Thursday, 30 November 2017

Spirits of Adisham




It’s 7.45 am, misty and fresh. On the rocky, inclining path towards the train station, a procession of gaunt commuters and schoolkids plod in sequence, tiredly brushing off the spider webs clinging to their faces from the bordering hedgerow. Emerging from the heavy green trees onto a damp platform, they wait wordlessly in their designated standing spaces until two familiar headlights appear under the bridge to the right. Screeching and whirring assaults the eardrums as the train bumps to a halt, and our small congregation of villagers clamber on when the doors bleep open, joining the other bleary-eyed passengers. The 10-minute journey to Canterbury never feels long enough.
Station Road is mostly quiet for the rest of the morning, apart from the school run when a queue of cars from the nearby villages – Aylesham mainly, and others like Nonington – siphon down the hill, turning left at the Pond to drop off their children at the primary school halfway up The Street. The Pond better resembles a village green than a body of water; yet – as all of us who went to Adisham Primary once learned – there was indeed a Pond on the site until the 1960s. Centuries ago, a woman accused of being a witch drowned there, after being dragged helplessly from one of the neighbouring settlements. The vast, grassy space where the deadly water once collected is now solely occupied by a small tree, and a handsome view of the Holy Innocents church in the background, all of which compose the definitive Adisham scene that is captured most often by photographers. The dank mire of yesteryear is now safely undetectable to the cars pootling past.
Children who live in the village tend to walk to school. Indeed, a short distance up The Street, two siblings are swinging their blue bookbags embossed with the Adisham Primary School logo – the silhouette of a tree – bounding down the pavement towards the black metal gates. They live in the Ileden cottages, part of a tiny farming hamlet on the other side of the village woods that has been around since God-knows-when. Its existence has continued largely unchanged, except for the drone of the now ever-present road traffic that emanates from the A2 road to the west. The Street doesn’t reach up as far as Ileden, so every weekday the children trot down the bridleway through the woods into the main village, past the horses at Woodlands Farm, the grey brick Baptist Chapel, and the former Post Office, which has now been converted into a house. Their parents moved to the village 8 years ago with their faithful Irish Wolfhound, the largest pet you will probably ever see, because they wanted a calmer life for their family.
Strolling dead centre in the middle of the road, past the red brick school building carved with the names of hundreds of past pupils, Martin’s gaze interrogates you from behind thick-rimmed glasses, as if he’s trying to build a mental factfile. It’s midday, and his hands are wrapped around gardening tools or maybe a wheelbarrow, sweat gleaming from his fleshy face. The echoes of playing schoolchildren stalk him down the road until he reaches the Bull’s Head, our local derelict pub. Once the hub of the village community, the structure is now a cocoon of peeling paint, mossy bricks, broken glass, boarded windows, and cracked roof tiles. Sometimes when he’s pruning the roses, the old Bull’s Head fades into Martin’s mind without him realising, and he is there, still able to taste the starchy ale and feel the stick of the wooden bar on his forearm. All the old guys are there, like David, the former station manager. They always got on well. They saw everything there: first kisses, new years, bobbing apples at Halloween. Like dandelion seeds, no longer here. Scattered.
Martin pauses there a moment, then turns left into a row of tall hedges that hide one of the village’s villas. Set back from the road with their long, green gardens, they remain mostly invisible in your mind’s-eye view of Adisham. They’re the kind that house those parish councillors you never see, unless you go to their monthly meetings in the Village Hall – which most people rarely do. The person that springs to mind is Valentine Stevens, school governor, who seemed to be everywhere when we were young. She would make appearances at events such as the summer fete or the larger church services, like some kind of mayor. I’ve heard that she lives in the white villa on Cooting Lane with the tall gate and flowery front garden, up by the farm with the big black dogs that inevitably come charging towards you from the cottage if you make the mistake of walking past. I don’t think I’ve seen her since I was 11, when she handed me an Oxford English Dictionary upon finishing at the primary school, one of Adisham’s traditions.         
As school finishes for the day, bunches of kids run straight to the adjacent recreation ground (the Rec, as we call it) with parents in tow, where the newly-painted and kitted-out play park becomes a swarm of crawling limbs and grabbing fingers. A group of older boys turns up shortly after, having caught the train home from their secondary schools in Canterbury, booting a beaten-up football between them as they run onto the spacious grass field pock-marked with molehills. After a quick kickaround they begin playing games like headers and volleys, or taking turns to go in goal as the others take shots. Every now and then enough people will turn up for a full game, with two teams, which will take place in the asphalt court or on one of the grass pitches with the rusty, flaking goalposts. They’ll play until the latest possible moment – after dark in winter, when the ball simply cannot be seen – and right up to the point when their parents have already called them three times to tell them to get back, or they’ll be grounded.
Later, just after the evening rush hour, a steady stream of small round European cars clumsily squeeze into the little available space on the village streets, followed by the unlucky latecomers who passive-aggressively zoom off to a less desirable spot, probably only ten metres further up the road. The fields behind their houses are carpeted with pale yellow wheat, and a red combine harvester is raking neat paths through the crop, thick plumes of coarse dust trailing behind that slowly settle into the cooler air. Within minutes, that neighbour who works as a teaching assistant at the village school emits a sound halfway between a sneeze and a shriek, and their yappy fluffball dog barks hysterically for five minutes afterward in their back garden, drawing a collective exasperated sigh from the tired Mums preparing gravy dinners in the neighbouring semis.
On kitchen tables is the latest Village Newssheet, a single folded piece of A4 paper of which half is taken up by the village directory, a list of telephone numbers and addresses for all the 'important' people in the Adisham community. This leaves room for a maximum of roughly 10 snippets of ‘news’. In the summer months, one of these inevitably reminds villagers to be considerate when lighting barbecues and bonfires. This has, after all, been the dominant subject of hushed conversations over every garden fence. Though despite the collective scorn, the same neighbours you confide in this time will be those you complain about next weekend (over the other garden fence) when they light a barbecue while your washing is still on the line.
Bonfires aren’t as annoying; they tend to be in the evening and aren’t usually accompanied by the unsettling commotion of laughter and garden-chair gossip next door. Silently the smoke swamps across the valley, spreading out in a light grey haze that dances around the nostrils of those strolling back home from the station after work. Woodsmoke is not an unpleasant scent, either. It is nostalgic, conjuring up wintry visions of quaint, timber-framed houses with crooked rooftops, like Dane Court up the road that has been sitting there for at least 600 years.
The rest of the newssheet praises the efforts of volunteers and the turnout for recent village gatherings – Wine and Wisdom nights, Messy Church for the kids, the Big Breakfast one Saturday morning each month. We like to jest at the newssheet and its charming interpretation of what constitutes ‘news’, but if it weren’t for those who are willing to make these events happen – the young families, the pensioners with little else to do, the churchgoers, the schoolkids, the parish councillors – I’m not sure we would have a village community at all. Our meeting places, where our lives intersect – the church, the school, the village hall, the Rec – they would all be desolate; exorcised artefacts. The crumbling Bull’s Head pub is a warning. Without at least the illusion of togetherness and common ground, our hopes, feelings, and prayers would only find voice in the mutterings of those hiding behind closed doors and twitching net curtains; the scroll-wheels of those silently scanning the Adisham Village Community Facebook page.
It's here, in the lands between somewhere and nowhere, that our spirits linger.




Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Pokémon Go: Raids and Rhythms of Urban Life

Pokémon Go has been around since July 2016, yet it remains the most popular and prevalent augmented reality smartphone game around. In that time, its continued popularity owes much to a steady stream of updates and events that have retained the interests of a large group of players. Notably, the second generation of Pokémon from the original Gold/Silver/Crystal games were introduced back in February, adding another 80 species for players to find and catch. Additionally, there has been a series of themed events, including Halloween, Christmas, Easter, Solstice, Equinox, and more, which have enabled players to more readily catch specific types of Pokémon, hatch eggs quicker, and earn more candy and/or stardust to evolve and power up their Pokémon.                                                    
Having continued to play the game on a daily basis since its release, I’ve had ample opportunity to gauge the changes the game has witnessed. While my previous blog post on Pokémon Go discussed it broadly in relation to other, already-existing examples of pervasive games, here I’m going to focus on a major, lasting change that has re-defined the gameplay of Pokémon Go itself: raid battles in gyms.
For those who are unaware, raid battles are opportunities for Pokémon Go players to co-operate with each other to defeat, and ultimately capture, rare Pokémon that usually aren’t found in the wild. Indeed, it was through this element of the gameplay that legendary Pokémon (extremely rare and powerful species) were first introduced for players to catch.
Raid battles have brought about probably the most significant change in the way the game is played since its release. These events have actively brought players together at specific locations and times with the aim of achieving a common goal within the game, creating new realms of interaction with other players and with the environments in which they play. In this post, I’m going to discuss how these changes affect experiences of social life and public space within cities.
 
Timelines
When a raid battle is going to take place, a large egg appears above the gym where the event will be happening, with an hour-long timer counting down to the start of the event. Once the countdown ends, players have an hour to attempt the raid before the event finishes. The timing of raids during the day, though confined roughly to the daylight hours, is otherwise unpredictable. You never know exactly where or when a raid is going to occur, and which Pokémon will appear when the event begins.
This two-hour window of time from when a raid is announced to when it finishes is fairly short, requiring a certain level of organisation and co-operation between players if they are to successfully complete the raid. Participants need to know exactly where a raid is occurring/will occur, when they need to be there, and which Pokémon is up for grabs. When the raid boss is a weaker Pokémon, it can typically be defeated by one or two players, but 4-star or 5-star legendary raids often require at least 4 or 5 players to complete successfully. So the ability to share information quickly among fellow players is crucial.
As a result, many players have set up groups for raids in their local areas on instant messaging services such as Facebook’s Messenger and Discord. Usually, a player will inform the group of a raid that’s happening in the area, people will show their interest (or not), and will then agree on a time to meet and take down the raid boss.
Of course, most people don’t have the luxury of being available any time (or location) to join in a raid. One of the most interesting observations I’ve made of player behaviour during this mode of gameplay is the interaction between raid events and the everyday rhythms of urban life.
Work and school/university commitments are the most common obstacles to participation, often confining players to raiding beforehand or afterwards, or during breaks. It’s this organisation of the working day that has led some players to complain about the fact that raids only occur during the daytime. But even for those who are out and about during the day, hindrances can be caused by anything that makes a demand on a person’s time, such as meeting friends and family; using public transport; the time on a car parking ticket.
The often contradictory relationships between the times and places of a person’s typical day in the city and those of raid events made me think about Pokémon Go in relation to Henri Lefebvre’s concept of rhythmanalysis. Lefebvre describes everyday urban life as ‘polyrhythmic’, consisting of a multiplicity of individual natural and artificial routines and events that come together and interact in the city. When these rhythms unite with one another in a positive, healthy manner, this is known as ‘eurhythmia’. Other times, there is a discordance of the rhythms that leads to suffering, which Lefebvre calls ‘arrhythmia’. This could include, for example, traffic jams, missed connections on public transport, and their associated impacts such as lateness for work.
It’s fascinating to see these different rhythms colliding around raid events, as moments that are haphazardly imposed on the urban ‘schedule’ when announced. As players make plans to attend, whether coming from work, home, school, or another situation, raids interrupt and reshape the patterns of activity taking place in cities. On many occasions, I’ve witnessed the conflict players are faced with when they are late returning to work from their lunch break, but are desperate to catch the Pokémon on offer. Meanwhile, the delay has been caused by another player arriving late due to a bus not turning up, or because they were waiting for their lecture to finish. Individual timelines disconnect from other places and times, converging around the time and location of the raid event, and dispersing again when it is finished.
Ultimately, the variation the timing and location of raid events, and the situations in which players find themselves on any given day, mean that each raid can have completely different mixes and quantities of people attending. Sometimes not enough people take part to beat the raid boss, or the meet-up has to be abandoned altogether. It is part of the unpredictability of raid events that makes them interesting to take part in, and individually unique.
    
Relationships
In this way, raids bring you into contact with a wide group of people and – most significantly – segments of the local community with which you may not normally interact. I’ve taken part in raids with children as a young as 4 or 5 and adults in their 60s, at the same time. I’ve met players with serious speech impediments, mental problems, and other disabilities unrelated to mobility, simply due to a shared interest in the game. There aren’t many other situations where you could realistically find a lecturer, a toddler, a grandmother, a shop assistant, and a student, all communicating and working together to achieve a common goal. Everyone wants the same thing, which, to some degree, helps smooth over social differences by creating a framework of interaction that is equal, at least during the events.
Of course, this isn’t to say that raids are a utopian paradise of equal participation. Aside from the pre-given necessity to own a smartphone to play the game, Pokémon Go – and particularly the movement and accessibility needed to reach different raid locations – remains difficult for those with physical disabilities. There are also financial barriers to participation in raids. Some players can afford to regularly buy premium raid passes (79p of in-game coins), which allow them to participate in more raids per day than the standard one available through the daily free raid pass given to players. It can be disheartening when a raid group agrees to move together to another nearby raid event, yet you feel unable to participate because of money limitations.
Nonetheless, you don’t have to attend every local raid to feel part of a distinct Pokémon Go community. After only a short time raiding, I began noticing the same faces at raid events, and got to know people I would happily talk to outside of a raid scenario. Each raid event leaves a distinct trace in your mind – a specific time, place, group of people, and series of occurrences. This shared memory forged by raiding can then provide a focal point for lasting relationships, or at least talking points that allow you to continue conversations into the future. Furthermore, the shared premise of convening to play Pokémon Go means that there are always easy topics of conversation: the game itself and news about the game, as well as technology, video games, and urban life more generally.
While we’re talking about relationships, though, it is important to remember that not everyone you interact with during raids is necessarily a fellow player. This has always already been the case when playing the game by yourself, but during raids the effect of this interaction is usually more pronounced, as you establish more of a presence within the public space you are occupying by standing in a group.
At one gym in Canterbury, the Three Tuns Pub, the pavements are very narrow, meaning that the raid group often takes up the whole pavement and sometimes spills out into the road. On one occasion, this led to an angry altercation with a passing motorist. In the same location on a different day, one older gentleman – who seemed a little inebriated at the time – was so startled by a group of people all looking at their smartphones that he felt the need to moan about what digital technology is doing to the world, and to keep telling us that we should be communicating face-to-face.
This man missed the key point about the relationships cultivated by Pokémon Go - that, if it weren’t for the game, none of us would have had any reason to meet in person. In fact, raids are a prime example of how digital technology and games can bring people together in the corporeal world, whether they are players or passersby, acquaintances or strangers.
 
