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Meaningful Digital Spaces: Sense of Place in a Hollow World

Physical terrain seems more “real,” and indeed does appeal to more senses than virtual terrain is currently capable of, yet both are encountered and become meaningful by virtue of their interaction with the human mind.

Matthew Schanuel, Blogger

December 14, 2012

16 Min Read

This piece was originally posted on The Ontological Geek.

Theory of Space

 In his Commentary on Aristotle’s Categories, Archytus writes, “Place is the first of all beings, since everything that exists is in a place and cannot exist without a place.” The same sentiment is echoed in nearly every creation story; “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” But our thoughts are not always tied to place. We are capable of abstract conception. Even so, our metaphors are often built upon physical relations and housed in geography. Place is the context within which the great majority of our thoughts occur; we are spatial, and spaces inevitably become meaningful to the human mind.

 In “Wisdom Sits in Places,” ethnographer Keith H. Basso hones in on the Western Apache experience of geography, exploring the complex structures of ideas, stories, and songs that they have built over the physical edifice of their land. The heart of this structure, Basso argues, is “that close companion of heart and mind, often subdued, yet potentially overwhelming, that is known as sense of place.” The land begins to develop its own nature, even its own “voice.” Important sites come to “generate their own fields of meaning” via the content imbued by human minds, and that meaning is often disseminated within and supported by a community, as it is with the Western Apache. Shared land, and especially shared dwelling, thus yields an inevitable pool of shared meaning.

The advent of digital technology enabled, appropriately, the advent of virtual realities and virtual geographies, and the ability of those geographies to mimic physical geography is increasing rapidly. Physical terrain seems more “real,” and indeed does appeal to more senses than virtual terrain is currently capable of, yet both are encountered and become meaningful by virtue of their interaction with the human mind – in fact, given the narrative importance of the events that often occur within digital landscapes (we often go to them to witness extreme instances of comedy, drama, etc.), it is no surprise that entire communities spring up from shared digital environments.

As I’ve hinted, a meaning-in-place is not inherent, but rather imbued. Basso writes that “the self-conscious experience of place is inevitably a product and expression of the self whose experience it is, and therefore, unavoidably, the nature of that experience is shaped at every turn by the personal and social biography.” Basso suggests, then, that geography’s importance is as a mirror for the self; I suggest that virtual reality’s “hollow” qualities makes it no less valid a source for reflection.

This is the rough map; let’s go granular.

Land and Self

The essence of the phenomenon of place, regardless of whether a landscape is virtual or physical, is in the experiencing and sharing of a spatially charged environment. Though I encourage discussions about the spatial sense of a forum, blog, or other online environment, let’s narrow our scope to digital representations of three-dimensional spaces, and (though again, I’d love to see wide-ranging discussions of space) specifically spaces that more or less mimic physical realities. Such developments promote a sense of place, and the truth that we are inextricably linked by a series of complex attachments to the features of the physical world.

Basso writes about “lived relationships” with the geography. These relationships are vivid and distinct and beyond counting, and they occur whenever a place becomes the object of awareness. Most of these encounters are brief, like, “Oh that rock looks sort of like a face,” but occasionally the awareness is arrested and the place that arrests becomes the site of “spontaneous reflection” and “residing sentiment.” One is removed, or removes oneself, from the flow of the everyday and actively attends to the place in which one resides. This can take many forms; perhaps the above rock suddenly reminds of my grandmother’s face, and I am reminded that time moves so swiftly, that things pass away, but that memory lingers. Perhaps the next time I come to that rock, I think those same thoughts; it’s as though the meaning lives in the rock via lived experience. But of course, what is really occurring is that the rock is providing an avenue through which the self might reflect back on the self; it offers a spatial framework to understand boundless notions of time, of being and not-being, and of the death of self.

Spatial realities can serve as a mirror that reflects oneself, or one’s former self, or even who one might become. Sartre, who also wrote of this phenomenon, noted that “At each moment perception overflows and sustains [the affective state of attention aimed at objects], and its density and depth come from its being confused with the perceived object. Each quality is so deeply incorporated in the object that it is impossible to distinguish what is felt and what is perceived.” The “voice” of a place, then, which imparts its meaning, should not be understood as being contained within the object; the voice is always our own, speaking silently to ourselves. In this way, a fresh or familiar location might become meaningful, certainly more than a simple point in space; Basso writes, “as natural reflectors that return awareness to the source from which it springs, places […] provide points from which to look out on life, to grasp one’s position in the order of things, to contemplate events from somewhere in particular.” Places are one of the vocabularies we can use to “speak” to ourselves. Because this phenomenon ultimately resides in our own selves, digital geography can be just as meaningful as physical geography.

