Friday, 31 August 2018

RGS-IBG Conference 2018: Reprogramming Landscapes of Play: Navigation and Narrative in Geocaching

Below is the written component of the paper I presented in the Landscapes of Digital Games session – which I also co-convened – at the Royal Geographical Society (with Institute of British Geographers) Annual International Conference on 31st August 2018. The superscript numbers in the text indicate the number of the corresponding slide you should view in the embedded Powerpoint above (you can access the slides separately as a PDF here).
I’d like to thank Emma Fraser and Nick Rush-Cooper for their efforts in organising this session with me, particularly as someone who had not convened a conference session before. I’m also grateful to the Digital Geographies Working Group for sponsoring Landscapes of Digital Games, alongside an impressive number of other sessions on digital themes throughout the conference. Lastly, I want to thank my fellow presenters in this session, Umran Ali, Thijs van den Berg and Peter Nelson. As convenors we were thrilled not only with the quality of the papers, but how well they spoke to each other throughout the session. I hope the discussions we had can continue as our own individual work develops.        

How1 are digital technologies affecting the ways we interact with landscapes playfully? By2 extending playful practices into the realms of computer software and the internet, we’ve already seen in this session the range of virtual environments designed to enable fun and meaningful experiences in video games. Yet playful3 expression isn’t somehow abandoning the corporeal in its use of interfaces such as screens, keyboards and controllers. Through their location-aware, communicative and mobile capabilities, digital media are hybridising everyday physical environments by cultivating interactive practices of information sharing, community building and, ultimately, play.
Pervasive games are those whose gameplay extends4 into the corporeal world; expanding Huizinga’s notion of the magic circle of play spatially – beyond a delimited arena; temporally – beyond specific time limits; and socially – beyond a designated group of players. While video games are designed with a range of possible interactions and interpretations in mind, pervasive games use digital technology to channel the physical properties, affective intensities and contingencies of already-existing landscapes to generate the conditions for players to have “positively affective” experiences, to quote James Ash.
Today5, I’m going to explore how landscapes are articulated in the playing of pervasive games. I’ll be contending that landscapes are not the product of a directed relationship between subject and object, but an emergent experience constituted in part by the affordances of digital technologies, but in interaction with an array of material, social and embodied agents that assemble contingently, in situ.
To make6 this argument, I’ll be discussing Geocaching, a popular pervasive treasure hunting game, played worldwide using GPS. The game relies on players hiding containers called ‘caches’ in physical environments, and putting their coordinates online. Using a GPS-enabled mobile device, other players can then travel to the given coordinates to search for the cache. Each7 cache contains a logbook, which is signed by every player who has managed to find the cache; and finds are also logged on the individual page for each cache on the website, where players can describe their experiences in greater detail.
As an example8 of how increasingly prevalent digital technology is incorporated into everyday life through play, I became interested in how Geocaching articulated the idea of subject-object relationships central to the concept of landscape. In what ways are landscapes imagined, represented, performed and contested through the game’s practices?
My research into Geocaching started as a small coursework project during my MA, in which9 I carried out ethnographic fieldwork over a week in the city of Canterbury in Kent. This involved not only downloading and playing the game myself, but also looking at online descriptions of caches on the Geocaching website, and reading logs people had written for geocaches they’d found. I’ve since continued playing, finding 362 geocaches in total to date; and I’ll be using Geocaching as platform for my practice-based PhD project on place-based storytelling. The material I’ll be presenting today is informed both by the initial MA research, and my subsequent experiences as a player since.
To elaborate10 on the conception of landscape as an emergent, intersubjective experience, I’m going to delve into the two main components of the Geocaching gameplay experience. Firstly, I’ll discuss navigating to geocaches as a process of attunement with the landscape; and then frame engaging with the narratives of the cache location as a situated performance of a ‘geocacher’ role.
The11 game of Geocaching is structured around a particular form of imagination: the pursuit of what is hidden or ‘secret’ within everyday spaces, and also those ‘secret’ spaces lying beyond the bounds of the everyday. Yet, in the search for landscapes that are ‘off the map’, the gameplay raises questions about what’s ‘on the map’ – and ultimately, the boundaries between the visible and invisible, known and unknown, appreciated and unappreciated in imaginations and representations of everyday landscapes.
From12 my initial research, carried out in my home city of Canterbury, I became distinctly aware of these boundaries when navigating to caches located along both my usual routes through the city, and parts of my home city I wouldn’t otherwise go. The very first cache I found was located in a car park less than 200 metres from my regular route into town, yet I’d never travelled there before nor knew of its existence. In the hunt for a secret, my cognitive map of the city had been expanded to include a location and information that I wasn’t aware of previously.
