Le Monde recently published a fascinating cultural analysis of Red Dead Redemption 2, a massive AAA video game production set in the US in the late 19th century. This piece reminded me that some (artistically mature) video games enable the exploration of places and their social relations, combining the powers of cinema, role-playing games, and (in rare instances) literature. Read Dead Redemption 2, argues film scholar Mehdi Derfoufi in Le Monde, expresses the melancholy of white male heroes in their brutal conquest of the Wild West, perhaps, I would add, capturing the current revival of ethnic nationalisms. Video games of such thematic complexity and breath, in my view, can become places in themselves, places that range from admittedly inaccurate and yet stunning historical reconstructions, such as those of Assassin’s Creed, to fantasy and sci-fi worlds with a more marked suspension of disbelief – the awe-inspiring underwater Art Deco city in Bioshock comes to mind. These are places in which players, in most cases without realising it, engage with social and cultural (and gendered) relations, which more often than not tend to be immersed in senseless masculine violence and aggression.
Luckily, many social scientists and scholars take video games seriously. A notable case that struck me some years ago was an analysis of the imperialist mindset of first-person shooters, in which it is considered fun to run around Middle Eastern cities to blow non-white people up to assert old-fashioned colonial dominance (Höglund, 2008). As a casual gamer, I knew that those games echoed the crass ethos of low-brow 1980s action movies but it was a pleasure to see that spelt out more competently than I could have done. As far as I know, the interdisciplinary field of games studies is doing rather well, across film and media studies, also involving other academic sub-tribes. What impact this scholarship has had on the industry and actual practices is hard for me to tell, particularly in the AAA arena.
Surprisingly, geographers and GIScientists have largely ignored video games as a realm of inquiry, despite it being a large and booming portion of the media landscape, with an increasing impact on popular culture. There are some significant exceptions, of course. A rare study from a decade ago tackled the prominent use of maps in video games, showing how the spatial computing capabilities of some games outstripped commercial GIS platforms, particularly in the graphics domain (Shepherd & Bleasdale-Shepherd, 2009). An equally unusual systematic discussion from the perspective of human geography can be found in Ash & Gallacher (2011). More recently, the rather short-lived boom of Pokémon Go attracted discussion about the niche of location-based games (Ahlqvist, 2016), although I get the feeling that it might go dormant again for a while.
Here are some research questions, partly spelt out by Ash & Gallacher (2011), that geographers and game experts might find interesting (and I encourage you to send me others):
- What is the educational potential of current video games in geography teaching? Sim City was a fantastic (and fun) simulator of urban planning. Are there more recent examples of “teachable” games that are relevant to geography?
- What are the different modes of interaction with places in video games, beyond the aforementioned case of shooting people in the face in the Global South? How can we promote a more progressive engagement with places?
- How does place attachment work in video games? How can the classic theories of place be applied to the ludic realm?
- What places and peoples tend to be over- and under-represented in video games?
- What is the relationship between game genres and places? Are there recognisable archetypes?
- What is the geography of the game industry? What are the cores/peripheries/flows of this geography?
Plenty of room for future work, I would say.
Ahlqvist, Ola. “Location‐Based Games.” International Encyclopedia of Geography: People, the Earth, Environment and Technology: People, the Earth, Environment and Technology (2016): 1-4.
Ash, J., & Gallacher, L. A. (2011). Cultural geography and videogames. Geography Compass, 5(6), 351-368.
Höglund, J. (2008). Electronic empire: Orientalism revisited in the military shooter. Game Studies, 8(1).
Shepherd, I. D. H. & Bleasdale-Shepherd, I. D. (2009) Videogames: the new GIS?, Virtual geographic environments (Science Press).