Sunday 9 July 2023

Time Travel as Wayfinding: Assembling Past and Present in Location-Based Games

Below is a written version of the paper I presented at the Virtual Realities as Time Travel workshop hosted by the Bristol Digital Games Lab on 12th May 2023. In the text below, I have indicated where each slide should be viewed in the embedded PowerPoint above.
I’d like to thank everyone at British Digital Games Lab for making this excellent event happen, in particular Richard Cole for inviting me to participate. I'd also like to thank the other speakers and attendees for contributing to such interesting and rich discussion.     

(Slide 1)

Hi everyone. I’m Jack Lowe, a post-doctoral research associate at the University of the West of England’s Digital Cultures Research Centre. I also design location-based games and I do narrative design for digital games and other media.

(Slide 2)

I’m here to talk about what time travel might mean in the context of location-based games – that is, games in which players’ physical locations and/or actions are incorporated into the gameplay through media interfaces. What does time travel mean in the context of these types of games?

(Slide 3)

Well, I want to start by stating the obvious: we can’t literally be transported back in time, nor can we create perfect emulations of the past through media, no matter how ‘immersive’ they supposedly are.

However, we can literally engage with elements of the historic past in the places we inhabit.

(Slide 4)

Throughout this talk, I’m going to be talking about places as assemblages. Assemblages are relationships between component parts that aren’t stable or fixed. Things can be replaced or displaced, and some things can also remain.

By thinking about places as assemblages, we can grasp how elements of the past remain in the present, but how there are always elements that are changing too – whether they’re material things, meanings or lived practices.

(Slide 5)

I’ve got this quote here from Tim Ingold, an anthropologist who talks about places in this kind of processual way. He says:

“…every place holds within it memories of previous arrivals and departures, as well as expectations of how one may reach it, or reach other places from it. Thus do places enfold the passage of time: they are neither of the past, present or future but all three rolled into one. Endlessly generated through the comings and goings of their inhabitants, they figure not as locations in space but as specific vortices in a current of movement, of innumerable journeys actually made.”

So when I look at this quote, it really makes me feel that places are sites of time travel. They have multiple time periods folded into them, produced by the journeys of the things that assemble in those places.

(Slide 6)

And what I’m here to discuss today is how our engagement with these elements from different time periods depends on how we navigate through places.

In particular, I going to use the concept of wayfinding in this presentation to discuss how we interact with different time periods in location-based games.

Wayfinding is a practice of coming to understand your whereabouts by connecting your movements with the narratives of other journeys made in that place, by you and by other people and things.

But wayfinding isn’t a clear-cut process. Not everyone finding their way through a place will make the same connections.

(Slide 7)

And this is a theme I’m going to be returning to when I talk about how we engage with the past in location-based games.

My aim is to highlight how location-based games present compelling opportunities for expanding and complicating understandings of the past and how the past connects with the present through place.

And I’m going to do this by exploring the relationships between navigation and narrative in the design and play of two games I created that directly focus on historic events.

Let me introduce them briefly.

(Slide 8)

The first is The Timekeeper’s Return. The Timekeeper’s Return is a story-based treasure hunt designed for all ages, in which players scan QR codes to discover the hidden histories of locations in Canterbury’s Cathedral Quarter. The story follows the journey of a time-travelling researcher called Mia Augustina, whose time machine has malfunctioned and trapped her in the past. By interacting with role-playing local businesspeople and using the information they provide, players must find and scan all the QR code ‘triangulation markers’ in the Cathedral Quarter to recalibrate Mia’s time machine and help her return. These QR codes also communicate Mia’s research diaries, sharing the stories of what she has encountered in the past, in those same locations.

(Slide 9)

The second game is The Gates to Dreamland. The Gates to Dreamland is an interactive audiowalk set around the Dreamland Amusement Park in Margate. The player triggers audio diary extracts to be played when they find each of the 5 gates located around Dreamland’s perimeter. These diary extracts describe the journey faced by Italian scientist Galileo, as he attempted to publish his final book. Through symbolic and metaphorical connections to the landscape around Dreamland, the audiowalk explores the obstacles Galileo faced, as he lost his eyesight and his health worsened, and how his perspective on the world changed. It’s ultimately about the power of imagination in changing how you see the world, and it can be played in person or online using Google Streetview.

So now I’ve introduced the games, let’s use this idea of wayfinding to think about how we engage with the past by navigating through places in location-based games.

(Slide 10)

In location-based games, one of the features of how you navigate is that you can generally look and move in any direction that your body allows. You are in control of your body and what you choose to focus on in your surroundings.

This feature is one of the reasons that many digital games and other interactive experiences are considered different when compared to other narrative media like films or books. You have more agency to determine the perspective from which you encounter things happening in the world.

This is called ‘dynamic focalization’.

(Slide 11)

However, in digitally-rendered worlds, designers still have tactics to influence what you pay attention to. They can use visual techniques like lighting and signposting, they can use sound design or they can change the characteristics of the avatar you control. So while it still feels like you have a great deal of agency in where you direct your attention, it is still being manipulated by the designers of the digitally-rendered world.

