Productivism in play

For a while now, I’ve been thinking about how the cultural context of commerce and capitalism affects game design. In this extract from my master’s thesis a couple of interesting examples of this come to light, as I look at some theoretical readings of play space. I argue that RPG game worlds such as Skies of Arcadia are productivist and fragmented. This could reflect the commercial relationship between player and game developer, and the transactional role of cultural signifiers in a hyper-mobile age.


‘The wizarding world of Harry Potter’ at Disneyland

Theme parks, shopping malls and game worlds all share in common `place’ for entertainment purposes. `Any geographical, cultural, or mythic location [...] could be recon gured as a setting for entertaiment.’

These worlds are not representations of the real-world, but playgrounds for leisure pursuits. Like Disneyland or the Disney-themed RPG Kingdom Hearts, the game world is a `metaverse’ that contains a variety of barely connected styles and moments.

The fun lies in the variety, and the design of the game world

has to answer to this apparent fragmentation with structure and narrative.

Media theorist Scott Bukatman describes space design in theme parks as`simulated tactics’; speci cally, simulations of the derive of the situationists, an aimless passage through urban space. `There is no discovery that one is not led to, no resolution that has not already occurred.’

But even though the derive was described as aimless, it did aim to bring together the complexities of the city by giving shape to its psychogeographical fragmentation. The aimlessness was performative anti-capitalism, expressed in the famous wall graffiti, `Ne travaillez jamais’ – never work.

Arguably, theme parks and role-playing games confi gure leisure in a solidly productivist context. The theme park visitor has a limited time to experience as much as possible. Their entire exploration of the park is a series of transactions, driven by the hope that they might complete a comprehensive survey of the park to get maximum return on their ticket price. The role-playing gamer has unlimited time to explore the game space, but the game mechanics either encourage or demand productive behaviour, be this crafting weapons and items, carrying out services for non-playable characters who lack fi ghting skills, or completing a greater quest to save the world.

Any theoretical relationship between situationist derives and leisure spaces confi gured by entertainment industries should be complicated by this fundamental ideological diff erence, despite their common interest in the ludic. Nevertheless, reflecting on situationist psychogeographical experiments might shine an interesting light on the psychogeography of the Skies of Arcadia gameworld.

Guy Debord’s 1957 map of Paris, The Naked City represented Paris as a series of movements between fragmented and separate spaces. These fragments of Paris are intended to enable `the discovery of unities of atmosphere, of their main components, and of their spatial localisation.’

The homogeneity portrayed by conventional maps of the city is revealed to be only one possible discourse, while the The Naked City highlights distinctions and diff erences. The psychogeographic map presents space as a narrative, rather than as a `universal knowledge.’ The user of the psychogeographic map cannot achieve mastery over the city, while the conventional map is drawn up to give the user an all-knowing gaze over the terrain. What the psychogeographic map does provide is a guide to a subjective spatial experience.

The Skies of Arcadia game world is closer to a psychogeographic map than a cartographical survey. Arcadia is a set of seven entirely separate civilisations, connected only by the open sky. The world is defi ned by the diff erentiating factors of the six moons, with common global history lost in antiquity, and the present state of diversity headed for destruction through uni fication.

This fragmentation is intensi fied by the structure of the world as separate, floating landmasses which abruptly begin and end against the backdrop of a blue sky, not unlike the clear white of The Naked City. Even the in-game map is subjectivised by the fact that areas are only made visible on the map when the player has already visited them. The size of this map grows as the players discover more areas of the game-world, reflecting their own subjective sense of the growing scale of the game.

The subjectivised map of game space is reflective of a game world perspective that subjectivises all space. The camera is always positioned in close proximity behind the vehicle of movement, whether that is the airship or the on-screen character, and the vehicle anchors the rotation of the camera as an invisible pivot point. The world is always viewed from this personal angle, never from the god’s-eye, all-seeing view of strategy games such as Sid Meier’s Civilisation. Just as in the virtual reality camera described by Lev Manovich, the players use the controller to move the character deeper into the game world and rotate the camera around the character; or rather, to rotate the game world around the camera.

