Thursday, March 4, 2010

S03. Mentally Mapping the Virtual Space, Wearing a Second Skin

Having finished both the Manovich and Jameson readings, I see a confluence between Jameson’s problematic notion of the possibly nonexistent “totality” and his conception of “cognitive mapping” with Manovich’s discussion of character building and gameplay through a navigable 3-D space, specifically in the example of the MMORPG World of Warcraft, especially as it is depicted in the recent documentary, Second Skin.

In World of Warcraft, players from all over the world begin at the same point. They build an avatar for themselves and start from scratch in a new world. In Second Skin, this idea is seen as a major reason for the game’s popularity, because it provides an escape for players who feel dissatisfied with their physical “real” lives. Anyone can rise to power in the game through perseverance and ability, with no constraints placed on them other than their own “merit”. This is where I see Jameson’s totality. All users start off equal, at the same point of inexperience, with no issues of talent, inheritance or society to stand in the way of their progress.

Referring back to Manovich, especially with his parallel between American Fiction narrative and modern game play, and Geert Lovink’s “Data Dandy”, this form of character design takes on new meaning. Each player begins at the same level, with the same number of relatively weak items. Characters gain experience through completing quests and defeating enemies, and once they have reached their peak, seek to collect the greatest assortment of in-game items available.

In this sense, each player is a “Data Dandy”, “wrapped in the finest facts and the most senseless gadgets…” They seek to better themselves both for the sake of improved performance, and for the sake of having a higher level/ better equipment than their peers. In Second Skin, this is explored further, by looking into the “underground” black market surrounding gold farming and character buying, in which players will pay a foreign (usually Chinese company) to mine gold for them or to build up a character for them with real world money. Similarly to Lovink’s theory that “the new dandy deregulates the time economy of info= money”, players are willing to pay money less for the gold/object itself, which has no real world value, than for the time they saved by having someone else do it for them.

On another level, part of what makes the game so enthralling, is the fact that its virtual world is thoroughly mapped, allowing each player to conceive of the virtual space within their heads, and navigable in all directions. As Jameson states, drawing from Kevin Lynch, “Urban alienation is directly proportional to the mental unmapability of local cityscapes.” Because players all share the same 3D navigable space, in which their avatar selves travel, experience and grow, they feel like they are part of something larger. In many ways, the game has also given them a sense of purpose, for while they might hold any number of “dead end jobs” to support their game play and occasionally pay off a Chinese player, for the first time they get to feel one with the mythic conception of the hero discovering his potential and going out on an adventure.

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