Wednesday 31 July 2019

Wandering Games Conference 2019: Theorising wandering game experiences: post-phenomenology, navigation and narrative

Below is the written component of the paper I presented at the Wandering Games Conference on the 12th July 2019. 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 Melissa Kagen, Eben Muse and all the staff and student helpers at Bangor University that made such an endlessly inspiring conference happen. It was probably my favourite academic event of all time in how it brought together such a warm and passionate group of people over shared interests and loves, and I really hope Wandering Games returns for another conference next year.         

When1 we talk about the unique qualities of games in which we wander – whether we’re traversing virtual or physical worlds – what do we refer to? We might describe the rules2 (or lack thereof) that determine how we wander; what roles we play in the world of the game. We might describe the process3 of navigating – how the ways we wander the game environments impact our relationships with them. And we might talk about the outcomes4 of playing these games – we might describe events and encounters that occurred as we wandered, and how the journey made us feel.

Essentially, with wandering games we distinguish something unique in the relationships between players and their environment, which differs5 from other types of games where one’s surroundings might be seen more as a backdrop to the gameplay, or a territory upon which gameplay unfolds. Rather, the environment, and how we traverse it, is central to the meaning-making process that occurs during wandering games. In geographical terms6, we could say that we’re distinguishing between game spaces and game places.

In this presentation, I want to demonstrate the usefulness of geographical approaches for making sense of the meaning-making process that takes place in wandering games. By understanding their unfolding interrelationships of bodies, social relationships and technologies as a form of dwelling in place, we can not only better understand the ways that players play and experience wandering games, but think about their potential for enabling practices of design and play that articulate different ways of being in the world.

To do this, I’m going to draw on research involving both video games and physical location-based games. The first is a study7 of walking simulator video games, in which I carried out autoethnographic playing of 12 walking sims and interviewed their developers. The second8 is a long-term study of the GPS-based treasure-hunting game Geocaching, for which I’ve also used autoethnography, as well as analysing geocache descriptions9 and the logs other players have left after finding the hidden containers.

I’m going to talk about two key aspects of the place-making process that occurs in these games: emplacement10 – how information is positioned in the game’s world to elicit certain kinds of responses, and what kinds of information; and enaction11 – how players engage with and make sense of this information as they wander, and the situated acts and inconsistencies these forms of wandering might entail.

Together12, this discussion will point towards experiences of dwelling in the worlds of wandering games as something assembled contingently, between connections and disconnections of human and non-human agents that unfold through the navigational gameplay. I’ll finish by explaining how this way of thinking can help us get to grips with what these games do, and what they can allow us to do as designers and players.

As13 we wander through the environment of a game, our feelings and perceptions will be shaped by what we encounter and the information we glean from the world, whether it was put there intentionally or not.

In walking simulator games, developers aim to qualify these experiences through environmental storytelling – whereby the construction of a narrative relies on the player’s navigation between pieces of information purposefully embedded across the game’s environment, and the interpretations they make from these evocative narrative elements.

In Geocaching14, we might say that this informational ‘environment’ is expanded to include all the materials players can use to find a geocache: the description and hints available on the cache webpage, curated by its owner, and past activity logs. Players then determine how this information corresponds to what they encounter physically.

But what does this distribution of information across the environments of these games achieve?

Most notably15, it allows players to choose what they focus on – a function Michael Nitsche calls ‘dynamic focalization’. The meanings that players derive from the distributed information are determined by what they notice in the world; and what their inclinations and motivations are as they explore. The possibility of ignoring16 certain pieces of embedded information means that players can decide the manner in which they want to invest in the world – whether to look in one place as opposed to another; whether to spend a long time piecing together details of what they encounter, or simply find what they need and leave.

By positioning this moment of focalization right at the heart of the game space, the player experience is tailored to their own affective and emotional sensibilities. Navigating17 the world becomes a personalised event in which the significance of locations in the game environment becomes tied to the interests and urges of the individual player.

Furthermore, many developers seek to invite individual interpretation18 through the content of these narrative elements themselves, which is often deliberately ambiguous and multi-vocal.

In walking sims, this might come across in the use of symbolism, or artefacts that are written or spoken by multiple characters. While these aesthetic elements have their own voice and perspective, there’s no singular trustworthy narrator to filter what’s meaningful. Players have to decide what’s significant for themselves.

