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South By Southwest celebrates gaming, but doesn't quite embrace it ... yet

The single hour I spent hanging out in The Four Seasons' lobby waiting for an interview earlier this week shows just how unhinged from reality the annual South By Southwest gathering in Austin can make one feel.

Finding a spare seat next to a stranger, I started to look over my emails only to have a woman approach me and strike up a conversation after noticing I was wearing a speaker's badge. The woman was a doctor seeking funding for a medical app she made me promise not to tell anyone about and the short talk wrapped up with her saying she was going to put me in touch with a student who wants to introduce more games to China.

Moving to a more secluded spot, this time by the elevators, to write, my thoughts were interrupted by someone shouting: "Hey Will, let's see how many purses we can steal."

The person shouting was actor Kevin Hart and the Will he was shouting to, actor Will Ferrell. The two drew a mammoth crowd waiting for their ride up. (I don't believe they stole any purses.)

Finally riding up the elevator to my appointment, I was joined by Jason Statham and a group of his friends. We all stood quietly in the elevator. Despite my expectations that Statham was at any moment going to start striking and kicking everyone in the elevator ala every action movie he has made, he didn't. He simply stared through his gold-rimmed sunglasses at me until my floor came up.

South By Southwest is a stew of pop culture. You can't walk a dozen steps without hearing about an exciting new tech start-up, seeing a television or movie celebrity, or hearing some snippet of new, amazing music. It is entertainment and diversion rolled up into a tight bundle of celebration. With one exception: video games.

Despite the prominence of gaming, despite its ubiquity, its earnings, even the fact that almost every person I spoke to played games - from actors and directors to comic book creators, gaming remains the unloved step-child of the entertainment industry.

While South By Southwest Gaming exists, its showing during the week is an orphaned exhibition removed by miles from the conclave of interaction, movies and music that takes over the convention center and the streets surrounding it.

But that could, and absolutely should, change in the coming year, says Justin Burnham, the project manager for SXSW Gaming.

While the SXSW set of shows has dabbled with including video games in their mix in the past, it wasn't until 2011 that the show decided to take the medium seriously, bringing on Burnham to help build up its inclusion in the show.

Creator Activism - Kirkman

Currently, the Gaming show consists of a free 90,000 or so square-foot exhibition hall loaded up with 150 or so booths from developers, publishers and others connected to gaming and gaming culture. There are also panels in a nearby building and hotel and a constant flow of talks in the hall itself on the "geek stage."

Only the larger talks, like the on-stage interview I conducted with The Walking Dead's creator Robert Kirkman this year, take place in the Austin Convention Center, home to SXSW. The rest are at the Palmer Center, about two miles away.

In 2014, more than 48,000 people walked through the exhibition hall for the game show and this year's hall attendance is set to beat that number.

As SXSW Gaming continues to rise in popularity, the sideshow is simply outgrowing its space, so a move isn't just inevitable, it's required.

"Everyone at SXSW, myself included, agrees that the growth has exceeded the area we are in," Burnham told me. "We're meeting after this year's show [with the directors of SXSW] to see what the next level is.

"The only option available to take this to the next level is to unify the buildings and get together at the Austin Convention Center."

But, he added, that's not something SXSW is pursuing quite yet.

Formed in 1987, South By Southwest started out as a regional celebration of music, but quickly became a national venue for major groups. In 1993, the show moved to the Austin Convention Center. A year later the show added components for film and other media. By 1995, film and multimedia were their own parts of the show, with multimedia renamed to Interactive.

The collection of interlinked shows typically runs for about ten days, with gaming running the first three days, Interactive the first five, music the last six and film spanning the whole show.

Will Ferrell

While some argue that the broader SXSW show as a whole has lost its purpose as a place for grassroots creators can find an audience, that certainly felt like the case for much of SXSW Gaming.

Talks included Kirkman discussing Creator Activision and the importance of creator's maintaining control of their works and discussions of gaming as therapy, while much of the expo floor was dedicated to an eclectic array of independently developed video games.

Championing indie game development could be a way to both fit into the greater culture of South by Southwest and set itself apart from the slew of other video game expos that continue to clutter the calendar in the United States.

Burnham sees South by Southwest Gaming as a place where an unusual mix of artists can come together not just from gaming, but from the worlds of film, music and other forms of interactivity. And it's that idea that powers his desire to continue to grow gaming's footprint at the show.

"The sky is the limit," he said. 'There are so many ideas going on in my head. I want more industry-side panels, consumer-side panels. I watch workshops. I want pitch rooms where game developers can meet with studios for 15 minutes."

Hugh Forrest, director of the SXSW Interactive Festival, said that while it would be great to get Gaming closer to the Austin Convention Center, they just don't have the room.

"The current location at the Palmer Events Center is 70,000 square feet," he said. "There is nothing that big in downtown - aside from the Austin Convention Center, which already houses the SXSW Trade Show.

"All that said, the Palmer Events Center really isn't that far from downtown. By foot, it is about a 20 minute walk. By taxi or pedicab or shuttle bus, it is much much faster."

But Forrest agrees that Gaming has outgrown its current location.

"The SXSW Gaming Expo has grown a lot over the last few years," he said. "At this point, we have probably outgrown the venue where it currently resides (the Palmer Events Center). So, I'd love to see the event find more room to grow in the next few years. And not just grow in size but grown in quality. We are doing some good things at the SXSW Gaming Expo. But, we can do some even cooler stuff in the next few years."

Good Game is an internationally syndicated weekly news and opinion column about the big stories of the week in the gaming industry and its bigger impact on things to come. Brian Crecente is a founding editor and News Editor of Polygon.

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