Monday, March 8, 2010

"8-bit NYC" by Brett Camper and Additional Notes on Video Game Cartography

Statue of Liberty overhead map rendered by 8-bit.

8-bit NYC is a totally zoomable, interactive map of New York City rendered in the style of NES games - personally, I think it most closely resembles the maps of the Dragon Warrior series:

Awesomely, Camper is soliciting funds to Build 15 more cities, including Boston, San Francisco, D.C., London and Paris. (Kyoto, home of NES headquarters, is conspicuously absent). And, if you contribute, you can get a number of various goodies, including the option to name a city for inclusion.

Video Game Cartography
The whole thing has got me thinking about video game cartography, guys.

Video games depend on cartography. Essentially, games are designed as maps and performed, by the player, as musical scores. What can video game cartography show us about the world?

There seem to be two categories of video game world maps, provided we begin by eliminating the side-scroller:

A) Video game maps with real-world parallels.
B) Video game maps of completely fictitious worlds.

Video game maps with real-world parallels.
Destiny of an Emperor's map of China, Gegege no Kitaro 2's surprisingly beautiful map of Japan.

I can't find a rendering for the Japan of "Nobunaga's Ambition" or the China of "Romance of the Three Kingdoms."

Nor can I find any video game that includes a map of the United States, or any continent that isn't Asia. Perhaps this explains a generation of lackluster geography students. These maps don't blink.

I can, however, find Disney World, as rendered by the game "Adventures in the Magic Kingdom" -

Video games of completely fictitious worlds.

This is, by far, the most dominant mapping of video game space.

Some enormous maps: Earth Bound, Faria, and of course, Hyrule from Legend of Zelda.

When Maps are the territory
With enough time and effort, someone could put together a visual culture analysis of how video game maps reflect our interactions with the spaces they claim to represent.

Korzybski writes, "The map is not the territory," but for the sake of video games, the map IS the territory. Neil Gaiman writes, "One describes a tale best by telling the tale. You see? The way one describes a story, to oneself or the world, is by telling the story. It is a balancing act and it is a dream. The more accurate the map, the more it resembles the territory. The most accurate map possible would be the territory, and thus would be perfectly accurate and perfectly useless. The tale is the map that is the territory."

The maps of video games are the most accurate maps possible, because the map and the territory are the same when you're playing. Notably, renderings of game maps (often included in the boxes or sold in strategy guides) aren't interactive, so they are less useful than the actual game map. The game, itself, is "perfectly accurate and perfectly useless." Maybe you get your character killed in the process of figuring out the space you occupy in the game. C'est la vie.

Perhaps an academic study of the visual culture of video game cartography would find that a generation raised on an interactive fantasyland of playable maps - maps which are the territory - ended up with an instinctively different concept of real vs. virtual and organic vs. synthetic interactions. An 8-bit induced 'fallacy of misplaced concreteness.'

No question that 'simulations of interactions' can now be treated the same way 'in-flesh interactions' are treated: See Twitter, Facebook and flame wars. Growing up with the world of the primal map - where our bodies sit motionless while our minds and screens explore caves, shoot aliens, fight dragons, unify Japan and spur real, physical and psychological responses - has left us in a limbo where the real world and its simulation are no longer separated. The map is the territory, and the screen is where the action is.

This is our future, guys.

(8-bit NYC came to my attention by way of Michael Mandiberg)

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