Most of us do not live in isolation, but instead reside in towns and cities, which we expect to last forever—or for at least as long as we live. We expect our needs to be met through city infrastructure, that there is clean water when we need it, public safety, maintained roads, groomed parks, open space. We pay taxes and bills to keep the towns running, to keep the (street)lights on.
Most of us live in apartments, houses, duplexes, condos, flats, dormitories. These are personal spaces for us, and we expect them to give shelter (if not comfort) for as long as we need it. Because we look after our own needs and the needs of our families first, our residences must be permanent, but only for as long as we need them. If I live in a house for ten years and then get offered a job in a different city, my house need only be permanent for me until the day I depart. Afterwards, I don’t care what happens to it. It has served my needs for the time I was there.
We need cities to be permanent for us, too, or to at least provide the illusion of permanence during the course of our residence. We need to assume that everything will be the same each day when we rise and go to work or school, and if something needs to be repaired, that the city will maintain or improve upon things to continue the illusion of permanence. The status quo is comforting to the stable population.
To borrow from the work of Martin Heidegger, we build and dwell in the landscape. “Building” to Heidegger meant to interact with a landscape, interacting with structures, using natural resources. Building creates landscape by defining locations and spaces within it relative to human interaction.
(Time-lapse SimCity video by 18T220)
As Heidegger wrote in 1978, “dwelling” represents how we occupy and experience a landscape. Building creates the landscape around us through our dwelling; and in turn the experience of this landscape modulates the form of our dwelling within it. Our dwelling determines the form our building takes and by extension how the landscape is created. James Robinson wrote in his dissertation for the University of York, Being and the Past, “Dwelling (the created ideological construct of consciousness) is encoded throughout the past manifestations of Building: the material record. Therefore the ideological constructs driving and created by Building are accessible through its study.”
We ask the question of the past: “Who or what is it that Builds and Dwells?” In games, it is both the player and the player’s avatar. Heidegger defined the conscious self, the “time-being” (my phrase) as “Dasein.” Dasein is the avatar embodied, the player-homunculus. The avatar itself when unanimated is not self-conscious, but awaits its human occupant. It is a being without the ability to reflect, more a cloak or a suit of armor in which the player can encounter the environment.
When we think about towns and cities and the spaces there in which we live, we bias our thoughts about permanence, the people and things that are always there. We often fail to perceive how these permanent spaces appear to the temporary visitor just passing through, maybe stopping for a time, but ultimately moving on to another destination. We fail to consider fully how a migratory population builds and dwells for a short time within a permanent space. For this group of “transhumans”, nothing is permanent, and these spaces and locations become commodities to use and leave behind. Hotels are a perfect example of this, buildings with a temporary population that always changes, supported by permanent staff who keep the building in working order to support the infinite migration of families and businesspeople. This shared environment is built to serve two populations who build and dwell within it differently. For one population, the hotel is a source of employment and income. For the other, it is a place to sleep, bathe, eat, and recreate. People know about the general idea—the phenomenon—of “hotel” and what that space means. For most of the population, we visit, we use, we leave. Over time, the hotel might be sold. The building might be converted into another kind of space, or might be destroyed so that the land underneath it can be reused. The building is semi-permanent, constructed over a permanent landscape.
How then can the concepts of Building and Dwelling be applied to built digital environments, specifically video games? I have proposed in the past that video games are archaeological sites, and that landscape archaeology can be used to explore and understand them. I propose now that all video games are created as semi-permanent “dreamscapes.” I will elaborate:
With notably few exceptions, any video game is an imagined space produced to be accessed by a user via hardware, which includes a screen. Through the development process that game becomes a functional space stored in a box, bounded by rules of engagement, which the user may either follow or manipulate. The ideas from the developer(s) transmit to the mind of the user who can then react to the stimuli of the game. The interactions exist in the mind through the mediation of hardware, technologically enabled dreamscapes where users can dream lucidly through the act of performing operations within a game.
I also propose that all video games from the 1970s until today have always been envisioned as semi-permanent. Arcade games were played by the quarter and competed for floorspace in malls and on boardwalks. To the user, the game was only as permanent as the bankroll permitted. To the developer, the game was only as permanent as the current state of play. With the pace of technology and commercial competition, new games replaced the old, with the exceptions of games that became classics that players expected to see in the spaces of arcades. Games such as Joust became permanent monuments within a changing landscape. When we visit Washington, DC, we expect to see the Washington Monument. When we go to the arcade, we expect to see Pac-Man.
The same could be said of cartridge/cassette/disk-based games. In the 1970s and early 1980s, these games were designed for relatively quick play based on player skill. It was rare to be able to save your progress. The game existed as a place to inhabit for a few minutes or hours, and then we would change the locality of play be replacing one game with another, or we would place the game on the shelf with the others to await our return, a site or monument to be revisited and engaged with. Games exist to be played. That is their grand purpose, but a purpose driven by human need: to be entertained, challenged. Cities exist to be inhabited, meeting the human need to create and to have shelter and community.