Spatiality is discovered through the relative movements of character, camera, and space. Seeing spatiality as performative and dependent on movement brings user agency into our analysis, rather than purifying game space as a static entity separate from its interaction.

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3 thoughts on “Productivism in play

  1. I’m noticing the same formatting issue as last post, but this time it’s significantly impacting the readability- missing letters are resulting in actual words or near-words like “derive,” “grati” (particularly confounding when preceding the quote in french, which primes my brain to try to re-parse the word in nearby European languages like, say Italian) and “congure” (“congrue” or “conjure” would even make pseudo-sense in context, and the brain doesn’t pay much attention to the order of letters in the middle of words anyway… :P)

    But on the subject at hand, a couple other points come to mind regarding how players, and humans in general, react to space and maps.
    Something fundamental in the operation of the human brain specializes in spatial and geographical thinking/learning. Once or twice in university coursework and scientific television programming I’ve come across the exercise of remembering sequences of raw data (which the brain is very bad at) by tagging them against locations on a route through a familiar location, ideally by imagining some unusual event involving the respective datum at each waypoint. I find it likely that, as in the cinematic story-writing advice “if it would work in a dream, it will work on screen,” subjectivization in gaming worlds works because, on some level, that’s how the brain organizes information even if it receives it in other ways. Even a cartographic map may need to be encoded as a subjective psychogeographic map in order to be retained, and that psychogeographic map likely will not contain very much detail between “memorable” waypoints, so designers can get away with a fragmented approximation of the world.

    I recently finished replaying SNES RPG Terranigma (a rarity in the States, as it never had a North American release) which is another good case study along the same lines. The world of Terranigma is, approximately, Earth. But so as not to over-complicate the game or over-tax system memory, many geographic locations were subjectively conflated. All of France is one city; all of Japan is one city; the United States has 2 cities: an historical amalgam of New York, Massachusetts and North Carolina, and an historical amalgam of Illinois (specifically Chicago), Ohio and Michigan. But the game works, and feels very historically familiar, because each game city represents areas and events that are already naturally clustered in the minds of anyone who has not had such personal familiarity with a region to subdivide it in greater detail.

    • Sorry about that – clearly I missed a lot of the ligature corrections when pasting from the pdf.

      I think the key here is your point that the areas in question are ‘naturally clustered in the minds of’ your imagined players. It’s reflecting an existing psychogeography, right?

      • Precisely- In the case of Terranigma, reflecting an existing psychogeography, or in the case of most other fragmented/sparse game worlds, reflecting the organization that players’ minds would be likely to create even if the world was presented as contiguous.

        Another interesting collection to review in this light might be the SNES-era Secret of Mana titles/derivatives- Secret of Mana (Seiken Densetsu 2), Seiken Densetsu 3, and Secret of Evermore. In all 3, the bulk of gameplay is conducted on indoor/outdoor maps at character scale where most parts of the world are directly connected. Once the player obtains the game’s air travel mechanism, they are presented with more of a Gods-eye-view of the world they have been navigating. I at least tend to experience a brief period of dissonance when I first need to tie locations in the aerial map with locations on the ground map. To compensate, the developers appear to have cosmetically exaggerated the most significant ground-map locations in the aerial view to make them easier to find.

        Part of that initial dissonance, I suppose, is due to the fact that if you laid out the individual screens of the ground map to form a precise mechanical cartography of the game world, it would have a markedly different shape than the aerial map. At the risk of going too far afield, though, this shouldn’t really be as significant as it seems- players have long had to deal with e.g. the insides of buildings being given more space once the character walks through the door than the external footprint of the building would indicate. I wonder what it is about player perception and cognition that makes different scales/layouts inside vs. outside buildings acceptable, different scales inside vs. outside towns acceptable, but different scales/layouts on the ground vs from the air awkward?

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