Tensions
In any interaction between strangers in public, there is the potential for negative outcomes as well as positive ones. While such problems are mitigated by shared interest in the game and Pokémon franchise, the potential for tension is heightened by the necessity for some level of organisation between players attending raids. These group decisions typically include when to begin a raid, how long to wait for other possible attendees, and whether to move onto another raid once the current one finishes. Though these choices may seem uncontroversial, raid groups are organic, makeshift communities, meaning that clear rules and boundaries of social etiquette often haven’t been established. This can create friction when one person’s idea of acceptable behaviour fails to match another participant’s.
Indeed, in my local raid group, I recently witnessed a very heated argument on the Messenger chat over a decision to begin a raid before one player had arrived. It may seem courteous to always wait until every person who agrees to participate has arrived, and generally this is what happens. Yet it is also a valid argument that if you have set a designated time in advance to meet, and the other participants are ready and have other commitments they need to fulfil afterwards, then it’s justifiable to begin a raid without the one person who fails to turn up on time.
Negotiating these decisions is ultimately circumstantial, depending upon the players there, their time limitations and other restricting factors, alongside elements of urban life that are harder for individuals to control, such as untimely public transport, traffic (pedestrian or vehicular), emergencies, and weather conditions. The process of taking these varying factors into account serves to illustrate the messy relationships between different human and non-human agents that influence the rhythms of our everyday lives.           
The significance of infrastructure is especially acute in Pokémon Go, as a game that is strongly dependent on its constituent technologies being fully-functioning (as opposed to Geocaching, for example, where the imprecision of GPS technology actively encourages players to hunt for treasure in the physical environment). When just one of the requisite systems fails in Pokémon Go - such as mobile internet, GPS, the app, or the phone’s system itself – the game experience deteriorates significantly.
As an example of this, at one location in Canterbury, where I have regularly raided without too many issues, my raid group and I once experienced exceptionally slow mobile internet. It was the University of Kent’s graduation day, and the bus station was crammed with students and their families arriving at midday for their ceremonies at the cathedral. Clearly, many of this crowd were connected to the various mobile networks, which reduced the network capacity available and made everyone’s connections extremely slow. In the end, it took us about 25 minutes – when the human traffic started to dwindle – to complete the raid without connection issues.     
Niantic are no strangers to the crippling impact of network problems, which manifested most famously with the spectacular failure of Pokémon Go’s first official real-world event in July, Pokémon Go Fest in Chicago’s Grant Park, when the network capacity was unable to cope with the volume of players (roughly 20,000) who turned up. It demonstrates the importance of these very material factors that enable our electronic devices to function properly, which we often take for granted in day-to-day life.
As the overlapping socio-material rhythms of urban life intersect around raid events, it is evident that they can interact in ways that can tend towards dissonance as well as resonance.          

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At a time when digital technology is becoming an increasingly prevalent part of everyday life, signalled by growing use of terms such as ‘smart city’ and ‘media city’, we can more readily detect the importance of both human and non-human actors to how we experience cities. Augmented reality games such as Pokémon Go actively rely on these diverse human and material agents to operate, which makes us more aware of and reliant on them throughout our everyday lives. The downside of this heightened interaction between urban stakeholders is the potential for antagonistic relationships to develop, as well as amiable ones. Cities by definition are sites of difference, where one user’s uses and expectations of public space do not necessarily align with another user’s, or with the material attributes of the spaces themselves. Events are particularly problematic because they create concentrated nodes of both human activity and emotional expectation that infringe upon people’s everyday routines and behaviours, voluntarily if you’re a player, or involuntarily if you’re an unwitting passerby.
Ultimately, these observations demonstrate what is distinctive about pervasive gaming, as opposed to other game genres and even other types of urban activity. That is, that these media implicate people and systems that are not necessarily stakeholders in the game. This has its rewards. It can bring those who play the game closer to the environments and communities in which they live, fostering knowledge of, attachment to, and participation in social relationships that would not have developed otherwise. At the same time, it presents complications for urban social life, for which there are often no clear guidelines on how to proceed. This explains the brief moral panic that dominated the media when the game first released, when it was assumed that everyone would be mindlessly walking off cliffs and trespassing en masse onto private property, smartphone in hand.       
With regard to the aim of fostering positive, engaging relationships with people and places, raids are by far the most innovative feature of Pokémon Go so far. It has taken to a whole new level the game’s remarkable capacity to bring people together by forging lasting relationships based on shared, memorable experiences in a place. Given their success, it is unsurprising that we are already seeing experimentation with the format of raids. Niantic have begun trialling ‘EX Raids’ in the UK and elsewhere for the powerful legendary Pokémon from Generation I, Mewtwo. Unlike the unpredictability of regular raids, EX-raids are invite-only, distributed days in advance, where the event is set for a designated time, date, and location. So far there have been relatively few EX Raids – I’ve only heard of one happening in Canterbury. But as these events become more widespread, it will be revealing to gauge how the experience compares to regular raids.
In December players can also look forward to the release of Pokémon from Generation III, though this is not going to have lasting consequences for how the game is played. What I’m particularly excited about is the next substantial change in the mechanics of how the game operates, where a whole new style of gameplay is introduced, because this is where innovation is more likely to happen. In the wider context of pervasive games, Pokémon Go’s popularity makes it a valuable case study for investigating the functioning and impact of different forms of play and creativity in cities, especially that which uses digital technology. And it is important to note that, if the game is to retain its popularity, it will have to continue to break new ground in the experiences it offers players. Simply adding new Pokémon and repeating the same events won’t suffice for keeping players engaged, amidst the array of other commitments that everyday urban life presents to them.

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Canterbury's dog mess debacle: the crime of 'not carrying two bags'

Earlier this month, Canterbury City Council announced new measures in their attempt to kerb the problem of dog fouling. The introduction of a district-wide Public Space Protection Order (PSPO), coming into effect from early October, not only promises £80 fixed penalty notices for dog walkers who fail to pick up after their dog, but also for owners who fail to “demonstrate they have the appropriate means to clean up.” The definition of ‘appropriate means’ turns out to be remarkably specific:
“As a rule of thumb, our enforcement officers would expect responsible dog owners to carry at least two bags that can be used to dispose of dog excrement.” (Leo Whitlock, Canterbury City Council spokesperson)
It was this surprising new requirement that led to the PSPO being reported widely in the national news, sparking debate across media platforms on how effective the regulations would be.
Canterbury City Council aren’t the first council to make dog owners liable to fines for not having the means to clean up their dog’s mess. Since the introduction of the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014, under which PSPOs have replaced the previous system of Dog Control Orders, several councils including Daventry, Boston, Knowsley, and Rhondda Cynon Taf have introduced PSPOs with the same obligation to carry bags for dog waste.
However, Canterbury appears to be the first council to make carrying two bags the common standard upon which the ‘means to clean up’ is based. It’s a bizarre situation that reveals something more significant about the powers of the state to intervene in our everyday lives.           
 
