Buchrezension: Espen Aarseth, Stephan Günzel (Eds.): Ludotopia – Spaces, Places and Territories in Computer Games.

With the ongoing academic spatial turn, research about the spatiality of digital games has become more prominent in the last years (Schrape 2019: 245). Ludotopia offers a collection of different works and viewpoints on the spatiality of digital games, and its approach is to explore the ‘dialectic entanglement’ (Günzel 2019: 8) of games and space. The volume contains various articles divided into three main chapters: spaces, places, and territories.

Disclaimer: transcript has provided us with a copy for review purposes.

Editors 

Prof. Dr. Espen Aareseth (1965) is a professor for games studies and Head of Research at the Center for Computer Games Research, director of the Games Program at IT University of Copenhagen, and is also Editor-In-Chief of Game Studies, the oldest peer-reviewed journal in the field. His approach of understanding games as ergodic literature is as of yet one of the most influential theoretical and analytical angles on video game research. The following topics are part of his research: games and narrative, games and addiction, and the relation between digital games and geographical space. More information is available here: game.itu.dk/members/espen-aarseth.

Prof. Dr. Stephan Günzel (1971) is currently a guest professor for media science at TU Berlin. Numerous lectures, editorships, and publications on the subject of space prove that he is one of the leading experts in this field. In 2014 he founded the first bachelor program for Game Design at a private university in Berlin. Central subjects of his research are game design, media theory, picture history, and philosophy. For further information: www.stephan-guenzel.de.

Background 

The volume contains contributions from participants of two Ludotopia workshops, as well as from additional authors. The first workshop took place at University of Copenhagen in 2010 and the second in 2011 at University of Salford in Machester. The Digital Games Research Center at the University of Potsdam cooperated in the organisation for both events. (Günzel 2019: 8)  

Structure and content 

The three spatial subtopics are structured in the following chapters:

I. Spaces 

II. Places 

III. Territories 

The whole table of contents is available here

The Introduction of Ludotopia starts with the statement that the debate about space and digital games is older than the acknowledgement of game studies as a field of research, because of the ‘dialectic entanglement’ of games and space (Günzel 2019: 19). The neologism ‘ludotopia’ expresses an intricate connection between ludus and topos. As Stephan Günzel emphasises, ‘ludus’, contrary to the well-reknowned distinction in ludus and paidia by Roger Caillois, does etymologically entail games as well as free forms of play. topos then entails an understanding of space as relational, meaning that “any experience of space, in games as well in real life, is rooted in a relation to location(s) or an activity transforming places.” (Günzel 2019: 9) Regarding the fundamental conceptualisation of space, Günzel follows Martin Heidegger’s idea that „spaces receive their being from locations.“ (1997: 105) This means that space begins to exist within the boundaries of a room. A room in this sense is a place which is freed of wilderness and fit for the human need of dwelling. (Heidegger 1971: 105) Reciting Michel de Certeau, Günzel also argues for an understanding of space as a “practiced place.” (2019: 8) Accordingly, a place is transformed into a space by virtue of being interacted with. (de Certeu 1988: 218)

After this short introduction to the term Ludotopia and the theories behind it, Günzel summarises each chapter and the articles they contain. Considering the diversity of approaches presented in the volume, each article will only briefly be addressed here to offer an impression of the main subjects.

I. Space 

  • The first chapter starts with Stephan Günzel’s article What Do They Represent? Computer Games as Spatial Concepts, in which he proposes an understanding of games as an exemplification of ‘spatial concepts’ and according enactments. Günzel presents different games their corresponding expression of space. 
  • Stephan Schwingeler’s article Playing with Sight. Construction of Perspective in Videogames applies an art historical perspective and terminology for the analysis of perspectives in modern video games. 
  • In From Background to Proganist. Spatial Concepts in ‚Portal‘ and ‚Echocrome‘ Karla Teilhaber focuses on how the connection between avatar movement and camera movement actively creates space.
  • In The Art of Being There. Artistic Practices of Presence in Narrative Media Teun Dubbelman presents two different ways of creating the narrative of a game: presentation and re-presentation. One mode lets the player experience a narration through their own eyes via a first person perspective and the other mediates the narrative via an on screen-avatar. 
  • The chapter ends with Space and Narrative in Computer by Sebastian Domsch. Mostly focusing on Henry Jenkin’s work on environmental storytelling, he discusses ways of telling a story in and through space and how the player experiences it.

II. Places 

  • The second chapter starts with Espen Aarseth’s Ludoforming. Changing Actual, Historical or Fictional Topographies into Ludic Topologies. He presents ways of transforming a present, gone, or imagined landscape into a ludic space—which he calls ludoforming. He also discusses, if this process has a certain uniqueness that can’t be found in non-ludic spatial transformation. 
  • Daniel Vellas’ There’s no Place like Home. Dwelling and Being at Home in Digital Games uses a phenomenological perspective on what space is. Case studies about Animal Crossing and Minecraft are used for a better understanding of what ‘being-at-home’ in a digital game means.
  • In his paper Videogame Wastelands as (Non-Places) and ‘Any-Space-Whatevers’ Souvik Mukherjee applies Marc Augé’s concept of ‘non-places’ and ‘Any-Space-Whatevers’ by Deleuze on wastelands to games like S.T.A.L.K.E.R. and Fallout 3. The article “explores the experience of wasteland spaces,” their appeal to gamers, and their relationship to „the experience of game spaces in general.“ (Mukherjee 2019: 168)
  • The Game and the Stack. The Infrastructural Pleasures of ‘Pokémon Go‘ by Bjarke Liboriussen applies the six-tiered stack model by Benjamin Bratton to Pokémon Go. The goal is then to evaluate new analytic frameworks for a better understanding of the relation between modern gaming in the urban space and daily life.
  • The chapter ends with Michael Nitsche’sNo End of Worlds, in which he argues for a change in the understanding of the relationship between physical play space and digital game space, as well as how one affects the other. Part of his argument is the ‘hybrid space’ living rooms have turned into and the ‘boundless cross-media view’ augmented reality games offer.

