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.


Ahh, blessed entropy.

I can feel my inner survivalist/hippie/gardener (Choose one) awakening.

Nice piece, I'll have to rope some buddies into checking this one out with me.

This is part of the reason I don't care for MMORPG's. I enjoy exploration and discovery, but MMORPG's inevitably are just a lot of possibly beautiful places I will get eaten if I try to see.

I was thinking about the 'places' in Battlefield 2 the other day, and how intimately familiar one becomes with them when such knowledge is vital to victory. Every rock, every ladder, every door, every hole in a fence large enough for a man to fit through, every turret emplacement. They all stick out in your mind as you near them for they could be a key to your superiority or the means by which someone else takes you by surprise. I've internalized the maps so much that walking across one feels like walking through my own home. I think it's that necessary attention to detail is part of what makes BF2 interesting to me where MMORPG's have left me cold. I have to do more than just remember where zone boundaries and orc camps are, I have to think about the ~tactical~ implications of nearby features.

The problem with creating very compelling virtual worlds is that their draw becomes disproportionately compelling. If you wanted to build a hut overlooking a wonderful part of some natural place, in real world this would have a large part of negatives attached to it. You would have to physically labour. You would have to get to it in the first place. You would have to suffer real elements and your skills may not be that great to begin with, which may actually hinder you from even creating it. Then there are issues of land ownership, real animals trying to take a bite out of your real behind, etc.

Enter virtual worlds from left. All the high of feeling achievement, with zero negative side-effects. In fact, you are well sheltered, well clothed, well fed, well protected from wildlife and sitting in a nice chair without having to do more than twist your wrist to move the mouse around. Ain't it grand? Sure is addictive though. Make yourself feel as if though you really built your own house with your own two hands, but without as much as a flick of a wrist. Who needs drugs?

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.

I think this is true but highly subjective. No place in WoW did that for me, even after a year and a half of playing it, but I saw an outdoor scene at Digital Blasphemy that reminded me of Emain Macha and gave me that feeling.

The "placiness" feeling is very strong in Oblivion as well. I find myself spending time organizing my things in my house, returning to favored hunting grounds and constantly foraging for alchemy components. There's no question the environment is no longer just an aspect of a title, often it makes the title. What would Red Orchestra be without war-torn, realistic battlefields? What would "The Ship" be if it took place in yet another corridor-filled office building? Mappers have it tough these days, as been drawn into your environment is a crucial part of immersion. Great article Mal on a very interesting topic.

That feeling you describe -- the sense that (to twist Stein's quote) there really is a there there -- has been at the core some of the most powerful experiences I've had playing games. As a result, I've taken to screenshotting a lot more than I used to. Some day I'm going to print out a book full of in-game travel shots to keep on the coffee table.

I pine for more games that give me landscapes like those in Shadow of the Colossus. And anymore, games that don't offer at least some sense of place feel like they're missing something.

One game that really shocked me in its immersiveness at times was Operation Flashpoint. Raiding a city at dawn with the sun slowly rising over the crest of a hill while the sound of rain muffled your approach really kicked it up a notch. If some of you still have this dinosaur installed check out a few of the free user-created islands available. It's amazing a game 5 years old can still look so good.

@ MoonDragon

Inescapably true, but couldn't this be said of most any (maybe all) aspects of gaming? -- MMO or otherwise. For my part, I sincerely believe that alot of those challenges can be replicated nicely within a digital environment. The real question question is finding the sweet spot for risk vs. reward and required player skill. What different people will tolerate in a game as far as virtual "negatives" is a huge, huge spread.

Early-release UO comes to mind. The fact that you could lose your digital abode in the blink of an eye if you were group PKed or pick pocketed for your keys was a very real negative in light of how much real world time you may have spent working for said digital house.

Theory time:

People turn to role playing (in a broad sense) for entertainment as a means of experiencing things that they don't generally get to experience in their daily lives--good feelings, mostly.

Looking at the motivation for the average MMO player, it seems to me that the power and prestige of their character provides the positive feelings for the player. That is to say, the power of the character makes them feel like bigger people for a time, which is a nice thing to feel. Can't really blame them for that. It's good to feel powerful in a similar way that it's good to feel belonging when one is active in an online community.

