Spatial Awareness, Immersion, Virtual Identities, and the Language of Navigation

In my previous posts, I’ve defined narrative space as seen through Stephen Heath, Mark Cooper, and other notable authors. When referring to narrative space, I like to look at it like an equation. Consisting of space, time, and narrative, these variables are typically ever-changing. Through the quantitative studies of Magliano, Miller, and Zwaan, we were able to conclude that this definition of narrative space can not only be applied to novels and film, but also video games. When I say “video games,” I am purposefully being indirect. Video games can include not only typical console and PC games, but also virtual, augmented, and alternate reality games. In later posts, I will talk further about these alternative gaming methods and how they employ narrative space, but for now, let’s talk about the title of this post.

Spatial awareness is imperative to our everyday life. Even when you close your eyes, you still have a sense of place about you. Those with difficulty may find themselves frequently getting lost, needing directions multiple times, or misplacing their everyday items. Some, however, are born with a heightened sense of space. Personally, I always know what cardinal direction I’m facing at all times. When I dream of places I know, they can appear entirely different because north and south have switched in my mind. Two identical hotel rooms can look entirely different to me depending on what direction they are facing. You get the picture–some people are extremely visual. But no matter your level of spatial awareness, you’re always capable of feeling immersed in an environment, be it virtual or real. Let’s start with real life. How does exploring our environment affect us?

David Crouch explores how people interact with the spatial world in Spatialities and the feeling of doing (2001), and interprets how these interactions help humankind to make sense of space. Through a qualitative, twelve-week, ethnographic investigation of recreational caravanning in the UK, three researchers explored the space in which caravanning happens. They discovered that these people felt free. Their bodies were expressing themselves emotionally and imaginatively through self-discovery and fellowship, all the while escaping the “humdrum” of city life. It is concluded that spaces, and their contexts, are embodied through subjective human engagement; creating spatialities through self-identification and negotiation; and constant reconfiguration and relearning of a surrounding space. What does this mean to us? It means that your surrounding environment can determine your quality of life and how you approach it. When exploring a new, safe space, your mind is as free to wander farther inward as you are outward. Being confined to the same space every day may not only depress you, but it could hobble your creativity, potential identity, and cognitive efforts. Exploring a new space keeps your mind fresh and ready (maybe even excited) for the unexpected.

Let’s be realistic, though. There aren’t many safe, cheap, accessible places left to explore in the real world. Most of us are forced to stay in one place. Traveling isn’t always an option. You may not be able to physically run away from your everyday life, but people explore new environments in video games everyday. Perhaps we can apply these freeing and engaging ideas to virtual environments? But we have to stay honest with ourselves. Video games are obviously not nearly as immersive as real-life space. But that doesn’t mean they’re ineffective. Let’s take a look at what James Ash has to say about screens and virtual environments.

In his article, Emerging spatialities of the screen: video games and the reconfiguration of spatial awareness (2009), he argues the different spatialities of screens using established research on the technologies. While the space can be studied by what the projected images represent, Ash takes an alternative approach by studying the function of the images themselves. Using video games as the main example (Call of Duty 4, specifically), the article identifies the relationship between the screen, the player, and the immersion that follows. It is argued that video games are a great illustration for his argument, because examples like paintings, maps, film, etc. offer a representation of reality. Video games, however, offer their very own form of reality. Ash talks about how the screen presents an extension of our spatial universe without having to actually move within the real world. This produces a different mode of sensing our environment by reconfiguring the relationship between seeing and touching. He concludes by noting that screened images reform the body’s senses to allow new realities, which skew spatial awareness. So, essentially, video games kinda fake our brain into believing we’re somewhere else. We can trick our own spatial awareness through virtual means. Have you ever gotten vertigo from jumping off a cliff in a video game? Does your mom get motion sick when she plays Mario Kart? It’s all a part of how screens, controllers, and virtual environments affect our understanding of our current environment.

So how can these virtual spaces affect the viewer’s immersion? Some video games are clearly more immersive than others. What about their narrative space is unique or engaging? Perhaps it has something to do with the characters we role play? Marco Caracciolo addresses this in his essay, The Reader’s Virtual Body: Narrative Space and Its Reconstruction (2011). He aims to emphasize a player or reader’s projection of themselves into a virtual body, and the function that projection has within narrative space. Using quantitative case studies, he argues that there are varying degrees of fictionalization of this virtual body, each of which has its own role in the manipulation of narrative space. He concludes that the more fictionalized the reader becomes, and the more connected he is with the virtual body, the less cognitive effort is needed for the reader to absorb himself into the setting and story (or narrative space), facilitating the reader’s construction of mental images. These mental images, he argues, are not the final role of the virtual body, but in fact a means to an end. Simply put, they are used to understand and interpret a given fictional text through immersion, allowing the reader to construct more meaning and significance. A good comparison is the difference between the Final Fantasy and Elder Scrolls franchises. In the former, characters are created for you. You play someone else. While in Skyrim, however, you create the character entirely from scratch. Which is more immersive? Which is more fictionalized? It’s really difficult to say. They simply use narrative space in different ways, and either can be argued as being more engaging. I’ll expand on this more in later posts.

