Ludotopia 2010, Copenhagen

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Space: the final frontier. The aim was to travel in ludic spaces to where no game researcher had gone before. I think that we did it ... well pretty much!

Ludotopia, for those who missed my previous post on it, was a workshop on spaces and spatiality in videogames. The workshop ran for two days and had twelve game studies scholars from institutions in Europe and the US participating. We had all shared our papers and had two-member panels which interwove their presentations together. The topics ranged from cartography in games, pervasiveness of game spaces, narrative and spatiality, theories of space as applicable to videogames, space as threat and analyses of videogame space in terms of older conceptions of topology.


Copenhagen: the topos for Ludotopia

Given the erudition and depth of the papers, it will be difficult to summarise everything here and it is also important not to miss out some of the ever-important questions raised in the ensuing discussions. Bjarke Liboriussen (from the Uni of Southern Denmark) has already done a splendidly concise report in his blog. Bjarke's reflections are much fresher than mine and I will consult them from time to time as a supplement to my notes. After having a few days to reflect on what was said, I will, therefore, just try to capture the sense of the papers as I understood them. Okay, so here goes.

Friday, early morning session: Bjarke spoke on cartography in terms of maps and renderings. He has since summed it on his blog:

My own presentation also hinged on structures – “structures” in a specific sense taken from architectural theory. My point was that the special-purpose cartography performed by players of game worlds such as “World of Warcraft” is aimed at explicating, and attuning oneself to, structural flows of transportation, resource gathering etc., and that such cartography is indicative of what the virtual world “is” in the mind of the player. The 2D maps and the 3D spaces on screen are “renderings of the same f***ing thing”, as Nitsche concisely summed up my argument.
I was also intrigued by his comparison of videogames to Le Corbusier's Chandigarh where the 'flows' of the city are mappable on a separate layer - i.e. the sewage, electricity etc are at a distinctly separate level. I liked Michael Nitsche's question about how the code (as also needing to be reflected on a separate layer as a 'flow') should be represented in the game mapping. I also remember thinking about RTS games and how their maps would complicate the renderings but for the life of me, I can't remember the exact question. Anyway, my point was that we should avoid concentrating overmuch on shooters and give due attention to RTS (where maps are very important indeed). Finally, I had another (persistent!) comment, this time on Nek Chand's Rock Garden in Chandigarh as a response to Corbusier's Chandigarh. Any comparison of Corbusier's architecture to videogames needs to take into account the Nek Chand's who complicate things.

The next session was on the immensely interesting (for my Medieval/ Renaissance Lit training) itineraria scripta / itineraria picta relationship in videogames. Matthias Fuchs (from the Uni of Salford) presented on the complexities of mapping in videogames. Citing Kant's Was heißt: sich im Denken orientieren?, he illustrated the very newness and the subjectivity of the conception of orientation. Fuchs spoke on the interplay of the text and image in videogame maps. What interested me most was the discussion that followed where he cited historical opinion that space is the organ through which God perceives the world. He ended on a nicely Derridean (yes!!!) note saying that 'there is differance , an active movement involving spacing and temporalising'.

Friday, late morning : Alison Gazzard (from Uni of Bedfordshire) and Niklas Schrape (University of Film and Television Studies “Konrad Wolf” in Potsdam, Germany) presented two very convincing papers. I'm going to let Bjarke describe Alison's paper because he does it so succinctly:

[Her] work is informed by a blending of RL and VW, with her fine-grain morphology (or topology, depending on your terminology) of the structures allowing movement in game spaces (tracks/paths, gates, bridges, loop-backs, loop-alongs etc.) informed by field studies of RL mazes (e.g., the one depicted below).
We went into an extremely interesting discussion on how theme-park mazes work on this - with light and shadow, elements to confuse, dead ends etc. While I am slightly resistant to typologies of any kind, this structure obviously seems to allow the fluidity and isn't restrictive (or so I think). On another level (purely in the in-between spaces), I learnt more about Alison's ideas on warps in videogames - at DiGRA, her paper on warps was just before mine and I missed most of it out of sheer nervousness when I saw all the big names in the audience!

Now on to Niklas and his fascinating presentation on the rhetoric of Global Conflicts: Palestine. My grasp of Lotman is rather thin admittedly but Niklas's explanations were spot on and I liked the Deleuzian trend that his paper was taking. However, to drag myself away from my hobbyhorse: his paper illustrated how the topology of the game deconstructs the antithesis between Israelis and Arabs in the game.

