Thursday, April 04, 2013

Two Presentations on Gameworld Space

HUMlab will be streaming two presentations on gameworld spaces from the Connecting the Dots: Movement, Space, and the Digital Image conference held at the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH) at the University of Cambridge. The session will be streamed live in HUMlab X (The Arts Campus) as part of the Lunchbox Learnings series.
This is a chance to hear two very interesting papers on game space in the popular games Minecraft and The Sims (see abstracts below) by two well-known scholars: Dr Seth Giddings, new media and game studies lecturer and Programme Leader for Media and Cultural Studies in the Department of Creative Industries from the University of the West of England (co-editor of New Media: a critical introduction (2009), editor of The New Media and Technocultures Reader (2011), and author of Gameworlds: virtual media, everyday life (forthcoming)); and Dr Alan Blackwell, Senior Lecturer in neuroscience and Human Computer Interaction with The Computer Laboratory at the University of Cambridge.

We will be starting a little earlier at 11:15 am on 12th April, Friday, and we will end at about 12:30 pm. Even though this is a streamed session, there will be plenty of chances to ask questions and take part in the discussion.

All welcome!

Useful Links:
Facebook Event:
Website for Connecting the Dots:
Digital Cultures Research Center:
Seth Giddings:
Alan F. Blackwell:


“The Metaphysics of Minecraft”
Alan F. Blackwell
University of Cambridge

Minecraft is a popular computer game of the “sandbox” genre, where players explore and build in a virtual world. The user typically experiences this world as a “first person” view, from the point of view of a virtual avatar. The screen shows an imaginary landscape of hills, grass and trees, or when mining, dirt, gravel, coal and various ores. The player can grasp a variety of tools in his or her virtual hand, and controls these pickaxes or other implements with the computer mouse. The contents of the world may be shared with other players, via one of many Minecraft servers, each of which contains its own virtual world, with the avatars of other players on that server exploring, mining or creating around you.

This kind of virtual world sandbox game is not unusual. Much attention was paid by media and media scholars to the game “Second Life”, originally launched in 2003, 6 years earlier than Minecraft. Second Life also allowed the player to interact with the avatars of other players, explore and create houses or products. But the distinctive nature of Minecraft is the lack of realism in this virtual world. Unlike the animated fantasy world of online games such as Second Life, the graphics of Minecraft have extremely low resolution, looking intentionally crude. The virtual world is constructed of cubic blocks, nominally a metre on each side, meaning that the player can make rapid progress felling blocky trees for timber, digging blocky mines for coal, and assembling blocks into houses, farms or larger structures. Unlike the fine textures of realistic virtual worlds in multiplayer online role-playing games, the large blocks of Minecraft seem like giant digital Lego. Players can rapidly collect building materials and tools for ambitious construction projects, or even deploy an inexhaustible supply of digital blocks in a non-competitive creative mode. Lack of realism results in a system that is democratic and generative to a degree not seen in comparably popular games.

The freedom offered to players extends well beyond facility of movement in the virtual world. The Swedish creator of Minecraft, known as Notch (and his company Mojang), have intentionally allowed fans to decrypt and modify the Java language source code of Minecraft itself. A determined player can substitute new pieces of code for any part of the Minecraft system – a practice described as “modding”. Mods are shared among players, allowing individuals to choose more and more mutated versions of the game world – with different tools, materials, plants, animals or monsters, as well as magic powers for the player. For those without sufficient skill to write Java code, it is still possible to change the world by replacing the block surfaces or the appearance of their own avatars with alternative textures. And where players are inclined to tinkering, it is possible to create automated machinery and gadgets in the Minecraft world itself – using redstone (a fictional kind of semiconductor) with switches, pistons – and even virtual computers inside the computer, that can be programmed in their own simple language to make robots do the mining and building on your behalf.

These facilities reconfigure space in the virtual world of Minecraft in surprisingly profound and reflexive ways. Rather than a literalistic re-construction and re-presentation of “virtual reality”, Minecraft offers a democratised spatial poetics – an Open Work, in the sense defined by Umberto Eco. The boundaries between coal and code are permeable to an extent only previously imagined in the dream allegories of Neuromancer and the Matrix. Minecraft players not only inhabit the worlds of each other’s imaginations, and collaborate to redefine the game they are playing, but blur the bounds between the product itself and their own media culture. They share advice on recipes and mods via active support communities and wikis. But even more prolifically, they use screen recorders to make videos of their avatar playing the game, with voice-over narration explaining their constructions and adventures, or giving advice to new players. Minecraft players may spend as much time watching videos of other people playing as they do playing themselves. And the machinima affordances of the Minecraft world lead to players creating their own homages to popular films such as the Hunger Games, with the original narrative re-located into the block world of Minecraft. As with building and modding, the blocky low resolution is liberating to young creators who could never emulate professional animation standards, but probably didn’t want to. Older players gain YouTube followers by using custom mods or additional animation software to create meta-narratives – postmodern commentaries on the genre and its communities – such as the Egg’s Guide to Minecraft series.
At the time of writing, the emergent media ecology of the Minecraft community is racing ahead of critical commentary. This abstract has attempted to set out the scope of reconfiguration between space and action. But the children currently playing Minecraft seem likely to become a new generation holding radically altered expectations of digital space.


“Sim You Later: at play across virtual and actual space”
Seth Giddings
University of Western England

Current developments in mobile and locative media, and in augmented / mixed reality media (for instance at the Pervasive Media Studio in Bristol) take the permeability of virtual and actual space as a given. Digital space is thought of not as the worlds within worlds of virtual reality or cyberspace as imagined in 1990s, but rather as ‘content’ or experience delivered to – for instance – a smartphone user as they navigate their everyday environments. If the separation or transcendence of the actual lived world was the technological imaginary of virtual reality, then the dissolution of media technology into an augmented everyday is the promise, or dream, of pervasive media.
However the interpenetration or layering of digital and actual space does not dissolve the specific media/technological forms of digital space. Rather we see a mixing or layering of heterogeneous domains, some the quotidian environments of streets, homes and playgrounds, some the intangible domains generated from databases, algorithms and user interfaces, some rendered in the Euclidean geometry of game engines, others in the text-constituted spaces of chat and Twitter. To understand these composite realities, I would argue, we need to pay attention both to the technological nature of digital spaces as software and hardware, and to particular events in which virtual and actual spaces are generated.

The presentation will draw on microethological studies of the play-testing of pervasive media games, and of children’s videogame play across digital and physical gameworlds. Microethology is a theoretical and empirical method of participant observation in intimate events in technoculture. The presentation will suggest key concepts for studying emergent behaviours of, and in, the mixed realities of emergent digital media cultures. It will argue that digital space should be understood in relation to three significant factors:

behaviour – both human and nonhuman;
time – particularly the speculative and iterative time of simulation;
play – both serious and phantasmagorical.

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