Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Exhume


They’ve capped the shafts
To the mines of hell
Rust and brick remain
Empty shell

New houses spring up
At the roadside
Fresh plots at the graveyard
Filled, in time

I crouch at the graveside
Your stone cage
‘Forever in our hearts’
Words worn away

Those untold stories
Whole universes lost
Diaries in boxes
Hoarding dust in the loft

The daily forgetting
Breathed out in sighs
Shrouding the silence
Our ritual disguise

So we play detective
Imagine their faces
House numbers, street names
Overlooked places

Filling the void
With clues left behind
Joining the dots
On maps of the mind

Under cover of darkness
We seek out their relics
Labours of love
Like citadels derelict

No lights in the windows
No glass left at all
Just pulses that throb
And canaries that call

At the edge of the mine
We hurdle the gates
The palms of our hands
Are astrolabes

Inside their halls
Of brimstone and fire
We stand still and listen
To a voiceless choir

Ducking the fence-gap
Wire pierces my skin
Seams fall unbound
Canaries don’t sing 

What life in the ruins
Our ancestors built
Like flowers in concrete
Bloom bright, then wilt

We witness it all
And emerge unscathed
For time is a healer
Our scar’s on the page

O land of the living
Dead, but for myth
Why summon a ghost
When you dwell there in spirit?


Sunday, 31 December 2017

GeoGuessr: Navigating real-world places, virtually




Have you ever imagined what it would be like to be transported somewhere in the world completely unknown to you? And how you would figure out where you are? In this post, I’m discussing a game that simulates this kind of experience virtually, using Google Streetview. 
GeoGuessr is a web browser game first developed in 2013, in which players are presented with a series of five Streetview images from five different locations across the world in turn. Based on what they see, players must guess the location that the images were taken by pinpointing on a zoom-able world map. After making their guess, they are assigned a score between 0 and 5000 based on the distance between the guessed location and the actual location the images derive from. The scores for all five rounds are then totalled at the end.
From a geographical perspective, GeoGuessr is thought-provoking for several reasons. The views of landscapes provided by the Streetview images give players the opportunity to see places they would not otherwise see, yet inevitably represent environments through – literally and figuratively – a certain kind of lens. Secondly, the act of finding and interpreting the information presented in the images is an exercise that reveals the individual processes and customs through which we make sense of what a place is like – the ways in which our relationships with environments are formed. And lastly, the design of the game itself works to turn the medium of Streetview images into an experience that – more or less successfully – enables players to engage meaningfully with different places across the world.
Let’s delve deeper into these three points of interest to unpick how and why GeoGuessr presents such valuable questions about what ‘places’ are in the digital age, and how we interact with them.
 
Exploring landscapes
As we consider the experience of ‘visiting’ locations in GeoGuessr and interpreting what you find, the key factor to recognise is that the environments you explore are communicated as images: moments in space and time, captured from a fixed point of view with specific equipment, with specific motivations.
Images are evocative tools for communicating information about places. So much so that, even if viewed a great distance away from the location in which the image was made, we can often still get a sense of what it is like to be in the place represented onscreen.
And it is their detachment from the moment in which they are captured that makes it possible for  GeoGuessr to expand the boundaries of exploration as a practice into the virtual realm. We are able to see places we would never physically visit in our lives, and get a sense of what it might be like to be there, at those locations. It is for this reason, in part, that GeoGuessr has been praised as an educational resource, providing learners with an extensive database of everyday scenes taken across a wide range of landscapes, and packaging it in gameplay that encourages you to pay attention to detail in your surroundings. With each guess, you can open your eyes to another small portion of the world that you are unlikely to ever visit in person.
Importantly, the Streetview images that GeoGuessr uses have their own distinct qualities. When viewed, the viewer can rotate the image nearly every direction from a fixed point, situated at roughly head height from the street. Additionally, the viewer can use onscreen arrows to navigate between the images taken as the Streetview vehicle moved through the site, as if you were travelling through the environment yourself. It is these two characteristics of the pictures that make the experience of viewing them more immersive than the fixed, linear perspective of traditional images. Unhindered by the borders of the image for both perspective and movement, Streetview pictures gives players a better appreciation for scale, and how nearby points in space are connected together. In short, the experience is much closer to how we would encounter an environment in the flesh.
Indeed, the creator of GeoGuessr, Anton Wallén, has said that the idea for the game arose from his enjoyment of visiting faraway locations on Streetview, and how the images could make the viewer feel as if they themselves are in the places photographed. On a more everyday level, many of you reading this will be familiar with the process of using Streetview to scout a future journey. For pedestrians and even those travelling by vehicle, the street-level perspective of Streetview’s images is often much more suitable for familiarising oneself with a route than the birds-eye view of a map.
And yet, navigating in Streetview is still a very simplified version of what we would experience by inhabiting a place ‘in real life’. Although we witness what is happening in a location through momentary scenes, the moving camera is largely detached from the realities of day-to-day life in the localities being photographed. As viewers, we are treated instead to approved snapshots taken at intervals along roads, taken during particular weather conditions, times of day, days of the week, and so on, which inevitably colour the mental model of the location that we develop in our brains as we navigate between the scenes.
And as we develop these mental models, we must not forget the context in which Streetview images are produced. Google’s cameras travel through the locations being photographed, and the images they capture are stitched together and uploaded to the Google Maps website for those with internet access to browse at their discretion. They are, first and foremost, images produced for the benefit of a multinational corporation and people living predominantly in the Global North, who more readily have access to the equipment needed to view them. That is to say, that the images do not represent a view of the landscape in accordance with the values of the community that lives there, but instead have been extracted for extraneous purposes.
In the same vein, there are many places that are ‘off the map’ because Google Streetview just hasn’t been there, for a whole host of political and logistical reasons.
So in spite of being a method of imag(in)ing places that is often construed to be more immersive and accurate than previous imaging/mapping techniques, Streetview ultimately reflects the same observations about landscape images that cultural geographers have made for decades. That is, that every instance of landscape representation is determined by relationships of power that influence the form used to develop the image, which places themselves are represented, the motivations behind these two details – and, in turn, how ‘knowledge’ about a location is produced.
 
