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Monthly Archives: February 2013

In Doom  and Myst–and in a great many other computer games–narrative and time itself are equated with movement through 3D space, progression through rooms, levels, or words. In contrast to modern literature, theater, and cinema which are built around the psychological tensions between the characters and the movement in psychological space, these computer games return us to the ancient forms of narrative where the plot is driven by the spatial movement of the main hero, traveling through distant lands to save the princess, to find the treasure, to defeat the Dragon, and so on.

In Manovich’s essay, “Navigable Space,” the author brings up the interesting idea that, as in the classic video computer games Doom and Myst, one’s spatial, 3-dimensional movement through a medium guides their progression, and thus the narrative that they create. They themselves have the sole power and control over the progression of the game. If they are to stop, then the game will remain at a complete standstill, unaffected by passage of time or other factors. The completion of the game depends on how much 3-dimensional space the player covers. Only when they travel through and encounter all areas of the grid will they be able to advance further in the narrative of the game.

In this week’s lab, I was able to see this phenomenon with my own eyes, as I was immersed into the mythological world of Myth. I had never played the game before, so I was slightly confused as to how to proceed, but eventually I got the general gist of it. I was to wander around the island that I was placed in, looking for clues as to what I was supposed to do to advance myself in the game. I found myself wandering the island, walking its paths, entering its buildings, reading through scraps of paper and books left behind by the character who had previously resided on the island. I explored the spatial gridlines of the island step-by-step, and indeed found the endeavor quite relaxing. Unlike many modern video games of the 21st century, there was no time limit or deadline in which I had to have a certain mission or goal completed. I did not have to rush through the setting with a specific concrete goal in mind, paying little attention to the features and phenomenon as I passed by for fear of losing time. In fact, much to the contrary, I found myself “stopping to smell the flowers” per se. I was able to pay more attention to the buildings, the color of the trees, the water, the curve of the path, and I slowly but surely began create a spacial map of the island in my head, so that eventually I knew where I was and how to get from point A to B without referring to any map or aid. The game of Myst allows the user the freedom and flexibility to carve their own path and to form their own narrative through the “Navigable Space.” They develop a much more personal relationship with the game, and the final outcome is very much a product of their own actions and movements. Indeed, “Navigable Space” very much reflects a simple reality, in which our actions and spatial movements paint the narrative and direction of our lives, and the world of Myst becomes us.

While Thrift makes a periodizing argument, it is the body, the oldest “technology” that runs on code and yet the most analog object there is, that is situated as the agent of qualculation and of sensing the “changing domain” of “movement space.” For if it is not new quantities but qualities that are being produced, then it is only the body, or technologies that simulate the body’s affectedness, that can participate in the logic of quaculation. As such, we might characterize Thrift’s movement space as being governed by the logic of a sensing/feeling body. The following snippets of text, I believe, demonstrate this logic of the body:

 

“numbers are figured in multiple ways—usually as little ritual gestures, utterance and the use of appropriate prostheses—and are not easily reduced to a singular activity called ‘calcuation,’ . . . the use of numbers varies with context. It is also to say that the use of numbers is inevitably  partial, performative, distributed, and often integrated into other activites (for example, navigation, decoration, calendrics, religion) rather than understood as a discrete activity carried out for itself…. subjects may increasingly understand themselves as the subject and object of number and numerical calculation. . . more and more of the world is brought into this means of ordering through the operations of various forms of code and the ordering microorders that they generate”

 

Considering these passages, we might consider qualculation as an act of being moved in a plastic way. I think this is perhaps more specific than Thrift’s idea of flux, considering his periodizing goal. The philosopher Henri Bergson argued that after the mechanization of the cinematic apparatus culture became characterized by flux, of images, poses, instances (in line with the flow of images that creates cinema). Thrift argues for “a world of continuously flickering rotations and transformations and projections hove into view” that comes into being with cybernetics. He echoes what Bergson argued about the start of the 20th century but argues it for the 21st century. It is the way in which Thrift characterizes flux that makes his argument regarding movement-space specific to a period of cybernetics, to a media newer than cinema: “constantly changing their character in response to new events and which can communicate with each other in a kind of continuously diffracting spacial montage.”