What do dog owners think?
As those most familiar with their dogs’ toilet habits, dog owners were particularly well-placed to point out the absurdities of the new rules. Living in Canterbury myself, I approached them in person and online to hear their thoughts.
Their most common concern was being approached by an officer at the end of a walk, when they may have fewer than two bags left. How would officers know that a dog walker had originally carried more, if some of the bags had already been used and thrown away? There were similar worries from those who use different methods of cleaning up after their pet, such as scooping the mess into a single black bin liner, which do not adhere to the ‘two bags’ rule.
“What happens if you've used up all your bags clearing up after your dog and everyone else's dogs, will you get a fine then as well? How can you prove that you had more than 2 bags? You can't as you've just used them all up and you're on your way home!” (Dog owner)
Other owners believe that the regulations could actually worsen problems with dog fouling. It’s been suggested that setting such a precise number of bags to carry might encourage dog walkers to leave poo on paths if they’re running out of bags, for fear of being caught out later by officers. Furthermore, ensuring that bags are carried by dog owners won’t do anything to stop the well-reported problem of people dropping poo bags as litter, rather than using bins.
It’s easy to see how the arbitrary requirement to carry two bags could make criminals out of those who had no intention of leaving their dog’s mess, while serial offenders go unpunished.             
In response to these issues, some dog owners have pointed towards practical, proven methods of tackling the issue instead of costly enforcement practices, suggesting that the Council itself could be more proactive in ensuring the appropriate facilities are available for dog walkers. On social media, many highlighted the lack of bins for disposing of dog waste in popular recreation areas, arguing that more should be available. It was also pointed out that other councils and voluntary organisations in the UK provide bag dispensers on common walking routes. This tactic reminds owners of their obligations and encourages them to fulfil them, while also providing the means to do so for those who have may have run out of bags, or simply forgotten to pack any.
Instead of taking positive steps to solve the problem, Canterbury City Council (CCC) have opted for an approach to dog fouling that risks not only being ineffective, but also criminalising dog owners who have done nothing wrong.
 
How have the council responded?
Due to the volume of reaction to the news in mainstream and social media, the council felt the need to make an ‘Important Information’ post on their Facebook page.
The council were especially keen to emphasise that they will be taking a ‘common sense’ approach to enforcement – another way of saying that your chances of getting a fixed penalty notice are at the discretion of the individual officer(s) involved. They confirmed that enforcement officers are not legally entitled to stop and search to confirm people’s claims that they are carrying poo bags, and wouldn’t want to do so. Nevertheless, it is an offence to not produce bags when asked, even if it turns out that you do have enough in your possession.
Despite the PSPO being operative over the whole Canterbury district, the Council wrote that their officers will “largely be using the powers for targeted operations on specific problem areas or offenders”. As there are already three Dog Control Orders in place from the time before the 2014 Act came into force, the introduction of the PSPO would suggest that CCC is primarily looking for more flexibility, allowing them to enforce these rules anywhere within the district. Though this comes even as the Council stated that dog fouling is “no more of a problem in Canterbury district than it is anywhere else”.
Indeed, throughout their public posts, CCC have maintained that dog fouling is only a problem among a small percentage of dog walkers, and ‘responsible’ owners have nothing to fear from the PSPO. Yet with these new powers, CCC have changed the definition of ‘responsible’. Responsible no longer means simply clearing up after your dog. It means ‘carrying two bags’.                
 
State power over everyday life
Let’s be clear – nobody likes dog poo. Even those who are uncaring enough to never clean up their dog’s mess recognise that it is unpleasant and unhygienic.
But this policy doesn’t address the wrongful act of not cleaning up after your dog. Rather, it creates the arbitrary offence of not carrying two bags while walking a dog. It creates the legal category of a ‘responsible owner’ as someone who always carries at least two bags with them when in an outdoor public space with their pet, while those who fail to do this at any moment – even if they always pick up their dog’s mess – are legally ‘irresponsible’.
It is precisely the more bizarre cases such as this one which hint at the more sinister reality of state power since the introduction of the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014. This legislation has given local authorities the power to use PSPOs to regulate any behaviour that could be deemed to have a ‘detrimental effect on the quality of life of those in the locality’, as judged by the individual officer(s) and/or councillor(s) who propose the order. Notably, as there is no legal obligation for councils to consult with the public before implementing a PSPO, the view of a single or small number of unelected officials can be all that is needed to take away the freedom to perform an activity in public. As such, nearly any activity, no matter how mundane, could become an offence ‘by proxy’.
This troubling consequence of the legislation is illustrated quite clearly by this interaction between Canterbury City Council and a member of the public on Facebook:
[NAME REMOVED]: Is this actually legal? Can they issue a fixed penalty notice for not carrying enough poo bags?
Canterbury City Council: Hi [NAME REMOVED]. It's not an offence to go out without dog poo bags. But it is an offence to breach a measure contained in a Public Space Protection Order. And because the dog poo bag rule is in our PSPO, that's how it can be enforced through a fixed penalty notice. I hope this explains it. 
With such interfering regulations being increasingly approved across the country – with less democratic oversight – more and more groups and individuals within our society are recognising the risks that PSPOs pose to our everyday freedoms. A recent Change.org petition demands that councils stop using PSPOs to target dog owners, and that the guidelines for using such regulations in the future be tightened. The petition calls for councils to provide verifiable evidence for any claims they make against dog owners, and that all proposed regulations are subject to a full public consultation process. After only a few days, the petition had already garnered over 7,000 signatures.
This petition adds to the extensive list of campaigns against PSPO proposals in recent years, which have challenged attempts by councils to micromanage activities from the commonplace, such as rough sleeping, begging, busking, and even swearing; to the seemingly ridiculous and situational, such as chalk drawing, carrying a golf bag, or selling lucky charms.
For those who may be wondering what real impact these apparently petty regulations will have, it’s true that Canterbury’s new dog fouling measures are going to be inconsequential in the lives of most people in the district. It’s true that, particularly at a time when council resources are tight, your chances of encountering an enforcement officer when walking your dog, let alone receiving a fixed penalty notice, are minimal. But it’s the ability of councils to micromanage acts so banal and seemingly harmless – freedoms that we take for granted – that signals why everybody should be concerned about the powers contained within PSPOs. We should all be questioning the limits of state power when an act as immaterial as ‘not carrying two bags’ can be deemed an offence.

