games

Don’t stress on the Poké-mess: Where next for location based game developers

Now that Pokémon Go has had its moment in the sun, developers and some other unexpected parties speculate as to where the next location-based hit will come from. It is a game worth reflecting on because on many fronts, it seemed to miss the point.

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The creation of game environments is informed by a similar range of psychological principles to their physical counterparts. Our interpretation of physical environments has a direct influence on our expectations of a digital environment as a player.

The similarities in physical and virtual experiences of the landscape are closer associated than ever before with photo realistic interpretations of the environment and highly immersive hardware to support that experience. A developer can capitalize on this deeply embedded relationship between humans and the environment, whilst emphasising the achievement of goals to progress a players’ experience conducive to the game. Critically, the developer’s perception of an environment can differ from that of a player’s and so a clear understanding of the context is key if it is to be a believable, engaging and meaningful experience.

Where game developers have much to offer is in the programing of space. They understand what will compel a player to explore an environment. They understand the mechanics that will engage players to create that sense of fun. In the context of the physical environment, that sense of fun is often lost amongst the prerogatives of the established disciplines who shape and govern our built environment, amidst the litigious society that we live in.

Games and apps present an opportunity to enhance the way we experience locations. The dynamic of programmed spaces, however, changes with the advent of location-based games and their content. Players may already have preconceptions of the physical locations that they play in. Others such as tourists will have none. It creates an opportunity to make locations more relevant as part of games where locals create the content and visitors consume it.

The explosion in use of Pokémon Go and volumes of people flooding into public open to play the game space demonstrated the raw potential of the tool. This was, however, perceived by many city officials as both an unmanaged mess and missed opportunity, taking them by surprise (and a few unsuspecting locals). A golden opportunity to make the game and future games an integrated part of the fabric of cities was not capitalized on. Not by the game developer nor by the city officials.

During this period prominent public locations became ‘pokéstops’ (a location to train Pokémon), but the game itself said nothing of the inherent significance of these locations – nothing of the history, the narratives, the events, the cultural values, or the people. The focus was purely on capturing Pokémon. Imagine if there was a greater integration of local knowledge as part of the game and what that could help achieve? Giving games exclusivity to space and integrating that locality as part of the city’s brand is an industry in waiting.

Play and Landscape in the Age of the Artificial

Videogames form an exciting part of the modern day cultural landscape.

Whether created for leisure, or more serious in their intent, videogames are being utilised in more branches of society than anyone could have predicted.

They are helping to shape our broader understanding of the dynamic between people and place.

For those curating the public realm, there is a necessity to broaden our horizons, understanding that places are not just designed, constructed and managed, but that they are also programmed.

The parallels between virtual, hybrid and physical environments has become too close to ignore, raising the question, can we and should we make video games a more integral part of the public realm experience?

Landscape Architects play a pivotal role in the curation of outdoor spaces. We inherently understand how those spaces will function, as a balance of man-made and natural processes, to achieve sustainable design resolutions.

We also have an expanding role in how those spaces are planned and programmed through urban design and place making. Our understanding of how people use space must diversify to acknowledge and incorporate this new digital layer of information that we interact with.

The games industry has become a powerful medium of entertainment that has connected people globally and socially. It is an industry that has transcended age brackets and cultural boundaries, that has allowed people to reinvent themselves, and spend as much time gaming as a part time job – out of choice.

Whilst videogames are undeniably a sustained form of entertainment, they have drawn criticism on issues such as censorship, addiction and obesity. The default view on videogames by many seems to be that the time spent on games takes away from the time that could be spent outdoors.

‘Videogames…are often accused of ripping people out of the natural world and placing them into an artificial one.’ – ‘How to do things with videogames’, Ian Bogost (2011)

Landscape architecture may seem unorthodox in advocating for the games industry, but it through the evolving portrayal and use of the landscape, and play value it offers, which draws parallels.

It raises the question – should people be playing videogames less or does outdoor play need to be as accessible and engaging as digital play?

At a lecture in Adelaide in 2014 author and Journalist Richard Louv spoke about the emergence of the global ‘nature play’ movement, sighting a ‘growing unease with technology’.

This movement emerged because our concept of the landscape has changed over the past few generations. Children venture outside less and reside closer to home when they do, restricting their ability to build up an accurate picture of what the landscape is and what it has to offer.

This is due to a wide range of issues, not confined to parental fear over safety and security, and accessibility of quality open space. Culturally, play is being impacted by a risk averse, blame driven society.

Meanwhile, our use of technology and screen addiction is now being portrayed as a threat to society, including our exposure to the natural environment and therefore nature play. Can these modes of play can coexist? There are common goals where getting people outdoors and active is concerned, including entertainment and exploration.

The experience of landscapes in video games might serve a greater purpose than simply a setting for a game.

‘The experience of playing (Golvellius 1987) was a journey of discovery; discovering new lands and discovering ways of crossing previously encountered natural environments. It wasn’t just a game but an experience, and in many ways no different to one that children play out continuous time in parks and back gardens, exploring the environment in the hopes of finding something new and exciting albeit in the confines of a virtual space.’ – ‘Virtual Landscapes’, Umran Ali (2012)

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Digital gaming itself has undergone a rapid evolution over the past 40+ years that has seen the widespread domestication of digital gaming devices.

A Guardian article highlighted:

‘for a time video-gaming offered a level of physical and social interaction, at the arcade or through multi-player sofa games that friends and family members could play at the same time, in the same room. Then multi-player videogames moved online, and fellow players became physically removed from one another, if not completely anonymous’ – The rise and rise of tabletop gaming, The Guardian 2016

To the surprise of many, it hasn’t been any domesticated game systems that has proven to be the most flexible in introducing games to the masses – it has been the humble mobile phone.

