Mitu: On GDC, Ideas, and Cities

Posted on March 17, 2011 by


Fair warning: I wrote this piece in a deliriously over-excited, underslept haze on the plane back from GDC, then decided not to post it due to plain weirdness and/or poor quality. I’ve just rediscovered it and decided to go ahead and post it, with the caveat that genuine bizarreness may hide actual ideas. So yes, in this piece you’ll find crazed musings on a hypothetical game developer’s arcology, and yet more Archulean hand axes. I seem to have been talking about those a lot recently.

Anyway, as I write this, I’m 40,000 feet in the air, on my way home from the 2011 Game Developer’s Conference, processing all the excellent presentations, conversations, and just plain socialising that went on over the past week with some of the best kinds of people in the world. As George put it, we’re in a “passion industry”. Everyone is there because they genuinely love video games, and that is the best feeling. I’m not sure that quite the same can be said of insurance, banking, or yoghurt*.

The week has also left me as exhaustedly delirious as I am excited, and, as such, I’ve just been idly thinking (and/or CRAZILY MUSING) about a hypothetical game developer’s arcology. This was spurred on by a short piece by Jonah Lehrer, entitled “The Importance of Physical Space”, in which he mentions a NYTimes column by David Brooks on ‘The Splendour of Cities‘. You should read both these pieces, but Brooks states:

This is a point Edward Glaeser fleshes out in his terrific new book, “Triumph of the City.” Glaeser points out that far from withering in the age of instant global information flows, cities have only become more important. That’s because humans communicate best when they are physically brought together… Cities magnify people’s strengths, Glaeser argues, because ideas spread more easily in dense environments.

Dense environments! This is exactly what I love about major cities, and for the longest time I could not quite articulate why I felt so much more inspired when I was in a proper metropolis (I grew up in a medium-sized, not very cosmopolitan city). But, it is because cities are all about ideas; about inspiration.

This is also so, so true of the “dense environments” just like those in and around the Moscone Center in early March every year. In a way, GDC is a bit like a microcosmic city-within-a-city.

Lehrer/Brooks’ articles also reminded me of a TED Talk by Matt Ridley last year, entitled “When Ideas Have Sex” (this is where the Archulean hand axes come in again, as he compares the design of the aforementioned axe to a computer mouse) – Matt states:

What’s the process that’s having the same effect in cultural evolution as sex is having in biological evolution? And I think the answer is exchange, the habit of exchanging one thing for another. It’s a unique human feature. No other animal does it. You can teach them in the laboratory to do a little bit of exchange. And indeed there’s reciprocity in other animals. But the exchange of one object for another never happens. As Adam Smith said, “No made ever saw a dog make a fair exchange of a bone with another dog.” You can have culture without exchange… In this case, chimpanzees teaching each other how to crack nuts with rocks. But the difference is that these cultures never expand, never grow, never accumulate, never become combinatorial. And the reason is because there is no sex, as it were, there is no exchange of ideas.

This is precisely why GDC is so very important. It allows for this exchange of ideas. From my own experience, and those of countless others, it isn’t about the discussion that goes on within sessions, but more importantly, those that take place outside of the convention centre. Now, I realise the danger of swinging wildly between earnestness and abject facetiousness in this piece (again, blame the tiredness), but could you imagine if GDC-goers formed an actual city, in which game developers could live, work, play, and engage in a sexy exchange of ideas? A game developer’s arcology, if you will.

Yeah, okay, so this is Boston, not SF. But very cool nonetheless. I just like looking at pictures of arcologies OKAY?

As Jenova Chen also noted during the Game Design Challenge session on Friday, we live in an ideas economy. (I also interviewed him about this – and more – to be featured in an upcoming Gambrian Explosion piece/on the podcast). Ideas are the most powerful things we have to trade, and we should facilitate such an exchange as much as possible. I’m obviously being facetious and not seriously suggesting that we round up all game developers and stick them in a massive super-structure (OR AM I), but the sentiment remains true, and shows exactly why things like GDC are so very important.

So, there we have it. Hypothetical arcologies, ideas, game developers, and Archulean hand axes.



Posted in: Mitu Khandaker