Friday afternoon: was my own panel and Sebastian Domsch (from the Uni of Munich) presented after me. Let's talk about Sebastian's paper. I was asked to respond to it formally but although I did read it over a few times, I will still stick to my more casual response. Sebastian brought up the important distinction between spatial and sequential narratives, indicating that the spatial narratives are more suited to videogames. He also established the key importance of the 'event trigger' in understanding how narrative spaces are formed. One further point that interested me was the inclusion of the NPC's perception of space in his analysis.

The waste land in Fallout 3.

My abstract (posted earlier) will give you the gist of my paper. I was basically expanding on the importance of the concept of 'any-space-whatever' in videogames, following up from my paper in Potsdam. For me, the 'any-space-whatever' is a philosophical concept that maps very well with the space of possibility in videogames and it is not only spatial but also temporal; rather say spatio-temporal. Basically I created a description of videogame space using Auge's model of non-spaces to show how videogame wastelands conformed to the fragemented and identityless characteristics of non-spaces and pointed at earlier critical voices doing the same. Then I broke down this argument on the grounds that it was too rigid for videogames and replaced it with the friendly neighbourhood 'any-space-whatever'. All the questions that I was asked were very good ones. Some which stand out in my memory are :

Espen Aarseth (paraphrasing): I was surprised that you didn't use FEAR as an example. It seemed that was an even better example than the ones you used.

Me: True enough. I do have a discussion of FEAR in my notes but for some reason, I went for the more obvious examples of waste lands (so as to make the association more direct).


Niklas and Sebastian (Domsch): What happens to the any-space-whatever after all the quest options have been exhausted?

Me: The any-space-whatever is as much a temporal construct as it is spatial. It is an affective space that comes between the stages of perception and action. Deleuze descibes the affect as a motor impulse on a sensory plate. Basically, it is the space of possibility where a zone throbbing with possibility finally sees the creation of an event. So each time you encounter the affective any-space-whatever, there is a mesh of possibilities to actualise into an action. If in a single gameplay instance, all the quest options are actualised, the game space has moved from the state of affect into action. The player has made his or her choices.


I shan't dwell on the other issues here because I need to capture some of the ideas from the extremely rich paper by Stephan Guenzel. Stephan, for those who don't know him, is an expert on space and his presentation analysed up the various perspectives from which videogame spaces have been viewed. In the main, he described videogame spaces as exemplification. For example, he started with Aristotelian space which is the difference between two objects (ergo, there is no empty space in this paradigm) and showed Tetris as being more complex than this. Videogame space is topological rather than just topographical - as soon as one begins thinking of space, the topological element comes in. He mentioned how space in games has been seen as relational as in Leonard Euler's solution to the Koenigsberger Bridge problem, as folding space where space is seen to bend and then loop back to the start (I think one of Alison's space-types would correspond to this), as hodological where space is experience through the change in paths and in terms of field theory where the space is seen as a field with certain affordances (perhaps somewhat like the any-space-whatever but I'm not entirely sure). As opposed to the idea of any one privileged perspective characterised by a singular denotation, Stephan presented a plurality using Goodman's theory of exemplification. As Bjarke comments in his blog,

One comes out from such a dip into the philosophy of space (and this was just a dip, I’m looking forward to a full splash) with sharpened attention to the wide range of possibilities inherent in screen-based, digital media (Günzel stresses the “video” in “video games”).

Personally, I had a couple of questions about Deleuze's smooth and striated spaces (which Stephan responded to with the example of a map layer over an FPS game space - just think of when you bring up the Chernobyl map on your PDA in STALKER, although he used a better example where it shows directly as a layer on top of the map). The second I haven't asked yet: it's about Eric Soja's 'thirdspace' and how it fits to describe videogames , if at all. I remember Stephan mentioning it, but the memory's like a sieve these days ...


