Monday, 27 February 2017

Passing Through

Once upon a grey weekend morning
I found myself at a large station
Catching a train to a nearby village.
As I ambled through the grand terminal
Important announcements filled the air.
Excursions to Paris, London and Brussels
Where towering structures dominate
And historic monuments of undoubted significance
Compose all-encompassing city skylines.
Disoriented, I stumbled onto a concourse
Deciphering signs and thinking aloud
Though all at sea and as yet unheard
I’m swept along by the ushering crowd.
Hustling, bustling
Footsteps quickening
Bumping of suitcases
Scraping, pattering
Clicking of heels
Clean polished floors
Mechanical clunking
Locking of doors.
Away from the frantic crusade
In some other reality
My train crept up to a platform.
I slipped on
And the train disappeared into the fog.

Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Pokémon Go and Pervasive Games

When I try explaining to people my interest in pervasive games, I’ve found that my most common starting point has become “You know, like Pokémon Go, but…”
It’s fascinating how, since only last summer, Pokémon Go has effectively come to define a whole genre of games that merge the physical and in-game worlds – a genre that has existed for at least two decades. Digital technology has seen numerous transformations in this period, including the opening of GPS for civilian use in 2000, and the development of smartphones with high-speed mobile broadband from the end of the last decade. As these technologies have become more accessible, brought together in singular devices and now adopted to satisfy popular culture, pervasive games have evolved from niche, experimental art projects to a mainstream leisure activity.
I myself am a regular player of Pokémon Go, having continued playing after the initial surge of excitement in the summer. I still load up the game each day to catch Pokémon, obtain items from Pokéstops, and try to hatch Pokémon eggs as I walk. During this time I’ve had lots of opportunity to think about how Pokémon Go sits within this wider context of pervasive games.
Here, I want to focus particularly on what Pokémon Go does well and could do better with the current technology; and what we can learn about the potential of pervasive games from different examples of how digital technology has been used for playful purposes.
What are pervasive games?
Traditionally, playing games has entailed demarcating spaces, times and people to which the norms of everyday life are temporarily suspended, and the game rules dictate action. Participants enter these zones voluntarily, and agree on a range of activities – which may seem abnormal, socially unacceptable or pointless in real life – that are interpreted as playful and given new meaning in the context of the game. Johann Huizinga referred to this phenomenon as a magic circle – a separate world within the ‘real world’ that created new opportunities for imagination and stimulation through play, without being unnecessarily restricted by existing social norms and behaviours.
The distinctive quality of pervasive games is how they expand the magic circle to incorporate elements of real life. This expansion can be:

Spatial: Not geographically limited to spaces such as the playing field, the board or the games console. The game space can be very large (e.g. worldwide) or confined to a small area, and integrates the real-world environment in which people play.
Temporal: Not confined to certain times/time limits. The game can be ongoing – always in progress and with no envisaged end point – or can occur over long timescales such as weeks, months and years. Players often fit the game around other events in their lives.
Social: Not limited to a defined set of willing participants. Not only may players come and go from the game, but bystanders may be unwittingly implicated in the game’s activities. Players may be uncertain as to who is playing and who isn’t.                