Virtual bodies are not the only way to immerse a player or a reader, though. Tolkien’s work has immersed many fans before video games of his worlds were even created. Much like Caracciolo describes, in-depth fictionalization causes immersion, and Tolkien provides plenty of that through the environment of Middle Earth alone. In the article Tolkien’s imaginary nature: An analysis of the structure of Middle Earth (2005), Michael Brisbois breaks down the natural world of Tolkien’s environments. He emphasizes the importance of landscape and ecology within Middle Earth, while also discussing how these are related to culture. Within the books, Samwise Gamgee states (while talking about the Elves), “they seem to belong here, more even than Hobbits do in the Shire. Whether they’ve made the land, or the land’s made them, it’s hard to say” (p. 197). This is to imply that much like how time, space, and narrative are always connected, nature and culture cannot be separated either. Brisbois goes on to separate fictionalized nature into two categories: passive and active. He then breaks these categories down even further, concluding that the use of these groupings will help scholars “perceive a greater meaning in fantasy literature, beyond a mere melodrama of good versus evil” (p. 214-215). We’ll save that for another time, however. Let’s go back to virtual worlds, and the identities we create within them.

Like David Crouch stated earlier, exploring a new environment in real life can cause us to re-think and re-evaluate our own identities. The environments we encounter mold and shape us into who we are today. If we stay in one place, we’ll likely stay the same type of person. Our fictionalized, virtual bodies that Caracciolo identifies are directly similar to this. Our real identity is to our real world as our virtual identity is to the virtual world. Seems obvious, right? I could do an entire other blog on how we choose and shape our virtual identities, but the theory is essentially the same. Our environments, real and virtual, affect our behavior and what we think of our own selves.

There is one more element to immersion which I would like to address in this post. Movement. Most of what I’ve described can be applied to media other than video games. People can become lost in books. Movies can take you to another realm. But in each of these, your movement throughout the narrative is fixed. You cannot decide where to go next, you’re simply there for the ride. In virtual environments, and even real life narratives (have you ever experienced a unique museum exhibit?), you can be in total control of where you go. In fact, many genres are defined by just how you move through the game itself. Platformer? FPS? Whatever the heck Flower is?

Bernadette Flynn calls this a language. In Languages of navigation within computer games (2003), she points out that while many ludologists analyze narrative and mechanics within games, the actual movement and navigation throughout the game’s space is rarely discussed. It is the purpose of Flynn’s paper to argue, through literature survey and content analysis, that navigation throughout a video game embodies its own language. Drawing from Harvey’s spatial models and from examples such as Myst, Final Fantasy, and Balder’s Gate, Flynn claims that narrative is not even necessary to explore a world. While each story is a travel-story through space, not every space needs to have a story. In the video game examples provided, narrative may be an important piece, but the movement throughout the represented space acts as the organization for the experience that takes place. Players may drop their usual motives that take them through the game, and replace them with a curiosity to explore the attractions and terrain before them. It is concluded that the language of navigation acts through the player’s agency, allowing different kinds of consciousness and perception of the game space.

I love this. This is so true, and so often overlooked. For me, this is the most immersive element of any story, and that is why video games are my favorite medium. When I played Skyrim for the first time, I got to level 16 before I even started an actual quest. I spent those first levels exploring. To be entirely honest, I somehow ended up in Blackreach and refused to leave until I had explored it all… but I did not feel like I was missing out.

To summarize, narrative space is an essential element of any medium, particularly video games. Whether it is experienced through technology or real life, the environments around us affect our mood, behaviors, and identities. Our own awareness can be skewed into believing that the virtual is real, and the effects grow even stronger. So if travel isn’t an option for you, try picking up a good sandbox or open-world game. Or if you’re feeling particularly adventurous… try out alternative technologies such as virtual and augmented reality. These will be discussed in my next post. Stay tuned, and thanks for reading!

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4 thoughts on “Spatial Awareness, Immersion, Virtual Identities, and the Language of Navigation

  1. I’m interested to know your thoughts on how video games might function as an extension of NON-fictional environments, too. To return to the example of Call of Duty 4, the game clearly references the “real world” combat experience. But what exactly is the relationship between the two? Does the game side of the equation help us think more critically about combat, or does it distance us from it? Does it completely depend on the user, and how s/he navigates or reads the narrative? Is there some aspect of the user experience that is determined by the game mechanics?

    Fantastic post.

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