Video games don’t exist separately in a virtual world; they are a part of modern culture as much as film, TV or music.
The day began with Dough donuts and opening remarks from Kill Screen founder and Two5Six host Jamin Warren. He introduced the concept and mission behind his venture to understand games, which PSFK has covered previously. Warren built his company and the Two5Six conference to explore the idea that video games don’t happen apart from the world. They are a part of modern culture as much as film, TV or music, something that is misunderstood because many gamers aren’t comfortable talking about their passion.
However at Two5Six the speakers were really open about their love of games. The conversational format of one game maker paired with a non-gaming professional on stage clearly built bridges between gaming and ‘the real world.’ Each conversation was fascinating, from technical discussions about the challenges of making the movie Gravity to the complex rules of Dwarf Fortress and the theory behind crafting environments that allow people to build narratives. I can’t cover everything here, so below you’ll find some of the most intriguing connections between gaming and everyday life.
emotion and computers
Kevin Bruner, the co-founder of Telltale Games and the creator of the critically acclaimed Walking Dead series of games, spoke alongside Rana el Kaliouby, the Chief Science Officer and Co-founder of Affectiva, a consumer emotion analytics company. The dynamic between these two was fascinating, as Bruner makes computers elicit emotions in people, while Kaliouby teaches computers to read emotions.
Kaliouby began by expressing her frustration with computers that don’t understand the feelings of the user, something we’ve all felt when a program crashes or the spinning beach ball of death. So she’s working to build the interface layer between humans and computers that will understand people’s intentions and reactions. Her work is a mere years ahead of the consumer market, since devices in the near future will be controlled with non-tactile, verbal & gesture interactions that, for humans, have significant emotional content.
Bruner’s creations work the other way. He crafts narratives that let the player show how they feel based on their choices, and then experience the impact of those choices. Terrible things happen in these games, and the player is sometimes the author of those acts. The Walking Dead games are experiences that are meant to reach out from the screen and touch the player emotionally.
Bruner raised the excellent point that video games get a reputation for being desensitizing. But if it were really true that they desensitized people to violence, games like the Walking Dead wouldn’t work; the players would feel nothing and the game would have no value. But the game does work. Game developers are responsible for creating spaces for people to explore new things, including violence. Bruner wants to work beyond that, and is excited to explore more subtle spaces, like parenting skills as when the player would need to protect a young child.
space and narrative
The environments players navigate in games are constructed spaces, where everything (hopefully) has intention behind its placement. Jake Barton, founder of Local Projects and creator of the media design for the 9/11 Memorial Museum, and Steve Gaynor, co-founder of The Fullbright Company and writer and designer of the Gone Home game, spoke about creating spaces for people to create narratives in.
“People are naturally narrative machines,” said Barton. “They automatically create stories of the world around them in order to understand it.” His work on the 9/11 Memorial Museum was to create a controlled space where people can put patterns and pieces together to create their own story or that terrible day, and live other people’s stories about it, rather than passively experience a cold historical recounting of it.
Gaynor likewise emphasized how the shape of a space creates the shape of a story. In digital interactive stories, video games, many shooters have straightforward stories because the level design and gameplay is linear. However in Gone Home, the player has an empty house to explore without any guide or restraint. The story takes shape however the player explores and experiences the space. In this respect, building interactive spaces for games is more akin to stagecraft than architecture; it is an area for an audience and a narrative to interact with each other, not a space for everyday living.
This topic reminded me of the concept of truth as aletheia, ‘uncoveredness,’ disclosure or ‘unconcealedness.’ These speakers made environments where the truth and meaning of the of the space, its story, could arise on its own. The subject experiences and creates that truth or story not by imposing a narrative structure and history onto facts and patterns, but rather by existing in a space that allows those facts and patterns to reveal themselves.
I really regret not being able to cover all the talks here (the Dwarf Fortress guys were hilarious and insightful), but the two wearable technology makers Warren teamed together were too interesting to skip over.
Becky Stern, DIY guru and director of wearable electronics at Adafruit, and Kaho Abe, game designer and current Artist in Residence at the NYU Game Innovation Lab, offered a view of the wearable tech phenomenon quite different from Billie Whitehouse’s philosophy of hiding tech in normal clothes.
Much of Abe’s work centers around the social messages that all clothing carries. While she claimed to be conscious of not disrupting those messages, the work she showed created entirely new meanings and interactions between people that never could have existed before. A lot of what she makes are wearable controllers for games, so people are playing with each other in real space rather than just sitting side-by-side and looking at a screen. The players ‘become’ the avatars in the game, and for many people this is very empowering and helps them get out of their shells. This is a major goal of Abe’s work and it seems to work very well.
When the discussion turned to the hot topic of the etiquette around wearable technology, the example of Google needing to remind Glass users of basic rules of politeness when using the technology was immediately brought up. Stern replied that anything which augments the human body is wearable tech; prescription glasses and watches are primitive examples but still count. People are just scared of the new, she said, so wearable tech creators need to think ahead of the public to outline rules and guidelines for their use until they become socially acceptable. Abe noted that we have the same blind love for technology as we have for certain fashions, so as with fashion people need to think about the social messages you send when using a certain technology.
There were many more great conversations at Two5Six, not the least of which was the final one that brought reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian to the stage for his personal account of how gaming helped him become a leader and innovator. Before hearing his story, I would have thought such a claim dubious at best. But after hearing how leading a guild in Everquest and modding Quake involved him in passionate online communities that would do complex tasks, ‘work’ some may say, for free, and how these communities directly influenced the shape of his grand creation, reddit, I thought better of my own gaming habits.
The Two5Six conference was like a game itself. Engaging and entertaining while it’s on, but afterwards I struggled with finding take-aways and ‘so what’ moments. This was because I entered the event with a ‘to-do’ mentality explicitly looking for actionable advice and inspirational quotes that would wow people on Twitter. But this was not that kind of conference. Like a game, its lessons and value is far more subtle and ultimately in-itself, not for some external purpose. Two5Six exists to help understand the huge and influential culture of gaming, for the intellectual value of that understanding itself.
All photos: David McDowell/wejetset