Pervasive games therefore embrace the real-world context (spaces, times and social life) in which the activity takes place, while also re-interpreting it through the rules of the game, giving everyday things new meaning or relevance. Rather than marking out a separate realm for imagination, then, pervasive games can enable players to engage with the already-existing world in a critical and creative way, re-enchanting ordinary aspects of everyday life.              
Engaging with place
My main issue with Pokémon Go is that it misses out on much of this creative potential, because the gameplay’s interaction with the real world is largely superficial. When playing, I’m not engaging with the distinct and diverse features of the place I’m walking through. Instead, this complexity is flattened; reduced to cursory characteristics such as the presence of landmarks – notably, not their (hi)stories – distance walked, and locations where Pokémon spawn. I learn little about the qualities that make the places I visit unique and interesting. In fact I’m discouraged from looking up from my phone at all, in case I miss a Pokémon.
The result is that I have effectively the same level of engagement as when I play a Pokémon game on a games console, in which I can also visit landmarks, walk my eggs and find Pokémon. This is because I’m still mostly reliant on a world represented on-screen to be engaged. The only significant difference is that I can get exercise and fresh air as I walk around, which is positive for health purposes but not for creating innovative experiences.
One potential positive is that, by bringing me outside and encouraging me to walk around, the game gives me the option to explore places further if I want to. But this choice is largely independent of the game itself. Nothing about the game's design makes me want to look away from the screen and interact more mindfully with the environment. The desire to explore has to come totally from me.
An example of a pervasive game that provokes deeper interaction between the player and their physical environment is Geocaching. Geocaching is a GPS-led treasure-hunting game where players hide containers (‘caches’) in public places, sharing their coordinates and hints online so other players can look for them. Once found, players mark their discovery by signing logbooks located both inside the containers and online.
Here, the technology only takes players so far. Once players are in the vicinity of the cache, they must look away from their screens and use their senses to investigate the smallest details of the site; physically interacting with the environment to uncover the hidden container. Meanwhile, each cache has an online description that describes interesting details about its location, often including historical context, wildlife, things to see and do nearby, or personal stories that the cache owner wants to share about the place. On the same webpage, geocachers can share their own experiences of the location during the search for the cache. The virtual and physical components of the game together enable participants to interact with places in an insightful and exciting way.  
So while the technology in Geocaching is used to reveal what is remarkable about the place, the opposite is true in Pokémon Go, where basic details about the place are crudely extracted and mapped onto the player’s smartphone screen to coordinate the gameplay.
The limits of technology
Indeed, the technology is everything in Pokémon Go. When that fails or isn’t running, the game fails – it is unplayable. Yet in Geocaching it is the unreliability of the GPS itself, which varies depending on the device and quality of the satellite connection, that makes the treasure hunt a more thorough, challenging and ultimately rewarding task. The game acknowledges the limits of the technology and uses them to foster a more mindful and sensual interaction with the physical environment.
Blast Theory’s work has taken the idea of addressing technology’s limitations a step further, using the medium of pervasive games to explore what digital media can and can’t offer us for interacting with places and other people. In Uncle Roy All Around You – one of the early examples of pervasive games back in 2003 – individual ‘street players’ are given handheld computers that show maps and instructions from Uncle Roy, which they must use to find his office located somewhere in the city.  At the same time, online players at computer screens are shown a virtual representation of the street players’ surroundings, and can help to direct them to Uncle Roy’s office by sending them messages. Once the street player has found the office, both players are invited to participate in a further act of trust – would they be willing to make a year-long commitment to be there for a stranger in a moment of crisis? If a player agrees, they are paired with another consenting player and their contact details are shared.
The dual online and physical components of the gameplay juxtapose the immediate, detached characteristics of computer-based interaction with the complex, messy world of real-life places and relationships. Online players are unable to account for the range of obstacles and events that street players could encounter as they navigate the vibrant urban landscape, such as traffic and other pedestrians. Moreover, simply sending anonymous messages is a far cry from providing the emotional support needed to help someone in a crisis. Yet by interrogating these boundaries of interaction in the game, Blast Theory managed to enlist over 250 pairs of players to commit to being there for each other over the period of a whole year.
It was the hybridity of the experience in Uncle Roy – the uncertain attempts to traverse the real and the virtual through communication technology – that gave players the opportunity to think critically about trust, support, and the boundaries between reality and fiction in a society increasingly mediated by online relationships and digital representations of the self. Whereas in Pokémon Go, the experience is so subservient to the smartphone that thoughtful engagement with these boundaries is dwarfed by the absorbing on-screen gameplay.
Pokémon Go could learn from a variety of mixed-reality artworks produced in the last two decades, including audiowalks (e.g. The Missing Voice; LINKED) and oral history projects (e.g. [murmur]), which have demonstrated how careful balance between virtual and physical components enables each element to reveal something extraordinary about the other. The title of another Blast Theory work – A Machine to See With – encapsulates this idea of a widened perspective on social relationships and narratives, rather than a vision narrowed to the space of the smartphone screen.
Community building and innovation
To Pokémon Go’s credit, however, the format of the game has had some intriguing and mostly positive effects for building community. Many who have played the game will be familiar with the experience of spotting, and even making conversation with, other players of the game when in locations that host Pokéstops and Gyms. For a while in the summer it felt like the game had completely revolutionised public interactions, as an array of landmarks and spawn sites for rare Pokémon became hubs of player activity.
The more long-lasting impact, however, has been the establishment of online groups of Pokémon Go players within local areas. Although these groups are independent of the game, it is the game’s reliance on information sharing – to help players discover previously unfound Pokémon – that has encouraged players to talk to each other, share anecdotes and even meet up in real life to socialise. Being a member of one such group has taken me to places I wouldn’t have gone otherwise in search of rare Pokémon, leading to some memorable days out with my sister and five-year-old nephew. This certainly represents a social expansion of the magic circle; one that is creative of new relationships between people and the places they visit.
The game’s extensive social influence has meant that, unlike any other example, Pokémon Go has led to unprecedented awareness and interest in pervasive games. For me, this has been Pokémon Go’s most important intervention. The game’s popularity has hopefully enabled those in the creative industries to consider digital, mobile and locative technologies more seriously as tools for crafting innovative interactive experiences.
The reason why I’m particularly keen to draw attention to past examples of pervasive games is to enable prospective artists and developers to appreciate the creative potential of the medium, rather than just attempting to copy Pokémon Go’s formula or applying it to other franchises, which no doubt could also be lucrative. There is already talk about developing a Harry Potter Go game – a prospect that has excited many fans of the series, and will have left plenty in the games industry seeing dollar signs.
But as mobile digital technologies and our relationships with them continue to evolve, it would be more beneficial to see developers experimenting with pervasive games, exploring the range of human experiences they can and can’t offer. For playful art gives us unique opportunities to test different configurations of virtual and physical activity in an engaging way, as our everyday lives are increasingly distributed between the two.
Let’s use these lessons from Pokémon Go as a step forward in the pursuit of this ambition.
Further reading
This very useful summary of what pervasive games are. If you look on the same blog, you’ll also find some interesting discussions on the design and safety of pervasive games.
An excellent academic paper about Geocaching and re-enchanting the city by Maja Klausen, which also talks about the expansion of the magic circle.
This insightful article written when Pokémon Go was first released by Professor Steve Benford (who has collaborated with Blast Theory on a number of projects) on the wider context and issues around pervasive games.

