Skip navigation

Monthly Archives: February 2015

While re-playing Myst for the first time in ages brought back many childhood memories of endless frustration, I was struck by how clearly the development in the past few years of many indie games dubbed “walking simulators” resonate back to its influence, and found myself wondering about the phenomenology and political dimensions of this developing undercurrent in “game” development, especially in light of Manovich’s essay. Two works in particular, “Dear Esther” and “Proteus,” seem to me to critically engage with two of Manovich’s most insightful points, that many games seem focused on the distinctly “American mythology in which the individual discovers his identity and builds character by moving through space,” and the important connection he draws between the development of navigable 3D environments and the military-industrial complex, which now seem inextricably linked in the field of mainstream video game development.

“Dear Esther” is a game in which one does nothing but walk across a seemingly empty island and occasionally wait for the extremely fragmented voice-over narration of the character one plays. The story does not become any more or less clear as one progresses, and the psychological stability of the character, if it can be said to develop at all, deteriorates as one progresses towards a cryptic and climactic ending along a single, linear path. Numerous “walk-throughs” and guides for the game have been written which say nothing more than “press w.” Proteus, similarly, is a game where one simply wanders through a pixelated natural landscape, designed to be nothing more than an ambient experience with no goals or aims, a pure journey through navigable space.

Dear Esther’s release was timely, as critical reaction to the popular gaming exposition E3 that same year, 2012, was particularly, and somewhat unusually, taken aback by the extreme violence of many of the games presented, and caused many to question the direction interactive media was headed in. Within a market oversaturated with first person shooters and Call of Duty clones, it is relieving to see that there are avenues in which developers are exploring other means of dealing with the possibilities of navigable space that may still reach a broad audience.

I have been thinking about Wednesday’s lecture on Macluhan and how it relates to visibility, particularly in regard to Gregory’s essay on drone warfare. If the medium, is, in fact, the message, what better demonstration do we have of this slightly paradoxical statement than warfare where the antagonist is separated from the battlefield by both distance and a screen? In this case, the message could not exist without the medium, and the message (one of destruction, certainly, but one which, as Gregory points out affects the victims in a way that is intentionally isolating) stems directly from the mechanism used to deliver it. If, instead, the medium is the massage — the medium reaches out to touch you, literally — drone warfare seems a good demonstration of this, too. The medium, too, is the mass age, where war can be commercialized and lawyers constantly on hand to advice on collateral damage.

But it what does this say about drone warfare that we have not already learned from Gregory alone? Gregory spends much time reflecting on the affects of drone warfare and whether or not it is successful. However, the idea remains that war fought with drones can be either a successful or unsuccessful variation on traditional war. If the medium is indeed the message, might we be using a medium so intrinsically different from that in traditional war that what is being fought can no longer be categorized in the same way? Is the message we are sending so different that this is an entirely new form of warfare, one which requires new semantics?

I’m intrigued by Manovich’s discussion of the flâneur vs the explorer as a way to better understand navigable spaces and their users. The flâneur, as defined by Baudelaire, is an impassioned observer, one who feels at home in the fluidity and the anonymity of the crowd. Perhaps it could be said that any anonymity the flâneur experiences derives from this fluidity, from constant movement; the flâneur engages in a series of minute interactions that, because of the constant movement of urban life, are necessarily limited. By Manovich’s reading, the flâneur’s experience is, at its core, one of intersubjectivity, as their participation in street life helps to build the very environment that engages them.

Manovich finds a new media parallel to the flâneur in the “net surfer, who keeps posting to mailing lists and newsgroups and accumulating endless data”. Computer games, on the other hand, become aligned with a classically American concept of the explorer. A lone wanderer, a survivor, a conqueror — the narrative of the protagonists of computer games, like those of American novels, “is one of self-improvement”, and specifically, I would clarify, improvement in and of the self. Myst is a solid demonstration of the embodiment of this exploratory spirit in computer games. The player, completely alone on the island, isn’t given any sort of goal, instruction, encouragement — gameplay is dependent on their initiative alone. While clues from other characters can be discovered, they are relics of past lives and don’t reciprocate interaction. The text at the bottom of the screen, meant to provide assistance, does so begrudgingly, often simply advising the player go back to read up more thoroughly on Myst’s background. Success and gratification in Myst are subjective, connected to and dependent on the player and the player alone.