Now I think what Mal's getting at is that he derives a sense of pleasure from something else in Wurm. I'm going to venture a guess and say that something about the immediacy of danger and the struggle to make things work appeals in two ways: First, the danger, like in action games, can be fun in and of itself. Second, the feelings of connectedness derived from working the land seem to be the same ones that drive people to enjoy things like camping and working with their hands (working under your car's hood or inside your computer's case, for example).

Quickly, I think the sense of danger tends to get washed out too often in MMOs. Some people seem to get somewhat addicted to deriving feelings of self-worth from them, and the idea of losing that character permanently has sent a few over the edge--but that's a slightly different topic. More important may be that deriving happiness from things created and changed in the environment is a different kind of happiness than the "power=good" base assumption attached to many world views, and to still more MMO philosophies (both for designers and for gamers).

The difference, as I'd like to categorize it, may be related, in a way, to differences between levels like Maslow's hierarchy of needs. That is, once certain gamers feel safe enough--or unsafe enough in their real lives, they no longer derive pleasure from pretending to be powerful. From a common point of view, control over one's surroundings becomes more important than abstract concepts of power, and struggling to change one's surroundings becomes more appealing than the status and convenience associated with buying a house deed and neigh instantly owning a house.

I could wander off (mentally) into trying to figure out why I feel that there will be greater appreciation for the feelings that are triggered by Wurm in some, and what kind of things trigger that change in appreciation, but that might be stretching a bit too far for now (and it's quittin' time). I'll let it suffice to say that working in a cubicle and watching the world go mad makes the idea of nature, self-actualization, and control over my world much more appealing than stocking up piles of gold and rare items.

The first place-that-wasn't I found was in Vice City. It kinda freaked me out a little. It was after I'd completed all the missions, finished most of the side quests and goals - you know trying to hit that magic 100%. Being there began to change for me - I started to, well, be there.
After a while though I gave up trying to complete it - but still kept going there again and again, just to have mooch about and enjoy being in my home town.

I still think of it as a place-ona-disk. Like some old town I used to live in; every street corner and building bringing forth their own waves of memories nostalga.

In fact I think I'm going to go visit an old friend later......

Both Gothic games trigger those "place-y" feelings for me quite often. After discovering those shortcuts and pathways that are not visible right away, I suddenly was really there, in a place that was really there.

A couple of people touched on the idea of "danger" in games, but I would still stipulate that there is no real danger in any computer game. Pretty much by definition. Now, if we were to create clamp peripherals that attach to your privates and send bolts of electricity through them when someone "punches" you in the game, then perhaps this would be different. Then perhaps griefing would take a different road.

For as long as the well being of your character in the game is not connected to the well being of you as a physical human being (I'm not talking emotional or psychological well being), there will be no true danger in games. Perhaps if some company found a way of financially punishing you if you're found to be griefing and/or cheating. But good luck trying to enforce that.

Anyways, my argument is only that the feelings we feel are like the distilled version of what is trully supposed to be going on. Because we are still real corporeal beings, and our brains still understand the concept of risk vs. reward, virtual worlds provide us with most of the benefits of reward with none of the risks.

I wonder what happens to the children that grow up developing their brains in virtual worlds. What will they do when true calamity comes along one day. A real one. That can trully harm them. Will their sensibilities be so skewed that they won't know danger when they see it? Is that what "desensitized" will ultimately mean?

MoonDragon, I bet you're right about how younger generations are going to come up. I've seen people that spend (what I would call) too much time in online worlds, and real problems in their real lives tend to be avoided by spending more time in their virtual worlds. I'm not sure how much they understand what things like eviction notices can mean--though the threat of losing their internet connection can send them pretty bonkers.

Perhaps in my post I should have talked about "the illusion of danger" instead of just danger. That would have been more accurate. On the other hand, some people have gotten themselves so wrapped up in their virtual personae that any real threat to their characters could send them off the deep end. I don't doubt that we've all seen some pretty extreme reactions to online "tragedies" and "crises." What's always amazed me is how people can get themselves so wrapped up in "characters" that have less depth and complexity than Teletubbies, and "worlds" with a similar malady.