Ecologies of Gaming
Monday 29 March, 2021, 14:00 – 15:30
This session examines the different ways in which gaming and augmented/virtual reality are recalibrating understandings of ecosystems and ecologies.
Discussant: Dr Eva Giraud, Keele University
Chris Sandbrook, University of Cambridge
Bill Adams, University of Cambridge
Emma Tait, Forest Ecosystem Monitoring Cooperative:
Finding ways to connect with, and understand, non-human lives is an important objective of both more-than human researchers and wildlife conservationists. Various strategies have been suggested to this end, including physical immersion in the life of the non-human (the ‘being a beast’ approach) and remote tracking of animal movements and behaviours using digital monitoring devices. While these methods can produce useful insights, the former runs the risk of disturbing the creatures of interest and is not practical in most cases, and the latter lacks any physical connection between the human and non-human subject, reducing the chances of meaningful affective relations emerging. To address this lacuna, this paper investigates digital games as places of human-non-human encounter, and the role of games and gamification in mediating human-nonhuman encounters. We focus in particular on the idea of Augmented Reality (AR) games that incorporate digital data on the movement of wild animals, thus mobilising data captured by digital tracking technologies in digital gaming to evoke learning and empathy in the human game player. We present as an empirical case study results of pilot testing of a novel digital game (‘Race the Wild’) that allows human runners to ‘race’ against specific individual animals non-humans, based on real time comparison of their respective movements in Euclidean space. We conclude with a discussion of the implications of augmented reality games for the understanding and potentially the conservation of non-human life.
Chris Sandbrook is a conservation social scientist at the University of Cambridge. His research investigates (i) the relationship between conservation and development at the landscape scale in developing countries, (ii) the role of values and evidence in shaping the decisions of conservationists and their organisations, and (iii) the social and political implications of new technologies for conservation.
Bill Adams approaches questions of environmental development and conservation from perspectives of political ecology and environmental history.
Emma Tait is a Data Scientist with the Forest Ecosystem Monitoring Cooperative, which provides ecological data collection, management, regional synthesis and collaboration across states and disciplines for the northeastern temperate forest in the US. She provides analytical, scripting, web development, spatial analysis, and data modeling support for FEMC. In her academic life she is a feminist digital geographer with a focus on the co-production of digital natures. Her recent research focuses on what digital natures do through their co-production by player expectation, developer assumption and actual implementation through code. Other research interests include feminist digital natures, digital outer space natures, and scalability and nonscalability in video games.
Marika Brown, McMaster University:
The world of the widely and wildly popular PlayStation game, Horizon Zero Dawn (2017), immerses its players in a doubly-digital, entangled ecology that destabilizes the boundaries between the so-called natural and the digital, the biological and the mechanical, the lively and the inert. Horizon’s lush landscapes, far wilder than those that urban humans might ever encounter in the present, were, in the world of the game, made by artificial intelligences and are maintained by gargantuan machines that resemble (both in looks and behaviour) biologic animals. These self-reproducing, autonomous mechanical beings are as essential to Horizon’s planetary ecosystems as we might imagine bats or bees to be in ours. However, given their artificiality, Horizon’s Machines complicate what we might consider ‘nature’. Thus, I propose a reading of Horizon Zero Dawn’s doubly-digital natural ecosystems, which are digital first within the world of the game, having been created by AI and being maintained by machines, and digital again in its material existence as data, made accessible through electronic devices. My presentation thinks through the questions this doubly-digital ecosystem raises, with a focus on human encounters with virtual (and physical) ‘natures’ and the consequences these encounters might have for environmental future-making.
Marika Avenel Brown (she/her) is a PhD candidate in English & Cultural Studies at McMaster University in Hamilton, ON, Canada. Her work looks to speculative texts to question what we (think we) know of as “nature”, and to ultimately point to better possible futures for both human and more-than-human life.
Michelle Westerlaken, University of Cambridge:
This experiment with virtual monstrosity in digital games constitutes one of the case studies in a recent PhD dissertation on multispecies worlds. Monstrosity, instead of focusing only on abhorrence and disgust, is here understood in alignment with its etymological roots. The Latin ‘monstrare’ and the French ‘montrer’, indicate that a monster is something ‘shown forth’ (Graham 2002). The monster is thereby more than merely a critical figure, or a resisting entity. They also perform a way of being outside negations. Not only through spectacle or the sublime, but the monster is able to point towards other possible worldings or transgressions of previously held boundaries. Within digital game worlds, however, monsters appear as computer controlled entities and are usually there to be defeated in a player-centric narrative. As game studies scholars have argued, the monsters, beasts, or encountered creatures may look fearful, but they rarely behave in a way that would confound us; their transgression is superficial (Švelch 2018). In this paper, it is argued that open world digital ecologies – in certain modalities – enable us to explore monstrosity in more meaningful and less anthropocentric ways. By spending over 150 hours in Zelda – Breath of the Wild (Nintendo 2017), as a vegan player, “I” (as character ‘Link’) explored different ways of relating to the living creatures in the game world who are otherwise seen as resources or challenges to defeat. In these extensive interactive spaces, the player can experiment with their own worldmaking practices in multispecies encounters. The creation of multispecies worlds thus exists between the encoded virtual-world and the player’s own extended ontology in developing their relationship to other entities through their interactions in the virtual space.
Michelle Westerlaken is a research associate in the ‘Smart Forest’ project in the Department of Sociology at The University of Cambridge. She has a PhD in Interaction Design from Malmö University (Sweden). As a designer, she explored possibilities for humans and other species to propose interaction modalities for multispecies ways of living on this planet, including design projects with cats, dogs, ants, and penguins. https://michellewesterlaken.com/
Alexander Cullen, University of Cambridge:
Massive Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Games (MMORPG) now encompass 10+ million active subscribed users. Geography has given only cursory attention towards the contested politics of digital landscapes (and their encounter) that is generated to situate MMORPGs. Research has begun to identify the reproduction of colonial and racist structures manifest in their design as central to forms of digital world building. However, less attention has been paid to more-than-human (or even more-than-player) entities that populate MMORPG worlds and how the ontological politics of one may puncture through to the politics of the other. With this paper I aim to examine the importance of political-relations to non-playable animal characters in a mass pandemic event in the MMORPG World of Warcraft. It is shown how unintentionally their role of disease vector reflects “real-world” disease ecologies – including the reproduction of game inequalities in offline worlds.
Alexander is a Human Geographer and Lecturer in Political Ecology at the University of Cambridge. His research is attentive to issues of land conflict, climate ontologies and nationalist natures in Southeast Asia. He enjoys playing the Untitled Goose Game when spare time is available.
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