SXSW vs. GDC in epic battle for relevancy

The two giant conferences face off over the future of technology

 SXSW vs. GDC in epic battle for relevancy
Credit: Stephen Lawson

In a quirk of scheduling, South By Southwest, in Austin, Texas, and the Game Developers’ Conference, in San Francisco, went head to head last week. SXSW got most of the mainstream attention, but I’d argue that the GDC is where the real work of building the future of technology is being done.

Disclosure: While I have attended both events in previous years, I was unable to make it to either this time. I have no dog in this hunt.

When it comes to mainstream appeal and star power, of course, there’s no comparison. South By, as it’s often called, includes music and film components that pull in legions of huge stars—this year including the sitting President of the United States, and his wife—in separate addresses. Not to mention everyone from Pat Benatar to Jake Gyllenhall.

At the GDC, the highest profile names were—well, there really weren’t any to speak of.

But let’s take a look at the two conferences in the areas where they overlap, gaming and virtual reality. GDC is all about gaming, obviously, and SXSW Gaming was a whole subconference devoted to gaming. VR, in particular, played a huge role at both events.

The approaches couldn’t have been more different, however.

For example, according to its website: “SXSW Gaming brings together the gaming industry into one chaotically fun experience. It’s a unique combination of all things geek, nerd, and gaming that takes place in an environment where creativity thrives.”

+ A LOOK BACK: 2014 South by Southwest's most intriguing speakers +

The GDC, meanwhile, claims to be “the primary forum where programmers, artists, producers, game designers, audio professionals, business decision-makers and others involved in the development of interactive games gather to exchange ideas and shape the future of the industry.”

SXSW Gaming certainly sounds like a lot more fun, but which one is more likely to change the world? For a hint, let’s look at their respective VR programs:

SXSW featured the VR/AR Experience, a “hands-on exhibition, featuring a selection of the best new Virtual and Augmented reality technologies.” Session titles included Virtual Reality: Is it the Ultimate Brain Hack? and Using Virtual Reality to Create Compassion.

Over at the GDC, the Virtual Reality Developers Conference was a “two-day summit [that] taps expertise from the video game, entertainment, and tech fields to bring you the state of the art in producing content for virtual and augmented reality.” Sessions included Building 3-Dimensional UI for VR , End to End Cinematic VR Production Best Practices, and Menus Suck.

Here’s perhaps the biggest contrast: SXSW had a session on VR Porn: Future Is Upon Us, What’s Next? GDC had a controversy over scantily clad dancers at a Microsoft party.

Not surprisingly given its roots as a music festival, SXSW has evolved into a big tech/music/film/gaming celebration. It features A-list celebrities and some of the best alcohol-fueled networking around—despite long lines keeping most of the hoi-polloi out of the hottest sessions and events. Drinking starts when the doors open—or earlier—and it can be a ton of fun for business folks and marketers. Even the New York Times acknowledges that SXSW has become more about the tech lifestyle than actual products. It’s not that you can’t learn anything at South By, just that it’s more trend-spotting for cool kids than actual product making.

The Game Developers’ Conference, on the other hand, is all about nerds getting better at the serious work of creating digital fun. It’ll never match the cache of SXSW but it’s a great venue for keeping up with the actual technology that’s changing the face of entertainment.

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