GDC 2009, Day 0 and 0.5

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 ( 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 (, who’s affiliated with the Institute for the Future ( 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

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…

6 Responses to “GDC 2009, Day 0 and 0.5”

  1. King Kuranes Says:

    In Spain there are simply no good programs for learning how to build a game. There are some private universities and schools that offer courses, but generally the teachers lack of real experiencie. Either they used to be in the bussiness years ago, either they come from other fields, like software engineering, 3D animation, graphic design or writing.
    I thought that this was only our problem, because we don’t have a well stablished game industry. This is why I got surprised reading “the people teaching in these programs still often lack professional experience”. I thought that in the States, as there are so many game developers, there would be also really good, experienced teachers.
    This gives me hope that here we are following your path, and that game teaching could be also a career oportunity for us.

  2. goldfile Says:

    Thanks Warren for such a nice review of the Education Summit. Your insight and assistance on my EdSIG Advisory Board helps make it all happen. If people are looking for the most current version of the Curriculum Framework it currently can be found at: and of course the slides from all of the keynotes are also on the site as well:


  3. wspector Says:

    To be clear, there ARE a lot of people with professional experience teaching in colleges and universities. It’s just that I want MORE people with professional experience teaching. Some is good; more is better. More pros teaching will inevitably come with time, as developers get older and look for something to do in retirement. Reading King Kuranes’ comment, it occurs to me that my comments could be misinterpreted and give offense to the many professionals laboring in the academic ranks, and that was absolutely not my intent.

  4. Robert Farr Says:

    I read through Jesse Schell’ book during the Easter break and I think its fantastic, I’d already started recommending it to one of my Lecturers (Who stocks the library with game design/development related books) before I was a 10th of the way in.

  5. shootfast Says:

    Warren your games certainly forces the player to think about his every action, the amount of saves I racked in Deus Ex because I wasn’t sure that was the right choice is certainly a testament to that. Back then having choices on that scale in a FPS was revolutionary.

    Unfortunately developers are inserting choices into games more often nowadays. They are usually good vs bad yet the outcome isn’t one that make the player think about his action but instead give a false impression of freedom.

    What drives developers to include that single choice between good and evil? Why have their story deviate at the end, having the entire story devolve into good vs bad cliche, instead a game defining ending. Yet the choice isn’t really a choice but a mechanic that forces you to replay certain parts of the game to see the “other ending.” The player’s only thought is option A good, option B bad.

    It seems that developers know that player’s like choice and they know games benefit from having choice. But a lot of games have them seem tacked on like a gimmick.

    Are the developer’s in general truely interested in thought proking actions in their, that the present games are just tentative steps in that general direction? Or do you think that having thought proking actions isn’t enough and that the entire game must be thought proking for it to work at all.

  6. evguenni Says:

    Im definately going to have to check if theres any video, or otherwise, coverage of Jesse Schell’s keynote.

    I have just started to read the art of game design myself. So far its really quite enlightening for a beginner designer like me. To have some basic principles of game design presented in such a clear and ordered (and frankly patronising) fashion is actually quite empowering. It wont make me a great designer … but its certainly giving me a nice creative boost to get me going!
    Whether its useful or not though im impressed at how Mr Schell has managed to put into words what seems purely instinctual for most designers.

    Shootfast, I also agree with you about the false feeling “freedom” offered in many games with a really distinct dichotomy of good and evil. A situation that so rarely occurs in my view of the world that it can work against my immersion in the game … except in Star Wars games where its the whole point!


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