Ludotopia II: An Any-Space-Whatever?

In-between spaces, holes, interstices, people milling around coffee tables and Danish pastries talking about space and the sliding from one reference frame to another.  Copenhagen in 2010, Manchester this year - the Ludotopia game was reloaded and revealed a space throbbing with possibilities. Throbbing in the sense of a vibrating space where ideas constantly keep forming, get expressed or even suppressed and forgotten. Ludotopia is a conference / workshop or even what my boss Sue Thomas calls an 'unconference'.  Last year a group of around 15 people convened in Copenhagen to discuss various aspects of spatiality in videogames. We thoroughly enjoyed ourselves and also managed to come up with papers of high quality (as we thought). Hence, the need for a second event to polish the rough edges, expose the papers to further scrutiny and to stimulate a general discussion that would result in a book proposal. I learnt much and can indeed give page-long glosses to some of the changes made in the papers (I reported on their contents last year).  Much of these is work in progress at this stage  so I shall not outline all the details. Instead I shall discuss in general some issues that struck me as well as the two new papers that were presented.  Finally, I have no issues with revealing where my own work will go so I'll attempt to provide a preview of my own paper as it will look later on.  As usual, Ludus ex always welcomes feedback.

Among the concepts that fascinated me last year, Espen Aarseth's 'ludoforming' stands out,. Marked with an incisive wit and yet an affable gregariousness, Espen's presentation of his ideas have always interested me mostly because of their contentiousness but this time because I was in full agreement. To ludoform, in Espen's Copenhagen presentation,  was to construct a game's space over a real space and it was interesting to see how game meaning's formed / reformed / ludoformed real spaces.   Back then, he had used examples from the S.T.A.L.K.E.R games' version of Pripyat, the African savannah in Far Cry 2 (where he famously showed a pacman-like structure in FC2's map of its fictitious African landscape). It seems from his recent discussions that as a concept, 'ludoforming' will become much more robust and address even games like Monopoly (in the sense that places in Monopoly have their own specific attributes adapted from their real counterparts that are modified by the game). Sweeping across more games, this concept looks like it'll be an attractive one for Game Studies.

This year we also had a more distilled version of Stephan Guenzel's paper. Stephan explained his concept of trialectic space (first, second and third spaces) in more detail. Essentially, he describes how computer games symbolically exemplify concepts without missing out reality.

Almost all the papers have been developed and enriched but I'll let you read them in their final incarnations. My previous post on Ludotopia and Bjarke Lieborussen's blog will give you summaries of the papers as they were last year.

My own paper is on the use of the wasteland as a spatial metaphor in games and I see the wasteland as a space of possibilities from within which events  are actualised (so from a mesh of possible events, one is made to occur depending on the influencing environment  -whether this consists of the game affordances or the player's emotional state etc). At first glance, however, the wasteland seems to be a space devoid of meaning and human interaction. Like the railway stations and terminals that Marc Auge calls 'non-places', the wasteland too is a place for passing through. Here, there is no history no human relationships. The game wasteland is, however, not such a 'non-place'. Instead, it is a place that throbs with possibilities. It corresponds with the affective spaces or the vast public spaces where events form despite the apparent nondescriptness of these spaces. Gilles Deleuze calls this the 'any-space-whatever' in his Cinema 1. Whether Deleuze is commenting on Auge we do not know (despite a very problematic footnote in Deleuze) but in game terms, any-space-whatever certainly emerges as a better description for game spaces. Even the wasteland setting in games is not like a bus station where players just pass through Deleuze even in the bus station lies a space of possibility that is going to give rise to an event, an actualisation of a possibility.  The wasteland setting in games is such an 'any-space-whatever'.  This is a difficult concept to fathom and in spatial terms it is abstract. Some of the immediate criticism that I'd received focused on the fact that after a while, the any-space-whatever exhausts its possibilities in a videogame whereas I was claming otherwise. The any-space-whatever consists of possibilities that are structural (games are unique in that they have such a wide range of structural options) but also at the same time semantic and experiential (all media, including cinema to which Deleuze applies this, would have this plane of reference). A complex notion such as this when applied to a complex medium like videogames causes much controversy and worse, confusion. However, judging by the number of times the term was used in various contexts in the two days, it is a useful framework in game studies.  A rewrite, therefore, is necessary where I need to expand on the primacy of the concept of any-space-whatever, tease out the various layers of meaning and pace O Deleuzians, simplify the concept in relation to digital games.

Having expounded on my grand plan for videogame wastelands (yes, I'm building a housing estate in Megaton - ring  for bookings), I'll take you through two fascinating presentations by the new guys who joined our Ludotopian spaceship. Speaking of spaceships, the event was organised in the control cabin of the starship Uni of Salford. Lean back with me in your console in ThinkLab to see the two discussions unfold.