Thursday, 15 December 2016

Welcome to Blast Theory

Artist Ju Row Farr's most welcoming smile
This November and December I’ve been working as a volunteer with Blast Theory, a 4-times BAFTA nominated art collective based in Brighton. Their work uses interactive media and live performance to explore social relationships, contemporary culture and politics, and the boundaries between fiction and reality.
Despite being around since 1991, winning a long list of awards and being internationally renowned, I’ve noticed that there are still many people with interests in art and digital technology who are yet to be acquainted with Blast Theory. Here, I want to introduce you to the community by sharing my experiences of their work over the past year – as an academic, an audience member, a participant, and now as a volunteer.
Guiding you through the moments in which the group’s work has shaped my life in these different roles, I’ll be demonstrating how Blast Theory has something genuinely constructive to offer everyone.                        
My first steps into the world of Blast Theory were slow and inquisitive. Starting my new Art, Performance and the City module during my Masters, my attention was instantly drawn to the title of one of our upcoming seminars – ‘Playing the City: Performance, Technology and the Public’ – with none other than Blast Theory’s Matt Adams as a guest speaker. The seminar promised an exploration of how play, games and their associated technologies can expand our understanding and experience of cities – a topic that magically welded together my budding academic interest in video games with my earlier work on public space.
I was filled with that buzz of anticipation that is the addiction of countless researchers and knowledge seekers. Eager to find out more, I couldn’t resist taking an early dip into the seminar’s reading list, where I discovered a couple of papers written directly about Blast Theory’s work by digital media scholar Marcos Dias.
The subject of these papers was A Machine to See With, a Blast Theory production from 2010. This locative performance sees participants become protagonists in a live heist movie as they walk through the city. Using mobiles to make and receive calls from an automated phone system, they are guided through a series of ethically questionable tasks towards the eventual fictitious objective of robbing a bank, believing that every action they take is being filmed.
Mindful of the fiction behind the event, participants scrutinise everything they encounter in the real-world urban environment: hyper-aware of the smallest details in their surroundings, the subtle acts of strangers, and their own performances as they are being filmed. Yet at the same time, the participant is made aware of the limits that this technology imposes on interacting with the city. The automated voice on the end of the phone is oblivious to the predicaments participants face as they negotiate the urban environment in real-time, including potential dangers, mishaps, and even past participants attempting to interrupt the story for others. By the time the event reaches its climax, the real and the fictional are blended almost beyond recognition. It becomes a performance for the participants themselves.                            
The themes from this piece are reflected in much of Blast Theory’s repertoire. The artists are keen for participants in their works to interrogate the interactive potential of technology, encouraging them to explore the intricate relationships between the virtual and the material, anonymity and surveillance, agency and control in our mediated social experiences.
The critical ethos behind their work is strengthened by how the content of their projects often engages with current social and political issues, encouraging people to re-think what worlds are possible, probable, or indeed morally desirable. Taking place shortly after the financial crisis, the bank heist story in A Machine to See With was in part an exploration of the agency that individual citizens can have in the face of the seemingly impervious forces of global capitalism.
So although their methods are playful, it is mostly play in the sense of re-imagining; momentarily allowing people to loosen the rigid boundaries that govern their social interactions to illuminate – and potentially change – how they are conventionally understood.
Our seminar with Matt Adams in March introduced me to more examples of this, including the live storytelling productions of My One Demand, a film broadcasted in one continuous shot; and The Thing I’ll Be Doing for the Rest of My Life, during which a team of volunteers push a 30-tonne boat through the streets of Nagoya, Japan. I was intrigued by the way that Blast Theory used interactive methods to allow people to share experiences in ways I’d never seen or considered before, with such striking and enduring impacts on those who participate despite the short-lived nature of the practice itself.
I became increasingly keen to experience a Blast Theory project for myself.
So later on in June I downloaded Karen, Blast Theory’s ‘life-coaching’ app in which users take part in short ‘sessions’ each day, answering questions posed by Karen, your life coach. It soon becomes clear, however, that your relationship with Karen goes beyond the considerate professionalism you’d anticipate. As she shares some quite personal details about her own life, her interest in you also becomes unnervingly intimate. She seems to know a little too much.
This is because Karen uses your answers to build a profile, based on a series of psychological profiling tests, which then determines how she interacts with you. When you complete the experience, you are given the option of buying a data report generated from the answers you submitted, which exposes how the intricate systems used by the app created your personality profile.
Like so much of Blast Theory’s work it was an unsettling yet revealing experience, uncovering how digital and data-based communication profoundly affects our interpersonal relationships and our identities – the ways we understand ourselves and others. Although I’ve used a wide range of helpful apps for information, entertainment and communication, I learnt more about the boundaries of my relationships with these technologies and other people through Karen than any other app has taught me.
I didn’t wait long before making my next foray into the familiar unfamiliarity of Blast Theory territory, having learnt that Operation Black Antler – a project that previously took place in Brighton – was coming close to home in Chatham for three days in late June. This would be my first live Blast Theory event, and one that immediately sent me outside of my comfort zone. My task: to play the role of an undercover police officer at a party, attempting to win trust and information from members of an extreme right-wing group.
