Twofivesix Conference Notes

Below are my notes from the Twofivesix conference that took place in Brooklyn a few weeks back. I serendipitously discovered the conference via a tweet the morning of, and luckily was able to watch it via livestream and take notes at home. These notes are fairly comprehensive, though with a couple caveats (I missed the brief introduction at the very beginning so may be missing a bit of the scene-setting and context, and I didn’t identify speakers and attribute each point to a specific person). But this was a fascinating conference, both well-curated and expertly moderated, and I wanted to share what I learned. I hope you find this useful—I know I learned a lot!



May 11, 2013, at the Invisible Dog Art Center in Brooklyn


Story-Telling for the Next 100 Years



  • Electric Literature: worked on virtual experiences with NEA, Valve etc.—idea being to create virtual worlds where narrative can exist—which isn’t necessarily gameplay but rather voyeuristic experience (where the viewer can’t affect the action)
  • Precursor to this = Disneyland! Master of creating experiences that transport you somewhere…so it is with interactive narrative—excitement comes from what’s about to happen to you
  • Literature as alchemy—symbols allow for interaction and creation of world…video games are intense immersive environments; adding interactivity adds narrative complexity and makes it more difficult to tell a complicated story with specific emotional catharsis…
  • Games can be like curated galleries—they can have themes; viewers/players can see pieces and still get value without seeing every part of the whole
  • Matthew Barney: takes you slowly through spaces, infuses symbols with deep meaning…game development is similar (e.g. stars in Mario becomes very important because of the effort it takes you to get there!)
  • Just in the last few years people have opened up a lot more to new forms of reading and publishing (e.g. Twitter, mobile devices, etc.)
  • Online distribution is amazing: a physical publication like The Paris Review might have 12k subscribers; Digital Literature’s Tumblr has 60k—easy to reach way more people…so for high art avant garde theatrical experience, game format allows for massively larger reach and accessibility
  • Expenses are coming down a lot with motion capture rigs, open source frameworks like the one released by Valve, and other technological/infrastructural innovations…
  • It’s possible to turn all connections into a loop, hijacking neurochemistry to give players rewards we don’t earn…goal is to create a game that removes all of that—where the only reward you might get is the pure aesthetic experience (even if to a “normal” gamer this might seem dissatisfying or boring)
  • This would give us something like Bergman’s films—the alternative then would be something like A History of Violence, where it’s entertaining on one level but also deeper/unsettling on another


Games as Interaction



  • Games and interaction: what’s new? Games can express feelings and ways of beings that you get more depth of feeling/contact, more intimate and personal…
  • MoMA is taking a greater role here (good curators are generalists)—it took a while but they started thinking more about what criteria to set for acquiring games—not as pure experience or narrative filmography or as objects—but as examples of interaction design…the challenge was, how to show them?
  • Start with code; interview creators to get nuances; then get hardware, software, everything coming together (at least that’s the holy grail, when possible!)
  • In the museum, are we able to see a greater sense of authorship with games?
  • What is game design? A process of selection, curation…like growing a garden, or preparing a meal—winnowing process and series of selections—so when you play a game, you can sense the hand of the author by what’s not there…removing the unnecessary = shape created by choices
  • What makes a well-designed game (compared to, say, a chair or a paperclip)? It’s a work of synthesis—of form, function, and details—but must be more than sum of its parts…we can consider from meaning, context, but Antonelli’s litmus test is: if this object did not exist, would it be a pity? The sense of whether it adds something to the world is very important—of course, we apply this in conjunction with all the other criteria
  • Specifically in terms of interaction design—we can look at a work from many viewpoints: space, time, architecture, movements…even the unexpectedly sublime (a metro card machine, for example)
  • The Sims is great because there are so many possibilities in the space, yet experience feels completely personal to you as you’re playing—it’s creation of your own making; you can own what you’re making—which is an incredible (and pretty rare) outcome for a game
  • A truly amazing game doesn’t tire you, wear you out, or get boring—it makes you want to keep coming back (e.g. with Journey)
  • Even crazier than video game designers: font designers! They can never let go… :)
  • Love the interaction that can occur between two people in front of screen playing game—“building the game between us”
  • How to show games in a museum without letting people play them? Want to give audience as much of the experience as possible…sometimes this means creating a special demo; like for Eve Online—where they made a montage/video of “a day in the life” to give a sense of what it’s like…lots of tradeoffs in figuring out optimal presentation
  • Lots of mediums and types of design…Hunicke does origami, which is itself a form of design! In origami as in game design, there’s lots of choice in how you design a folding…shape and form can be consistent throughout an entire folding; one master thinks of folding as handcraft, with the goal of leaving the mark of his hands on paper—bringing nuance and personalization to the technical


