Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Espen Aarseth's "A Hollow World" and Experiencing Games

“The notion of a ‘gameworld’ is a tricky one, since it implies that what we are looking at is actually a world. Games have carefully constructed arenas optimized for gameplay, and their resemblance to real worlds is usually second to their function as playground and social channel.” (Aarseth 121)

In “A Hollow World: World of Warcraft as Spatial Practice” Espen Aarseth examines the gameworld of World of Warcraft and argues that the primary function of this constructed space is not a sense of realism but a mediation of the pleasurable experience of the game. That is, space in WoW is designed to be quick to navigate while giving the illusion of complexity. He proposes that space is artificial or “slick” meaning that while it appears fantastic, it only functions to channel players through the world; players never have ability to actually change physical space of the world or leave a mark on it. Instead of responding to the players the world only changes and expands as a the game is updated, which Aarseth suggests is a marketing model intended to attract new players and to keep old players coming back, similar to theme park expansions.

A second aspect of his analysis examines the space of WoW in terms of distance. He writes “not only are the distances absurdly small, but the curious adjacency of glaciers, marshes, jungles, deserts, and agonistic ethnic groups and wild life challenges the critical explorer to take the world seriously.” (Aarseth 120) Aarseth uses the size of objects in the game world to evaluate the size of the world itself, what he argues is that in terms of real world equivalents the gameworld of WoW is only about several miles across. This diminished space has two functions: first, it makes travel more feasible and, second, through non-linear exploration it allows for an exaggerated sense of scale. Obviously the compressed space of Azeroth allows players to move between points in a timely fashion. Aarseth compares exploration in WoW to the distances traveled by characters in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, where places are hundreds of miles apart. He proposes that while these distances pose no real problem in literature, where the reader is not actually forced to endure the duration of this travel, in the gameworld travel times must be compressed to preserve enjoyment. This demand for quick navigability necessitates that the gameworld be small. In order to then preserve the illusion of space the navigation of this space is regulated and non-linear. Instead of allowing players to simply walk across the map, their movement is regulated by quests and high level monsters which limit access to particular zones.

So, this regulation of compressed space coupled with the fixity, or hollowness of the gameworld produces what Aarseth identifies as a theme-park-like environment. This study is interesting as we consider digital labor and play because it suggest that the gamewold is designed in order to diminish the labor of play- the effort and time spent traveling, and to maximize the sense of exploration and progress. Furthermore, by considering game-space Aarseth presents an interesting approach to the study of player experience in games. We can begin to see the psychological (maybe affective?) relationships players form based on the space of the gameworld.

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