XOXO 2019

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I'm in a weird headspace lately. This is normal: after all, I quit my job a month ago to focus full-time on independent work, and I spent most of the last week at XOXO, a festival for...okay, well, hold on a sec. Let me back up. I'll get to XOXO in a moment.

So yeah: I left my job at Instrument last month. I thought I wrote about that on this blog, but — well, ok. I've been forgetting a lot of things lately, which probably just stems from the amplified anxiety that comes hand-in-hand with significant life change. Oh well. I guess this post is now doing double-duty, both as a reflection on my third XOXO Festival and, uh, on wherever it is I hope I'm going in life from this point onward.

Let's cover the easy part first!

My Third XOXO

This was my third time attending XOXO, after first going in 2016 and again in 2018. If you'd like a tl;dr of the following, here it is:

XOXO is wonderful — the highlight of my year — and I wouldn't be who, or where, I am without it.

This third year saw the festival returning to its "home," Revolution Hall — the coolest school-turned-multipurpose space in Portland (and yes, that's actually a pretty fierce competition in this city). The festival was significantly scaled down from last year's bonanza at Memorial Coliseum, which felt like a mixed blessing. On the one hand, for those of us who were able to attend this year, the pared-down size and scope of the festival made it feel much more like a large gathering of friends than a full-blown conference where you'd be lucky to run into the same person twice. I ran into dozens of folks repeatedly this past weekend, and it felt great — like some sort of gigantic party where lots of people I never get to see were all in the same place.

It's like the ending of Lost, except actually good, and we all get to leave afterward.

On the other hand, I thought often about the folks who wanted to attend this year but didn't get in. I'm not sure what the answer is here, but I hope they're able to attend in the future.

Thursday: Registration

I swung by Revolution Hall shortly after registration opened to pick up my things and see what was going on. I was a little bummed out to see that nothing was open yet; last year, lots of tables were set up with board games, and drinks were being served from the early afternoon onward. That made for a really great, pre-Social social event, where folks could trickle in, say hi, and hang out until the opening party kicked off.

This year, I hung out for a while, said hi to some people I knew, and eventually bailed to go home and rest up for the party. Which was great!

Friday: Social

I love the entirety of XOXO, but after three years of going, I think I can say with some confidence that Social is my favorite part. For those unfamiliar, it's a collection of community-curated meetups based on areas of shared interest (which are extensions of the thriving Slack community).

This year, I attended three social meetups: #vegetarian-vegan, #writing, and #game-making.

#vegetarian-vegan

The veg meetup was, honestly, pretty unreal. Andy and Ami Baio worked with Farm Spirit to have them offer a special prix fixe lunch for XOXO attendees, and I managed to get a ticket for myself. If you're not familiar, Farm Spirit is...well, pretty magical. It's an all-vegan restaurant that curates incredible, intricate, delicious meals around local, seasonal, sustainable foods from the Willamette Valley. The best meals I've ever eaten have been at Farm Spirit.

Lunch was no exception. While it was a shorter service than usual, we were served three incredible courses. But what makes Farm Spirit special is its communal eating environment, and getting to share such an intricate and rare meal with so many friends (internet and local) was really special.

I don't mention it much online, but I've been vegan for nearly seven years now, and it's an important part of my life. XOXO is a special community for me in many ways, but the community I've found in the #vegetarian-vegan is especially meaningful. I'm so glad I was able to spend some time with them.

#writing

I only stopped in here for a short time, but I showed up in time to see a couple friends sharing their zines and comics with the group. My friend Nathan (whom I worked on the bizarre and wonderful Escape from Juggalo Mountain with) was showing off his analog/tabletop/RPG zine, Forking Paths — which is great, by the way — and I also ran into Myra, who was showing off a comic called Portate Bien. (Both Myra and Nathan are on Patreon, by the way!)

