Hello! I’m Leigh, a fifth year PhD candidate in the Constructed Environment at the Architecture School. I also have the good fortune of being one of the Digital Humanities Fellows at the Scholars Lab for 2019-2020.
My dissertation research looks to video games as an example of the way digital technologies are reconfiguring what it means to be in a space. Specifically, I look at games that have what I refer to as “immersive ecologies,” or those in which the world is a compelling component of the game play. Often these are role playing games (RPGs), but they don’t have to be. I’m looking at games like Red Dead Redemption 2, Witcher 3, Horizon: Zero Dawn, Journey, and Gris, for example. These types of games ask you to participate with the world in a way that other typologies do not–you engage with a puzzle game like Tetris in a different way, versus sandbox games like No Man’s Sky, social games and massive multiplayer online games (MMOs) like Warcraft, or life simulators like the Sims or Second Life. Immersive ecologies are one slice of a very large pie that are asking us to reevaluate our relationship to space in specific ways.
Storm blowing in, Red Dead Redemption 2. My video.
When you play a video game, or even when you watch someone else play, you engage with digital space in a way that is unique to this medium. Something happens as you get drawn into the game–the passage of time moves at a different pace than it does when you’re engaging in other activities, like watching a movie or reading a book. You’re asked to participate in the world of the game as you move through it and fight monsters, zombies, or whatever fantastical creatures the game designers have cooked up. You are involved in the history of the game, learning about the lore of the world as you talk to its inhabitants, and exploring different towns, cities, countrysides, desserts, or outer space.
My research is focused on the way in which video games with immersive ecologies produce this phenomenon, and the logics that govern the space. I argue that, counter to positions popular within architectural theory, the issue of space in video game worlds is the driver for all conditions that follow it. Space generates specific temporalities and material experiences that combine to inform our understanding of being in the video games as a place. The space of video games is a field of possibility–any temporal or material conditions are possible within it, and yet specific design choices have been made by the designers that mediate our experience of the game world. Game space is able to generate multiple possible temporal modalities that are able to co-exist. On one level, the games themselves are a different way of conceiving time, as the passage of game time operates by different rules than physical clock time–a day elapses in the game much more quickly than in physical life. More importantly, the games represent any number of alternate temporal experiences that run concurrent to our embodied, physical experience. We can enter the time of any space we choose–the medieval era of Witcher, or the future of Horizon: Zero Dawn. We have specific material experiences as the space comes to life, encountering objects, learning to use them, and becoming a part of the history of the game world as we play and progress through the narrative. The way time and materiality combine informs our understanding of the game as a place, one with a new definition of community and affect.
To understand how the components of space, time, materialy, and place coalesce, I suggest that when we engage a game we are occupying an inbetween ontological state. In this state, we are becoming a subject-object hybrid. We are a subject in that we have agency, or the will to act within that space, but we are also digital objects, as a digital body serves as a projection within the space. This hybrid form creates a flow back and forth from the game to the physical body–physical experience informs our understanding of space, time, materiality,and place, but the experience of the game space, likewise, reconfigures our physical subjectivity. The inbetween space, between game and physical experience, creates a back and forth flow of subjectivity.
Scene from the first act of Journey. My video.
The digital component of my research is a virtual reality space that I’d like to serve three functions. The first is to develop a digital diagram of the ideas of the written dissertation. It is a repository for the visual data–video game images and video clips–that I have collected that will help guide gamers, non-gamers, and anyone unfamiliar with architectural theory, through the ideas I explore in writing. The second goal is that it will be a proof of concept. Much of what I discuss in writing–the idea of flows, simulatentiety, and ontological states–hinge upon the idea that these are highly mediated spaces, subject to the decisions made by a team of designers as well as decisions made by players. The idea is that my virtual reality space will speak to that to some degree–I want to guide users through my research and ideas, but I also want them to be able to explore ideas and organize their experience of them in their own way. Finally, my hope is that this project will contribute to the way we might use virtual reality technologies as a digital humanities tool. We can use the digital space itself to do research on digital space.
My next post will be about my work with Arin using Neos Metaverse to make the VR space. I’ve only gotten to scratch the surface of what is going to be possible with a program like Neos. It’s a very cool tool, or space, I’m not sure what to call it, and eventually it’s going to change the way architects think about doing design and the experience of space.