Land and Us

Yet Basso insists that the most intense experiences of place are communal. Relationships to places are lived most often in the company of other people; when we speak of a location, emote of its importance, then we are presenting culturally mediated images of where, how, and why we dwell. Given the origins of this sense of place, whenever we express our sense of place we inevitably express an understanding of whom and what we are. This might occur in the manner of stories, but even naming a place is a social act of meaning-making. Naming a place defines it; it implies boundaries, whether they are natural (water separating land-masses) or artificial (state boundaries, in many cases, or houses), and names are social, language-bound – they are generated to define something not just for the self, but in order to express that definition to others. By pushing such definitions from the private sphere into the public, greater meaning is achieved.

Digital space is also shared. MMORPGs are an exceptionally communal experience. Players share a massive and coherent world, and many players spend enough time in these games that they might easily be said to “dwell” there. Even more impressive, MMORPGs occasionally produce communal stories tied to locations based on the activities of the players. Michael Nitsche points to instances like the Ironforge auction house protests in World of Warcraft as moments when a digital location comes to encapsulate a much larger public sphere than the polygons that is housing the actual event. Even more intriguing is this account of a situation inUltima Online given by Raph Koster, which underscores the additional complexity of player-generated locations:

Once upon a time, there was a very pleasant little tavern, the Serpent Cross Tavern. Players could build buildings in Ultima Online. Players could set up these structures, and they made them into their own, and they told their own private mythologies and told their own private stories in ‘em. One day, this group of people called S-I-N, “sin,” that was their guild abbreviation, decided that they were going to walk around all the player-run taverns and extort money. […] And they came one day to the Serpent Cross Tavern—, you know, they were really boastful about it. They destroyed a whole bunch of role-playing hotbeds, came one day to the Serpent Cross Tavern, and found an army waiting there that creamed ‘em. Setting. Expressive setting. That could not have happened without the ability for players to reshape their space and create a location for a narrative.

That brings us to our next topic: the importance of the home-space specifically, and the ability to control our own geography.


Though connections with geography can happen with new spaces, we develop our most intimate relationships with the home space. The rooms of a house are made discrete from one another via constructed, intentional walls, and the manner of this arrangement has a large effect on psychology and the lived relationship with the place. Now say that within that house, there is a computer, which itself is a doorway to myriad virtual spaces. This is intensified when there is a virtual geography because the spatial mind is then activated. The human mind knows how to interact in a three-dimensional space, and the user’s avatar moves through the virtual world as the user does in real life. In this sense, the computer might be understood as containing thousands of rooms of virtual space.

There is nothing stopping players from interacting with these virtual spaces as they might the spaces of home. Michael Nitsche writes, “Players get familiar with new game spaces and learn to master them, learn to read them, and project meaning into them. What they finally find in these spaces, then, is a new and altered ‘self.’” This familiarity has also begun to accrue, forming culturally significant bonds that bypasses physical space. Since virtual reality has no physical site, physical geography is no barrier to accessing the familiar. Nitsche adds that:

Virtual societies can have a “home” in a video game space—one that stretches across the various planes suggested here but can have a defined location in a 3D virtual stage. Not only is such a “home” the product of a creative process by the player but—in accordance with Alexander’s concept of the pattern language—it is also capable of affecting interactors and their behavior.”

All games allow for the implementation of the player’s will to some extent; every action of the avatar in a game is a personalization, a decision, to say nothing of higher-order interactions, such as that offered by massive construction engines such as Minecraft or extensive tailoring of the avatar’s visual characteristics and personality such as that found in most BioWare games. Whether these interactions with virtual space are public or private, they all involve extensions of the self, and making a home in that virtual reality that exists between the mind and its virtual manifestations.


Thatgamecompany recently released their third title, Journey, in which the player controls a nameless, genderless, faceless individual on a pilgrimage to a sacred mountain.

The Player's Avatar


The Mountain


 Journey is beautiful, and, in the absence of characterization and explicit narrative, the player is left with a large digital world to travel through and reflect upon. There is implicit meaning, however; your avatar can sing, and whenever the avatar does, a sigil of four shapes rises above its head.

The Shapes

 Many of the stones you pass in the desert have a similar four-sigil shape. If it is intended to serve as a sign of the avatar’s uniqueness, then perhaps those are gravestones. Moreover, cloth creatures rise from the desert to aid you at different parts of the experience, and they, too, are marked with these sigils. However, both the natural and constructed landscapes are, in Journey, crafted – by programmers, visual artists, and others – and both are mostly blank slates into which the player must invest themselves. Symbols abound, but because the cultural markers lack context just as much as the game’s expansive desert, its caverns, and its snow-covered mountain, both are hollow vessels to be filled by the player. It’s a game that engenders awareness and reflection, and offers a series of environments and events that ultimately provides a very rich source of reflection.

This reflection is made possible largely because there is no stated goal. The game begins with the player’s avatar seated in the sand, desert behind and before. The player pans the camera around to the figure’s back, and presses forward on the analog stick used for movement. The only things of interest are a trio of three stones, two flying banners that twist in the wind, at the top of a nearby hill; so the player climbs that hill, and is greeted with the faint outline of the distant mountain, and the name of the game – your destination is clear.