Online Communities and Growing Pains



  • Experimental psychology: taking classical research from psychology, cognition etc. and applying it on a massive scale—in game communities we can do huge experiments!
  • How do online communities form identities and standards? With 4chan, there’s a convoluted history and seed—now many boards/topics but still some sense of geek culture at the core…
  • League of Legends—community changes and evolves over a long span of time…they’ve created a “tribunal” system for policing behavior; opinions change all the time and become more nuanced—peers collectively setting and evolving the rules—game teaches you about the power of context, how it can twist behaviors…as game designers, how do we solve that or fix the context?
  • Drawquest is very different from 4chan…it started with Canvas as a media sharing community allowing remix of memes etc.—and now aims to make it easier for people to be creative (because many think they’re not)…It’s a community first and foremost—which necessarily informs design decisions…game brings people into the community
  • Blank paper problem—for lack of structure, people don’t know where to start…so one possible solution is to give people a daily prompt; can be very important to have structure/expectations/starting point!
  • Drawquest is now available on iPad, mobile—did that change community? 4chan is very insular; Canvas started that way too somewhat…so it’s important to find the happy balance where many types of people can coexist, appeal to child in every adult, etc.
  • How to deal with the older, mature community vs. n00bs…online society generally is an infant culture, and hasn’t yet developed a lot of structure; it’s very flexible and changing all the time, and we don’t fully understand it yet…
  • Most “bad behavior” comes from normal players, not toxic ones…good player/bad player binary isn’t particularly useful, and it’s actually random outbursts that have more impact than the few worst offenders—so it’s important to find way to ban players more effectively…also tried sending them report cards to give feedback on why they were banned—can be helpful to give them self-awareness
  • Anonymity vs. accountability—how to balance? You can separate identity and accountability by having persistent pseudonyms that can accumulate info about your actions etc.—with 4chan, you get discipline from community, beating down people who step out of line…some communities have socio-cultural barriers to entry (e.g. mom could never use 4chan even if she’s technically able to)
  • Online behavior isn’t worse off because of anonymity, rather when it’s bad, it’s most often due to a lack of consequences (often bad behavior is even reinforced)—so it’s important to make it easier to be good…incentivize and reward the good!
  • How to decide standards? Let the community determine them—give them tools to have a voice so that a vocal minority can’t dominate




  • He’s been making games for 25 years
  • Game about marriage came from sudden inspiration…more spontaneity in the future? Absolutely! Would love to see new tools that allow you to make more interactive experiences (of different kinds…”games” may come to be outdated terminology)
  • Sketch in Processing = way different from making something in C++
  • Is it unethical to design games with 500 hours of gameplay, possibly consuming way too much of someone’s life? It doesn’t feel good, stringing out rewards…want to give massive value that’s always fresh, always enlightening—but normally this is not what happens…
  • Communities on Tumblr for The Sims e.g. teenage girls crafting long elaborate descriptions about characters—this sort of long gameplay feels different; we sense that people are creating things, and your own stories are inherently rewarding
  • Disembodied experiences…is the computer making things happen, or do you have control over it? One interesting example of the ambiguity: changing referent pronouns in mid-sentence, from first to third person, when talking about Sims characters
  • User generated content is a relatively new paradigm—this content can be stories! Example: Alice and Kevin, homeless Sims that just walk and talk…creating dramas, super interesting and powerful
  • Never made WWII game as envisioned (hard to figure out a way to ethically do it) but made one about systems of power in organizations, which turned out to be fascinating
  • Second Life: amount of things going on is astounding, crazy diversity (not just sex!)—from live poetry readings to Duran Duran concerts, etc.
  • Linden now branching off to other things…”Patterns”, a 3d world with full physics; Dio; Versu, an interactive story publishing platform; Creatorverse, a 2d physics sandbox; and a kids block creation tool (similar to Lego) where you can share creations on iPad and get paid for creations in virtual currency they can use within the app
  • Older game designers: often transition from creating games to creating tools for people to build and tell stories with…fundamental building blocks are where the action’s at—a deck of cards is always going to be more powerful than any specific game like poker…getting to lower level action is interesting!
  • Idea of the palimpsest—a parchment/manuscript/canvas that’s reused—is very inspiring…many layers, both physically and in history, allowing people to build from or reinterpret or repurpose…enigma of Voynich manuscript/code—mystery there is great (“I’m a pro-mystery guy”)


