This past weekend was the opening weekend of the annual Austin open bar Bacchanalia known as SXSW. Traditionally, it has been a platform for creators to expose their creations to a bountiful and receptive crowd of transient badge holders. But now the event is bursting at the seams, futilely attempting to contain a film festival, a technology trade show, a music festival, a brand new fashion track, and a video games event.
In its official third iteration since 2013, the Gaming Expo once again took over the area south of the Colorado River, occupying both the Long Center and the Palmer Events Center, two buildings so often conflated that SXSW volunteers working the area have a knee-jerk reaction of differentiating them without prompting.
Last year saw 48,000 people amble through the 90,000 square feet. PR for SXSW won’t be releasing attendance numbers for this year until after the event, but from the amount of shuffling and pleading it took to get through a single corridor of booths, the number only seems to have gone up. And according to Gaming manager Justin Burnham, they can’t take anymore.
They’re trying to expand. Both in terms of physical space and quality. The past had the huge draw of a real life Mario Kart track and the exceptionally large and interesting NASA exhibit parked on the lawn of the Palmer. This year seems to be solely under the power of video games.
For the time being, a Manifest Destiny across the river back to where the zoo-like menagerie of main SXSW hub sits is out of the cards. The events already located in the downtown area are pushing the city to capacity. Gaming seems to have started out and will continue to be at the kiddie table.
When the sole shuttle route takes 30 to 45 minutes at a time to take diehard film fans to satellite locations and curious gamers over Congress Avenue Bridge to the Palmer, it’s hard to not take it personally. But the actual growth of the barely attached expo is impossible to deny.
Last year seemed to have struggled just to fill the Geek Stage, the main platform for which speakers to say their piece inside the exhibit hall. Bits and pieces fell around other spaces and theaters, but that was mostly it. This year had back-to-back sessions on the main stage and the Kodosky Lounge and the Education Room of the Long Center. For all three days.
It was impressive, to say the least. It definitely signaled a turning point, to where instead of just local developers and supremely indie studios would show up to see what would happen, there seemed to be a plan. Whether that plan worked or not isn’t as important as the fact that there was a plan.
That’s not to say, however, that the results aren’t noteworthy, and this is where it gets dicey. Talking to a fellow journalist walking the beat, he referred to the bulk of what the expo had to offer as “snicklefritz,” and he’s not wrong. Few of the games and tech demos on display were worth much beyond 300 words and even less of the panels were what they aspired to be.
It seems to be a problem of both content and moderation. Save for a potent bit of discourse in the “Surviving Cancer with Games and Community” talk, both halves of the panel equation were found lacking. For instance, a panel called “Building Better Beat ‘Em Ups” was mostly a history on the genre that vacillated between mechanical analysis and activism awareness. Had it focused on one or the other, it would have definitely improved since solo speaker Shawn Allen seemed to have a deep knowledge of both.
And others where a Q&A on narrative writing in the industry failed to go beyond the platitudes we’ve all heard dozens of times before: don’t give up, do what you love, etc. But that’s the risk of a public forum. There’s no guarantee the public has any idea on how to ask meaningful questions.
Moderators should, and that’s another frequent issue from this year. If you watch, for example, the Telltale panel on interactive storytelling, it was mostly a rehash of their franchises and recent headlines in the news. Moderator Malik Forte either wasn’t allowed or didn’t decide to pursue more impactful threads, instead opting to fill minutes with praise for the company.
The entire event actually contained and somewhat culminated in a microcosmic representation of the industry as a whole. GTFO: Get The F% Out, a documentary about women in gaming, premiered this weekend as part of Film. There was a Q&A about the making of the film for Gaming. It touched on some of the same issues as an earlier panel about women finding success in games.
Both had glancing hits on the topic of Gamergate, though they mostly focused on personal experience and a desire to not put words in other people’s mouths. While not the most insightful or deep talks on the subject (surely it can’t be easy talking about such personal and vulnerable issues in a public setting), it was a sign of support and progress.
Then the expo was capped off by the SXSW Gaming Awards, which—through no fault of any one person in particular—devolved into a debacle of pregaming unruliness and ruthless enthusiasm. It’s not that the crowd lacked refinement or an appreciation for the performance and orchestration before them, but it certainly was a willingness to put their desire to simple be known ahead of it.
And what more has the industry shown us to be true in the last thirty years than people wanting to be known? From the entire medium gaining respect to women and minorities receiving recognition to the bullheaded jackasses reminding everyone that white and male privilege still exist, it’s been a multibillion-dollar conglomeration of developers, artists, and players proving that everyone just wants to be heard.
As panelists meander across topics and fans use microphones to espouse their affections and audiences roar up in the face of hosts and cameras and the wooden struts of the show groan under its immense growth, can you even hear the voices in the din? Perhaps it’s far too deafening.