The week before my trip to the Game Developer’s Convention in San Francisco, I was preoccupied by my father’s death. That circumstance lead to a week of family-gatherings and visits from friends who devoted their time to my well-being. I was poured into, and that felt great, despite the circumstances.
So when I arrived in San Francisco, excited and anxious about meeting a host of new people, many of whom I had known only from social networks and email, I found myself full of hope and optimism. I roamed the venues in wide-eyed wonder, full of thanksgiving and humbly accepting the grace of relationships that would only last a few days before returning to the bastion of internet communication. I progressed through each relationship wrecklessly, blurting out my thoughts, my struggles, and my passions to anyone who would listen – and many listened. I excitedly listened and observed as the twitter personalities I had previously thought of as “smart”, “clever” or “nice” fleshed themselves out. One-dimensional abstract personalities expanded into concrete human beings, with all of their complexities. And here I was, optimally positioned to take it all in.
I spent much of the week opening up to colleagues, and a surprisingly little amount of that time talking about videogames. We talked about our lives, fears, ambitions, and only tangentially how videogames related to those things. And yes, we talked about the most taboo of subjects: religion. Even though many of the people I met were atheists or agnostics, we talked about the religious perspective as something that was much too rare, or much too volatile. Over and over again, enthusiasts, developers and journalists said to me that they had religious friends, that they went to church when they were younger, that they were thinking a lot more about religion these days. This was a far cry from the religious conversations I had seen online. Meanwhile, here I was confronted with people with beliefs diametrically opposed to mine – but I saw them as kindred spirits nonetheless. Even though our disagreements were foundational in nature, we shared a crucial similarity: we were all human beings. It just made sense to be respectful of one another and careful to understand one another. Easy dismissal simply wasn’t an option.
Maybe that’s what game design and games writing needs most: a healthy dose of humanity. Developers can look at numbers and get a sense that players tend to buy first-person shooters over real-time strategy games. They can do QA and have testers tell them that one stage is incredibly frustrating and should be pared down. Writers can scour twitter for the latest controversy, and weigh in with their own unique perspective. Web editors can assign reviews for games that seem popular or interesting or prepare a provocative multi-part feature.
We can obsess over what people on the internet want. But how will we determine what we need? (I’m choosing my pronouns carefully here: determining what THEY need rather than what WE need is an ugly, pretentious road that leads only to bitterness and frustration on both sides; bad games and insufferable web sites.) By talking to one another and taking the time to empathize with one another, to experience one another’s reality. These things can, theoretically, be done over chat, skype or twitter, but it’s not likely, and it’s certainly not easy. The physical presence of other people inspires an immediacy and understanding that words on a screen often can’t.
Over lunches and dinners, at parties and bars, I found myself caught off-guard by the genuine relationships that were forming. There was a time when I would have considered them unwise or pointless. After all, I would only see these people for a few days, at which point we would all resume our lives scattered across the world. We would all return to normalcy – a transition which would no doubt feel brutal in its mundane inevitability. And yeah, that happened. But some of the residue from that trip carried over. When we read one another’s tweets, we heard specific voices in our heads. We had a sense of the emotional resonance one subject may carry for a certain person. Even over the internet, even after it was all over, we pursued real relationship with one another, well after the real-life convention had ended.
I don’t think any of us are anxious to admit that a host of our friends exist on the internet. I have plenty of local friends, but the ones who share with me a common interest in writing and videogames exist in a world dominated by mentions, follows, likes, comments, and retweets. Maybe they’re not quite friends; I don’t know. I certainly don’t see them often, I don’t have long conversations with them on a regular basis. But I care about them, I am interested in what happens in their lives, and most importantly for our work as writers, I understand a little better where they are coming from. It’s hard to be sure, but I think the feeling is basically mutual.
That mutual concern is something that can only be cultivated and appreciated through real-life gatherings. It’s why no one Skyped into my dad’s funeral. It’s why two friends of mine drove more than six hours to be there with me in the midst of it. It’s why, once you meet long-time internet acquaintances in person, every random tweet and comment feels more coherent and resonant, and every article from that point on is infused with a genuine sense of purpose and stakes.
I got several nice notes and emails after my dad died, but none were so comforting as the steady stream of emails that came in from my church. This was an entire group of people who had listened and prayed for me for years. Some of them I only barely knew. Others I had grown to love. Each one of them, though, I had seen in the flesh. I had seen their families, observed their facial expressions, and watched them interact with others. So when the emails came, even though they were mere words on a screen, they meant something extraordinary.
When I couldn’t hide behind clever turns of phrases or the selective authenticity associated with social networks, there was still a group of people who jumped at the chance to be a part of my life. I found that at church, and to my amazement, I found that at a videogame conference.
So when you have the opportunity to attend something like that, seek out that kind of understanding. And when you find fellow seekers, offer it up freely.