Reality has a gaming layer

Kevin Slavin sees a world where games shape life and life shapes games.

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 SlavinKevin 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.


Kevin Slavin will discuss the influence of invisible systems at Web 2.0 Expo New York.


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  • http://shoord.nl Sjoerd

    In my opinion the comparison between Second Life and Tamagotchi isn’t all that fair. Yes, Tamagotchi does a better job at engaging with its simple effort-award system. Though SL was never meant to be a clearly directed game, but solely a virtual environment to really inhabit as an avatar. It seems more than reasonable that valuable social relations emerge on this platform, similarly to parking wars.

    But if we can’t judge the social aspects of these social games, what’s the role of the games mechanics in this context? And how should we investigate their role as socio-political frameworks?

  • http://www.evensuperheroesneedsidekicks.com Kerry Rego

    I’m not a gamer, never have been but I’ll never look at it the same way again. Thanks for changing my perspective.

  • http://keiichimatsuda.tumblr.com Keiichi Matsuda

    Interesting article, thank you. Not sure if I’ll get a reply here, but just a quick question-

    You mentioned that ‘big games’ can aid social cohesion, and give us common goals to bring our fractured realities closer together. Seeing as a lot of these games require expensive hardware (such as an iPhone), and a desire to spend time seeking out and playing them, it is unlikely that the three homeless people below your office, people living in non-urban environments, or indeed anybody over 50 would participate, and would therefore be excluded from the John Carpenter world view.

    Do you think there is a danger that ‘big games’ and other mobile/social services could lead to an elitist culture of tech-savvy urbanites, and to even bigger social fractures?

    Anyone welcome to pitch in on this!