Every year, the Moscone Center in San Francisco hosts the Game Developer’s Conference, one of the most important events in our industry. But you probably already know this. If you don’t, please visit http://www.gdconf.com to see what you’ve been missing. If you do know GDC, then you’re probably aware that pass prices can be rather steep. What you may not know is that you can apply to be a volunteer at GDC. If accepted, a “Conference Associate” gets to enjoy the benefits of the event for “free”. You only need to give some of your time in exchange. In the following paragraphs I go over what it means to be a Conference Associate, based on my volunteering experience from GDC 2007.

The Work

A few things are expected of GDC volunteers. Accuracy, politeness, and reliability are characteristics of a good Conference Associate. You should also be in uniform while on duty, and you’re expected to put in approximately 20 hours worth of work. Additionally, volunteers have to be there for orientation and tote bag stuffing before the event officially begins, and for a quick stand-up meeting every day of the conference. The rest of the week is for you to attend sessions and take advantage of the other benefits you get with your free All Access Pass. The work itself is a mixed bag of responsibilities: you can guard doors, distribute and collect speaker evaluations, perform data entry, etc. As simple as they seem, these activities are very rewarding, emotionally and mentally. Tasks are assigned to you by the organizers, but you can trade with other volunteers.


Why would you want to trade tasks, aside from not being able to or not wanting to do an activity? Well, remember I said the work was assigned? Organizers try their best to give you activities that don’t clash with the sessions you want to attend (if I remember correctly, you write this down during orientation), but there’s no guarantee. For example, say you really want to attend one of the keynotes, but have a task during that session. You can find another CA who may not be interested in the keynote, give them your task, and then take one of theirs which does not clash with your “session schedule”.

The Hidden Work

Your assigned tasks will make up your 20 work hours, but there’s more to it than that. As if those weren’t rewarding enough, you’ll see yourself walking into other responsibilities: answering questions from attendees, helping fellow Conference Associates , etc. And you can bet your off-duty work counts as much as your assigned work; you never know who might be watching. A potential employer or other connection may notice your acts of good faith. That being said, just be yourself. Fakers can be easily spotted.

The Savings

The cost of attending GDC can be broken down into three main things: the conference pass, food, and lodging. I’ve already mentioned the benefit of getting a free pass. Compare $0 to the regular cost of an All Access Pass. Early registration for GDC 2011 started at $1,475, then moved to $1,950, and getting the pass onsite cost $2,100.

When I was a CA at GDC, lunch was provided to all “Giga Pass” badge holders (incidentally, one of the volunteer tasks was checking for badges at the lunch line). The more recent All Access Pass however, does not include lunch. Being a volunteer doesn’t help much there, or does it? If you dig deeper at the GDC website, it says attendees are given the option to purchase lunch and they are available based on your pass type. Also, “prices represent the actual cost charged from the convention center and do not include any mark-up by GDC conference management”. Eating out can be expensive, so this may be a better choice. But always play it by ear: both eating out and staying in can result in networking opportunities, so it’s probably a good idea to avoid limiting yourself to a single choice.

Volunteers also benefit from discounted lodging by rooming with other CA’s. I can’t say how much of a discount it was or how close the hotels were to the Moscone Center, because I didn’t take advantage of this benefit. Fortunately for me, I had family and friends near the area at the time. While I do recommend free lodging at someone’s house or apartment, I also encourage you to stay as close as possible to the conference. Being a reliable volunteer means you’ll be on time for the daily meetings. Plus you won’t want to miss any networking opportunities. After all, if you’ve heard of or been to GDC before, you know this is what it’s all about.

The Networking

This is the big one. This is why you want to attend GDC. You want to meet other game developers (but you want to do it in a smart way – check the networking link at the bottom). If you’re a Conference Associate, then immediately you get to meet a lot of the volunteers. Some of them are game developers, some of them are not. But they all have interesting stories to tell. You’ll see them during orientation, tote bag stuffing, and your day to day activities. Aside from getting together at the morning meetings, you’ll also hang out at the CA Lounge. The lounge is essentially the headquarters for volunteering operations. And if you decided to take advantage of the discounted lodging, then you’ll also get to keep the party going at your hotel. Speaking of parties… If you’re not a volunteer, then you would need at least an “Audio Pass” ($595 early registration – GDC 2011) to be able to attend the sponsored events. Although a $75 student pass also includes access, it is a Friday-only pass. So here’s where that free “All Access Pass” comes in handy again.

If Your Application Isn’t Accepted

Don’t feel bad if you don’t make it into the program. GDC gets a high volume of CA applications and they only need so many volunteers. The good news is there are other ways of attending without breaking the bank. Explore your particular situation to see which pass you can afford, and make the best use of it. Regarding the parties, word gets around about other parties you might be able to attend (some are invitation-only though).

Other GDC’s

The conference held at the Moscone Center in San Francisco isn’t the only one. There’s also GDC Online (Austin, TX), GDC Europe (Cologne, Germany), and GDC China (Shanghai). They also have similar volunteer programs. Notable differences are that GDC Europe calls for university students, and that not all GDC’s reward volunteers with an All Access Pass. Sometimes there’s a special volunteer pass available.

Other Events

GDC and its spin-offs aren’t the only events with volunteering opportunities. SIGGRAPH, for example, offers very similar benefits in exchange for work hours. In addition, this event calls for network engineers to take care of the communications backbone, and committee members to help make SIGGRAPH better and better each year. So, if you’re interested in attending an event but can’t afford to pay your way there, check  for volunteer openings at the website or by calling. You’ll be glad you did.

References and Helpful Links