Sport and Digital Domains



  • Exploring the intersection of sports and data, and how it influences the people playing
  • Big data: driving next-generation “Moneyball” system, being used by MLB—everyone from players to owners/coaches/trainers etc. can use this; huge amount of stuff from player development to game logs to staffing…pitches tagged to video, pitch patterns, etc.—pretty awesome and powerful
  • Same thing w/ soccer in Europe—projections for sports betting etc. all using Bloomberg data
  • E-sports? Prefer to just call it competitive gaming :) Skill gap that exists between pros and normal people is similar to that with sports
  • Biggest fans of professional gamers? Often professional athletes—they recognize the same mentality and experiences (insane reflexes and decision-making skills in real time)
  • In developing sports technologies (as in anything!) you have to envision things that haven’t been done
  • Challenge of turning visceral first person experiences into something you can effectively broadcast—the litmus test is whether you can understand what’s going on in a bar with the sound off…important to work with developers to think about experience not just for players but for audience
  • Box on screen with basic score information: originally unconventional, thought to be ridiculous; now standard
  • Big challenge: getting a sense of larger narrative…with fighting games this can sometimes be easier, with FPS not so much—how to add context?
  • Next generation of game designers see selves as more like Spielberg, more auteur-driven rather than creating lowest common denominator playing field for 14-year-olds
  • Can you use technologies to turn a minor sport into something major, or at least improve popularity and watchability for TV? Great example of cameras beneath the felt of poker tables allowing viewers to see the drama and make the experience of watching more compelling
  • Game designers can see beauty in systems, but if there isn’t a way to communicate that to the public, people won’t see the same value—it’s important to bridge that gap!