Thursday, 31 August 2017

RGS-IBG Conference 2017: Towards a Virtual Sense of Place: Exploring 'Walking Simulator' Video Games


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Below is the written version of the paper I presented in the first 'Geographies of digital games' session at the RGS-IBG Annual International Conference on 30th August 2017. The superscript numbers indicate the number of the corresponding slide in the embedded Powerpoint above (you can view the slides separately as a PDF here). I'd like to thank Nick Rush-Cooper for organising two excellent sessions on video games at the conference, and Regan Koch for his helpful comments on drafts of this presentation, and continued support throughout this project on the environments of walking simulators.
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What1 does it mean to experience ‘a sense of place’? It’s2 a term often used when we feel an environment (physical or fictional) has strong character or personality – it’s the quality that makes an environment distinctive. Art such as literature or photography is said to exhibit a strong sense of place when it vividly captures what it’s like to be in a particular location and time, even though you’re not physically there.
Today3, I want to make the contention that a sense of place can be experienced in virtual worlds too, and use this to make a claim for a new conception of what ‘sense of place’ means. To make this argument, I’m going to discuss my research into an emerging genre of video games known as ‘walking simulators’. Walking simulators are video games in which the gameplay is based on purposefully exploring the environments represented onscreen to experience their affective power, rather than the landscapes being backdrops4 to the gameplay. Instead of winning, losing, or completing objectives, these games reward the exploration of virtual worlds as an end in itself – to discover their stories and feel present in them.
As a geographer5, I became interested in how these game worlds could feel believable as places, when they are, fundamentally, constructed from computer code. What is it about how walking sims are designed and played that can make this digital architecture feel ‘real’ and meaningful?
To investigate6 how practices of both design and play lead to this effect, I interviewed 11 developers involved in making walking simulators, and used autoethnography to apprehend the player’s experience, playing 12 walking sims myself and recording my responses using audio recording and a research diary. Drawing these perspectives together, I attempted to render how a sense of place can be produced through both the designed software, and the player’s own experiences as they navigated the game worlds.
One7 of the key arguments I’m making through this research is that a ‘sense of place’ is a mental model of a location that is constantly undergoing construction. In video games, the constituent parts are the developers and their design techniques, the players’ decisions and interpretations, and the mediating technological apparatus, all of which interact contingently at the moment of play. To explain how this process generates experiences of place in walking sims specifically, I’m going to delve into three8 of their attributes: agency – the power relationships between developers and players; aesthetics – how the virtual location is sculpted for a particular fictional context; and performance – how these different elements are enacted and experienced during play. Together, these sections will outline how video games can produce a hybrid sense of place in their virtual worlds, which I’ll then use to point towards a new understanding of ‘place’ as a concept.    
Agency9 is the degree to which you’re able to influence a world as a player. This is largely determined by the game’s developers10, who program the different actions a player can perform with their avatar. James Ash observed that game designers aim to give players a distinct set of “positively affective” possibilities in the world – a degree of control that is satisfying in some way. But what does agency mean in walking simulators, where the gameplay is based on letting the player explore a place to discover its stories and emotional power?
Intriguingly, it means less11 mechanical interaction. In most walking simulators, the small number of actions you can perform with the controller are usually based on just walking around and looking at things. But by limiting the range of mechanical controls, the developers I spoke to said that they intended to create more room for interpretative interaction. Without having to think about precise button control or fulfilling objectives, players can concentrate more on the story and characters; interpreting what they see and hear in the world.
The developers’ role isn’t just about removing obstacles to thought, however. They still aim to subtly shape the flow of the experience in walking sims using three main tools. The first12 is gating, where access to spaces is restricted until certain conditions are met. The most common example is the locked door, which needs a key to open. The second13 tool is signposting, where developers highlight important objects in the environment using lighting and sound. The final14 method is pacing, which dictates how information is spread throughout the world.
What do these techniques achieve? Well15, they give developers some control over how their story is told, ensuring that key information is found by the player, and in an order and rhythm that preserves the mood and dramatic tension of the narrative. But most importantly, none of these tactics explicitly tell the player what they should be doing. This means that players can still navigate the world and interpret what they discover according to their own inclinations and frameworks of meaning.
The end result16 is a mental model that is coherent and engaging, but also deeply personal, because it’s constructed both by the player’s imagination and emotional dialogue with the world, and the developers’ carefully crafted narrative architecture. Walking simulators stage a conversation between the player and the world, rather than simply providing a playground for players to physically interact with. It’s a more post-structural framework of interaction that closer reflects the personal associations we cultivate within real-world places.
Now17, onto aesthetics. The aesthetics of the game world determine how these core mechanics – these building blocks of the world – are dressed to serve the story and emotional experience the developers want to convey. As the player’s prerogative is simply to explore, developers have to ensure that players care about the world enough to want to investigate it.
The way18 walking simulators achieve this is through what Henry Jenkins calls environmental storytelling – creating worlds that have been transformed by narrative events. In the same way psychogeographical perspectives on place contend, we can feel the emotional resonance of such events from the traces they leave behind in the environment. In the game SOMA19, as I explore the alien environment of a shipwreck encrusted with sea life, I’m still able to make out faces in photographs from the private quarters. Hearing20 about the deadly fate of the crew in sombre audio logs, I begin to feel like an intruder as I rifle through their belongings, their bones still lying there amongst posters and coffee cups.
Indeed21, alongside visual information, sound is a particularly effective method of conveying the sentiment behind a narrative environment, due to its ability to juxtapose your environment with a distinct mood or atmosphere. In Dear Esther, as you traverse the bleak landscape of a Scottish island, a solemn narrator contemplates his wife’s death, while the ambient sounds of wind, sea and melancholic music reinforce the feeling of solitude.
However22, the narrative significance of the world is not just put on a plate for the player. If this were the case, the game wouldn’t encourage exploration, and wouldn’t effectively capture the subtleties that define real places. Instead, by designing depth and ambiguity into the world through symbolism and carefully hidden details23, developers encourage an attention to detail; the psychogeographic aim of being open to “noticing everything”. Players feel more emotionally in tune with the world when they are asked to invest something into the world themselves, such as their imagination24 and effort.      
Of course, there is a balance to be struck here by developers. Too much ambiguity and the world becomes ungraspable, but too much deliberate exposure and it begins to feel fake, or like a movie. Steve Gaynor, the lead developer of Gone Home25, has talked about how he managed to capture the essence of a teenager’s bedroom by using just a small number of iconic objects. All developers need to do is provide enough evocative prompts, and players will fill in the gaps, forming their own coherent mental model of the world based on the information available. However, believability is fragile and subjective, and can require extensive testing by game developers to ensure that most players will find the environment convincing as a place, not just as a game level.        
What26 we can begin to see from these examples is how cultivating a sense of place is contingent on very finely-tuned elements of a game’s design, but also how that design is apprehended by the player. The final attribute I’m going to talk about today is performance – how the game’s design, the player, and the technology come together at the moment of play to determine how a game world is experienced.
Understanding27 how these different elements intersect in practice is crucial, because games are evental media. Up until the point when the player provides input into the program, games are just a static architecture of computer code. As Alexander Galloway puts it, games only “exist when enacted”, even in walking simulators where mechanical interaction is limited mostly to walking and observing.
But in fact28, it’s this combination of walking and thinking that defines the gameplay of walking sims, as players must draw associations between information spread widely throughout the environment to make sense of the fictional world. Navigating game environments becomes a performative act29 of making connections between places and events. It’s an act of cognitive mapping as the game is played that determines how the narrative world is experienced.
This practice of mental mapping relies on a coherence between the mechanics and aesthetics of the world – how the physical movement and actions of the avatar bring the narrative information to life. However, due to the limitations of the technology and the subjectivity of the player, any degree of attunement is fragile. Inconsistencies30 in mental models arise when there is a mismatch between the mechanics and aesthetics as the game is played. For example, technical glitches such as incorrectly rendered textures like this one in Firewatch interrupt your relationship with the game as a believable world. Elsewhere31, the aesthetics can cause the mismatch. In some games I would question how narrative information such as diary entries were perfectly positioned to continue a linear story32, which would be an unrealistic scenario in a physical place.
Clearly, attempting to create a coherent, believable virtual world involves unique sets of human and non-human agents that are prone to inconsistency33. As I alluded to earlier, some of this inconsistency can be managed by testing, and even after the game’s release through updates, bug fixes, and player feedback. Yet during play, the extent to which a sense of place is experienced by players – and what form this takes – is dependent on the player’s own subjective decisions, interpretations, and more-than-representational experiences as they navigate the world, drawing together its different mechanical and aesthetic components as they play. Experiencing a sense of place in virtual worlds is prone both to moments of what James Ash calls ‘attunement’, and also disconnection.
This34 account of how a sense of place is experienced is quite unlike the traditional conception of place in geography, born out of phenomenology, which contends that forming emotional bonds35 with environments is a given condition of being conscious, and that such attachments are relatively settled throughout our lives. If anything, experiencing a sense of place in video games is a fragile achievement, assembled throughout the constituent practices of design and play.
So video games36 don’t simply deconstruct or reproduce our relationships with the corporeal world. Instead they create new and meaningful experiences of ‘virtual places’37, delicately reorganising relations of human and non-human agents through the interactivity of the video game medium.
In light of these findings, I don’t think that we as scholars should dwell on the distinctions between our relationships with virtual worlds and geography’s traditional conceptions of place. Instead38, I contend that the ‘sense of place’ concept itself has to evolve and diversify to remain useful. I want to posit the notion of a ‘post-phenomenological’ sense of place. Post-phenomenology maintains phenomenology’s focus on experience, which after all is what a sense of place is – it’s a kind of experience. However, it conceives experiences as intersubjective and relational; coming into being through the array of material and human agents which we interact with in our lives. In the case of video games, this approach recognises how the experience of place developed during play is an emergent effect, which cannot be reduced to an ontological relationship between thinking subject and environment. Rather, it’s dependent on individual events and acts undertaken by designers and players at the times they occur, as well as the varied and inconsistent technological systems through which these experiences are performed into being.
In addition39 to providing a framework for thinking about video game worlds, this approach can open up research into the relationships we form with other virtual environments, such as those we encounter on the internet and in smartphone applications, and how these technologies in turn affect how we interact with physical places. It could also be applied in reverse to non-digital artforms, to help us understand how the combination of a work’s creators, audience, and medium influences the sense of place that is felt as a result.
Digital technology40 is hybridising the ways in which we interact with environments around us. And41 if there’s one aim I want to achieve with this research, it’s to encourage academics with an interest in place to consider42 how it can be experienced and investigated through these virtual realities too, not just purely physical ones.43

