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In-Depth: The Nature And Purpose Of PRACTICE At NYU

Gamasutra visited New York University's inaugural PRACTICE conference this past weekend, discovering notable talks -- and a positive, intimate event that aims to serve working designers on the high level.
The well-received two-day PRACTICE conference held at New York University this past weekend will become an annual event, organizers say. But amusingly enough, in an open attendee feedback session at the close of the two-day design conference the main subject of debate was the event's name. Some complained that telling friends they were attending or speaking at a "practice conference" caused them some awkwardness, not to mention the name's relative un-google-ability. But Eric Zimmerman, who helped lead the event as part of NYU's Game Center, advocated for the name's resonance and meaning. "I don't know how the practice of game design is changing us, but I think that it is, and to me that's an incredibly meaningful thing," Zimmerman told attendees. "This conference is about thinking about game design in that way... in some sense, it's a form of practice, a kind of action meditation that we do that makes us all more enlightened." "For me, there's a sort of spiritual significance, like this is our sort of church," he added. Gamasutra visited the event, which was sponsored by Linden Lab and the Museum of the Moving Image, and covered a number of the notable talks from an impressive bill of speakers, from PopCap designer Scott Jon Siegel on the need for more prototyping in social game design to Irrational's Steve Gaynor on progression gating as gameplay and narrative tool. The star of day two was a spirited debate among Chris Hecker, Nick Fortugno and Manveer Heir on the degree to which designers might benefit from learning programming, although Harmonix' Matt Boch's lively talk also offered an interesting look at prototyping Dance Central. Ultimately, the event's goal was to offer an intimate, high-level program for working designers in a way that was specific to the craft of design, versus the networking opportunities or visionary talks offered by other events, says Frank Lantz of the Game Center and of Zynga New York. The Game Center offered the perfect opportunity to explore such an event, Lantz tells Gamasutra. "And it was partly an exercise for us to figure out who we are as the NYU Game Center," he says, "how do we want to contribute to the community beyond the classes that we do, and the other programs that we do?" Exploring answers to that question illustrated a gap, he says: "There's a need that is missing, and that's a professional conference for game designers... there are people who just do this for a living, and there are working game designers struggling with these issues and questions and there isn’t something really focused for them." He lauded the breadth and opportunity in the annual Game Developer's Conference, but says "we wanted something really focused... high-level and detailed and focused on these people in the trenches." Lantz says he's "so excited" by the response to PRACTICE; indeed, attendees seemed to respond well to the intimate setting, and in particular a day-one session called Open Problems, which offered them opportunities to address the room with actual design challenges they were facing in their work -- and hear suggestions, solutions and tips from fellow attendees along with experts like Reiner Knizia, Emily Short or Seth Killian, depending on the individual's issue. "I thought it could have been a disaster," Lantz acknowledges of the open mic-like session. "Instead, it was amazing! The problems were interesting, they were genuine working issues, and the room was so smart... it was really like the process of game design. That's how you do it; jamming, and throwing out ideas." Lantz says the Game Center team will finalize a date for next year soon, with an announcement upcoming. "We're going to try to make it this fantastic, yearly thing," he enthuses, stressing the aim to maintain the intimacy of PRACTICE and its focus on working game designers sharing problems and solutions with each other. Most exciting, the advent of PRACTICE coincides with NYU's hopes to launch a Masters of Fine Arts program for games a year from now, in fall 2012. The program awaits approval from the state and anything could happen, but "part of this is defining who we are for that occasion," says Lantz.

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