In this episode we talk with Gregory Whistance-Smith, an independent scholar based in Edmonton, Canada. The discussion focuses on the book “Expressive Space: Embodying Meaning in Video Game Environments” https://www.degruyter.com/document/doi/10.1515/9783110723731/html?lang=en
Video game spaces have vastly expanded the built environment, offering new worlds to explore and inhabit. Like buildings, cities, and gardens before them, these virtual environments express meaning and communicate ideas and affects through the spatial experiences they afford. Drawing on the emerging field of embodied cognition, this book explores the dynamic interplay between mind, body, and environment that sits at the heart of spatial communication. To capture the wide diversity of forms that spatial expression can take, the book builds a comparative analysis of twelve video games across four types of space, spanning ones designed for exploration and inhabitation, kinetic enjoyment, enacting a situated role, and enhancing perception. Together, these diverse virtual environments suggest the many ways that video games enhance and extend our embodied lives.
As a joint venture, “Keywords in Play” expands Critical Distance’s commitment to innovative writing and research about games while using a conversational style to bring new and diverse scholarship to a wider audience.
Our goal is to highlight the work of graduate students, early career researchers and scholars from under-represented groups, backgrounds and regions. The primary inspiration comes from sociologist and critic Raymond Williams. In the Preface to his book Keywords: a vocabulary of culture and society, Williams envisaged not a static dictionary but an interactive document, encouraging readers to populate blank pages with their own keywords, notes and amendments. “Keywords in Play” follows Williams in affirming that “The significance is in the selection”, and works towards diversifying the critical terms with which we describe games and game culture.
Please consider supporting Critical Distance at https://www.patreon.com/critdistance
Production Team: Darshana Jayemanne, Zoyander Street, Emilie Reed, Bettina Bodi.
Audio Direction and Engineering: Damian Stewart
Double Bass: Aaron Stewart
Transcription: Charly Harbord
Darshana: You’re listening to Keywords in Play, an interview series about game research supported by Critical Distance and the Digital Games Research Association. As a joint venture, Keywords in Play expands Critical Distance’s commitment to innovative writing and research about games while using a conversational style to bring new and diverse scholarship to a wider audience.
Zoyander: Welcome to Keywords in Play, would you like to introduce yourself?
Greg: Yeah, I’m Greg Whistance-Smith. I’m an intern architect in Edmonton, Alberta, in Canada. And I, so I have a background in architecture, but also a longtime interest in video games, really indie games. And then I guess higher budget Japanese games, I’ve not played a lot of higher budget Western ones, I guess out of lack of interest or something. But outside of my architecture degrees, I’ve also got a degree in digital humanities at the University of Alberta here. And that was, during that degree is where I started doing the work that became this book. So, I’ve got a book that just came out this year, called ‘Expressive Space: Embodying Meaning in Video Game Environments’. And so unsurprisingly, I’m looking at video games the way an architect might, and looking at the spaces of those environments. And I guess I should also say all of these wonderful things we have now that are not very gamey. So, walking simulators and things that are kind of sitting in a edge point, they’re definitely environmental though. So, that was part of the interest for me. And I said that I was an intern, I should, I should clarify it means I’m just about to be a licensed architect. So, you do all this education, and they still call you an intern, even though you’re paid. And even though you do almost the whole job an architect does. So, it’s kind of a funny quirk that is probably worth noting.
Zoyander: Oh, is that kind of like doctors?
Greg: Yeah, yeah, it’d be like residency stuff. Exactly. Yeah, we are desperate for them to use a different term and they don’t want to. So that’s professional associations for you.
Zoyander: Could you say a little about what your practice is like at the moment? Because it’s really interesting to me that you’re operating outside of a university context and kind of continuing your training within an architecture firm?
Greg: Yeah, absolutely. So, I mean, the work we do, I’m really lucky to be at this office I’m at, that we do a lot of community focus buildings. So, kind of anything that we can get, it’s like, I guess, five architects and an admin person, which is really rare for us in our city, where we usually have drafts people as well as full architects that will have their master’s degrees and experience. So, it’s a high, high expertise office. And so, I guess for that, it’s it’s very much all the questions of architecture in day-to-day life. And then with the interest in game studies and video game environments on the side. But I mean, kind of a balance. There’s all those questions of expression and space and understanding the experiential sides of space. And so, in a sense, I bring that view from the games back into my day-to-day practice in a strong way. And some of the practical things of getting buildings made. I mean, most of the job of an architect is actually project management. It’s about 10%, design and 90% project management. And I think once you make your peace with that, it goes a lot better. A lot of people think it’s more, more design than it is sadly, but that’s obviously very applicable. And I don’t know if we’ll get too much into it here, but from a labour perspective and an office perspective, there’s a lot of overlap between how you structure and architecture office, and how you structure either a smaller, larger game development office, which I think not much has been said about it. But it’s a really interesting overlap. That, of course, also, in some ways applies to film and TV, but, but that’s a whole other thing.