Monday, 31 July 2017

Life Update


It’s been quite a while since I last posted an update on what I’m doing professionally – not really since my post on Blast Theory back in December, where I volunteered after finishing my Masters degree.
Since December, I’ve been in the process of applying to do a PhD at Royal Holloway University in London. Full-time PhDs are typically three years long, and require you to carry out a full-length research project followed by a written thesis. It’s a big commitment in terms of time, effort, and money, so I needed to have a clear idea and plan of what I wanted to research, and how I was going to go about it.   
During my Masters degree I’d heard about practice-based PhDs, which means that the project is based on producing a practical work of some sort (e.g. an artwork, event, performance, etc.), and then writing a discussion of that work – shorter than the usual length of PhD theses – in relation to other academic and practical developments in the field. As it has long been an aim of mine to enter the art world through academia, connecting the two together, the practice-based approach appealed to me as a way of getting experience in undertaking an art project from start to finish, while also continuing to nurture my academic interests and knowledge within cultural geography.      
My project idea centres on making a mixed-reality game that uses environmental storytelling – the telling of stories through, and in relation to, your surroundings – to investigate the ways in which places become meaningful to people. The design of the game would invoke a kind of treasure hunt format using geolocation. People would have to find certain locations that, when reached, would trigger media (e.g. text, audio, images) to be communicated by a device to tell stories about the places you’re exploring. By walking their own paths between the locations, and potentially contributing their own stories, players would be able to perform into being their own relationships with the places they journey though. To keep it within a manageable scale, I anticipated that the game would be set in one parish within the Canterbury district, or potentially throughout the whole district, depending on what form the game ends up taking. This setting also draws on the theme of pilgrimage – as a way of using walking to emotionally connect with places – and the history/mythology of storytelling from Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales.        
To complete a PhD, you need funding to cover not only three years of tuition fees, but three years of maintenance to cover living costs, and sometimes costs involved in doing the research itself. Most students apply to funding bodies to get this, such as research councils or doctoral training partnerships/centres. Originally, I intended to apply for funding from the TECHNE Doctoral Training Partnership, which is funded by the AHRC (Arts and Humanities Research Council), whose deadline was at the end of January. This funding was particularly well-suited to my project, as it is intended for experimental, interdisciplinary research projects that will ensure the significance of arts and humanities research in the future.
However, after making initial contact with my prospective supervisor, it became clear that it would be impossible to complete everything that was required for the TECHNE funding by the deadline, especially as he thought that the project would require a supervisor from the university’s Media Arts department, as well as Geography. Fortunately, my supervisor pointed me towards a different funding source with a much more achievable deadline in April. This was the Leverhulme Trust’s Magna Carta Doctoral Centre, which funds projects related to ‘freedom and the rights of the individual in the digital age’.
From February onwards, my supervisor began talking to the Media Arts department to see if anyone there would be interested in co-supervising my project. Happily, my project generated a lot of interest in the department, and by mid-April both my Geography and Media Arts supervisors were on board and ready to complete the Leverhulme application. This consisted of writing two sides of A4 outlining the project, supervisory team, relation of the project to the theme of the Magna Carta centre, and the impact the research would have. Yet unlike the TECHNE funding, the application had to come from the supervisors, not the student. As I had devised the project, I was still able to give lots of input on the details of what I’d be doing, and ideas of how we could relate it to the theme of ‘freedom’.
How else did I occupy myself during this time? Well, for starters I worked on the university PhD application, which is separate from funding applications, and needs to be completed to ensure that you can get a place to study at the institution. Once supervisors have agreed to supervise your project, this is more or less a formality to ensure you have the required grades/experience and so on, and to gather all your details into one place. It still required a fair amount of work, though, including a 2,000-word research proposal and supporting statement, as well as numerous form-filling exercises.
Alongside this, I’ve been building on the skills I’ll need for the PhD project. Firstly, I’ve been learning to code using Harvard’s free ‘Introduction to Computer Science’ course called CS50, as well as other resources. Depending on what form the game ends up taking, the project could involve making my own app, or working with an app developer, so some programming knowledge would be essential. I’ve also been practicing and improving my creative writing, a skill I’ll need to make the stories I tell through the game engaging. As well as writing pieces for this blog, I’ve been reading an excellent book called The Making of a Story: A Norton Guide to Creative Writing. I would recommend this book to anyone who wants to develop their creative writing skills. It’s a hefty tome but is remarkably digestible, which often isn’t the case with books aimed at ‘teaching’ you something.
Then there’s also been plenty of activities unrelated to my PhD plans. I wrote an article on the regulation of busking and public space for the Manifesto Club, which I also posted on this blog. In April, I attended a three-day ‘Living Freedom’ school in London, which was a series of lectures and discussions hosted by the Institute of Ideas on different concepts and issues around freedom, followed by lively debates and panel sessions. It was an engrossing experience that taught me lots about philosophies of freedom, which I’d been keen to know more about as my work on the regulation of public space intersects with many of these debates. And then, as you’ll know if you’ve seen my last couple of blog posts, I travelled to California for two weeks with my Mum to visit my brother, who lives over there.
All these events bring us up to mid-May, when I was due to hear the outcome of the Leverhulme application. The result: revise and resubmit. The Magna Carta Centre listed some elements of the project they wanted us to elaborate on, and asked us to address these in a new submission for a deadline in June. It was a frustrating outcome, given how long I’d already been waiting for a resolution on my future for the coming academic year. It also gave my supervisors extra workload during a busy period of marking in exam season. And by the time we had addressed all the Centre’s concerns as best as possible, I was a little uncomfortable with the way my proposed project had been pulled away from the initial vision I had.
In the meantime, I received an unconditional offer to study for my PhD at Royal Holloway, which meant that my place at the university was secure - I just needed to get the funding to pay my fees and support myself. I also used this time to continue improving my coding and creative writing skills.
We heard the final outcome at the beginning of July, when I found out our application was unsuccessful. By this point, though, I wasn’t worried about the result either way. I knew I could probably defer acceptance of my offer until next year if necessary, and realised that another year would give me the opportunity to complete an application for the TECHNE funding, which was a much better fit for my project. It would provide me with more opportunities for training, forming connections with people/organisations across the cultural sector, and has more funds available for research costs. Additionally, this funding source would give me much more leeway to plan the project in line with my own ideas, as it is specifically intended for experimental projects, and doesn’t force me into the intellectual straightjacket of relating the project to ‘freedom’. Finally, it meant I could use the extra year I have before starting to get more valuable experience working in the arts, which I could take forward into my PhD and beyond.
Now that the PhD process is on hold for the time being, my main task is preparing to present my research on walking simulator video games at the Royal Geographical Society International Conference at the end of August. I have to give a 15-minute presentation followed by 5 minutes for questions, as one of 10 speakers talking over two sessions on Geographies of Video Games at the conference. It’s quite challenging to condense a research project for which I wrote a 15,000-word dissertation into around 1,500 words (assuming roughly 100 words a minute), while also ensuring that my main points are clearly communicated, and that the presentation is delivered in an engaging way.
I’m also currently searching and applying for jobs in the arts that will tide me over until next September, while giving me the kind of professional experience I’m looking for. Positions in the arts – particularly paid ones – are incredibly competitive, but my vision for what I want to create in the coming years is more than enough to keep me motivated.
So it has been, and remains, a very busy time for me. It’s still exciting, even though the timescales in which events have unfolded weren’t always what I was expecting. I’m able to see the positives in the way things have worked out since the beginning of the year. And, most importantly, I’m convinced that in twelve months’ time I’ll be in a far better position to embark on a project that will hopefully be the start of something much more significant.