Although location based mobile games have been around for some time now, it is the emergence of Pokémon Go that has caught the imagination of the public. The number of people playing has forced everyone to take notice, but what seems to have been reported prolifically is where the game has gone wrong, rather than the many ways it has gone right.

What it has done is force new questions on how it can be successfully integrated, which I believe can help advance our understanding of how games can enhance the experience of the public realm and educate people over the benefits.

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The Digital Australia report provides valuable statistics in relation to the videogame industry. The diversity of people playing games and the frequency they play them highlights the cultural significance of the industry.

When we talk about play in the public realm by default we might think of playgrounds and a specific demographic. In the context of video games all age groups play games and they account for 68% of the population (around 16.5 million people). The average age of players is 33. People who grew up playing games continue to play them. This forces us to think more broadly around the notion of play.

So why are we playing games? Amongst the most prominent reasons cited in the Digital Australia report, were to have fun, keep our minds active and relieve boredom.

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It was, however, the less cited reasons that caught my attention.

We are less likely to play games to learn, to exercise, or to socially interact. These are all commendable attributes of playing games, but I think that gamers are not oblivious when they are pushed onto them too heavily. It’s a balancing act, but one that cannot be ignored with the couch-potato traits often associated with games.

The Heart Foundation noted:

‘There are both long-term and short-term impacts of prolonged sitting. These include an increased risk of becoming overweight or obese, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and premature mortality, an increased number of musculoskeletal conditions and eye strain’.

Encouragingly they also noted:

‘If games like Pokémon Go get people active, and improve their heart health as a result, we say go for it. We all need to minimise prolonged sitting by breaking it up with periods of activity’.

As adults we have a recommended weekly level of moderate to intense physical exercise:

150 to 300 minutes of moderately intense physical activity

or

75 to 150 minutes of vigorous-intensity physical activity

http://www.health.gov.au/internet/main/publishing.nsf/content/health-pubhlth-strateg-phys-act-guidelines

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If we take those figures and compare them to the average time spent playing videogames – a reported 88 minutes a day, there is a clear opportunity where outdoor gaming can have a healthy impact.

It is surely only a matter of time before studies occur to determine the extent of health benefits associated with Pokémon Go and it won’t be the first time a study of this nature has occurred.

Active behavior encouraged by the Nintendo Wii created much interest on the domestic front with games like Wii Sports. Whilst a study confirmed that Wii Sports didn’t burn as many calories as actual physical activity, this is really where mobile games have stolen a march on their domesticated forbearers.

For example the mobile game ‘Zombie run’ encouraged players to sprint at intervals in the outdoors to escape hordes of zombies. It was unique in that it didn’t rely on screen to time for players to participate. Many of those games lost momentum because rewarding players with monotonous in-game achievements (e.g. distance markers) became meaningless once those milestones were achieved. Games have to do more, they have to be meaningful in other ways.

So where else have videogames and landscape converged?

A significant part of play is the narrative we assign to it and I think this is an essential ingredient in videogames, physical play and the broader landscape.

‘Play is the fiction of doing’ – Oscar Barda, ‘How I found a definition for games after searching for 16 years’, Gamasutra blog 2016

Story City, a choose-your-own adventure story app, connects people with place via fictional stories. The app empowers the reader to make choices on where they would like to explore, linked by decisions made in a fictional narrative and guided by GPS.

 

Further to current location based games, the strength of Story City lies in its ability to capitalize on the work of local writers, musicians and artists.

Each story is unique and actively links in with the context of real locations.

For the Port Adelaide edition of Story City, we have been working with a local primary school, testing stories, generating art and creating music to include on the app, providing an authentic experience that will resonate with locals and inspire visitors to explore the area.

Whilst many location based games are made for a mass market, Story City demonstrates the flexibility to adapt game content and empower the local population.

There are other games emerging offering a closer relationship with the landscape by making their input an integral part of the game.

The Questagame app encourages players to scan flora and fauna outdoors, which they are rewarded for in the game. This reward varies at a rate depending on the rarity of the species. This mechanic is an excellent example of how games can build up a database of useful information and has already been endorsed by multiple agencies, academic institutions and botanical groups.

Interestingly, a similar scanning process was also an integral part of the recent game No Man’s Sky, which embedded the flora and fauna on procedurally generated planets for gamers to explore, who were also rewarded as part of these discoveries.

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No Mans Sky (2016)

Unfortunately, our public realm doesn’t often embrace the opportunity for play and games.

Playspaces are the broadly accepted location for ‘play’ to occur.

There is a saying, ‘Nature doesn’t stop at the boundaries we draw for it’, and perhaps, neither does play.

Some of the biggest strides in games in the public realm has come via play equipment design. Equipment has been adapted to incorporate button operated, light and sound based games. The games require a combination of movement, balance and speed and was pioneering in many respects. This fusion of digital and physical components has been described as ‘Playware’ (‘Playtesting the digital playground’, Gunver Majgaard, Carsten Jessen, 2009), and might just be to playspaces what Pong was to the domesticated games industry.

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Kompan’s ‘Icon’ range

These integrated ‘Playware’ games don’t rely on a screen, allowing the conventional physical benefits of playspaces to flow naturally whilst engaging children in a hybrid play experience.