The Education Sandbox



  • DIY—enabling peer to peer education, which can create some of the most meaningful learning experiences (drawing inspiration e.g. from Boy Scouts)
  • School is only one win scenario, one track (single-minded “success” mindset), whereas with something like Boy Scouts there are several…badges to earn, different ranks—more realistic ways for people to collaborate and learn…DIY is similar, but a new generation, not marred/weighed down by all the social baggage
  • First thing they made: an app called Underneath…natural image recognition to superimpose an interactive layer onto tree bark patterns etc.
  • Play mirrors learning—Constance picked games up again in grad school, building learning spaces, etc.—though one big problem is having to pay people to use your website like a lab study
  • Stunned by where games are now—complex social interactions, cognition modeling…where studying “just play” was a dirty word 10-15 years ago in academia, it’s now becoming a hot area of study
  • Studying popular games, analyzing representative samples and what kind of cognition is happening there…in many ways similar to ethnographic studies
  • Allowing struggling readers to choose texts—eliminates difference, puts their performance on par with non-struggling
  • What about learning by doing is different than learning by sitting in a classroom? Rather than instructing with solutions—while not inherently explaining the underlying logic of those solutions—it’s far better to set up a logic chain with firsthand experiences, which can create more indelible learning
  • Example: when playing boardgames, we may start by reading the instructions but it usually ends up being more useful to just play a test/example round because so much of learning the rules and becoming familiarized with the experience is pre-lingual
  • We’re not far off from these sorts of aids (game mechanics, etc.) becoming mainstream parts of curricula
  • Era of career monogamy is fading quickly! Given that we’re unable to anticipate what careers will be most valuable in decades, it’s most important to teach children how to collaborate effectively…”cheating should be allowed”—must collaborate, team up to leverage skills, create compound of resources that’s more interesting…not everyone should have to do all the same work
  • [Some play theorist]: says that cheaters optimize how to win (vs. spoilsports, who simply walk away with the ball and ruin the experience)…so we can recognize in a sense a “good kind” of cheating—copying something but learning its mechanics and how it works (like learning web development by copying the source code of your favorite sites and changing the text around)
  • The idea of choice leading to the path of least resistance is one criticism of this view—but we can’t mandate learning anyway…deep learning is transformative; we don’t want teaching to be merely an act of persuasion…education is a right, and a necessity—but we’ve constrained schools to be mechanisms for assessment and credentialing
  • Beaver Brook project: aligns with the values of DIY—it’s a space where you feel completely uncomfortable, with other people willing to be uncomfortable, and reconnect with the joy of learning…learning and play are intertwined, and essential to human happiness
  • Trying to create conditions to create a new culture of fearless people, willing to approach everything with a beginner’s mind
  • Big advantage of working in remote, pastoral environments? Really cheap to iterate!


Can Good Design Give Us What We Want?



  • One big design challenge is coping with sheer amount of information displayed onscreen, particularly when you have to interpret and adjust your behavior based on it
  • Felton’s annual reports: end-cap on the year, digging into records and archives, inadvertent record keeping from the course of the year—very personal records, but garnered a lot of public acclaim…and the second year he started tracking more intentionally
  • Popularity of annual reports coincided with people becoming more aware of “data exhaust” from their lives
  • Reasons for the project include: a good source of content for design practice, interesting narrative to play with, part of general wish that everyone had this, and preservation so children can see it
  • Lots of personal/impersonal contradictions…(interesting question: what would it mean to have a bad year?)
  • Does act of collection, visibility of data, and feedback from that impact day-to-day life (choices and actions)? Try to avoid observation bias; live life naturally and record that, then tabulate at the end of year (bias vs. feedback—there’s contradiction here)
  • Research in Japan—an incubator for arcade games, and very futuristic—allows for seeing new ways that people are playing…e.g. a game that’s also a vending machine and dispenses physical objects/game cards
  • How to make people care about numbers/the information behind a game experience? If you’ve done a good job representing data (and presenting it in the right way) people will see it as a mirror, see themselves in it…like good storytelling, good filmmaking, it can paint a scene—and we can examine different cross-sections at different levels of resolution…e.g. look at both interesting outliers and overview/complete picture at the same time
  • Daytum: allows you to track everything…even sex acts—a way of describing yourself in a very quantized manner…getting at an absolute representation of yourself (if such a thing is possible)
  • Combine aspirational, edited content…and the reality—people can decide how much is choice and how much is background behavior
  • If you can track how people are using and interacting with a game, that information becomes super valuable…but it’s a tough position to be in if you have to quantify success; can change how risk-averse games are (up? down? both?)
  • Tracking stats that crossover from real world to virtual (e.g. miles traveled—can be combination of airline miles and in-game travel)…sensors allow for persistent tracking of almost everything, and video games are already tracking a lot of similar types of data; we’re seeing it bleed over now…


