Aperio: Games and Spaces

Research Group from the Georgia Tech Experimental Game Lab

Archive for the 'Video Games' Category

Pause-Menu Maps

This blog entry is a bite-sized portion of my Master’s thesis on Representations of the City in Video Games.

Maps provided in-game are an integral part of how the player makes sense of a space. Maps help players understand space by establishing physical geographic relationships between places, by revealing possibilities of navigation, and by explicitly showing some of Kevin Lynch‘s city elements (districts, paths, landmarks, nodes). There are different forms the map can take. The pause-menu map, as seen in Grand Theft Auto IV, Spider-Man 2, Ultimate Spider-Man, and True Crime: New York City, can be browsed and zoomed while the game is paused. Pause-menu maps usually detail locations of interest, destinations, and the player position, but what does this information say about each of these city spaces?

Both GTA IV and True Crime: NYC treat the district/neighborhood as their smallest level of granularity. While the GTA IV map can be zoomed, the True Crime: NYC map remains at the same scale. Though both games show the neighborhoods or districts on their map, the utility of doing so is more obvious in True Crime. Manhattan in True Crime is divided into police precincts that correspond to the actual precincts of the real New York City.


One of the uses of the map is to check the level of crime in each district. Successfully completing dispatch missions reduces the crime-rate, which is shown on the map on a green-to-red scale. And while it might be a goal of the game to turn all precincts to green, the rigid divisions of the precinct reveals the relatively tenuous connection between crime and geographic location. Does arresting a perpetrator on one street really improve the relative crime-rate of somewhere ten streets away? If the game’s modeling of this system seems flawed, it perhaps reveals the flaws of the actual practice of systematically dividing geographic regions and judging their overall level of crime.


When might a player refer to the GTA IV pause map? Liberty City is an expansive place and destinations, whether in some sort of mission or player-defined, are often on another island. This means that player cannot just aim their trajectory toward a destination marker on their radar map, as they might need to get on a freeway on-ramp to take one of Liberty City’s many bridges. The map reveals the intricacies of the road system and the complexity of the transportation infrastructure. True Crime: New York City does not face the same difficulties because it is limited to the island of Manhattan, which is relatively well gridded.

To help players move between locations, Grand Theft Auto IV features a bright yellow line of navigation on its maps. This line will appear during a mission when a target location is marked or can be applied by the player if they manually set a waypoint on their map. The line finds the shortest possible distance between the player’s location and destination and will update itself if the player finds themselves off-course. Some cars in the game also have audible turn-by-turn directions based on a diagetic GPS system to go along with the highlighted route.

The pause-menu maps of Ultimate Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2 are very similar, as Ultimate Spider-Man came out of the same production studio a year after the film tie-in game. Buildings are the most important feature of the map. While the view of the map is top-down, the buildings are rendered in 3D to show their height. As buildings are the method of travel for Spider-Man, this mapping makes sense. The only time the player needs to be on the ground is when fighting enemies or rescuing citizens in distress. At all other times it is more convenient for Spider-Man to be between or on top of buildings. This is also shown on the map by its coloration of ground-level surfaces; the illustration makes no delineation between grass, sidewalk, or road.

What do the map icons and legends reveal about the place? I would like to divide the types of markers on the maps of these games into two categories: missions/goals and landmarks. Though these are closely related (often one in the same), the distinction is useful because of their utility. The maps of Ultimate Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2 allow the player to turn on and off the map icons. This is crucial because of the sheer number of destinations available to the player at any given time.

When viewing these maps, the high density of available missions has the propensity to turn into clutter. There is little that distinguishes one “race” mission from the next, and the maps do not provide any insight into these differences. This meant that only used the map to find unique locations like story-missions or shops. In contrast, Grand Theft Auto IV usually has a few missions running concurrently, so the map is the best way to see what options are available.

What can we take away form these observations on how the inclusion or exclusion of an overview map contributes to the understanding of space and the making of place? Maps can be useful means by which the geography of space can be comprehended at once and are useful when the relationship between spaces are an important part of gameplay. They are also good tools for marking relevant geographic locations: missions, destinations, the locations of objects, etc.

However, it is easy to abuse a map when designing a game. In the case of Spider-Man 2, the map contained a flood of information that was less meaningful because of its abundance. Cosgrove criticized modern maps as merely images of locations of travel removed from place, and too often this happens in video games.1 Maps should serve as a reference, not a crutch. If a player is constantly referring to the map to remember locations, the game has done a poor job at establishing the player’s orientation and memory of physical locations in the game.

