Augmentology" a concise manual of reality for our digital age."

Mark Hancock,_Augmentology: Interfaccia Tra Due Mondi_

[Sponsored by The Ars Virtua Foundation/CADRE Laboratory for New Media]

Discussions addressing the connection between architecture and gaming cycle in and out of design discourse with some regularity. And why not? The experiential qualities of surface, volume and movement in game space are compelling, immersive and, quite importantly, shared points of reference. Conversations about this relationship often address the fact that the underlying means of production in both disciplines are fundamentally connected through an assortment of shared tools and methodologies. Beyond advances in software and hardware, we could definitely point fingers at the uncanny digital materiality of James Cameron and the influential design practice of Greg Lynn for causing a conflation of architectural, animation and visual effects culture. Origins aside, it is important to note that both architecture and gaming are equally invested in the representation of space, and both have codified standards for “sound construction”. This works at the diagrammatic level of vectors and polygons and experientially when discussing the qualities of immersion in specific narrative spaces, be they inhabited or played.

There are a number of pitfalls to be avoided when reading space in gaming. One must resist the urge to completely aestheticize gaming, avoid eclipsing play with narrative and acknowledge that game space telescopes outwards from play and also encompasses various layers of control and perception which augment and inform immersion. These layers include interface, the picture planes that comprise the display, related hardware and software and even the body of the gamer. The idea of gameplay as a collaboration between player and software was outlined succinctly by Alexander Galloway in his 2006 essay Gamic Action, Four Movements. Galloway identifies gaming as an “action medium” whereby all activity can be categorized as initiated by the “operator” or “machinic” and as being either diegetic (contributing to the narrative) or “non-diegetic”. These criteria provide a handy classification system for reading gaming and interpreting the nature of specific interactions and events.

What is of interest to this examination of space in gaming is generally contained within the “operator” and “non-diegetic” quadrants of the above diagram – events initiated by the player that aren’t directly connected to the narrative of the game. Galloway identifies these types of operations as “acts of configuration” that “happen on the exterior of the world of the game”. In this series of posts we will use this definition as a reference (rather than a pair of handcuffs) to read these “actions” as Tentative Spaces – temporary, informational enclosures that a gamer inhabits and modulates while immersed in play or setting the parameters for it.

Mez Breeze’s notion of synthetic presencing (previously defined and discussed here on Augmentology) is another useful precedent. Breeze identifies presencing as blurring the middle ground between the clearly defined fiction/non-fiction divide associated with firmly established narrative models and mediums (i.e. detective fiction novels, crime-drama films). Examples of presencing include fan fiction, the social infrastructure of MMOG guilds, and the rapid, permutational evolution of internet memes that riff off pop culture. How does presencing relate to this discussion of space in gaming? Since tentative spaces operate as sidebars to and overlays on game space, they exist tangentially to game narrative. While these spaces relate to the fiction of game space they are not completely contained in game space. Tentative spaces provide enclosures in which the player can act, assess, analyze and sometimes socialize while being slightly detached from the actual experience of play – augmenting gameplay, if you will. Navigating strata of interface, socializing in multiplayer game lobbies and around post-game box scores, in-game microphone communication and interface informatics are all examples of tentative spaces.

Schematizing gameplay in this manner resonates with the idea of Russian nested dolls – volumes within volumes within volumes. This series of posts is based on an optimism that in isolating these “layers” of play, interface and information will reveal a range of idiosyncratic spaces slightly outside the realm of most discussions of gaming. Tentative Spaces will catalog a variety of general phenomena across gaming as well as analyze the construction of specific gaming titles. The following represents a quick sketch of the characteristics of tentative spaces, these will be further developed in future posts:

  • Transparency – Tentative Spaces often occur on top of game play and players are able to inhabit/navigate these spaces and still “see through” them while engaging in gameplay (eg. team status monitor information overlay in multiplayer gaming).
  • Hybridity – Referencing Lev Manovich’s suggestion that emerging media forms are combinatory in nature, Tentative Spaces will be examined as interactive assemblages comprised of text and image, maps and diagrams (eg. game analytics).
  • Interstitial – Tentative Spaces are often employed to bridge narrative sequences in gaming or to provide a green room in which players can wait during a “machinic” event (eg. network configuration/team selection lobbies in multiplayer gaming).
  • Supplementary – As previously mentioned Tentative Spaces often sit at least partially outside game narrative, if not completely detached from it (eg. an easter egg or minigame).
  • Sites of Interaction – Tentative Spaces have the potential to aggregate community and user labor towards building communal resources (eg. in game or web based wiki construction to inform gameplay).

To bring this introduction full circle, it is worth returning to the bridge built between architecture and gaming in the first paragraph. Since gaming plays out across space it is very much about space. Gamers have acclimatized themselves to a range of perspectives, views, GUI assemblages and camera movements that emulate a host of physiological, cinematic and cartographic conventions. As a by-product of this rapidly evolving array of representational techniques, gamers find themselves highly “interface literate” with the ability to simultaneously navigate numerous narrative, informational and social planes. As a series of posts, Tentative Spaces is invested in isolating and qualifying a variety of niches, pockets and marginalia within game culture. It is all too easy to dismiss many of these layers of gaming as instrumental when in fact their superimposition on and control over play represent a fundamental aspect of not just the experience of play, but the structure of game space.