Hanging backstage with the videogame arts and culture impresario ahead of his annual two5six conference.
Very early in the morning at an event space in Brooklyn about the size of a high-school auditorium — the stuff of talent shows, lectures, and graduations — Jamin Warren is obsessing over an office chair.
“Dude,” he says, 31 going on 13. “Look at this recline! How sick is that?”
You can forgive his nervous energy. Soon, Warren will kick off a conference called two5six, an all-day meditation on the intersection of video games and culture that is hosted by Kill Screen, a similarly-themed company and publication that Warren founded in Brooklyn in 2009. (He serves as its chief executive.) The chair comes courtesy of one of the event’s sponsors, Human-scale, and is most welcome for a man who will spend the day on his rear end moderating discussion panels.
Fresh-faced and boyish despite salt-and-pepper hair, Warren radiates with the kind of impeccable style, effortless cool, and vague ethnicity that advertising executives for Banana Republic see in their dreams. But he is also king of the geeks. When I make a joke that he’s the Steve Jobs of video games, Warren slips right into the impression, pacing and gesturing and saying, “Video games. Video games. Video games.”
I ask him what the numerical name of the conference means. He explains that it’s the kill-screen (get it?) level in Pac-Man, meaning the stage at which the computer game runs out of programming and self-destructs. He then dives deep into an off-the-cuff, Wikipedia-style rabbit hole: Actually, only levels 1 through 13 in the game are unique, he says; levels 14 through 256 are the same, monotonous, semi-Sisyphean hell-scape. (Noted.)
The New Yorker, in its solipsistic way, calls Kill Screen “the McSweeney’s of interactive media.” Mashable calls two5six “the TED of video games,” describing a conference where the titans of gaming pair off with comparative leaders in parallel fields — a game designer and a 9/11 Memorial architect, for example, both riffing on use of space, exhibition, and audience; or an MIT professor and Emmy-winning Sesame Street digital media leader discussing the power of interactive “bionic storytelling.” Last year, in the conference’s debut, Oculus Rift creator Palmer Luckey discussed a “post-controller era” where virtual reality rules. (Oculus sold to Facebook in March for $2 billion.)
The magazine’s latest issue, which hit stands this week, is actually dedicated to VR, with investigative articles looking at holodeck technology and philosophical essays asking what happens if we build a helmet that can realistically simulate the act of removing the helmet.
Warren decided to launch Kill Screen while he was still an entertainment culture reporter at The Wall Street Journal. After Grand Theft Auto IV obliterated sales records and took in $400 million in its opening weekend, a dumbfounded editor told him, “I don’t get this video game thing.” Eighteen months later, Warren launched a Kickstarter campaign to get the company off the ground. “A video game magazine with more words than explosions that will feature photos and writings and maybe some pin-ups,” the original pitch reads. “It’s coffee table compatible.”
Kill Screen’s current promotional material compares the publication to Rolling Stone and Vogue, but when I ask Warren to liken his media company to another, he chooses puckish Vice. Add to that those promised pin-ups and Warren is a modern-day Hugh Hefner, who left his copywriting job at Esquire to found another publication promising a mix of highbrow and heresy: Playboy.
When the conference begins, Warren tells his crowd of 200 — who have each paid $300 to attend — that video games suffer “a dinner table problem.” People don’t feel comfortable sharing their gaming exploits and challenges and theories over dinner, he says. PBS has lent its platform to Warren’s cause, asking him to host Game/Show, a web series where he dedicates episodes to asking questions such as “Do Video game Stereotypes Hurt Men?” and “Are Games Racist?”
He clearly pines for a time when gaming companies were philosophical about their product. At the conference, he projects a text-heavy 1983 ad by Electronic Arts that asks, “Can A Computer Make You Cry?” He then shows a series of YouTube clips of players crying at the end of episode 1 of The Walking Dead, a 2012 game based on the comic book series of the same name.
Later, Warren can’t resist asking the creators of a wildly byzantine yet popular game called Dwarf Fortress: “Do you worry about the dwarves becoming self-aware?” And when an Oscar-winning special effects wizard (Gravity, Coca-Cola’s Super Bowl polar bears, the Geico gecko) and game animator for the popular Assassin’s Creed franchise openly wonder why eyes are so tough to animate realistically, Warren deadpans: “Oh, it’s because they don’t have souls, I think.”
In the audience, people laugh and nod and oooh and ahhh through the day’s programming, leaning far forward in their seats much of the time. (Sokath, his eyes uncovered!) One panelist calls the room “the magic circle.”
Remarkably, seven of the 19 speakers at two5six are women and two sessions are entirely female — ratios unheard of similar geek-friendly confabs like South by Southwest, the Consumer Electronics Show, or a ComicCon, but reflective of the fact that female gamers now outnumber males.
After the after-party, in the mess of a rainstorm-soaked night, Warren laugh-pouts: “I just want to go home.” He fulfills his noble quest with a cheat: A cab ride, rather than a subway trek. As the vehicle pulls away from the curb and disappears into the night, the Hugh Hefner of video games advances to the next level — to pause, to reset, to reboot, maybe. But not to stop playing.
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