In Geocaching19, this active encouragement of interpretation is most apparent in the use of hints, which ask the player to apply their interpretation of the words to their surroundings. One of my favourite examples is a geocache I found where the hint was ‘I don’t ever want to feel like I did that day’. At first the phrase seemed to bear no relation whatsoever to my location, until it suddenly clicked that those words are the lyrics to the Red Hot Chili Peppers song ‘Under the Bridge’. Sure enough20, that’s where the cache was located. But I’m also aware of the degree of personalisation that this method provokes, because every time I walk past that particular bridge, I think about that moment of discovery, and often the song comes into my head too!        

I want to emphasise that the relationship between navigation and narrative in games where we wander can be more structured than it appears. Developers typically make their games with the aim of achieving particular emotional effects – effects that can make use of the personal focalization that wandering entails.

For walking simulators21, developers use three main methods to achieve this. The first is gating, in which entry and exit points in the world are carefully coordinated to structure the flow of information the player is exposed to. The second22 is signposting, in which light and sound directs the player’s attention towards certain significant elements in their surroundings. And the final23 method is pacing, in which the spacing between narrative information is carefully managed to elicit dramatic tension and mood.

As you can see, this level of authorship by developers often simply comes down to how players are able to move and act in the game world. Shibolet’s24 excellent paper on the avatar’s movement in Journey, which describes how the ‘story’ of the experience comes into being almost solely through the sense of trajectory you embody as you move across the world, reminds us that game worlds in which we wander are not just a mise-en-scene, but what Andy Lavender calls a mise-en-sensibilité. The emplacement of information is as multimedia as the practice of game playing itself.

Indeed, in Geocaching25, alongside the text we see on the webpage, the way geocaches are hidden is geared towards players sensually engaging with the world through touch; using embodied experience to engage with what the abstract view of GPS coordinates fails to see.

What’s notable, then, about the navigational qualities of wandering games is how the stories that derive from these experiences become personalised to the player26. The constellations of affects and perceptions that players chart become closely mapped onto internal topographies of the self as much as information represented digitally. And this is often deliberate. The designed structure of wandering games can provide opportunities for players to engage on their own terms with aesthetic and kinaesthetic possibilities in the world. They can become gatekeepers to “intimate spatial knowledge”, to quote urban explorer Bradley Garrett, turning the game space into “a place for dwelling rather than merely a territory”.

However27, understanding how this relationship between navigation and narrative plays out in practice is crucial, because games are evental media. Whether you’re loading up software in the case of video games, or heading out for a playful wander in a physical environment, the emplaced information of the game, without input from players, is just static architecture. As Alexander Galloway puts it, games only “exist when enacted”.

So what does enaction mean in the context of wandering games? How do our actions as players lead us to have meaningful experiences?

Let’s start with Geocaching28. When geocachers head out in search for a cache, they travel to the treasure’s listed coordinates on the Geocaching website. While reaching the given coordinates will bring the player within close proximity to the geocache, GPS technology itself is only accurate within a 10-metre radius, and is degraded further by 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 sensually with your physical surroundings to find the hidden container. The limitations of the technology are what provokes this sensual engagement.

In turn29, other players have the agency to hide geocaches in creative or elaborate ways, such as the one shown here. A geocache’s coordinates are there for anyone to see; it’s by engaging sensually with the unique materialities of cache locations that geocachers can feel the sense of empowerment, excitement and intimacy that the treasure-hunting gameplay aims to provoke.

Furthermore, over time many geocachers30, myself included, become more adept at this practice of finding geocaches, learning to recognise signs of disturbed ground, the sensitivity of the app’s GPS compass, and common hiding techniques. Often referred to as the player’s ‘geosenses’ or ‘cacher’s eye’, navigating to geocaches for regular players becomes a process of attunement, whereby technology, gameplay and material environment combine to re-orient bodily senses, and intensify the player’s relationship with their surroundings.

We might liken this process to cognitive mapping31 – the performative act of making connections between places and meaningful information, whereby, to quote Lynch32, “nothing is experienced by itself, but always in relation to its surroundings, the sequences of events leading up to it, the memory of past experiences.” And this can be found in the gameplay of walking sims too, as we navigate the mise-en-sensibilité that developers curate.

The issue with fictional worlds, however, is that the believability of the world – which you could say is the extent to which players are able to form coherent mental maps of it – is potentially more fragile33 and subjective. Not only are digital games susceptible to technical glitches, such as the problems I discovered in Firewatch with the rendering of textures in certain areas, but also there’s a fine balance for developers to negotiate in terms of exposing information34. They want to do so in a way that elicits emotional engagement, while also leaving enough room for players to stitch together a model of the world that make sense to them.

For example, during my autoethnography of walking sims, in some games I’d question how I discovered narrative information such as diary entries and graffiti that was somehow perfectly positioned to continue a linear story. As my navigation of the world began to feel more authored, the world no longer felt believable as a place, but felt more like a game level, where my own interpretation of events was seemingly less important. At those moments, it didn’t feel like a world I could imagine myself into.

