How Guy Debord can help us understand videogames

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When researching my thesis, I looked at quite a few theories and theorists of space, place, and geography. Perhaps the most interesting discovery I made last year, however, was Guy Debord and the Lettrist International’s concept of psychogeography. Debord was a French Marxist who found influence in the ’60s, largely due to a fascinating book called Society of the Spectacle. He was also probably more than a little alcoholic, and ended up shooting himself in 1994.

So what can a dead continental philosopher tell us about videogames?

Psychogeography might sound perhaps more than a little like senseless jargon, and certainly, Debord biographer Vincent Kaufman remarks “This apparently serious term, ‘psychogeography’ comprises an art of conversation and drunkenness, and everything leads us to believe that Debord excelled at both.” But there is something there, underneath the admitted humour that I imagine the term has been treated with in the past.

According to Debord himself, “Psychogeography could set for itself the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals.” To me, then, this seems like a perfect encapsulation of an approach to level design. The space of videogames is often consciously organised in order to convey game rules and strategies as well as fiction in an organic fashion. Designers, it seems, may seek to influence gameplay and player behaviour through the design of space, as I have argued before on this blog.

The design of the environment of a First Person Shooter is intended to influence player behaviour within the modes of play presented by the game: kill without being seen. Move without being followed. The player that is best at reading the environment will have an intrinsic advantage over others. This is made even more obvious in games that are highly linear; I’ve used Portal as an example a thousand times, but I’ll use it again – the game space in that game is designed explicitly to engineer specific responses, feelings and strategies from the player. Getting the fully powered-up portal gun is a case-in-point: the design of the level moves the player in a circular motion around the device so that it becomes the focus of the space and the play. Finally, when the puzzle is completed, players only approach the gun via a slow-moving platform, using the physical space to build suspense.

Admittedly, a lot of Debord and the Lettrist’s writing on psychogeography centres on the use of something they called the dérive. This was a (almost certainly humorous) strategy to illuminate the strength of psychogeography. Debord described it as, “one or more persons during a certain period drop their usual motives for movement and action, their relations, their work and leisure activities, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there.” Some implementations of it are very much literally drifting through a city, letting themselves experience it in ways they hadn’t imagined. Others, perhaps more interestingly, have used it in more directed manners, such as this set of instructions to navigate London in a straight line. Others still, like attendees to the Psy.Geo.Conflux walked through New York using algorithms to guide their way. I remember reading somewhere (I can’t for the life of me find the link) of one person who decided to navigate London using a map of Berlin.

This is obviously done with a great deal of humour, but there is an interesting point under this. What would playing Portal like we were trying to play Super Mario Galaxy tell us about design? What would setting up a computer bot to play through Super Mario Galaxy in the fastest possible time, tell us about design? It mightn’t be very fun, and it might just seem a little bit stupid, but I’m certain that eventually, we’d pick something up that we wouldn’t have otherwise.

13 Comments

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13 responses to “How Guy Debord can help us understand videogames

  1. Noam Chompsky keeps popping up into my mind when I keep running into this term “psychogeography” that you repeatedly bring up. I keep going back to my psycholinguistic days when you take groups of people and place them in a room without windows and a room with windows. Depending on the presence of space and freedom, groups will interact differently to the same situation.

    Which is what makes game design from the US, Europe, and Asia so fascinating to me not only because of their approach to design and narrative philosophy, but also the differing approach to game space. It’s great that you not only bring up Portal, but also mention Super Mario Galaxy at the end. I wonder if one would view the use of space in Japanese games the same manner one sees frame space used in Japanese cinema.

    Game architecture is a great realm of study. And looking primarily at first-person shooters that contain multiple paths you see the tug of war between the player’s path against the designer’s path. Turn off the “flow vision” on Mirror’s Edge you and experience that discrepancy between the designer to player to player.

    But you left out one major factor in game environment. Psychogeography not only influences level design but also level environment. Portal is such a reserved, methodical game it highly differs from the twitch play of most first person games, obviously. But if you look at what happens to players when AI intelligence increases, a time limit is placed, health becomes more fickle, and general difficulty increases it would be interesting to see in what specific ways experience changes. I mean, just look at the challenge options and levels in Portal.

    A great post and I definitely will put Guy Debord on my list of thinkers to look into and read.

  2. That sounds like a fascinating idea. I think a lot of level design pro’s would argue the case for a really solid theory of Psychogeography – using the terrain to encourage player moment in a particular direction and similar concepts.

    Very cool post. I might have to steal the idea for some Gonzo work… =)

  3. @Graduate School Gamer – yeah, the differences between the design philosophies of the world absolutely fascinate me. I don’t know if anyone has done an in-depth study on it, but it does occur to me that the introduction of game spaces like Mario’s and Sonic’s represents a clear inspiration from Japanese and East-Asian scroll paintings, though admittedly the West used scrolls for probably just as long. Still, it’s quite interesting to think about these types of influence.