It was the day after the EU referendum result. Wandering through unfamiliar territory in Chatham town centre, on my walk I encountered a stumbling, drunken middle-aged man who slurred a futile request: could I educate him? The sodden streets still tender from the fiery rhetoric of the referendum coverage, I felt disconcertingly out of place: a university-educated arts student in working-class Chatham.
I received a text telling me to meet the rest of my team outside the Argos on the high street, where we were silently shepherded into a nearby abandoned building. Splitting into small groups with people we’d never met before, we were briefed on our targets, the event, and our objectives. We only had a short time to devise our undercover alter-egos before being swiftly thrusted into a poky bar a short walk away, barely remembering the details we’d heard only minutes previously.
It was an uncompromising introduction to life undercover, and one that taught me as much about my moral compass as the fictional far-right group I’d attempted to infiltrate. Unlike watching a documentary or reading a news article, I had to come to terms with the ideology by living it; spending time with its advocates, sharing their spaces, and taking on a new persona. It radically expands your perspective when you’re forced to argue from – and empathise with – a point of view that you’re not acquainted with, or maybe even opposed to.                         
At the end, the groups came together to decide if a full-time undercover operative should be sent in to monitor the group. We now had to judge whether the kind of people we’d pretended to be, and had socialised with for an hour, were dangerous enough to warrant such invasive surveillance.          
This is interactive art’s superpower. By putting you in situations you wouldn’t normally encounter and inviting you to participate in them – whether by playing roles, making decisions, or taking actions – Blast Theory are giving you the chance to learn about and develop your unique sets of instincts and moral boundaries as an individual. It is a process of rediscovering yourself.
Around this time I’d been carrying out research for my Masters dissertation on video games, and I couldn’t help but be struck by the crossovers between Blast Theory’s work and the interactive artworks I was studying. Both typically involve assuming a different identity or role, entering new environments, and interacting with what you find there to guide your experience. Though in the likes of Operation Black Antler and A Machine to See With, this identity play manifests more as a process of provoking the transformative potential in existing, real-world people and places than attempting to create whole new fictional worlds with their own distinct characteristics. This is why such experiences are often referred to as ‘augmented reality’ – an area in which Blast Theory has been widely recognised as a leading light, long before the fanfare that accompanied the recent arrival of Pokémon Go.
I’d been fascinated by augmented reality for a while, writing a whole coursework paper on the subject earlier in my Masters study. Though it was through Blast Theory’s work that I became acutely aware of how this area of interactive art seemed to encapsulate my academic interests in studying the relationships that make places meaningful; yet also inspired me creatively as a powerful method through which these stories could be told in an immersive, engaging way.
So when I saw Blast Theory’s callout for volunteers to work with them between July and December, I realised how the programme was an exceptional opportunity to learn how such creative projects are developed on a day-to-day basis, and draw on this experience as I pursue a path towards making my own interactive art.
Being accepted onto the volunteer programme felt like the most encouraging welcome I could possibly receive as a newcomer to working professionally in the arts sector. After all, Blast Theory is a registered charity, and their commitment to supporting aspiring artists and innovation in the creative industries is clear to see from the range of talks, mentoring, and other opportunities they continue to provide both inside and outside the studio.
Since I began volunteering in early November, I’ve come to witness this benevolent impetus in their creative work first-hand. Blast Theory’s most recent project, A Place Free of Judgement, empowered a group of 30 young people to live broadcast a 9-hour takeover of three libraries. Exploring and celebrating storytelling as an art of sharing experiences – and libraries as sanctuaries for this practice – the young participants led viewers through their imaginations of these spaces; directing the camera, having fun, and sharing something of themselves. Online audiences were able to contribute their own stories, which took creative physical form in the libraries as our performers read aloud, drew pictures, sang, and wrote the words to hide between books.
At a time when funding for both libraries and the arts is dwindling, Blast Theory have sought to use their artistic endeavour to enable, support and inspire others to cultivate their own creativity. That is an art to be admired in itself.
It’s also a motivation that extends beyond the short-term impact of single events. In upcoming project 2097: We Made Ourselves Over, the group is aiming to encourage conversation about our collective future over the coming century by teaming up with Hull UK City of Culture 2017 and Aarhus European Capital of Culture 2017. Workshops are being hosted with residents young and old in each city to hear their ideas about what the future of our cities could/should look like, alongside insights from experts attempting to answer these questions for issues as broad as climate change, infrastructure, and spirituality. What is our capacity for self-determination in an uncertain future? What can our minds and technologies offer us as we plan for the forthcoming decades?
In this role Blast Theory are like toolmakers; intricately crafting the instruments with which people can discuss, design and build their ideas of the future.
Making art can often seem quite a selfish pursuit. Not only do we devote significant quantities of our own time and resources to expressing ourselves, but we sometimes ask for other people’s too. In this respect, maybe the most valuable lessons I’ve learnt from Blast Theory are the ways that art can be selfless. While their projects are perhaps the most visible sign, this spirit reaches out continually through the Blast Theory community, a vast but close-knit network that draws from and works with artists, researchers, organisations, freelancers, and keen participants from all walks of life.
I’m touched by how warmly I’ve been welcomed into this community over the past year, and I hope that this piece can encourage others to join in the experience.
Believe me – you’ll get as much out as you put in.

