Our Digital Geographies
I glare out my window. The wolf is still there, milling about outside my small cabin, undoubtedly eager to take another bite out of my backside. He snuck up on me in the dark, as I was flattening a patch of ground for an herb garden. I'd heard his footsteps but didn't see him until he was right on top of me, so although I was only about two meters from the cabin door he still managed to get a good nip in.
Now I'm locked inside my tiny hut, with a hungry wolf pacing around my would-be garden. No one else is online, and thus there is no one to come to my aid. The town center, while actually quite nearby, lies at the bottom of a steep hill into which I've yet to carve a safe path. As the hill is far too precipitous to be taken at a chased-by-a-wolf pace, it appears I'll have to wait until the creature wanders off. In the meantime, it occurs to me that Wurm Online (Mojang Specifications, www.wurmonline.com) really isn't a game about "wilderness survival". It's a game about starving to death in the wilderness, and then being eaten by wolves.
Wurm is an unabashedly imperfect game, if only by virtue of the fact that it is an unfinished one. For instance, the wolf that has me barricaded in my cabin has no animations. He slides back and forth across the ground like he's made of plastic, as does every other avatar in the game world. The mechanics of the game are built upon a mind-numbing, highly numerical tedium. Skills build ever slower, and new characters are about as self-reliant as blind, mewling kittens. Everything in this world decays, which eventually gives every action a sense of profound futility. While each simple achievement takes an inordinate amount of time to accomplish, the general upkeep of what you've already got can take just as long.
Yet while Wurm is an undoubtedly imperfect offering, it still manages to be a compelling one. It certainly has its innovations: terrain is fully deformable, meaning holes can be dug, mine shafts sunk into mountains, or entire lakes filled in with dirt and built upon; and its skill and craft systems, while admittedly obtuse and achingly monotonous, allow for some interesting specialization.
But these conceits alone, while intriguing, would not cause Wurm to take hold of me as it has. There is something else at play here, something more ethereal--and dare I say--mysterious. It has something to do with the feeling I got when, after days of surveying the slopes around the settlement, I found the perfect, untouched parcel of land overlooking the town center. With the pride I felt when I finished the last wall on my box of a cabin. Perhaps with the sensation I sometimes got while wandering through the wilderness, a powerful desire to describe the experience as somehow "beautiful".
I'm quite certain these feelings have little to do with Wurm Online's mechanics, which as I've mentioned can be quite dreary. I believe they have more to do with what I'd call its geographic sensibility--the fact that every place in Wurm actually feels like a place.
Believe it or not, geographers have a term for this feeling, at least when it occurs in the real world. It's called a "sense of place"--those characteristics of a geographic location unique to that location, which gives it some sort of meaning. It's what makes a place a "place". It is part conceptual frivolity, part social phenomenon. The intersection of history, perception and the bizarre spatial spirituality of geographers.
But what relevance does it have to games? I maintain that geography, despite its etymology, is about more than just maps of the Earth. It is the study of human interaction with the spaces we inhabit. Truthfully, what are games but simply another system of inhabitable space? Geographical concepts can be applied just as readily to a game world as the real one, especially where massively multiplayer games are concerned. In this sense, speaking of such a world's capacity to evoke a sense of place is not only relevant, but absolutely paramount. Wurm has its hooks in me, and not because it's a great game in any empirical sense. It's because Wurm is a great place.
We're crossing a threshold. I've spent the majority of my years as a gamer not really caring about the geography of my games. Games were built upon levels, and thus upon a groundwork of constant transition. They were transient spaces, places which existed apart from the normal category of human space. I was always just passing through, never inhabiting.
But then things changed. People began designing games as persistent worlds, some with thousands of other players in them. A new type of geographically-informed play became possible, and we began to be encouraged not just to compete, but to explore. Now, players have come to expect this. They don't want to play their games in meaningless, sequential "in-out" worlds any longer, but real, persistent and geographically satisfying ones. Game designers are not just responsible for designing games anymore--now they have to be world builders as well. In light of this, perhaps geographic principles should not be merely of passing interest to game makers, but instead of utmost importance.
Massively multiplayer games should emphasize this most of all, for places can also have a sense of "placelessness", the feeling of an inauthentic and generally unimportant landscape. The typical MMORPG universe is more akin to a theme park or a topologically homogenized desert than a real world. They might be pretty, but they offer little or no opportunity for any meaningful interaction with the landscape. High level World of Warcraft players spend much of their time in instanced dungeons which are effectively non-places, worlds apart from the game world itself. Everquest II might as well be set in a mall for all the average player cares about the world itself. These games keep players coming back not for the love of the places they allow them to inhabit, but for the addiction to the grind they push.
At best, this is taking the easy way out. At worst, it is irresponsible. Theme parks may be places too--but they are places without meaning. And that is what game designers, just like any other creative professional, should be striving for: meaning. They should be desperate not just to entertain, but to inspire. At least, that is this idealist's dream.
How can they do it? This is a relatively new and uncertain art. But places do not make themselves--they are made by people. Any meaning a space retains has been imparted by the people that talk about it, write about it, and inhabit it. The key will be allowing and encouraging players to interact with the landscape in ways that involve more than simply killing monsters. For example, there are no maps in Wurm Online, besides those the players draw themselves. Within a few months of its release amateur cartographers had mapped out routes to their towns and homesteads and put them on message boards. Each map that was drawn added new meaning to the places they displayed.
Furthermore, the game world of Wurm is itself a product of player interaction. Player-made signs point the way to different settlements along player-made roads. As a result of this, just as in reality, every place in the world has some meaning, simply because somebody made it.
Perhaps designers should stop making so many concessions to ease of play in detriment to spatial realism. The moment Wurm really took hold of me was when I finally reached my friends' settlement after weeks of treacherous journeying. Conversely, the moment I knew I wouldn't play World of Warcraft much longer was when I got on the wrong boat and was suddenly and quite jarringly transported to a different continent.
Ownership can play a large role in creating a geographically compelling world. I can think of startlingly few gameplay experiences as satisfying as the weeks I spent building my cabin and tending to the garden around my plot.
And perhaps it's as simple as decay. Maybe all a world needs to feel more realistic is an inclination towards self-destruction. When I eventually grow tired of waiting for the wolf to leave, I log off Wurm Online and can't find the time to log on again for another three weeks. When I do, I experience a moment of geographical heartbreak. Everyone is gone. The town is deserted and crumbling. The walls of my cabin, left untended, are falling down, and the wilderness has retaken my garden. Decay reigns.
But while wandering the ghost town, instead of feeling placeless, I feel as present and engaged by a game world as I have ever been. This place has taken on even more meaning, a kind of meaning that is difficult to describe even in poetry. What I feel isn't frustration, or anger, but sadness, and guilt--and most profound of all, a overpowering desire to rebuild. Wurm may be far from a perfect game, but it is close to being a perfect place.