In response to ‘Save Columbia resurrected to create student, P-Fac coalition’

By Letter to the Editor, by Dane Wheaton

Every year I’ve been at Columbia, the Interactive Arts and Media department has flown to San Francisco in early spring for the Game Developers Conference. Not the whole department, of course – ten people, actually. Usually two faculty and eight students, along with around four laptops, a box of cords and controllers, some CCC advertising materials, and an elegant black tablecloth.

The Game Developers Conference (GDC) is by far the biggest professional event in the video games industry. Thousands of people from all over the world (over 27,000 last year) flock to San Francisco to see the latest technological developments, get a glimpse of what it’s like to work in the world’s most profitable entertainment industry, and (perhaps most importantly), to rub shoulders with some of the all-stars and dealmakers behind the games and game companies they most admire. The bargain we (the IAM department) strike with the Conference is this: The college pays for a ten-foot-by-ten-foot square of space on the Conference’s colossal Expo Floor, as close as we can get to the industry giants like Blizzard, Sony, Nintendo, Oculus, etc., as well as ten “Expo Pass” tickets. These tickets get the Conference-goers into the official show spaces/events, such as the Experimental Gameplay Workshop, portfolio reviews conducted by major studios, the Game Developers Choice Awards, a few panels and talks, and of course the airplane-hangar-size Expo Floor itself. In exchange for these passes, IAM students help set up the booth, load the student games onto the laptops, and smile and engage conference-goers in shifts throughout the next few days. People stop by and play our games, and business cards fly. So that’s the arrangement. The school pays for ten square feet of floor space and ten Expo Passes. We take care of the rest.

Most game students would kill for one of those Expo Passes. A ticket to GDC is like a ticket to Willy Wonka’s factory – we hear all kinds of intriguing stories, but only a tiny fraction of us get the chance to see the magic for ourselves. Part of the reason for this is that nabbing one of the eight tickets is difficult, to say the least. Students typically are awarded tickets based on a variety of factors, notably an essay describing how they plan to leverage their time at GDC to jumpstart their career in the games industry. Students research all the talks that the Expo Pass can get them into and describe, in their essay, which ones they plan on attending. They illustrate in elaborate prose how they will tactfully comport themselves around the studio bigwigs and represent Columbia College magnificently. The competition for these tickets is fierce, but many view it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. There have been stories of IAM students landing incredible jobs during their trip to the Game Developers Conference, and even more importantly, of a great many of us forging meaningful connections with people who are out there doing what they want to be doing, who are eager to share their experience and give much-needed career advice.

And all this competition is just for a ticket to the Conference. That’s the cheapest part of the trip. Students foot their own bills for travel, lodging, food, and any other expenses. If they can’t afford a plane ticket, they take Greyhound buses halfway across the country. If they can’t afford a hotel, they stay in Airbnb houses in the universally terrifying Tenderloin District in downtown SF. If they can’t afford the expensive Bay Area food, they pack lots and lots of granola bars. But IAM students don’t bat an eye. It’s worth every penny, even to a broke college student.

The reason we game students are so eager to fly out to San Francisco for a few days and attend this global event is a simple one, and it is the same reason given by many aspiring students in cities and countries across the world: there aren’t many employment opportunities closeby. In Chicago, the game dev scene is relatively dry. There are only a handful of studios, and they are seldom hiring – least of all for entry-level positions. The games industry is fiercely competitive, and it is a terribly difficult feat for a college student, even one of vast talent and skill, to stand out from the continually growing crowd. We go to GDC to be noticed, and to show off our work. To meet people we would never get a chance to meet otherwise. It is, for many, literally a life-changing experience.

Which is why there was a big uproar this year when the IAM department announced that there would be no Columbia College Chicago booth at the 2018 Game Developers Conference. The money simply was not there. When the financial pies were being split up, the Interactive Arts and Media department just didn’t get a big enough slice. Sorry, folks. Game over.