There have been other playspaces that have incorporated brands as part of their theme, in addition to mobile apps themselves. Rovio Entertainment and Lappset (who are represented by Active Recreation Solutions in Australia) combined to develop a series of Angry Birds playspaces.

The association with popular culture helped to raise the profile of the playspaces in a similar way to the use of the Pokémon brand by Niantic.

There are some peculiar measures emerging elsewhere in the public realm to address mobile gamers. The introduction of ‘smart paving’ and similar measures to guide the neglectful mobile user, removes individual accountability and takes away the liberty of self-assessment and freedom of movement. This harks back to the brutalist urban design approach of the 60s, creating walking deterrents to ‘guide people’.

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That said, there is a common language on how we understand people function in spaces, whether considering open world virtual environments or real world environments, and increasingly where location based games, and integration of augmented reality is being developed.

Landscape Architects from Fletcher Studio in San Francisco worked on a videogame called the Witness. It was an Island based, first person, puzzle game. Like numerous open world game environments, the non-linear gameplay and pace of the game allowed greater opportunity to observe and explore the Island. The landscape was iconic, mimicking different environments and taking influence from different periods of civilization.

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The Witness (2016)

Lead Landscape Architect Deanna Van Buren highlighted that

‘Given the increasing number of people who “see” the built environment digitally, designing environments for the electronic gaming industry can have an impact on the public’s appreciation of good design and on their demand for better quality in their physical world’.

Lead game developer Jonathan Blow said that the guidance and advice of the architects helped to craft the island in a way that felt more immersive for the player because all the details were in place.

The Witness sets a precedent for potential collaboration between landscape architects and game designers.

But why do people play games of this nature?

Speaking of his earlier years spent in built up UK suburbia, Dr Umran Ali, expressed some other sentiments. He noted:

‘Video landscapes offered me the possibility to play, albeit in a virtual space, and experience the natural spaces I craved for’ – ‘Virtual Landscapes’, Umran Ali (2012)

He was right, we do have an innate desire to experience and be in the landscape, but to what extent does this satisfy our needs if delivered artificially?

It is a confronting concept to think that the virtual landscapes might provide a significant part of our exposure and opportunities to explore the landscape. It could be argued that some of the most recognizable landscapes don’t physically exist – they are virtually embedded.

The visuals and audio of games have become so realistic, with compelling narratives and vast game worlds, it is little wonder that Australians are spending so much time playing.

Ali also noted:

‘For many players experiencing changes in the landscape rather than pursuing the goals of the game… (is) more appealing than the narrative or the primary quest of the game’ – ‘Virtual Landscapes’, Umran Ali (2012)

Not all games possess these qualities or intend to. For every Firewatch there is a Flappy Bird, but there are different types of games for different types of gamers.

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Firewatch (2016)

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Flappy Bird (2013)

There is a term to describe these artificial landscapes (The Witness’s and Firewatch’s of the world), these surrogate landscapes that we roam in the confines of our screens. The idea of a ‘surroscape’, in shaping our interpretation of the physical landscape may seem perverse at first, but consider this:

Not everyone has means of accessing rich, stimulating environments, whether it be down to location, weather, physical and psychological limitations, financial restraints or simply a lack of knowledge that these environments exist.

Urban densification, over-population, and climate change are huge global challenges that are impacting on our experience of the landscape. We could yet rely on virtual landscapes in ways beyond play and games that supplement our livelihood.

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Aliens (1986)

It becomes a question of – what is the human need for exposure to the landscape?

In Summary

  • Videogames add value the experience of the landscape
  • They encourage more active behavior without being the primary focus
  • They offer a sustainable, adaptable opportunity for place activation
  • And they allow a unique sense of place to develops

This article was adapted from the presentation ‘Play and Landscape in the Age of the Artificial’ at the Open State: Future Cities event in Adelaide 26/10/16 and can be viewed online https://youtu.be/45AII4lvIT0?t=8m20s

A Room with a (Digital) View

I attended a tour of Victoria Square, Adelaide on the 5th of June. The project has been the subject of ongoing collaboration between many stakeholders, of which Adelaide City Council and TCL have ongoing pivotal roles. What was evident, even without delving into any one of the 4 volumes of documentation, was the level of commitment required it to achieve the design intent thus far.

As TCL director Damian Schultz elaborated on the design process it became clear that the Victoria Square is a design that will never cease to be active. ACC employ no less than 14 staff who program the space with events that keep it activated, continually drawing people into the space. The idea that space has to be programmed, that this is perpetual and integral to the ongoing success of the space is fundamental.

Space of this nature doesn’t happen by accident. It requires collaboration by both those who design spaces and those who manage it. This might seem obvious to a landscape architect, but in the digital design of space the concept of programming space brings with it a host of new applications.

In Victoria Square you can sit around and watch the world go by. It isn’t an irrational thing to do. Our level of interaction with the surrounding world can be minimal. Fleeting. Unremarkable. But would I spend time in a digital space for the same purpose? Would I watch a seemingly haphazard, world of polygons recreate such a scenario and feel the same connection with it? More explicitly, what would be the measure of such an experience? The oneness of self and environment?

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Digital space in computer games already offers the opportunity to explore, mingle with other digital personas, some real people, some programmes. Like physical spaces such as city squares, MMOGs (massive multiplayer online games) become activated when people start to inhabit them and interact. The context of these spaces isn’t always about ‘winning’ either. They are about exploring. Deserted alleyways. Empty rooms. Rolling landscapes. Wilderness. The sublime.

Perhaps the digital layer of information shouldn’t try to compete with nature but work with it.