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Creating a Sense of Place in Video Games

What is a place?
In the simplest possible terms, a place is a meaningful location. Places are spaces that humans perceive as meaningful because of their social and emotional associations. We form these attachments with spaces as they provide the settings for our lives as individuals.
A sense of place is the subjective feeling of ‘being there’, in a place. As it is just a feeling, having a sense of place does not require the individual to be in a given location physically, but purely to experience the depth of emotional and social connection that they would associate with being there.

Mental models
There are many ways that video game environments can fall short of providing the same depth of experience that real-world places do. They typically do not contain the same density of objects or details; they are limited in the movements or actions they allow people to perform; and they do not cater for the full range of bodily senses.
However, feeling a sense of place is a cognitive experience, not just an embodied one. It is possible to create the feeling of being in a place without being there physically. For example, we can feel like we’ve been transported to another world by the words of novels, or sounds in a piece of music.
The most important factor for creating a sense of place is therefore the mental model of the world that participants create. The world’s content does not necessarily have to be realistic, but believable – enough for the participant to form a coherent impression of the world in their mind. For video games, this relies on a combination of their systemic and aesthetic components.
The systemic components of the world control its physical properties, and how players can interact with it. To create a coherent sense of place the game’s mechanics need to be consistent, as these rules of interaction allow players to filter out the world’s information in a meaningful way. Players can feel like they ‘know’ the world when they find, for example, that only certain types of door can be opened; or only highlighted objects can be interacted with.
The aesthetic components control how the fiction of the world is experienced. This includes the world’s art, story plot, soundscape, and any other information that sets the world in a specific fictional context. To make the world believable, it is important that the aesthetics feel authentic to the player. This authenticity can be based on factual accuracy, such as ensuring that everything in the world is from the particular time period in which the story is set. Yet authenticity can also be applied to the emotional effect of the story events, addressing real experiences and feelings that people have had.
Ensuring that the systemic and aesthetic components work well together is essential to create mental models of the world that are well articulated when the game is played. This way the world can be interacted with meaningfully, setting a stage for deep emotional experiences.

The Stanley Parable is a game full of inconsistencies. Doors open in some playthroughs that couldn’t previously, and in some cases the entire layout and contents of the office building change completely. Yet these contradictions are in keeping with the fictional context of the office block as an inherently unknowable place. The systemic inconsistencies work well with the surreal aesthetics to create a mental model of a place that is confusing and ungraspable.

Play-testing can allow developers to assess and fine-tune this relationship be-tween mechanics and aesthetics. Feeling a sense of place is ultimately an experience that occurs in the minds of individual players, so by examining how players engage with the world mechanically and subjectively, developers can gauge whether their worlds work well as places, not just game levels.

All places have an element of co-authorship, as the existing materials and social relationships in a location are combined with the personal experiences of individuals in meaningful ways.
The interactivity of video games is similar to co-authorship, in how players can have their own play experiences within a structure designed by a game’s developers.
In many of the established game genres, however, the input of the player is typically focused on the mechanical actions they can perform – and how well they can do these actions according to frameworks of wins and losses, score-boards, objectives and so on. Little opportunity is given for emotional engagement with the environment, which becomes a passive backdrop for the unfolding action.
By cutting down the complex mechanical actions the player can perform, and the feedback given to players for these actions, game developers can create more room for players to have mindful responses to their worlds. It is then left to the players to decide how they are going to explore the world, and how to interpret the ambiguous information presented to them, according to their own feelings, memories, expectations and imaginations.

Made to answer the question of what happens if traditional interactive elements are removed from games to focus purely on storytelling, Dear Esther became iconic as an experience that simply asked players to walk forward and listen to a narrator. Widely credited as a founding title of the ‘walking simulator’ genre, Dear Esther showed how leaving room for ambiguity and contemplation in games can foster deeper emotional engagement with their worlds.

However, the level design also needs to be compelling enough to encourage these deeper emotional and thoughtful responses. Using techniques such as gating (managing players’ access to areas of the game world at specific times), signposting (drawing players’ attention to objects/events/areas through lighting, sound etc.) and pacing (managing the positioning and distance between objects/events), developers can subtly direct the flow of the experience to enhance its drama and emotional power, without compromising the player’s immersive connection with the world.
In short, co-authorship relies on trust both ways in the relationship between developers and players. Developers need to ensure that players will find the world engaging and worth exploring, and then step back and trust that players will respond by finding what it is meaningful to them in the world, rather than telling the player what they should be doing and how they should be feeling.
By giving players the opportunity to imagine themselves into the world – rather than overlaying it with complex actions players must perform, or arbitrary scoring/objective systems – a stronger sense of place can emerge as players draw on their own meanings and experiences to engage with the world, rather than anyone else’s.

Story and emotional resonance
As well as creating room for players to interact mindfully with game worlds, forming the deep subjective bonds associated with ‘being there’ entails providing content to which players can respond emotionally. In games, this typically takes place through storytelling – the cultural practice of sharing experiences, which can build empathy and social bonds between people.
By creating worlds transformed by the emotional resonance of events, characters and objects involved in a story (environmental storytelling), developers can instil environments with stimuli that provoke empathy between players and the fictional situations that are represented in the game. Players can then begin to care about the world as a place where they have memories of emotional experiences.