However13, even in places I knew, searching for caches reconfigured the boundaries between visible and invisible, particularly for caches that were hidden in plain sight. The two pictured here were both clearly exposed, yet being hidden above and below eye-level respectively meant they weren’t rendered visible until I navigated using the GPS compass on the Geocaching app. Equally, until that day, my relationship with these spaces had only been to pass through to somewhere else; yet in this case the game demanded purposeful interaction with their material features, to search for a hidden container. Taking part in this gameplay meant that I payed closer attention to mundane details in the environment, which I would otherwise likely ignore.
Together14, the technology, game design and bodily senses of the player converge when Geocaching to enact what Maja Klausen calls the ‘player gaze’ – the cognitive work of interpreting, evaluating and making connections between things one perceives during the play experience. The way this gaze is performed by players develops over time. Through repeated practice, I typically find caches much quicker now compared to when I started, and have observed15 other experienced geocachers referring to this phenomenon as their ‘geosenses’ or ‘cacher’s eye’. This can involve recognising signs of disturbed ground, understanding the sensitivity of the Geocaching app’s GPS compass, and keeping in mind common hiding techniques (such as magnetic caches, or those wedged into crevices of trees). Geocaching here involves a process of teleplastic attunement whereby technology and gameplay combine to reorient bodily senses, fostering a player gaze that re-programmes imaginations of landscapes by rendering the ‘strange familiar’ and the ‘familiar strange’.
In particular16, what makes the design of Geocaching’s gameplay distinct from other pervasive games is how the limitations of GPS are themselves adopted to enable players to attune with their surroundings. While reaching the given coordinates will bring the player within close proximity of the geocache, GPS technology itself is only accurate within a 10-metre radius, and is degraded further by physical factors such as tree cover. Yet rather than fostering a detachment from the corporeal game environment, these affordances force you to look up from your device and interact with the physical environment to find the hidden container, intensifying the player’s relationship with the corporeal landscape. In turn17, other players have the agency to hide geocaches and engage with the materiality of their locations in creative or elaborate ways, such as those shown here. A geocache’s coordinates are there for anyone to see; it’s by engaging with the unique18 materialities of cache locations that geocachers become gatekeepers to “intimate spatial knowledge” (to quote Bradley Garrett) and the “empowering and exciting” attunement with the landscape that entails.
Nonetheless19, it’s important to note the unevenness in the ability of players to adopt such affectively powerful practices of navigation. As well as the immediate requirement for participants to own and be able to use a GPS-enabled mobile device, many geocaches are only locatable for premium members at, which costs £25 a year for a renewable membership. On the official Geocaching app, free membership only provides access to traditional caches, limiting the kinds of gameplay in which these members can participate. As such, the division between visible and invisible, and accessibility of the game landscape’s affective potential, is entwined with a ‘digital divide’ at the level of the individual geocacher.
By apprehending20 navigation to geocaches as an intersubjective process of attunement, we can see that the affordances of each gameplay component – the technology, materials, and the player’s own bodily and social capacities – all interact over time to shape the affective qualities of the player’s journey through the game environment. But how are these affective intensities articulated by players when they reach cache sites, where the performative acts of retrieving and signing logbooks engage with a palimpsest of past and present narratives of play?                                
In the search21 for hidden treasure in physical landscapes, players must negotiate the evental happenings of the locations in which they are Geocaching. The player’s experience of the landscape is conditioned by their agency as a participant in both the “situated multiplicity” of the physical environment during play, and its broader narrative tissue, represented by the geocache log and the stories of those who have signed it.
As Geocaching22 takes place in public spaces that both players and non-players can access, passersby inevitably become “requisites and stakeholders in the game”. Referred to by players as ‘muggles’, passersby present challenges to successful participation in the game: specifically, the risk of them unknowingly discovering and misplacing or stealing the cache. To avoid such occurrences, geocachers must perform acts of “stealth” to avoid the attention that abnormal behaviour might attract from muggles.
In one23 busy urban location in Canterbury, the importance of “stealth” became apparent to me when looking for a cache hidden on the underside of a bench beside a pub, where numerous onlookers sat outside. Rather than abandoning the cache, I devised a tactic of using my body as a shield to block the view of the muggles, followed by the socially acceptable act of bending down to pick up a pen I’d ‘accidentally’ dropped beforehand. These actions very much felt part of a “secret society narrative”, whereby my willing suspension of disbelief in the reality of the game – performed through symbolic acts of stealth – enhanced the play experience. Rather than being a hindrance, the affective intensity of the location, personified in the presence of people and their social norms, could be channelled in playful ways to perform new stories of engagement with the urban landscape.
Not all Geocaching24 attempts transpire this smoothly. Indeed, aside from the risk of ruining other players’ enjoyment through negligence, behaviours that conflict with social conventions have triggered, for example, legal action and security alerts. The physicality of the human body itself is a site of contestation in this regard, as presence in public space, as well as participation in the community, may interact with wider norms linked to race, gender and (dis)ability. As a white, able-bodied male, I didn’t notice any barriers to access based on these embodied factors alone.