The first new paper was Stephan Schwingeler's study of perspective in videogames. He started with a comparison of Uccello's use of the checkerboard with that of the checkerboard base in Wipeout! thus pointing to the development of perspectival spaces in games. Illustrating the use of perspectival spaces through a discussion of Alberti and Brunelleschi with much reference to the art historian and theorist Erwin Panofsky, Stephan  announced that videogames are still in their Baroque age and that other artistic movements like Romanticism and Cubism hadn't permeated the videogame world yet. He also pointed at the difference between videogame spatial perspectives and Renaissance ideas of perspective in that although both ideas of perspective 'turn the space of bodily presence into represented space', in digitising psycho-physiological space, spectators become users as well.  Some of the questions in response were about non-visual videogame spaces (such as aural games) and about other forms of perspective besides the standard first or third person perspective, such as the Asmodean (Asmodeus is an intrusive devil that can look into people's houses from above) perspective in Sims or the God's-eye view in RTS games. I added to these the problems with the shift in perspective in games like Rome: Total War and also on another level, as Michael Nitsche clarified, in games like Max Payne where the view of Payne drugged and Payne sober are different. Finally, how about non-Western ideas of perspective that may have been used in games.  Would games like Katamari Damacy and Noby Noby Boy  require a different understanding of perspective? Similarly, how about Echochrome ?

Later, on our way to the Curry Mile in Manchester, Stephan suggested similarities with my wasteland metaphor and Romantic images of ruins (in Friedrich's paintings  - but I can think of enough English examples as well). An interesting parallel to pursue.

The second paper, by David Hancock, was equally interesting. Working on Henry Jenkins idea of transmediality, David is looking at scenes in videogames that remediate images from art (as in the Golden Compass videogame) and is then doing paintings based on them (for example, the painting of a sunset in GTA). He is also filming the practice of cosplayers and provided some interesting insights into the practice of local cosplayers. Cosplay, he says, is not a subculture in that it's not a 24X7 identity like the Gothic and Alternative groups have. Cosplayers are apparently more concerned with the character they cosplay than anything else. This also brings up issues in spatial terms. I was intrigued how the cosplayer switches spatial awareness from the game space (which should form the context for the character) to the city space in which they cosplay.  There seem to be two levels of spatiality at work here. Stephan Guenzel made an observation about multilayered space existing as a directed space for  those players whom Richard Bartle refers to as 'killers' and as a non-directed space for the 'explorers' in Bartle's categories. I'm not sure if Stephan made the comment in this connection but I certainly see two overlapping and interlinked spaces in cosplay - the game space undercut by the cosplayer's city space.

Ludotopia, however, is never about the formal. The in-between affective spaces rule here so here's a random list of trivia. Stephan Guenzel announced that 'Romanticism (as in landscapes that you can only contemplate) in games comes before the epoch of Far Cry'. David told us about the possibility of Zelda going for coffee at Affleck's (a coffee bar in Manchester I guess). We started wodering again about fiction and story as well as the sartorial elegance in British nightlife. Espen definitely has a prospective alternative career as chilly-taster - he ate three raw chillies without batting an eyelid (or maybe he did blink a little). I  ate them too but I'm Indian and I have them for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Michael's designing this huge duck toy that feeds othher ducks with chocolate (I might be making this up by the way so ask him).

Last but not least, I met rapid cyclist on the way to Manchester. Thank God he was there; otherwise I would have read all the papers again and been over-critical. Rapid cyclist is a psychiatrist by profession whose first love is computers and guess what, computer games. He turned out to be an Elite aficionado, having played the game since his Amiga days and now plays Eve Online. We had so much in common. We are both from the Indian subcontinent  and I am a games researcher who wanted to be a doctor whereas he is a doctor who wanted to research informatics. As it would happen, the so-called non-place (pace Auge) of a train compartment suddenly resembled an any-space-whatever in that it provided so many possible interactions.  It was like having found a friend in City 17. By the by, I'm sure you know this but Rapid Cycling is said to be the favourite malady of artists.

The return from Manchester proved equally eventful. During a walk down the city's lanes (not very nice ones) and a flaneur -like journey around the remains of a  Victorian fish market, we discovered a shop that sells PacMan cookie-cutters and Star Wars blasters. I think they also had Obi Wan's tooth but the thought of a Jedi toothpaste was daunting enough. A friend of mine did buy a PacMan stress ball. We ended up in this alternative pub and the behatted barman inspired me to buy a trilby yesterday. The place (or maybe it was just us) inspired us to think of a project where we'd all do peer-reviewed critical close-analyses of games for a journal  or a some-as-yet-undefined-thing. Sebastian Moering brought this up and everyone was enthusiastic. As for me, this has been my dream since 2000 and there have been hurdles everywhere. I do a bit of this in Ludus ex as you might have noticed but for a formal project all I have to show is a disappointed face after the abortive funding applications. I've still not given up and Seb's plan is certainly a glimmer of light at the end of a dark tunnel.

The other Ludotopians dispersed towards the Manchester City Centre for more revels. I was on the tiny train to Nottingham again after having waited in the station. 'Welcome to City 17' , the loudspeakers said. No, it was actually, 'the next station is Nottingham' and the lady exhorted us to remove any remains of our existence - the compartment was gearing up to look like a non-place. Looks, however, are deceptive.


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