Those Who Play This Game Forget About Reality!

I moved into a new house that backs up to a ravine, a ravine which has been turned into a lit­tle park, with a rib­bon of lawn along the bot­tom, with paths reach­ing up the steep sides into irreg­u­lar for­est. One day, walk­ing my dog, I went up a side path, up a slope par­al­lel to the lit­tle stream at the bot­tom, and reached a stop­ping point where train tracks crossed at a per­pen­dic­u­lar. Look­ing down about 20 feet, I saw the stream emerg­ing from a cul­vert. The stream was held in two con­crete walls as it emerged, and in the midst of the stream was a tri­an­gu­lar arrange­ment of square step­ping stones.

That this might be a sys­tem for catch­ing debris on its way through was maybe my fourth thought; the first three were that this looks like a place from The Leg­end of Zel­da, that I should take my dog down to step from one plat­form to the oth­er, and that if I did so some­thing inter­est­ing might happen.

If I get embar­rassed about this, I remind myself that the first peo­ple to play video games are already retir­ing – dis­tin­guished, seri­ous folk. Through their life­times, the worlds of video games have grad­u­al­ly spread, becom­ing in their ubiq­ui­ty and pho­to­re­al­ist sheen rec­og­niz­able, at last, as mod­els for under­stand­ing the out­side world. 

This should be a mat­ter of keen inter­est to those of us in the land­scape busi­ness. If we make open spaces for recre­ation, we should under­stand that our efforts are being neat­ly mir­rored in the vir­tu­al world. The ends for which these two forms of land­scape are made seem, if any­thing, to be con­verg­ing, with the rise of aug­ment­ed real­i­ty and the recent vogue for Poke­mon Go. If such a trend con­cerns archi­tec­ture (and I think it does), it con­cerns us to a greater degree because of the greater pres­ence of recre­ation with­in our sphere of work. We have his­tor­i­cal­ly laid out recre­ation space that is meant to be half-inert to humans, cen­tered on sen­so­ry expe­ri­ence at a dis­tance; oth­er forms of recre­ation float large­ly autonomous­ly with­in our forms. As the space of designed land­scape becomes acti­vat­ed,” in the lan­guage of the stu­dio, we may look with some inter­est and envy at those who so suc­cess­ful­ly form space to spur action. We might ask: how can we con­ceive of recre­ation not as struc­ture­less play or pre-struc­tured sport, but some­thing in-between – some­thing that can medi­ate human action in new ways through design? 

That line of think­ing makes a study of games seem like a duti­ful chore – anoth­er urgent pro­gram shoved under your nose. But the most fan­tas­tic games pro­vide a wealth beyond that, a store­house of prece­dent ideas about space, time, and cau­sa­tion. They are work­ing mod­els of space only half-bound by earth­ly con­straint; they hem in, crowd, and iso­late. They dilate and slide open, hid­ing huge­ness inside close quar­ters. They also open up our under­stand­ing of what a designed land­scape may be asked to do – that it may fall far wide of the slid­ing scale between sub­lime and beau­ti­ful scenes upon which most designed land­scapes, no mat­ter how dynam­i­cal­ly or pro­gres­sive­ly they are formed, duti­ful­ly perch. 

If we can suc­cess­ful­ly move past a bina­ry con­ver­sa­tion between the behav­ior mod­elled by these games being altru­is­tic or socio­path­ic, which I think we have, I hope that we can find the lat­i­tude to think through – not only how games are an out­let for what is not phys­i­cal­ly or moral­ly pos­si­ble in the real world, but what they tell us about the rela­tion­ships peo­ple want to have with space. 

We can’t do this with­out dis­pos­ing of the most imme­di­ate prob­lem – our dis­in­cli­na­tion to take them seri­ous­ly. The land­scapes of dig­i­tal games have lit­tle dig­ni­ty and no respon­si­bil­i­ty to the world around them; the notion of respectable ones that deal with real issues only seems to accen­tu­ate the cheap escapism of the whole endeav­or of gam­ing. If not out­right unsalu­tary, they are asalu­tary – they con­tribute noth­ing to the phys­i­cal health of the world. The sub­ject as a whole suf­fers from the com­mon curs­es of the study of play; a dis­in­cli­na­tion to trou­ble the bar­ri­er that sets play apart from the rest of the world is mir­rored by a pedan­tic desire to dis­sect it into inert parts. The term video games” itself sounds ridicu­lous and dat­ed; and will need, if they are to become val­orized, to either sprout off a high­fa­lutin syn­onym or itself become neu­tral­ized through long usage. 