Zoyander: That’s very interesting, I hadn’t heard it put that way before. I’ve seen people say that there’s a disciplinary overlap, that’s a bit neglected, in terms of the problems that you’re thinking about, and the affordances of the kind of stuff you’re designing and like your medium of expression. But I didn’t realize that the way that you practice or the way that you organize practice would be so similar.
Greg: Yeah, it certainly can be and it was a funny thing, so, I was interested in independent games well before even going into architecture school. And I kind of understood architecture had a tier of, we’ll call them boutique practices, of which I’m now working at one I guess, and it was kind of funny, I was like, oh, this will happen, this will be indie games. And you’ll give it 10 years and you’ve got players like Annapurna now that have kind of helped fund this tier of type of practice, which is super different than working at a massive you know, 200-person office right which of course we also have an architecture so it’s kind of a funny, yeah, I expected it, it happened here it is, you know, that’s just late-capitalist mess for you.
Zoyander: Yeah and how it also makes me think about outsourcing and how that’s very similar.
Greg: Oh, yeah. And some of that does happen for us now too, in ways that didn’t even happen 10 years ago. So that’s been a kind of uncomfortable, like, oh, no architecture’s finding ways to do it too, unfortunately. But there you go. So, I think for me, yeah, it’s the book doesn’t really get into the industry study stuff. But I think maybe, you know, maybe I’ll write something on that in the future. And in both cases, I mean, the funny thing for about, I don’t know, 30 years now, architecture of visualization. So, making renders and making anything, you know, visuals on the computer of an unbuilt project, we’re getting table scraps from the game industry, basically. And so, most of the main ones have been putting out sort of architect-directed engines now. So, there’s like a skin for the Unreal Engine that I use a fair bit now. That’s just a really simple-to-use interface that you plug your model of the building you’ve designed into, and it just does a lot of the heavy lifting. And again, it’s I kind of was thinking that would exist at some point back in 2010. And I think by about 2018, they’d put this commercial product out there.
Zoyander: Why do you think there was demand for that?
Greg: There’s a funny generational gap in architecture where only the younger people. And I guess now that would be under 35, let’s say but had more tech proficiency. And so, the funny thing was, if you’re trained as an architect, later, all the older people in the office did a lot more by hand would rely on you to do the visualization and stuff like that. And so, I think the desire, there’s a correct desire in architecture to try to really think through a building before you build it, especially with the giant sums of money involved, and that there’s no equivalent to playtesting. And so, you’re really flying blind a lot. And that’s terrifying when you’re talking about a $200 million building, which is actually not even that high, as far as things can go, you know, an airport might be twice that. So, it’s that kind of, I think, when it’s done right, and the, I don’t know, promise that I see in those tools, is a better way of engaging with the experiential side through this simulation of space. And that pulls it right back to the book, where, you know, we can draw it all we want, we can make physical models, which can help. But having a simulated first-person walkthrough, let’s say, a museum, if the experience of that is kind of bland and boring, well, you should know that, when you do it in the simulation, it won’t be quite the same as walking through it, but it’ll give you a taste of what that could be. And so, I kind of see it as a way of trying to pull playtesting into architecture for lack of a maybe better way to say that, but.
Zoyander: That sounds like a really interesting way to say it. But I guess the limitation is do architecture clients want to think of what they’re doing as play is that kind of like the term feels a bit clunky?