I haven't been writing much lately. I used to write a lot, if you'd believe it — from daily LiveJournal screeds as an angsty teen to a surprisingly prolific decade-long run on Silicon Sasquatch — but lately I've been struggling to...well, not to find my voice. I know where it is. It's right here. 👆🏻 The hard part is owning that voice — feeling confident that it can contribute to the discourse, that it can have an impact, that it has something worth saying. So this post is fueled by that classic "fake it 'til you make it" energy, and I appreciate your patience while I continue sweeping the cobwebs from my brain.

Anyway. All of this is to say that I didn't bring anything to this meetup, and instead I was there as an observer. That turned out to be great in its own way. So many people in this community are so creative! I leafed through lots of zines and books. It's so exciting to be around so many creative, thoughtful people.

#game-making

I mentioned above that I left my full-time job last month. I didn't say why.

Well, here's what's up: I left my job in order to focus full-time on making games. If you're familiar with this website, that's probably not a big surprise to you; after all, like, just look around. I've been making games for 23 years now, and I've been more prolific in the past year than ever before. I sense a gathering momentum and a growing sense of purpose and urgency behind that work, and, well...if not now, when?

I went to the game making meetup with a knot of anxiety in my gut. I knew this was the identity I was owning — I'm a game maker now, apparently! — but I wasn't sure what would happen when I walked into a room full of, well.

Real game makers.

My anxiety faded pretty quickly, though. Just because I've never made money on any of my games doesn't mean I never will. And just because I've never worked for a AAA studio doesn't mean I'm incapable of doing impactful work.

I still have a lot of feelings of impostorhood when it comes to my work, though. And I think that's ok. I think, knowing me, I'll always feel like there's some as-yet-unobtained milestone that's dogging me, no matter how many ways I find success in my work. And that's ok.

I met lots of great people and ran into some friends from prior XOXOs at this meetup, and I had a great time talking shop. I left feeling encouraged: I do belong in this space, if I want to be here. And I realized that, given those anxieties above, the best thing I can do is learn to love doing the work.

Friday Night: whoops, I went to Iron Maiden instead

Ok, so. I'd never been to a metal show before, but about ten months ago I bought tickets to see Iron Maiden with my younger brother. And...it ruled. Great decision.

Unfortunately, I missed the first night of XOXO programming, including the whole Video sequence. It sounded really great, though! Next time.

Saturday: Conference, Day 1

As usual, the speaker lineup for the main conference was fantastic. I'd love to write about all of them, but it'd take me all day, so instead I'll just recommend you subscribe to XOXO's YouTube channel and keep an eye out for when the talks get posted.

Two quick highlights, though:

  1. It was a lot of fun to see Harry Brewis, a.k.a. Hbomberguy, talk about his experience running the Donkey Kong 64 101% marathon that raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for Mermaids. I tuned into his livestream occasionally (though I missed the part where Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez called in!) and recently became a fan of his YouTube channel, so seeing him in person was a lot of fun.
  2. Hundred Rabbits are a couple of digital nomads living on a sailboat. Their story is so fascinating and inspiring, and I found myself wondering what it'd take for me to sell all my stuff and live a nomadic, minimalist lifestyle for a while (or longer).

Saturday Evening

All I really have to say here is that the XOXO Arcade lineup was impeccable. There were games of so many different genres from a diverse swath of creators. I plan to buy every game that was being shown, and that's really saying something. One particular highlight for me was meeting Derek Yu, designer of Spelunky. I really admire his design philosophy and approach, and it was great to chat with him for a bit in-between my many ignominious deaths in Spelunky 2.

Also, this happened.

Sunday: Conference, Day 2

Another array of fantastic speakers. I was particularly inspired by Jenny Odell's talk about her book, How to Do Nothing.

And then...the closing party. Well. I was lucky enough to listen to the debut of Neil Cicierega's fourth album in the Mouth Sounds oeuvre, and damn. #teeth

After that, I watched some karaoke for a bit. And it was around that time that I realized I very desperately needed to go to bed and sleep for a few months. So I went home. And that was it! XOXO #3 in the books.

