Articulating Spaces


I’m going to work towards the argument that thinking about space for the purposes of designing interactive environments can fruitfully be done from an ecological perspective (I shall, of course, explain what I mean by that). Then you’re going to sit down in your groups and collaboratively research some different approaches to spatial articulation in interactive media, with a view to the development of your next submission.

So, what are we on about here?

  • Spaces that are articulate?
  • Different ways of pronouncing the word ‘spaces’?
  • Approaches for you take as designers to somehow communicate senses of a space?

Space and Games

The defining element in computer games is spatiality. Computer games are essentially concerned with spatial representation and negotiation, and therefore the classification of a computer game can be based on how it represents or, perhaps, implements space. More than time (which in most games can be stopped), more than actions, events and goals (which are tediously similar from game to game) and unquestionably more than characterization (which is usually non-existent), games celebrate and explore spatial representation as a central motif and raison d’être. In terms of playability, themes, tasks, subgenres and dramatic structure, nothing much has changed over the last two decades. The innovation takes place in spatial representation, and the genre’s more slowly evolving complexity in the other areas (such as physical simulation) can be seen as a result of the increasing complexity of the spatial representation .

Aarseth, E. (2007). Allegories of Space. in Space time play: computer games, architecture and urbanism eds von Borries, Walz, Böttger, pp.44-47

Types of Game Space

From Boron (A Short History of Digital Gamespaces inSpace Time Play’ eds Friedrich von Borries, Steffen P. Walz and Matthias Böttger, Birkhäuser, 2007, pp. 26-32):

  • Text (Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, 1984)
  • Contained 2D (Space Invaders, 1978)
  • Wrap-around (Asteroids, 1979)
  • Scrolling (Spyhunter, 1985)
  • 2-axis scrolling (SimCity, 1989)
  • Adjacent spaces (Berzerk, 1980)
  • Scrolling with multiple layers (Double Dragon, 1987)
  • Limited 3D (Tempest, 1980)
  • Isometric (Zaxxon, 1982)
  • A Window (Duck Hunt, 1985)
  • Two Spaces, One Screen (Spy vs Spy, 1984)
  • Video Capture (Mortal Kombat, 1992)
  • Mapped – pre-rendered Panorama (Myst, 1993)
  • Early 3D (Wolfenstein, 1992)
  • Full 3D (Half-life 2, 2004, and so on)

Is it all just technological progression?

Given the list above, it might be tempting to think of game-space as being driven just by the increasing power of computational resources and, thus, to evaluate games solely in terms of some notion of realism. Is this reasonable?

Consider the following from Gaston Bachelard:

“Rilke wrote: ‘These trees are magnificent, but even more magnificent is the sublime and moving space between them, as though with their growth it too increased.”(Bachelard, Poetics of Space, Beaccon, 1958, p. 201)

In the Poetics of Space Bachelard is, in part, inviting architects to re-consider how their designs relate to users’ experience by encouraging reference to formative, intimate spaces (attics, cellars) rather than formal abstractions. Does the same apply to game designers?

The quotation of a quotation above is useful as it prompts us to consider game spaces on two fronts – poetically (‘the sublime’: what does this space evoke? ), and kinetically (‘moving space’: reminding us that, above all, we are concerned with dynamics).

Both these aspects are useful, I feel, as they allow us to consider and assess qualities of game-space that side-step ‘newer must be better perspectives’. After all, it is possible to create a dazzling, but dull – or objectionable – game. Can you think of any?


So, the poetics give one sense in which to consider what might be meant by articulating. In its most general sense we could consider this in analytical terms of how it is that designers approach the design of a space that prompts evocation, such that players fill in the aesthetic-gaps. Much like literature, perhaps…

What might the idea of ‘show, don’t tell’ involve in a gaming context?

There is a further sense to ‘articulating’, however: the act of making a join between things.

  • A join between physical and virtual bodies?

The controller as physical extension. The idea of remote presence…

My body is wherever there is something to be done (Merleau-Ponty)

Given a suitable degree of engagement, to what extent is the controller separate from the ‘real’ body. To what extent are the bodies separate.

  • A join between physical and virtual worlds?

Following this train of thought, we can consider that the worlds themselves might also join. That is, we’re not considering just our virtual space in the abstract, but always in conjunction with an actual set of material, social, historical circumstances.

a hybrid network […] places side by side the analogue and the digital, the physical hand skills of actual materials and the organisational and algorithmic skills of digital materials in ways that test the boundaries of sound’s existence for us. This seeming backward step from the grand vision of ever more sophisticated digital engagement presents as a stocktaking of how technologies and humans can interact. If […] sound arises out of the presence and materiality of space, this hybrid network of the analogue and the digital presents not as an opposition, but as a recognition that stories matter in the construction of space.

