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Augmented Reality Games As Pathway To Social Realism
8 July 2011
Eric R. Alberts (3485595) Game Studies (201000078) MA New Media & Digital Culture David B. Nieborg
Eric R. Alberts
The goal of this paper is to place emphasis on the notion that augmented reality games (ARGs) have the potential to offer new opportunities for achieving social realism. Social realism in games is both the title and the main theme of the third chapter of Alexander Galloway’s1 book Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture. When social realism and games are combined, they can be regarded as games that “reflect critically on the minutiae of everyday life, replete as it is with struggle, personal drama and injustice” (74). An important condition for achieving social realism in games is what Galloway calls the ‘congruence requirement’. In order to achieve social realism “there must be some type of fidelity of context that transliterates itself from the social reality of the gamer, through one’s thumbs, into the game environment and back again” (78). When fidelity of context is present, true realism in gaming is achieved (ibid.). It is my belief that ARGs, in their essence, have potential to facilitate the congruence requirement, thereby achieving social realism. Approaching social realism and the aspect of reality in ARGs elicits placing this paper within the extensive debate on the problematic of representation. This debate includes discussion of representation in terms of whether or not meaning is created through visual or textual representation. In this debate images are either a faithful imitation of reality or they are fictional, thereby standing apart from the world in a separate semantic zone (Galloway 71). Social realism in games, however, is quite a different matter from games that merely strive for realistic representation or realism in an aesthetical sense. In his suggestion for embedding social realism within game studies, Galloway follows the work of architect and theorist Bruno Reichlin, who argues realism should be regarded as “a surgical examination of matters of society, an almost documentary attention to the everyday, […] a moreor-less direct criticism of current society and morals” (Reichlin 80). Game theorist Jesper Juul, moreover, paraphrases Galloway in considering social realist games as games that “speak to the player’s social experience and to marginalised communities” (Juul 508). It is for the sake of this paper’s argument important to see the distinction between games that strive for a high level of realistic visual representation, or as Galloway states ‘realistic-ness’, and realism in terms of “real life in all its dirty details” (74). Social realism is therefore a larger understanding of realism than as referred to in prior and existing debates of representation. Games have the possibility to enhance critical reflection on ideological issues without losing the enjoyable experience.
Game designer and researcher Gonzalo Frasca, who focuses on serious and political games, also make this claim. In order to uplift games from the belief they are simply toys one should assume a critical attitude. When a critical attitude is realised “videogames could become a medium for exploring and discussing our personal and social realities” (Frasca 173). The aim of his paper is to examine in what way ARGs specifically offer new opportunities for social realism, thereby acting as a means of consciousness-raising as stated by Frasca. To achieve this goal I shall first explore the properties of ARGs and frame them within contemporary context and as part of so-called ‘pervasive’ games. When context is provided and the properties of ARGs have been fleshed out, the comparison with social realist games can be made in order to see if and how ARGs offer new opportunities for achieving social realism. To exemplify his argument, Galloway discusses two games in the first-person shooter genre (FPS). Under Ash (2001), published by Syrian company Dar Al-Fikr, and Special Force (2003), released by the Lebanese organisation Hezbollah. To invigorate my argument I shall stay with these two FPS games and discuss if and how ARGs can offer new possibilities for achieving social realism. In conducting this research I hope to contribute to a better comprehension of a new form of gaming, which is still in its infancy but offers a whole new set of opportunities for game developers and game players alike. Moreover, I hope to breath life in the words of Ian Bogost when he stated that video games are “sophisticated statements about the world around us [and] have the power to make arguments, to persuade, to express ideas” (Bogost 137).
