Steam Carnival: Playtime At The Intersection Of Cirque Du Soleil And A Video Arcade

The three-day Steam Carnival in San Francisco is a celebration of STEM, with a lot of art thrown in.


If you’re in San Francisco this weekend and want to see what it would be like to cross Cirque du Soleil with a video arcade, you should check out the Steam Carnival.


The brainchild of Los Angeles-based production company Two Bit Circus, Steam Carnival is a three-day event in celebration of STEM–science, technology, engineering, and math–with a whole lot of art thrown in for good measure.

Brent Bushnell and Eric Gradman

Sound like Maker Faire? That’s okay, according to Brent Bushnell, the CEO of Two Bit Circus, and his cofounder, CTO Eric Gradman.

“For us, there’s so much wonderful stuff for kids to do when they’re excited–Maker Faire, FIRST Robotics,” and so on, Bushnell says. “Our perspective is, if you’re excited about science and technology, you’ve won.”

Built around five areas within 120,000 square feet of San Francisco’s Pier 48, the Steam Carnival will focus on play, virtual reality, science exploration, creation and invention, and presentation of things that are a mix of high-tech circus and traditional circus, explained Bushnell.

Two Bit Circus recently raised $6.5 million in funding, a reward for a company that Bushnell, the son of Atari founder Nolan Bushnell, said was “birthed out of the fact that (Gradman) and I are both nerds and love building software and electronics.”

Like a regular dunk tank, but with fire! The Dunk Tank Flambé engulfs its participant in a fiery explosion when an attendee on the outside strikes its target.

That love of playful science manifests itself at the Steam Carnival in a wide variety of high-tech and artistic games. Among them are Dunk Tank Flambé (“Like a regular dunk tank, but with fire”); Off Your Rocker Racing, which pits racers against six others, each of whom is riding a saw horse kitted out with an accelerometer and a digital screen to show your speed; and the Bungee Laser Maze, “a dark tunnel of wonder to crawl, or walk through. Just like in James Bond or Ocean’s Eleven.”

Everything on offer at the carnival was built by Two Bit Circus, which by necessity means it’s quite a bit smaller than Maker Faire, where everything is created by participants. That gives the event a curated, top-down design approach, Bushnell explains.

Still, Two Bit Circus wants everyone who shows up to get deeply involved, and to get their hands dirty playing with things, trying out new experiences, and hopefully, creating something no one’s ever seen before.

“It’s so much more fun doing things,” Bushnell says, “than reading about other people doing things.”


No matter what, though, visitors will have to participate. Not a single one of the many large-scale games available to play require fewer than six players.

And no matter what, says Bushnell, you won’t have much choice but to laugh and have fun playing with other visitors.

For their part, the folks at Two Bit Circus have had no end of fun creating the games that they’ll offer up to Steam Carnival visitors. “We have gotten the opportunity to build and play-test games we’ve always wanted to do,” Gradman says. “My favorite thing is seeing, day after day, game after game being produced, tested, and found to be fun. It’s great seeing the looks on kids’ faces.”

Big Ball Alley

Bushnell revels in getting to monkey with people’s expectations of spectacle, performance, and participation.

“My favorite thing is just how excited folks are,” he says. “I’ve been obsessed with circus and carnival my whole life….When I get to share with people that we’re building a high-tech circus, I know whether or not they’re paying attention, because 99% of the time, they’re like, ‘Wait what?’”

About the author

Daniel Terdiman is a San Francisco-based technology journalist with nearly 20 years of experience. A veteran of CNET and VentureBeat, Daniel has also written for Wired, The New York Times, Time, and many other publications