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Sterling: Bankers will get rich from games, not designers

AUSTIN GDC: Sci-fi author's vision of future also identifies abusers of videogame systems

Futurist keynotes are notoriously hard to glean practical information from - as witnessed by the undoubtedly interesting but awkwardly irrelevant Ray Kurzweil 2008 GDC keynote - a point which author Bruce Sterling handily sidestepped at Austin GDC by giving a talk that wavered somewhere between inspirational lecture, performance art, and low-rent magic show.

"One small problem," began Sterling, "I'm not Bruce Sterling. I know you were expecting Sterling for your keynote today, but he couldn't make it, so he sent me here instead. Hi."

The general topic of the keynote was the shape of computer entertainment 35 years from now (as the industry hits its 35th anniversary in 2008) and Sterling's schtick throughout the talk was that the then-89 year old Bruce Sterling had sent back one of his graduate students in his place to demonstrate the technology of 2043.

Channelling in equal parts Douglas Adams and confetti-tossing comedian Rip Taylor, Sterling's future technology consisted of a folded handkerchief that, he explained through deliberately meaningless technobabble, was the PC of the future, no longer objects of fashion and desire but "boring... likes bricks and forks and toothbrushes, like towels."

He also, flinging handfuls of salt into the air, demonstrated "greebles" - computational crystal nanotechnology each "q-bit" as powerful as a modern server farm - that made information exchange as "ambient, pervasive, and ubiquitous" as his towel PC.

But behind the novelty and performance Sterling would go on to hit on salient points that do and will continue to affect designers and the industry at large. "Who are the moguls, the zillionaires [in the future]? I can tell you that - it's the bankers, the financiers. Entertainers can make a lot of money, but they don't keep that money. They're not money management people. Money management people make and keep a lot of money."

Certain games have internal economies, he explained, have currency, loans, real estate holdings, and the people that take advantage of those systems are not game players, they are bankers. In the future, said Sterling, "gaming bankers are the normal bankers. The old kind, they're all extinct. You're creative guys. Are you going to be as rich, even though they're playing inside your games? No. You're not."

"They are money managers and they're going to be much much richer than you... They're willing to make money and you're just not that interested," he continued, making a pulpy show of driving home the dramatic point by lighting a cigarette.

Sterling also touched on three kinds of people that weren't "fun people," people that "are not even your users. They're your abusers. They don't obey your rules."

Those were gold farmers -- "rip off artists... the excluded, the black market, the pirates" - griefers - who "have a game, have entertainment, but it's not yours, it's their game. Hate, sorrow, treachery, conflict, grief" - and convergence culture people - who will "play your game, but they'll play it while they're using six or seven kinds of media at the same time. Use networks as meta medium. They don't play the roles in your games."

"They ambush and beat on you. They're not your enemies, but they're deeply alien to your chosen paradigm. They have control over your destiny that you don't allow yourselves to have. Their fun isn't fun, their computers aren't computers. They're more cultural than you. You're an industry... that's why they kick your ass," Sterling said between drags of his cigarette.

"How do we exterminate these weeds that are growing in our money crops? You don't. They beat you like the schoolyard bullies beat the kids that were good at math. Living well, that's your best revenge," he continued.

Comparing the early employees of Atari - then "the fastest growing company in American history" - who went from feeling like artists and disruptors to soon feeling like cogs in Warner's larger and wholly unappreciative marketing machine ("obedient functionaries in a towel factory"), and would subsequently leave to form Activision, Sterling said those functionaries would "come and go in history and futurity."

"That's what they do. That's your heritage. That's your great struggle. That's what you face," he concluded, building to his inspirational conclusion. "That is your life. Here all around you in the here and now. Your hours on the earth, your place in the great parade. It's all yours. Live it. Live every hour. Thank you for giving me one hour."

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