Computer Game Spaces: An Interview with Georgia Tech’s Michael Nitsche (Part One)

For a while there, it looked like the debate between the ludologists (who focus on game play mechanics) and the narratologists (who focus on storytelling) was going to define the range of perspectives in games studies. As someone who was falsely labeled a narratologist for a bit, I found this model of the field constraining and distorting. Now, of course, we’ve seen an explosion of different perspectives in the academic study of computer and video games. One of the most promising approaches emphasizes the spatial dimensions of game design, a topic which was, in fact, the real focus of my own early writing on games (and not coincidentally a recurring focus of the work of Espen Aardseth, a card-carrying Ludologist), suggesting that space is not only the final frontier but also the common ground of many of the first generation of game scholars.

Michael Nitsche, a games researcher at the Georgia Institute of Technology (better known as Georgia Tech), has written a significant new book, Video Game Spaces: Image, Play, and Structure in 3D Worlds (MIT Press, 2008) which sums up what we can learn about games by examining them as spatial systems. His writing is informed not only by work in games studies but also from media studies, performance studies, urban planning and architecture. As he discusses in the interview below, this work has been informed by his work with the Digital World and Image Group at Georgia Tech.

I had a chance to visit Nitsche and his colleagues down in Atlanta late last fall and came away tremendously impressed by the spirit of collaboration and exploration which exists within that particular academic community. The Georgia Tech folks are doing cutting edge work across many different research areas. I am lucky enough to have Michael’s colleague, Ceila Pierce, presenting the opening colloquium this term, sharing her work on the construction of fictional ethnic identities within multiplayer game worlds.

Here and next time, Nitsche shares some thoughts about the theoretical stakes of thinking about games space.

You come to this book both as a game designer and as a game theorist. How have the two perspectives informed each other here? To what degree do you see your design work as a mode of experimentation with the basic building blocks of games as a medium? Can you describe for us some of the projects you’ve worked? How does work with games done in research centers differ from the kind of work which occurs within commercial games companies? What value do you think university-based game research brings to the evolution of games as a medium?

Most examples in the book are drawn from commercial video games but it does include a wide range of research projects, too – including some of my own practical experiments. We need these experimental game projects to fill in the gaps left by commercial titles.

Commercial video games have to make money and they often have to be streamlined and optimized to reach that target – university-based games research projects have all kinds of limitations but they thankfully do not have to sell. This allows us to explore some of the more complicated areas that commercial games have to avoid to stay afloat.

My own work has always been a mixture of theory and practice but I have to admit that I somehow lack a single direction in the experiments I have conducted. I have worked on educational virtual environments, procedural game spaces, virtual and mixed media performance spaces, augmented reality prototypes, and these days I start to experiment with location-based handheld applications. In my case these experiments are truly explorative. They start off with a relatively simple question and snowball into more and more challenging test beds. While a commercial game production has to streamline the design at that point and focus on the core, research projects remain free to explore. I like that – a lot.

At Georgia Tech we are used to testing theory and analysis in such an experimental set up. So, shortly after I joined the faculty here, I started the Digital World & Image Group. One of our first major projects was Charbitat, an experimental game that creates a 3D world around the virtual player depending on how you play the game. First, we focused on the question of procedural space generation and how to design for these new and dynamic worlds. But once we had the functional prototype up and running, we moved on to look into procedural quest generation, dynamic camera control and patterns to support spatial navigation in infinite worlds – all based on the original game prototype. Any commercial developer would have cut this additional research, which is why this kind of gradual experimental discovery is only possible in a non-commercial environment. This certainly does not mean that academics should tell developers how to create their games, but it shows that research projects can offer additional information because they are free to explore venues that are locked off by deadlines and budgets in commercial production.

Other areas are not covered by commercial games, yet. For example, I am very interested in game worlds as performance spaces where players do not play to achieve certain high scores but instead to express something effectively. Consequently, some of my projects deal with virtual puppetry or augmented reality performance spaces.

I also have done quite a lot of work in machinima. The industry might recognizes the promise in these areas but it is simply not clear how these ideas might work out in a viable single application. So here the university-based research project can break completely new ground.

Many accounts of game theory have emphasized the tension between ludological approaches, which focus on game play mechanics, and narratological approaches, which focus on story telling. Does a focus on game spaces give us a different way of thinking about the relations between these two approaches?

I believe it does. Space is certainly not the single answer to all of our problems but it surely predates play as well as narrative. We learn how to deal with space before we start to tell stories or play games. If we translate this into video games, space becomes a higher category, one that can include narrative qualities as well as ludic ones.