Greg: Ah, that’s funny, because I haven’t even thought of saying it to them, I think we probably wouldn’t present it to them using that language. But I think if we use it, maybe that language of testing still or of really helping them understand what it is they’re spending a giant sum of money on, and the value in that because right now we’re still in a situation, more or less globally (there are some exceptions to that), where you’re seeing images, and you’re spending these large sums of money based on some drawings and some kind of photorealistic image. But of course, an image is a representation of space, it’s not spatially really experiential, it’s not, there’s none of that sense of movement through it. And yeah, so it’s, you know, it’s more than nothing but less than maybe what we desire to have. But that is changing. Yeah. So, um, yeah, ‘Expressive Space’ is basically my look at how can a video game environment be meaningful to its players. It can be meaningful in tons of ways we kind of know that intuitively. But the intent of this book was really to break that up more, I guess we’ll say more analytically, and look at the different ways that can be meaningful and find, try to put together let’s say, a toolkit, which is how I viewed it, of a set of theories that could be used kind of predictably to at least get started on unpacking meaning, because I’m not, I’m not a believer of, you know, one tool for every situation. And so, I think the book kind of shows it to that, depending on what you’re looking at, you have to pull on other theories and do other things, too. But I, in the book, I introduced five theories from a field called embodied cognition as ways of getting into that. And some of these theories are older and more established. And maybe I’ll talk about them in a moment, and you will have heard of them, but some of them are a little bit newer, and you may not have in other scholarship. And so, I found that together, they did a pretty good job of doing a kind of first start at getting at the meaning of spaces, and covering the kind of breadth of what you’d see in game environments. And so, what I think about it too, was really a key idea in the book, is that video game environments are a new type of built environment. And so, if you haven’t come across that in other scholarship, basically, built environment is just any kind of environment that people have constructed for some kind of reason and basically so roads, buildings, infrastructure, you think dams. And the whole idea of that is, of course, we have the natural environment that’s just going about what it’s doing. And we definitely interfere with it when we build built environments, but there is an intention behind the built environment. And we always know that someone did this for some reason. And so, there’s a sense of authorship there. And there’s also a sense in which a built environment actually usually wants us to behave in a certain kind of way inside that environment, it was made for something. So yes, you can sleep on a park bench, but maybe the city authorities are going to be angry about that, and put anti-homelessness spikes on it and be awful, and, you know, try to discourage that activity, because they just want the park bench for seniors sitting in the park feeding birds, right? I mean, to use a flippant example. So, I think thinking about these game environments, video games are very vast, and they try to do a lot of different things. And I kind of felt the scholarship was a bit lacking in that regard to maybe just straight up, from the get-go, say these aren’t really the same thing. They’re in the same medium. They’re using the same technology. So, so, that’s kind of the starting point of the book, I guess, a bit of a mouthful, but there you go.
Zoyander: It’s interesting to me to think about hostile architecture, like anti-homelessness measures and stuff into terms of embodied cognition…
Zoyander: …like the body, interpreting the space and getting a sense of what’s allowed and not allowed here. And whether that body is allowed in that space.
Greg: Yeah, perfect, perfect. So embodied cognition is a relatively new kind of interdisciplinary pursuit, for lack of a way to put it. So, we’ve got people in philosophy, psychology, cognitive science, linguistics, and a bunch of other fields actually robotics too which gets really interesting, because there’s all these questions about, if you’re trying to make a real body embodied robot, how’s it going to behave differently, right. And so basically, what that theory is arguing is that human thinking and abstract reasoning is deeply grounded in our embodied lives. So, so, it’s also called grounded cognition, sometimes, and some people do prefer that term. But the idea is just being in a body is actually a huge deal. All our experiences of the world are through that body. And that creates for us, I love how someone’s, I’m forgetting the theorists now so if they hear this, I’m sorry, but they call it a phenomenological bedrock of life. And I think it’s, it was a great way to put it because it’s like we just have we know what it’s like to hold objects, we know what it’s like to put clothes on, we know what it’s like to go inside of buildings and go outside of buildings. And so, that base-level experience really shapes our higher levels of reasoning. Maybe