Above all else, the Game Developers' Conference is a networking event. The year presents no better opportunity for like-minded designers, programmers and artists to connect and forge useful industry connections and even friendships. The most valuable moments at any given GDC are not the keynotes or workshops but the industrious conversation over drinks at W or the stolen moments between sessions when one industry professional will proudly extend his hand to another: "Hi," they declare, "my name is ________ and I work for ________."
For some, GDC is the fabled city on the hill. I saw pilgrims lost on the road; students who had laid their hopes and dreams on five days and two thousand dollars, and prayed that was the week the stars would align; that the doors would open and the Games Industry would warmly beckon them inside. If not, they would fall back down to earth and have to find final shelter under their Psychology or English major. With the conference turning invite-only in 2009, there they would be trapped, forever on the outside looking in.
On Monday, they worked on first impressions, relying on the self-conscious, carefully calculated cocktail of outspoken scholarship, diligence and obsequiousness, which typically fails to impress anyone. On Wednesday, with nothing haven fallen into place and no contact the right contact, cracks appeared in the ingénue's determined facade, and quiet desperation by day turned to violent hysteria by night. They cursed those who had already reached the promised land, who casually strutted down the hallways, making it look so easy. On Friday, with nothing to show but the tattered ruins of ambition, on the verge of losing everything, they flailed around wildly, looking for the most famous face, finding Ken Levine and reaching out a hand, as if one breathless touch would grant all his powers; in a whisper, "I want you, I want your life." GDC calls forth the naïve and breaks their souls on its rocky shores.
There are the believers. The ones who see networking as a calling, and every business card collected as a valued conversion. They stare you down from across the conference halls, and as they advance with a phony smile, you wonder why you are the one he chose. He approaches not with the nervousness of the boy asking the pretty girl out to the dance but rather the steely professionalism of the sex predator. A successful network is nonetheless performed with so much artifice that the whole procedure threatens to fall apart if both participants aren't willing to accede to their roles in the pre-scripted pantomime. I saw first-hand people who could network like Paddy Chayefsky but these were not them. At one party (where most of those attending worked for the hosting company, thwarting many networking opportunities) there was a short girl with glasses in my peripheral vision, who drilled a hole into my face with her gaze; a single-minded glare which said "I wish to network with you." I failed to return her glance at the right moment, and because at that moment I was looking elsewhere I accidentally locked eyes with someone else and an awkward and irreversible network was engaged.
For the career-minded, the Career Pavilion offered a straight-forward alternative: simply walking up to the company booth of your choice and handing in your resume. This lacks the personal connection, however; you are reduced to just one more hopeful supplicant. Nonetheless, perhaps this path affords more dignity, although you are wandering around in what is basically a circus tent, with marketing tools parading in steampunk costumes and silent fans buzzing by the 2K booth solely to grab handfuls of BioShock pens (one of each colour.) And by the weekend, this room will be populated by anime enthusiasts posing for pictures with stormtroopers and batwomen.
Then there are the tired disciples, those that will, in time, question their faith and might seek career fulfillment elsewhere. Card exchange, once full of pleasure and purpose, is now an empty ritual. Accordingly, the Conference does its best to rekindle that flame. It launches hip initiatives like Destroy All Developers, which reimagines networking as a sexy adventure instead of a bitter charade. Players aim to collect the most business cards, competing with other attendees for prestige and t-shirts. Furthermore, the IGDA holds "group gatherings" for producers, lawyers, and the very demeaningly-labeled industry discipline, "bloggers, podders and journos." This invaluable event assembles a dozen of the field's greatest thinkers in a small corner of the show floor so that they can stand uncomfortably and not talk to one another.
Increasingly recognised as the premiere industry event, GDC boasted record attendance in 2008. Rather than extending networking avenues, however, this unfortunately introduced a new class into the social system: the peasants. They are so far down the ladder they have nothing of substance to offer any industry professional, but somehow they remain. These people are filth. Among the believers' repertoire is a risky manoeuver: the surreptitious glance down to chest level, reading the company name on the badge and evaluating its importance, followed by quickly walking away or casually flicking their eyes upward and pretending to notice the person for the first time. If this is unfeasible, the networker is forced to go in blind. When the worthlessness of their target becomes clear, their face contorts into a mask of horror as they realise they have wasted a network and, worse, given their card to street trash. This look manifests itself as a polite smile.
By the end of the week, the pilgrims, speed dating with nothing but lonely souls, will be ruined if they make this mistake. They approach not with a professional opening line, but in their wide eyes a broken plea: are you powerful? are you important? will you save me? There is no greater embarrassment than in having to explain your own insignificance, that you are the author of an impossibly trivial blog and not Gabe Newell. Their hearts break for without a savior they will be cast down into the fires of hell.
So far from the magical social ideal written in the stars, it is a sad, artificial custom of false promise and careerist desperation. There is no worse time to be nothing at all.