Digital gaming in particular, seems to be an almost exclusively domesticated pursuit.

Seldom is there the opportunity to hybridise this experience and utilise the public realm.

If the measure of a successful space is in part down to the number of people that are drawn to the space, facilitating those people digitally is as important as it is physically. Victoria Square, it should be noted, has free wi-fi.

With man’s presence no longer only registered as a physical presence, but a digital presence too, our connectivity to space and attention are divided like never before. We’re forever distracted by our alter-egos, our digital microcosms. Social connectivity isn’t what it used to be. It’s a running social commentary, a hash tag, a trend. For digital information to be a successful branch of the public realm it has to be utilised more effectively. There is more potential in activating space than arching over to a mate to show your flappy bird high score.

Notions of play and landscape in the age of the artificial

Introduction

This article explores the evolving digital portrayal of landscapes within games, reflecting on the industry that produced them and investigating how landscape architecture might draw on these digital experiences to enhance physical play and the consultation process in the future.

Our concept of what landscape is and how it is perceived has changed over the past few generations. Children venture outside less and reside closer to home when they do, restricting their ability to build up an accurate picture of what the landscape is and what it has to offer [1]. This is due to a wide range of issues, not confined to parental fear over safety and security, accessibility to open space and general quality of open space.

In tandem with this cultural decline in use of outdoor space, digital gaming has undergone a rapid evolution over the past 30+ years that has seen the widespread domestication of digital gaming devices. Inherent in this process has been the evolving interpretation of the landscape within games, which has been aided by the ever-improving technology that game designers have at their disposal.

The games industry itself has become a powerful medium of entertainment that has connected people globally and socially. It is an industry that has transcended age brackets and cultural boundaries, that has allowed people to reinvent themselves, escape the perceived monotony of their day-to-day routine and spend as much time gaming as a part time job – out of choice [2].

Whilst videogames are undeniably a quick fire source of entertainment, particularly for ‘casual gamers’, they have drawn criticism on issues such as censorship, addiction and childhood obesity. The default view on videogames by many seems to be that the time spent on games takes away from the time that could be spent outdoors. Experts within the industry are not oblivious to these concerns:

‘Videogames…are often accused of ripping people out of the natural world and placing them into an artificial one’ [3].

Should people should play videogames less, or does outdoor play needs to be as accessible and engaging as digital play? The potential to create a better connection between these modes of play needs to be explored. At a recent lecture in Adelaide (26/02/14) Richard Louv observed that the emergence of the global ‘nature play’ movement is said be to exhibiting a ‘growing unease with technology’. Culturally play is being eroded through a risk averse, blame and consequence driven society. Similarly, an aversion to the use of technology is now seemingly being driven as perceived as a threat to nature play.

Speaking of his earlier years spent in built up UK suburbia, Umran Ali (Director of Creative Media at the University of Salford) expressed some fascinating sentiments that sit well in the context of this article:

‘Video landscapes offered me the possibility to play, albeit in a virtual space, and experience the natural spaces I craved for’ [4].

It is a confronting concept to think that games provide a significant part of young people’s exposure and opportunity to explore the landscape. This highlights a potential shortfall in the provision of accessible natural space and the surrogacy of landscape or ‘surroscape’, that gaming may be providing. The concept of a videogame as surroscape may seem perverse at first, but this is what the games industry has endeavored to create.

For those who deem surroscapes irrelevant purely on the basis they do not physically exist, as an alternate notion, consider the ongoing value of historic landscapes to modern society. In their physical absence a historical landscape may only resonate in the minds of few, existing only as record of art and literature, but we do not deem these irrelevant – they form part of our culture. This raises the question, as a prominent contributor to modern popular culture is the value of surroscapes in society being undervalued?

Eras of Videogames Landscapes

In recognition of the contribution the games industry has made, both in the interpretation and portrayal of the landscape, it is worth reflecting on the rapid advances that have been made during the last 30+ years.

In the ‘Virtual Landscapes’ series (Ali, 2012) [4], specific focus was given to landscapes within games. A process of analysis and critique across three distinct technological eras progressively recognised the importance of landscape representation.

  • The Embryonic era (1980-1990)
  • The Transition era (1990-2000)
  • The Modern era (2000-present)

(Ali, 2012) [4]

Early on in the evolution of gaming the realistic graphical interpretation of virtual landscapes was neither possible nor the focus of games. It will be argued that the playability of the games was the main focus for game designers, particularly since most of them were gamers themselves.

During the Embryonic Era‘ (1980-1990) it was often the unavoidable abstraction of the landscape that required creative interpretation on both the part of the designer and gamer to bring it to life. This design ‘reductionism’ of the natural environment was not only impacted by the subsequent crude block forms being outputted, but also pixilation and colour palette limitations.

Even in the early stage of environmental representation in games the intentional placement of landmarks aided the way-finding process and became a valuable tool. This is a widely adopted method used by game designers and one landscape architects are historically familiar with.

Ali made note of the ‘classical landscape composition’, illustrated during this period, depicting ‘meandering rivers, tree cover in various stages inferring natural growth’, and most importantly ‘a dynamic world rather than a static one, a world outside player interactions – an important consideration if one wants to create a believable immersive world’ [4]. Player immersion is a key observation here. During this era the games industry was not yet capable of creating the deeply immersive environments we see today, but this infancy period was not without value in terms of player exploration as games past often testify:

‘The experience of playing Golvellius (1987) was a journey of discovery; discovering new lands and discovering ways of crossing previously encountered natural environments. It wasn’t just a game but an experience, and in many ways no different to one that children play out continuous time in parks and back gardens, exploring the environment in the hopes of finding something new and exciting albeit in the confines of a virtual space’ [4].  