I’ll just segway from that into those five theories in the book. So, the probably most significant one, in some ways for this discussion, though, maybe not, maybe they’re all equal. But the conceptual metaphoric theory, Johnson and Laykov being the big names for that, that people may have heard, is arguing that we have this kind of abstract understanding as grounded in sensorimotor experience. That kind of shows up in language, but there’s been a lot of studies done now that are not linguistic. And so, it’s nice to have some, you know, verification using other methods. And so, an example of that would be to say, I grasp that idea in English, as using this metaphor of like grasping an object is the same experiential feeling as holding an idea in your head. And so, another one, we say, theories are buildings, you can buttress the theory, have a foundation for a theory, construct a theory. And I can also get poetic and say, I got lost in the winding hallways of his theory. And you all kind of know what I meant, right? Because we already have this metaphor. There’s a strong, in that case, a linguistic component, but they’re arguing that really, it goes beyond language, it’s more of an experiential thing that is kind of reflected in language, and then does shape our thinking once it’s in the language as well. So, in the case of spaces, a famous example everyone will know is the Sydney Opera House, it has those kinds of, you know, evocative white forms, right, so you see it and it has to mean something. So, you know, it could be beaks, it could be sails, it could be shells. And that ambiguity actually makes it a bit more interesting. But it’s inviting us to read something metaphoric in the space. And the other end of the spectrum; affordances. Is just the idea of when you’re in a space, you first perceive it by what you can do in that space. And so, that goes back to JJ Gibson and environmental psychology way back when. That’s been talked about a bit more in game studies. And so very much in the case of this book, we’re thinking about how can the player use the controls because they’re not always the same? But also, how can the avatar do things in the world and how quickly we start to kind of experience the game world through the avatars, affordances, and sometimes changing affordances. So, gaining or losing strength and what you can do in that game world. And then the last three, image schemas is this idea of low-level spatial patterns in the world. It’s also tied into the conceptual metaphor side of things. And so, it’s basically arguing that that day-to-day life experience with affordances as well, results in like a really small number of patterns probably in the hundreds, as opposed to 1000s. And so, things like a centre and periphery, up and down, inside/outside links, cycles. And also, like other kinds of cycles, like the seasons where there’s multiple peaks in a cycle. So, all of those things are kind of low-level patterns. And they take on more meaning through metaphor and through just how we understand things. And so, that’s a really, really useful tool for thinking about both the moment-to-moment mechanics in a game. And also, the structure of the entire game world can take on meaning that way.
Zoyander: I enjoyed that one a lot. I found it, particularly as you say, like when it gets in dialogue with metaphors, and you have this really nice way of like, highlighting text within paragraphs at that point in the book which, like, okay, like, like, in caps, like, here’s a metaphor, like life is a journey or something like that. And like, this is using the image schema of the path. And it’s really nice to kind of see that unfolding, as you look at lots of different games.
Greg: Yeah, and I have I have Johnson and Laykov to thank for that because they started that small caps convention. And so, everyone in that field kind of has to fight with the publishers to say, hey, like, this is a field convention to make it clear, we’re talking about this cognitive structure, not about the word. And so occasionally, I don’t, sort of intentionally when I’m talking about the word, not the cognitive structure. But yeah, and so really, the final two are easier, I guess, are ones you people may have heard, again, which is framing in the environment. So, this idea that if we regularly go to a certain kind of environment, we build up a frame for it and cognitive frame of expectations. So, we expect a restaurant to have waiters and tables. And we expect a doctor’s office to have a doctor and examining equipment. And we know that we’re supposed to be examined by the doctor and not the other way around. And the elements in that space prime us to think about what frame to use. And so, you see footsteps in the snow, you’re primed to think about a person walking there. And so, that takes us through all the theories, I think priming, people probably will have heard of that in passing, and it’s just a really common thing in these game environments. You see a ruin so, you’re primed to think about what it used to be right. And it’s a really, it’s like the indexical storytelling that I’m sure people have heard where you leave traces around to, to think of that.
Zoyander: That’s awesome. Thank you for going over that. So, who did you write this book for? And how do you hope that it’s going to be used?
