Lately I've been doing some amateur dabbling in theories of space. One interesting book I'm reading is Kevin Lynch's The Image of the City. According to the Lynch, our cities should not be understood as facts about arrangements of bricks and metal, but as a shared social constructs, collectively read and navigated by inhabitants. In the minds of their residents, cities are mentally modeled around important landmarks that function as connecting passages and allow the creation of heuristically functional (though perhaps factually faulty) cognitive maps. (De Certeau would add that in daily life, we read and write cities as we traverse them, drawing and inscribing new meaning with each navigation.)
Though Lynch's books praises the virtues of "legible" cities, he acknowledges in the first chapter that, where the stakes are low and the boundary limits of a space are understood, there can be pleasures to being lost. Being lost, when time allows, can be enjoyable as a puzzle, tantalizing the reader with an unrecognized pattern. Another qualification he provides to the goal of legibility is that cities are (and should be) living and decentralized art forms. A static city is dead. Prefiguring de Certeau, Lynch explains that citizens do (and must) have the ability to erase and fill in the content of city spaces.
So I've been wondering a bit about how our mental construction of real
cities might carry over to the structure of virtual worlds. As we've
noted here before, there are important reasons why virtual architecture
need not, and perhaps ought not, look like real architectures. But generally it does, making the similarities and dissimilarities worth thinking about for students of the virtual.
Given my interest in the topic, I was happy today to find Nicolas Nova linking to this paper by Georgia Leigh McGregor on the topic of Architecture, Space and Gameplay in World of Warcraft and Battle for Middle Earth 2. McGregor understands the nature of the problem: "As artificial and abstract human constructs, all aspects of videogame worlds (even landscape) can be read as a built environment. Videogame worlds are architectural." The article leads off by citing to Aarseth on the primacy of space in video games and de Certeau on practice. The topic of the paper is the comparison of architecture in World of Warcraft with Battle for Middle Earth II.
While the main take-away of the comparison should come as no surprise to readers here (MMOG architecture is much more spatial that RTS architecture), the paper provides a nice explanation of exactly how and why that is so. E.g., here's a paragraph that sums up how WoW's space mimics architecture:
World of Warcraft privileges architecture as a spatial experience. It is concerned with the ability to move through space, constructing architecture as a series of solids and voids. When we interact with the architecture we are alternately channelled and impeded. The architecture encompasses us, organizing our activities into discrete zones and structuring the way in which we move between activities. In Ironforge I go to the auction house to sell things, the bank to deposit items for storage and the inn to buy food. This is a spatial architecture that mimics the ways in which we use architecture as containers for specific purposes in the real world. The architecture has what architects call program, so that Ironforge can be divided into circulation space and activity space. This is space that works on a personal level, an intimate experience, where we guide our avatar through the intricacies of the game world looking through their eyes.
And the author, at one point, notes that how legibility plays an important part in WoW's architectural structure:
Wayfinding in the locales of World of Warcraft becomes an important part of gameplay where distinctive landmarks and differentiation in locales act as signposts that direct the player. In addition the diversity of ecology in both games helps to provide difference and retain interest in what might otherwise been seen as repetitive play.
Also, the author notes how various spatial regions emphasize and de-emphasize legibility for the purpose of improving the game experience:
It is worth noting that within any area of greater architectural density in which a number of important player related activities take place, such as the Undead capital of the Undercity, there are directions available from non-player characters. Conversely some of the most activity rich combat nodes, such as the quest laden Blackrock Depths increase the wayfinding challenge through spatial complexity and by not providing maps (a challenge met by players with add-on maps, quest walkthroughs and guided dungeon runs).
In addition to pointing to some reading, here are some questions for discussion for those so inclined. In WoW (or in any other MMO), are there places where you get lost where you'd prefer to have a mental map? Are there places where your mental map is too clear and you'd prefer to get lost more often? Which spaces are too big and which are too small? Is it right that virtual ecological diversity is simply "chrome" that masks repetitive game play -- or does that create a false dichotomy?
In short, what are your thoughts on how well virtual architectural space (in games or UGC worlds) is handled?
Update Aug 31 '07: Nic points to this Gamasutra essay by Ernest Adams that's quite on point.
Update II Aug 31 '07: And thanks to Mike Schramm of WoW Insider for kind words & linkage! His thoughts here.