As you can no doubt imagine, reader, the IAM students did not take this news quietly. We were not ready to give up on our trip – a trip we’d each been meticulously planning for what seemed like our whole academic lives. It’s common for seniors to claim the majority of the available tickets each year, since their job-hunting is usually already well underway by that point, and they have their capstone projects to show off. I myself am now a senior, and I’m feeling the pressure as acutely as anybody – nitpicking at my portfolio website, surfing the job listings first thing every morning, practicing mock interviews, trying my best to learn about the ancient art of “self-promotion.” Now, I thought, it was my turn. I have a cool capstone game to show off, I have my business cards printed, I’m ready to take on the world. When I learned that we wouldn’t be making the trip this year, I was devastated.

“Well,” you could say, “You could go on your own. Scrounge up some extra money and buy a ticket yourself. You don’t need a booth to get exposure.” And you would be partly right. Of course students might say that walking around the Conference as a face in the crowd offers much less exposure than staffing a table full of screens with your game playing on them, and it’s a lot less intimidating to approach industry celebs and professionals when you’re backed up by your fellow students, but the truth is that it’s not entirely about us students individually. There’s more to the story than that. It’s also about the school. When we’re there representing the Interactive Arts and Media department of Columbia College Chicago, it puts us on the map in more ways than one. GDC is big. If your school has a game design program that’s interested in being taken seriously, it has a booth at GDC. Period. In a business climate where it’s so easy for companies and institutions to slip under the radar, we need to try our very best to make sure that when a studio HR rep is looking over our resumes, the name “Columbia College Chicago” ignites some glimmer of recognition. “Oh, that’s that school who had that neat astronaut game at GDC. I wonder what other kinds of work their students produce.” We, as professionals, want our degree to mean something. It’s a fact that most game companies are interested in our bodies of work, not our degrees – if our school is associated with high-quality work, we will be too. That’s why the booth is so important.

And that’s what led us to OurColumbia. A group of IAM students attended the Part-time Faculty Union’s “Save Columbia” meeting in early November with the sole agenda of gaining school-wide publicity for our own GDC dilemma. For us, it was not “Save Columbia,” but rather, “Save Our GDC Booth.” When we got our chance to speak, we delivered an eloquent, passionate speech about how much we wanted to go to our Conference and how our department couldn’t afford to send us. Everyone was very supportive. We spoke, and we were heard. People we had never met shouted that they had our backs.

But as the meeting went on, something else began to happen. As other students shared their own stories and departmental hardships, then others, then still others, then those stories reminded them of other stories, we began to feel sheepish. Students at Columbia are often unable to receive services they need, even though those services were promised to them. Pronoun initiatives are left by the wayside, neglected. Students are forced to change their graduation plan when classes suddenly disappear. The fashion department’s tribulations alone made our precious GDC booth seem like an undeserved luxury. Suddenly our ordeal didn’t seem so all-important.

This is not to say that OurColumbia was the first place we had encountered student discontent. We have heard grumblings about the tuition hikes, curriculum changes, class sizes, open lab closures, general lack of student resources, and of course that wildly unpopular Student Center for what feels like ages, but we never realized how deeply and profoundly the other departments were suffering. It’s true that due to the format of the event, we only heard one side of the argument, but the sense of earnest, honest, heartfelt distress was palpable. Sensible, hardworking students are genuinely afraid for their education. And more importantly, for their employability.

But for the IAM students, this story does have a happy ending: we got the booth. A couple reporters from The Chronicle were present at the meeting, and they quoted us in the next week’s issue. Our Chair got in some hot water because of the way our predicament was framed by the paper (our statements were taken to mean that we felt we were promised a booth at the Conference, which was not the case), but our Dean took notice and did the necessary legwork to get us the funds we required. Shortly thereafter, the arrangements were made and the ten-by-ten square of floor space was reserved. The Columbia IAM tablecloth will come out of storage at least one more time this year.

We are grateful that our uncomplicated plan to bring attention to our cause succeeded, but the sobering reality is that there are many similar battles raging all across campus, some without such a clean resolution. I think it’s important for all our students to understand that there is hope, that when students complain, the school must listen. Our experience was empowering – all it took was one speech to turn things around, and who is to say that speech wouldn’t have been just as effective if it was delivered to a single influential person? It’s easy to become discouraged by all the negative changes we see happening around us at our beloved Columbia, and it’s easy to forget how much power we (and of course our parents) have to get what we want. All we have to do is say something.

Dane Wheaton, senior interactive arts and media major