This month my first book, Expressive Space: Embodying Meaning in Video Game Environments will be released! While there is a blurb describing it on the publisher’s website, I wanted to say a little more about it here.
Expressive Space starts from the premise that video game spaces are a new type of built environment in our world. As you might guess, ‘built environment’ refers to all spaces constructed by humans – structures, roads, irrigation canals, theatre sets, theme parks, space stations, etc. – in contrast to the unbuilt world of nature. There are still natural forces at work in man-made spaces (materials weather, plants grow on buildings, etc.), but making this distinction is very useful, since unlike nature, built environments are always created by certain people for certain reasons – they are frameworks for activities that shape our behaviour within them.
Take a moment to think about your everyday routine and this becomes apparent: you likely start your day at home, using the bathroom for personal hygiene and the kitchen for preparing breakfast, then head off to a work environment set up for you to perform your job. After work you may visit a place like a library, sports field, or grocery store that is also built around a certain activity. All of these spaces are designed to fit the sizes and abilities of human bodies (to varying degrees of success), and your own body’s strengths, limitations, and perceptual biases will heavily impact how you experience each location.
Further, in each space you will also have a social role that shapes what other people expect you to do, such as being a roommate or parent at home, a patron or employee at the library, and a player or spectator at the sports field. When people break out of their role – such as sports fans running onto the playfield – there can be confusion and consequences.
This spatial view invites us to understand video games as places we go that shape our bodily actions and provide us with a role (regardless of whether we are controlling a single character, a whole army, or managing a virtual city). Like all built environments, different video game spaces can offer completely different sorts of experiences, from fast-paced action to contemplative investigation. And thanks to their ubiquity, our everyday world now includes virtual spaces where we can explore landscapes, race friends, fight monsters, participate in narratives, play along to music, and learn about complex systems by tinkering with them, beyond a multitude of other activities. While these virtual spaces may be simulations, our experiences of them are quite real, and they contribute to our sense of what kind of world we live in.
Our built environment is now a lot larger than it used to be, but how do we experience these new virtual spaces as meaningful? The book begins from the assertion that human cognition is grounded in our bodily engagement with the world, with meaning arising out of the dynamic interplay between body and environment. This view has been termed embodied cognition, and a growing body of research – in cognitive science, linguistics, philosophy, psychology, and other disciplines – offers compelling evidence for it. Expressive Space synthesizes a few theories from this area, developing a framework for analyzing the many forms of spatial meaning found in video game environments.
Since we access virtual spaces through computer hardware, our embodied experiences of them do become a little more complex. Many video games feature a double-embodiment, where we control a surrogate body (avatar) within the virtual space, while others such as strategy and simulation games approximate the physical situations of playing a tabletop game or interacting with a dollhouse. While we may lose conscious awareness of our physical body while playing (especially if we’re skilled), all of the norms, conventions, and expectations around space that we’ve learned from embodied life in the physical world come with us into the virtual one.
So, these are the two big ideas of the book: video game spaces are built environments, and we can understand how they are meaningful as spaces through theories of embodied cognition.
The main portion of the book dives into 12 case studies to explore the huge diversity of contemporary video game environments. These are broken into 4 chapters with 3 games each, categorizing video games based on the sorts of experiences their worlds are meant to offer:
- Spaces designed as memorable places to inhabit and explore (e.g. houses, gardens):
- Knytt Stories, a peaceful and atmospheric metroidvania.
- The Night Journey, an open-ended walk in an evocative landscape.
- NaissanceE, a sublime journey through an endless megastructure.
- Spaces designed for enjoyable movement (e.g. obstacle courses, tennis courts):
- Wii Sports, widely enjoyed for its full-bodied motions.
- Taiko no Tatsujin, taiko drumming in a pop music skin.
- Zone Mode in WipEout HD, optimized to induce a flow state in players.
- Spaces designed for engaging in activities (e.g. kitchens, offices, schools):
- Shelter, where a mother badger guides her cubs through a hostile forest.
- Shadow of the Colossus, where players enact a foolish quest and witness their avatar’s slow demise.
- Katamari Damacy, which parodies consumerism by taking it to the extreme.
- Spaces designed to challenge our perceptions (e.g. installation artworks):
- Thirteen Gates, which asks players to navigate space with limited vision.
- SUPERHOT, where the progression of time is linked to the player’s movement.
- The Witness, which invites players to become attentive to the beauty of the physical world through puzzles woven into its rich virtual space.
These four categories aren’t meant to be exhaustive, and many video games also layer them to create more complex spaces. One example is The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, which features enjoyable movement, many activities to partake in, and a game world known for being a lovely place to explore and inhabit. But there’s a lot of value in looking at these types separately to better understand the spatial phenomena taking place, and so the case studies are all smaller, more focused video games that exemplify their categories.
Additionally, the 12 case studies allow Expressive Space to discuss a huge range of issues that arise in video game spaces, including the meaningful structuring of their worlds, the presence of challenge within them, the ways that they integrate narratives, and the significance of players becoming more skilled over time. These threads are brought together in a final chapter that discusses the unique qualities that differentiate virtual environments from physical ones, and the increasing role they are playing in our day-to-day lives.
We can now use video game environments for expanding our horizons, transmitting cultural forms, developing skills, building empathy, and deepening our engagement with the physical world. These are all ways in which virtual built environments can enrich our lives, but there is no guarantee that these sorts of video games will get made in an industry more often concerned with selling as many entertainment products as possible. Just as architecture is reeling from the financialization of space, anyone wanting to see video game worlds created to enrich the lives of their players (without ulterior motives) has their work cut out for them. Thankfully, meaningful video game spaces continue to be developed in spite of it all, and the book hopes to inspire the creation of many more evocative and memorable virtual places, ones worth returning to.
So that’s the book! There’s a lot more in there, but hopefully this post gives you a general idea. If you have any questions about it, please don’t hesitate to send me an email.