Navigation and interpretation
The method of playing GeoGuessr involves a bit of detective work – using clues from the environments pictured, along with your own judgements, to build up an idea of where in the world the images have been captured.
Fortunately, because the game uses Streetview images, you can look in all directions and travel in any direction you wish (providing that the Streetview camera has travelled down the road in question). In nearly all cases, moving through the locality from the starting point is essential to get enough evidence to make an educated guess about where it could be. And it is this process of evidence-gathering, as you take note of significant details you find while moving through the stitched images, that you come to experience the intricacies which make any particular site unique.
It is a somewhat transformative ritual, because as well as learning something about the place being represented, we learn about ourselves – the array of memories, social norms, pre-cognitive experiences, and other sources of information through which we come to know a place.
That said, the characteristics of the information provided in Streetview (i.e. what can be perceived directly at street level) mean that certain kinds of details become more important than others for discovering your location. These are some of those most common types players use, which become familiar over time:

Road signs
Languages used on signs/buildings
Road markings
Climate
Terrain – vegetation, gradient, etc.
Cultural symbols – flags, icons etc.
Built environment – architectural styles, street furniture, etc.
Landmarks

The need to make these kinds of observations demonstrates how the gameplay encourages you to build up a relationship with the environment being shown. When the game begins, you are simply ‘dropped’ into a location with no instructions on where to go or what to look for. Instead, the incentive must come from the player. Every journey is different and personal – which roads to turn down, which details are noticed or ignored, and how those details are interpreted. You perform your relationship with the place into being as you navigate; a kind of cognitive mapping mediated by the screen. By the time you’ve made your guess, having found and deciphered what you’ve seen by travelling steadily at street level, you’ve developed a more deeply affective relationship with the place in question than if you’d just looked at it on a map, or read an encyclopaedia entry.
It is a combination of the instantaneous decisions and reactions the player makes, and their pre-existing paradigm of social norms and individual experiences, that is drawn upon to make sense of the world. By bringing together both of these elements within the overarching timeline of a virtual journey through an unfamiliar environment, GeoGuessr can quite effectively develop meaningful relationships between diverse players and diverse locations, which expand the players’ mental archive of geographical knowledge – albeit within the limits of solely visual communication, and the player’s willingness to keep exploring.
The capacity of the game’s design to grasp and maintain players’ interest is the subject to which I’ll now turn.
 
