Thursday, March 14, 2013

The Sandbox Project - Mini-Mapping

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. 

Because of their expansive and apparently open-ended nature, sandbox games often provide a roving reference point in the form of a mini-map. The map "roves" to the extent that one may see it while walking, running, swimming, or flying. One may read it during a firefight or while exploring an unlit cave. In this way the map's roving quality becomes ironic, at least when one considers its ever-present placement on the screen (or at least its near instant accessibility via button click). Mini-maps come in handy when the larger world of the game gets too big and complex. But what if maps do more harm than good?

Kirk Hamilton has written that the consistency of a well-crafted gaming environment - augmented by landmarks, signs, and symbols - enables a player to master geography and navigate without always-on maps. Indeed these tools may limit a player's ability or inclination to engage an environment personally, richly, meaningfully, if only because the map distills an already abstract world to an even more detached manifestation, such as when threatening foes (actually animated pixel-pictures) become reduced to red dots. No matter how rewarding a game's premise, too much map-reliance risks transforming a world of experience into an exercise in button-mashing. Providing a point of comparison, Hamilton recalls his decision to forgo Grand Theft Auto's map feature:

"[I was struck by] how much more exciting combat became: wildly intense, visceral, and a bit terrifying. With no map and no HUD, the game's first large-scale shootout in Vlad's bar was as intense as the culminating sequence of a big-budget crime film. Walking into Comrade's, I felt as wired as Michael Corleone sitting down at the restaurant table on that fateful night in The Godfather. When Niko drew down, gunfire erupted with great chaos and bloodshed. In the immediate aftermath, Niko crouched behind a table as I wondered if the coast was clear. Was the armed bartender still crouching back there, waiting? Had I taken him out, or only clipped him?"

Reflecting on Hamilton's argument, I reflect on efforts to produce the equivalent of always-on maps in my classroom lectures, activities, and assignments. I recognize good reasons for the inclusion of these maps; many students grow frustrated by seemingly unstructured learning environments, and their how-do-I-do-this? questions can tax even the most patient professor. But I admit that my perpetual mapmaking and instruction-revision sometimes distracts me from time better spent trying to solidify ideas, inspire exploration, and encourage risk-taking.

No, I won't abandon the map just yet. I certainly don't anticipate refiguring my classes as open-ended "explorations" without navigation tools. A solidly written course description, syllabus, and daily agenda can be essential, no matter how open the class may be. Still, I can't help but ask: How might I better integrate mapless adventure into my students' (and my own) learning experiences? How can I help students learn to transcend the dismal science of taking directions, to start making maps themselves?

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