of developers. But although the Lost Levels co-facilitators are keen to point out they're not competing with GDC and don't necessarily even have a problem with its existence, some talks point out the rift between the two groups.

This year, Naomi Clark, a freelance games designer based in New York, gave a talk in which she adopted the persona of AAA superstar Ric Chivo, and presented a top-10 list on the responsibilities of a game developer. It was a self-explanatory critique on the brashness of developers who abuse their public personalities, and on the industry overall, with blunt instruction, such as "Be a straight, white dude."

Most talks rarely touched on this sort of divide, but Clark presented what everyone at Lost Levels may have already known and felt — a difference between "us" and "them."

Clark even points this out, saying she wouldn't have been able to do the performance by herself. It required a rambunctious and loud character to make the critique believable.

"I've been attending GDC for fifteen years and was really glad to see Lost Levels appear — not just for the sake of outsiders without the money or connections needed to get inside the "beige box" of Moscone Center, but because as an adjunct, symbiotic organism, Lost Levels actually helps make GDC better," says Clark.

Clark isn't specifically talking about GDC itself here — instead, she's saying the existence of Lost Levels is an argument for showing up in San Francisco at the same time the conference is happening. But Lee suggests there is a symbiotic relationship between the two.

"There is frustration toward GDC and its perceived values, and some of that frustration is expressed at Lost Levels," he says. "Regardless of where it's hosted, the criticism is vital because it prevents complacency. Criticism can instigate cultural change."

The big kids come to play

There is a bridge between these two worlds, however. Plenty of developers from outside the independent space have shown an interest in Lost Levels, saying it provides something GDC can't — the ability to hear a variety of talks on topics that go farther than some practical take-aways.

Richard Lemarchand, a former Naughty Dog lead designer and now a professor at the University of Southern California, was in attendance and advertised the event through social media. A backer of all things experimental and artistic in games, Lemarchand was perhaps one of the most outspoken voices of the event on Twitter and continues to champion its existence.

Fred Zeleny, a narrative designer for 2K Games, said Lost Levels gave him a top-down view on large, meaty topics.

"At the very least, it will inform your thinking on future work," he says. "It's hard for one person in a large studio to really change the tide of anything. I suspect people who are in the positions of power aren't hanging around the park, but a good idea can still filter through to all sorts of places."

Ed Kay, now an independent developer but one with a work history that extends across Epic Games and even to LucasArts in its final days, said it's easier to come away from Lost Levels thinking about the philosophy of game design rather than a top-10 list.

"A good idea can still filter through to all sorts of places."

"It encourages you to go away and actually think," he says.

Even Simon Carless, who oversees GDC, says the existence of Lost Levels is a positive — and GDC is fully supportive. He acknowledges that the expensive entry passes are a barrier to perhaps a more inclusive discussion.

"Obviously we've opened up the Advocacy Track to all GDC attendees, even Expo, this year, which helps. But we don't lay a claim to all forms of expression during the week, and nor do we want to — and we continue to work very hard on progressing GDC's makeup while appreciating the work of some of its satellites."

Losing the message

In its attempt to eschew the trappings of larger conferences, Lost Levels' lack of resources has led to a variety of logistical problems.

The number of people attending the talks at the start of the day totaled the number of attendees in the previous year. At one point, the sizable crowd of roughly 200 was asked by park employees to relocate to a different area to make room.

Few of the talks could actually be heard properly by all attendees. Without any microphones or audio and visual equipment, speakers had to project their voices in order to be heard. For some, this was fine, but more soft-spoken presenters couldn't shout over the din in the park and the attendees having their own conversations.

While some Lost Levels organizers and attendees criticize GDC for its huge, sprawling corporate structure, this is one area where resources, logistics and money help — anyone who wants to see Lost Levels talks online relies on footage from whoever happened to film them.

"I think we just want to try to embody an alternative for people who feel excluded."

