The first thing I see at Lost Levels, a "radically casual" games event in San Francisco, is someone's back. The room is packed wall to wall with people, all here to watch—and give—a series of mostly impromptu talks on games. A woman at the front of the room is speaking, but I can't see her. I can't see anything. I'm only 5'2, so this happens a lot. I've spent countless hours of my life staring at the lower to middle backs of much taller men for hours on end, ringed by their height in a way that makes me feel a bit like a baby at the bottom of a well.
Then something remarkable happens: the man standing in front of me glances back, notices me, and sits down. And lo, the world expands beyond the plaid pattern of his button-up shirt. It's a small but appreciated gesture that also inspires an odd, retroactive pang of annoyance. Was making room for me always such an easy thing to do? Did the endless fence of tall men who stood in front of me throughout my life just never bother to consider my perspective?
The idea of making space for people who are typically obscured—and flattening the vertical edifices of power that exclude them—is something of a cause d'etre for Lost Levels, which takes place about three blocks from the annual Game Developer's Conference. Although GDC, the largest professionals-only gaming event in the world, has recently widened its embrace to include more independent developers and female speakers, it's still an event focused on recognizing success in traditional channels, rather than disrupting them.
But if GDC is a bit like print media—polished, curated, prestigious—then Lost Levels is its Twitter: unfiltered, spontaneous and open to all. Anyone who attends is welcome to give a talk on any subject they choose, regardless of their experience level or background. Talks are never screened, and as long as you speak for less than five minutes and don't harass anyone, you can say literally anything you want.
At a time when games culture often feels mired in petty, internecine arguments about credibility and authority, Lost Levels offers a radical alternative: pretend neither of them matter. Are you interested in games? Then you already belong.
Founded in 2013, Lost Levels bills itself as an "unconference," a colorful, impromptu camp of hyper-inclusion that springs up each year at the base of the mountain that is GDC. This year's Lost Levels event was organized by Mattie Brice, Mohini Dutta, Deirdra "Squinky" Kiai and Toni Pizza, although they're quick to note that leaders cycle out every two years to avoid giving too much power to any one figurehead.
"If you go to GDC, there's obviously a hierarchy there," says Brice. "There are superstar game developers, there are people with lots and lots of money, and industry veterans everywhere. But we don't give more time to people because they're famous. We don't schedule famous speakers in bigger rooms. Everyone is equal, everyone's ideas matter. Everyone gets five minutes."
Speakers and listeners run the gamut from experienced developers—including some who have given official talks at GDC—to amateur enthusiasts sharing personal stories. Their talks are a scatterplot of interests and insights: the limited ways that games imagine non-human avatars; the creative possibilities of physics-based rendering; how Godzilla movies can teach us to take artistic chances. One speaker manages to fit a very succinct game jam into the mandatory five-minute window.
Even the occasional moments of self-promotion feel earnest and idealistic, like the young audio engineer who stands up with shining eyes and says screw the big name corporations at GDC's career center—he wants to find passionate, like-minded collaborators to work with him outside of mainstream games. "Come talk to me," he finishes, gesturing in the air. "I want to help other people experience something beautiful."
Last year, Lost Levels was held outside at the nearby Yerba Buena Gardens, although Brice says the property managers kept trying to add the exact sort of structure they wanted to avoid: "They set up barricades and had guards, and we were like no, we don't want that. We just want to be in the park."
This year the event is indoors, but it kicks off with a parade that marches from the old location at the park to the event's new home at an independent studio space called Gamenest. Squinky leads the way joyfully playing euphonium, and as the line of frolicking Lost Levelers winds past the Moscone Center where GDC is in full swing, several game developers wearing little yellow badges look up, curious and bemused.
After the crowd settles in at the new venue, three start talks running simultaneously in three different rooms, labeled World 1, World 3, and World 4. Maybe there is a World 2, but I never find it. As people volunteer to speak, their names are scribbled on brightly colored Post-It notes and arranged on a board, like little yellow rafts that float upward on the loose, occasionally chaotic current of the event.
