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22.03.2009 18:38
”You are here”. Spaces of
the Mirror, the Path, the Map
What might be learnt from computer games in times of “locative” digital media and navigation charts. And from phenomenology
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”You are here”. Spaces of the Mirror, the Path, the Map

What might be learnt from computer games in times of “locative” digital media and navigation charts. And from phenomenology

“Cyberspace”, “virtual reality”, or “digital space” are those key words a new space of the media is being referred to since the 1980s – as a kind of placeless virtual universe, “in” which one seems to be in contrast with real space which seems to conquer or to dissolve it. Such ideas are conspicuously being undermined, however, by a broad present-day development of “locative” media, digital “Geo-” and positioning techniques. If “digital spaces” in the form of GPS navigation systems become components of everyday space experiences (like trucks occasionally getting stuck under bridges), the picture of a virtual space detached from real space obviously has ceased to be valid. Neither space experiences can be understood according to a schematic opposition of real and virtual space, nor are they to be appreciated in the model of the one homogeneous “container” space is generally identified with, as the more recent media and cultural scientific space debates have emphasized in manifold ways.

Developments like those of “locative” media raise specific questions about the space one localizes oneself in and, hence, they bring to one’s notice the basic inconsistency of space not only underlined since the digital media: as Michel Foucault (1967) has put it subsequent to phenomenological space descriptions, we do not live in a “kind of void, inside of which we could place individuals and things”, but in a space “charged with qualities” (“tout chargé de qualités”), and where heterogeneous spatial relationships overlap. As a discontinuous “espace vécu” (Eugene Minkovski) space is not to be reduced to one uniform spatiality.
    Such approaches are a possible basis to describe a present-day heterogeneous space experience beyond the contrast of real and virtual space. Contrary to undifferentiated talk about “cyberspace”, it is advisable according to what suggested Herbert Hrachovec (1996) “to expect” all those “distinctions” of the digital space which are meant for other space experiences as well. - Local “inquiries” take the place of the new, yet to be conquered universe. Inquiries which e.g., can take their starting point from the question how, in certain digital media, a virtual space is exposed, where one localizes oneself in. One example to demonstrate this is the medium computer game.

Play world/mirror world

Computer games – and especially first person ones (“Ego Shooters”) – represent this experience more than other digital media to (also) be in a virtual space. This Being There of the computer game can be traced back to a series of factors, most of all to the interactivity of the game that in fact constitutes what becomes a coherent space for the player, “in” and with which he acts (in the case of Ego-Shooters and other action games: in a time-critical way, hence with high concentration). In the picture-spatial There the particularity of the said type of game expressed in its name is a central-perspective (“ego”-)view, in which the player finds himself put in the place of someone acting and moving in space itself. In the game, this (diegetic) picture space represents one out of several visual levels; and it is part, as has been shown in detailed analyses of this type of game, of a complex visual spatiality of the (moving) game. With that it corresponds – and this distinction is to be picked out here - to one of two spatial modes which usually can be found in “Ego Shooter” games.

In the mode of the said picture space the player finds himself carried into that space – the space of a building, for instance, with floors, doors, etc. There, he has no view onto an (avatar-)figure in that space; his view rather coincides with that of this acting figure of which usually only the hands (with the weapon) can be seen. This picture space’s specific principle is conspicuously exceeded – and with that demonstrated as such – when a mirror comes into play and makes the player see a figure alien to him, in Duke Nukem 3D, for instance.

Detail of Duke Nukem 3 D (1996)

The mirror, an often used metaphor for what’s new, what’s “doubling” in virtual space becomes, here, a game of the computer game, inside and with its picture space.
The space through which, in the game, a path has to be trodden (and shot through) presents itself, in this mode, as a sometimes mazelike environment of walls (a windowless bathroom, for instance), obstacles, etc. Seen from approaches of the “espace vécu”, the experience of this path-space or “hodological space” (Kurt Lewin) of the game points to an essential difference between space experience and the idea of the uniform, empty space. Because experiences of space and distances in “lived” space depends on paths and boundaries; following an example of Otto Friedrich Bollnow (1963), for instance, the neighboring apartment of the house next door is as far away as the way to get there, via staircase, street, etc. – that’s to say non-existent behind the wall, as long as one doesn’t hear it. According to Bollnow, in this experience of living space we still live in “caves” as it were.
Compared with this, the second mode to be found in Ego-Shooters exposes the game’s (path) space as map.

Detail of Duke Nukem 3 D (1996)

The map has an important guidance function in the game; it is not a facultative addition, but a component of the game’s spatial world, where the player moves back and forth between the modes. In this regard, the space “in” which the player localizes himself is a two-sided one: it presents itself (in the interactive and moving game) in the interplay of two modes which have to be differentiated from each other. This is true not only for the computer game.

“You are here”

In the second mode, in the example with the bathroom and the adjacent rooms, space is represented as guidance map as in other map types, plans and outlines, two-dimensionally seen from above. In principle, guidance by means of maps requires the ability to “read” them as a symbolic reference context of its own which e.g., neither represents the said space of the mirror nor (- livable in apartments as well as during a hike -) the path space of the lived experience. The map user positions himself in this reference context by linking his situational place with it as a point on the map – no matter if this only was a virtual place in the medium of the computer game or an imagined place, such as the hike’s place of destination. A particularity of the map being, in this example that it already makes/anticipates this positioning and marks it, in this case represented by the figure. In a traditional, static form this kind of maps - nowadays widespread in navigational systems up to iPhones - is to be found in local maps which facilitate orientation, for instance at tourist “points of interest”. They require that the user’s place is identifiable or they represent, explicitly in the often added statement “You are here”, a basic principle of the map, according to which this place has to be identified with the respective point on the map; with that, this “here” doubles itself – in this respect comparable with the figure that appears on the map in the computer game’s virtual space.
    Rolf F. Nohr has also called the “You are here” positioning of the map user a “strategy of identification” (2001). It becomes evident as such when the call to position oneself is being brought to fail; in a playful PR for the Canadian “Playland” amusement park, for example.

Such playful and virtual displacements of the “here” accentuate distinctions – between here and there, between environment and map, between place and point. Contrary to a seemingly disappearance of space in “cyberspace” or to its identification with the map’s position space, it is such distinctions which are valid outside and inside a virtual “Playland” as well as facing it.

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