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