SxSW Interactive and the conference that should have been

I was fortunate enough to attend SxSW Interactive this year as an IGDA Scholar. These are my overall impressions on the conference having never been before.

SxSW Music and Film is a unique gathering of music and films that exists almost nowhere else in the world. It’s considered one of the best times and places to see a huge gathering of lesser-known or unknown bands, a wide array of quality films that will never have a major release, and a celebration of the idea of creating music and/or film for the sake of the medium. All kinds gather to revel in their collective creative endeavor. Interactive, however, is not like this.

I expected SxSW Interactive to be a gathering and a celebration of artists and designers coming together to celebrate the beauty of what interactivity can deliver. I didn’t expect it to be small, but I did expect some sort of parity with the music and film festivals. Instead, there seems to be too much money and too many parties. That hope I had is there, somewhere, and shines through intermittedly, but it’s buried by a strange layer of start-up culture and swag promotions.

Because of this, I’m not sure what to make of SxSW. It seems there’s no real way to determine if a panel or speaker will be good based on its title, and there’s such a huge number of them per time slot it becomes overwhelming. To illustrate, I’ll pick a random time slot (Monday, 11 AM). There were about 40 panel/speaker sessions. This doesn’t include the book readings, the mentor sessions, the “core conversations”, or any other number of categories of events that happen simultaneously to the conference. And this isn’t an anomaly, it’s par for the course. Included in that span are multiple panels on driving up profits, dealing with data, and harvesting consumer content. It’s these latter panels which are the meat of the conference, with the majority of the 1600+ speakers filling out these roles. But again, there are diamonds in the rough: there is a panel on designing documentary games, one on the arts organization eyebeam, and an amazing talk by the man who helped Bjork design her latest interactive album.

Even the gaming portion of SxSW felt odd. Screenburn’s “arcade” felt like a mini-E3, featuring booth-babes and cosplay competitions. There was a Starcraft 2 competition directly next to a constant LAN party, and IGDA Austin’s booth sat immediately adjacent to a bus on the hood of which a skimpily clad schoolgirl was weilding a fake chainsaw. Meanwhile, upstairs and tucked around the back of the building, was a talk on the myth of intuitivity, a panel on alternate funding for game developers, and a session on enabling the idea of contemplative play.

It seems that SxSW Interactive is having an identity crisis; its two heads vying for control of a body that is hesitant to follow either until a victor has been decided. For me, SxSW is a conference that I can only hope falls back on an emphasis toward the creatives, as it runs against everything for which the other two sections of the festival stand. Simply put, during the film portion of SxSW, one primarily watches fims. During the music, one primarily listens to music. There is nothing to speak of with which I can interact during the interactive portion, and only a handful of talks that inspire me to create.

Posted By Simon

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