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)