The Controller is Dead



  • Virtual reality: in some ways an obvious step—people often watch movies and wish they were real
  • Allow any sort of expression to be a reasonable thing for the player to do
  • For developing Oculus Rift—did the idea come from previous experience or sensing a hole in the market? Neither—mostly about a personal desire for the product
  • Didn’t anticipate the consumer appeal at first…interesting to see how many partnerships have arisen around this—creating additive experiences, enabling people to play games in totally new way—there are lots of people interested in working with them!
  • How does intuition play into design processes?
  • Prototyping interface e.g. for Kinect—have to think about different paradigms, and tutorialize so the user doesn’t get confused…but after an adjustment period, initially foreign-feeling interactions become better, more natural…lots of back and forth with seeing how far to push this
  • With Oculus Rift—surprising how intuitively normal people (not just hard core gamers) can understand and use it
  • We think all new things are crazy…until it becomes the next ten billion dollar Kickstarter project…making people uncomfortable is inevitable; we have to bridge existing skills with ones people have yet to develop
  • Use real world contexts to inform what we’re going to built
  • Games are one of the coolest, most interactive mediums—and also not very mature so there’s lots of room for innovation…of which VR is just one example!


Enchanting Everyday Things


  • What can we learn about play from looking at classic games? Can begin by reimagining experiences from humanity’s past and translating to digital experiences…play started as all physical, but with dawn of digital, totally changed…can learn something important from age-old physical interactions
  • Our hands have lots of ways of interacting with physical objects…different controllers/interfaces capture some better than others
  • Mind and body are linked—and this is very important to keep in mind for learning/education…we play with stuff and we learn with stuff
  • Sifteo cubes: little inch-square computers made for play—enchanting everyday activity with interactive possibility…can be containers for other objects, particles that flow between cubes, windows into other worlds, gestural support, etc.
  • There’s a trend now, of everyday things getting reinvented by software…small enough to be handheld, mirroring traditional playthings
  • Why make a new platform? Appeal of creating a new design space—a novel way for people to design experiences
  • These cubes have less area than high-def screens, so must boil the experience down to essential elements, but the interactions is also more personal (design implication = simple, bigger graphics)
  • Other key feature: relationships between objects is really powerful—so “neighbor sensor” opens up lots of patterns and spatial configurations…also a gesture vocabulary that’s growing and evolving (tilt, flip, stand, shake, press, neighbor, etc.)
  • Challenge: how to design games/interactions with three cubes (the standard set) but that also work with up to twelve?
  • Operates as a platform that publishes some games as demos, but also works with external developers to make games for the platform
  • What kind of game can you only make with Sifteo cubes? Curious to find out!
  • Context: what happens around the screen can be more interesting than what’s on it (interactions can capture interest not just of players but also onlookers)
  • Other than games? Working with Second Story (Portland) on a musical interface made from Microsoft Surface + Sifteo cubes
  • What now? Open platforms with low barrier to entry + discoverability and sharing = huge opportunity!


Playful Creativity



  • Foursquare: what does software look like that encourages you to choose novelty, and explore cities in interesting ways?
  • Big games project at ITP—Pacmanhattan…part of city as game board, literally
  • There are a lot of people who want stuff, and the people with money don’t understand what that is…also people who make stuff that only a small amount of people will want, and that’s cool…that’s what Kickstarter is for
  • How to get people to step outside their comfort zones and do something? Can we motivate them through design? Possible to create transactions very different from normal; challenge is how to set constraints to create environments where people will participate and contribute
  • All or nothing funding + deadline = two most important motivating things for Kickstarter—makes it into a kind of sport; can even trace a campaign’s “excitement graph”, with bumps at the beginning and end…these constraints create a framework for people to care
  • Foursquare: initially used badges as motivation…game mechanics were a fantastic onboarding mechanism, but it was difficult to have it be continually exciting over months or years…so let people graduate to other features
  • Some inspirations include multiplayer feature of Nike+ that lets you get in races with friends…but instead of a leaderboard for exercise, how to create a leaderboard for “saturday night”?
  • Kickstarter meta-project: Emperor’s New Clothes—a meta card game with blank cards, mocking similar campaigns
  • Creating a common language for how people interact: there is a meta-economy for all of Kickstarter, as well as economies for individual projects, constructing worlds around ideas and how people interact…and we see some strange consistencies
  • For example, the reward tier structures is very important, and adds kind of a game mechanical element and playfulness that’s great—haven’t looked nearly enough into this stuff, lots to learn!
  • Perhaps troubling—start by scratching at surface…but how do you know when to stop? Don’t want the entire experience to be game mechanics…e.g. with Foursquare, challenge is how to transition to other aspects of experience
  • Interesting—Foursquare started out as commentary by Dennis and friends (e.g. which bars are “douchebag bar”) and expanded, allowing people going to new places to collect seemingly meaningless badges—but pure novelty/collection aren’t the primary goals—aim is to explore social discovery, passive data collection, etc.
  • An example of the sense of serendipity Kickstarter tries to promote is the “backer wedge”—a little hint saying “try to fund all sections!” They felt like a leaderboard would be terrible for Kickstarter; they want mechanics to be invisible…but subtlety can work—just in 2012 there were about 600 people who attained all 12 pie slices!
  • Mechanics are the least interesting part; as a platform they want projects to be front and center…but there are subtle things you can use to influence people
  • Kickstarter wants to have an opinion on what a “good user” is…they’re very opinionated, and like to encourage broad creative diversity while keeping some commonality to the experience of creators…but also important to encourage people to look at and support things in genres they may be unfamiliar with
  • What is most special about platform—can highlight this more subtly, get people outside of their comfort zones
  • Ethical game design: which mechanics are best for players and create joy vs. which are designed to extract money? There’s great value in creating communities, and a company can choose to be more manipulative, or to put user experience first