This signifies both the importance of provision of play and the necessity for depth of experience. It includes the consideration of exploration as a mode of play, indicating that even in the most play-deprived environments, physical or virtual, we never stop seeking outlets for play.

The desire to explore digital environments during the ‘Embryonic Era’ of game development was ironic given the limitations of computer memory. In programming terms it meant that every skerrick of detail had to be carefully considered in the broader context of the game. Quite often if memory consuming detail served no purpose to a game it would be scrapped.

During this era there were few open world environments, rather an interesting array of methods for exploration within games. This included movement from one static screenshot to the next, the scrolling and scaling of environments to give the illusion of movement and the outright restriction of access through impenetrable walls. Perhaps the most abstract outcome was the ability to transcend the edge of a programed space and miraculously reappear on the opposite side of the game world.

These programmers’ quirks never deterred gamers from seeking short cuts, nor has physical barriers in the real world ever stopped people seeking the path of least resistance. Game developers address such discrepancies through ‘game testing’, ‘debugging’, and the refining of ‘collision detection and response’ to determine reactive and dormant aspects of the game environment. By comparison, Landscape Architects rely on their own experience of how people use spaces, reflecting on the specific attributes and requirements of user groups in the design process. Desire lines are often less clear without the understanding of the physical environment in question.

Upon realising the innate desire of gamers to shape their own environments, developers sought to add flexibility environmental design as a component of game-play. The significance of the ‘God Sim’ conceived in the ‘Embryonic Era’ should be considered. Within this sub-genre players were granted the ability to shape the environment around them as a ‘core mechanic’ of the game. The empowerment of individuals with such a mechanic can be seen in the likes of Minecraft, and earlier games such as Populous and SimCity. These modern day phenomena provide the ultimate opportunity for individual expression, like an interactive canvas of human variability.

The ‘Transition Era’ (1990-2000) was teething period for the games industry. Programmers struggled to find the balance between 2D and 3D representation of landscapes within games. Much of the focus lay on aesthetic progression and less on gameplay or narrative. The rapid evolution of 3D game engine technology absorbed much of the focus of game development in this era.

The portrayal of the digital landscape remained largely geometric, comprising of extruded forms to simulate topographical features. The 3D depth leant itself to exploration, but created a cyber-conundrum. Just as the lack of space in the ‘Embryonic Era’ had influenced the scope of landscapes within games, so too did the abundance of it within the ‘Transition Era’. Whilst landscape archetypes such as jungles, temperate climates and arctic climates became more readily identifiable, the inability to portray realistic transitions between them impaired their believability. Despite this it was a valuable and necessary process, and highlighted what was required if natural environments were to ever be truly realistic.

In addition to satisfying human desire to explore, programmers came to instill other human requirements of the avatars that featured within game environments. This included notions of danger and need – oxygen, energy, temperature and gravity.

Perhaps the most compelling of these human notions was danger. Of one particular game’s aesthetic during the ‘Transition Era’ Ali noted ‘the unusual rock formations were archetypal; fragile yet dangerous and inviting’ [4]. This highlights danger as key human requisite of play in the context of exploration and an essential ingredient in sustaining concentration and player engagement for longer.

In games of all eras, environmental design has stereotyped physical effect of certain environments. This is best typified in Ali’s analogy of quicksand. ‘Popular culture of individuals (suggests) falling in quicksand (results in) becoming quickly submerged before being devoured never to be seen again. What rate this actually occurs is questionable’ [4].

This gives rise to an interesting cultural dynamic. Game developers are influenced by real life landscapes and interpret them in the creation of surroscapes. This leaves the gamer with a second-hand interpretation of the landscape that may not align with their own experiences or interpretations, but further shapes them through the process of play. There is no absolute consistency between the experiences of any two people but surroscapes offer a controlled environment, which may be viewed in two ways. One, that the experience of the landscape in a mode of play should be completely autonomous to that individual and the overlying structure of a game impedes this. Two, the consistency in the experience of the landscape creates a controlled environment within which the interpretation of anyone can be recorded, leading us to optimal design outcomes as an aggregate of the collective experience.

The Modern Era‘ (2000-present) has featured some dramatic advances in the digital portrayal of the landscape, including fully accessible, life-like landscapes featuring seamless environmental transitions. These environments instil a sense of freedom and an onus on exploration. This is a phenomena not necessarily intended by the designer:

‘For many players experiencing changes in the landscape rather than pursuing the goals of the game… (is) more appealing than the narrative or the primary quest of the game’ [4].

This signifies a watershed moment in gaming history – the experience of the surroscape as the game itself.

Arguably, some of the most viewed landscapes do not physically exist – they are embedded in the games we play.

‘One might observe that a videogame is a strange way to get a sense of the space between points when one could simply find a local park or just go outside and walk around the neighborhood’ [3].

Movement has become an integral part of digital play and it challenges our willingness to acknowledge the idea of engaging with the landscape. The subsequent distortion of time and ability to transcend the landscape creates another paradox. Play, pause, replay, game over – they each have very different connotations in the context of gaming. Each has been synthesized specifically with game play in mind. ‘Action in most videogames is expected to be imminent’, Bogost continues, ‘even the small prolonging of this experience reproduces earlier forms of transit’, referring to transit via a horse drawn cart. Bogost noted that at an ambling speed such a mode of transport lends itself to the observation of the surrounding environment. By comparison, the pace of modern transit is too fast to digest the landscape to any such extent.

