I have previously blogged about convergence of the physical world and digital information. The phenomenon’s relevance to the discipline of geography should be obvious, since it is changing not only the way people interact with the world, but also physical space itself.
Some geographies only exist in digital form—i.e. they have no real-world counterpart—yet people interact through and with these virtual environments. While instances of this virtual space are created for various purposes (e.g. conferencing software or combat training), in this post I will mainly draw upon video/computer game environments as examples.
Should geographers concern themselves with these virtual worlds? In case you haven’t guessed, my answer is: absolutely. In the following, I would like to outline three reasons why I hold this position.
My first argument is simply that an increasing number of players of computer games (especially massive multiplayer online role-playing games like World of Warcraft) are deeply immersed in the virtual world of the game. They spend a lot of time and money within the game, which appears to them as a stable alternate environment with a distinct geography where they engage in long-term social relationships with other players. Who, then, is to decide that the space in which these very real investments and social relations take place is any less valid or worthy of examination than the physical world?
But of course, virtual space necessarily differs from “meatspace” in many aspects, which brings me to my second point. In the process of developing a video game—or a game engine—programmers and designers typically try to create a virtual environment that closely simulates the real world, or more precisely those aspects of the real world that are relevant to gameplay; flight simulators will focus on different details than fighting games, for example. Technical limitations and gameplay considerations dictate that most aspects of the physical world will not be simulated in detail, but rather subjected to abstraction and gross simplification.
In the SimCity series, crime is reduced by building more police stations in locations with a high crime rate. In Civilization IV, a computer controlled civilization is more likely to take hostile action towards your empire if you do not share their state religion. These are not results of processes within societies of simulated individuals of course, but simplifications that are hard-coded into the mechanics of the games. Examples for this type of abstraction exist in abundance. It is my hypothesis that in many cases these simplifications—along with the aim and indeed the concept of the game itself [the linked article is highly recommended]—are not conscious choices made by the developers but rather assumptions based on predominant views on society and concepts of space. Furthermore, in playing the game the player is inadvertently and subliminally taught “how the real world works”, i.e. those hegemonic views and concepts are reproduced through the medium of computer games.
My third and final argument is concerned with the interface between digital environments and human agents. Video games necessarily offer modes of interaction with the virtual space to the player; in well-designed games the user interface (UI) will be especially intuitive and adhere to certain conventions (e.g. left-clicking to select or activate an object, or dragging the terrain to move the “camera” in the opposite direction). These conventions have been built over generations of video games, and while they may seem intuitive to an experienced gamer, first-time players will not find them so obvious and require step-by-step instructions. Interestingly, the same conventions apply when navigating a digital representation of the physical world, like Google Earth.
In the 1983 film War Games, Matthew Broderick thinks he is playing a risk-type computer game on a digital world map; he does not know that the computer he has hacked into has the capability to fire actual nuclear missiles at Soviet Russia and start World War III. These days, the US military uses video games not only to recruit and train soldiers, but it carries out air strikes through game-like interfaces thousands of miles away.
My point is that in times of physical-digital convergence, we are increasingly able to interact with the real world in the same way that we do with virtual environments; behind the UI, virtual space and physical space become interchangeable. In my opinion, this is yet another reason why geographers should concern themselves with virtual space, how and for what purposes it is produced, the ways in which human agents navigate and manipulate it, as well as the social relations within it.