I thought the idea of new media being democratic was a very interesting point – especially when this idea was discussed in the greater cultural scheme of modern America.  Everyone uses SNS media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.): something happens and people go “Oh, I need to post that as my status.”  For those “everyone,” it seems like if you don’t check your Facebook for a day, you miss out on all the latest news on your friends, upcoming events, even people’s birthdays!  So, on one hand, we become so addicted to using these SNS (often run by companies) that, can we go so far as to say that we are dependent on these forms of media and, subsequently, the people and companies that run these media?

So, with that in mind, one of the most interesting points from this week’s readings comes from a early section in Manovich’s text that discusses the game, Doom.  “The producers define the basic structure of an object, and release a few examples as well as tools to allow consumers to build their own versions, to be shared with other consumers.”  These days, with so much emphasis on copyright laws, it’s hard to imagine a company, which by definition wants to make profit, allowing for hackers to share their own versions of games (or other kinds of media).  Yet, some of these still exist: for example, there’s a still-existing unofficial online community of programmers and gamers who discuss and share their own versions of Phoenix Wright, a Nintendo DS game.  What struck me is that they are an unofficial community and not affiliated with the original producers.  Here, with Doom, the producers are essentially encouraging this sharing of the game.

Myst was truly a new type of videogame experience for me, and I would like to draw some contrasts between my experience playing Myst and my experience reading  Patchwork Girl, because they both, to me, evoked a sense of directed disorientation.

The navigable space in Myst was first of all, much more manageable than in Patchwork Girl. This time, there wasn’t that much of a “create your own adventure” world which was, in my opinion, rather frustrating while reading Patchwork Girl. But what I found in playing Myst is that actually knowing what you have to do but not being able to actually do it was more frustrating. For example, I spent most of my time either looking for the switch to turn on the generator or trying to work out the musical notes to launch the space ship. I knew exactly what I had to do, but not being able to perform the action proved to be rather frustrating much like reading Patchwork Girl being frustrating but because you didn’t know where you were going.

Additionally, I would like to draw attention to the physical similarities that the player/reader experiences with the repeated clicking. I guess this is why, originally, I thought of comparing Patchwork Girl to Myst. I found that both physical experiences were similar in the sense that the screen plays the aggressive role that invites you to keep clicking and keep going whether you may be frustrated or not. The actual physical effort proves to be so small that we just keep going disregarding whether or not we may know where we are going or if we are just exploring.

I would also like to draw on the theme of exploration that was clear in both experiences. In this case, contrary to many games, there was not much of a backstory that allowed the player to know what to do or where to go much like Patchwork Girl only allowed the reader to know the general direction of the text which could change after any given click. This sense of complete unknown is rare in many games and in many literary pieces, and therefore makes these two pieces clearly stand out, but finally, although these parallels do exist I found myself enjoying the whole experience in Myst much more than in Patchwork Girl.

Google is, increasingly, a navigation company just as much as a search software one. Android phones are known for their tight integration with Google Maps data, allowing users to mumble “navigate airport” and be presented with an immersive, pseudo-3D map with turn-by-turn guidance.

This shift in their focus is hardly a surprise, however; as Manovich argues, technological spaces are becoming more and more navigable. Google’s navigation app is of course haptic rather than optic: all extraneous objects are rendered as a flat, solid field on top of which roads and navigational data are overlaid in the simplest possible form. The route to be taken becomes the only interesting object in this navigational (and navigable) space, and the identification between that space and reality is tenuous at best: they have the same street layout, but where are the buildings, people, and plants?

 

More recently, Google has revealed their new augmented-reality game Ingress. The interface is remarkably similar to the navigation app, because it is derived from it; but this time, there is even less optical context. In navigation, there is at least a distinction of color between major and minor roads, between green park polygons and white residential polygons, and so on. Ingress removes all such color cues, leaving only a bright grey-blue street network on a night-black void. The goal of the game is to interact with and control “portals,” nexuses of “exotic matter” that exist near sculptures, museums, and other major public locations*.

The focus on portals increases the hapticity of the experience in a number of ways. First, the portals are not marked in reality: they can only be seen (as animated 3D fountains of energy) from the phone app. Additionally, the extensive spaces (such as University Hall) that constitute some portals are reduced to single points, determined by latitude and longitude down to the limits of the floating-point precision of the game. Finally, and crucially, they make the underlying reality subservient, turning it into a transport layer for players. Several times I have walked past the SciLi portal and “hacked” it from my phone without so much as glancing at the physical object that the portal allegedly corresponds to. In this way, reality itself becomes a haptic space through which users travel only in order to affect objects occupying the virtual space in their phones. This can have strange effects on ones mindset — such as the time I nearly walked to Kennedy Plaza at 2 in the morning, desperate to recapture the Soldiers and Sailors monument before the enemy could reinforce it.

