The Poetics of Virtual Space
As gamers, we've all felt profound moments of belonging beyond the meatspace. These experiences prove that virtual space can be just as poetic as any real place of earthly dwelling.
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Dwelling in Video Games
Immersive Escapes Into Fiction
Personally Sacred Game Spaces
To all the cosmic travellers out there,
The focus this week is on the intimacy of imagined spaces, and how the power of co-experiencing these places could unlock the full capacity of our imaginations once more; to dream and build a better world together.
This may seem grand and naive, but there is reason to study this lucid idea. We need to be aware of what makes an experience meaningful; what makes certain spaces special, so that we can do our best to infuse this into all corners of the metaverse. The best place to start studying this is in the games we’ve spent time playing; virtual spaces we’ve lived. Some of these spaces have without doubt transcended the screen in my own perception, and etched a vast and boundless world upon my memory.
Gaming is the parent of the metaverse. We’ve been playing games for so long that we’ve forgotten that the places that make us feel happy are places that we should be architecting and building as the architects of the metaverse. So I guess that in a nutshell there’s a really nice symbiosis between gaming and the metaverse generally.(Podcast: Metaverse Marketing - Ep. 3)
I believe there is a deep and primal feeling to be found in the experience of these spaces, that is somewhat hard to convey in words. Why do some places make us feel happy? Why do those patterns of pixels work together to form an entire world in our own perceptions?
If we can work towards building places of happiness and adventure that are free to explore together, we are going to fundamentally alter how we choose, and where we choose, to live our best lives.
Dwelling in Video Games
The concept of ‘home’ and how we, as human beings, construct a sense of place out of the phenomena that we are immersed in from birth, has long fascinated me.
In his novel House of Breath, William Goyen writes:
“That people could come into the world in a place they could not at first even name and had never known before; and that out of a nameless and unknown place they could grow and move around in it until its name they knew and called with love, and call it HOME, and put roots there and love others there; so that whenever they left this place they would sing homesick songs about it and write poems of yearning for it, like a lover;….’ (p.40)
I want to try and understand how these feelings of home, that ‘sense of place,’ can be found in virtual spaces, in order to think of how we can build rich and immersive experiences that leave a lasting impact on our memories.
I believe we’ll soon be in a place where the sounds, the smells and the vastness of virtual spaces will soon be undefinably similar to reality, and so in order to create virtual homes, we need to understand what it is to feel at home; to dwell in space.
These images make the world grow, and the summer too. At certain hours poetry gives out waves of calm. From being imagined, calm becomes an emergence of being. It is like a value that dominates, in spite of minor states of being, in spite of a disturbed world. Immensity has been magnified through contemplation. (The Poetics of Space; Gaston Bachelard - p.210)
In its truest form, I believe it’s a feeling that can only be experienced, not described in words. The essence of what it means to dwell in space is one that poets have carved sentences out of for centuries. If we can begin to create poetry in 3D space though, I think we can create genuinely emotional and transformative experiences that can alter people’s perspectives for the better.
Video games have been doing this for decades already. There is a sense of adventure and agency in video games that allows players to be fully immersed in a narrative, and discover things about themselves via these rich stories that most couldn’t materialise from reading a poem, or watching a film. There is something in the agency of video games that unlocks something more fundamental and primal in people playing them.
Here, Baudelaire is describing what he felt as he was immersed in the music of Wagner:
… Baudelaire, who is now entirely immersed in the music, has, as he says, “one of those impressions of happiness that nearly all imaginative men have experienced in their sleeping dreams. I felt freed from the powers of gravity, and, through memory, succeeded recapturing the extraordinary voluptuousness that pervades high places. Involuntarily I pictured to myself the delightful state of a man in the grip of a long daydream, in absolute solitude, but a solitude with an immense horizon and widely diffused light; in other words, immensity with no other setting that itself.” (Bachelard; p.194)
I feel that video games offer this immersion into immensity, that world of diffused light, that is harder to unlock in reading the written word or the more passive observation of cinema. I believe this is because of the landscape, the space and the vast exploration that they allow your mind to expand within.
Very gently, they should pronounce Baudelaire’s key word, vast. For it is a word that brings calm and unity; it opens up unlimited space. (Bachelard; p.197)
Vast; that is the feeling I have when I look back on the games I list later. They were vast worlds that I had the agency to explore at my own will. I had escaped into them and that space I was occupying was in that game environment, and it didn’t matter that it was virtual.