Yet my participation25 has been restricted in other ways; most notably in one circumstance where I was unable to reach a cache hidden high up a tree. After climbing about three quarters of the way up the trunk without seeing the cache, I knew it must have been placed higher. Yet even climbing that far in windy conditions was a nerve-wracking experience. Had I attempted to climb higher, I recognised that I’d couldn’t have made three points of contact on the trunk, which contravened the social standards of climbing safety I’d once learnt. By abandoning my retrieval of the cache, my experience was characterised by situated articulations of material conditions, social norms and bodily capacities which were not simply playful or serendipitous, but actively restrictive.
The first26 thing I did following my failure was to write a ‘Did Not Find’ or ‘DNF’ log on the cache’s virtual page, complete with a description of my attempts. By signing the log physically if the cache is found, and online regardless, geocachers mark their visits to cache sites and build a repertoire of ‘found caches’ on their profile at Yet logging has two additional purposes. The first is to share anecdotes and information with fellow geocachers, such as how difficult the cache was to find, if there were muggles around, or if any interesting events occurred. This form of logging can resemble a psychogeographical “story-stacking” process, where each new inscription of presence nurtures an “ecology of narratives” that is mapped and broadcasted through the game’s digital technologies. More than this, though, logs such as mine – especially DNFs – can signal any problems to cache owners, such as caches that require maintenance or are potentially missing. The act of logging is a situated performance of the geocacher role – to ensure the narrative context of the game landscape remains intact for other geocachers to participate in themselves.
Still27, if you look at any geocache logs online, most comments are no more than a couple of sentences, and many are simply a few words or abbreviations such as ‘TFTC’ (thanks for the cache). At the same time, the interface of the Geocaching website and app don’t do much to encourage players to engage with what people have written on the cache page. Logs are simply listed in chronological order, requiring a lot of scrolling to read those further back. Together, the technology exhibited in the design of the website and app, and the social customs of cache design and logging exhibited by the community, delimit the capacities of geocachers to interact meaningfully with the stories that make landscapes significant to people.
In performing28 the acts of stealth, logging and maintenance that embody the more interpretive aspects of the landscape ‘experience’ in Geocaching, the potential for geocachers to engage mindfully with the narratives of geocache sites manifests in situ. The information-sharing and communicative capacities of the game’s technology, materials and community are articulated by individual geocachers with distinct bodily and social capacities.
When29 we consider the concept of landscape itself, which apprehends space through ideas of subject-object relations, we can discern a conception here that’s far more distributed than a directed relationship between singular human subject and physical landscape. If we refer back to the notion of the ‘player gaze’ and how it manifests as a process of attunement, we can see that it involves a continuous constructing and undoing of connections between the different technological, material, social and embodied elements encountered during play. The player’s not a gazing subject, but rather is performing a “perceptual actualisation of landscape and self, of materialities and sensibilities”, whereby their navigation and emplotment of the environment unfolds contingently and over time.
It’s here that I’m recognising the value of post-phenomenology as a framework for apprehending digital game landscapes, as a theoretical approach that emphasises the mutual influence of material objects and human subjects in the construction of experience. Both incidentally and over time, we can distinguish the agency of non-human elements in Geocaching in reorienting the player’s sensory and emotional perception, and in turn how players act situationally to perform narratives of engagement with the enveloping landscape. Here, digital technologies are not a medium or lens, but have agency on us, other material objects, and each other. Their affordances are co-conspirators in the stories that unfold as Geocaching practices are performed.
Geocaching30 is a particularly apt example for examining interactions between human and non-human entities in landscapes of play as, despite technically being a ‘digital game’, much of the gameplay seems to occur without the use of digital devices. In his ethnographic work on the everyday realities of digital technology, Mike Duggan describes how the ‘digital’ element is often not apparent during community-oriented practices of Geocaching such as logging; yet without the technological architecture of the gameplay, the broader emotional experience of the game would never come to fruition.
Looking ahead to possible future research, these observations signal the importance of further insight into the ways digital technology is experienced in everyday life, such that we can develop more nuanced understandings of how landscapes unfold, which avoid the pitfalls of technological determinism, social constructionism, or focusing on a singular thinking human subject. For geographical research into digital games specifically, there’s ample opportunity for deeper study into the processes through which game landscapes come into being, from the early stages of design, programming and testing, through to the end-user experience and wider social and cultural impact.
I’m hoping31 that my upcoming practice-based PhD project can lead to some salient insights into all these stages of development, as I’ll be adapting the gameplay of Geocaching to attempt to create new methods of engaging with the stories that make landscapes meaningful to people.