The vacant mansion explored in Gone Home is ripe with environmental storytelling that makes the house feel lived-in: handwritten notes, tape recordings and objects that enable players to experience the emotional resonance of the Greenbriar family’s dramas.

Careful use of sound is a particularly powerful method of evoking emotional resonance in environments through its immersive qualities, enabling the player to feel present in a time and location without physically being there. Sound also has the ability to very viscerally convey mood and atmosphere through music, voice and ambient noise, which makes it especially potent for communicating the emotional twists and turns of narratives. Despite its importance for storytelling, I’ve repeatedly heard about instances where studios have not considered audio until late on in development, or failed to put much effort into its production.

Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture’s BAFTA award-winning sound-track used four types of music to score the emotional resonance of scenes, characters, and the player’s journey between them.

When narrative worlds with a strong and authentic emotional resonance are created, players can more deeply immerse themselves in the experiential space of characters and/or situations – events and dilemmas they must negotiate using their own subjective judgements. As players make meaningful decisions and interpretations, exploring the world becomes a process of exploring the cracks and crevices of the self. The world becomes tied to the meaning-making of the player, developing a deeply personal sense of place framed ac-cording to the player’s feelings, memories and measures of emotional reward.

Making players care
It has been said that in walking simulator games the only fail state is that the player doesn’t care. Though as one developer put it, this is also the designers’ fail state. It is their job to provide the conditions that can foster an emotional connection between player and environment, in order to create worlds with a distinct and intimate sense of place.
By creating believable, stimulating environments that give players the opportunity to explore the twisting paths of their own thoughts and feelings, players will ultimately care more about the world as somewhere they come to know from personal experiences, interpretations and imaginations.
The task for developers is to design holistic environments that are evocative in themselves, allowing them to step back and trust players to find meaning in the rich world presented to them.

Thursday, 20 October 2016

Exploring Geographies of Video Games: Placing Virtual Worlds

Cottonwood tree from Firewatch
In the last 35 years or so, digital technology has become an ever more prominent feature of everyday life in developed societies. The spaces in which we take part in activities for leisure, work and social relationships are increasingly virtual: interactive environments that we can navigate, manipulate and experience through screens, keyboards and other interfaces. Virtual spaces are not only technologically significant but also culturally significant, affecting the way we make sense of the world. 
In an industry growing at 8.5% per year and now worth $99.6 billion in global revenue (more than books, cinema and audio entertainment), video gaming exemplifies the rising cultural importance of virtual worlds. The industry’s growth is coupled with improvements in computer processing power and 3D graphics technology, which game developers are using to craft increasingly detailed and complex virtual environments for stimulating play experiences.
Traditionally, the environments of video games have mostly provided a backdrop for the mechanical interactions that the game asks you to perform - such as the precise movement of buttons and control pads in racing and first-person shooter games. Yet for the emerging genre of ‘walking simulator’ games, it is the active exploration of immersive virtual worlds that is at the heart of the play experience. Developers design environments filled with intriguing and emotionally powerful details to discover, which tell stories as you walk through them.
The development of walking simulators therefore represents an important moment not only in the evolution of video games, but more widely for how virtual spaces are used and what they mean. Because rather than serving as a platform for some other purpose, the game environments themselves are the purpose: to provide tangible worlds with a deep sense of place that players can imagine themselves into.
Virtual Places
Places, in geographical terms, are spaces that we know through the meanings that we associate with them; those with which we have some kind of subjective attachment based on our experiences. While spaces are basic areas or volumes with geometrical properties, spaces become places when they are filled with cultural and social reference points. In short, they are meaningful locations.
Traditionally in geography, the idea of place is universal; something that we all experience as human beings. To be conscious is to form some kind of awareness or understanding about the world – to attach meaning to it. And as we live our lives, we develop a series of relatively settled social and emotional bonds with spaces through our everyday experiences in them. By studying culture and art, it is possible to get insights into how this process of meaning-making works, and ultimately gain a deeper understanding of places based on real, lived experience.            
Although many traditional games fail to offer much opportunity for this kind of deeper emotional investment in their virtual environments, what intrigued me about walking simulators was how their explorative gameplay seemed to invite players to immerse themselves in the spirit of the game world, treading their own path through the (hi)stories, events and landscapes that make the world meaningful and emotionally powerful.
Yet in geography, places are usually understood to be physical locations – not digital media made from computer code. This follows a tradition in the humanities and social sciences where virtual reality and physical reality are often separated from one other. The virtual is then either celebrated as a sublime realm of innovation, creativity and communication, or vilified as a dangerous world that is disconnected from the social norms of ‘real life’.
So the main question I had going into my research was this: to what extent can the virtual worlds of walking simulator games be considered ‘places’?
What excited me about this question was how the answer would have consequences that reach much further than my individual study. It was important not only for understanding the worlds of video games, but perhaps more profoundly for the concept of ‘place’ itself: what a place is, and how we can experience the feeling of being in a place.
To address these issues as fully as possible, my research focused on a wide range of meaningful elements of walking simulator worlds: from the structural, systemic aspects of gameplay (how the player can/can’t interact with the game world) to the more interpretative aspects (player’s individual emotional reactions to the world).
Agency and Interactivity
Because video game worlds are virtual, players are limited in the actions they are able to perform – their agency – compared to what they can do in the physical world. However, these limited activities ultimately define the kind of experience the player has. The ways you interact with worlds determine your relationship to them, and for video games it is their developers who have the greatest say on what you can and can’t do, and how the game world reacts.
In walking simulators, developers actively avoid the numerous and complex controls of many traditional games, apart from the basic functions of moving and looking around. There are no scoring systems and typically no objectives for measuring your success or progress in the game. Indeed, the ‘walking simulator’ term started as a negative label given by some gamers, who argued that all you do is walk in the game world – there is no challenge to tackle; no skill involved in playing. Some have questioned whether such experiences can even be called ‘games’ at all.
But these arguments display a narrow understanding of the kinds of interaction that games can involve. Avoiding traditional game mechanics is a deliberate technique that designers use to encourage players to engage thoughtfully with the game world, freeing players’ attention from the immediate challenges of precise button pressing, winning and losing. Instead, developers craft powerful experiences whose stories are guided by the player’s decisions, interpretations and emotions.
Of course, developers often still have a particular story or emotion that they want players to experience, which they can convey through careful design. They can control which areas of the game world players can access at any given time (‘gating’). They can use lighting and sound to draw players’ attention towards certain details in the environment (‘signposting’). And most importantly, they dictate how information and objects are placed in the game world. Like in the physical world, then, forces of power shape the meanings that people associate with particular locations.
The uniqueness of walking simulator games is that this power relationship is a liberal one, based on a continued conversation between the designer – speaking through the environment they build – and the player as they attempt to understand the world. There is no official nor accepted version of events because everyone’s experiences will be different depending on how they played and interpreted the game. We each form our own personal bonds with locations in the game world according to our individual experiences of them, in the same way we relate to physical places.
Immersion and Believability
In video game worlds, such experiences always take place through an avatar – a virtual figure with characteristics that determine where a player can look, how they can move, and what actions they can perform.
What is distinct about walking simulators, though, is that all of these attributes are designed to immerse the player as fully as possible in the experiential space of the world and its characters. Nearly all walking simulators are played in first-person, as though the screen is the avatar’s eyes and the speakers their ears; the world enveloping around you as you play. The typically slow movement of walking helps players to pay attention to detail, and take in the atmosphere of the environment. And any actions you can perform tell the player about their ability to affect the world, and the roles and responsibilities that go with this. For example, interacting with urban infrastructure in INFRA gives a very visceral sense of the huge scale and importance of such systems, as well as the enormity of the task of managing them.