But nothing else is. The avatar’s role in the world, its reasons for making this journey, and the history of the ruins you travel through are all implied; there are murals that hint at the culture and beliefs of the people of which your avatar is a part, but only the slimmest shades of that civilization are visible.


It invites further exploration, though; the murals depict images like hieroglyphics, and its evident that there is a narrative embedded in the symbols that Journey offers, but it is constructed equally by the player, and the meaning of the game is partially a reflection of the player’s own psyche and biography. This occurs with frequency in Journey, indeed the cultivation of such moments seems to be the game’s purpose. The focus on seeing and reflecting is built into the game. It lacks difficult puzzles, and what obstacles there are serve to inspire feelings of risk and uncertainty rather than actually obstruct. Even more telling, should the player stop moving the avatar to study or appreciate the view, the avatar will sit, wait, and then images of nearby locations will play out across the screen, as though the avatar were contemplating their surroundings alongside the player.

The player is a part of the implied culture by virtue of the avatar he or she inhabits, but is also an outsider. The meaning has already been encoded on this digital geography, but the player comes to it much as an ethnographer does to a different people, or, more accurately, as an archeologist does to what is left of a civilization. The player cannot be said to dwell in the game during their first trek to the mountain, but upon returning to the path the land becomes familiar enough for Basso’s lived relationship to occur.

However, Journey is not a solo endeavor. Eventually, another player will enter your specific virtual landscape and become your traveling companion. Though players are given the option to ignore other players, the mode of interaction is pared down. There is no voice support; no method of communication, in fact, other than the ability to sing a note of four or five different lengths and via movement. It is pared down from the typical suite of interactive tools that players normally receive to communicate in virtual worlds. However, instead of experiencing it as a limit, it means that the player’s awareness isn’t disturbed by the poor sound quality of online communication or by the spoken language of another person. The other person remains, ultimately, just as much a mystery as the landscape; it is a virtual representation of the irreducible, mysterious other. What is remarkable is that despite these limitations, the sense of companionship is, if anything, strengthened. When another player’s avatar stops to stare at something beautiful, one feels compelled to do the same. If they miss a step and fall behind, one waits. Without fail, the people I have encountered in Journey have been patient and curious travel companions.

Because the tools of interaction are limited, the expressions of lived relationship that Basso lists (songs, stories, and so forth) are not communally built in-game, but some of that may occur outside of the game via physical or virtual forums. It also isn’t clear that such manifestations are necessary in order to have a meaningful lived relationship with geography; perhaps it is enough to have the experience. The deep well of common stories is valuable to a community that is locked in one location by necessity, but given the capacity to generate new spaces outside of the physical plane, it is worth considering whether a lived relationship with the land is essential to human flourishing, or whether digital spaces might have the same capabilities to satisfy.

Journey is an interesting experiment in whether a virtual environment, encountered in solitude or with another individual, can be meaningful, and adroitly demonstrates that the answer is yes.


Given the potential that digital spaces might have as sites for meaning-making, there are a few fascinating implications.

The loss of a place is a devastating event in the life of a community; sacred space holds value because of the accrual of meaning and the value that it might hold for future generations. Converting a physical site to a digital site essentially “saves” it for later consumption. While the experience of a digital site is less vivid given current technological limitations, Journey is an early example of how digital space might become meaningful. Consider Facebook pages for the deceased; they are virtual spaces that serve as a sacred place in the lives of many, serving as a receptacle to remain connected to a memory. Digital space offers a radical challenge to the exclusivity of some sacred sites. The value of a digitized Temple Mount is apparent, for instance. Digital technology is challenging to the notion of ownership in general, since it challenges scarcity economics; digital geography is a specific challenge to land ownership. I don’t suggest that the problems between Israel and Palestine can be solved via a digital version of the Holy Land, nor conflicts over food, water and shelter, but digital space is yet a fruitful source of shared meaning.

Digital geography also begins to call abstract notions like geographical nationhood into question. If groups are determined by bonds that are, ultimately, imaginary (as they must be in any community larger than a tribe, where everybody exists in a daily face-to-face relationship with each other), then the shared experiences of distant people that inhabit the same digital geography might offer an even better basis of collective. The game-playing Norwegian might have more in common with the game-playing Irishman than either of them do with other Norwegians and Irishmen. It is a serious challenge to physical notions of community, space, and identity. Technology continues to augment the lived experience, and, as Nitsche notes, offers exciting new ways for the human self to define itself and its place in the world.

(The texts I'm pulling from are as follows:

Keith Basso’s essay “Wisdom Sits In Places” is located in the book “Senses of Place,” edited by Basso and Steven Feld.

Michael Nitsche’s contribution comes from “Video Game Spaces: Image, Play and Structure in 3D Worlds.”)

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