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.