Even worse, hav­ing crossed that cor­don san­i­taire and allowed your­self to look at them, you soon find that the sub­ject is also an open invi­ta­tion to be a breath­less pop­u­lar­iz­er. Or, what is close­ly relat­ed, to excuse and to exor­cise a pre­oc­cu­pa­tion of your youth by shin­ing a dim the­o­ret­i­cal light upon it, that nev­er quite trou­bles what it finds. The crys­tal of study is one pos­si­ble prod­uct of the reced­ing of enthu­si­asm.Such a study may even repeat the antag­o­nism of the rela­tion­ship between the play­er and the game-world they vis­it, as a series of obstruc­tions, things to be destroyed. 

Antag­o­nism toward game space, I think, is not an acci­dent to be swept away. The design dis­ci­plines made a notable error in think­ing of dig­i­tal space in terms of Sec­ond Life, as wish­ful spaces of pure fan­ta­sy, as Bachelar­dian space of pro­jec­tion. Rather, dig­i­tal space over­whelm­ing­ly pre­serves a more pro­found and last­ing antag­o­nism toward our sur­round­ings. This is what land­scape archi­tects like to habit­u­al­ly edit out; and this is the most obvi­ous and dif­fi­cult thing that video games have to tell us.

Second Life Landscape
A landscape from SECOND LIFE.

Designed spaces mod­el ways of human inter­ac­tion with the world. On my hon­ey­moon, my wife and I climbed the Bee­hive in Aca­dia Nation­al Park, a small moun­tain. Through the rel­a­tive­ly min­i­mal reit­er­a­tion of design acts (paint­ing blazes, insert­ing rods, hew­ing stone), a fun­da­men­tal­ly point­less pro­tru­sion of nature has been made as a space with ready-made nar­ra­tive char­ac­ter – lev­els and lad­ders, zones of safe­ty and risk. While these same fea­tures would be present for a climber mak­ing the first ascent, they would be whol­ly con­strued by the climber – here they are devel­oped and pre-formed for the ben­e­fit of visitors. 

Look­ing up from the bot­tom, on our return, toward the climbers reit­er­at­ing the progress we had already made, it was dif­fi­cult not to see in alle­gor­i­cal terms – so many Petrar­chs won­der­ing up Mt. Ven­toux, or strivers fum­bling up through Purgatory. 

In our line of work, we often think of the world in ency­clo­pe­dic terms, the prover­bial Book of Nature to be stud­ied. In so doing, we for­get that moun­tains and seas hold peo­ple back, push against them, hem them in. Quite apart from nat­ur­al dis­as­ters, every day the land oppos­es peo­ple. Through­out the first series of Ulti­ma role-play­ing games, made for the PC in the 1980s and 1990s, the play­er, look­ing over what is large­ly a plan pro­jec­tion with ele­ments of ele­va­tion, nav­i­gates a false world with a set of char­ac­ter­is­tics car­ried over and abstract­ed from earth. Large islands sit in a blue sea, and are ribbed with moun­tains; these moun­tains pre­vent your progress from one place to anoth­er. More con­tem­po­rary games, more devel­oped in three dimen­sions, sim­i­lar­ly use moun­tains or seas as imped­i­ments, or bound­aries to the made world of the game. 

a mountain in Ultima V
An attempted ascent in ULTIMA V.

But these edges have grown more porous; the pro­tag­o­nists of the Grand Theft Auto games can be made to labo­ri­ous­ly swim out to sea, or to progress up periph­er­al sum­mits. As sim­u­la­tion pro­gress­es on, then, what were sim­ply the edges of the game begin to change. What will keep us explor­ing? The mul­ti­pli­ca­tion of inter­nal detail, whether it is used to engross through sur­face detail, to involve through game mechan­ics, or sim­ply to repro­duce space. The design­ers of these envi­ron­ments may ever more labo­ri­ous­ly mim­ic falling water, the grain of topog­ra­phy, the play of light through atmos­phere, while keep­ing the edges of the board intact. They may work to build in under­ly­ing causal­i­ty, adding ever more actors and objects to manip­u­late with­in a set of hard bound­aries while com­par­a­tive­ly ignor­ing that sur­face detail. They may just cre­ate pro­to­cols to end­less­ly repro­duce space. Increas­ing­ly, as with the recent No Man’s Sky, which pro­ce­du­ral­ly gen­er­ates a galaxy, they attempt to do all three.

GTA V Limits
In shark-infested water at the edge of GRAND THEFT AUTO V.
image from Dwarf Fortress
The typographical game ecology of DWARF FORTRESS.
No Man's Sky landscape
A landscape generated from NO MAN'S SKY.