The physics engines that modern videogames are constructed with have had a profound impact on the experience of the landscape, transiency included. Huge environments can be covered in minutes via an array of vehicles and avatars, each with their own unique properties. This is turn impacts on the immediate accessibility of engrossing, interactive game environments. ‘In games we find transiency engaging – often because they are an integral part of the game narrative fantasy’ [3]. The expectations of the physical environment by comparison, are grounded by the realities of science, ‘We often find transiency outside games unavoidable and routine’.

Attention and Engagement

Experts within the games industry have noted that sustained attention is key requirement of being engrossed in play and that creating believable settings is an integral part of this dynamic, as Richard Lemurchand put it, ‘Attention, not Immersion’ [5]. Advocates of this train of thought, will note that the games industry was not the only industry that developed these ideals.

The children’s UK television production ‘Knightmare’ [6], (which ran 1987-1994), presented an innovative approach to the integration of digital play in a physical setting. The formula for the long running series remained largely unchanged over this period. The basic premise adopted a group of children who would offer verbal guidance to an avatar on how to best navigate a dungeon and various other medieval styled environs in pursuit of greater riches. The hinge was that the avatar or ‘Dungeoneer’ they gave guidance to was one of their own friends, who would have to wear a vision impairing helmet for the duration of the program. The helmet intentionally impeded the view of the Dungeoneer due to the use of a blue background studio setting on which the Computer-generated Imagery (CGI) fantasy settings were overlaid. These sets were broadcasted to another part of the studio where the other contestants, as navigators, would reside in front of a screen. 

The ensuing adventures were not a linear format and were reliant upon the empowered decision making of the children. Role play actors on the program and objects within the blue-background set would shape children’s decisions during their adventure. For example there might have been an essential exchange of knowledge with one character that could be used as a bargaining tool to progress further in the game. Similarly, there were multiple routes available, often presenting themselves as numerous black doors through which the game would take alternate routes. This offered a compelling viewer experience with the element of variability meaning each show was unique in its environments and unpredictable due to the decision making bestowed upon the contestants.

Whilst the children on Knightmare could command interaction with other live actors and physical objects in the CGI set, it was the ability in later series to interact with digitally animated elements of the set that impressed. Interestingly, computers weren’t powerful enough to depict vast, complex landscapes digitally so studio sets were intentionally restricted to large rooms or corridors in which dungeons could be digitally portrayed. The program created the illusion that the navigators were controlling an avatar in a virtual environment in real time. The relative autonomy of their decision making became the unique aspect of the program and offers some direction on what might become of augmented reality if it is to be successfully utilised as part of engaging digital play in the outdoor environment.

Spectrums of Play

From the outset, digital play and physical play might appear to sit at polar extremes of a play spectrum, but exploration of the industries that produced them indicate far similar design processes than one might expect.

Thinking about the desirable attributes of an engaging play space, it should provide a wide range of activities, promote a variety of physical movements and cater for a broad age range and degree of physical and mental ability. It should be accessible, inclusive, and promote space for social interaction and individual reflection. Additionally, incorporation of natural elements, and the inherent necessity to exhibit some measure of risk is gradually being seen as integral to a child’s development.

At the other end of the spectrum, broadening on domesticated digital play; a good computer game should provide an immersive, engaging experience that offers depth and appeal. It might offer online experience, and the ability to play individually or in multiplayer modes to complete levels or missions. It might hint at real world experiences, environments or scenarios that the player can relate to or create unworldly fantasies that extend beyond real world capacities. Essentially there should be an ongoing sense of purpose and achievement, which may also be measureable and reflected upon. 

On a recent tour of local governments in South Australia, motivational speaker Rum Charles recently clarified that the least savvy age bracket for the uptake of modern technology was the age of 30 to 50.  I would speculate this age range represents the majority of operating landscape architects and other facilitators of outdoor play. What this suggests is that the concept of play is subjective based on age, exposure to technology and adoption of that technology. The challenge is to seek outlets for where these new technologies can be appropriately incorporated and gaming is one such opportunity.

Existing Digital Play Hardware and Software

So far the focus has almost exclusively been on the experience of landscape within games. What about digital games in the landscape?

Digital play as a cultural phenomenon that has not gone by completely unnoticed by affiliates of the landscape industry. It is encouraging to see play equipment design and manufacture is embracing the digital element that is clearly a part of children’s day-to-day activity. Kompan is amongst those in the market with the ‘ICON’ range [7]. It is pioneering in many respects – if not specifically in terms of physical play than most certainly in terms of digital gaming in the context of outdoor play spaces. This fusion of digital and physical components in the public realm, aptly observed as ‘Playware’, Majgaard [8], might just be to playspaces what Pong (1972) was to the domesticated games industry.

Other manufacturers diversifying into this aspect of conventional outdoor play include Playworld Systems with the ‘Neos’ range [9] and Lappset with the ‘Mobile Play’ and ‘Xccent Play’ systems [10]. The ability to continuously update the software of these digital play systems is a trump card of sorts, increasing play value across the physical lifespan of the equipment. This raises an ethical question of designer’s role in shaping play. If digital play can be updated so readily via new software, does it remove the onus of the player to be creative themselves and invent their own ways of playing, as seen in natural play? What experience of play is nurtured and cultivated as a result – is society producing disposable experiences that do not resonate with the individual quite like the authentic experience?