Vast industrial environment in INFRA
Yet what I discovered from my research was that these qualities of perspective, movement and action aren’t enough by themselves to create powerful immersive relationships between players and game worlds. Rather, it is their authenticity and consistency that maintains the player’s sense of presence – of being in a real world.
Authenticity refers to what belongs in the world, according to its fictional logic. If you’re setting a game in 1980s rural England, like Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, the objects in the world need to be from that cultural context if all players are going to believe in it, even if this requires some research. Whereas consistency is about maintaining the aesthetics and physics of the designed world throughout the game, otherwise players will struggle to feel like they can know the world and become attuned to its characteristics as a place.

The characteristically rural English landscape of Everybody's Gone to the Rapture
In the end, both authenticity and consistency are about the mental pictures of the world that players form in their heads. Game worlds don’t have to be realistic for players to have meaningful experiences in them – they just need to be coherent and believable; as though the world could exist.
Unfortunately, during play there are plenty of things that can disrupt the mental image of the world that players form. Technical glitches can affect the appearance of the environment, or prevent players from interacting with it altogether. Other times players may simply struggle to believe in the story they are being told.
In many cases, problems can be fixed before and after the game is published, based on testing and player feedback. It is an ongoing process of fine-tuning the game world that balances the capabilities of the technology and our perception of virtual worlds as human beings.
But ultimately what video games demonstrate is that immersion and believability in virtual worlds are uncertain, fragile achievements that rely on a number of human and technical factors that are both prone to error. During play, video games worlds can easily feel like believable places one moment and malfunctioning technology the next.
Navigation and Narrative
Of course, video games are often engaging not just because you feel like you’re inside a believable world, but for the powerful experiences you have in that world during play. In walking simulators, where play is based on exploration, game developers aim to create worlds that are interesting for precisely that purpose: with emotionally powerful and thought-provoking features to discover throughout.
How developers arrange their virtual environments is therefore an important factor in the relationships players form with game worlds. Developers of walking simulators typically aim to heighten the wonder of exploring by crafting deep worlds that are rich with the subtle and intimate details of a story, strategically placed throughout the world for players to encounter at specific locations.
In game design this principle is called environmental storytelling. With each new narrative detail that players uncover and piece together, they become emotionally invested in the fate of the game world and its characters, encouraging them to investigate further.
Gone Home is one of the clearest and most celebrated examples of this technique. In this game, the player plays a character who returns to their family home to find it mysteriously empty. To understand what happened, they must untangle an intricate web of family dramas by finding notes, objects and tape recordings left throughout the house.