I started to look into expressive 3D game spaces around 1999, when I began my studies at the University of Cambridge’s Department of Architecture. This was just around the time the debate about narratology and ludology heated up. We did a lot of work with video but I felt somewhat shielded from the divide because even in the darkest controversies nobody ever argued against the importance of space in games. From where I was standing, you had to ask whether there is really a substantial divide at all between ludology and narratology. For me, both become part of how we deal with spaces and are not opposites but complementary to each other.

In the book I talk about Story Maps, a form of imaginary map that we form in our mind as we play our way through a virtual environment. These maps are shaped by what we do in the game world as well as how the action it told through various forms of presentation in sound and image. Sure, there is a strong narrative element in these maps but they can only be created when the game is played. So I could never really fully see the divide because my work seemed to be right in the middle of this discussion without conflicting with either.

A key goal throughout the book has been to map the many different devices that shape the player’s perception and experience of games space. What value is such a catalog to the game designer? What do you see as some of the under-developed opportunities in the creation of expressive game spaces?

Game Studies has covered a lot of ground and opened up a wide range of approaches, which is good. What I suggest is a combination of different fields. That is why the book references various disciplines from architecture to film, to drama and literature studies.

Game designers very often use these and other references already as they collect ideas and inspirations. They do this often intuitively and this book might help to stimulate this messy process and provide an additional perspective.

Any designer worth their salt is aware of the fundamental role of a video game such as Mario 64 for the way we design games today; this book offers an additional view at some details regarding these innovations specifically for 3D game worlds. It does not suggest a single solution or a unique missed opportunity but instead discusses a range of available options by looking at the underlying basics.

For example, the whole argument of the book is built on the idea that game worlds are not simply polygon masses arranged in a certain way in the engine. Instead, we should look into different layers where game spaces come to life. These include the play space in the living room of the player, as well as the fictional and mediated spaces generated by the presentation and the imagination of the player. The rule-based level is only one of five layers for game space analysis. The task, then, is to find the connections between the different layers. New interfaces such as the Wii remote or webcams are good examples for these connections. They put much more emphasis on the world in front of the screen. But what can we make of this expansion into the physical space? Among other things, the book invites us to think about ways these connections into the living room can be made more effectively.

Throughout the book, you draw heavily on ideas from architecture and urban planning. What do these fields have to contribute to games studies?

There are some obvious parallels, such as the relevance of urban planning for the design of free-roaming game worlds or the way architectural styles are copied in video games. However, I would argue that we have to look a bit deeper to identify more fundamental parallels.

One example for a more direct connection is the way we read large-scale environments no matter whether it is a real world like my hometown or a virtual one like an online world. We gradually form a cognitive map based on certain key features and navigate through the world based on this map. Architectural theorists like Alexander or Lynch have done extremely valuable work in precisely this area and a range of research projects has shown that the same ideas apply to virtual environments.

However, games offer different means to accentuate a players’ development of a cognitive map. Designers have full control over the space and the possible actions in it and use it to dramatize the experience. That is why we also have to take theatrical spaces into account.

Most virtual worlds are designed not for a “live-like” experience but for overly dramatic ones. These game worlds would fall short if they would provide “only” realistically functioning virtual cities. Instead, they have to deliver virtual stages, full or extraordinary events and opportunities that are not available in real world designs. That is why we have to add these dramatic functions to the architectural ones and combine dramatic moments with cognitive maps.

Likewise, architecture is very helpful in the discussion of specific spatial structures, such as paths, arenas, or labyrinths. They clearly reflect and reference existent architectural structures but we have to add the game specific elements that usually enhance their dramatic impact. The labyrinths of Doom or Silent Hill are not just navigable virtual architectures but the actively put the player into a highly engaging dramatic situation.

The video game world tells the player where she is projecting her actions. It positions the player via spatial means and uses references to architecture and urban planning. At the same time, it is a dramatic positioning. Players do not enter a game world as a neutral observer or visiting tourists but as cops staged in the middle of a gang war, a superhero with the power to destroy or rescue Metropolis, a lost soul that only tries to escape and survive.

These options are embedded in the game world’s architecture, its presentation, and its functionality. Urban planning, architecture and performance studies help us to balance and connect these features better.

Michael Nitsche is an Assistant Professor at the School of Literature, Communication,

and Culture at the Georgia Institute of Technology where he teaches courses on virtual

environments and digital moving images. Michael heads the Digital World and Image Group, which works the design, use, and production of virtual spaces, Machinima, and the borderlines between games, film, and performance. His work combines theoretical analysis and practical experiments and his collaborations include work with the National Film and Television School London, Sony Computer Entertainment Europe, Turner Broadcasting, Alcatel Lucent, and others. He is author of Video Game Spaces: Image, Play, and Structure in 3D Worlds (MIT Press, 2008), and has published on Game Studies, virtual worlds, digital performance, games and film, and machinima in numerous publications. In a former life he was co-author for a commercial videogame, professional Improv actor, and dramaturgist.