Interview with Kevin Slavin

Kevin Slavin is the Managing Director and co-Founder of Area/Code, makers of cross-media games and entertainment, and pioneers of large scale, real world multiplayer games.
Area/code works with advertising agencies, media firms, networks, universities, and large consumer brands.
Clients include: Nike, Disney Imagineering, CBS, Nokia, MTV, The Discovery Channel, A&E, The History Channel, JWT, Cramer-Krasselt, Deutsch, SS+K, and the Carnegie Institute / Girls Math and Science Project.
Projects have been awarded at the Clios, the One Show, OMMA and the Future of Marketing Summit.
Area/code and its work have been covered in the Wall Street Journal, Creativity, The New York Times, Businessweek, The Chicago Tribune, MTV, Ad Age, and blogs including boingboing and PSFK.
Kevin Slavin has spoken at MoMA, the Van Alen Institute, the Guardian, DLD, the Cooper Union, the Storefront for Art and Architecture, and NBC, and together with Adam Greenfield he co-teaches “Urban Computing” at NYU/ITP. His work has been exhibited internationally, including the Design Museum of London and the Frankfurt Museum fuer Moderne Kunst.

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Your work is in an area that seems to be unprecented. You seem to be the first group of people doing these kinds of interactions. How did you get started?
There were two things that happened in 2003, one of them I experienced first hand, and one I learnt about, through media. The one I experienced firsthand was a war protest in New York City. It was ten people, not more than that, who managed to completely shut down Broadway for about eighty blocks. They had run a chain right across Broadway, the whole situation was really strange, and I was wondering how it was going to play out when it came to violence. So I was sitting there and watching it, and all of a sudden, all ten protesters suddenly dropped away from the scene, took out one layer of clothing, and completely dissolved into the crowd. And it was about three minutes before you could actually hear the sirens. And I realized that they had earpieces, and were connected to spotters, who were also in the city. And I saw that, and thought that it was unlike anything that we had ever seen before. The technologies of communication that are usually associated with authority start to be used in a million other ways. I saw that their ability to communicate was going to enable totally different ideas of how we actually use space. By 2003, the mobile phone was already common, but the ideas of groups and more sophisticated interactions other than ‘I’m calling you’ hadn’t really been popularized.
But a big question mark had appeared over Broadway for that moment.
And sometime around then, I became aware of the work Frank Lantz, who is now my partner at Area/Code, was doing with Nick Fortino and Katie Salen at the University of Minnesota, in the Design Institute, which was run by Jan Abrams. Jan had commissioned them to do something for the city of Minneapolis. And what they came up with was called The Big Urban Game. There had huge game pieces moving through the city, and they were controlled, in part, by people who were online, and in part, by people who were actually moving these 30 foot high pieces through the city. And I remember looking at that and thinking that that’s another part of this puzzle.
The slightly longer story that lead directly to the formation of Area/Code was a dinner with Jan Abrams on one side, and Clay Shirky on the other. And from that conversation came a class in Big Games, which is still being taught at NYU, which is the only coursework in the field that I am aware of. And out of that first year of teaching came PacManhattan. The game treats the grid of lower Manhattan as a Pacman board, there are some people playing Pacman, four people playing ghosts. The controllers are in a central location, and keep track of where the Pacmans are, how many dots they have eaten. They basically tell the ghosts where to go.
What does doing Pacman with real people bring to the game that isn’t there in the screen based Pacman?
Maybe the question isn’t what it brings to Pacman, but what it brings to New York City and to Manhattan. What it brings is a kind of restoration of something that is disappearing in Manhattan, which is public space. We haven’t really lost the spaces, you can still go there, but their use has become increasingly restricted, explicitly and implicitly. The things that have happened over the last ten years point to the need to restore the idea of thinking of the city as a system upon which things can be run. That the streets are not purely for commerce or transportation, but that they have a number of layers. To think of the city as hardware that different software can be run on. Some of that software is an entertainment software, one of the titles could be Pacman. To think of the city like that seemed like a new idea, and at the same time, a very old one. It’s also one that can be rethought with new technologies. Mobile technologies allow us to do it in ways that we may have never been able to do.
How did you get from the playful subversions of the sixties to running a commercial company in the 21st century?
The first big project that we did at Area/Code was called Conquest, which meant taking purely non-commercial projects, and finding a way to sell that to a corporate client as publicity. And their primary interest in Conquest, for example, was that we could transform so many cities, but also that we believed very affirmatively that this was a good means for companies to touch both physical and visual spaces in ways that they never have. And the idea that commercial interests are directly opposed to cultural interests has fallen away in general. And this came from the idea that while this new form is emerging, we could guide it to serve both interests.
When a traditional agency would make propositional messages for a QS product, they would be measuring their success by an increase in sales. In the case of Conquest, the metrics were different. They were about PR, and how many news stories it generated, a more general way of making QS look good. Is that something you see more and more of?