Greg: Yeah, so I kind of wrote it in two directions. And it’s using three disciplines. So, it was kind of brutal for game studies, architecture, theory, and embodied cognition. And so, I guess, in a sense, it’s those three audiences. So, I think, you know, there’s a younger generation of architects that play games, and are aware of all this, but I also don’t even know if a lot of them have made the connection per se, or to have really critically thought about how those spaces can speak back to the practice of, of their day-to-day world. And I think there’s a really nasty thing going on, where we have these beautiful candy-coated game worlds, and we have more dull and dreary and globally homogenous, you know, like capitalist spaces and architecture. And I don’t know that people want that. So, I think that’s, you know, I don’t think that architects want it either, but you don’t always choose who’s paying you and what they want from you. So, there’s a lot of economic reasons for that. But I think it’s a really important thing to be thinking of. And sometimes it doesn’t cost any more to make a building a colour instead of grey or brown, right. So, I think this weird division that’s happening between the virtual built environment and the non-virtual built environment is worth considering. So, architects are one and also just introducing them to what actually is out there in games now, because I think they’re just not aware of the kind of something like ‘Nascence’. That’s so much about architecture, it’s a game that is about architecture at all, all ways, I think everyone should be playing that in architecture school now, I think, as a kind of thinking about procession. Which is one of the things we learn about and think a lot about for certain kinds of buildings. So that’s one. People in embodied cognition, there’s been a growth of stuff of basically media studies with embodied cognition. So, there’s some books on film and advertising and material culture that I cite in there. And so, I think, really, there’s some individual papers that have done it for game studies, but not a whole book. So, mine would be the first to be doing that now that I’m aware of anyway. And lastly, really is game studies, and I probably should have said that first. But I’m hoping with this book to, I guess, provide this set of tools and a little bit of a, you know, rattle the birdcage to say, every single game we’re looking at has some spatial component might be minor. I mean, in a visual novel, it gets pretty minor, but some of them have a huge spatial component and these other things are happening, but they’re happening in the space. So how can we kind of acknowledge this foundational part of the experience that we may not actually be paying lot of conscious awareness to, but kind of tie it into our bigger understanding of the game? And so, my hope really and using these tools and trying to spell them out and then use 12 case studies, to kind of work through them was to say, you know, please, if you think these are good use them, you know, it’s, it’s not just for me. So, which makes it I guess quite a different book than a kind of like humanities thing where you’re just talking about all the theories through the whole book, right? I think it’s kind of a funny book for where it kind of lands. Yeah, I, case analysis is quite big in architecture, I think it’s a really useful way to get into details to you know, pick three things and compare them. And so that was, for me always kind of an obvious choice to approach it that way. So, there’s lots of concrete examples and lots of getting into the details of these different games.
Zoyander: Yeah, cus the structure of the book is, like, it’s very clear and organized. And I know how difficult it is to do that, where you’ve got 12 examples of games. And you’re developing a set of ideas through these examples. But I imagine that in your own head, you’re using all of the ideas all at the same time, when you look at all of the games that you’re having to like, choose how you like, how you develop the ideas more with each new game that you look at. So, it makes it really pleasant for the reader. But conceptually, I know it’s quite a challenging thing to do.
Greg: Yeah, well, it’s, it’s, in a sense, the decisive step was selecting the games. So maybe, I’ll really briefly mentioned which games I talked about because you’ve gotten here pretty late. So, the first cluster of games are ones that are about exploration and habitation. So that’s ‘Knytt Stories’ is this old Swedish Metroidvania. That’s a lovely little game that has strong atmospheres in its area, it’s nonviolent. And it was just a really great kind of introductory game, in my view to get into this. And then the other two in that chapter are ‘The Night Journey’, which is this kind of simulated spiritual quest thing with fuzzy visuals and ‘Nascence’ which is all about a procession. And so that chapter was a good way to talk about world structure and how generally in games, you might have a linear world with pockets of exploration, or you have like, fully open. And ‘The Night Journey’ is a good extreme example of that, where it’s like showing up at a garden, and you can kind of come and go whenever there’s not really a decisive beginning, an end or something. So, the next cluster of three, we’re looking at games that are all about movement. And so, where the enjoyment is in the movement, so really conventional in a way. And so, I use Wii Sports in that for the actual being as decisive move of having motion controls. ‘Taiko no Tatsujin’, in Japan is such a fantastic series. And I mean, it’s coming here a bit more now. But you know, that’s like playing it in the arcade game, where you’re playing taiko drums and making a racket. And lastly, the zone mode in ‘Wipeout HD’, where all it does is get you going faster and faster and faster on the track. And so how, you know, flow theory is this kind of mess of a thing that I mostly avoided