After an hour and a half, however, the organizers run into a problem: they've run out of talks, and no one else is signing up. Brice worries that the event might be winding down early. "Doesn't anyone want to talk?" she wonders.
But when the organizers directly ask the audience for more volunteers—and encourage them to speak—something changes. A few hesitant hands go up, a few more brave souls step forward. Each impromptu speaker seems to embolden the crowd a little more, and then the floodgates open. As minutes turn into hours, more and more people keep jumping to their feet, as though the wave of enthusiasm has magnetized their ideas and pulled them to the front of the room.
Most of the talks that follow start with some variation on the same caveat: "I didn't know if I was going to speak today." But they do.
One of the people who decides to speak is Sagan Yee, a freelance animator from Toronto. She tells the crowd about how she made her very first computer game thanks to the Difference Engine Initiative, a project that teaches game-making skills to people who are often underrepresented in the gaming industry. That experience lead her to the Hand Eye Society and the not-for-profit organization Dames Making Games, and ultimately to GDC.
When I ask her afterwards what finally prompted her to stand up, she says that she wants people to understand the impact that outreach programs like the Difference Engine Initiative can have. "It's super important," she says. There's a straight line, in her mind, from a single event that explicitly made space for her to attending the largest developer-focused games event in the world for the first time.
Later, a young black man gets up and talks briefly about where he comes from, and how his love of making games "is very strange in my neighborhood." He tells a story about working at a camp, and how the father of one of his few black students sought him out. The man told him how much it meant for his son "to see you do what you do, to see you talk about what you talk about."
He echoes the same sentiment I hear from Yee: These things are important. The role models we see, the spaces that people make for us or don't—it matters. And more often than we realize, it can make the difference between speaking and not speaking, between bringing a new voice into the world of games or leaving an empty chair.
One of my favorite talks comes courtesy of Robert Yang, an independent game developer and academic—as well as a former organizer of Lost Levels. After riffing on the "rhetoric of immersion" surrounding virtual reality technology, he pulls a friend out of the audience and introduces him as the "next generation VR prototype that I'm rolling out in 2016." Yang makes a joke about empathy being the ultimate form of VR technology; he curls his hands up to his eyes like a pair of goggles, then leans over and presses them against the eyes of his friend. "Now you're inside someone else's head," he says.
Empathy is in many ways the defining quality of Lost Levels, the force that opens up its lateral spaces and connects the people inside them. When a visibly anxious speaker loses his train of thought and seems to be floundering, someone sitting in the front row asks a question. For a second, the distance between speaker and audience flattens, and the short back and forth feels like a hand reaching out to steady him. He finishes his talk, and everyone applauds.
Perhaps the most striking thing about Lost Levels is how this sense of community is created not by rigidly guarded barriers to bad behavior but through faith—the belief that if you give people the chance to be better and show them how to do it, that they will.
"You have to trust people," says Brice. "A lot of people in the [games] industry are very authoritarian. They say most people are awful, so we have to do these things, or we have to think this way. But I don't believe that most people are awful. I think people just need the right motivation… Telling them 'don't be shitty to each other' is too vague. People tend to think well, I'm not a shitty person so whatever I do will be fine, and that's not always true. But if you instruct them and put them in an environment where they can practice it, they will practice it."
It isn't true, exactly, that the first thing I saw at Lost Levels was someone's back. The first thing I saw as I walked up the stairs was a poster explaining the anti-harassment policy of the event, followed by a sign lined with hand-drawn hearts that offered three friendly but crucial reminders: "Make space for others, watch out for blocking views, be an active listener."
At their core, all three suggestions pose some very basic questions of courtesy and community relevant to gaming culture: Are you willing to assess how much space you take up? Are you willing to consider whether it might be disproportionate? And if it is, are you willing to give up a little bit of that space to make room for someone else?