Off to GDC
Can games tell stories without guns?

GDC - The voyeur's view

Gdc_escalator I do not belong at GDC. That very fact helps account for why I'm having so much fun at GDC.

GDC is for game developers. To be sure, the media is here in force--from the Biloxi Sun Herald to Singapore TV--and game publishers have filled the exhibit hall with marketing barkers, kiosks, and demo stations. But despite its explosive growth, GDC remains a must-attend event for the guys (yeah, it's pretty much all guys) who design, code, build, test, and otherwise create the games we love to play. And these guys are cool. Laser-focused, hardcore but starry-eyed, geek-supremo cool.

Waiting in line to board the plane in Chicago, it became apparent that roughly a third of the passengers were headed to GDC. I mistook a tall man in a decorated flight jacket for a military officer until I got close enough to notice that the "stripes" stitched on his sleeves were all video game titles. The gate attendant greeted him with a hearty "Welcome aboard, Captain" as he boarded the plane. A group of men gathered behind me chuckled, all wearing identical yellow polo shirts emblazoned with the name of a game engine.

On the flight I sat across the aisle from two programmers whom had never met. I eavesdropped with varying degrees of interest as they discussed everything from emergent AI to rim lighting effects, with a little death metal mutual appreciation mixed in. They both eagerly looked forward to GDC, despite having attended many times before.

My conference badge lists my name, teaching position, and college...which makes me a rather odd duck. Very few academics attend GDC, aside from those who teach formal game design or programming. I've begun to think I may be the only attendee representing a small liberal arts college. In the familiar surreptitious "conference glance"--the one that begins at the navel where your badge is and works its way up to the face--I attract very little interest. I'm not affiliated with the industry; I'm not hiring; and I'm not N'Gai Croal.

Later, in a ploy born of pure vanity, I attached my newly minted "Brainy Gamer" business card to my badge, hoping to override my lowly professorial status with my burgeoning blogger status. I received a few cursory head nods--more likely expressions of conference fatigue than recognition--thus my stealth mode conference activity continues.

And that's perfectly fine with me. I'm a keenly curious observer here--which is pretty much what I am all the time regarding video games--but being here means I can ask questions, offer suggestions, and meet a few heroes. Today I spoke with Steve Meretzky. I will leave here happy.

Listening to designers talk about their work, their aspirations for games, and (I'll say it because it's true) their dreams is immensely interesting to me, and I revel in my proximity to all this creative energy. Sure, there's cynicism and disillusionment to be found here too, and maybe GDC has grown too big for its core mission, but I've been attending conferences for nearly 20 years, and I can say with certainty that this industry, this entertainment medium, this emerging field of study--whatever we want to call it--generates a tremendous amount of energy and genuine affection from the people who work in it.

Even after 30 years, game design proceeds in a fertile, formative stage of development, and everybody here gets that. We're still trying to decide what it can do and where it can go. We're all so hopeful, and that's quite a thing to be.

I'll be back with more tomorrow on game preservation; conflict resolution without combat; and interactive storytelling best practices. Oh, and remind me to tell you about how I became a Wii Fit yoga master. ;-)