2 Framing ARGs
Before considering ARGs as new opportunities for social realism, a clear comprehension of this new type of games needs to be established. Contextualising ARGs and describing their core properties will make clear the differences with the games used by Alexander Galloway to describe the essence of social realism. This way it will be easier to foreground those aspects of ARGs, which are viewed in this paper as new opportunities for achieving social realism. ARGs are commonly placed under the over-arching concept of pervasive games, which subsumes different game formats and technologies. Other examples of pervasive games, besides ARGs, are mobile games, location-based games, ubiquitous games, virtual reality games and adaptronic games (Walther). What these games have in common is that they aim at combining the properties and advantages of the physical and
Eric R. Alberts
social world on the one hand, as well as the virtual on the other hand (Hinske et al.). In other words, through play, pervasive games merge computing with the physical and social environment. The increasing dispersion of mobile communication technologies and networks enables a proliferation of opportunities for pervasive play in everyday spaces (McGonigal 1). Because most mobile technologies possess both communication and computing abilities, they have moved “computing […] away from the desktop and workplace into the fabric of everyday life” (Crabtree & Rodden 492). The associations that communication devices had with the work and office culture changed to being friendly, playful, expressive and fashionable (Manovich, “Interaction” 1). Thus, through the dispersion of mobile communication technologies, the notion of play in postmodern culture is amplified2 (Raessens). Because pervasive games allow players to move through the physical world, the gaming experience is extended. The player becomes “unchained from the console and experiences the game that is interwoven with the real world and is potentially available at any place and any time” (Benford et al. 54). Literally, ‘pervasive’ means ‘totally penetrating’, hence the name pervasive gaming to underscore that these games are moving beyond the static screen and spreading throughout the real, social and tangible world (Walther). In further theorising the notion of blurring boundaries between previously perceived separate spaces, this paper draws on the theory of French sociologist and philosopher Henri Lefebvre. In the Lefebvrian notion of space there is indeed a unity between physical, mental, and social space. This is a fundamentally different notion than, say, the Cartesian or Kantian consideration of space, which dominated up until the mid-seventies. Descartes thought of space in terms of co-ordinates, lines and planes, as Euclidian geometry. Kant saw space and time in terms of a priori, absolute categories, structuring all experiences (Elden 107). Lefebvre, instead, draws on Hegel and Marx together with other thinkers like Heidegger and Nietzsche to form a postmodern concept of space creating a new “practice that seriously shifts the cultural landscape away from its familiar modern parameters” (Poster 8). Letting go of these modern parameters clears the path to move to a comprehension of augmented space. Lev Manovich defines augmented space as “the physical space overlaid with dynamically changing information” (Manovich, “Poetics” 220). Superimposing a layer of dynamically changing information onto the physical world may imply that these spaces are somehow actually separate. However, drawing on the Lefebvrian
construction of space makes it possible to regard the layer of dynamically changing information, physical space and social space as a unity, a hybrid space. According to Adriana de Souza e Silva3 hybrid spaces “merge the physical and the digital in a social environment created by the mobility of users connected via mobile technology devices” (263) whereby the digital environment in this context is understood as the layer of dynamically changing information. Applications on mobile devices are subsequently able to dynamically deliver or extract data from the hybrid space. An example of such an application is in fact an ARG. According to Nilsen et al. ARGs have the unique ability to overlay virtual information on an outdoor environment, thereby combining the strengths from two worlds into a game world (87). Extending this notion to the concept of hybrid space, however, clears the path to also regard social space as an intrinsic part of the game world. Framing ARGs as applications that integrate social space offers new opportunities for achieving social realism. This will be the field of inquiry of the next chapter.
3 Social realism in ARGs
In order to achieve true realism in gaming Galloway suggests there must be some kind of congruence, some type of fidelity of context present (Galloway 78). At the end of the chapter Galloway is more specific in how the congruence requirement should be met. According to Galloway it all boils down to the affect of the gamer. In a true realist game congruence between the real political reality of the gamer and the ability for the game to mimic and extend that political reality should emerge (83). To clarify how this works Galloway uses two examples. Under Ash (2001) lets you be a Palestinian man who fights back against Israeli occupation. Special Force (2003) is released by and based upon the Lebanese organisation Hezbollah and their holy war against Israel (81). In both these FPS games the social realities of the downtrodden classes are captured. But when a young Palestinian plays either of these games in the occupied territories the game is also immediately injected back into the correct social milieu of the gamer (84). When these requirements are met true realism in gaming is achieved. This means the congruence requirement is in fact twofold. First, a game should capture everyday life in all its details. It should capture the minutiae of everyday life replete as it is with struggle, personal drama and injustice (74). Second, there should also be some kind of critical reflection, a direct criticism of current social policy, which is relevant to the gamer (80). In order to see if ARGs are able to meet the congruence requirement I would like to discuss these two parts individually.
