The Map and the Territory

What follows is a class essay for William Huber’s CTCS 505.

In the days following the release of Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, my Twitter feed was ablaze with players announcing to one another their discoveries in this latest revealed province of Tamriel. “Did you find the movie theater yet?” “Hahaha, ‘Notched Pickaxe.'” “Star Wars Easter egg in Bleakcoast Cave!” These tweets had the particular quality of fleshing out for the reader an expansive mental map–in my case of a territory I had no familiarity with, as I had no plans to pick up a copy for myself for a while.

If social media has any higher calling to speak of, it’s surely in the creation of collective knowledge wellsprings. The strength of Twitter as a factor in the Occupy movement, for instance, cannot be overstated. If we look back at the sudden burst of maturation these services have experienced over the course of 2011, from the Arab Spring and the union protests in Wisconsin to the recent incidents at UC Davis and Berkeley, one might wonder how it was we habitually used this thing to track celebrities and report the everydayness of our days before this.

Granted, of course, these practices still exist. But no one can now say that Twitter or Facebook are fundamentally tools for the idle and inane, not with so much evidence to the contrary. (Realistically, we should have stopped saying that during the 2009 Iranian election protests and subsequent violent suppression by the state, but Amerocentric media theorists tend not to pay attention unless something is happening in America.)

The key point here is that to use Twitter to inform the reader’s understanding of something as complex yet artificially authored as a virtual territory –like Skyrim– just as much as to warn fellow protesters of police kettling in real world, urban spaces, is to substantially reconfigure something structurally flat like a short form, text medium into something spatially dynamic. And while I remain interested in the potentials for activism via social media, it’s the former, turning these virtual spaces into relational topographies, that seems an especially unusual take on the form (in addition to hearkening back to tabletop traditions, but that is another essay).

Then there’s “Towards Dawn,” Brendan Keogh’s screencap diary blog chronicling his travels through Minecraft. As the journal’s subtitle (“Leaving the Miner’s Life Behind”) alludes, the blog is dedicated to subverting the primary activities of the game–to mine, collect, and build–and instead takes in the procedurally generated world of Minecraft as a territory. There is also the metatext, as Keogh’s chronicle also creates a visual record of the game as it goes through server updates. One of his most recent entries documents the Minecraft 1.0 update and its inclusion of NPC villages, which Keogh narrativizes as his avatar-adventurer delightedly discovering civilization.

I would stay in the village for the night. And, for the first time in forty-nine days, I would be safe in the knowledge that I was safe. I went back to the first house, with the person in white. They seemed to have no qualms with me staying, and I watched the sun set from the safety of their home.

Several times over the past few days I have been tempted to stop this journey in one way or another, but never did I expect this. Never did I expect to find others. Now I have, and now I want to stay here, in the safety of the village, away from the vast and lonely expanses.

Keogh, an Honors student at the University of Queensland who has just electronically published his graduating thesis, “Partners in Crime: The Relationship Between the Playable Character and the Videogame Player”, has an ongoing interest in the player’s relationship to game spaces. Describing Audiosurf as “music for deaf people,”* Keogh rightly highlights how the game has the player “feel” music: “It doesn’t just render the songs visible. It render them tangible. The ups are ups. The downs are down. The louds are loud and the gentles are gentle. You don’t just see your music in Audiosurf; you feel through a sensation less like listening and more like dancing.”

Screencap: Brendan Keogh

Audiosurf creates a topography from the user’s music to procedurally generate a race track in which pitch, tempo, rhythm and syncopation are all incorporated visually. In addition to creating the road of various elevation, other signifiers like the pulsating radiant lines (indicating the distant finish line, but also the beats of the music), confetti, arches and color shifts all have a specific use toward enhancing this visualization.

As Keogh notes, Audiosurf is far from the only game to reconfigure the mp3 in some way, but it does perhaps do it more effectively than most of its competitors. It takes as its starting point the digital paradigm: music is not an event, but an artifact, one which can be reproduced and reinterpreted through different filters as easily as any other file. This recalls in some respects Hiroki Azuma’s chapter on hyperflatness in Otaku:

fig. 20 from "Database Animals", pg 103

In the computer world, although such a hierarchical relationship might be correct as an explanatory principle, it has little physical ground. For if such a thing as the “true form” of a computer file exists, it is a mere electromagnetic pattern stored somewhere in hardware, and the hexadecimal notation, the text file, and the image are no different insofar as they are all an interpretation of it.

[...] This structure wonderfully reflects the postmodern world image. In postmodernity, the deep inner layer of the world is represented as the database, and the signs on the surface outer layer are all grasped as an interpretation (combination) of it.

I have colleagues aplenty who would sooner hang me than hear mention of the word “postmodernism” (likewise “immersion,” “visceral,” or “replayability”), to say nothing of the many who would cluck their tongues upon seeing yet another mention of Azuma in this blog, but the observation, as it stands, seems quite relevant.

All electronic gaming is built upon a visual reinterpretation of data, stored in a nebulous somewhere (Azuma is here writing before the popular ascent of distributed servers and cloud computing), and accessed locally by the user. The changes she makes are updated in real time by the same vague process, the brunt of the actual computing kept invisible from her field of play. We are only made aware of these virtual spaces when something begins to threaten their stability: the player becomes stuck opening the same door again and again as her Minecraft server lags; virtual items vanish from virtual inventories and result in real-world lawsuits. The immateriality of all this “virtual stuff” only brings itself to bear on our awareness when its integrity is in some way called into question.