The begin­nings of such games of sim­u­la­tion are equiv­o­cal in their rela­tion­ship to the envi­ron­ment. They at once set out to cre­ate game con­di­tions of inter­est, care­ful­ly mod­u­lat­ing imped­ance and access, while spur the player’s own pow­ers of imag­i­na­tion, requir­ing a sol­id joint between the known world and the nov­el con­di­tions that may be made to pop­u­late it. As with sci­ence fic­tion, they may only throw out all knowns regard­ing life and land at the risk of los­ing the audience’s abil­i­ty to iden­ti­fy with and project into what they present. Is the use of envi­ron­men­tal metaphors a strict­ly mnemon­ic means toward topo­log­i­cal con­di­tions? Or do such metaphors have a fuller import?

A his­to­ry of land­scape aes­thet­ics shows us how the val­ue of a land­scape has been cod­i­fied dif­fer­ent­ly in dif­fer­ent cul­tures, at times high­ly sys­tem­at­ic (after the man­ner of Japan­ese aes­thet­ics, or the imi­ta­tion of Claude Lorrain’s paint­ings) and at times exist­ing with­in an expan­sive field of tropes. Geo­graph­i­cal land­scape schol­ar­ship may show the causal points of con­tact between land­scapes and socio­cul­tur­al forces, par­tic­u­lar­ly eco­nom­ic ones; and here we may par­tic­u­lar­ly study the val­u­a­tion of land­scape types. 

John Stilgoe’s essay Fair Fields and Blast­ed Rock: Amer­i­can Land Clas­si­fi­ca­tion Sys­tems and Land­scape Aes­thet­ics” helps us draw this line. He shows that what we rec­og­nize as the base­line tropes of video game worlds – sin­is­ter cav­erns and fair fields, help­ful vil­lages and mis­chie­vous spir­its – are not the fever­ish con­struc­tions of game devel­op­ers, but echoes of real con­cep­tu­al cat­e­gories his­tor­i­cal­ly pro­ject­ed upon the land. In the colonist’s work of dis­cov­ery, the land­scape was a field of signs, shared through books as avid­ly as gamers today share walk­throughs and inter­pre­tive tables. Hick­o­ries indi­cate sound soil; light grass­es on bar­ren moun­tains sug­gest both the promise of gold and the threat of snakes. The atavism of some such mod­els is remark­able when it appears in game space; for instance, the com­mon trope of swamp­land poi­son­ing a play­er char­ac­ter rep­re­sents a sur­vival of the mias­ma theory. 

In this way, vir­tu­al land­scapes seem explic­a­ble as a way to make land­scapes – which have become, in sci­en­tif­ic dis­course, ever more com­plex and ill-defined – fit cat­e­gories and para­me­ters we have long wished upon them. The boun­ties and dan­gers of land­scape are quan­ti­fied in points and ranked in a fash­ion that McHarg him­self would envy. 

Vir­tu­al land­scapes, as epit­o­mized in games and sim­u­la­tions, are a fourth nature, a sort of myc­or­rhizal enti­ty that spreads out almost invis­i­bly under the bulls­eye of the first (primeval), sec­ond (cul­ti­vat­ed), and third (gar­dened) natures. Appear­ing at close range, this nature is a fur­ther culling of nat­ur­al forms and forces, boxed with­in human under­stand­ing. As the jets of the Baroque gar­den inter­vene upon water and its laws to rep­re­sent water for human use, this fourth nature forms water from cal­cu­la­tions and light, sat­is­fy­ing human demands of under­stand­ing over the alien facts of exte­ri­or nature. 

This fourth nature, bet­ter adapt­ed to the human mind than its fel­lows, begins to out­com­pete its fel­lows for atten­tion. As a dig­i­tal ecol­o­gy becomes pos­si­ble in the gen­er­at­ed worlds of fourth nature, how do we con­vince the pub­lic of the attrac­tions of deeply study­ing, expe­ri­enc­ing, and inhab­it­ing the first three? An ear­ly answer: we under­stand the first three natures in terms of each oth­er, using each estranged form of nature as a mod­el of its fel­lows. The log­ic of farm­ing, and the log­ic of gar­den­ing, iso­late primeval process­es, while the primeval makes plain what is oth­er­wise hid­den in the work­ings of the farm and the gar­den. As long as clear links are estab­lished through human man­age­ment and main­te­nance, the first three natures can be approached through the gate­way of the fourth.

Screencap from the excellent SOCKS blog.

(January 2017)