Capturing that transient feeling that we all understand as a ‘sense of place’ in the world; through imagery of nature, landscapes or any sensory phenomena, the feeling of home cuts straight through to the core of our being. There is no doubt that we can experience this powerful sense of home in virtual, fictional spaces too.
John Riccitiello, Unity CEO, discusses the gaming experience and how it relates to the metaverse:
What we are talking about is virtually everything on the internet becoming more 3D, more interactive, more real-time, more spatial. So the sense is that you're some place that you're not, and it's just as real as some place you are. That sounds like a lot of words and a lot of imagination, but it's happening as we speak.
This ‘being in some place that you're not’ is at the root of all cinema and storytelling. It’s even more powerful when we are allowed into the worlds we thought we could only experience in 2D, as I will get into next.
Immersive Escapes Into Fiction
I spend a great deal of time worrying that the education system that is injected into the young minds of our planet is doing a great deal of damage to their creative capacities. Art is treated as a hobby that, at some point, gets in the way of achieving the academic requirements to find your feet as a citizen in society, unless you have the bravery and ambition to try and make it as an artist, to which most will roll their eyes and wish you luck in the struggle.
How devastating is that though.
What do kids love doing? They love playing video games. I know I would have done that all day and night if I could. Those games and those spaces that I spent a great deal of my childhood exploring and learning through are my sacred spaces.
I drove past the cinema I used to visit when I was younger this week, and it felt like I was driving past church. As someone with a very little religious history, that cinema was my escape into other worlds. It was the place where I experienced the spiritual immersion in alternate realities, into visionary stories that I reflected on and grew through. It’s where my sense of morality was developed as I got to see the world from other’s perspective. These were core experiences for my young and curious mind. They expanded my consciousness and trained my capacity to empathise.
That is the power of stories.
But there is cinema, and then there is the experience of living and breathing within a different world. Making decisions; impacting the direction of the narrative; creating tangible memories. That is what video games offer you, especially the ones that give you the freedom to explore, to roam, to decide.
When my mind really melted into the joy of experiencing a different world, was when these two pathways of escape collided. It seemed to create an experience that transcended the power of both independently, and launched me into a potent realm of my own imagination that I can thoroughly reminisce on as having been foundational to my development as a creative and curious character.
Those experiences crafted the person I am today; they are sacred spaces; spiritual temples for my own sense of place in the world.
I moved around a lot when I was young, and so I don’t have a place I can point to on a map that I could define as the place I grew up. It was a transient childhood; a nomadic lifestyle. I’d lived in four completely different places before I’d reached the age of 10, and every time it was a complete uprooting. Perhaps this is a reason I fell so happily into fictional spaces that I felt comfortable in. Whether it was the world of Andy’s room in Toy Story 2, or the Ancient Greece of Hercules.
I was more than satisfied watching these films on repeat. However, when I found the opportunity to enter these places in games and explore at my own relative will, I was really transported to a special place in my heart, mind and soul.
I think that’s where I’m trying to get at here. There are certain places that don’t exist, that are a huge part of my soul. When I’m given the opportunity to explore these places, I get an immense amount of pleasure in doing so. This is probably amplified by the fact that they shouldn’t exist; they aren’t real. However I could enter them, look around, influence the space; express myself however I wanted within the limits of the game.
Those experiences taught me a great deal about who I was, what I enjoyed, what I could do, where I could go. They gave me confidence in my curiosity and asked me how much I was willing to explore. There were no lines drawn, even if the game itself had boundaries, my imagination danced over them with joy and I could fill in any gaps to my hearts content.
That is the power of games and play; they test the limits of your own imagination; and that is surely why kids love them. And surely why (most) adults grow to lose interest in them; because they mislocate the imaginative capacity the experience requires. They become hyper-rational and the effort required to escape the confines of your own immediate reality becomes disposable.
If we can somehow reattach that effort to our reality once more, then our collective imaginations can be upgraded. This is the power that can soon be unlocked with opportunities to play, explore, collaborate and build new things together in boundless worlds beyond our own.
The power of a child’s mind; the curiosity, the questions, the fascination with simple beauty of the world, can be reactivated in all our own minds, and further nurtured in the young with dedication. Think bigger and curious harder.
Personally Sacred Game Spaces
Here I want to reminisce on some of the game worlds that radically affected my own life. These are examples where I have really fallen into that different world; or in some cases, a series of different worlds. I’ve felt like I’ve thoroughly got to know these spaces; earnt their secrets and stories through hours of play, enhanced by the permission to explore them in a virtual world; whether they be fictional places, or real places in historical settings.