 

*On a Baudrillardian note, the backstory of Ingress claims that these portals have always existed; the exotic matter influences people in strange ways, drawing them to the portals and inspiring them to erect monuments in the form of, say, the new Circle Dance sculpture on campus. (The Brown Bear statue, University Hall, and the SciLi are also all portals). This inverts the reality of the app, which is that Google has gathered various sources of significant locations, such as from the National Historic Landmarks database, and inserted virtual “portals” at the appropriate GPS coordinates. It is an extremely literal rendition of Baudrilliard’s modification of Borges’ story of the country-scale map; Google is, if in fictional form, attempting to supplant the haptic universe of “interesting locations” with a digital universe of identical portal-locations under their control. In the process, they have appointed themselves the final arbiters of interestingness: users can submit proposed portals to Ingress, together with a photograph and description, but there is no guarantee that a new portal will be “discovered” there.

In his “From a View to a Kill” Derek Gregory outlines the ways in which the advent of “drones” – unmanned aerial vehicles – has fundamentally altered not only how war is physically conducted but also, critically, how it is mediated and experienced. Rather than the “optical detachment” of the pilot from the physical space of the battlefield resulting in a sterile, emotionally removed, videogame-like experience of war, Gregory argues that this new screen-based mode of warfare breeds a paradoxical “special kind of intimacy that consistently privileges the view of the hunter-killer,” a false compression and conflation of spaces that transforms “over there” to the distance between operator and screen (Gregory, 5).

 

Thus, the troubling implications of remote warfare become not a lack of emotional investment but instead the spatial intimacy and presumed transparency of the battlefield, the “techno-culturally” mediated identification with the fellow American soldiers stranded helplessly only 18 inches away. However, as Gregory argues, this identification is a misidentification, a false conflation of “the view from above” and “the view from below” that compresses spatial and temporal distance in a way “that renders ‘our’ space familiar even in ‘their’ space – which remains obdurately Other” (Gregory, 20). Thus, for Gregory, the screen serves as a kind of imaginary window onto the real space of the battlefield, a space that becomes fundamentally techno-culturally mediated, such that “its ‘transparency’ [is] tragically illusory,” and the intimacy created is a false intimacy.

 

This concept of the screen as a mediator of intimacy has come to define not only the experience of warfare but also, in a broader sense, many facets of online interaction. As people spend more and more time behind their screens, utilizing them as interfaces for communication, a false techno-culturally mediated intimacy is bred as time and space become compressed, folded together onto the linking medium of the screen. The imaginary space of the chat room becomes the new site of interaction; the text based conversations of an instant message, initially a strange proposition, lose their awkwardness and begin to supplant personal intimacy with a new, textual and screen based “intimacy.” I know that in my youth, I spent countless hours having long, completely text-based instant message conversations with friends – it seemed at times like I knew my friends better “online” than in did in real life. The instant message box became a site of profound intimacy, a space both nowhere and “right here.”

This week’s readings and lecture opened up some very interesting questions about the democratic nature of new media. How is what we are saying controlled by the format of expression, and to what extent? Since profit-driven companies are setting the terms for the platforms on which we choose to express ourselves (twitter, facebook), are we merely victims of a hierarchical power structure, with those companies at the top? Or do we actually have some measure of free expression? I would argue that the internet is, in fact, democratic.

Of course I acknowledge that to an extent, form does affect content. As a classmate mentioned in lecture, the structure of the platform does allow certain things to come to light where they might not in other spaces, and what you say is limited by what the platform will allow you to say (for example, the character limit on twitter). However, I believe that the format of the platform is determined, to a larger extent than one might think, by the consumer. There are always new media platforms springing up, competing to be in favor, and the ones that succeed are the ones that are chosen, by the people, for the people. Twitter is successful because it allows people to communicate in a way in which they want to communicate. Google Plus, on the other hand, is less successful, because it does not improve upon older, similar platforms (facebook) and is therefore less desirable. The websites on which we express ourselves are constructed in accordance with the laws of supply and demand: what do consumers want, what will they use.