Life After XOXO, or: Wait, what do I do with my life now

Well, ok. It's Friday, September 13th (oh shit 👀) and I've had a few days to think about where I'm going from here.

I'm still very new to this whole independence thing. Almost without interruption, I've spent the last five years focused primarily on full-time employment in the tech space. And while this freedom is liberating (and I'm so grateful to have the chance to try it), I feel a lot of the old instincts and fears creeping up.

What's life like without a regular salary? Well, it goes on. You just don't have a guaranteed paycheck. Fortunately, I've been lucky enough to pick up some contract work with the wonderful folks at Rose City Games (P.S. please wishlist Cat Lady on Steam!) and, just this week, I began working with Portland Community College on designing a game-development curriculum for a potential future offering. I'm beyond excited to be working with local game developers and to be contributing to education in a professional capacity, especially at the community college level.

At some point, though, I've gotta address the elephant in the room: I haven't done much game development lately.

Why? Well, a number of reasons. Mostly, though, it's that it's far easier and safer for me to stick to work that compensates me with money than it is to allocate time to something of my own design with no guarantee of a return on my time and energy.

But I also believe that I'm capable of making something really cool and worthwhile in the games space. It's a medium I know intimately, and it's a format I love working within. I want to make the most of this time while I have it, before life deigns to intervene again.

Being at XOXO was different for me this year. I didn't leave feeling energized and motivated to create like I usually do. Instead, I left with two things on my mind.

First, that toxic and abusive behavior is even more rampant online than it was in the past, and independent creators — especially women/POC/LGBTQ+/other marginalized folks — can be targeted by hate mobs at the drop of a hat. I feel awful: for the abuse so many endure, and also the guilt of feeling like, with all my privilege, there must be more I can do. I need to figure that out.

Second, that while I'm lucky to have built up a solid group of friends at XOXO, I didn't do a great job of meeting new people. Especially now, as I'm embarking on this whole self-started adventure, I really ought to be putting myself out there more and building more connections. But that feels so unnatural to me, and my doubts about my ability to deliver make it even tougher for me to leave my shell. So, well, that's how it went. But it's ok; I'll figure it out.

This work we're all doing — as independent creators and extremely online folks — is very difficult, and there's no established path. But stories of success and failure, of victory and loss, help us to outline the possible paths forward. What XOXO excels at is curating a space for those stories to be shared, to be felt, to be heard. I am a stronger, better, more whole person because of these stories, and when times get tough, I'm grateful to have so many examples of strength, creativity, courage, and innovation to return to.

Anyway. This got really long, and — hah, well. I have games to make. So I'm gonna go do that.

One final note: at last year's XOXO, there was an art installation called Dear Future Me that encouraged attendees to write postcards to their future selves. I got, uh, pretty intense in mine.

I wrote about all the fear I'd been feeling. Fear of not owning my whole identity. Fear of resigning myself to doing what I believe is expected of me instead of what I feel I should do. Fear of not giving myself permission to take a leap of faith in my own abilities.

Anyway, that post card showed up a couple weeks ago — just days after I gave myself permission to leave my job and try to build a career for myself as a game-maker/writer/podcaster/whatever-er. I realized I was just as uncertain about the future as I was a year ago. But I also did the thing — I took the hardest leap of my life — and for a moment, I felt so much gratitude to myself. It's so, so hard to give yourself permission to trust yourself. And I realized that, just as I belonged at the last two XOXOs, I also belonged at this one. Life's always changing, and while the struggles change too, they're still gonna be there. Bringing that whole self, struggles and all, makes XOXO the valuable, real experience it always is.

XOXO, you're still the best. And I can't wait to see who I am the next time the festival rolls around.

P.S. The vegan/vegetarian food selection at the festival was by far the best I've seen yet. Chilango, Obon, Ice Queen, and Aviv...oh my goodness. So much great stuff. And Farm Spirit! Ahh. Dang. So good.