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The mind expanders

‘Transportation’ might be a strange word to describe a web conference, but for Webstock it’s a good fit. Plus on their way to Webstock: Jane McGonigal and Matt Jones
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Webstock co-founders Mike Brown and Natasha Hall. Photograph by Ian Robertson

‘Transportation’ might be a strange word to describe a web conference, but Webstock co-founder Natasha Hall says it’s a good fit. Hall, who also works at a well-known online auction site as a user advocate, says attendees at Webstock 2009 should expect a legal high.

“My background at Trade Me is very much experience-focused,” says Hall, “so I want to really think about the [Webstock] experience from the first moment that someone walks into the space—how they can be transported to an entirely new, inspiring, exciting and mind-expanding place. Without the use of hallucinogens, obviously.”

Obviously. Hall spent much of 2008 researching other conferences, but skipped the likes of Nevada trippyfest Burning Man for the tech circuit. “First I went to ETech in San Diego and then to MIX08, the Microsoft conference. Then I went to South By Southwest but that wasn’t work—that was my holiday, which means that, yeah, I’m a serial conference-goer and a nerd.”

So what will be the highlights of Webstock 2009? Hall is tight-lipped about the promised user experience, but says the speaker line-up is the best yet. “I’m a big fan of [technologist] Tom Coates, so I’m excited that we’ve got him back again. I had the opportunity to hear Jane McGonigal at South by Southwest—her talk completely blew me away and introduced me to the power of game design. [Cyberpunk novelist] Bruce Sterling is a legend—he’s like a fortune-teller. He made statements in 1992 that we’re just now starting to actually see and experience.”

Now that Webstock is established, it’s much easier to attract speaking talent. “We’ve been really humbled by some of the people who have contacted us wanting to speak. And Wellington and New Zealand are a major part of the attraction. For some people it’s a no-brainer—of course I’m going to Webstock—and that’s a really cool thing to hear. I breathe, I go to work, I go to Webstock!”

On their way to Webstock …

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Here’s a dream job: director of game research and development at the Institute for the Future. That’s the title of Jane McGonigal, a game designer specialising in innovative ‘alternate reality’ games (ARGs), such as The Lost Ring viral project commissioned by McDonald’s for the 2008 Olympic Games. These games can be used to work on real-world business and social problems, so McGonigal is using the power of the hive mind on projects like World Without Oil, a simulation that sets out to solve a real-world problem. She blogs at avantgame.blogspot.com.

Did eXistenZ creep you out, or are you just waiting for your bio-port?

I love eXistenZ! In all seriousness, bioinput and potentially biofeedback is a really exciting frontier for game design. I’m more interested in bioinput right now—using biometrics like neuro-activity and heartrate, for example, for both traditional videogames in front of a screen and mobile, reality-based games. I’m not seeing as clear a path to direct biofeedback games (yet) but no doubt it’s coming. Biometric inputs, however, are here now and will be huge within three years.

You’ve worked on projects for Microsoft, McDonald’s and others. Is there conflict between the creative and the commercial?

I’m really lucky that the current paradigm of commercially-funded alternate reality gaming is to treat ARG directors like commissioned artists. McDonald’s is a great example—they explicitly wanted someone to direct the game as a pure entertainment and social experience, not as a marketing campaign. Think of it as a kind of ‘gift marketing’. Make something amazing, give it away for free, give people real adventures, and then take credit for it. The branding is in the player’s experience of gratitude for the company.

Could a game be used to, say, run a company? A country? The planet?

Games can and will be used as interfaces for running companies and governments. The book I’m writing for Penguin Press, Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Happy and How They Can Change the World, is about developing game mechanics for real-world experiences and game overlays for real-world environments. It’s the clearest way to optimise human experience and harness our innate collaborative instincts. I’m not saying everything ‘becomes a game’—that implies things aren’t serious, or have no real-life consequences. But I am saying many things will steal tricks and interfaces from game developers, because quite frankly, they’re organising human activity better than anyone else on the planet.

You’re using massively multiplayer online games to solve problems. Could they be used for evil? You must have a few ideas ...

MMOs that intersect with reality could be used for evil, sure. That’s something we have to think about carefully, and it’s the primary reason why I think games should be a transparent as possible—who is making it, why, how do I play, and how do I opt out. I think if games become a serious, pervasive  interface for real life, we should look into developing laws similar to US laws for announcing who has funded paid political advertisements. People have a right to know whose game they are playing and why.

McGonigal is appearing at Webstock courtesy of Clicksuite

 

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Matt Jones trained as an architect before finding his calling designing websites for The Times and BBC Online, then moving into pocketware as director of user-experience design at Nokia. In 2007 he co-founded Dopplr, a social website for sharing travel itineraries and recommendations. He blogs at www.magicalnihilism.com.

What’s the most useful thing you learned as an architect?

It’s a toss-up between two things. Firstly, learning to work in a very multi-disciplinary way, which put me in good stead for working in large teams of different disciplines on the web. Most of the time, in large teams I think the person who is the most effective translator is the one who has most influence on what’s built.

Secondly, and perhaps more important to my current practice, was learning how to connect patterns between scales—for example, between a detail of a drainage channel to the landscaping masterplan of a site. That ‘telescoping’ is something that’s been very useful, especially when looking at details of mobile interaction design and how they might fit, for example, in the context of people moving through a city. That’s something I’m thinking of talking about at Webstock.

The Evening Standard named you among London’s 1,000 most influentialpeople. Do you get better seats at restaurants now? And how many influential people does one city need?

I have no idea. They don’t treat me any different in Dave’s Spicy Chicken Cottage, Lewisham. Being ‘influential’ is not that interesting, or an end in itself for me. I figure you should influence things by making stuff better.

How much carbon did your travels produce in 2008, according to Dopplr? Feel guilty yet?

Guilty, terrified, galvanised. Last year I travelled too much, for sure. It’s been interesting how visualising my carbon in Dopplr has given me some goals for my ‘diet’. I’m having a splurge heading to Wellington that’s for sure, but then hoping to really cut down in 2009. Let’s see how that goes ...

Are you still warchalking?

Nah! That was a long time ago, and it blew up in a way I really didn’t expect. I guess I am still really interested in some of the themes in warchalking, like tech’s influence on how we use our cities, and visualising the invisible, the intangible in physical ways.

What/who do you expect to see in Wellington?

I expect to see some very good coffee.

Who’s the coolest speaker in the Webstock line-up, and why?

I always enjoy seeing the ‘Spime’ Pope, Bruce Sterling, give a sermon. Jane McGonigal I’ve never seen speak, but her work on games and play is something I’m pretty influenced by. But I think the coolest speaker would have to be Heather Champ. As well as being one of the finest builders and managers of web communities in the world, she answered an HTML question for me in email back when I was an absolute beginner in 1994.

Jones is appearing at Webstock courtesy of *experience