The goal is not necessarily to create games that fifty thousand people or a million people are going to play. The idea is to produce activities that are so powerful and meaningful that they become mediums themselves. For example, what is a shoe company doing when they buy the shirts of football players? They are attaching themselves to the energy of the activity that is happening. The idea is to create activities that generate the same kind of energy and attraction, and insert brands into them. Some brands that come to us understand this very clearly. Others say that they want something that millions of people are going to do.
The reality is that it is sometimes very difficult to get a few hundred people to play these games. It doesn’t mean that they are less effective. And world events from the last ten or fifteen years have showed us that small groups of people can have very powerful effects.
It’s a question of what you’re setting out to do, and how you do it.
How many of your clients are involved in the electronic communications business?
At the moment, more than half of our business is actually television, which has a whole other set of concerns, but we also have technology clients and two sneaker companies that we are working with. Apart from that, we have Disney, Bush Gardens, and some other entertainment companies, who actually have a very interesting set of related questions, which is – ‘I have a space that is directly set up to provide entertainment through roller coasters, rides, etc. If you look at the day of a visitor to any of these places, you’ll see that the amount of time that a visitor spends on a ride might be a total of fifteen minutes out of eight hours. So the question is, what do you do for the rest of the seven hours and forty five minutes at the park, and we have a bunch of very interesting answers. I can’t go into to much detail about who we’re doing this project with, but we’ve had discussion with one of the parks, where we suggested that we could easily do ticketless systems. Nobody really has to queue for rides anymore. You could just get a text message when its time to go on the ride.
Tell us a little bit more about your work for television. It is interesting that you represent interactive play culture, which is killing television, but then they re-hire you bring something back to whatever they’ve got. And I’m particularly interested in the Sopranos project, because I didn’t think that the Sopranos have had a problem getting people to watch them. Why would the Sopranos hire you to add something to what is one of the top three shows of the last ten years?
The Sopranos don’t really have a problem, but A&E, a cable company in the States did a deal to rebroadcast the Sopranos for the first time, edited for content, with 8 minutes cut out of every hour so you could put in ads. They were going to rebroadcast the first season six years later. So the question is, is there anybody who is going to watch the Sopranos because they haven’t seen it before? We were approached by their agency, who wanted to know if we could have a Sopranos game in New York, with people shooting each other, which we thought was a spectacularly poor idea. So we decided to approach the problem from its root, which was – What would be another reason to watch the Sopranos? We came up with the idea of building a game that was to be played by watching the Sopranos live.
There was a study that resolved something that we have been wondering about, which is, when we watch television, are we doing anything else? And the answer is, yes. Eighty percent of us are doing something else. And in all likelihood, it involves a screen, whether it’s a little one, or a mid-sized one. There is always a war for your attention, between television and outer sources. But we don’t see that as a threat. We honestly see it as an opportunity which means that you can start to create experiences across them and between them. And then you can start to do things that nobody has ever really seen before. The Sopranos Connection was really the first of its kind.
And what exactly did you have to do?
The Sopranos Connection took as its inspiration very well established forms of play like drinking games. When we are sitting around and watching television, and every time Homer says ‘D-oh!’ we all drink. When we do this, we have to think of television as hardware, as a program upon which we run other programs, in the same way that we were thinking about that with the city.
So, in the Sopranos Connection, what you have to do is, arrange your board, which is based on the people, places and things of the Sopranos. You have to arrange it according to what you think is going to happen in tonight’s episode. And you arrange your board putting them in proximity with each other, according to what you think their proximity is going to be during the show. For example, if Tony Soprano and his wife Carmella are on screen at the same time, and they are next to each other on your board, you start to score double points.
Instead of saying that the people who are going to play this are people who have never seen the Sopranos before, this game is going to reward people who know the Sopranos the best. And the people we were going to have to work the hardest to get, now have the best reason to watch the show.
Sometimes, you know that you have done well because of raw numbers, and sometimes it’s because of the things you hear and see. The chatter on the boards was that people were going out and renting Sopranos DVDs, just so that they could get a perfect score.
People have been telling stories and playing games forever. But for some reason, stories always have cultural weight and respect, whereas games are something that people never take seriously. Do you think that it’s true to say that there’s some kind of shift, taking into consideration the kinds of experiences and interactions a game now gives us?
I think that your question is more about culture at large. There are a couple of things that are happening to suggest that narrative forms, by which I mean TV and shows like The Wire, have a system complexity to them, that you could say, either feeds the way that we play games, or is feeding off the way we play games. Their complexity reflects the literacy of the culture that is watching them, and that type of literacy isn’t formed by games. I’m pretty certain of it. But I think that those of us who were raised on videogames, which is now more than one generation, are perfectly comfortable with enormous complexity in these things, and in fact, it is the complexity that is rewarding. The television and comics I grew up with had nothing to do with that kind of complexity. But if you look at the kind of television, music or literature that’s happening now, things are starting to reflect each other. What’s happening now is that culture on the whole is starting to reflect the complexity of games, and games are starting to pull back some of the narrative elements that work well with them.
Area/Code