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)