In location-based games, you engage with a material world using a fleshy body, not an avatar, in a way that isn’t limited by what has been programmed into some software.

But this agency brings with it an awful lot of uncertainty.

(Slide 12)

I’m going to use an example from The Timekeeper’s Return to illustrate this, which was the QR code treasure hunt engaging with hidden histories of Canterbury’s Cathedral Quarter.

One of Mia Augustina’s research diaries from the past, communicated through a QR code sticker, referred to the building pictured here. This building was believed to be the inspiration for the house of Mr. Wickfield in Charles Dickens’ novel David Copperfield.

When I tested the game, some players misinterpreted that the building being described was the stone tower you can see in the image on the right. To me, it seemed obvious from the positioning of the QR code that the building people would look at would be the white building. As it turned out, players would usually end up focusing on the more intricate, striking features of the stone tower instead. So in the end, I had to change the research diary text to deliberately direct players to look across to the other side of the road, where the relevant building could be seen.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been so surprised, though, because this is a common outcome when wayfinding in an unfamiliar setting. I’m sure all of us can recall moments when we’ve been following directions that describe landmarks, or when we’ve looked at the road layout on a map, yet still managed to go the wrong direction because of what we happened to notice at the time, or what we were paying attention to.

(Slide 13)

For Misha Myers, this is one of the particular qualities of mobile media storytelling: that even in a linear story with pre-determined routes, the narrative experience can be “undone by the particularities of ‘just this body in just this place’ at just this time.” Wayfinding is an embodied practice, and each body will have different capacities in different contexts.

Okay, so the embodied navigation that people do in location-based games introduces contingency to the experience, which can affect how players engage with historic elements in their environment.

(Slide 14)

But what happens if you lean into this contingency? What happens if you accept the possibility that people might not notice certain historic details, or will actively ignore information connecting to the past?

This is what I experimented with in The Gates to Dreamland, which was the locative audiowalk about the Italian scientist Galileo.

Whether you’re playing in person in Margate or using Google Streetview, when players listen to the audio diaries describing events in Galileo’s life, as a designer I had no way of knowing what players might be looking at or paying attention to at the time.

For example, one player described how, at this point in the experience, they decided to use Google Streetview to zoom in on the person pushing the pram. As you can see, that’s just one detail visible in the 360-degree view of this location.

(Slide 15)

But rather than deliberately directing players’ attention to particular things, like I did with The Timekeeper’s Return, instead I decided to write audio diary scripts that were saturated with references to all sorts of things in your surroundings. Even though Galileo was living in 17th-century Florence, I could make connections to present-day Margate using metaphors and symbolism.

When I interviewed players about the game, they all described how what they focused on completely changed the connections they drew between Galileo’s experiences and the area of Margate they were navigating. They might only notice maybe a maximum of 40% of the references in the audio diaries, because of what they happened to be paying attention to at the time. But that’s fine, because when they did notice them, it was they themselves who had uncovered that link to the past. And often they would perceive connections I never even intended too.

This then helped them to understand the wider themes of the experience: about the power of the imagination in creating connections across different time periods and different parts of the world. Perception itself is a form of agency.

By actively drawing on the contingency of wayfinding as an embodied practice, the game demonstrated that there are no stable, unchanging understandings of the past. The past is always encountered in a present, lived context.

(Slide 16)

So we can see that the relationship between past and present isn’t a neat one.

And this is clearly shown by places. In all places, some elements of the past remain, others don’t, some are detectable, some aren’t, some we know about and some we don’t.

In location-based games that engage with the past, the aim of designers is to find forms of navigation that assemble interesting or compelling connections between the past and the present in the places people inhabit.

(Slide 17)

The Timekeeper’s Return was all about the hidden histories of Canterbury’s Cathedral Quarter, and the excitement of following the journey of time-travelling researcher Mia Augustina as she encountered them.         

Some of these histories are still visible in the environment in some form – players just needed the opportunity to notice them. In this image, the stones you can see embedded in the brickwork are the last remains of the Burgate, a gate in Canterbury’s city wall that existed in various forms from the Romans until 1822. Simply through the placement of a QR code at this location, the attention of players who successfully found the sticker was drawn to this material feature.

(Slide 18)

For other histories, however, there is no obvious physical remnant for people to find. For example, while Canterbury’s Cathedral Quarter was extensively bombed during the Baedecker Raids of WW2, many of the bombed areas have since been rebuilt.

In these situations, connections with the past must be made in other ways.

One technique is to use the material features that do exist as a reference point. For example, referring to the heights and distances between things in players’ surroundings to indicate the scale of something no longer there.

For the WW2 bombing example, one of the QR code research diaries draws players’ attention to a street where the entirety of one side of the street was flattened by the bombing, while all the buildings on the other side remained intact. While the bombed side of the street has now been rebuilt, I could still use this comparison between the two sides of the street to demonstrate the extent of the destruction.

In The Timekeeper’s Return, then, wayfinding by using historic details in the story and its comparison to the present-day landscape gave players dramatic agency in how they assembled connections to the past.

