The gaming world is meeting this week in San Jose, here Alice Taylor, who does games research for the BBC, explains why anyone and everyone in the field just has to be there.
New consoles could make 2006 difficult for game makers
The Game Developers Conference in the US is one of the most prestigious, thoughtful and event-packed conferences on the annual circuit, one not to be missed by developers and game designers, academics and business development people alike.
It spans a week, has multiple tracks, with a Mobile Games Summit, a Serious
Games Summit, a Casual Games Summit, two days of tutorials and of course, a metric ton of corporately-sponsored parties.
In 2006 the GDC is in San Jose, its original home which, appropriately, is in the heart of Silicon Valley.
This year it's raining in California, and the conference centre is suffering leaks and brown carpet syndrome; but who needs glitz when there's Real Thinking going on? Save the red carpets and bikinis for E3: GDC is about large-scale production, innovation and networking.
This is, of course, the transition year, the year of the next-generation console arrivals, the year in which publishers lose money on games bought as consumers hold back (and save up) for new machines, and the year in which hardware manufacturers take a huge financial hit as they deal with the cost of global launches.
GDC is reflecting this year of turmoil, with a mind-bendingly exhaustive list of sessions covering everything from how to develop for new markets, new controllers, new hardware, new business models, to how to create a realistic digital human, realistic gestures, better emotional rendering.
Online games have come a long way since Ultima Online
The games glitterati are here in droves. Raph Koster, designer of Ultima Online and Star Wars Galaxies, holding rightful court in the sociable games design session. Will Wright and Peter Molyneux arriving later to show off their latest projects; over there, Julian Dibbell, the economist who lived a full year in Ultima Online and earned a year's wage trading virtual items (which he's now trying to declare to the IRS).
Satoru Iwata, Nintendo's chairman, flies in later to hold presence alongside Phil Harrison, Sony's worldwide VP of development: announcements on next-generation machines from both parties are expected later in the week.
I spent yesterday in an all-day session examining the social in games. I've learned that in real life, men stand further away from other men when in groups than women do from other women. Does this behaviour translate online? Why, yes it does: male avatars stand further away from each other while in groups than female avatars do from each other.
We're even at the point where researchers can measure the amount of avatar-to-avatar eye contact. Now that's progress.
Research show social rules are replicated in game worlds
Can Massively Multiplayer Online Games be used for public diplomacy, asks Joshua Fouts, Director for Public Diplomacy at the University of Southern California.
Yes, he concludes: while government and public diplomacy ambassadors believe - when polled - that "a coffee-table book" is the best form of media communication for public diplomacy, Fouts understands that there is a generation growing up with their communication mediated almost entirely via texts, instant messages and videogames who wouldn't give a coffee-table book a second glance.
Unless, of course, it were a digital artifact on their digital coffee table in their digital house: videogames are a medium that has relevance and resonance to a generation growing up as well as their parents, themselves weaned on Atari and Pac-Man.
Videogames are a huge and vibrant part of first world culture, but are also a "push" technology, claims games academic Constance Steinkuehler: where videogames arrive, computing follows soon after.
Games can be a social glue, a cultural exchange and a powerful political tool, although currently both underused and underexploited. Much opportunity beckons for anyone involved even marginally with this industry: it's promising to be an interesting week.