The Albatross

Why care about a bird? Because some are rare, among the ones that are com­mon; because they have an inscrutable beau­ty that is order­ly and not order­ly; because they stand in for some larg­er judg­ment of the nature of the place where they live; because there are just many kinds of them to tell apart; because, first and fore­most, they are elu­sive. As with oth­er sub­jects, these rea­sons add up to a coali­tion of inter­est that can agree, if not on the rea­son, on an activ­i­ty – which could be hunt­ing, or ornithol­o­gy, or birdwatching. 

Add to those the game Wingspan, designed by Eliz­a­beth Har­grave, which sim­u­lates the cre­ation of an ecosys­tem of birds. I have been stuck on games through­out my time in land­scape, both as a lega­cy from my life before and because games seem like some kind of mod­el for a way of pro­ceed­ing more sane­ly in the world; a vol­un­tary form of order, a way of con­sen­su­al­ly reor­ga­niz­ing space. And I have fre­quent­ly come back to Ian Bogost’s idea, derived from game stud­ies, of pro­ce­dur­al rhetoric: that the way a sys­tem is laid out, the net­work of choic­es it makes pos­si­ble, is read­able as an argu­ment about how to see the world. The trou­ble with that is that games are for peo­ple; and the very val­ue of land­scape is that it is the art most like­ly to cede the stage to the rest of liv­ing world. So what hap­pens when a game tries its best to mod­el the worth of the non-human?

Wingspan Screenshots 1
When someone looks and listens long enough to distinguish two distinct species, it creates a community obligation to see the difference between Little Brown Jobs.

Wingspan is end­less­ly inter­est­ing as a human mod­el of the world of birds, in large part because it has to con­front head-on the prob­lem of why we care about birds enough to play a game about them in the first place. Our default habit, in the game and with­out, is to trans­late care into val­ue – to give it a num­ber. This pre­dictably leads to some dis­so­nance, since any val­u­a­tion is both hard and arbi­trary, and two dif­fer­ent claims of val­ue are hard to rec­on­cile in prac­tice. Take, for exam­ple, the idea that you can not only clas­si­fy all birds as rep­re­sen­ta­tives of species, but also assign a count­able val­ue to each one of those species. Like the aver­age bird book, Wingspan treats bird species as being of equal val­ue – each gets an equiv­a­lent amount of space and atten­tion, whether a page or a card. (After all, if you aim to con­struct a list of the birds you have seen, a robin takes up the same amount of space as a whoop­ing crane.) But it also ampli­fies the sense that some species are worth more than oth­ers, par­tic­u­lar­ly for their rar­i­ty; since there is one card for each species in Wingspan, endan­gered species are weight­ed with spe­cial pow­ers in play, and thus give the oppor­tu­ni­ty for pre­dictably mag­ni­fy­ing val­ue, just as eco­log­i­cal eco­nom­ics would seek to find a quan­tifi­able val­ue for the lost tourism rev­enue inher­ent in los­ing the nest­ing habi­tat of Kirtland’s warbler.

Wingspan finds ways to car­i­ca­ture behav­iors into play, ren­der­ing the nest par­a­sitism of a brown-head­ed cow­bird as a card that accepts no egg tokens on its own card, but auto­mat­i­cal­ly places egg tokens on oth­er cards. But it also tries to cap­ture the way that, say, bird­ers alert each oth­er to a sight­ing in the area rather than keep it to them­selves – many cards con­fer ben­e­fits onto each play­er, instead of one, and the pos­si­bil­i­ties of direct­ly block­ing each oth­ers’ progress are few and far between. Many com­pet­i­tive play­ers report a feel­ing of being way­laid by the beau­ty of the col­lec­tion of birds, and com­par­a­tive­ly los­ing inter­est in win­ning or losing.

Wingspan Screenshots 2
What kind of jewel would a mallard be if it only had the good fortune to be rare?

It seems cru­cial to me that there are still points, and there is still a win­ner. Har­grave was moti­vat­ed in choos­ing a theme by her own inter­est in birds and her own lack of inter­est in the typ­i­cal pet­ty impe­ri­al­ism of game iconog­ra­phy – where the world is seen in terms of mil­i­tary or mer­can­tile her­itage. But she start­ed with the com­mon lan­guage of board games, and the exist­ing social net­work of game play­ers. Implic­it­ly, there is a metagame of not only chang­ing the val­ues of the game world, but of reflect­ing that out into the wider world – of reori­ent­ing play­ers to the val­ue of nature, or col­lab­o­ra­tion. Any such attempt has to con­front the pos­si­bil­i­ty that this trans­for­ma­tive ener­gy will not escape from the grav­i­ty well of the game itself – that the game will actu­al­ly divert to itself the poten­tial ener­gy that could be used in deal­ing with actu­al birds, in being still, in wait­ing, in fight­ing for the preser­va­tion of a bog that is only real­ly valu­able in terms of the lit­tle fugi­tive it might har­bor. Poké­mon famous­ly derives from the tra­di­tion­al hob­by of bee­tle col­lect­ing, but stretch­es it so far out of shape to suit human pref­er­ences that it ends up prac­ti­cal­ly replac­ing its referent.

The design world’s own games of pres­tige walk the same line; what plays in the world of inter­est­ing ideas has a pos­si­ble rela­tion­ship with the world beyond it, but not a nec­es­sary one. As with the didac­tic games that Bogost stud­ies, the most per­ti­nent or straight­for­ward mes­sages are the least like­ly to be inter­est­ing – and here I go back to Sianne Ngai again, and the idea that the inter­est­ing is not only per­son­al­ly divert­ing but also use­ful in social­iz­ing. As with the exam­ple of bird­watch­ing, it seems that for a game to suc­ceed in fos­ter­ing con­ser­va­tion and con­ver­sa­tion at the same time, it would inevitably have to embed itself phys­i­cal­ly into the land­scape. But here we could still not expect to do so with­out dis­tort­ing what it is we hope to see. If we put a point val­ue on a Cal­i­for­nia con­dor, what would we stoop to to get it to roost in our shrubland? 

Wingspan Screenshots 3
All Ohio regulars, except for the more occasional dickcissel. All screenshots from the iOS version of WINGSPAN.

(March 2022)