(Slide 19)

But in The Gates to Dreamland, where the history being explored happened somewhere else entirely (17th-century Florence), how could players’ navigation of the environment engage with the past in a compelling way?

The answer was to draw figurative and symbolic connections between material features in the player’s surroundings and Galileo’s situation, as described in the audio diaries.

At one of the gates to Dreamland, between the metal bars, the amusement park’s Helter Skelter is visible in the distance. The words from the scripted audio diary at this location imagine how Galileo’s first action, when returning to his villa under house arrest in 1634, was to climb straight to the highest window of the house. Here, he gazes upon the familiar view of the Torre del Gallo – a tower in Florence – but his sight problems render the view inaccessible.

Here, the listener is invited to draw a figurative connection between the inaccessibility of Dreamland’s landmarks and that of Galileo, in being house-bound and increasingly visually impaired.

Of course, there are slippages in this process. In discussing mobile media storytelling, Misha Myers describes the breakages and detours that occur when participants ‘move between the fault lines of two presents’ – one represented by the media, and one inhabited by the participant.

What’s compelling about this process of juxtaposition, however, is that it provides gaps for players to fill in.

(Slide 20)

This can lead to all sorts of unexpected impressions too.

For example, one of the people who played The Gates to Dreamland using Google Streetview decided to play with the platform’s date range feature as they were navigating. As they witnessed the Margate landscape change over time, their interpretation of the audio diaries shifted depending on the version of Margate they navigated through.        

Wayfinding is ultimately a propositional process: proposing a way through the world by finding connections between the diverse range of information you encounter, however jarring or conflicting it may be.

In these location-based games, players navigated the fault lines between present-day contexts and information from the past, and then used this to construct an understanding of place and its relationship with time.

(Slide 21)

The juxtaposition of a mediated history with an embodied encounter of a place means that the impressions of the past that players form typically aren’t simple, singular narratives. There are all sorts of influences and perspectives that shape what people perceive about these histories.

Often, players of these two games would report how their perceptions of places and their history changed as a result of playing.

For those who played The Timekeeper’s Return, probably the two most common responses to the game were that a) they became newly aware of historic features in the Cathedral Quarter that they didn’t know were there, and b) that they learnt about the history behind landmarks which they encountered on an everyday basis (as this quote shows).

(Slide 22)

In The Gates to Dreamland, which was often played remotely using Streetview during the pandemic, the experience provoked interesting relationships with memory. Galileo’s history became coloured by people’s existing knowledges and impressions of Margate, as well as the version of Margate they encountered on Streetview. Likewise, their impressions of Margate became influenced by Galileo’s story. Suddenly, Margate became seen as a place connected to many other entities across space and time. The understanding of the past that resulted was deeply hybrid; an impression that cut across many different influences.

(Slide 23)

However, there’s an interesting question about authenticity here, which ties to some of the discussions we had during the last Bristol Digital Games Lab event. Does it matter that people are engaging with Galileo’s history in a context that’s completely foreign to the one he actually lived in? Does it matter that the diaries aren’t Galileo’s own words, even though they’re based on academic research and evidence from the historic record?

(Slide 24)

This is a debate that goes far beyond the scope of this presentation, but what came out consistently from my interviews with those who played these games was a heightened awareness of the range of possible connections with the past that can be made – how multiple impressions of a place and its past can come to define a site. Players recognised that one person’s impression of Galileo’s journey, or one of the Cathedral Quarter’s histories, would be constructed completely different from somebody else’s, depending on all sorts of contextual factors. In The Timekeeper’s Return, in particular, players frequently referred to a sense of community being generated. This collective, extroverted sense of place came about as players engaged with a wide range of historic information shared by several role-playing local businesspeople in order to navigate through the game area.

Which brings me to the final point of this presentation. Wayfinding is an intersubjective practice – it unfolds through the relationships between things, rather than depending on a single person’s intentions.

And the same thing is happening with these games. Impressions of the past unfold through the continual wiring and re-wiring of connections between materials, meanings and practices that people encounter as they navigate through places.

(Slide 25)

So overall, what can we say about time travel in location-based games?

Well, location-based games as media forms are defined by relationships between navigation and narrative. They’re about the synergy between how you find a way through the world and the story of what unfolds.

In location-based games that engage with the past, different forms of navigation are curated to connect what players encounter in the present-day world with historic events.

This happens through a process of wayfinding, which I’ve argued is an embodied, propositional and intersubjective process.

It’s embodied in how players have agency in the ways they move and pay attention to the things they encounter, to feel their way through the world.

It’s propositional in how there are ‘gaps’ or ‘fault lines’ between past events and what players encounter during the game, which players have the opportunity to fill with their ideas and imaginations.

And it’s intersubjective, in how the impressions of the past players form are created by drawing relations between multiple paths and perspectives.

By arguing that time travel in location-based games is akin to wayfinding, then, I’m suggesting that players’ interaction with the past isn’t neat or uncomplicated.

Rather, location-based games present compelling opportunities for expanding and complicating understandings of the past, by demonstrating the myriad ways that past and present are continually assembled in place.

(Slide 26)