Interestingly, none of the digital play systems mentioned brand themselves as child exclusive play. Promotional videos and catalogues also depict use by adults, a positive notion in terms of all-age inclusive play. You do not often see many adults using playspaces but there are plenty of domesticated adult gamers. It points to the decreasing level of stigma surrounding adults and the very concept of play, and provides a marketable platform for expansion of outdoor play involving adults.

Landscape Architects have no real heritage in the creation of digital games, but as an industry it has gradually become accustomed to working digitally. This has been evident in conveying design propositions, but paradoxically this is also where the industry has become relatively stagnant when compared to other industries.

The stinted adoption of digital 3D software within landscape architecture can partially be explained by the shortcomings of the software itself. Just as noted throughout Ali’s ‘Embryonic’ and ‘Transition’ eras of videogames [4], the convincing illustration of natural environments has been extremely challenging. Progress made in games of the ‘Modern Era’ offers encouraging progress in the realistic depiction of landscapes, which Landscape Architecture should also respond to. Much of the difficulty in illustrating natural elements has been exposed readily in the falsities of unnatural repetition. When the ability to become engrossed in a game landscape hinges, at least in part, on the believability of the environmental settings, the level of detail that is required must excel. To some extent this is the same in Landscape Architecture in the proposal of designs to clients and the public, when a greater level of detail is required than merely an indicative representation.

Other disciplines have utilised 3D design software more quickly – Architecture for example. The ability for programs to illustrate series of flat planes with a degree of realism has been achievable for decades. The flat plane of a building for example, is far easier to texture-render than the complex structure of vegetation or the impact of elements upon it – rain, sun, wind or human interaction. It is little wonder that the illustration of the landscape has been so difficult. Until recently, most rendering programs required every surface visible by the gamer at any one time to be textured, and for each plant to be portrayed in such a manor. This method has been improved upon extensively as Ali highlighted:

‘An algorithm for the accurate generation of realistic environments allows for the creation of randomly generated environments where no two areas are alike…creating richer, more detailed environments’, (Ali, 2012) [4]

Such evidence of progression is encouraging with the view of adopting such programs.

Experimentation on freely available industry standard programs such as Sketchup & 3D warehouse reveal 3D objects vary between pseudo-3D flat objects that automatically change orientation with the user navigation, to more complex 3D wire objects with hundreds and thousands of plains that illustrate basic structure. Each of these plains has colours or patterns overlaid to make it more realistic. Even these 3D objects suffer from stark, flat surfaces when in close proximity.

The Cryengine by Crytek [11], is a 3D games engine exemplifies the high levels of detail that can now be achieved. It was utilised in the creation of the Crysis (2007-2011) videogame series but was also made freely available for download and use by independent developers. The abilities of this game engine include the illustration of plant life accurately and without sacrificing game play:

‘Density and variety of foliage…(and) rendering such a large number of plants would often cause inevitable slowdown leading to unplayable frame rates, however the technology behind Crysis allowed for an unprecedented level of flora, whilst maintaining acceptable frame rates’, Ali [4].

As the Crysis series would testify, the game engine has the ability to portray landscapes far more realistically than conventional mainstream 3D software adopted in landscape architecture. Such engines are now being used to illustrate real projects in related industries, but at great expense, driven by resourcing and project deadlines. It is often ex-pats of the games industry who are engaged to fully utilise what the software has to offer. This cost restricts the comprehensive adoption of such technology to larger civil infrastructure works with the necessary budgets to facilitate such detailed proposals. The political significance and number of people being impacted by a project may act as the driver for adoption of such software.

Relatively small industries like Landscape Architecture by comparison rely largely upon self-skilling when it comes to the use of software. Mastery of such engines (or outsourcing if the project budget affords it) would offer a valuable tool for landscape architects in the portrayal, accessibility and communication of design. This includes the potential for stakeholders to interact with designs with exploration in mind, and the option to adapt through receipt of their feedback, akin to the testing process games are subjected to.

Thinking conceptually, how might the relationship between digital play and physical play evolve? Digital play, as epitomised by the domesticated videogame industry, is clearly impaired in its sensory repertoire. It relies upon sight, sound and to some extent, touch.  To enhance digital play it would therefore be logical to focus on and improve the physical shortcomings and broaden to an outdoor context.

The technology behind the digital frontier of screen based gaming has not yet been translated into an outdoor setting. Seemingly, it is a case of having to digest and analyse videogame technology to allow the physical play environment to incorporate the benefits of what is an extremely fast moving industry.

Indiscreet, bulky Virtual Reality (VR) headsets have been commonplace since the 90s, often in conjunction with the gaming industry. The ‘Oculus Rift’ [12] is a more recent VR headset that revisits the concept using refined technology, which has been made available to developers to create programmes that best utilise the hardware. Headsets adopting Augmented Reality (AR) are one potential option that may be developed to be more user friendly and commercially viable, which is a direction being taken by Google with their ‘Google Glass’ product [13], although it is more orientated toward the social media market. Alternatively it could be a new form of technology that is not currently available that enhances play – contact lenses being one recent eye catching concept as seen in the short film Sight [14].

The effective adoption of augmented reality (AR) may provide greater reward than currently seen. AR might for example, transcend the physical boundaries set in conventional playspaces. Advanced AR may recognise the basic structure of external elements such as vegetation, roads, buildings, and other topographical features, and incorporate them into games. The digital environment could be synched to aspects of the physical environment in the same vein as a videogames being synched between size of the television and the player holding game controller. The key question remains on how this digital layer of information could be conveyed to gamers.