Eric R. Alberts
When it comes to capturing everyday life in all its details, ARGs offer the adequate tools to do this. Unlike the games discussed by Galloway, ARGs work on “actual things in actual space […] a typical AR system adds information that is directly related to the user’s immediate physical space” (Manovich, “Poetics” 230). The material reality, which according to Galloway cannot be excised from the game in order for it to be realist, is therefore automatically subsumed and integrated into the game. Its core property to work on actual things in actual space makes ARGs surpass regular, living room-based video games in the sense that the virtual game world is replaced by the immediate physical space of the player. Thus, the chance of capturing the details of everyday life becomes all the more plausible. Moreover, ARGs allow the context in which they are played to shift from fixed to variable. Because ARGs are applications running on mobile devices they can be played anywhere at any time. The game world of an ARG, therefore, becomes dependent on the immediate physical location of the player, changing each time the player moves around. For instance, if Under Ash were an ARG, the context in which the Palestinian conflict unfolds will change with each time the player changes its physical location. The material reality of the player is therefore always embedded into the game, thereby strengthening the personal investment of the gamer in the game. Whether fidelity can get any higher than when it is related to the actual physical environment is open for (philosophical) debate. When it comes to capturing everyday life and fidelity of context in games, it is difficult to maintain that a fixed and virtual representation exceeds a one-to-one integration of the player’s physical environment. The second part of the congruence requirement calls for a critical reflection on the social environment, which should be relevant to the player of the game. Considering if and how ARGs can offer new opportunities to this part of the requirement is somewhat more complicated. Because of the complexity I will first draw on the Lefebvrian notion of space to argue that ARGs inherently reflect on the social environment of the player. Later on in this chapter I will discuss whether or not this reflection also satisfies the “unrequited desires” (Galloway 83) of the player. As stated in the preceding chapter, Henri Lefebvre regards space as a unity consisting of physical, mental and social space. Lefebvre also underlines that the production of space is always a social and political process (Elden 105). Adding to this point, De Souza e Silva regards space as “a concept produced and embedded by social practices” (De Souza e Silva 271). From this theory social space is regarded as an intrinsic part of hybrid space. Thus, when playing ARGs, which enable the
proliferation of hybrid space, correspondences are established with specific activities existent in the social reality of the gamer. Because ARGs unfold within hybrid space, they inherently touch upon and reflect on the social environment of the player. Now, the question whether this reflection satisfies the unrequited desires of the player is somewhat of a different matter. It is difficult for ARGs to offer any new possibilities than traditional video games already do. This is largely because in order to achieve this, the narrative has to exactly match the player’s political reality. A Palestinian teenager in the occupied territories playing Under Ash or Special Force has a larger personal investment in these games because these games depict the struggle that they face every day (Galloway 81). Thinking of Under Ash and Special Force as ARGs does not really change this. However, via a detour ARGs might offer a new opportunity. According to Lev Manovich “augmenting the space in which someone is present also means augmenting himself (Manovich, “Poetics” 231). With this in mind and the notion that ARGs offer the opportunity to merge any narrative with the physical and social reality of the player could lead to satisfaction of unrequited desires of the player. Through playing ARGs the narrative collides with the player’s own political situation, thereby affecting the player. ARGs are able to provide an immersive, real-time experience whereby true congruence could emerge between the player’s political reality and that of the game. ARGs not only “mimic and extend that political reality” (Galloway 81), but also augment it, thereby augmenting the player as well.
