Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The Sandbox Project - Virtual borders

Inspired by Darcy Osheim's thesis that examines World of Warcraft from a pedagogical perspective, I'm launching a little experiment in paragraph-level writing that explores the intersection of pedagogy and sandbox style gaming, focusing mainly on console games like GTA, Red Dead Redemption, and LA Noire. Aside from common interest, my project and Darcy's thesis are unrelated. These 'graphs are written without an outline. Their connections may be tenuous or superfluous. I may never finish. 

Sometimes the edges of a sandbox video game make sense; others, not so much. The best way to establish a border to a theoretically endless world is to install a natural barrier. I'm now playing Red Dead Redemption, and it appears that those white mountains in the North -- beyond the Tall Trees region where the bear and wolves await hapless explorers -- cannot be climbed. You can try, and I have indeed managed to coax myself up to dizzying heights. But eventually all players face the merciless constraints of virtual gravity.

I've read that Rockstar Games patterned the Redemption Mountains after the Rockies. Thinking about this choice summons memories of my family's first drive back in '96 through the snowy pass that drops into Denver. I recall an image of towering stone and frozen water emptying past the city into a flat green plain. Beyond that pancake prairie land lies more towns, more people. Drive long enough and you reach the ocean, yet another boundary that beckons us to beat on against the current.

Of course the ocean in some games is merely another kind of border. For players of Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, the ocean means certain death, which seems pretty funny to me. There I am, pumped and armed, a walking gun show, walking to my doom in four feet of water. A few steps, just a few more, and then… there I am, a virtual tough guy drowning in a sea of pixels. Apparently my avatar never learned how to swim.

Later iterations in the GTA series relax this draconian restriction somewhat, allowing players to swim for a while (conceivably forever in GTA: San Andreas, though into an endless plain of undifferentiated monotony). The GTA IV oceans, however, are not endless. Supposedly you can swim for about a half hour (real time) until the hitting a virtual wall [a gamer named indianasmith27 even produced a YouTube video to demonstrate this feat].

In one GTA forum, players compare this feature to The Truman Show, raising some interesting philosophical questions about the necessity of boundaries, both physical and virtual. One illustrative quote: "There's going to be nothing 'out there.' It's just the ocean or the desert. It would have mattered if we had some incentive to go out there and look for something. But that has never been the case."

Fair enough. Yet I wonder, what if there is something "out there," past the point where most players stop clicking those buttons (or peel the tape off their trigger), a new level waiting for that chosen few willing to endure to the end. Moments like this, I can't help but imagine that the next religion will be founded in virtual space.

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