I played consciously with this in an art installation in the USC interactive server for Minecraft. I’ve blogged a bit about this previously, but I wanted to take this opportunity to go into further detail about its aesthetic inspirations and the final work.

Photo credit: Molly Roberts, Smithsonian Mag

As I mentioned before, my glass installation –which requires the visitor to participate by destroying part of the structure– is strongly influenced by the process art of Felix Gonzalez-Torres, whose minimalist installations were able to create a striking statement through everyday objects like paper and candy. For him, the mundane nature of these objects were the point: simple, common, tangible, yet abstract, and devastating. One of his most powerful works to me is “Untitled” (Portrait of Ross in L.A.), in which he represents the declining health of his dying lover with a pile of wrapped candy that is steadily depleted by the art patrons. There is so much that can be read into even the act of participation: is it complicity or awareness? Is it sympathy or murder?

I have no doubt that games can be models for these kinds of questions, but that doesn’t make Minecraft art, for example. It’s a toolset through which I’m able to reproduce a rough facsimile of the most superficial attributes of a Felix Gonzalez-Torres artwork– but it still has none of the meaning which imbues “Untitled” (Portrait of Ross). I don’t have a lover dying of AIDS, nor is my structure arrived at through any other great emotional struggle. It is a representation of the ephemeral nature of all this virtual stuff, and if there is any pain to speak of here, it is that we labor so long and so hard on things which will blip out with a single server crash (or creeper detonation).

As it turns out, I also waited too long to draw users to the installation in time for this essay, so apart for some low-scale demolition conducted during a Fraps test-run, the whole thing is still completely intact. But in the course of building it and constructing my other projects on the server (including: a community donations center, an island shelter shaped like a Space Invader, and Operation: Cake For Everyone), the world I was inhabiting became meaningful in another way.

First of all, most of my late nights on the server were spent cohabiting with another classmate, in fact someone I had never actually spoken to outside the game before this. One of his early acts of generosity (of which there were many) was to lend me an almost completely filled map of the immediate region– he even pointed out where my Space Invader island was, after I’d lost track of it in a particularly catastrophic creeper-related death.

(Side note: before we met, my classmate had actually weathered out a night there and left a note of thanks to the then-mysterious owner. Upon learning of this, I went back to the island and posted a more permanent sign saying it was a free shelter for travelers.)

Secondly, I became interested in the territory. Upon learning most of the other players didn’t navigate by xyz position, I started giving directions by way of landmarks in the local region near the default spawn point. I was helped in this regard by a large memorial that had been constructed near the spawn point; my newfound friend’s structure (a massive pirate ship with fully stocked crew quarters, to serve as a compliment to my donation center) was also viewable at a distance and became a good reference point. And, after I found I was out of things to do besides track down others’ buildings and leave cakes at their door (I later told an undergrad friend this was because I am tsundere), I took to exploring and leaving torches on as many mountain peaks as I could find. A way of being anonymous and vain all at once. Don’t worry. Someone was here. And survived at least long enough to leave some light.

I concluded that my next step would have to be a journey like Brendan Keogh’s, taking in the far limits of the server space and leaving the endless trials of accumulation and building of pretty structures behind me. This conflict of what Minecraft can be versus what it conventionally is lies somewhere near the heart of the problem with this article by Kirk Hamilton, Skyrim Will Have Infinite Randomly Generated Content. But Will It Ever Feel as Real as Minecraft?” The problem, of course, is there is a significant difference between procedural quest generation and procedural map generation, the latter being what Minecraft uses to feel “real.”

I’m not certain that “real” is even the appropriate word for a game which plays so fast and loose with floating blocks and single-sex reproduction. Certainly Minecraft is able to leave a distinct impression, inspire a sense of longing, maybe even a sense of nostalgia for some pastoral, frontiersman fantasy of self-made wealth and security. I tried to challenge that compulsion by making a structure that, once it was destroyed once, could not be brought back or reused, but that only appeared to solve half the problem. To really get away from Minecraft‘s materialism, I’ll need to get as close to building nothing as possible, and I’m not sure what kind of game that will leave me with afterwards.

All of this is to say that the three games I discuss here –Skyrim, Audiosurf and Minecraft– are all concerned in their own ways with spatiality, and to varying extents the communities of knowledge which grow up around them. Keogh, in his own words, is “an Audiosurf evangelist” and most likely knows more about the algorithmic principles underlying the game than I can ever guess at, but otherwise the game does not have even a shade of the knowledge culture engendered by the other two. And yet, even in the absence of collective servers and universal landmarks, there is a sort of Audiosurf map which gets worked out– like the shared playlist project Keogh and a few of our mutual colleagues are putting together over Twitter. They’re all, in my estimation, excellent ventures into the collective creation of spaces, using mainly mental visualization to construct from limited personal impressions a wide, wide network of experiences (a word which, like “immersion” or “postmodernism,” will probably get me hanged).

*A problematic assertion, to be sure, but one I will take to task another day.

Header credit goes to Mike Fahey of Kotaku, via Kirk Hamilton’s post.

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  • Thene  On 12.09.11 at 6:05 pm

    Don’t worry. Someone was here. And survived at least long enough to leave some light.

    this is what writing is like ;__;


  • [...] and confrontational. One of my favorite installation artists is Felix Gonzalez-Torres, about whom I’ve written a bit before. Gonzalez-Torres made works out of everyday objects such as piles of wrapped candies, and the [...]


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