XOXO Festival 2018

Abstract: I went to XOXO Festival a couple weeks ago, and it imbued me with the absolute best kind of existential crisis I could've hoped for. Here's where I'm at with that whole thing at the present moment.

I've been putting off writing this post for a while, and to be honest, I wasn't totally sure why. It's a good practice for a Young Working Professional™️ to document the conferences they go to, because it shows that you're active in your community and engaged with your peers. And while I have plenty of doubts and deeply engrained habits that give me pause, writing is one of those things I've pretty reliably been able to fall back on. It's second nature to me, usually.

But the thing about XOXO, I've found after going twice now, is that it gives me way more questions than answers. And they're the good kind of questions, no doubt. But they're unabashedly messy, too, and to make a long story short, it left me with a lot to sort through.

So this post took a while. A couple weeks, actually. And while I originally thought it'd be a step-by-step review of the structure of XOXO in 2018 and the changes it made to itself — some clearly good, some a bit tougher to suss out — it wound up being a pretty inward-focused piece. It's all about me! And my anxieties! Haha, wheee! Tricked ya!

The one thing I'll say at the outset is this: XOXO Festival is, I can say with renewed confidence, the absolute best event I have ever gone to. The wonderful people I meet, the speakers and performers I see, and the unexpectedly rich and welcoming community I develop are priceless, and I'll keep going to this thing as long as I draw breath.

But how I get there — and who I am when I arrive — might not be the same.

What is work, even

Nick Cummings
Whymog Games

That's what it said on my attendee badge, anyway. It's not a legal entity or anything you'd find on a business card. Honestly, even this website doesn't contain the two words "Whymog" and "games" together in that order, as far as I know. But when you register for XOXO, you're asked (not required — it's optional, thankfully) to list a project you're working on.

This is one of my favorite things about XOXO. They don't ask for your company, or your job title, or your qualifications, or anything else granted to you by an external party. They want you to describe your work in terms that you own. It's a small gesture, maybe, but in a society that increasingly favors corporate hegemony over independent creators, it's a rare chance to present yourself and your ideas entirely on your own terms.

It also, for me, happens to be a reliable trigger for self-doubt. Because it raises the question: what do I care about? And so in 2018, nearly two years after XOXO 2016 — my first XOXO Festival — I found myself facing a bit of a self-imposed crisis. What should I write here?

Or, more to the point: What was I doing with my life?

So wait, what happened in 2016

Well, yeah, let's start there.

XOXO operates on a lottery system, simply because there are a lot of people who'd like to go, and not an infinite amount of space to fit them into — at least, not without compromising the core premise of building a community. It stung when I didn't get selected to purchase a pass in 2015, but I tried to remember it wasn't a mark against me as a person — it was just a matter of luck.

When I got the email announcing I'd been selected to purchase a pass for XOXO 2016, I felt like I'd won the lottery. I'd heard so many wonderful things about the community and the experience from people I knew who'd volunteered or attended previously, and I felt like it couldn't have come at a better time.

By mid-2016, I was re-evaluating a lot about myself. Earlier that year I'd gone through a lot of unexpected change in my personal life, and I was still trying to get reacquainted with who I was and what I cared about. I'd also just turned 30, and despite numbers just being numbers, thirty is one hell of a heavy number, no matter how you size it up.

So yeah. I was in a state of flux, let's say.

I had one goal going into XOXO 2016: to have an open mind about the event and about myself. I wasn't sure where I was going at that point in my life, but I figured it wouldn't hurt to being open to suggestion.

This is a massive understatement, but it was a real stroke of luck that I was able to attend XOXO 2016. I met a bunch of wonderful people from all over the world, many of whom I've stayed in touch with over the years and caught up with whenever life brings me to the cities where they live.

If you're interested in the festival itself, you can find all the conference talks on XOXO's YouTube page. But maybe the most important thing I took away from XOXO 2016 is this:

I belong.

Not necessarily at XOXO, which is an amorphous, ephemeral thing that only exists whenever Andy Baio and Andy McMillan and their armies of supporters decide to bring the festival back into existence once again.

Nah, it's more like: I can hang. Or my ideas are good enough. Or my skills are mature enough. By talking to all kinds of people who also create things — things of all kinds, in all sorts of media — you begin to understand just how substantial the common ground is that you share with other creative folks.

For someone who'd been wrestling his entire adult life with an overpowering desire to chart his own course professionally but kept hedging his bets and taking the safer, more-established route, it was exactly what I needed. It was a boost of confidence: a catalyst to believe in myself and my work.

But then.

But then months passed, and it was 2017, and then it was 2018, and — I swear to you — I lost track of time. I don't mean that phrase as some sort of colloquial excuse for forgetting an important task or missing a key deadline. I mean time stopped feeling regular or linear to me. Time moved strangely around me. And creatively and professionally? I stood still. I stagnated.

That energy XOXO gave me back in 2016 had largely faded, and that's entirely because I let it fade. I got cold feet.

By mid-2017, it was clear that XOXO wasn't happening again. I gathered some of that resolve back up — those lessons I'd taken away from the previous year's event — and decided I'd chart my own course after all. Of course, things rarely proceed like you'd expect, and I wound up staying, more or less, where I'd been all along.

Things were ok. I started work on a pretty ambitious new game with a talented team of collaborators over the summer (a game that we just released a couple weeks ago, actually!) and my life was stable, overall. But I mourned the loss of that confidence in myself — that belief that I could do so much more.

And then XOXO 2018 was announced, and I entered the lottery, and I got in, and I went.

The second XOXO

It was great. It was so great. I saw a bunch of old friends, introduced people I knew to each other from all different walks of life, met a lot of wonderful new people, and I learned so many wonderful things. I even solved a tiny puzzle involving phones and arcane symbols and it culminated in discovering a secret bar, and clearly, that ruled.

But now I find myself in the exact same place I was two years ago: just barely removed from XOXO Festival, full of this inspiration and confidence in myself. But there's something else there as well: the understanding that opportunity is fleeting.

There's so much I want to be doing with my life. I have so many stories I want to tell, experiences I want to design, people I want to meet, projects I want to develop, and difficult subjects I want to contextualize in a way that helps others. I also have a lifetime of petrifying self-doubt that's waiting in the wings for this energy to subside so it can step back in, convince me I'd be doomed to fail if I tried to follow my gut, and usher me back into the stale comfort of the routine and familiar.

But for now, my self-confidence is recharged. My desire to create and share stuff with the broader world — nagging doubts be damned — is back at the forefront and firing on all cylinders.

I've got skills; I've got talents; I've got drive; I've got ideas; I've got strong, deeply rooted values; and I've got a real burning desire to prove myself to, well, myself. I'm just like everyone else at XOXO in that sense. And just like everyone else there, my dreams are unique.

So the question is: What will I do now?

And, even more crucially: What will we do now?