  • Common thread for conference = “play”
  • Double Fine Kickstarter: validation for making products oriented to a niche market
  • New challenges are often self-imposed—but suffering at your own hands is a welcome change from external challenges :)
  • How is accountability different now under the public eye? Still have a bit of an IDGAF attitude; want to be open and transparent (see: documentary for Kickstarter campaign and ensuing project)
  • Starting a company is not as hard or impossible as you might think! In fact it’s totally achievable! Why? The only way to own what you make is to just start it, to make it happen yourself
  • One big motivator is owning all your own IP, controlling some or all output
  • Branding consistently is important—e.g. Rockstar views themselves like a record label and all games feel like Rockstar games—similar with Double Fine…there’s a very identifiable company culture and design ethos
  • Trailer for Broken Age looks awesome! About a young boy and girl leading parallel but separate lives, breaking out of routine
  • How does having the people who buy your games consider you their friend change the way you approach creating? Enables a more intimate relationship with your audience…came from a history of secrecy (e.g. with Lucasarts) but now totally changed—want to open up the process! Might be surprising but people don’t react badly even to the difficult parts of your process, in fact they root for you even more, and are grateful for the honest inside look
  • We’re seeing a renaissance of adventure games, ones about human stories and hard choices…immersive, where the player can merge with the story, and lines of agency get crossed…playing with stories gives you new tools and possibilities—but also everything has to be handcrafted and scripted, requiring more intricacy and backstory and context, which makes the process more time consuming (but then ultimately more rewarding!)
  • New voices, new kinds of protagonists that behave in different ways—opens up new perspectives, like literature has traditionally done so well
  • Playing games with your daughter—gender roles of characters seems like a small thing, but it’s actually really important for identity formation
  • “Amnesia Fortnight”: split company into small groups, forget what you’re doing for two weeks and work on small game projects—they even made a trailer not for the games themselves, but for their design process! Very interesting—a great way for the team to take a break, pursue their own ideas (similar to 20% time), give people creative autonomy and take fans inside the process
  • Is it stressful to be in the office when filming is going on all the time? Nah, you get used to it—and it becomes really cool how interested people get in even mundane processes in the company
  • How to sift out good ideas from bad in a process where you want fan/audience involvement? People are more important than ideas…combination of whether idea sounds good + if people are ready…also can let the Internet help decide!
  • Drop Chord—coming soon for Leap Motion…cool game concept, exciting
  • Every company has unique DNA—they want to be a place where employees can experiment, a place that encourages and protects creativity, originality, and design—an environment where people can try out their own things and share them
  • Prolific production! First 10 years = 2 games; last 3 years = 11+ games
  • How to manage priorities, satisfy both new and old fans? Need to take compliments, but think about what people really want and need—probably something they haven’t seen yet!