What GDC 2022 Tells Us About Coming Back to In-Person Gaming Events

The Game Developers Conference is one of the first gaming events to come back in full force after the start of the pandemic.

For the first time in three years, the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco took place in the city’s Moscone Center, named for the city councilman assassinated alongside Harvey Milk. The conference — an annual meeting place for game developers from all over the world — shifted to virtual in 2020 at the outset of the pandemic lockdowns; it deferred again in 2021 for the same reasons in the same way. While events like PAX poked and prodded the idea of coming back with smaller events that waffled on vaccination requirements, the industry has rightfully only dipped its toe into the hot bath of large scale events. GDC, which peaked at 29,000 attendees in previous years, has made an earnest attempt at recapturing that pre-pandemic sense of community.

The end result is decidedly surreal.

Perspectives will differ among every individual person first walking into the conference, of course, but mine was mired by dissonance. The last time I had been in the Moscone Center, it was to get my vaccine shots, as the building had been converted by the city into a mass vaccination site. The same place where I’m sitting as I write this is where I had waited a mandated 15 minutes after getting my shot. At the time, I sat in this room feeling a combination of dread to be around so many people and relief and excitement that those fears would become moot before long.

Now, over a year after that moment, I’m still sitting in the same place with two masks on, worried about catching COVID. I’m texting people who have had to cancel interviews and demos due to testing positive. In the GDC store, which sells hoodies, t-shirts, and other merchandise for people to show off that they attended the event, the organization is also selling leftover “GDC 2020” merchandise it never got to use. It’s almost a bit of dark humor, but it’s dark humor about losing two years and a few million people in the interim. It’s hard to know how to feel about it.

Game Developers Conference 2022

But that blip, as we might call it, is just sort of staring us in the face and it would be silly to deny that reality. A talk on the museum flashback from The Last of Us Part II took place this year, which usually would have taken place at the first physical GDC after the game’s release. But since it was released right as the pandemic started rolling, this is the first real opportunity for it. For every huddle of people hugging and crying after seeing each other for the first time in years, there’s also an immediate familiarity as if no time has actually passed.

On Monday, I found myself weirdly overcome by emotion after seeing a friend for the first time in two years despite only living a few cities apart. When I realized that we previously mostly saw each other at events like GDC, I felt a genuine sense of relief that we might be re-entering the normalcy I thought we were approaching a year ago in the same physical place I am now. I got a chance to hope that maybe this is a sign things are improving.

But it’s hard to say if that’s actually true. GDC, despite checking the vaccination status of every attendee, still exposes how dicey being careful can be. Cramming into small rooms, leaning in to hear people talk, still trying to fight the idea that keeping your mask on near someone is a sign of mistrust — all these things contribute to the idea that this still doesn’t quite feel normal as much as we might want it to. There may not ever be another “normal” gaming event as we used to know it without that specter hanging above us.

I imagine PAX East, which is taking place in Boston in late April, will be the next real bellwether of how we’re reintegrating the idea of mass gatherings for video game events once again. But based on GDC, there’s reason to feel like we’re finally rounding a corner — but we also may have to redefine what “normal” means for the near and further out future.