1. The Simpsons: Hit & Run (PlayStation 2; 2003 - Vivendi Universal Games)
I was never allowed to watch The Simpsons when I was younger; which made it all the better when I did actually watch it quietly without mum knowing. I don’t know what it was she was concerned by, because in my estimates it’s one of the greatest shows of all time, and actually carries a great education in morality and townliness. So when I had the chance to enter this world, drive around, knock people over and walk into the infamous houses and shops of Springfield, it was a defining moment in my gaming life.
2. Kingdom Hearts (PlayStation 2; 2002 - Square Co.)
As a big watcher of all things Disney growing up; possessing a VHS collection that delivered hours upon hours of defining childhood moments, Kingdom Hearts broke straight into my heart by dropping me into a dark and complex world that spanned multiple Disney realities. In one narrative, I was transported to Neverland (Peter Pan), Olympus (Hercules), Wonderland (Alice in Wonderland) and the Jungle (Tarzan) amongst many more.
It was an adventure filled with expansive opportunities to explore, alongside some of the absolute greats of Disney folklore. It completely re-immersed me into some of the sacred imagined spaces of my childhood. I had played the Hercules PS1 game and the Tarzan PS1 game, but it blew my mind that the KH narrative stitched together multiple Disney universes into one narrative arc, that contained within it a lot of original depth and considerable darkness, which really appealed to me.
3. Toy Story 2: Buzz Lightyear to the Rescue (PlayStation 1; 1999 - Disney Interactive/Activision)
By far one of the best film-to-game adaptations, this game completely immersed me into a world at the scale of the characters I loved so deeply. Any opportunity to step into the small, yet expansive world of Andy’s toys and explore his room at my own agency was a considerable immersion into a huge part of my childhood identity.
4. Assassins Creed Saga (Xbox 360/Xbox One; 2007-present - Ubisoft)
A chance to run and climb the beautiful architecture of great European cities across various historical ages? Count me in.
The costumes; the churches; the crowds; the historical figures; the conspiracies. I am a big fan of the Assassin’s Creed franchise and, living in London at the time I played it, I was able to run up to the foot of St Paul’s Cathedral, and climb the damn thing to see what the view’s like from the top. As a tourist, you can get close to these landmarks, and you can see them from select angles and prescribed routes. In Assassin’s Creed, you can turn the whole sacred place into your playground; from basements and cellars, to rooftops and spires.
Getting to freely roam Victorian-era London was a memorable episode in the saga for me, but Revolutionary Paris and Enlightenment Florence were also memorable periods to crawl all over at my own will. Growing up, I loved the Horrible Histories series, and so Assassins Creed felt like a full immersion into the reality of these times, that I could only otherwise read about or watch documentaries on. The people, the streets, the vibrancy, the everyday lives that were brought to life; you could live in it and build meaningful relationships, meeting Leonardo Da Vinci, Benjamin Franklin and Charles Darwin along the way. What a wonderful exhibition of how history classes could look like in the future. ‘Put your textbooks away, and put your headsets on,’ is what we are aiming for once kids are in history class.
5. Spiderman 2 (PlayStation 2; 2004 - Activision)
You want to empower yourself with the abilities that Peter Parker got when he got bitten by a genetically engineered spider? Then go joy-swinging around one of the planet’s most impressive and culturally significant urban landscapes? Fight criminals and vanquish the bosses that Tobey Maguire himself battled on the big screen? Hell yes.
It’s funny, because I haven’t ever looked back on most of these games since playing them. However, looking back on them now via screenshots online, I realise how far our ability to generate real-looking worlds has come.
What it doesn’t convey though is how high resolution these spaces are in my own memory. It amazes me that the blocky nature of Andy’s room, or New York City, didn’t stand out to me at the time, but the truth is I was so enmeshed into that 3D realm, that I glued the cubes together into organic spaces with my own imagination, and the limits of the graphics cards or game engines became diffuse. New York was 1:1 New York. Andy’s room was a 1:1 version of Andy’s room and I was right in the middle of it with the freedom to climb his desk, his bed and the entire contents of his garden.
They might as well have been hyper-high definition, because my memories of playing them certainly are.