"I wish we could do the support [and] technical stuff better," says Yang. "We tried to plan a workshop day this year, but it never came together.

"GDC can definitely support its speakers a lot more than we can, and they have a timed schedule they can keep, and people generally know what's going on. I think the critique might be more whether this 'exclusivity' is exclusively the best way to help organize people, or whether concentrated resources leads to better dialogue or better communities.

"I think we just want to try to embody an alternative for people who feel excluded, not necessarily a replacement for everything that GDC does."

However, given that Lost Levels was created by a group of people who know themselves well, Lee says this is something he thinks about often — that Lost Levels is giving off an exclusivist vibe as well.

He says this despite the fact that there were plenty of people giving talks who aren't well-known figures, including several spectators who know nothing about games. (One woman watching a friend give a talk said she came from a collective that shuns technology, and especially video games — and even she said, "I think this is pretty cool.")

"This is actually one of the things I take issue with," Lee says. "It's easy to say someone or something is oppressed through race, gender or ability."

"But isn't friendship a form of gatekeeping? I'd say yes, it is."

This is why the Lost Levels leadership team made the decision to rotate out every couple of years.

After next year, Lee's turn will be up. Just as he's moved from one interest to the next, Lee will put Lost Levels behind him and pursue other interests.

Another co-facilitator, Ian Snyder, points out a significant ramification — changing leaders could mean Lost Levels disappears entirely. Future coordinators could decide to shut it down.

"There is the possibility to separate what it is now from what it is in the future, if need be," he says. "Everything is up in the air, even the existence of Lost Levels. If people in the future decide it's run its course, they can shut it down."

But if the organizers feel so strongly about its existence, why create the possibility for it to be completely shut down?

"The facetious answer is because, hey, communism," says Lee.

That facetious answer contains a kernel of truth. Lost Levels prioritizes collectivism — the $3,000 for a park permit to hold the conference was raised through crowdfunding, and Yang says the organizers even toyed with the idea of providing workshops as a type of free education. (He also says that Lost Levels, while inherently political, has no specific affiliation.)

"It's anarchical. We aren't there to be a hierarchy," he says, reinforcing his point by saying he only speaks for himself, not the group of facilitators as a whole.

"We don't want it so it caters to friends of the organizers, which is a real concern. In order to make sure that it's open to all, we need to constantly seek new voices."

This is very much the philosophy behind some of the popularity explosion in smaller, more author-focused games whose proponents appear at Lost Levels. Disrupting the status quo in games requires a different approach entirely, one that uses tools not being used in the mainstream. If that means some don't understand what it's about, or simply don't get it, then so be it, says Lee.

"You can't destroy the culture we are against by recreating the same conditions on the other side of the scale."

Finding the future

Lost Levels will be back at GDC next year. And the year after that. After that, the coming leadership changes make it impossible to say whether it will survive or not.

Of course, there are plenty who hope it continues. Naomi Clark says she wants to see Lost Levels maintain its anarchic spirit "while getting the financial and logistical support needed to handle a growing number of people."

Lost Levels could become what its co-founders never wanted — another large, corporate event.

But for all its faults, Lee still believes it's been a force for good. "I would compare it to naïve work," he says. "Like an artist starts out naïve in a way, and contrast that with an artist who has refined their craft and is much more secure."

For now, at least, Lost Levels is a reflection of the changes happening in the games industry, when more people are making games about themselves and others. Game designers are no longer stuck on the fringes, hoping to make an impact in an industry that provides preference to those with some money in their pockets.

Lost Levels may disappear because it won't be needed. Maybe its radical ideas will start flickering through the mainstream in games of color and empathy — games like Lee's.

For now, though, many of its organizers just want to focus on the here and now, inviting anyone and everyone. Yang says it's enough if people feel like they deserve to be heard.

"I think we just want to help everyone give themselves permission to be interesting." Fin

Illustrations: Dylan Lathrop
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