Sunday, February 24, 2008

GDC 2008: Past And Future Wrapped Together

Thoughts in flight, crossing a continent, returning home—this time after attending and speaking at the Game Developer’s Conference 2008. Finally I have time to organize my thoughts. Connection points and potential are the threads twisting through my head. I originally attended GDC in 2001 with the intention of learning how best to construct a degree program for this nascent industry. It set in motion the creation of Champlain’s game degree program.

This year it seemed as if a milestone had been met. The largest group yet of Champlain faculty, staff and students attended. Members of our soon-to-be first graduating class came resume ready. The college hosted its first booth. And as part of the Education SIG, I was asked to speak and be part of a panel on the topics of industry/academic relations and on academic collaborations. Also for first time my sister Mary DeMarle spoke as part of a divergent panel on "The Future of Game Writing". It was a DeMarle family first (thanks Mom and Dad)

GDC has grown to be a homecoming for me. It’s a return to a Shangri-La created by the connection of people with ideas on art and code, story and behavior. From my vantage point, past and future wrapped around itself at the conference.

Reliving their early discoveries that gave birth to the game industry, Ralph Baer (creator of the first video tennis game and the first home video game system, the Brown Box, marketed as the Magnavox Odyssey), and Al Alcorn (creator of the video arcade game Pong and the Atari 2600) spoke on Wednesday. Their slides showcased the early hands-on nature of engineering and technology. Still evident was their joy in discovery. They swapped stories of wiring 12-volt batteries, bulbs and cathoray tubes and installing all within wooden casing. They were asked if they had any idea that their creations would spawn the industry that exists today. “Not at all.” Yet in that early work, one can see the birth of today’s current genres: sports, shooters, and educational content.

The following day, Ray Kurzweil focused a well-polished magnifying glass on the future and the part games will play. Kurzweil repeatedly addressed the game industry audience as those who are actively engaged in the algorithmic acceleration of technology. Twice he commented on the unfortunate name of “games” for the discipline.

In rapid fire style he outlined his theories on the nature of paradigms shifting: the early days of punch cards and vacuum tubes, Moore’s Law coming to an end in 2012 (ending the 5th paradigm), entering the 6th paradigm with 3D chips, the advent of self-organizing nanotechnology, forecasting a billion-fold increase in computer technology by 2013, and of computation mirroring the human brain. Our challenge, he stated,“Will we have the software?”. He went on that with virtual reality possible we enter the “Uncanny Valley” of believable intelligence. We have graphic fidelity but we also will have intelligence behind the characters. “Alan Turing said the key to humanity is language. Computers are not at human level yet but in 2020 we will be there. Can humanity understand this data? A complex system may not be complex enough to understand itself.”

As if to challenge the audience further, Kurzweil stated, “Play is how we principally learn and create”and later “in games, ultimately, we will do most of learning through these massively multiplayer worlds”. He predicted an exponential growth in education, foreseeing that “all sorts of educational material will be delivered through the game world”. This being necessary as technology destroys jobs at bottom of skill ladder and jobs are created at the top of the knowledge industries. Farm and factory jobs being replaced by web design, game industry, etc..

Kurzweil is optimistic about the future believing that “technology is inherently democratizing”. He predicts a golden day coming with human intelligence married to computing and biotechnology promising longer, healthier lives. Kurzweil stated that the purpose of human existence is to go beyond the limitations of our biology to expand our intelligence.

The conference was buzzing with the possibilities. Many conference attendees left inspired, sensing their work may break new ground for virtual existences. I leave with questions about the purpose of our existence and about our nature. Entertainment technology is indeed taking advantage of the acceleration of computing capabilities. Play is indeed the way we learn. Market forces, however, drive what is being created. The youthful creators of games love being on the edge much like Baer and Alcorn did 40 years ago. Like them, they do not seem to see the impact of their work. Games are powerful shapers of learning. Where are the minds for the future being created? Later, I'd like to share more from the conference on this topic.

1 comment:

Glen Cooney said...

The only thing I worry about with the increasing technological complexity of games is the increasing cost of making games. This translates into the market becoming less and less willing to break the mold creatively for fear of market failure. But I think that kind of innovation is critical if we want to push the games industry forward. Better design beats better technology, both for hardcore gamers and for potential people looking to come into the world of games.