From the latter one may conclude that ARGs still not fully offer true realism according to the standards set by Alexander Galloway. It is indeed not always possible to inject ARGs back into the correct social milieu, as this depends partially on the personal context of the player itself. Whether ARGs offer true realism was however not the aim of this paper. The primary goal was to explore if and how ARGs are able to offer new opportunities for achieving social realism. It is key to understand that social realism is not a fixed concept. The experience of realism may increase or decrease with every individual player. What this paper has tried to uncover is that ARGs are able to provide a high fidelity of context. At least higher than the games Under Ash and Special Force, which Galloway uses as examples. I have tried to do this by showing that ARGs extend the gaming experience beyond the screen. Its core properties allow for game elements to merge with the physical
Eric R. Alberts
and social environment. Through the theory of Henri Lefebvre and De Souza e Silva I have framed this merged space as hybrid space. The notion of hybrid space clears the path for understanding the AR game world as an intertwining of physical, digital, and social space from which players can either add or extract information. The goal of this paper is to place emphasis on the notion that augmented reality games (ARGs) have the potential to offer new opportunities for achieving social realism. I have argued that ARGs are pervasive games and are therefore able to fully penetrate the real, social and tangible world. But they also allow for players to alter or augment their immediate reality and themselves. This brings me to the closing words of Sherry Turkle’s book The Second Self, which apply well to the latter notion of augmentation. According to Turkle “when you play a video game you are a player in a game programmed by someone else. When children begin to do their own programming, they are not deciphering somebody else’s mystery” (Turkle 92). What if ‘programming’ in this context means ‘augmenting’? Then players of ARGs are deciphering their own mystery, themselves, their own social reality.
Bogost, Ian. “The Rhetoric of Video Games.” The Ecology of Games: Connecting Youth, Games, and Learning. Ed. Katie Salen. The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Series on Digital Media and Learning. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2008. 117-140. Crabtree, A. and T. Rodden. “Hybrid Ecologies: Understanding Cooperative Interaction in Emerging Physical-Digital Environments.” Personal and Ubiquitous Computing 12 (2008): 481-493. Elden, S. “There Is a Politics of Space Because Space Is Political: Henri Lefebvre and the Production of Space.” Radical Philosophy Review 10 (2007): 101-116. Frasca, Gonzalo. “Rethinking Agency and Immersion: Videogames as a Means of Consciousness-raising.” Digital Creativity 12.3 (2001): 167-174. Galloway, Alexander R. Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006. Juul, Jesper, review of Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture, by Alexander R. Galloway. International Journal of Cultural Studies 10.4 (2007): 508-510. Manovich, Lev. “Interaction as an Aesthetic Event.” Receiver 17 (2006): 1-17.
Manovich, Lev. “The Poetics of Augmented Space.” Visual Communication 5.2 (2006): 219-240. McGonigal, Jane. “A Real Little Game: The Pinocchio Effect in Pervasive Play.” In Proceedings of DiGRA’s Level-Up (2003). Nilsen, Trond et al. “Motivations for Augmented Reality Gaming.” Proceedings of NZGDC 4 (2004): 86-93. Poster, M. “Digitally Local Communications: Technologies and Space.” The Global and the Local in Mobile Communication: Places, Images, People, Connections. Budapest, June. 10 Dec. 2004. Raessens, J. “Playful Identities, or the Ludification of Culture.” Games and Culture 1 (2006): 52-57. Reichlin, Bruno. “Figures of Neorealism in Italian Architecture (Part 1).” Grey Room 5 (2001): 79-101. Souza e Silva, A. de. “From Cyber to Hybrid: Mobile Technologies as Interfaces of Hybrid Spaces.” Space and Culture 9 (2006): 261-278. Special Force. PC game. 2003. Turkle, Sherry. The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1984. Under Ash. PC game. Dar Al-Fikr, 2001. Walther, Bo K. “Pervasive Gaming: Formats, Rules and Space.” The Fibreculture Journal 7 Nov. 2006. 6 Jul. 2011 <http://eight.fibreculturejournal.org/fcj-053pervasive-gaming-formats-rules-and-space/>.
Alexander R. Galloway is currently Assistant Professor of Culture and
Communication at the University of New York (NYU). Furthermore, Galloway is author and programmer. He created the surveillance tool for networks “Carnivor” and is a founding member of the software collective RSG.
The accentuated notion of play within our culture through the dispersive usage of
(mobile) communication devices to all areas of people’s lives has been conceptualised as the ‘ludification of culture’. This is a term coined by the Dutch
Eric R. Alberts
professor in media theory and initiator of the Playful Identities project Joost Raessens.
Adriana de Souza e Silva is an Associate Professor at the IT University of
Copenhagen (ITU) in the Department of Digital Culture. She has done research on how mobile interfaces help shape people’s interactions with public spaces.
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