The designers of walking sims aim to manage some of this inconsistency through testing. While many of the technical problems have technical solutions, for walking sims testing also exists to find inconsistencies in how people engage with the world subjectively35. For example, The Chinese Room re-made the world of Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture from scratch four or five times, simply because testing revealed that it didn’t ‘feel’ right to people as a Shropshire village. As James Ash observes36, testing is a process that enables developers to “render contingency visible” with the aim that these relationships between technologies, bodies and represented worlds can be re-attuned towards more “positively affective” outcomes.

We’re beginning to see that the relationship between navigation and narrative that develops when we wander in games, which I’m calling a place-making practice, is closely connected to personal embodied37 responses and their social and cultural associations. Only last week, I ran a workshop introducing academics to walking simulators, and some of the people in the room had never even picked up a games console controller before. It was a stark reminder that experiences of playing these games always intersect with age, disability, gender, ethnicity and many other facets of society and culture, whether this is in the playing of the game, or even being able to access and participate in the activity in the first place.

In Geocaching38, we’ve seen this intersection with social and cultural norms play out quite prominently on a larger scale in the public eye, where the gameplay has prompted legal action and security alerts, for example. And though I didn’t experience any barriers to playing the game based on embodied factors alone, as a white, able-bodied male, my participation at times has been restricted in other ways.                          

In the nerve-wracking39 example pictured here, I wasn’t willing to climb to the top of this tree to grab the geocache hidden there as the weather was windy, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to make three points of contact on trunk, contravening the social standards of climbing safety I 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 weren’t simply playful or serendipitous, but actively restrictive.

These examples remind us that practices of place-making40, and the links we develop between navigation and narrative, aren’t ideologically neutral. As geographer Tim Cresswell has noted in his seminal work In Place / Out of Place, the link between place and ‘belonging’ is central to many relationships of power in societies, particularly when we label certain acts or bodies as being ‘out of place’. Place becomes not just a domain of community or attunement, but also of ‘geographical deviance’ and disconnection.

By recognising the potential of ‘geographical deviance’, however, I want to finish by highlighting how acts of wandering also provide opportunities for transgression. It’s a fairly tame example41 that I came across during my research, but in the game Gone Home, which allows players to pick up objects and place them wherever they want, some players decided to collect all the items you can pick up in the game and put them in one room; while others curated shrines to the individual characters, rather than leaving the items as they were found. It’s just a small example of the potential of navigation as a transgressive act in wandering games, which can re-write stories of engagement with game places that disrupt established norms and make some of these underlying rules newly visible.

As digital technology42 has come to influence the ways we encounter and make sense of the worlds we inhabit, critical thinkers across the arts and humanities have sought to chart the factors that shape our place in the world as humans.

As a distinctly interactive medium, with associated concepts of agency and immersion, for example, games are a particularly useful area of study for getting to grips with our being in the world, and how interrelationships of human and non-human components influence this.

The conception of place43 I’ve been using today is born out of post-phenomenological approaches in Geography, which understand our experiences of being in the world as less about ‘being there’, but more about ‘being with’ – being part of an unfolding ecology of human and non-human agents that assemble contingently and in situ; not solely centred in the human mind.

What I hope to have demonstrated today is that, in the unique ways that wandering in games develops meaningful relationships between individuals and environments, we are talking about practices of place-making. And by understanding44 what we mean when we talk about dwelling in place – as something highly personal, sensual, contingent, performative, and potentially transgressive – we can better recognise both the opportunities and limitations that arise from these articulations of bodies, technologies, materials and social norms.

I’m arguing that if we’re going to make games in which the kinds of experiences we want players to have result from developing meaningful relationships with the environment, we need to consider what we mean when we say things like we want to create ‘believable’ or ‘emotionally-engaging’ worlds with a ‘sense of place’.

As a final touchstone45 for my presentation, I want to highlight the work of people in games such as Kate Edwards, a high-profile member of the games industry who is employed specifically as a geographical consultant by games companies to critique and help develop their world-building. If you listen to her talks, you’ll find that she has lots of anecdotes about games companies that have wanted to effectively re-write geopolitical history to appeal to certain market, and how she has had to negotiate the impacts and ethics of these kinds of decisions.

As a way of thinking about experience that is highly attuned to materialities, the body, society, culture, geopolitics, and increasingly digital technology, it’s evidence that geographical approaches are well-placed for thinking about the interconnected factors that shape how our experiences of game environments are enacted46.

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