    And yeah, I absolutely agree about the huge differences something as small as a timer can have. I remember one of the Valve guys in the Portal commentary noting that there was a timer at one point, but they took it out because it made the puzzle seem a lot harder than it actually was (and therefore players were a lot more likely to panic and mess it up).

    I also feel I should point out Ben’s twitter recommendation to me after reading this post. An absolutely fascinating example of precisely what I’m talking about in this post. Thanks Ben.

  4. Nice ideas. I don’t know if you’ve started reading Space Time Play yet, but you’ll see Debord’s name crop up a couple times in reference to ARG’s etc if I remember correctly.

    Although I think Guy Debord himself would probably have disdained videogames as a part of the “society of the spectacle” designed to distract us as our corporate overlords take over the planet. He did say “All that was once directly lived has become mere representation”…

  5. oh, and on the space thing—anthropologist Edward T. Hall has written books (most notably “The Silent Language” + “The Hidden Dimension”) on the varying ways that different cultures see space and time and has even dealt with how this applies to architecture. It’d be fascinating to see his thoughts applied to the architecture of gamespace and see if there are major differences in the way things are handled. Though I’m not sure these days with games often aimed at global audiences that the differences aren’t in the process of being leavened out.

  6. CrashT

    A mundane example I accept but the core tenants of using the layout of the environment to encourage and guide movement through it have been used by the retail industry for years.

    The layout of supermarkets and the placement of good on the shelves follows a surprisingly complicated and precise design. Having worked in a newly opened supermarket I was surprised at how much care when into where certain items went.

    It’s all designed to lead customers around the shop in a certain way and is almost theme park like in it’s desire to show customers certain sights (Usually items on offer) during the course of their shopping trip.

  7. @Christopher Hyde – haha, nice. I agree about what Debord would actually likely think of games, and for that reason I always felt a little dirty applying his ideas. But ideas exist to be applied…

    Also, thanks for the recommendation. Hall’s work sounds really interesting. I’ll have to investigate further.

    @Crash – yeah, you’re spot on. It might be mundane, but to me, it’s interesting. I even mentioned it in my thesis (when will he stop pimping that darn document? Who knows! Maybe it’ll never end, and I’ll change my surname to ‘thesis’). A lot of very interesting work has been done on the topic; Meaghan Morris immediately springs to mind. But yeah, they’re designed to be immediately ‘readable’ to absolutely anyone who has ever stepped foot in a supermarket before. A lot of similar points can be made of department stores and shopping centres/malls.

  8. It seems like modern architects (or at least serious interior designers) would have a lot to say about this subject. Aren’t there consults who are paid tens of thousands of dollars to determine blue paint and brown furniture makes IBM’s corporate offices more impressive than beige and black?

    Was Debord focusing on collections of spaces rather than just a single building/room? Constructed spaces or organic ones as well? I’ve been planning on digging into this area more soon and this might be a really good place to start (along with your thesis, of course).

  9. This is quite illuminating! The fact most players possess the ability to navigate the terrain and the landscape without prior knowledge or visual guidance is certainly amazing, even when it comes to the most obscure level design found in BioShock and the Metroid Prime series, for instance.

    When we are exploring the vast, post-apocalyptic Wasteland in Fallout 3, we tend to rationalize the setting and the environment as much as possible, regarding the fact we have no idea how a post-apocalyptic Washington, DC would look like. We always try to make sense of our surroundings, and even construct viable guesses on where a soda factory would be located, or which tunnel to take to reach a certain radio station, for example.

    I believe this kind of aptitude extends its definition from Continental Philosophy to the realm of human cognitive psychology. Indeed, our spatial map that is burnt in our brain since childhood is still there, regardless we exercise it or consult it frequently in our every day life, considering the fact that it is quite hard to get lost nowadays, thanks to various map navigation devices and metropolitan maps. However, if you told me to exit my apartment right now and to head to the school campus even if, hypothetically, I don’t know where it is, I think I’ll manage to find it eventually.

    Of course, it’ll be interesting to find or research that gamers might retain a more refined spatial map than the average Joe, thanks to various videogames that demand consulting such abilities.

  10. @Nels – as far as I know, Debord focussed mainly on cities and urban environments rather than single spaces. I could be wrong, though, I haven’t read him (or the Lettrists) exhaustively.

    @Angelo – yeah, the psychological aspect to it is something I’d really love to know about. I’m the first to admit that I don’t actually know much about science, though, so perhaps its an area someone else can point me in the direction of? It would surely be an amazing field of work, assuming it exists.

  11. I’m getting to this post a bit late, but did you know Debord developed a board game he called Kriegspiel (Game of War)? I saw a talk last year by McKenzie Wark on it, asking how there could be an aesthetic of games seeing as what is crucial about games isn’t visual or even necessarily perceptual–if there could be an aesthetic of the algorithm. I can send you my notes from the talk, if you’d like. Here’s a site with some info on the game.

    Alexander Galloway also wrote an article on Debord’s Kriegspiel.

    And as an aside, I’ve been reading through your thesis and really dig the work you’re doing.

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