Kevin Slavin has been thinking about the intersection of games and daily life for nearly a decade. As the managing director of Area/Code, he’s worked with Frank Lantz to integrate gameplay into the fabric of reality using a technique they call “big games.” In the following interview, Slavin discusses the thinning boundary between the game world and the real world.
What are “big games”?
Kevin Slavin: They’re games that take place using some elements from the game system and some elements of the real world. Something Frank Lantz had worked on with Katie Salen and Nick Fortugno was called the Big Urban Game. It involved transforming the city of Minneapolis into a game board. They did that by using huge inflatable game pieces, about 25-feet high. The players, among other things, were moving these huge pieces around the city.
At Area/Code we built another big game in 2004 called ConQwest. It used huge inflatable totem animals that would take over the city. I think it was also the first use of optic code with phone cams in the United States. Players used Qwest phones that were programmed to recognize codes embedded throughout the city. Some codes were on huge billboards. Some were on the sides of coffee cups. Some were on napkins. The codes had infiltrated the city and players could unlock treasure with the magic technology of these phones.
That was a very exciting thing to play around with. It you chose to participate, you were experiencing the same physical space as always, but it involved totally different criteria and totally different objectives.
Using an urban landscape as a game board sounds a lot like Foursquare.
KS: It’s not a total coincidence. Dennis Crowley was the third partner at Area/Code for a little while, in between being at Google and starting Foursquare. Part of the underlying ethos of Foursquare is also what is underneath Area/Code. There’s a few of us who have been thinking about how “play” and the “city” were going to combine. We’ve been drinking the same Kool-Aid from the same cooler for quite a while.
How do virtual games like Second Life compare to the games you develop?
Kevin Slavin: We always thought we would use Second Life as the enemy, that it was the exact opposite of what we were trying to do. If Second Life was about trying to simulate reality optically, what we were interested in was running light interference with the real world to make it more interesting.
One thing that Second Life and the movement toward augmented reality have in common is that they both believe the pleasure of a game and the meaning of a game and the experience of a game rest primarily in the optics. The closer we can get to making something look like it’s really there, the more excited we’ll be about using it.
But I think that there’s a fundamental misunderstanding about what makes games fun. Chess wouldn’t be more fun if you had perfectly rendered kings and actual castles. Monopoly wouldn’t be better if it was true to the actual layout of Atlantic City. What makes games great are the systems with which you’re engaging. When you play a game, you’re not so much looking at something; you’re doing something.
I think one of the best examples of this is Tamagotchi, the plastic keychain that had a digital creature on it. You actually felt an obligation to this little creature. The creature itself was maybe eight pixels by eight pixels and black and white. What made it feel real wasn’t that it looked real; it was that it acted real. It could articulate demands upon you that your eye itself couldn’t do. In Tamagotchi versus Second Life, I’ll go with Tamagotchi.
Aren’t things like Tamagotchi the precursor to the repetitive games we see today, like FarmVille?
KS: That’s a big question, and there’s a lot of ways to answer it. I think as every form of culture has become ascendant, the idea emerges that we were once tidy and productive citizens who have suddenly shifted into a different mode of behavior and no longer value our time. Right now, social games are in focus. There’s a lot of things to look at here that are very important and interesting.
For example, years ago we made a Facebook game called Parking Wars. It had incredible numbers, like a billion pages a year. The game was successful in part because it was so simple to engage with. Basically, you’re trying to park illegally on somebody else’s street and you’re also trying to catch people who are parked illegally on your street.
Parking Wars had a bunch of side effects that were fascinating to watch. It became a kind of conversation that people were having with each other. There would be vendettas where people would check every five minutes to see if somebody in particular had parked on their street.
But I think what these games do is best characterized in a story that’s ultimately very sad. At one point we added an ice cream truck into the Parking Wars mix. If it was parked on a street, it amplified the value of all of the other cars. There was an alpha player, a woman named Ellie, who would park the ice cream truck on a street and then let everybody know so they could come get double points.
It turned out that Ellie was very sick and ultimately, she passed away. What was so powerful was to see how everybody responded to her passion. What they wrote to her post-mortem were these really beautiful notes that talked about her generosity and her humility. The thing that’s really interesting is how much of her personality she was able to express through 47 pixels of an ice cream truck.
That speaks to what games are really doing, which is allowing people to express themselves in a living system with other people who are doing the same. You’re actually making decisions that are going to move one way or the other and that will have effects concretely on other people. I think that for many people, sometimes including me, real life doesn’t always feel like something that you can have concrete effects on in a systemic way. It’s not always easy to figure out how to be generous in a way that can touch a lot of strangers. Games allow us to do these kinds of things. It’s true that what’s happening in them is fictional and useless, but it’s as fictional and useless as literature or cinema. Games allow us to see each other, for a moment, in a way that living in a city prevents.
If we make the real world part of a fictional world, will we ignore the real world that isn’t part of that fictional world?
KS: When we were thinking about ConQwest — the game with the optic codes — the specific inspiration for that piece of it was the old James Carpenter film, “They Live.” The conceit of that film is that if you have these glasses on, you can see the real world. This is a common trope in science fiction, but the idea that the glasses allowed our hero to see things differently and thus act on that shift in vision made us think: “God, what power that is. How beautiful that would feel.”
I’d argue that we’re already living in deeply fractured realities. I’m sitting in an office with a high-end laptop, and there are no fewer than three homeless people that I can see from my window. We are fractured, and this is particularly true in cities.
To turn it around a little bit, the thing that’s powerful about these new forms of play is not so much that they fracture us into our individual realities, but that they’re connect us to common ones. Something like Foursquare doesn’t fracture the world. It pulls people together. Ultimately, if we can understand these game layers as a place where we’re convening rather than the place where we’re all departing from, I think there’s a lot of beautiful things still left to do.