Thursday 20 October 2016

Exploring Geographies of Video Games: Placing Virtual Worlds

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paper boats from the iconic ending of Dear Esther