The archaeology of digital landscapes

In an earlier post, I mentioned Kevin Lynch’s The Image of the City, in relationship to how spaces are arranged in Second Life, how to read space and so on. As I was interested in the archaeology of urban spaces at the time, Lynch’s work was a foundation for me. I’ve carried those lessons into my wider work as an archaeologist, and they still seem appropriate as I move into these otherlands. Seems I’m not the only one going down that path – over at Terranova we have:

“…Though Lynch’s book praises the virtues of ‘legible’ cities, he acknowledges in the first chapter that, where the stakes are low and the boundary limits of a space are understood, there can be pleasures to being lost. Being lost, when time allows, can be as enjoyable as a puzzle, tantalizing the reader with an unrecognized pattern. Another qualification he provides to the goal of legibility is that cities are (and should be) living and decentralized art forms. A static city is dead […] citizens do (and must) have the ability to erase and fill in the content of city spaces…. So I’ve been wondering a bit about how our mental construction of real cities might carry over to the structure of virtual worlds…”

The author goes on to link to a paper called ‘Architecture, Space and Gameplay in World of Warcraft and Battle for Middle Earth 2‘ by Georgia Leigh McGregor. Her abstract:

Taking as its starting point the notion that architecture provides a way of analysing computer games and their spatiality, this paper compares two very different ways of producing architecture and space in World of Warcraft and Lord of the Rings: Battle forMiddle Earth 2. Looking at the production of architecture within the two games as an object or as a spatial entity, as experiential or symbolic, this paper links videogame architecture, landscape, gameplay and the player.

She argues that in these games, it is the architectural spaces that organise and give meaning to much of WOW, while BFME2 treats space much more symbolically. She concludes that it should be possible to categorise games by the way they conceptualise space.

Further categorisation based on an architectural reading of
videogames might include contested spaces that push and pull at
the gameplay, organisationally directed spaces that orientate
activity and objectified spaces that symbolise and reduce spatial
endeavour. The manner in which these video games portray
architecture is entwined with the way in which they use space.
Architecture then forms a useful tool in analysing the spatial
qualities of videogames.

Now, I am reading Ian Bogost’s ‘Persuasive Games’ at the moment, where he argues that games make rhetorical statements as they try to convince the player of a particular point of view – this rhetoric lies in the processes, the procedures, that make the game (an important differentiation from other visual rhetorics like film or advertisements). I’m not all the way through yet, but so far, he hasn’t consider the internal representations of worlds in games – just the rules. While the rules are quite important, I think McGregor’s analysis might in the long run be a more fruitful way of analysing online worlds than Bogost’s approach. Maybe I should temper that thought – neither approach alone is sufficient, but together they complement one another. Understanding what goes on in a (real-world) city can’t be achieved by studying its by-laws – you have to look at how people move through its spaces, see what emerges from the unintended consequences and interactions of those bylaws with the people who are constrained by them (cf Massey 1999 City Worlds).