The parties here are weird. For a start, there are so many of them you don’t know which way to turn. The whole city is abuzz. But even though there are hundreds of places to go, everyone seems to be heading to the same crowded venues. By the time you get to the parties, they are already packed, and sometimes the queues to get in stretch around the block. And the really strange thing is that lots of people here think they can network, think they know how to meet people, plug themselves in, have a good time, but they really don’t. Just because you have Twitter and Gowalla on your phone and you know where your virtual friends are every second of the day doesn’t mean you actually have any social skills.
Some things you still have to learn the old-fashioned way, like starting conversations with people, being polite, mingling, looking up from your mobile device every few seconds to speak to the people around you. The whole thing is incredibly clique-y, even though it’s supposed to be about meeting new people and making new friends. There just aren’t enough good mixers here, per head of digital population, to make the parties go with a swing. So you go, you drink, you stand around, you try to venture a conversation with someone, but it fizzles out awkwardly, or they inadvertently cut you down, because they’re only used to meeting people via Skype. The real deal is too intense for them.
Or maybe not. One of the most interesting talks I’ve seen so far was a discussion of the possibilities for video games to have an emotional impact on players, with British designer Peter Molyneux, he of Milo/Theme Park/Fable fame. In Fable 3, Lionhead have added a whole load of small touches and gestures that allow the player to have physical interactions with others, so you can hug people, lift up your daughter and cuddle her, you can walk hand in hand, or if you’re feeling less altruistic, you can drag a beggar off the street and sell him to a local factory as slave labour. Molyneux was making the point that by implementing these little actions, and by making the gamer go through the process of physically embracing people, or touching them in the game, it caused those actions to be imprinted on them more deeply, created an emotional attachment, and also an incipient moral one.
He seemed bent on creating what he called ‘joyful experiences’ in games, not just killing people, or managing systems. And one of the better questions that was asked, leading out of the discussion, was: can a game ever give us the same sense of enlightenment as a book or a film? Molyneux seemed to think that, yes, of course a video game can provoke strong emotional feelings, and that ultimately, because of the interactive nature of games, they might even be able to give us the most completely affective stories of all, but that the barriers in terms of technology and skills in the industry were still quite high. The technology is improving rapidly, but it’s the skill to create emotionally adaptable characters, great stories, and profound ideas, that is still lacking. He put out a call for creative people to help him and the industry approach these problems, and once again I was struck by the need for games developers and the interactive community in general to learn from the experiences and vision of artists. Think I might drop Peter a line when I get back home. Maybe we can develop something really interesting using some of the amazing ideas of artists I know who are working with digital media.
Austin is starting to work its way into my heart. It’s hard to know what it would be like when the Festival crowd all leaves, but there’s something really idiosyncratic and charming about the place that I’m starting to get a crush on. The usual stripped-down, rapid-fire efficiency that you find in any American town, but with a fierce brand of cultural independence. They say Americans don’t have any sense of irony. Well, clearly they have never been to Austin. That wonderful laconic black humour is in abundance here, in the bars and clubs and venues, and on the streets on signs, t-shirts, bumper stickers and everywhere you go. 6th Street with its curious dives and souvenir arcades is like a cross between Camden high street and Whitby. Everywhere you look there’s another Rock and Roll bar with a live band, a Gothic pizza parlour or a Saloon glowing with neon signs for Dos Equis and Miller Lite.
SoCo, South Congress Avenue, runs all the way from the river, placid and beautiful in the still twilight, up to the imposing Capitol that sits on top of a slowly sloping hill. Wells Fargo’s glimmering towers shine in the intense sunlight, burning like mirrors, while wispy fruit trees, covered in fresh white blossoms, soften the corners of every street. There’s nothing, especially, to tell you that this is Texas, and everyone reminds you that this is just a little liberal bubble in the middle of a great Red Republican plain, but with its old stone buildings and rowing boats, and fleets of tiny birds picking seeds from the grass, it doesn’t feel like the Deep South at all. I don’t know what I was expecting, but it wasn’t this. Anyway, I’m falling very rapidly for it, the mixture of Tex-Mex arcana and sophisticated urban centre, and I’ll be sorry to go home.
Meanwhile, there’s plenty more to see at the Festival. Evan Williams, Twitter CEO, is giving a keynote today, and Daniel Ek, the prodigious 26 year-old founder of Spotify, is speaking tomorrow, and there are panels on robotics, social gaming, networks, and everything under the sun that has to do with the Web. And you, intrepid reader, shall have it all, very soon.
In the meantime, I really have got to work out how to crack these parties. The only problem of hanging out with geeks is that we aren’t very good at this real-life social networking stuff. Even the girls seem unusually shy and remote. But there’s still time.