Another way in which I believe new media to be democratic is that while individual platforms have restrictions that only allow information to be expressed one way, when looking at new media as a whole, the consumer has a wide variety of options. There are a number of different platforms on which one can choose to express oneself, and if a particular format doesn’t suit your needs, there’s a pretty good chance another one exists out there. Most people are on multiple social networking sites, and choose to express different facets of their lives on each one, depending on format.

And, of course, we have to take into account the fact that anyone can start up a media platform. It certainly won’t have the same success as ones begun by well-known companies whose platforms are already successful (because people chose, democratically, to use them) right away, but facebook, for example, started small and grew to what it is today. If there for whatever reason isn’t a website that caters to your specific needs, the internet allows you to create your own space.

When I was first thrust into the world of Myst, I had no idea what to do. I did not know how to move around, where I was, where I was supposed to go, what I was supposed to do, etc. I didn’t know how to navigate this new space. But, over time, I got my bearings and things started to make sense. I wandered and eventually discovered that the mystery was deeper than figuring out what I was supposed to do, the game itself is about solving mysteries. These mysteries are layered on top of each other, each one a smaller part of another one, each solution just a piece of another problem, all leading up to the grand mystery that was the plot of the game (perhaps why the game was called “Myst”). I thought the way the elements of the game’s puzzles overlapped and layered was intriguing and I think it mirrors your relationship with the game and its narrative. The game functions as a heterotopia, with you occupying both your seat at the computer and wherever you are in the game simultaneously. In your mind, you are the character of the game; you place yourself in his situation and think as he would. You ARE him. Yet you are still sitting at your seat; you sometimes see your reflection in the screen, and for a second, your synonymy with the character is broken. These mysteries become your own, and it becomes difficult to separate what’s happening on the screen from what’s happening in your life at the time. The self becomes intertwined with the game and in this way you become linked with the narrative and the mysteries contained within.

“Computer space is also aggregate yet in another sense. As I already noted, using the example of Doom, traditionally the world of a computer game is not a continuous space but a set of discrete levels. In addition, each level is also discrete–it is the sum of rooms, corridors, and arenas built by the designers. Thus rather than conceiving space as a totality, one is dealing with a set of separate places.” – Lev Manovich

While many games still follow the traditional “levels” model that Manovich describes, technological advances have enabled game designers to construct virtual spaces that increasingly leave the player with a sense of the game world as self-contained and complete. Faster processors allow for on-the-fly rendering of the game world and eliminate the need for loading screens; increasingly powerful design tools enable developers to create larger and more detailed worlds; randomized events and encounters with other in-game characters make the world feel more dynamic, more alive. There are many “open world” games available now that abandon the “levels” model in favor of a massive, continuous game space.

This sort of modern game world doesn’t really fit under Manovich’s blanket description of computer-generated virtual worlds. The space of such a modern world is full of objects and environments with which the player can interact, and is far closer to a “totality” than the spaces that Manovich describes. These modern virtual worlds can provide a surprisingly rich illusion of reality, and their ability to do so will likely improve even more in the coming years.

In class Monday we spoke about drones being digital or virtual entities moving in physical space, and in Myst we explored a digital or virtual space while physically interacting with a mouse to do so. At first glance these may seem like analogous styles of movement, with a physical entity and a virtual entity interacting, but it seems to me that space as we understand it shouldn’t be applied as a concept to a game like Myst. In Myst, someone created the space that you interact with. In the creation process, that designer didn’t have to navigate through the space they were creating at all. Rather, they wrote code or used tools to shape the space, most likely with the ability to move through space (and time, in the case of Myst) at will. This is quite opposite to our existence in the physical world. We must toil to build structures, take time to move through space, and physically inhabit the world. Virtual spaces have no such constraints by themselves. Designers and programmers choose to impose these constraints on the user of the space they create. This may be because we cannot comprehend space as a non-contiguous entity, In The Matrix, Neo moves through contiguous space (albeit faster than a normal denizen of the matrix) even though he could conceivably just teleport everywhere he needs to go. We as users need this structure, but behind the scenes, the computer has no concept of space. There is no reason that one file should describe a room that is contiguous with another room contained in another file. Does the computer, then, interact with the “space” it creates as a spatial entity? Or rather are we imposing space on the computer, just like we impose space on the drones that navigate our world? When there is a virtual space on a screen, we can see it and so it feels more real, but is it any more of a space than a map or an adventure novel?