Monday, March 22, 2004

Activities at the Game Developers' Conference, 2004

San Jose, California

GDC 2004 was as it always is -- a huge extravaganza most of which I don't have enough time to see. This year was particularly tough: I had so many meetings that I only got to three sessions!

The first was the Serious Games Summit, a follow-on to last year's Serious Games Roundtables. Last year I was invited to give the closing remarks at the Academic Summit, and this year I gave them here. The event was packed with people -- the first half day was standing room only. It quickly became apparent what a diverse group it was: people from the military; from corporate training; from K-12 education; from higher education; from public advocacy groups, government, advertising, and health care. The overall message of the event was, "Games can solve problems," which I thought was an excellent tagline.

The second event I got to was the Experimental Gameplay Workshop, now in its third fascinating year. There was another report from Chris Hecker about the results of the most recent Indie Game Jam, which this time concentrated on games using 2-D physics. Robin Hunicke gave a great short talk on the use of time in games, and there was a neat (and even commercial) game called Katamari Damaci that involved rolling a ball around, picking up more and more stuff like a snowball. But by far my favorite item was an Integrated Development Environment named Rapunsel, designed to teach programming to girls ages 12-13. The creators realized that socializing is a significant aspect of young girls' lives, and programming is often unattractive to them because it's an isolated activity. They countered this by creating an IDE that includes a chat window and the ability to see other people’s code and its output. Programming becomes a social activity in which the girls can help each other and offer suggestions. Brilliant.

The final session I went to was my own lecture, "The Philosophical Roots of Computer Game Design." It was at the very end of the conference, but I'm happy to say that it attracted a standing-room-only crowd and seemed to go over well even though it was too short. My thesis was that computer game development is an activity requiring both technological, rational, classical thought and imaginative, aesthetic, romantic thought. This isn't news, of course, but my observation is that we concentrate far too much on the former and not enough on the latter -- technological determinism permeates every aspect of our work. As a result our works are sadly out of balance. We try to achieve romantic ends by classical means, and that’s an extremely difficult thing to do. You can read the lecture at the link above.

Monday, March 01, 2004

Lecture and Session Chair at the Digimedia Conference, Cairo

Cairo, Egypt

This was a big conference for all sorts of people in the digital and new media industries. Most of them were from Egyptian companies, but there were a few foreign guests and I was invited to speak about the game industry, and to chair one of the sessions. It was a single-track event, so I heard about all kinds of stuff -- how to archive video libraries; the Digital City that is being constructed out in the desert; a multimedia extravaganza to celebrate the new library at Alexandria. (Students of history will remember that the old library of Alexandria, one of the foremost repositories of knowlege in the whole world, was burned down by Julius Caesar's soldiers in 47 B.C. Well, 2000 years later, it has been rebuilt.)

I tried to speak slowly and clearly, so I hope the audience got something out of my talk. I think my few words of Arabic caused them to feel some affection for me, if I am correctly interpreting the chuckles it elicited. I hadn't been to Egypt in 20 years. I also met with a bunch of students and saw an Egyptian-themed game that they were working on, which was nice -- I'm always encouraging developers from the Third World to create material suited to their own culture, rather than borrowing from the West or the Japanese. It was fun to go back after all these years, and I'm grateful to Dr. Mohamed Salem and Dr. Mohamed Samy of the Information Technology Institute for inviting me.

The conference was held in the Cairo Grand Hyatt, which is in Garden City overlooking the Nile. Many things have changed since I was last there -- cell phones everywhere of course, and Internet cafes. The other thing I noticed after 20 years' absence is that the women dress much more conservatively now. Almost all the young women at the conference -- and there were many -- were wearing the hijab, although they were often in pantsuits. I saw a few Egyptian women in completely western dress, but they were all in the hotel.

After the conference I took a day off to go to Aswan, which is sort of old stomping grounds for me. I went to the new Nubian museum, walked along the corniche, made a quick trip through the suq (I didn't buy anything... didn't want anything badly enough to haggle for it), sat on the veranda of the Old Cataract Hotel and dreamed of the days when it was full of gentlemen in tweed suits with narrow ties, and ladies in flowing dresses all talking about what beasts the Boers are... at the the Old Cataract Hotel the British Empire still lives on in spirit, though somewhat diminished by the presence of Italian tourists in shorts and sleeveless tops.