This year, I got most of my work-related GDC meetings out of the way early in the week, leaving me plenty of time for going to lectures and socializing. Mostly socializing. Unfortunately, all that learning and party-hopping means that I’m further behind than ever at work, so in lieu of any deep and well-thought-out observations, here are some random impressions from the conference:

I heard very little discussion of gamification. Part of that is because I missed out on the strangely named “Game IT” summit that supposedly encompasses the idea, but I like to think that for the most part, game developers just collectively said “uch, screw it,” and decided that it’s not even worth getting worked up about.

What I did hear was lots of talk about games as “pure experience,” which on the one hand could just be code for Capital-A Art, but on the other hand seems to refer more to a particular type of gameplay experience that’s less about achievement and competition, and more about exploration, performance, and presence, all of which I’m very much in favor of.

Margaret Robertson gave a talk on the process of making a game based on a documentary about a woman who was dead for three years before anyone found her. As if that wasn’t a sketchy enough idea for a game, she discussed the many constraints on the project — ethical, legal, client-driven, etc. — basically laying out all the reasons something like this couldn’t work. And it didn’t. The project ended up as an online interactive “thing” that was not quite a game; a successful enough project, but not very satisfying for a game designer. The talk avoided being a morbid meditation on death, but did go to a different kind of dark place — what if some aspects of life just can’t be expressed through gameplay? What if some things can’t be a game?

Eric Zimmerman probably thinks that’s fine. In his talk, he railed against the “instrumentalization” of games, the idea that games have to be good for something in order to be good. Calling educational games, gamification of labor, and other “usefully” applied games “allies of Roger Ebert,” Zimmerman claimed that for games to be recognized as art, they have to insist on being games for games’ sake, just as any art form simply is what it is, and doesn’t have to be practical to be appreciated.

Jason VandenBerghe offered a fresh take on player personality types, departing from the usual models to develop a theory based on the Big Five framework. In interviews, he found that the five dimensions — openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism — map to player types — novelty, challenge, stimulation, harmony, and threat — and that the correlation between personality types and the games they like is extremely high. VandenBerghe even dipped into another level of the five factors, in which each factor gets broken down into six sub-factors, and found that even a 30-dimensional mapping continues to show a high correlation between personality types and preferred games. The big shift in thinking comes from the fact that the general population falls into a normal distribution on all axes, so for every audience that you think your game should be catering to, there is another, equally large audience, that wants the opposite kind of experience.

The Experimental Gameplay Session was quite good this year, with a number of unique games — literally unique, not just novel. Oakutron is a one-off arcade game built to support Occupy Oakland. Glitchhiker was a game-jam game where the game itself had a finite number of lives; when the last life was lost, the game corrupted itself and could no longer be played. Deep Sea is an audio-only game that is played wearing a modified gas mask that cuts the player off from their environment, leaving them in an alternate world created by the audio design.

The last game of the last session, Renga is a game made to be played in a movie theater. 100 participants are given laser pointers, and point at the big screen to control the game. The game itself, a spacey RTS, seemed awfully complicated, and the presenters noted that the room full of game devs was performing much worse than most crowds of laypeople (griefers galore). But still, sitting in a darkened room, watching laser dots flicker on a screen, laughing and playing along with a crowd of your friends and colleagues — it’s a nice way to end a conference.