Video games and psychogeography

Third and final post for now about games. I promise. James Corbett points to Matt Jones’ observation on how virtual copies of physical space can allow us to relate to the space itself:

What realisations and reactions would we have if we could gaze into this mirrorworld knowing it was real, not a simEarth, and further more - the only we’ve got?

It would be the software-equivalent of when the space program in the late-sixties afforded us the first view back at the pale blue dot we’re stuck on.

This is a wonderful analogy. In 1966 Stewart Brand came to the drug-assisted realisation that if humankind could see a photograph of the whole of planet Earth as seen from space, it would prompt a revelatory moment for us all1. The image of the planet as a tiny island floating alone in the vast infinity of space would help people to conceive their relative size within the world and thus, the thinking went, the importance of ecological thinking. In other words, this representation of the world could help us to further understand the world itself. An alternative view can afford a new understanding.

The mirrorworld thing also reminds me of some of the thinking behind psychogeography, the line of thinking that started with the Situationist movement that looks at how paying close attention to your surroundings can affect how you feel. It’s the process of engaging and interacting directly with a place in order to understand it in a new way. The relationship between the engagement of psychogeography and the abstraction of representation is strange: they take almost opposite approaches, yet aim to arrive at the same destination, that of an alternative perspective of a reality.

This was supposed to be about videogames.

Playing a videogame is something between these two types of engagement. On one hand the game is a complete fabrication, an invented reality that sometimes reflects the real world and sometimes is completely alien. So when you’re playing a game you’re dealing with a representation, a mirrorworld. On the other hand, the act of playing a game can be an intense interaction with the environment, and a lot of the time the aim is to get completely lost within the act of being in the game, to focus on nothing but your immersive environment, just like alert walking.

Videogaming is essentaillty a postmodern activity – tied to the fact that it means engaging with a simulation, an image of a reality, but with with enough freedom to realise and undermine this fact – and so it’s plagued by all of the confusion and self-contradiction that comes with that label. Somhow though it has the potential (at least as a medium) to reach the same place via opposite routes, just like the different approches of representation and engagement can both open up new perspectives.

So I have exactly zero conclusions, but maybe that’s a reflection of the fact that the knot of gaming’s cultural impact is so difficult to untie. And changing so fast! Have you seen the promo video for the Nintendo Wii? It’s all hurtling along at a thrilling pace, much too fast for anyone to control or steer, or even criticise or pick apart with any real confidence. It’s fun to try to keep up though.

[1] Brand worked with Buckminster Fuller and Marshall McLuhan on this project, which is said to have infulenced NASA to release the Apollo missions photos of the earth in 1969. He also hung out with Ken Kesey during the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test days and helped Doug Engelbart deliver The Mother of All Demos in 1968. He founded the Whole Earth Catalog and now runs the Long Now Foundation with Brian Eno and Danny Hillis. Quite the fellow.

— 29 Jul 2006