‘My PhD is about video game space. People think all I do is play video games!
I’m in the third wave of cyber-theorists. Wave one was up to 2001; wave two about 2007. Cyberspace hasn’t been easy to predict and early theorists often got it wrong so I’m not coming out boldly with predictions.
Video game worlds have strong links with film, visual arts and architecture. They tap into previous media space, especially film, to have credibility. They adapt its language. I’m arguing what seems new in video games isn’t new at all. Recurring tools used in video games can be traced back through history.
Railways are one tool. Historically, railways meant shorter journeys, but they also changed the way people interacted with their environment. Previously, they were part of it but after railways a disconnection happens – a voyeuristic feeling of looking out at the landscape through the window. To try and make sense of this, 1890’s cinema made 3-minute films of landscapes shot from moving trains.
By 1905, people even sat in disused train carriages to watch films of moving landscapes. Half-Life in 1998, the first video game where the player is “in” the world instead of being an observer acting on reflexes, starts with a train, exactly the same as the films of 1905. Visual language is reassuring and familiar.
People think three things about videogames: they’re threatening, weird and make a lot of money. But 95 per cent of under 18-year-olds play videogames.
Being immersed in the virtual world of a video game and believing in its reality, but at the same time knowing it is false is called remediation. Video game space is always remediative. It’s always got that double strand.
A good example of remediated media is Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds in 1938, which convinced listeners that Martians had landed on Earth. Remediated media raises the question: what role does the media have in constructing our sense of truth?
“Cities” are another video game tool. Games negotiate real architecture to intrigue you. They focus on “unreal” details like a gargoyle in a real cathedral, or in baroque art on a trompe l’oeil – itself a device of illusion. In one game, the landmarks of Florence are reproduced in accurate detail but placed closer together; the connecting streets are completely fictional, shrinking the city. In real time, it would take half an hour to walk from the top to the bottom of the city but in the game, seconds.
I look at how video games use architectural monuments to signify power and coercion, leading the player. Video games are designed to make you act. Action is tied to vision and vision is a prompt: we see something and we go over to it. In video games, space itself is expressive, communicating something to the player. Often it’s in an idealised world with historical roots in Eden and Arcadia.
People think three things about video games: they’re threatening, weird and make a lot of money. But 95 per cent of people under 18 play video games. Games are becoming ubiquitous. You have a phone and you play games. Despite playing a game for 20 minutes on their morning commute people don’t think games are part of their life.’
* My PhD is an irregular series in which The Citizen speaks with Melbourne University PhD students.