Design and technology
GeoGuessr is an example of a game that applies a very simple mechanic very successfully to create a fulfilling play experience. By setting the aim or ‘win condition’ of the game as ‘finding your location’, it inherently encourages players to think about what makes the place in question unique, and pay close attention to detail to find the relevant information.
In the time since its initial release, however, the game’s developers have fashioned new opportunities for players to interact with the photographed environments. In Challenge Mode, the player can limit their guessing time by setting a timer of custom length, forcing them to be more focused in how they filter information. When this mode is selected, the player is also given a URL they can send to friends. This URL gives these others players the same set of five images and same time restrictions, allowing them to compete to get the highest score. From there, it can be fascinating to compare how and why different players construed the information to reach the conclusions they did.
Additionally, using GeoGuessr’s Official Maps, you can narrow down the geographical area from which Streetview images are selected to individual countries, regions, and cities. If you are interested in exploring a particular country or region you have never travelled to, or perhaps want to test your knowledge of a familiar area, these game modes give you the means to do so. By giving the player more agency to choose where they want to explore, the gameplay can provoke a more deeply affecting experience.
In a similar vein, GeoGuessr now gives users to ability to create their own maps and publish them on the website for other players to explore. In the Popular Maps section, players can find numerous user-made, themed maps that allow them to explore the specific types of places that interest them. These include maps with a more generalised remit, such as capital cities, to more niche categories such as Premier League football grounds, or even locations from films and video games.
The downside of this creative feature – that it is behind a paywall. To be able to build your own maps – as well as getting your own personalised pin to drop on the map, and avoiding ads – is a privilege you can only benefit from if you pay $2.99 a month. Of course, many would be happy to pay such an amount for a game they enjoy regularly, and if you’re wanting to create personalised maps for others to try, you’re certainly someone who is more deeply invested in the game. But clearly a paywall can create barriers to engagement, preventing those who cannot afford/do not want to spend that amount of money on the game from becoming more closely involved in the GeoGuessr community.


Despite the possibilities for personalisation, it is important to remember that GeoGuessr is at the mercy of Google with regard to which places are included in the Streetview database, the extent of the imaging that takes place at these locations, and the quality of the final product. Coming across a grainy image – common when looking at parts of the US and Australia – can be a significant source of frustration for players trying to find out more about the place onscreen and make accurate guesses. Moreover, Google updates the images of some locations more frequently than others, meaning that the picture you’re presented with can be several years old. It is not something that can be easily resolved by the game’s developers; though one thing you can do at the end of each round is to give it a rating out of five stars, which then goes on to affect the likelihood of that location being chosen for future players.
One longstanding issue that affects which images are selected in GeoGuessr is the apparent over-representation of some countries compared to others. It is very common to be dropped, at least once in a game, onto a long, straight road in an almost-deserted landscape in Russia or Australia, with little or no locational information to guide you.         
This effect is down to how the game’s algorithms determine which images are shown to players. Countries with a large surface area that Streetview has captured extensively, such as the aforementioned countries, as well as the USA, Canada, Brazil and Scandinavian states, appear more frequently in Standard Mode than their smaller counterparts. While the customised maps are one way around the problem, this matter hints at the power of algorithms in determining which types of information we are exposed to, creating filter bubbles. The developers of GeoGuessr have openly discussed the balance of locations represented many times, and their aim to continue improving this aspect of the experience. But it will always be an intricate balance to ensure a wider selection of places to explore without unduly minimising the presence of other countries, cultures, and types of environment.
Design decisions ultimately have a significant impact within the fields of power that shape representations of places in digital games like GeoGuessr, and consequently how we come to understand them. Of course, it is simultaneously these very same algorithms that make looking through images of such varied environments to be an engaging experience. However, with the over-representation of certain kinds of landscapes, and the reliance on the effective (though repetitive) singular mechanic of finding your location, it is more debatable whether the gameplay can retain player interest continually, for more than a few hours of time spent in-game.
WIth the game’s reliance on resources produced externally – Google Streetview images – GeoGuessr is a particularly thought-provoking case study for looking into the range of power relationships that influence how landscapes are represented in games, and through digital media more generally.

_____

For academics, designers, and others with an interest in how we understand what places are when apprehended through digital technology, it will be instructive to see how these relationships are negotiated as GeoGuessr evolves in the coming months and years. Notably, in November, the game’s developers took to Twitter to ask players for ideas on new features to include, and how the existing gameplay could be improved. There has since been a considerable number of suggestions that, if implemented, could substantially change how the game is played.
In the same way that the evolution of Google Streetview has, exploring environments virtually through GeoGuessr provokes questions about what it means to locate and be located in the digital age. Where the game has been most innovative is in turning this relatively new medium of representing place into an experience that, through its very design, enables players to learn about unfamiliar places by taking their own journeys through series of images, making discoveries and interpretations based on their own perceptions. Where GeoGuessr has limitations, these tend to lie with the Streetview images themselves, and how they are produced, rather than the gameplay. However, the way images are assigned via the game’s algorithm is a pertinent consideration to make when considering how well the game encourages personal discovery and learning about locations.
With forthcoming improvements seemingly on the horizon, it will be intriguing to see how the game’s design branches out from the initial concept, and the effects of future changes on how players make sense of the screened representations of places they encounter through the game.


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.          

_____
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


------------------------------
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.
------------------------------

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