  1. Cosgrove, Denis. “Carto-City.” In Else/Where: Mapping New Cartographies of Networks and Territories, by Janet Abrams and Peter Hall, 148-165. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006. Pg 150.
posted by Bobby in Imaging Space,Video Games and have Comments Off

Playing the Airport

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.

posted by Bobby in Architecture,Experience Design,Transportation,Video Games and have Comments Off

Naming and Places: “In the Metro” of Fallout 3

Of all the many reasons I enjoy studying the space of videogames, the translation of real physical spaces into game levels, environments, and worlds perhaps fascinates me the most. The choices made during the construction of these spaces reveals much about our assumptions and understanding of the world we live in. Whether imbued with romanticized notions or reduced to their most functional properties, we codify our world into mechanics, geometry, textures, and tasks.

One type of space from our world that interests me is transportation space. I’ve 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. Expect some airport related writing soon. I am also currently reading Marc Augé’s In the Metro (translated from French by Tom Conley). I wrote about the Washington, D.C. Metro last year in relation to Fallout 3, and included observations on the New York City subway in my thesis on “Representations of the City in Videogames.”


At the time I had not read Augé, so these topics are worth revisiting in light of this new critical lens. I want to specifically return to my discussion of Fallout 3, in which I highlight the multitude of uses for the Metro. It serves a similar role to the typical videogame dungeon—a hostile space full of monsters that you enter to find items, loot, and gain battle experience. Dungeons expand the space of the game by creating non– world-map or overworld environments. In a 3D game like Fallout 3, however, there still needs to be a x- and y- plane mapping of the dungeon to the world above because the player uses it to traverse distances. It is impossible travel overland to all points in the Wasteland because obstacles block the way. The Metro, then, guides the player’s movement from one place to the next.

This subverts our expectations of the subway. When I ride the subway, Metro, MARTA train, tube, of whatever you want to call it, I have an expectation that I will follow a designated path which can only get from point A to point D by passing through B and C. On the more complicated rail systems, the subway gives options for transferring trains, but even though I may construct multiple paths to the same destination, I have no way of traveling on anything but the rail.

This means that any pedestrian movement inside the tunnels of the subway produces surprising results. A map of the DC Metro would be of no help to a Fallout 3 player, because the designated routes of the tracks have been destroyed and altered. Traveling on foot down a new tunnel in the Metro, I have no idea where I might end up. Fallout 3 uses this to complicate overworld travel, while providing more space for the player to explore and more enemies for the player to encounter.

But I want to add something from Marc Augé I find particularly relevant. The setting of Fallout 3 is post-apocalyptic Washington, DC—an uninhabitable world poisoned by radiation and overrun by monsters. Many humans have taken refuge in underground bunkers called Vaults, while others live on the surface in camps formed in the ruins of old buildings. The closer into the center of the city, the more identifiable the referents. This is no doubt because it is easier to recreate monuments and landmarks than the characterless suburbs of Maryland and Virginia (in which I lived for 21 years). Representing these areas, then, becomes as easy as naming them.

As Augé notes, subway stations are named in a handful of different ways. A name might refer to a street or intersection, a neighborhood, a landmark, or even a person. These tell the riders a story. A subway station named for a landmark tells us something about the destination of those who disembark at that point. A station named for only a street or intersection seems to indicate there are no points of interest above. When named for a person, the station not only asks questions about that person’s importance to the metropolitan area, but also why that station in particular was commemorated.

The Metro stations in Fallout 3 commemorate something else. They’re the memorials of an infrastructure, a way of moving, and a way of organizing a world that no longer exists. Many stations retained their pre-war names of actual Metro stops: Falls Church, Dupont Circle, Farragut, L’Enfant Plaza, etc. These are the names of places that once had meaning, though now are little more than geographic referents. Some stations, to help the player better navigate the world, are named for landmarks both important to our world and the game’s world: The Mall, The White House, Our Lady of Hope Hospital.

Because they are not the only usable points of transportation, it is not only the actual stations that get names in the Fallout 3 wasteland. Some Metro tunnels dump out into sewer systems or service corridors. These places only became used after the war. Irradiated Metro, Flooded Metro, Collapsed Car Tunnel, and the Tepid Sewer are equally as important as their officially sanctioned counterparts.


In Augé’s Metro, the structure of the subway is an abstraction of the world above. The Louvre station in France is decorated like a little museum, names commemorate the people and places that live above the ground, and the people waiting on the platform form population microcosms.

Yet, in Fallout 3 the Metro is an abstraction of a world that doesn’t exists. Actually, two worlds that don’t exist. On the one hand there is the simulacrum of the Washington, DC that exists in our world. With a handful of exceptions, naming serves as little more than a nod to real places to give Fallout 3 a sense of place. On the other hand, the real world of D.C. is parallel to the pre-war world of Fallout 3′s D.C. Neither exist in any way the game can interact with beyond the representation of something that once was and is no longer. They exist only as memorials to how we organize and move through our world.

posted by Bobby in Architecture,Urban,Video Games and have Comments (2)