Mobile phones and GPS devices have been the more traditional means of interacting with the outdoors digitally. Such devices have acted as both a means of running software and the means of conveying the information. ‘Geocaching’ is a cultural phenomenon that has used GPS as a means of digitally locating people or objects, often in an explorative treasure hunt format. LBMG (location based mobile gaming) has also been utilised in some cities as an innovative, strategic approach to activating space using GPS and other locative media [15].

It is difficult to see children running around with bulky headsets or phones in front of them in any way that would not impede their natural experience of the landscape, in a conventional sense at least. One thing videogames and play equipment often fail to achieve is the adaptability to invent new ways to play. They are programmed for specific activities and once those have been exhausted, gamers move on. It is clear to see why the use technology, both in digital and physical output is being held accountable for a lack of interaction with the natural environment.  The comparative independence from technology in the landscape is seemingly what that makes it such a visceral experience.

As a decision making tool it could be argued that technology is numbing our problem solving ability and creative instincts. It is guiding people as oppose to allowing them to guide themselves, potentially deskilling future generations, but we are not a nation of automatons just yet. 

Hybridised game systems were developed in the Nintendo Wii and Microsoft Kinnect to encourage greater physical activity in a domestic setting, but never really stepped outside the comfort zone of the industry. Additionally, next generation consoles in the Microsoft Xbox One and Playstation 4 have sought to embed gesture technology that removes the necessity for a physical connection between gamer and controller, but again, crossover into the outdoor environment has been a rarity.

The fundamental question beckons – will domesticated gamers have any inclination of playing games outdoors simply because there is a digital component incorporated? It may be that the hardware and software in domesticated game systems is reused to engage new user groups, not specifically existing gamers. This was why the Nintendo Wii was such a success. The problem was it was also a fad.

Reward schemes for achievements in games has also been one method to get players more engrossed in games that promote physical activity. In 2010 Foursquare’s collaboration with ‘Health Month’ saw the issuing of health monitors to record walking steps and reward achievements with badges. The idea was commendable in trying to motivate people using a videogame-like system to adopt healthier lifestyles. Scott Rigby, head of gaming research company Immersyve, noted follies in such an approach following the demise of the initiative two and a half years after its introduction:

‘One big weakness of the badges…was they didn’t do much to encourage users to keep finding ways to take those 20,000 steps or run another 5km, since you could only achieve the badge once’ [15].

In this instance, engagement with the landscape was encouraged through achievement, but distance was the only variable. Additional consideration might have been given, not only in the ‘location awareness’ but ‘context awareness’ from player to player [16]. Gamers are not always gaming.

Gallivanting around the outdoor environment participating in new digital gaming would undoubtedly draw some strange looks. It may require an exclusive space like paintball or laser quest to successfully operate if physical and social eccentricities incur detriment of use. Other forms of digital hardware such as hands free mobile calls demonstrate a period of social stigma following the introduction of new technology, which can gradually become socially accepted and engrained in culture. 

The Zombies, Run (2012) app [17] provided one such exception to concerns of negative social perception. Aided by voice notifications, joggers would listen to the game discreetly on their digital devices. This combined the popular culture of zombies with jogging to great success, prompting bursts of speed at random intervals to avoid an imaginary onslaught of the undead. This is just one example of taking digital gaming outdoors, prompting physical activity and unrestricted use of the outdoor environment.

Conclusion

The inclusion of digital play in a natural setting is not a substitute for natural play, but a tool for reintroducing and enhancing the experience of the natural environment to both the domesticated gamer, and new audiences. It is unlikely to initiate any cultural shift away from sedentary lifestyles associated with domesticated digital gaming, primarily on the basis that is where the games industry is focused. Despite this, factoring digital play into the natural environment and adopting game software in play and the consultation process is in the interests of landscape architecture, and could act as a catalyst for re-engaging user groups. For many the landscape beyond the front door has become an anomaly, our homes a cultural bubble. It wasn’t always that way, but it is that way now. We can condemn technology as part of the problem or adopt it as part of the solution.

 

References

[1] ‘How children lost the right to roam in four generations’, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-462091/How-children-lost-right-roam-generations.html

[2] ‘Reality is Broken’, Jane McGonigal (2011)

[3] ‘How to do things with videogames’, Ian Bogost (2011)

[4] ‘Virtual Landscapes’, Umran Ali (2012)

[5] ‘Attention, not Immersion’, Richard Lemurchand http://gdcvault.com/play/1015464/Attention-Not-Immersion-Making-Your

[6] ‘Knightmare’ http://www.knightmare.com/

[7] ‘ICON’, Kompan http://www.kompan.com.au/playground-equipment/product-lines/icon/

[8] ‘Playtesting the digital playground’, Gunver Majgaard, Carsten Jessen (2009)

[9] ‘Neos’ Playworld Systems

[10] ‘Mobile Play’ and ‘Xccent Play’, Lappset

[11] Cryengine, Crytek http://www.cryengine.com

[12] Oculus Rift http://www.oculusvr.com/

[13] Google Glass http://www.google.com/glass/start/

[14] ‘Sight’, Eran May-raz and Daniel Lazo (2012) http://mashable.com/2012/08/25/sight-augmented-reality/

[15] ‘Grinding to a halt’, Edge Magazine, (Nov 2013)

[16] ‘Location-based mobile games: A Theoretical Framework for Research’, Li Xiong, Rabindra Ratan, and Dmitri Williams (Digital Cityscapes 2009)

[17] ‘Zombies, Run’ app https://www.zombiesrungame.com/