Peter Nelson (2015). The Materiality of Space. Organised Sound, 20(3), 323–330.

Game Ecologies

What’s fruitful about the questions above (I think) is that they prompt us to recall that interaction takes place between things. An object isn’t interactive per se, but concrete examples of its usage may be. For more on this idea, perhaps see Lucy Suchman’s Human-Machine Reconfigurations (2007).

When we get into thinking about interaction in this way, the notion of an ecology makes sense: it gives us an optic to consider things in terms of their (dynamic) relationships.


In particular, the idea of affordances are helpful. An affordance is to do with the usefulness of some thing in the environment, but not in the abstract, but given an actual being in an actual context. What is afforded by something is a matter of the particular organism and their needs in that place at that time. For instance, a stick might afford self-defence, heat, or part of a shelter.

(The idea comes from James Gibson’s Ecological Psychology…)

In the context of artificial interactive environments,  is this a useful way to think about how certain aspects of our virtual space might be highlighted in order to prompt or suggest possibilities for action by players?

Critique 1: Immersion

Thinking through the above idea about joining the real and virtual worlds opens up some space to be critical of some conventional wisdom concerning interactive environments.

For instance, tempting though it might be, is it wise to assess game spaces in terms of ‘immersion’? Is this really the quality that matters?
We do not relate to bodies in virtual worlds (or in cinema for that matter) in the same way that we relate to our own corporeality. For one thing, we tend not to care too much about dying and we do not experience pain through our avatar: these phenomena are experienced as representation, not as embodied, subjective experience. In this light, the ways in which players are ‘embodied’ within game environments are so unlike our everyday form of embodiment that we might question whether this kind of language is appropriate at all.

Farrow, Robert, and Ioanna Iacovides. (2013. ‘Gaming and the Limits of Digital Embodiment’. Philosophy & Technology 27 (2): 221–33. doi:10.1007/s13347-013-0111-1.)

In other words, to insist on the embodiment of virtual selves is to express an ideal rather than an actuality. As such, we should consider what motivates that ideal: is there a politics of virtual embodiment?

Critique 2: Space

I’ve avoided bringing up the notion of what we might mean by ‘space’. Is it even useful? Consider this critique:

Of all the terms we use to describe the world we inhabit, [space] is the most abstract, the most empty, the most detached from the realities of life and experience. Biologists say that living organisms inhabit environments not space, and whatever else they may be, human beings are certainly organisms.

Tim Ingold (2009). Against space: Place, movement, knowledge. Boundless Worlds: An Anthropological Approach to Movement, 29–43.


[space is] neither a mere ‘frame’, after the fashion of the frame of a painting, nor a form or container of a virtually neutral kind, designed simply to receive whatever is poured into it. Space is a social morphology: it is to lived experience what form itself is to the living organism, and just as intimately bound up with function and structure.

Henri Lefebvre, (1991) The Production of Space

So, there’s a tension here between the notion of space as an abstract concept, a container, and as something that purports to describe the set of material conditions and changing affordances that establish our context for meaningful, effective action. One approach might be to distinguish between these noitons by introducing a notion of place:

Re-Place-ing Space: The Roles of Place and Space in Collaborative Systems
Steve Harrison* and Paul Dourish 1996:

 Space is the structure of the world; it is the three-dimensional environment, in which objects and events occur, and in which they have relative position and direction. The properties of space are those which derive from that definition, as we showed above. We argued that features of space have been exploited by system developers in the attempt to regain the sense of appropriate behavioural framing which we observe and encounter in the real world. However, in everyday action, this appropriate behavioural framing comes not from a sense of space, but from a sense of place. Our key principle describes the relationship between the two: Space is the opportunity; place is the understood reality.

It’s no accident that these experimental audio-video environments are called Media Spaces, not Media Places. Placeness is created and sustained by patterns of use; it’s not something we can design in. On the other hand, placeness is what we want to support; we can design for it. Media spaces were intended to provide the structure from which placeness could arise, just as places arise out of the space around us. They were not designed as places themselves, but for people to make places in them.

Steve Harrison and Paul Dourish, Re-Place-ing Space: The Roles of Place and Space in Collaborative Systems, 1996

Work time

Get into your project groups, and think about the possible representations of space in your on-going collaborative work.

  • What are the primary relationships at work that can be communicated to players with your assets?
  • How might features of your design (sonic, architectural, semiotic) promote engagement with your manifestation of Calvino’s narratives?
  • What precedents from existing games can you find to illustrate your evolving ideas? Come up with at least one each.


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