Off the screen and on the streets
Kevin Slavin has a great job. You can tell that work's going well for Slavin if you see him running through the streets being chased by invisible creatures or if he's managed to make it from New York to Austin without being ransacked by pirates. Or if you see him dressed up as Pac-Man, with his movements being controlled by someone miles away. Slavin participates in all of these zany adventures because he works for Area/code, and when you work for Area/code, life is but a game.
Slavin's New York home has exterior walls made entirely of glass, so he can see the world around him. "When I was a kid, I always wanted one of those multilevel parking garages that have windows as front walls, so now I have one. Only problem is I have little control over the inside climate."
Though temperature might be a hassle for a house of glass, adjusting to uncontrollable conditions is a key factor of his job. Area/code is a gaming company whose main console is a cell phone. The games invented by Slavin and his partner, Frank Lantz, are like any other video game, except they don't require a TV screen. The games are played in the city, the board is the streets, and the players are real people at least most of them are.
The concept that sparked Area/code was called Big Urban Game, developed by Lantz and his students at the University of Minnesota in 2003. Three competing teams had to move a 25-foot-tall inflatable game piece across the city to the finish line. The objective took several days. Each day the teams each had two options for how to move their pieces to a checkpoint. Local newspapers printed the pieces' progress every morning, as well as the two optional routes. Then the citizens of the town would call or e-mail a vote on which route they thought was the fastest.
"BUG was a watershed moment for what games could do," Slavin says. "I saw that, and I hired Frank to create ConQwest for an ad agency. We didn't know how it was going to work, but we knew we were on to something."
Since the city-consuming event of BUG occurred, Area/code has invented Plunder, PacManhattan, and Crossroads. Plunder is a PC location-based, pirate-themed game built into the real world, where players buy and sell goods in a virtual market with the enemy being virtual, plundering pirates. PacManhattan is just like Pac-Man, except Pac-Man and the ghosts are real players in costumes with the city as their grid, and the controllers are people who tell the players where to go and where the other players are, via Global Positioning System-equipped cell phones. Crossroads is a game with two players, who compete to capture intersections of a neighborhood by running down the streets and keeping records of their tracks with GPS. The third player is a virtual character called Baron Samedi, who roams around the GPS screen randomly, trying to touch the players and steal their points.
"The baron isn't real, so what happens is you end up running down Hudson Street being pursued by an invisible creature," Slavin explains. In short, Area/code melds the real and unreal, thinks outside the screen, and gets worldwide attention and participation for their approach to gaming, dubbed massively multiplayer offline.
Slavin and his company are producing new games each month. On his ideas and passion for this next-level gaming, he says, "We're trying to restore why we play games in the first place. We're making a transition from games being played alone to being played with other people. These are rich elements that make better games categorically."
Area/code had an Austin massively multiplayer offline game planned for SXSW Interactive 07 but couldn't bring it together in time. When asked if there would ever be gamers running down Congress Avenue in Pac-Man suits or giant game pieces moving around Sixth Street, Slavin replies, "A year from now, consider it 100 percent guaranteed."
Pervasive Electronic Games
Tuesday, March 13, 10-11am, Room 9C