Some of the objects to be discovered in Gone Home
The unique power of video games for this kind of storytelling is that players can have a stake in the story themselves, because the way they navigate the world determines what information they discover and how they interpret the experience. The story is interactive, as players bring their own ideas, memories and meanings to the world to make sense of what they find.
The result is that a more intimate and personal relationship develops between the player and the fictional world than if the story was told to the player directly. The job of the developer here is actually more about leaving room for players to fill with their own imagination. Developers provide the stimuli in the form of interesting landmarks, symbols, events or artefacts, and players are left make their own path through the material according to what resonates with them.
As my friend Rosa Carbó-Mascarell has argued, playing walking simulators is a psychogeographical act, where the player’s thoughts and ideas intertwine with the world as they play. Game worlds here are performative – not fixed or settled, but diverse and continually remade as players write their own stories through exploration.
Emotion and Identity
To encourage people to invest themselves so deeply in game worlds, developers need to create environments that players feel are worth exploring in the first place. Game design for walking simulators becomes a question of how to make players care about the world.
For this reason, developers tend to base the design of their worlds around a core emotional experience that they want to evoke in players, which becomes the framework for the game’s design. The world is populated by intriguing, relatable characters, and arranged to set the stage for dramatic or thought-provoking story events. Perhaps the most important (yet underappreciated) technique for tugging at the heartstrings of the player is sound. Sound has the quality of being able to convey the mood and atmosphere of story events very effectively, whether this is through the tone of a character’s voice, or evocative music in games like Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture.
Layered with sound and story, game environments become both internal and external – visible worlds that you can navigate, but also shaped more subtly by contours of thoughts and emotions.
Unlike any other storytelling medium, however, in video games we do not just passively watch characters go through the trials and tribulations that their world presents them with. The interactivity of video games allows us to somehow take part in the story’s events. We might be asked to take on a character’s role, controlling their actions and witnessing their consequences for the world. Or our role could simply involve interpreting the narrative information we encounter as we walk through the world. In both cases, we are asked to identify with the situations represented on-screen and participate in the storytelling ourselves.
Here, we care more about the world because we are actively involved in producing it.
The situations players confront in the story are often particularly emotionally powerful because the developers have based them on real people, places or experiences from their own lives. It is the authentic feeling behind these events that players connect with through empathy.
However, players as individuals will differ in their own personal interests, experiences and desires. I occasionally found it difficult to emotionally engage with the sci-fi horror world of SOMA, where the presence of monsters prevented me from exploring the intriguing story of an underwater research facility as deeply as I wanted.

An abandoned area of SOMA's underwater research facility
What all these observations show is that walking simulators are particularly reliant on the player to make sense of the experience, at least as much as the developers. While many traditional games have score counters and objectives for players to measure how pleased they should feel with their experience at any given time, in walking simulators this reward system is mostly moved inside the player. You explore an area of the world if you think it would be rewarding to do so. It is your interpretation of the story that matters most for the emotional connection you develop with the game world.
The realms of walking simulator games are not fixed places. There is no universally understood version of the world and play events that shape it. Rather, in the words of one of my interviewees, they are “emotionally myriad”, blurring together the identity of the individual player and the spaces of the game world during play. In walking simulators, you explore the cracks and crevices of the self as much as the environment represented on-screen.

A lot of what I found during my research complicates the traditional perspective of ‘place’ in geography, where place is something universal and stable in how humans live their lives. If places exist in video games, then they are inconsistent and fragile, depending on a careful balance of intricate design and player imagination; working technology and believable aesthetics. When any one of these factors breaks down, the vision is easily disrupted. 
Despite this complexity and inconsistency, the relationships players form with video game worlds are still meaningful. The play experience is often moving and creative, as players draw on both the emotive stimuli already in the environment and their own imagination and interpretations, creating their own stories and memories of the world.
Video games therefore do not detract from, nor attempt to recreate, our relationships with the physical world. Their virtual worlds are meaningful in themselves.
Although video games have distinctive qualities, they aren’t the only medium this can apply to. Think about the times when you seem to lose yourself in the world of a novel, or transported to another place by a piece of music. You can still feel a powerful sense of place even if you are not physically there.
Because of these observations, I don’t think that it is useful to focus on how the sense of place we experience in virtual worlds is different from that in the physical world. Given that virtual spaces are becoming an increasingly regular feature of our everyday lives, I think the whole idea of ‘place’ needs to evolve in line with the diverse ways that people form attachments with spaces of all types, wherever they lie on the line between physical and imagined.
I’m proposing that ‘place’ should be seen less as a universal experience confined to the ‘real’ world, and more as an event in which diverse human practices and material technologies come together to generate meaning in a world, whether virtual or corporeal.
The attachments we form with locations are deeply significant in our lives, giving rise to cultures, inspiring countless artists, and affecting how we make sense of the world. The importance of these research findings is that they allow us to appreciate the role that cultural products and their virtual environments – such as video games, literature, music, and more – have in this process.
By showing how these geographical relationships can occur in video games specifically, I hope that people can not only appreciate what this fascinating medium has to offer for human experience, but also recognise the value of understanding and studying the diverse cultural practices through which we find a place in the world.

Paper boats from the iconic ending of Dear Esther