With contemporary games, their complexity and size (size not just from the perspective of landscapes, but also for those games that contain infinite levels) lend themselves to a lengthy visit during each encounter. They encourage us to stay. The developers are human, and the better games do an excellent job of winning our discretionary time and money. This is by design, human-to-human. We build what satisfies us, and that which satisfies us will likely satisfy others. I like to read what I write, and to listen to what I record. I share this creative work, and sometimes it resonates with others. Game developers build spaces, which they hope will invite people in and encourage them to stay. To revisit a term from earlier, we are invited by games (and their builders) to dwell in these spaces for as long as they exist in their semi-permanent state until the next game comes along, encouraging migration.
There are no permanent residents of games. Sooner or later players move from one game to another. At times they return to old favorites, motivated perhaps by nostalgia, or through the release of a major update or new content, much like we return to places we love to remember them as they were, or to visit new features recently added to the landscape. We dwell within games always with the underlying understanding that we will leave. It is the commercial nature of game development to always make something new. As good as a game might be, all players will leave it to engage with something new. With video games, we are all transhuman, and we experience these places as things we visit. Sometimes we have a brief stay, an overnight in a hotel. Other games encourage an extended stay. But we see new cities built, appearing every Friday, beckoning us to relocate.
With video games, we rarely see mass migration away from them (unless they are universally reviled, and players abandon these places at more or less the same time). Instead, we see mass migrations to new games, drawing on the player-populations of old playscapes. The new game is the city on the hill, a shining beacon of promise and opportunity, and players leave whatever it is that they are currently engaged with, where they currently dwell, in order to have a new experience in a new place until they tire and the next new city springs up in a landscape littered with abandoned towns of dwindling populations. It’s similar perhaps to people leaving their farms to work in the nearby metropolis. But then these cities get drained of their populations as other cities arise. But unlike brick-and-mortar urban centers, games are designed to be left. We always quit the games we play. That functionality is built in, and we as members of a transient population expect that. We have places we love, but we cannot escape our need for a new narrative and a new place to explore and inhabit.
We very much dwell in gamespace. It is a conscious act for us as players to engage with games like we do with cities. There are things to see and do, based on underlying infrastructure of mechanics and rules. We pay (most of the time) to access these spaces, a kind of engagement tax to continue to play for as long as we like, or for as long as our money lasts. Developers update the infrastructure and hope that players will stay. The more players, the healthier the economy, and the longer the game-city remains vibrant and viable. When people leave, the infrastructure of the digital built environment remains, becoming a shell of what was. Compare this to what happened with Detroit, at one time the destination for culture and industry, now overwhelmed with abandoned buildings and entire neighborhoods.
All things tend towards entropy, and entropy occurs over time driven by casual absence or conscious neglect. While cities manifest entropy in a visual way, we don’t necessarily recognize the effects of abandonment in video games. For MMOs that were purpose-built to house thousands (or more) players at a time, many of those that have been abandoned can still be revisited. Everquest was launched by Sony Online in 1999, and all development of that MMO ceased in 2010. Players can still access the game, however, returning to see what’s changed and to indulge in some nostalgia. These games are ghost towns, but their contents remain buffed, shiny, and welcoming, ignorant of the decline of their own civilizations, waiting for players until modern hardware can no longer run them, or until the developer decides to pull the plug on the last public server hosting the game.
Because video games are archaeological sites, they grow and change over real-time. For example, the still-popular MMO World of Warcraft continues to evolve with new updates and expansions, and is currently in its “Hellenistic” era, perhaps having peaked in its “Classical” period of the “Cataclysm” expansion, which in effect broke the world, forcing players to rediscover familiar landscapes changed caused by the cataclysmic event of the return of the dragon Deathwing. It is not possible for players to go back in time to revisit previous iterations of the game-world through Blizzard Entertainment’s servers, but some players have formed archival teams for preservation and conservation of those earlier times. The most notable of these is the seven-year-old Elysium Project, which maintains a server containing the “vanilla” version of WoW from 2004. Anyone can visit this maintained “Archaic” version of the game to actually experience what it was like to navigate the landscape before the creation of mods (modifications), flying mounts, and even entire regions in the world of Azeroth. It is the closest thing we have to time travel, and allows us to bridge the temporal gap between past and present as we study this game.
We experience time (as Heidegger understood it) within the context of the present as well as in the past (even though we occupy the present). We can experience things as they were even though we exist 13 years after the birth of WoW. We can dwell in that space now just as we could then, a conscious occupation of space. Upon its initial release, players dwelled within WoW as explorer-adventurers, not only interacting with the game, but also building because of it. The earliest players created guides for other players to use, built communities both within (and outside of) the game, and began the WoW tradition of creating “mods”, free, downloadable tools for making the game easier to play.
Revisiting the vanilla version of the game today, players dwell within that landscape for additional reasons besides play: nostalgia is a driving factor for those players who started their adventures in 2004; curiosity brings other players who arrived in WoW later, who want to see what their beloved game used to be. Still, apart from the team of volunteer archivists who maintain this Archaic version, those who dwell there do so temporarily before leaving again for other worlds. We are just passing through, staying long enough to form memories, continuing our migration to other places either new or familiar to us.
As players we are constant tourists in the games we inhabit. Occasionally a rare game occupies our attention, and we turn it into a kind of summer cottage, a long-term retreat until it is time for us to rejoin the real world. But for a time we dwell within the semi-permanent dreamscape and explore our humanity through the grace of play.
—Andrew Reinhard, Archaeogaming