I know some time has passed since GDC, but I’ve been meaning to post some thoughts about the show since I got back, so here goes. I spent a week out in SF and did enough stuff that I’m going to break this up into several posts. Part one, covers Monday, 3/23 and Tuesday, 3/24.
First off, let me just say that this was a weird show for me — good, REALLY good even, but weird. I’d have to go back and check, but I’m pretty sure this year was the first time in way more than a decade that I had no obligations at the show — no lectures, no panels, no business meetings. I had some lunches planned but that was it.
I probably shouldn’t have been surprised, but GDC is a heck of a lot of fun when you don’t have to edit slides and fret about stuff! I love speaking at GDC, and hope I get the chance to do it again soon, but it was a nice change of pace to be just a civilian.
My week started on Monday, with the IGDA Education Summit. I’ve been involved in one way or another with the IGDA’s education effort for quite some time. Fact is, I’m really proud of the curriculum framework Robin Hunicke, Eric Zimmerman, Doug Church and others (and I) came up with years ago — as proud as I am of just about anything I’ve done professionally. It’s not so much that the framework was so great — that’s something for others to determine — it’s the fact that this year, as in so many prior years, I’ve seen evidence, and been told, that a lot of colleges and universities are using the thing as the foundation of their courses and programs.
And this year’s Edu Summit revealed that there are more colleges and universities offering game development/game studies programs than ever. I spent a fair amount of time hanging with faculty and students at some of these programs and was pleased to meet people who weren’t employed by or being educated at the Usual Gang of Suspects. Lots of places offer game studies and game development courses and degrees now.
Frankly, the people teaching in these programs still often lack professional experience, but there are more and more ex-pros teaching now than in the past. Things are trending in the right direction there, if you ask me. The students I interacted with this year seemed sharper, better trained and better prepared for careers in development than at any time in the past. (This, by the way, jibes with the fact that more and more of the people I hire are coming from academic programs. I always expected this would happen, but I didn’t expect it to happen so quickly. Wherever the academics are coming from and whatever they’re doing, they’re really starting to do it right!)
One of the edu summit panels covered the recent Global Game Jam (http://globalgamejam.org/). The concept of “game jams” is one that seems worth embracing, whether in an academic setting or a professional one — as a way to generate ideas, build team camaraderie, refresh creative juices, etc. All of the speakers had interesting things to say, but I was most intrigued by some comments from Ian Schreiber. Specifically, he talked about the need to impose constraints when “jamming”: constrain theme or mechanics or aesthetics or tech. That’s great advice even when you’re not thinking about a game jam. Constraints are, as we all know, good for creativity in any context. It’s amazing the impact a different set of constraints has on design and the development process (something publishers — and developers — should pay more attention to!).
Jane Macgonigle (http://www.avantgame.com/), who’s affiliated with the Institute for the Future (http://www.iftf.org/) gave a really interesting keynote. I disagreed with some of what she had to say, but it was certainly interesting, entertaining and thought provoking. Basically, she claimed that over the next couple of decades, games would change the world (we’re in agreement there!). She saw games driving educational efforts, moving people to political action, bringing people together across cultures, creating happiness and so on. Game designers, she believes, are going to be the prime movers and shakers of this century. She wants us to call ourselves “fungineers,” something I refuse even to consider. Basically, I don’t think of myself as a guy who provides “fun” or even “happiness” to players.
I much prefer to think of myself as the pea under the mattress (I hope SOMEONE gets the reference…) or, put another way, I like to think of myself as a provocateur. I want players to think about what they’re doing, as they do it… to think about WHY they’re doing what they’re doing… to have something they can take from their game back into the real world. There’s certainly fun to be had in that sort of thinking activity, but it’s not the first thing I think about.
I also took issue with McGonigle’s idea that games should move people to specific, desired actions or beliefs. Certainly, we’re capable of doing that — we can be a very effective propaganda tool, I’m sure. But I don’t really want to convince players of anything, or get them to behave in a particular way — honestly, I don’t think anyone should aspire to that. If we turn our interactive medium into just another way of selling people on ideas, we’re missing the point. Games should be a dialogue, not a lecture… a discussion, not a lesson. What we should be doing is allowing people to explore conceptual spaces and draw their own conclusions about them. I don’t ever want to be as coercive as McGonigle seems to want us to be.
(As a note, Jane McGonigle was one of three people who, during GDC, spoke about the “science of happiness.” This is a meme I need to investigate…)
Jesse Schell gave the other edu summit keynote, in which he discussed his idea of game design “lenses,” another way (near as I can tell) to say “game design patterns.” Whatever he calls ’em, Jesse’s take on the design process — and ways to break out of existing molds and old habits — is worth checking out. His book and accompanying card deck are interesting and maybe useful (haven’t finished reading yet, so can’t say for sure…). Check out http://artofgamedesign.com/.
The rest of the edu summit was spent hanging out with students and faculty folks, which was great fun. A nice, relaxing way to start the week.
More on GDC soon…