Why GDC is Special


I am not a game developer, but I’ve been privileged to have spent my professional life around game developers, interviewing them and writing about them.

They are not the same as the business people and the marketers I interview. They are not the same as the journalists, sales guys and media types with whom I have generally socialized.

They are smarter, more analytical, more careful, less prone to casual cynicism.  Whatever the beauty of their creations, games are underpinned by code and mathematics, and I think this shows, even with the artists and writers, in their exactitude.

There is sometimes, often actually, a prickliness about them, an impatience with misunderstanding, or ununderstanding, a lack of forgiveness with fuzziness.

From long, hard experience I know that they are not afraid to question how they, or their work, is portrayed by reporters. There is none of the elaborate dancing that goes on when, say, a PR politely (i.e. furiously) enquires about an angle. Game developers want to know how and why things happen, and if they are not satisfied, they often tell you how things ought to happen.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to explain to a developer that headlines are not literal precis of the stories they herald. It’s not that developers are witless about the workings of modern media. It’s not that they are Data-like science-droids. They just don’t see why anything would work in a way that is so obviously dishonest and idiotic. I am unable to argue against this point.

They are as jolly and silly as any other group of people, and yet, somehow, more serious, when seriousness is called for.

Look, I’m generalizing. I’m not really sure if this is all horseshit. Perhaps this is transparently about my own shortcomings, my laxness and cynicism, and how I don’t truly comprehend what the people I write about, really do.

I hope it’s really the way I feel about one unusual group of people who I admire and who I believe think differently from the rest of us, who have developed a philosophy of problem-solving that is particularly apt for the modern world.

In the past, we admired the way military strategists and symphony composers thought. Now we admire the way game developers think, they way they fold together mathematics and fun, images, words and movement, science and art.

All this is a long-winded way of me introducing a feature I wrote for Polygon on the origins, development and current status of Game Developer Conference, in which some 25,000 of these people get together every year and share.

(Oh, it looks like there’s a Star Trek: TNG reference in that piece too. I need to find new cultural references.)

From the article…

GDC is just like all the other conferences. There are registration lines, badges, bad food, clusters of conspirators in corridors, hearty greetings on passing escalators, and sore feet.

It’s also different, and the difference is in the attendees, in their molecular structure. They are game developers right to their core: idiosyncratic, iconoclastic, quietly rebellious, very clever. They are palpably different.

Mainstream marketing evaporates here under the gaze of the sort of person who is good at chess, knows how to make a computer, can explain the LBW rule and its inherent flaws and has played out heady dialogues in which Q makes a cast-iron case for humanity’s destruction.

Of course, plenty of people are clever. Lawyers, doctors, architects and so forth. But game developers are different. They have dedicated themselves to the business of manipulating on-screen images in such a way as to produce the intangible, invisible resource of fun. They create worlds that exist in flickering images and in the twists of a game controller. This is the thing that sets them apart, that which GDC seeks to capture.