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Women organize for safer, more inclusive Game Developers Conference

More than 25,000 game developers descend on San Francisco for GDC, their annual conference. In an industry that is overwhelmingly male, women complain that the social environment at the conference doesn’t always feel professional. 

So, they’re organizing to make it safer and more welcoming. 

It’s Sunday night in SOMA and the Monarch club is packed with people sipping drinks, crowding around LCD displays, and clutching Xbox controllers. Partygoers try to get out of the way of a man wearing virtual reality goggles, who’s swinging his arms around, oblivious to the outside world.

The vast majority of people at the club are men, but there’s a cluster of five women moving from room to room together. Including Zala Habib from New Zealand and Megan from Chicago, who asked us not to use her last name.

They’ve come from all over for GDC, the world’s largest game developer conference. They just met today, but tonight they’re staying close together.

“Whenever I see a woman I’m like nice! like cool! but then I think about that for a second and I’m like I should not be this excited about just seeing another woman. It’s like half of the population,” Habib says.

But at the conference, men outnumber women four to one, and it can get uncomfortable when those guys get flirty.

“Find love if you can find love. I mean shoot your shot, man,” says Megan, “but because there’s such a large percentage of men, and such a small percentage of women in comparison, it can kind of feel almost like an onslaught?”

Birth of a hashtag

The women here are continuing a conversation that was sparked back in February on Twitter by Emily Grace Buck, a narrative designer for choose-your-own-adventure style games like Batman and the Walking Dead.

She remembers the lead up to her first gcd after she landed her dream job at telltale games. Her co-workers started getting excited and making plans for the upcoming conference in San Francisco.

“I had heard about GDC, and that it was the biggest game development party of the year,” says Buck.

She went to a couple of the official sessions during the daytime but had heard that the best way to make professional connections at the conference was at night, at the parties. When she got to her first party though, she was surprised by what she saw.

“It was extremely dark. It was smoky. I walked in and two of the first things I saw were: some people making out and somebody popping a pill in their mouth,” Buck says.

She tried to focus on networking but found it challenging in the middle of a club.

Buck learned to navigate GDC and similar events with her network of friends from Telltale but six months ago, Telltale Games announced it was shutting down. And when she began planning for GDC this year, she realized she would be attending largely on her own.

“I was starting to look at what parties I could sign up for, and I realized I didn’t know if I would feel comfortable walking into them alone,” says Buck.

She decided to voice her concerns on Twitter:

“Annual reminder that GDC parties are not the right place to try and hook up with someone.”


Hundreds of people liked the tweet, and people responded with their own stories.

Buck saw that her tweet resonated, so she started a hashtag #Safer GDC, to encourage people to watch out for each other, and to encourage men to be more respectful and professional AT the conference.

Safety is a priority

GDC General Manager Katie Stern believes she and her team have done a lot to make the conference feel safe and inclusive for all attendees. “Safety is the number one priority for us,” she explains. She also notes that GDC offers services to support people across the gender spectrum.

“We provide access to childcare, we have mother’s rooms, we have gender-neutral restrooms, we have pronoun ribbons so people know how to address each other,” Stern says

GDCs code of conduct is clear. “Unacceptable behaviors include intimidating, harassing, abusive, discriminatory, derogatory or demeaning conduct by any attendees.” But Stern’s litmus test is pretty straightforward: “Would you do this in front of your boss in your office? If the answer is no then you probably shouldn’t be doing it here either.”.

If lines are crossed, Stern encourages attendees to report inappropriate behavior by emailing gdccodeofconduct@ubm.com or by going in person to the show management office at Moscone.

While the conference doesn’t have oversight over the parties at nighttime, Stern writes a blog post every year reminding people to stay professional at the nighttime events.

The woman who created the Hashtag SaferGDC, Emily Buck, sees respectful behavior at parties as an essential first step to creating a more inclusive gaming culture—not just for developers, but for players, too.

“If we can’t even let women and people of other genders enjoy parties, how are we expecting the teams making these games to create experiences that will be friendly to female and more diverse players? We can’t. It has to start with the people actually making the thing,” she says.

GDC is happening this week at San Francisco’s Moscone Center. The conference does include an advocacy track of events and talks featuring a roundtable on how to be an ally and a session on building a diverse and welcoming workplace.