This week, I was very intrigued by Nigel Thrift’s theory on touch and how he believes it will evolve over time. Thrift states that “the sense of touch will be redefined in three ways as haptic engineering moves beyond today’s primitive keyboard, keypad, mouse and data glove”(597). First, he believes that touch will be able to stretch out over large spaces. Next, the entities that we touch will be able to expand, and in turn touch even more entities. Finally, new entities which were before “untouchable” will emerge and can be touched through technology. While reading this section, I found myself bothered by Thrift’s writing, yet I did not quite know why initially. At the same time, I agreed with his idea that technology allows us to connect with other people in ways that we never could decades ago. It was then that I realized that I disagreed with his definition of touch in the first place. While Thrift begins his argument by stating “hand is particularly important in providing not just active manipulation of the world but also a sense of touch” (597), his later arguments reveal that he views touch in terms with communication and connecting with others. On the other hand, I believe that touch goes beyond this definition. Touch should encompass the physical and emotional aspects of our relationships.

I believe that in this regard, technology is actually killing touch. While we may be able to encounter more data and people online, I feel that these connections that we make through technology can be more superficial than those that we culture in person. For example, I’m sure most people have more “friends” on Facebook than they have in real life simply because technology has greatly simplified the amount of effort we need to connect with others. In addition, actual physical contact cannot be replicated by our current technology. A hug from someone can be much more powerful than an online chat or a Facebook sticker. Although online friendships do have their merits, they limit our power of touch. As a result, I disagree with Thrift’s idea that our sense of touch will become stronger across the board over time. Technology will broaden our sense of touch, but it will do so at the cost of the strength of our touch.

When discussing the notion of navigable space in his article, Manovich raises the question of why new media seems to favor navigable space over psychological space. However, as a frequent gamer, this very question seemed to perturb me on a subconscious level. Technically, he’s right, new media does favor navigable space over psychological space by the very definitions of the terms; and yet, part of me felt as though this description did not do the games that I had played justice. For, as I explored the worlds of the many games that I have played, both shaping them through my interactions and being shaped by my interactions, I experienced psychological journeys of my own, ones that would become enmeshed in the worlds that had sparked them. As I play through many of these games again, every area, object, and character that I interact with brings back deep and vivid memories of the thoughts, feelings, musing, and revelations that had been sparked by these entities. Therefore, in some sense, I feel that by navigating the spaces of these games, I am simultaneously moving through a psychological space – that of my own past psychological journey.

I always loved videogames – this probably stems from a childhood spent reading countless adventure novels and fantasizing about my own saga where I was the starring adventurer. These outworldly dreams came to fruition in videogames, as my friend welcomed me to the wandering virtual worlds. I was accessing whole new dimensions, traversing through 3D world after 3D world as the shipwrecked brother, the estranged badass princess, the stationed soldier – in reality, spending endless hours cramping my hands and neck while feasting my eyes on a computer screen.

A common stasis in videogames is being stuck – unaware of how to proceed to make the game move forward. And that’s basically how I operated in Myst for the first maybe half hour or so. With no other controls except my mouse, I spastically clicked everything and anything in sight, noting possible puzzles that would need to be solved. Ironically, whenever you’re “stuck” in a videogame, you’re usually rapidly doing any combination of actions possible, wandering in circles. It’s maybe at first fun, and then frustrating. But ultimately what’s important to note is that you’re never actually static, unless you stop clicking. And if you discontinue your actions, are you actually still interacting in the verse?

The strange phenomenon of enjoyably accessing realms of navigable space on what is ultimately a 2D screen is perhaps a puzzling concept when explicitly stated, but we cannot deny its appeal in easing us into fantastical virtual spaces. At the same time, in that videogames always are prompting you to continuously act, navigate, and be the explorer (stop moving in most modern videogames and other characters will usually start persistently bothering you, or the game will pause or in not-so-extreme cases, you die.) It lacks the real life component of being able to simply be, and relax, as we can in real life. There are still things that the screen cannot capture.