III. Territories 

  • The third and final chapter starts with Mathias Fuchs and his article Itineraria Picta – Iternaria Scripta, which connects antique ways of orientation, wayfinding, and creation of maps to modern video games. For example, he compares the celestial map by Fredrik de Wit with the map in Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City. He also discusses the absence of a bodily presence in locative games—like Pokémon Go, in which the player has no visible body when encountering a Pokémon—and their rediscovery in videogames. 
  • Sebastian Möring presents his approach to a definition of ‘play space’ in Distance and Fear. Defining the Play Space. He claims that the ‘game space’ is a fundamental requirement to play a game, which is perpetuated by the fear of losing a game. (Möring 2019: 242) He sees the connection between fear and play already rooted in Huizinga’s observation that the words ‘agon’ (contest) and ‘agonia’ (death-struggle and fear) are closely related. Coming from a Heideggerian perspective, which connects fear with proximity since the fearful/harmful is near, he uses proxemics to further define the play space.  
  • Lotman’s Spatial Semantics as a Method for Analysing Videogames by Niklas Schrapefollows the main question “How can game space work as a rhetorical device?” (2019: 245) via a theoretical narratological approach and the exemplary analysis of Global-Conflicts: Palestine. He uses the exploration of spatial semantics by Lotman as a method for rhetorical analysis, which enables him to analyze the spatial structure of a game as a ‘generator’ for various plots. 
  • The next article is Paul Martin’s Morphology and meaning in ‚Castle Wolfenstein 3D’, in which Martin analyses how level 6-3 of Castle Wolfenstein 3D articulates meaning. He approaches the question by applying two different, yet connected perspectives: the game space as a cartographic image and a traversable space.
  • The last article, Combinatorial Explorations. A Brief History of Procedurally-Generated Space in Videogames by Mark J.P. Wolf, guides the reader through the history of procedurally generated space in digital games. Starting with the randomly generated stars in Spacewar, Wolf shows the evolution of procedurally generated spaces and their inner workings from early games like Rogue to recent titles such as Minecraft. The article ponders arguments for why modern games tend to move in the direction of procedurally generated space and why handcrafted content is still essential.

Discussion 

Splitting the topic in three major subchapters effectively aids in navigating through the book. While the distinct subchapters are clearly indicated, a brief introduction to each subchapter would have helped in understanding the differing terms of spaces, places, and territories and why each article is placed in one section and not the other. Since the term ‘space’ is used in all articles regardless of the subchapter they belong to, the structure overall appears slightly artificial.
Some, yet not all of the articles clearly articulate their aim, method and conclusion. A structural consistency throughout the book would have benefited the reading experience. Mostly, this criticism is outweighed by the fact that each article exemplifies central ideas by applying them to games. Said examples include precisely selected screenshots, which render even the more advanced contributions accessible.

Conclusion

Ludotopia is a mirror of the ongoing spatial turn in academia and in the field of game studies, because it collects a huge variety of viewpoints and research interests. Because of the stand-alone articles it is useable for university teaching as well as a reference work for research and journalism.

Notes 

CfP: Ludotopia – Workshop on Spaces, Places and Territories in Computer Games at the IT-University Copenhagen, 27-29 May 2010. URL: https://www.transcript-verlag.de/978-3-8376-4730-3/ludotopia/. Last visited on 19.01.2019.

de Certeau, M. (1988). Kunst des Handelns. Berlin: Merve Verlag GmbH.

Günzel, S. (2019). Introduction. In E. Aarseth & S. Günzel (Eds.), Ludotopia: Spaces, Places, and Territories in Computer Games (1. Edition., p. 7–13). Bielefeld: Transcript-Verlag.

Heidegger, M. (1997). Building, Dwelling, Thinking. In N. Leach (Eds.), Rethinking Architecture (Sociolinguistics) (p. 121–124). Hove: Psychology Press.

Möring, S. (2019). Distance and Fear – Defining the Play Space. In E. Aarseth & S. Günzel (Eds.), Ludotopia: Spaces, Places, and Territories in Computer Games (1. Edition., p. 231–245). Bielefeld: Transcript-Verlag.

Mukherjee, S. (2019). Videogame Wasteland as (Non-)Places and ‘Any-Space-Whatevers’. In E. Aarseth & S. Günzel (Eds.), Ludotopia: Spaces, Places, and Territories in Computer Games (1. Edition., p. 167–185). Bielefeld: Transcript-Verlag.

Schrape, N. (2019). The Rhetoric of Game Space – Lotmans Spatial Semantics as a Method for Analysing Videogames. In E. Aarseth & S. Günzel (Eds.), Ludotopia: Spaces, Places, and Territories in Computer Games (1. Edition., p. 245–271). Bielefeld: Transcript-Verlag.

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Tobias Klös (tk), M.A. Erziehungs- und Bildungswissenschaft.

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