Friday, 30 June 2017

Imag(in)ing California: Shorelines


Our day began by winding through green meadows and crooked Sonoma Valley oaks, bathed in sunshine as we drove a scenic route towards the land’s edge. From the tranquil woodland town of Occidental we took the Coleman Valley Road, the sun behind us illuminating our descent, westward, down to the Pacific Ocean at Bodega Bay. The deep blue of the clear morning sky was reflected in the ocean peeping through gaps between crouching hilltops, opening out wider and wider as we reached the frothing shallows. From there we would start our journey up the West Coast of Northern California, following Highway 1 north for over 100 miles through snaking estuaries, shaded forests, and a breadcrumb trail of maritime communities.
As we set off, my brother asked us to tell him whenever we wanted to pull over to survey the view. After stopping twice in the first five minutes, however, it soon became clear that every single headland we encountered offered a whole gallery of vistas, making it impossible to see them all as our short strip of time gradually unravelled. Even if you attempted to stop at every single vantage point on this stretch of Pacific shoreline, by the time you finish, some new and spectacular feature would be sculpted by the relentless lacerating waves, freshly exposed when a curtain of mist is raised.


Drifting through the Sonoma Coast State Park, admiring the striking topography of stacks, arches, gulches, and striations from the car, our first stop was Fort Ross, an historical landmark that exhibits the place where Russian settlers once established a base for agriculture on the California coast in the early 19th century. After descending through a grove of stretching eucalyptus trees, grey and peeling, we emerged on a gravel path into the sun-bleached surrounds of the fort. It was there that we came across a throng of noisy schoolchildren all piling in through the entrance gate. Following them through, the scene that unfolded in front of us was mayhem. Small bodies charged wildly in all directions on the mowed grass, screeching and cawing as one of their pack began ferociously clanging a bell on display in the distance.
Strangely, after our immediate dismay and disbelief, they all scurried out within five minutes of arriving, having barely investigated all the points of interest. I wondered what impression this landmark would leave on their memories, and what role heritage has (or should have) in our lives more generally. Should it be a springboard for reimagination, play, even untamed exploration? Does a factual understanding of the past have any inherent value when inhabiting a space in the present?           
The square of land encompassed by the fort’s perimeter walls is sparse, with a total area roughly the size of a football pitch. Only one original dwelling remains, Rotchev House, where the manager of Fort Ross and his family lived. The handful of other buildings – a residence, a chapel, and two blockhouses in opposing corners – are all reconstructed. I tried to weigh up my thoughts on the idea of reconstruction for heritage purposes. It always feels as if some semblance of ‘authenticity’ is lost when new materials are added to historical sites. Though if it weren’t for the tireless efforts of volunteers, who have maintained such a visceral, solid display of what the fort was like based on existing evidence, whole generations would have gone without the experience of immersing themselves inside the redwood beams, understanding what kind of space this was to its previous occupants. Ultimately, how we go about such endeavours indicates what we value in our communities. What is remembered and what is forgotten, and what do we want to remember and forget? What do we abandon to ‘nature’ and what do we claim as ‘culture’?


