I've attended conferences and national meetings for nearly twenty years. Academic gatherings, industry expos, national society meetings, political meet-ups...you name it. All these giant events bring people together, but it's what happens when you get there that makes or breaks a conference. And this is precisely where GDC succeeds like no gathering I've attended. I think I know why, and it has to do with fences, or the lack of them.
Most conferences establish and enforce specific policies about focus and audience, and over time these grow increasingly narrow. In my little corner of academia, the Theater folks have their big gathering, the Dramatic Literature folks have theirs, and the Technicians and Designers have theirs. Of course, nothing prevents a creative type like me from submitting a scholarly paper to the MLA conference, for example, but I'm unlikely to bump into many people seeking such cross-disciplinary conversation (I know because I've tried). We encourage our students to think across disciplines (we've even built a curriculum around that principle), but when it comes to our own work, we build silos with fences around them. Despite many common interests, we're all pointed in different directions, and that seems to suit everybody just fine.
Large groups with common interests tend to segment toward specialization. This makes sense, of course, and it's easy to understand how organizations develop their own criteria for expertise, their own jargon, and their own A-list of mini-celebrities. In the Humanities this has resulted in a honeycomb of tiny fenced-in areas of scholarship in which an increasingly small sub-subset of experts present research to each other about scholarly minutiae no one else cares about or understands. Authority in this realm is derived from staking out a small patch of intellectual turf and defending it against all comers.
This system works perfectly well within the merit/reward structure of higher education, but in my discipline it has sadly sealed our fate. Academic scholarship on theater bears almost no relationship to the creative human event of making theater. We operate in separate worlds, and the space between us has bred mistrust, misunderstanding, and even contempt.
It wasn't always like this. The dialogue among artists, scholars, and critics fifty years ago was significantly more relevant and productive. It's hard to imagine a visionary like Jerzy Grotowski provoking today the convergence of theory and practice he achieved in the 1960s. We don't talk to each other anymore. We're specialists. We've built our fences, and we stay in our yards.
GDC is different, and not simply because it's an industry event. Despite rapid growth (this year's event drew 18,000 attendees), GDC has largely avoided erecting arbitrary barriers that choke off meaningful conversation among people with a variety of interests and expertise. GDC advertises itself as an industry-only gathering, but it isn't really, and thank goodness. The fanboys and fanbloggers are kept out, but GDC opens its gates to a range of other attendees, including the general press, games journalists, design students and professors, games studies scholars,and folks like me who fancy ourselves critics.
The GDC schedule is unwieldy and over-programmed, but it's also wide open. An aspiring level designer may wish to concentrate on the Design track, choosing from among dozens of design-focused lectures, tutorials, roundtables, etc.; but he's free to mix in sessions from the Production track or the Programming track, many of which bear directly on design. If he happens also to be keen on "Meaning, Aesthetics, and User-Generated Content," that door is open too. What's more, this designer's conference fee was likely footed by his employer who presumably encourages such inquisitive behavior. Fancy that.
Leaving the door open is fine, but ensuring that people with big ideas remain accessible to attendees is quite another, and it's here that GDC succeeds most admirably. I know a young developer from Canada who shared a dinner conversation with the Narrative Designer of Far Cry 2. I know a philosopher who discussed games with the arts and entertainment reporter from the Wall Street Journal. I know a young writer who discussed games criticism with N'Gai Croal.
I also know a certain Midwestern blogger/prof who found himself in thoughtful conversation with Clint Hocking about the degree to which game creators should participate in online conversations about their work. Halfway through that conversation, Jesper Juul grabbed a nearby seat. Minutes later, their photos were taken by the young man who composed the music for Flower.
That's what happens at GDC, a lumbering spasmodic mess of a conference ripe for repair. Someone will propose fences. Quick, somebody hide the hammers.