Over the weekend, I had the opportunity to travel to New York for Kill Screen’s Twofivesix conference at The Invisible Dog Art Center. Going in, I wasn’t exactly sure what to make of the conference’s mission statement to devote itself to “the spaces between games, play, interaction and creativity.” After all, in the early days of games academia, linking games to pre-existing media was a red flag. On the other hand, businesses are eager to link products to games under the umbrella of “gamification,” the questionable practice of leveraging the work-reward loop of games for profit. Both prospects left me wary. As it turns out, in the case of Twofivesix, this meant orchestrating conversations between those embedded within the game industry and those circling it from the outside. Although I don’t think these pairings necessarily made me “see games everywhere” as Kill Screen’s founder Jamin Warren suggested in his introduction, it did successfully highlight the fascinating and often overlooked (if not actively discouraged) links between games and other textual forms.
This is perhaps best illustrated in the first session of the day between Jeffrey Yohalem (lead writer for the seminal Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood and far more divisive Far Cry 3) and Electric Literature’s Andy Hunter. While highlighting the similarities, the talk also underlined the necessary disparities between the two mediums. As Yohalem explained, when the player progresses through a game space–much like a theme park ride–the site of conflict is between the audience and the environment itself. Suspense can be temporal with a timer, but it is mostly spacial, whereas a film or a novel commonly sets up conflict between two characters. Additionally, Hunter singles out literature as the only medium in which the audiences enters the consciousness of one of those two characters. This is a level of intimacy between text and audience that games cannot recreate–“first person” perspective or no. Even as Electric Literature expands to use Valve’s game technology, Hunter said it was more about letting the “player” delve into the other perspectives of the story than the constant rewards players are accustomed to earning in games.
The discussion between Yohalem and Hunter was also the first and only one of the series to call out “gamification” by name. Yohalem identified “gamification” as the action-reward loop that he aimed to subvert with Far Cry 3, to which Hunter agreed that it was “hijacking our neurochemistry.” The accusation was damning, and it stood out in contrast with the much more idealistic tone of the other talks.
Although Yohalem is the only one to use the term, it circled both Zach Klein and Dennis Crowley’s respective explanations of their business models. Both Klein’s DIY Project and Crowley’s Foursquare award virtual badges for activities as diverse as creating a stop-motion film or discovering a new bar. Even Yancey Strickler of Kickstarter acknowledged the capacity for gamification in the pie on user profiles–implicitly encouraging users to investigate and invest in a more diverse portfolio of projects to fill their pies. The take-away from these discussions made me think back to Jane McGonigal’s Reality is Broken, which argues for the application of games and their properties to solve real world problems. On one hand, this was inspiring. On the other, it does nothing to address Hunter and Yohalem’s accusation of feedback loops “hijacking our neurochemistry.” Is hijacking justified if it’s for a good cause?
While I didn’t think this question was satisfyingly addressed, it also wasn’t the end all and be all of the conference. Other talks sidestepped the topic of gamification altogether. For example, Mike Sepso (Major League Gaming) and Bill Squadron (Bloomberg Sports), each found himself faced with the opposite challenge: how to package games for spectators. The session was fascinating, if at times a bit over my head. Retrospectively, that is emblematic of my Twofivesix experience: the sessions were all interesting, and I wished there was more time to unpack both core talking points of the session and how the sessions are interconnected. Hopefully Twofivesix becomes an annual event that can explore these points in the future.