When I met with Celia Pearce today I brought up the subject of airports. As I mentioned last week, I have recently finished reading Alastair Gordon’s telling of the history of the airport in Naked Airport: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Revolutionary Structure. This sudden interest in airports was spurred by a recent trip from Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson, my current airport, to Dulles International Airport, which was only fifteen minutes down the road from me growing up in Virginia. On seeing the newly renovated sections of Dulles, which have a heavy sci-fi port vibe, I realized that airports actually had a lot in common with experience spaces like theme parks. I, of course, am not the first person to recognize this. But it got me thinking.
So, today in our meeting Celia raised the question, “why aren’t there more airports in games?” I racked my brain for airport levels and confirmed how few there are by searching through the Giant Bomb database. We wanted to address what it is players do in these airports to understand why they’re so limited.
What are the notable airport game scenes, levels, or locations? The Grand Theft Auto series features airports, though in only San Andreas can you hijack a jet plane for transportation. It’s also the only GTA game in which you get on an airplane to go somewhere outside of the game’s map (CJ travels back to Liberty City to perform a hit for Salvatore Leone). Most “airport” missions involve picking up someone/something or killing someone.
Left 4 Dead features an airport level which, predictably, tasks the player to get from one side to the other while surviving the zombie onslaught. Perfect Dark (Nintendo 64) uses an air base as a means of getting aboard Air Force One. Players grind and do tricks on airport architecture in Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3. The Conduit (Wii) features an airport, which appears to be the standard fare of run and gun.
Sure there are others I haven’t listed here (and I’ve totally ignored simulation-type games), but the airport is generally used as another place for action-sequences to play out, having little to do with the airport itself. Contrast the use of the airport in (non Action) film, where the airport is often a place of transitions and passage (people greeting loved ones as they arrive, escaping to another place, watching someone leave).
Of course, just as many films feature explosions and chases, but it seems games have not gotten beyond this point. Perhaps the close thing to airports are spaceports in games like Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. Players encounter new peoples/creatures, are introduced to a new world, and experience culture through the port. But this is an overly romanticized notion of the airport.
If you ask someone about their experience of the aiport, you’ll probably hear about waiting in ticketing and security lines, sitting around for hours eating overpriced fast food, or visiting the airport bar to calm their nerves. Persuasive Games’ Airport Security, Jetset, and Airport Insecurity are more accurate to the experience of the airport, in which we think about isolated obstacles rather than movement flow through space. They are rhetorical pieces that focus on the processes people encounter in the airport.
When I think about games, I think about actions in a space. What verbs come to mind for the airport? Waiting, standing, queueing, frisking, walking, riding, more waiting, buying… not a particularly exciting list. When it comes down to it, our contemporary notion of the airport is mundane. Traveling to an exotic location is prosaic; the adventure only begins once you arrive.
This shouldn’t be the case. It still amazes me that we’ve built these amazing machines to take us around the world and we’ve organized a massive infrastructure to support it. If we can’t look forward to the flight itself (a whole other problem), we could at least look forward to spending time in a marvel of modern technology. As airports evolve and architects, designers, and planners become more interested in experience design, we need not be subjected to dingy terminals where we’re herded about.
Game and theme park design can inform the design of destination spaces like the airport. Already they are doing this in newer airports, but places like Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson need significant overhaul. Of course, part “fixing the airport” would be to improves the processes (ticketing, security, finding departure gates), and it remains to be seen whether a futuristic skinning of the airport can really evoke a sense of wonder to overcomes the knowledge that under the surface it is still the same experience. It certainly wouldn’t hurt.
From the opposite approach, translating the airport into games could help identify how airports function and are experienced. Doing so will expand the game design vocabulary so that we may identify actions beyond standing in security lines, picking up illegal packages, and diving behind ticketing counters to shield ourselves from a rain of bullets. As fun as these may be, we would do well to find other nuanced dynamics, social relationships, and spatial experiences of the airport.