“Everybody knows that the dice are loaded
Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed
Everybody knows that the war is over
Everybody knows the good guys lost
Everybody knows the fight was fixed
The poor stay poor, the rich get rich
That’s how it goes
-Leonard Cohen, Everybody Knows
On my very first day in San Francisco, I saw a man bleeding profusely, crusted in dirt, and smoking a cigarette. As I walked past him wide-eyed, on my way to visiting a French international school in the Tenderloin, my sister told me that she witnessed another man pull his pants down and take a shit on the sidewalk square we were approaching. I had seen poverty in Canada, sure, and I had seen homelessness, but my sister assured me I had never seen anything quite like this.
She told me that while I was walking alone in the city, that I should conceal any sign of affluence, walk with purpose, and don’t make eye contact with anyone if I can help it. You might say that the Tenderloin is particularly infamous for this kind of thing, but all parts bleed into each other in this small, breezy city. Little pockets of massive wealth side-by-side with bottomless pits of human despair were not an uncommon sight. Gourmet food wafted on the breeze the same as a pungent and lingering stench of urine.
GDC was one of these pockets, the entirety of the Moscone Center rented out for this 5-day videogame extravaganza. Artists, businesspeople, press and fans from all over the world congregated in this technophilic church, this walled city within a city for which my red badge was my proof of citizenship. Inside, there was no shortage of bell or whistle to impress and distract. It was a surreal, liminal space to walk into: at once there were folks like me—queer artists made claustrophobic by the space, hanging out in the park, delivering uproarious al fresco talks during Lost Levels and revelling like children in the sunlight—and then there were besuited types talking about things like optimization and monetization and conspicuously donning their Google Glasses as a symbol of prestige. Inside of this space, there was a degree of camaraderie and warmth, even a fledgling sense of community in some corners. Inside this space there was hope, rhetoric for cultural and artistic change, celebration of the different and the new. But there was also a cognitive dissonance, one that I couldn’t ignore because I’d just never seen it with either such proximity or in such extremity.
I’d heard stories about the tech boom in California, read about the Google buses and the tech yuppies that come to work in the state, gentrifying San Francisco and the Bay Area, encouraging illegal rent hikes and evictions, pushing a resentful and shrinking middle class into abjection. Conversely, friends informed me, other states were dangling bus tickets in front of their own penniless undesirables, cajoling them with clement weather and a broader range of social services. And so they come to an already-beleaguered place to find none of the opportunity that was promised, no upwards mobility or access to the exorbitant wealth that turns every corner, and easy access to hard drugs. Of course, carting off one’s poor and mentally-ill like so much trash is illegal, and California has demanded a federal investigation be opened. Nevada is considered a top offender.
Please don’t read this and think that I’m not grateful, because I am, so much more now than ever. I am so grateful that I was asked to give a talk in this place that I couldn’t afford to participate in by my own means; I’m so grateful that enough people believed in me to help me get there; I’m so grateful that I live in a place where, even though I am technically “working poor,” I can enjoy a fairly high standard of living. I’m grateful I got to see my friends, meet wonderful and brilliant new people. I’m grateful that I got to deliver a message, that I think is important, to a captive audience. I’m so grateful that I got to see what I saw, even if it radicalized, angered, broke my heart everyday, because it strengthens my will and my goals. I know where I stand.
It felt strange delivering a microtalk about games-as-capitalism in that packed room, even if my listeners were the type to be receptive. Maybe some were less inclined to its ideas, or for them the whole series was tantamount to their little trip to the dark side, but I walked offstage to the reverberation of applause rather than jeers and torches and pitchforks. I take that as a relatively good sign, but an uncertain one. After all, we can all talk until we’re blue in the face, all enforce our words with passion and conviction, and still be treated like tokens that nothing needs to actually change for the mere fact that we exist and that at least one person believes in us.
I know that I probably sound like that judgmental, finger-wagging foreigner boasting about my homeland and its superior ways. I’m not going to pretend that Canada’s welfare system isn’t sorely lacking in maintenance, or broken and cracked in a number of essential areas. I’m not going to act like the specter of capitalism doesn’t penetrate my frozen socialist Utopia. If it didn’t, I probably wouldn’t have to worry about paying utilities. But I was still so jarred by almost everything in San Francisco. That I was discouraged from helping anyone, even viewing them as people, even just nodding “Hello,” was strange and disheartening to me. As if the extremity of wealth I witnessed was any less defamiliarized from humanity, was any less desocialized away from compassion. I find myself babbling that I’ve just never seen this before, just never seen this before…
I had to talk about what I was seeing with friends. The fact that I’d never seen cops standing around idly with police dogs, waiting for all Hell to break loose, on a metro platform, was eating at me. The fact that I’d never seen a literal lineup of homeless people, some nodding off, others gibbering, and the rest panhandling, on my walk to the AC Transit depot, was twisting my guts. I’ve never seen a man, well and fully dressed, clearly put together, slurring and yelling while he brown-bagged it on the bus, because something else was falling apart that none of us could see.
Most people I talked to seemed angry, resentful, simmering just below the surface. This was true of friends I felt I could confide in, but it was also true of many strangers. Three old women petitioning for environmental protection against corporate exploitation in Alameda talked to my sister and I as we waited by the depot. There was such sadness in their eyes because I could see they loved their state, their home, and reeled at what it was becoming. I told one of them that I thought there was going to be a revolt, and she agreed with me. The center cannot hold. It just can’t.
To tell you the truth, part of the reason I’m not talking much about GDC itself is because I limited my time in that clean, shiny, sanitized space and its sexy rockstar parties. I clung to the grass and the dirt at the park behind the Metreon, or at the sand at the beach in Alameda where I collected seashells, utterly lost in a haze of natural beauty. It was needed but it was also a supreme privilege to be able to enjoy that weather and that scenery, to be with myself and know that I wasn’t the one slowly dying in a paradise. At Fisherman’s Wharf, I ate striploin steak at an Applebee’s several storeys up while below a man was fishing through the trash for a coffee cup. He drank some discarded coffee, then he tossed away the rest and used the cup to panhandle. There I was, in the sky, looking down.
Do I blame people for looking ahead and trying to keep a sense of purpose? For refusing to look adjacent, or down? On the whole, no. It’s just too much. It was all I could do not to throw a rock at some limousine’s tinted window. I lost my sense of purpose, briefly, in Oakland, when I was out late and the buses had stopped running, and I was alone. I started humming a familiar tune with a gorgeous melody and an awful, traditionalist sentiment, because the familiarity calmed me a bit. And then in my solitude, sitting in a bus shelter, I wept quietly until I finally caught a cab.
I don’t blame the man hollering down the street that Jesus will save my soul if I open my heart and admit to my sin. I feel like I have so much to admit, and where do I begin? Where is the escape? Is it in Tech Eden? Is it in hopeful talking? Is it in the park or at the beach? Can we self-medicate it away? When does the system break, finally, and when do the bugs in that system drive it into chaos? GDC was a beneficial and formative experience for me in so many ways, but it’s also a business. It’s also firmly entrenched in capital, as we all are. It’s a kind of bubble, and I think it’s going to pop.