The Russian influence in California is one that often goes unremarked outside of the state. Fort Ross marks the centre of imperial Russia’s southernmost expansion along the Pacific Coast. Although this territory is no longer under Russian ownership, their colonial presence can still be detected in the names of local landmarks, such as the Russian River, and the town of Sebastopol. Like a dried-up stream whose lifeblood has long since dispersed, traces remain in the arteries of local identities and landscapes. Intriguingly, the Russian and Alaskan settlers formed a close relationship with the Native Americans who lived around Fort Ross – the Pomo people, in this region – who, after originally living outside the fort’s walls, integrated with the community to such an extent that the foreign settlers married and had children with them. The fluidity with which these diverse populations mixed offsets straightforward narratives of colonial exploitation, the whitewashing of native heritage, or fixed local identity. The tree-sheltered visitor centre that we wandered through on our way out gave an evocative, panoramic perspective on these different cultural tributaries. Displays presented detailed insights into Native American history in this region, as well as the influence of shipwrecks and seafaring that paint a highly nuanced picture of life on the shores of Northern California in earlier centuries.
Before leaving Fort Ross, we took a moment to soak up our surroundings: the striking cerulean of striding bluejays; fleeting fragrances riding on the breeze. All along the golden coastline that day, the air bloomed with an unfamiliar scent: a sweet concoction of cinnamon and coconut. The aroma was so distinct that you’d like to bottle it; to capture a single moment in time and place like bubbles in glowing amber, there to appreciate and revisit. At every stop on our journey, we scoured the yellowing grasses and flowering shrubs in search of this elusive aroma’s source. Yet even after asking the lady at the fort’s exit, and trawling online in the days afterward, it proved impossible to put a definitive name to this manifestation. As fickle as the fog, which had mysteriously (for this time of year) failed to make an appearance, its character has been hinted at in articles yet never accurately rendered in the way we experienced.
Back on the highway, we fell once again into the trance of vehicular movement, the road undulating through the sandy inlets and craggy slopes of Salt Point. We surfaced from our daze in the peculiar settlement of Sea Ranch, which sprawls along branches of private roads that straddle a 10-mile stretch of the Pacific Coast Highway. This assorted collection of wooden structures is the legacy of architect Al Boeke and his recruited designers, who imagined a community built around the principles of common ownership, with architecture that preserves and compliments the surrounding environment’s natural beauty. Each abode is adorned with grey, weathered timber from local forests, and – at least for older plots developed in line with the original design principles – are built to reflect the individual characteristics of the segment of terrain they occupy. Given the variety of coastal features and morphological events that take place here, this design brief has led to some visionary, one-of-a-kind inventions.


The previous communities we’d passed through on the way here, where the main establishments were all bunched up oppressively at the roadside, made you feel unnervingly like the new guy in town in a Western film. But at Sea Ranch the pockets of buildings were more understated, camouflaged and kept a safe distance from outsider traffic. Nonetheless, there remained an authoritarian presence; a quiet tyranny in which the isolating layout of the built landscape itself makes you feel like an intruder, where signs warn that unauthorised vehicles will be ‘immobilized’. Once you detour from the highway, you become subject to the Sea Ranch Association Board of Directors and its rules. If Sea Ranch were adapted for the screen, you could imagine it as the setting for a murder mystery story: a remote small town, doggedly resistant to change in a dramatic rural landscape, where everyone has something to hide and all is not as it seems.       
We visited one of the few publicly accessible sites as we drove through to the northern side of Sea Ranch. Nestled in a roadside meadow, accompanied by bushes, firs, and a trickling fountain, the non-denominational Sea Ranch Chapel squats as if to take a closer look at you. The most eye-catching feature is the tiled roof, asymmetrical and curving steeply to a point, where it is bisected by a skeletal ornament made of teal-coloured copper, creating the image of long fingers curling outward from a cloaked figure.


Every new angle divulged another interpretation in the obscure, indefinite shapes and arrangements. The roof appeared to me alternately as the crest of a wave, a bird, a boat, and a witch’s hat. Inside proved no less inspiring. Every surface enticed you to touch, from the smooth, hollowed wood seating to the swirling patterns of the wrought iron fretwork by the stained-glass door. The cosy space cocoons you in the sensation of being inside a shell, with a dim aura of sunlight overhead filtering through the narrow, enamel windows, and this glow reflected on the white of the low, spiralling ceiling above. As all these phenomena take place, nothing attempts to identify a name or reason for what you encounter. There are no slogans or statements, appeals to the conscience. Avoiding traditional architectural styles, the chapel embraces ambiguity. It finds reverence in not-knowing; in indeterminate moments of simply living, feeling, wondering.
Wandering purposefully on to Point Arena, a single road curving off the coastal highway leads you to Point Arena Lighthouse, a bright white beacon that serves as a glimmering landmark for road trippers on their West Coast pilgrimages. Just before you hit the gated visitor checkpoint, a narrow gravel verge opens out to the left where you can pull over and walk around. Here the cliff juts out squarely to form a platform where you can observe the coastline in all its intricacy. On both sides, as far as the mist permits you to see, beige sandstone is layered with neat grooves like claw marks, shoreline punctuated with inlets and outcrops that mirror the fluctuating pattern of the waves themselves. A primal cathedral with the shining lighthouse as its steeple, the rumble of crashing waves its choir. Stepping tentatively up to the precipice, whipped by wind and salty sea spray, the noise and energy reaches a crescendo that crowds out your senses, wrapping you in a deafening stillness. A divine balance, gripped in a communion with the colossal forces of ocean and land, beyond and beneath.


After this detour from our planned route (isn’t every trip a detour of some kind?) we returned to Highway 1. Driving between the white picket fences lining the roadsides of Elk, we paused awhile in Mendocino to gaze from cliffsides at the quaint rows of painted shopfronts, driftwood heaped on the damp sand below. Only ten miles later, we washed up at our final and northernmost stop, the old industrial town of Fort Bragg. Past gas stations, barren parking lots and an old railroad, we turned left and parked up on a soft slope that slid into an amalgam of shingle, rock pools, and swashing surf. Sauntering onto the foreshore, between pebbles we began to spot what we came here for: shimmering beads of glass. Clear, green, and brown mostly, and, very occasionally, sapphire blue and ruby red.
The history of the Glass Beach isn’t romantic. From 1906 until 1967, Fort Bragg locals dumped waste into the water at three sites. This practice continued until 1967, when the California State Water Resources Control Board closed the last active dumping ground and cleanup programmes followed. In the decades since, however, the discarded wrecks underwent a transfiguration. What was large was chomped down, what was biodegradable was swallowed, the earth reclaiming its bodily organs that were surgically removed, modified, used, and left for dead. At the same rocks where crabs crawl and limpets lie, now barely identifiable implements of plastic and metal have implanted themselves like some abstract sculpture, a geological cyborg. All edges rounded and smoothed, in time.


The Glass Beach now harbours tens of thousands of visitors each year, making it one of the prime tourist attractions for miles around. There has even been a campaign to resume the disposing of glass there to ensure the replenishment of the beaches, where collecting is discouraged but not illegal. Fort Bragg has gone full circle: a town salvaging the last knockings of an industrial heyday to fashion a spectacle that people from the Bay Area will drive for hours to see and touch (and, of course, buy). All relying on two resources it has in abundance: human waste, and the unyielding power of the ocean. With the same apocalyptic beauty of a coastline undergoing perpetual destruction, it is both miraculous and tragic at the same time.
Despite the majority of glass being clear, brown and green, pieces can be found in a wide spectrum of colours. Some browns soften into amber yellows or deepen to blacks and maroons; greens turn to emerald or lime; and whites tinge with aquamarine. Every piece unique and precious; the confluence of innumerable streams of stories and events encapsulated in a singular object.   

         
Nearly three hours from home and with our own earthly schedules to meet, our time was equally rare. Handfuls of debris we had no chance to examine, slipped through our fingers like grains of sand in an hourglass. By twilight we would be back among the seemingly eternal plantations of concrete and corrugated steel in Petaluma, feasting from ceramic plates.
Turning our backs on the beach, and the Pacific Coast, felt like leaving a treasure chest half full. Footpaths not taken, guidebook entries unvisited; everything plunged into a state of temporariness. The Midas effect, where the very things you want to hold are what you must let go. We rolled out of Fort Bragg along Route 20, bearing inland toward the cavernous depths of Jackson State Forest. With the sun sinking into the ocean behinds us, its golden, angular light igniting the redwoods beyond, we weaved a path through the dusky darkness.