As technology expands, and the limit between what is perceived as artificial and real dissolves even more, what is fiction and what is reality is going to become somewhat indecipherable. The power of our imagination to infect a space that holds a power over our soul, such as these spaces I have listed above, is going to weave the immersive spaces of the metaverse together into one beautiful and boundless experience to commune within.
It’s going to be magical, and we won’t believe it until we feel it.
What I wanted to outline above, is that there have already been times where reality has been subsumed into spaces that aren’t real; that are virtual. Our minds are ready for this adaptation, especially as kids, when we love to explore these other spaces and write expansive stories of our own with our friends.
The application of these intimate spaces is only going to expand, to be embraced by all the major industries that exist out there. The joy of being inside these spaces, combined with the web3 technology of NFTs that will decentralise and revolutionise the ownership of virtual goods, is going to rewrite how we live, work, catchup, play and travel together as a species.
The rails for this new world are being built as we speak, and the juice; the rich veins of story, character and setting, are going to be discovered in places we can’t even begin to imagine.
With the news this week that Walmart are hosting Netflix's first digital storefront, The Netflix Hub, I think it's an exciting prospect to think what the future of the 'digital storefront' is going to look like.
There used to be a Disney store in Chester that I'd visit every Christmas, without fail. Stepping out of the street and into the Disney store, I had very literally stepped out of Chester and into the magical realms behind those VHS's. It was a moment I always looked forward to, and even now when I go back to Chester and walk past it I get the same butterflies that always landed when I was about half the size I am now. Sadly, it has fallen victim to the coronavirus high street tsunami, but I think it’s high time that the future of shopping takes a page out of all the feelings and engagements I've been speaking about today.
Imagine being able to step into the world of Hercules, or Andy's room to explore all the features and toys in real-time, and then having them delievered in real life at your doorstep with less than a few clicks.
We're not far from creating these new spaces of exploration, where we can look to collect and invest in the artefacts we see around us, and have them materialise directly in physical space. The phygital is materialising.
Boson Protocol are working on just this platform:
Boson is a great example of doing something new in terms of linking NFTs to transfers of physical assets using game theory and behavioural economics, so this opens up a whole new world of possibilities in the context of digital-to-physical transactions.
Going back to The Netflix Hub, imagine being able to enter the basement alongside the characters of Stranger Things and digging through the board games and collectibles that we find in stores. The experience and the objects all a part of a much larger and intimate experience for fans of the show to engage in together.
I'm wary of just turning this whole piece into a pithy climax around 'new ways to spend money', because I’m aiming at something much more profound than that. When I’m searching for and buying NFTs these days, I'm not frivolously consuming. It's an adventure, with other people, that I'm working hard at taking part in, and improving at. Every minute of every day I spend in numerous Discord's, I am training my instinct to find projects I love, communities I want to engage in and build a connection with. These are games I’m learning, and it feels much like hunting for rare collectibles in a video game. If these experiences could be extrapolated into 3D space, and if that space can feel as special and unique as Andy's Room did to me when I was 8, then I will be proud of what we have achieved together.
I'm not writing about how companies like Netflix + Walmart should aim to capitalise on this new opportunity to create original cultural value with brands and stories we love. They certainly could, but I don't care if they do or don't. We'll be doing our much more crucial work anyway, without them.
I want to help people to discover meaningful interactions in new worlds; to feel the community of these new spaces and enable them to imagine what that can feel like as an immersive, real-time interaction taking place in spaces that are more than just 'realistic', but are actually sacred to those in there.
The Roblox Ideology - A Human Co-Experience Platform
Morgan Tucker, Head of Social at Roblox, has spoken of the outline of this world that his company are working to help inspire. He said that Roblox is "more than just a gaming platform," and that there is something much bigger to focus on. He refers to it as a "human co-experience platform”.
"If we just replicate reality then it’s passive, but we have an opportunity to allow players to have a sense of agency and effect the outcome of what is happened, making each experience bespoke."
He wants to help us find the tools to build our own 'universe of worlds'. I'm all in, and some of the worlds I've spoken about above have been a huge part of my universe of worlds. The founder of Reddit stated the following:
The creativity of hundreds of millions of people who are decentralised but aligned will always outperform the creativity of centralised people trying to solve the same problem… And that's why Reddit is ‘the front page of the internet’ and not a traditional news organisation. It's also the same reason why the metaverse will come from the bottom up and not from a centralised organisation like Facebook.”
It’s going to be built by the Woody’s and the Buzzes, not the Emperor Zuckerburg’s.
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