in the book. But in that case, it’s a pretty thinly you know, that’s the time to talk about it because that’s very much what that game is set up to do as a scaffold. One of the things spaces do right is they scaffold our movement. And so those games do that in quite an aggressive way, actually. And then probably may be of most interest to most people in games studies is the chapter after that, because it gets into how the moment-to-moment movements, and this is back into the image schemas, have deeper like narrative meaning or meaning in the context of the world. And so, in a sense, that’s probably the most exciting chapter in the book for some new ways of getting into other things. And so, the games in there is ‘Shelter’, where we play as the mother badger, taking your cubs through the woods and trying to keep them safe. ‘Shadow of the Colossus’, of course, super classic, for good reason, and ‘Katamari Damacy’, and its parody of consumption. So those are all fun ones to talk about and look at more. And then the final chapter is the most avant-garde, where it’s looking at games that kind of expect you to learn new ways of perceiving a space, and they don’t let you proceed through the game until you’ve enhanced your perception by playing the game. So, in there, we have ‘13 Gates’, which I’m assuming many people won’t be aware of, but I highly recommend digging it up and I think you might need to find a Flash Player or something now to be able to get it to work. But unfortunately, so but it’s yeah, it’s just gets you to navigate a 3D space where all you can see is pattern vertical strips, and the strips change with, as you look around and it is a total mind, mind game, but then once you learn, it feels really strange to like be able to play it because you somehow figured out how to do it after you know five minutes of fumbling around. And then ‘Superhot’ I expect many people will know and so having time be linked to your motion in the game world and I mean it has this whole theme around embodiment and so, I say a few things about that in there. And finally, ‘The Witness’ which is really unique because they hired a, architect and landscape architect to do the world of the witness. So, it’s a really interesting case study of like what game environments might look like if we started in the industry to start to pull more architects into the team and bring some of the considerations we bring. And in a way, you could say it’s as well, I think I say it adds spatial realism to that game in a funny way. It’s still candy-coated graphics and beautiful colours and everything. But the actual configuration of the spaces and the way in which they’ve decayed. And the narrative of how this island was built, you know, never spoken in the game never talked about, but kind of apparent through the, the way the ruins are, was really, really fantastic. And so, in it also has you do this whole perceiving patterns in the world thing.
Zoyander: Yeah. And something that stands out about some of your examples. Is that that you mentioned at the beginning of this conversation was kind of not shying away from looking at games that have very low, I mean, I guess people would refer to it differently, like low interactional, low player agency, or, or what? Yeah, things like that, where the main affordance of the space is to just experience it and move through it. Now did you get any pushback from games to these folks for doing that? Like it felt like, it felt like there was a moment in it where you were answering, the, it’s not really a question…
Greg: Oh, yeah!
Zoyander: …it’s more of a comment thing that happens at DiGRA. I was wondering if that was something you’d experienced?
Greg: I haven’t firsthand, but of course, I’m deeply aware of it. And so, it’s kind of like, knowing that that will be a thing for some people. I mean, even my partner, she was a little bit on a few of the examples, because she’s also got a background in game studies. And it was kind of like, well, you know, I’m just standing by this, because I think coming from architecture, and you know, you’ve got decades of people in architecture, interested in film, right, and the decisive move from representation to simulation, it’s actually a huge deal that you can look around in a walking simulator. And I think, for video games, people were used to doing more, it feels like something’s taken away. But if you think of it as a step from painting, or film or drawing into suddenly you can, like walk around, it’s actually gigantic. And so, I think, yeah, it’s true that that’s not necessarily a game. And I make no claims that it is, and I don’t feel the need to, I suppose. But I think, you know, maybe it’ll have its own name a better name than walking simulator or something at some point. But for now, you know, virtual environments. And so, you’ll see, you saw in the book, I mean, I use that term a lot more, I kind of sometimes interchange with video game environment. But really, the interest was virtual environments. Many of these are video games, some of them might not be, and, and actually, a good video game has a lot to learn from any interesting virtual environment, whether or not it’s a game. So, you can easily pull these things back into other games that are more gamey and still have a better environment as a result. I mean, ‘Nascence’ is a great example of that, actually. Though, it’s kind of a game, it has enough challenge, that it’s probably a game.
Zoyander: Yeah, it seems like a big part of what you’re contributing is some very clear ways of talking about the expressive potential of, of that whole genre. It does a lot to challenge the assumption that the main way that a walking Sim can be expressive is by like, doing stereotyped environmental storytelling, where you’re just dropping pieces of narrative like, like audio tapes, and that, and you’re describing the way that those spaces are themselves a mode of expression and this is how that functions.