After that proverbial 'dip' into the philosophy of game spaces, there was another really lively presentation on meta-chronotopes and ludoforming by Espen. Chronotope is the Bakhtinian term for spatio-temporal matrix that governs narrative acts. Espen described videogames as a 'meta-chronotope' . He also modified the concept of terraforming to describe the shaping of videogame spaces as 'ludoforming'. Espen used the STALKER games as an example of ludoforming - especially, how Pripyat has been treated in the various episodes of STALKER. Obviously, the games edit quite a lot of the real-world maps to construct their ludic space. While the concept of ludoforming was more directly applied to game design in the paper, I couldn't help but wonder how it might be useful also to think of ludoforming in terms of the player's spatial experience. As in when the player starts playing a game and experiences a map (designer-created) is there a possibility of ludoforming here (based on past experiences with the map, perceptions, affections etc?). I love this concept although I am not sure if I am reading it too much in own way. Also think of the ways in which ludoforming influences the way in which we see maps in RTS games.

Saturday: Another early morning start and we were straight into Karla Hoess's presentation on games that play with the perceptual spaces especially in games such as Portal and Echochrome, where she points out how these games play with the perception of spaces. Karla's presentation also explored links with conceptions space in Renaissance art.

Michael Nitsche's presentation which followed was on the pervasiveness of game spaces. Again, I'll rely on Bjarke's concise summary:

Whereas Aarseth deals with editing of the real world, or “optimisation” for ludic purposes in Nitsche’s view, Nitsche himself focuses on “inclusion” of the real world, and the “adding on to” the real world. His work is part of the Next Generation Play project that aims at realising the “convergence between established media, such as television and print, and locative social media such as cell phones”, e.g., Andrew Robert’s (a student of Nitsche’s) location-based “Kitsune” game [this is a game that is played simultaneously on Piedmont Park, Atlanta as well as on a fictional map resembling the park on your Android device].


Michael also showed how gaming furniture is changing the real world spaces - especially living spaces. Finally, he used another example which I thought was fabulous - a Coke machine that vends a cola based on your dance / music performance! I'm not going to get many Cokes if vending machines get their way.

Michael's presentation was followed by Teun Dubbelman's (from Utrecht Uni). Like Sebastian Domsch, Teun also approached the question of narrative in videogame spaces. For him, rather than ludology or narratology, the term to be used is 'presentology'. Teun plays with the terms and brings up three logics - the ludo logic , the narrative logic and the logic of presence. According to him, when games tell stories, they do so by enhancing the spatial experience of the player. As for narrative, 'the merits of these spatial arts [whereby he means experience theatre, architecture, landscape painting and by his definition, videogames] clash on a fundamental level with those of narrative arts.' Obviously, readers of Ludus ex and those familiar with my research, will know that I disagree with the 'fundamental difference' concept. Teun, of course, is looking at a very interesting concept: the present-ness. The being present in space can be further complicated if one were to bring in the being present in time. Narrative, is being seen in strict narratological terms in the 'cinematic storytelling' that is described here (e.g. Chatman et al.) and I understand why such a conception might pose restrictions but then again, if one were to use a different method of analysing cinema (using a more affective method of perceiving cinematic narrative), the discussion might be less restricted albeit more complex.


Just realised that the previous sentence sounds very cryptic and vague. Basically, I have a sense of what I want to say but am afraid that it will end up being a mega-ramble. So maybe in a future post. The final presentation, by Sebastian Moering (from the Uni of Potsdam), was on Heideggerian conceptions of fear as applied to spatial perceptions in games. Moering used examples ranging from Pacman to the latest shooters to illustrate his point about the threat level in games being related to the nearness to an object on which you focus. This theoretical framework is obviously new to me and thereby interesting. However, I had a few questions (typically!): I was curious to know about how this affects the perception of threat from the unknown? I suppose I have an answer now combining both Sebastian's and my response but again, let's leave it for a future post. Another issue I had with this (raised also by Michael) is about how this fear-factor works for RTS games.

Very many interesting ideas here and this was probably the only workshop that kept my attention riveted for all the presentations. I was quite tired as well as being really worried about jobs and other mundane issues that I keep out of here but Ludotopia never failed to interest me despite all these. I must say that I was well impressed with ITU Copenhagen and I hope that someday I will get to work in a uni like this. All plus points here - content, presentation, environment, organisation and the list goes on. I shouldn't forget the impressive barbecue that we had after the workshop and that I partly missed.

One little thing comes to mind, now that I try put together a report exactly a week after the event. I'm not sure we focused much on RTS games and there was again a characteristic bias towards the first-person space or what have you. Perhaps next time.

I squeezed in a short tour of Copenhagen somehow. Photos here.

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