One of the ideas regarding navigable spaces I found interesting is not only how your perspective of the digital world is contingent on your continuous movement, but also how this has been taken to an extent such that the digital world moves you. Most recently, I was struck by the fact that Youtube had added an “autoplay” feature. This addition isn’t novel, most video platforms, such as Netflix and Hulu, famously have similar features. This idea that you can be completely motionless, you could even be unconscious, and the internet will continue to progress you through its library is relevant to the idea of the extension of man. This is because it’s not moving you in an arbitrary direction. Instead, it’s moving you to where it believes you want to go. Netflix has algorithmically computed what movie you would like to watch next. Pandora has taken into account the song you just skipped and will provide a song more closely to the songs you have enjoyed. This schema of likes and dislikes allows the user to have an optimally curated and individualized experience all while remaining completely still.

 

In Gregory’s “From a view to kill,” he cites hyper visibility as destroying the barrier between permission and prohibition. I wonder if, as our desire for movement becomes a necessity, the barrier will be further obscured. As people continue to explore and dig in, there will be fewer frontiers and more knowledge of how to tackle them. Perhaps a new frontier will be resisting becoming hyper visible.

The nature of space and its extendability has been an extremely intriguing topic this week. Technology, in all points in its maturity, has profoundly changed what the human experience defines as spatial. On its most abstract level, space is simply dimensions perceivable by those in the position to define. Perception is a matter of understanding and understanding is always ignorant when relative to its potential growth. Technology, therefore, is the determinant of the scope of what we consider space. Thrift echoes this idea in “Movement of Space”, highlighting three milestones of calculative development that have allowed people to “form a kind of cognitive history told through practices of number.” Initially an extension of classical and intuitive spacial paradigm, analytic solutions are replaced by brute computing force engendered by mass recursively with the result that what is regarded as mathematics is spreading far beyond its original kernel of knowledge. As put by Swift , calculation, in other words, is becoming a ubiquitous element of human life.  The extension of “physical” space becomes the space itself. Such is seen in modern architecture, where, as detailed by McQuire, “public domain now emerges in the complex interaction of material and immaterial spaces”. Where as architecture in the past served its own physical and aesthetic purpose, it has undergone a significant role reversal in its relationship with digital entities. Akin to”the medium is the message”, the extension is now the space. Rather than house literal habitation, modern structures now house information.Ephemerality is the basis of space, and with this, the boundaries of our space lose much of their significance. 

 

Reading about the way that we interact with public spaces in the McQuire article, specifically one of the last paragraphs where he talks about public visual art installations reminded me of an episode of the design podcast “99% Invisible” that I listened to years ago. The episode features and iPhone application called RJDJ, which uses ambient loops and samples to create a dynamic piece of music that changes as you walk through your environment. It does this by using your location and sounds picked up around you through your headphone microphone. I thought that this was an incredibly interesting idea when I first heard about it, and I’m personally amazed that it isn’t more popular.

The idea of using sound to augment navigable spaces offers an entirely new way to both observe and interact with the world around us. Scenes that were once static and flat become dynamic and interactive as sound is organically synthesized around you. The honking of horns is no longer an annoying distraction from the beauty of your surroundings but an integral part of an art piece that you are constantly participating in. Applications like RJDJ have the potential to change the way the modern flaneur experiences their surroundings by transforming what were once just pleasant views into sonic works of art, sound being a currently unexplored aspect of the beauty and artfulness of cities and navigable space.

Podcast for those interested:
http://99percentinvisible.org/episode/99-invisible-extra-episode-19x-rjdj-reactive/

This week’s readings, combined with Nathan’s lecture about mediated space and the Sleepwalkers exhibit at MoMA, reminded me of a project I’d read about a few years ago: a location-aware album by a project called BLUEBRAIN. The record, released in 2011, was accessible through a smartphone app and responded to the listener’s location as she moved through space—in particular, the album is called The National Mall and its tracks correspond with various locations around Washington, D.C., mapping physical location as something “done” and enacted into an endlessly modifiable media object, personalized especially for the actor.

I think that the BLUEBRAIN project is interesting to consider in dialogue with Nathan’s point about the public domain as space in which politics become collapsed into images. The project’s specific location in D.C.—obviously a geographical locus for the American political machine—begins to take on a new significance; what does it mean when spaces infused with heavy political and historical meaning—the White House, Arlington Cemetery, the Air and Space Museum—can be translated and (re)presented as clips of experimental noise music on an iPhone? What social relations are being privileged or effaced in that sort of mediation?