Greg: Yeah, and spatial expression is so ambiguous. And I think I kind of say that in the book. So, I briefly touch on multimodal communication theory at the beginning. And this idea that different modes can be used to communicate different things. And man, your hands are so tied, as soon as you don’t have voice-over audio or some kind of writing in the game, just because it’s, it’s actually very ambiguous to express things through space, it might be very meaningful, like a good abstract painting or something. But it’s not, it’s not the kind of storytelling that you might get from something else. And so, even a funny example, in ‘Nascense’ that I think, so smart and powerful, and a game that’s trying to make you feel kind of weak, is that you have a Run button, but you have to tap your mouse repetitively to breathe in synch with the girl’s breath as, to just keep running and not run out of breath. And it’s such a small thing that is kind of this huge impact of feeling so much more, I don’t know, vulnerable and weak. And you can die very easily in that game from falling too high and sometimes machines and stuff. And so, it’s, it’s this yeah, this, you know, that one little move with the breath thing adds this whole other layer of expression into a space that wouldn’t have it otherwise. And it’s just part of your, you know, basic affordances of controlling the avatar in that case.
Zoyander: Before we wrap up, I will ask one more question, which is what role the process of writing, researching and publishing this book has had in your architecture practice today?
Greg: Yeah, well, I guess I might be giving you sort of sideways answer to this sort of. So, I said at the beginning, it definitely has me thinking more about the expressive just how, you know, the experience of people and buildings, I was always interested in that. But thinking about it so much more explicitly in games, I think was really useful for that. I mean, it applies to some types of buildings more than others. And I don’t know that I’ve had too many of those on the boards lately. But, um, the other big way, I think, the process of doing this book, I mean, I had some ideas about where to start. But so many of the little summaries at the end of the chapters in the book itself were sort of discoveries for me in the process of writing it, which is, of course, how this always goes but was such a pleasant, you know, I started with structure in some ways. So, a little bit of me was maybe worried that it wouldn’t result in these things. But as I did, I felt it really did. And so, some of those things include the nature of challenge and spaces, especially by the end, I talk about some ways in which virtual built environments are phenomenologically, just always going to be different than physical ones. And that was a really interesting thing to get into. So, to give a couple examples from that, because I think they’re kind of exciting, is this inverted thing between order and entropy. So, it’s really hard to build perfect geometry and architecture to build like a 20 metre by 20-metre cube out of concrete and have it be built correctly without things slumping in bad ways. But it’s super easy in a video game. And we spend all this time making the game world look less perfect than it just would be. And so, I think that’s a really funny thing, I guess, between these two sides of things. I mean, there’s a famous building by the architect Louis Kahn down in the Salk Institute, and it honestly, like some people from a gaming background would go there. And they would just be like, oh, this ‘Counter Strike’ level, because there’s this pattern concrete really repetitive. And this is this, like, iconic building that amazes people, right? And honestly, it’s, it’s that era of graphics, basically. And so, I thought that was, so that’s one. And one last one that I think is a nice, meaty one to leave us off on too, is by the end of the book, I kind of realized thinking about, you know, these game environments, what is there, how do they exist in our life, right, and that they had this kind of dual orientation. So, in one sense, these game spaces pull us deeper into the fictional world of the game, and into these kind of escapist elsewheres. And I think it can be positive escapism to really think about other things as well as negative escapism. But then there’s also a way in which they can pull us back into the real world. And so, you know, when I make models as part of my job in architecture, those are about the real world at the end of the day. And that model, in some ways, is going to inform something we do in the real world. Of course, augmented reality games are entirely about that, in some sense, and it’s interesting, I guess, for me to step back and see oh, there’s this pull going on in both directions. And a single game might do both. So, ‘The Witness’ pulls us into its lush environment, but it also is kind of asking us to learn to see the real world differently. And I certainly had an after-effect from playing that game where I’m kind of looking around in ways I wasn’t a week ago. So, I think that, that kind of left me this like, alright, so games are going in both directions. What does that really mean? You know, from a bigger, bigger questions.
Zoyander: That’s a beautiful thought to end on. Well, thank you so much for this. It’s been great talking with you. Do you want to repeat the name of your book just so the listeners have got it?
Greg: Yeah, absolutely! So, it’s called ‘Expressive Space: Embodying Meaning in Video Game Environments’.
Zoyander: Great! Yeah, thanks so much. It’s been great talking with you.
Darshana: We hope you have enjoyed this episode of Keywords in Play. For more great ideas around games check out criticaldistance.com. Or take a dive into the DiGRA archives at DiGRA.org.