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Places where play becomes work

Theme parks and game worlds share in common the creation of a `place’ for entertainment purposes. A game world is often a `metaverse’ that contains a variety of barely connected styles and moments. How do you join together a fragmented world?

Zoya Street, Blogger

July 8, 2012

6 Min Read

This extract from my thesis is cross-posted from my personal blog. I'm currently fundraising to turn the thesis into a book - you can get involved here. In this extract I use theories from psychogeography - the subjective, mental experience of place - to describe the game-world of Skies of Arcadia.

Widget showing amount raised so far for `Dreamcast Worlds'How do you join together a fragmented world?
Theme parks, shopping malls and game worlds all share in common the creation of a `place’ for entertainment purposes. These worlds are not representations of the real-world, but playgrounds for leisure pursuits. In Skies of Arcadia, just like in Disneyland or the Disney-themed RPG Kingdom Hearts, the game world is a `metaverse’ that contains a variety of barely connected styles and moments.

The fun lies in the variety, and the design of the game world has to answer to this apparent fragmentation by skilfully constructing an overarching structure and narrative. 

Media theorist Scott Bukatman describes space design in theme parks as `simulated tactics’; specifically, simulations of what the situationists, a radical art group in the 1960s, called the dérive, an aimless passage through urban space.

In a theme park, the dérive is simulated. What feels like aimless exploration is in fact planned and directed. `There is no discovery that one is not led to, no resolution that has not already occurred.’

It's a statement reminds me of the 'no rails' moment in Portal 2, where the players' panicked, confused running through what looks like a maze of metal mezzanines is in fact carefully directed and managed by clever level design, to prevent unpredictable movements that would break the cinematics.

Is a role-playing game a simulated dérive?
Even though the dérive was described as aimless, it did in fact have its own goals and purposes - they were just different goals to our day-to-day attempts to get from point A to point B before a certain scheduled time. The dérive aimed to bring together the complexities of the city by giving shape to its `psychogeographical fragmentation'.

The city is broken up between rich and poor, industrial and residential, work and leisure, with awkward transitions in between, and the situationists wanted to draw attention to those fault lines that exist solely in our minds.

They were particularly interested in play and the ludic as a way of changing the relationship between people and the city, making them an interesting reference point for studying space design in video games. The aimlessness and playfulness of the dérive was performative anti-capitalism, expressed in the famous wall graffiti, `Ne travaillez jamais’ – never work.

Scott Bukatman's point about the theme park seems to miss the intended nature of situationist aimlessness. I would argue that rather than simply simulating aimless exploration, theme parks and role-playing games confi gure leisure in a solidly productivist context.

The theme park visitor has a limited time to experience as much as possible. Their entire exploration of the park is a series of transactions, driven by the hope that they might complete a comprehensive survey of the park to get maximum return on their ticket price. They are still  getting from point A to point B before a certain scheduled time - the closing time of the theme park.

The role-playing gamer has unlimited time to explore the game space, but game mechanics either encourage or demand productive behaviour, be this crafting weapons and items, carrying out services for non-playable characters who lack fi ghting skills, or completing a greater quest to save the world. Most games, like most theme parks, do not simulate the dérive. They simulate work.

Any theoretical relationship between situationist dérives and leisure spaces confi gured by entertainment industries should be complicated by this fundamental ideological diff erence -despite their common interest in the ludic, situationists were deliberately avoiding work, whereas designers often deliberately put productive activities into their game worlds. Nevertheless, reflecting on situationist psychogeographical experiments might shine an interesting light on the psychogeography of the Skies of Arcadia gameworld.

Naked maps
Situationist Guy Debord’s 1957 map of Paris, The Naked City represented Paris as a series of movements between fragmented and separate spaces. The homogeneity portrayed by conventional maps of the city is revealed to be only one possible discourse, while the The Naked City highlights distinctions and diff erences.
The Naked City, Guy Debord

The Naked City

The psychogeographic map presents space as a narrative, rather than as a `universal knowledge.’ The user of the psychogeographic map cannot achieve mastery over the city, while the conventional map is drawn up to give the user an all-knowing gaze over the terrain. What the psychogeographic map does provide is a guide to a subjective spatial experience.

The Skies of Arcadia game world is closer to a psychogeographic map than a cartographical survey. Arcadia is a set of seven entirely separate civilisations, connected only by the open sky. The world is defi ned by the diff erentiating factors of the six moons, with common global history lost in antiquity, and the present state of diversity headed for destruction through uni fication.

This fragmentation is intensi fied by the structure of the world as separate, floating landmasses which abruptly begin and end against the backdrop of a blue sky, not unlike the clear white of The Naked City.

Even the in-game map is subjectivised by the fact that areas are only made visible on the map when the player has already visited them. The size of this map grows as the players discover more areas of the game-world, reflecting their own subjective sense of the growing scale of the game.

Subjective space

Just like the in-game map gives a subjective view of space, the use of perspective in the game subjectivises all space encountered by the players. The camera is always positioned in close proximity behind the vehicle of movement, whether that is the airship or the on-screen character, and the vehicle anchors the rotation of the camera as an invisible pivot point.

The world is always viewed from this personal angle, never from the god’s-eye, all-seeing view of strategy games such as Sid Meier’s Civilisation. Just as in the virtual reality camera described by Lev Manovich, the players use the controller to move the character deeper into the game world and rotate the camera around the character; or rather, to rotate the game world around the camera.

Spatiality is discovered through the relative movements of character, camera, and space. Seeing spatiality as performative and dependent on movement brings user agency into our analysis, rather than purifying game space as a static entity separate from its interaction. This means that video game spaces can't only be analysed through their visual design, because the user creates that space as they move the player-character through it. 

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