Ideas on map construction & ‘dérive’

Much of my work in college has centered around mapmaking & visualization of spatial data. There is generally a set of algorithmic, data-driven methods I use to understand various levels of granularity of space, ranging from individual blocks to whole cities.  While this methodology may seem highly at odds with that of the ‘dériver’, elements of both are necessary for content-rich, intuitive world building.

It is difficult to ask someone to define the boundaries of a neighborhood or place a given neighborhood on a map. This is because these definitions are unique to the individual and are often based on their experiences in a given environment. One person may define the boundaries of a neighborhood by major streets and highways, while another may include phrases such as “the corner with the abandoned gas station” or “the park by my uncle’s place”. This makes for a nearly infinite number of perceptual maps and pathways in a given region. The drive to ‘dérive’ then comes from an individual trying to connect these perceptual maps with the singular manifested infrastructure of a place.

A non-ARG example that comes to mind is Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, where it is fairly easy to diverge from traditional game play elements (objectives in story mode) and instead wander the game’s digital environment in an entirely interaction-specific path. The map itself is a provocative take on an American city plan, composed of multiple neighborhoods and a hypermodern infrastructure.  The architecture (the curvature of a highway, a brightly lit arena, etc) dictates the underlying reasoning for following a set path on the map just as it does in the physical world. And yet, the digital interface brings out the ludic nature of ‘dérive’ in its ability to embellish the sort of ‘rabbit hole’-type curiosities present in a real city. The natural interruptions of police chases, street pedestrians, and unprompted violence in a virtual environment block off certain paths and move players from neighborhood to neighborhood. The actions taken / seen in the game direct an otherwise entirely free movement through the map.

How does this apply to ARGs? Well, players of ARGs navigate a physical & digital environment with many different perceptual maps in mind. Just as someone wandering around the Logan Center does not anticipate room-specific encounters, a player of an ARG does not anticipate the physical components that occupy the game world. Each of these encounters modifies the paths players choose to follow and restricts the many perceptual maps. Using data-driven methods (distribution of rabbit holes, foot traffic frequencies, network analysis) to fill in the game world keeps game navigation mostly free while directing players progress along steadily.

These are just loose ideas I have about navigating space, nothing substantially coherent or factual. I ideally want to implement mapmaking methodologies into final game module design and I figure these are some good guiding principles for doing so.



  1. Hey Ian.

    This post about how to play with space and the methodology that we could employ to “play” in space gave me a a thought as to how narrative can also be a tool alongside your idea. You mentioned the use of data-driven methods to provide that same cohesive sense of “world” that leads players from spontaneous interaction to the next. Not only would it be useful to create a semblance of “world” as I mentioned, but also as a means of implicitly providing narrative. Space can have powerful representation, moreover as you brought up people have different perceptual maps of the space around them. Playing with those perceptions allow us to bend the space in a way they also do not expect.

    I’m thinking of scenarios in which we do as you mentioned and maintain analysis of foot-tracking a present the most effective areas to place rabbit holes. But I’m curious if we can bend that data-driven method to forge atmosphere and I think this is pertinent. The space we provide should be I think only subtly pervaded. Rather than the presence of the game being oppressive, a guiding principle as you mentioned should perhaps be to keep the navigation of our play space free. That although players are free to go from spot to spot, we subtly lead them down various trails in order advance our narrative. And as I brought up earlier, I think those trails can also have immense significance to the narrative beyond just being trails. A plot can lead a student from Harper to Logan, but can we go further and have that student ask why? Why do I start in Harper and why do I end up in Logan? Does the player have the freedom to ignore going to Logan all together? Is that exercise of agency even allowed or must we drive them to Logan so that they may continue the plot? Perhaps the student chooses not to go to Logan in the end, but are we as designers ready to provide alternate routes? These are the sort of issues we must think of regarding navigation. Regardless I deeply enjoyed your post and how it made me think of filling up the world space with curiosities and interactions that could also be unscripted and purely for immersion.

  2. I like the reference to Jane Jacobs’ book. I love how she talks about how communities form in spaces around social activity regardless of how small or compact the urban village can be. This is an important concept for ARG design because much like the large scale urban plans that failed to become occupied by the people they were designed for an ARG space could suffer that same lack of consideration to how social interaction maps the flows and trajectories of communities. good call.

  3. This is bringing a lot of things to mind for me, especially since I’ve been interested specifically in level design for a long time. I’ll start with a brief anecdote: there’s a level in Dragon Age: Origins in which you basically wander through caves for what feels like an eternity. Yet, when playing this level, although I was frequently lost, I always somehow ended up where I needed to go.

    I was thrilled to see Foucault in de Certeau’s explication of dérive, having made a connection of my own several years back between architecture and level design as impositions of power. This is even more explicit in traditional video game design, where often the sort of last resort to keep players on the map is the well-known “invisible wall”. Even a game like GTA that uses more creative interruptions and deflections must eventually have solid boundaries around its space in order to keep players there. We obviously are working with /found/ structures of power, in the form of pre-existing roads, pedestrian paths, parks, architecture, etc.

    Although we’re in nowhere near the position of power that a game designer might be since we can’t just create what best suits our purpose, I think we can take some lessons from them about working with an environment and scattering incentives to move in certain directions. Not all leading/bounding methods are as heavy-handed as the invisible wall, which for us might simply be the line beyond which there simply isn’t any more game material. Games also heavily utilize lighting, color, loot, noise/sound, and physical trails to pique player interest or even lead them subconsciously in the right direction. Like you suggested, utilizing any of these methods will require a deep firsthand knowledge of our locations. We can identify the spaces that have already been built to lead, or the spaces that are made to catch the eye; we can know that people are more likely to walk on sidewalks than across open grass. I think video games can offer an interesting way of thinking about knowing your play space and working with it to draw people in without having to explicit lock them there.

  4. This is super interesting because it brings up the possibility of providing non-narrative game play within ARGs in the same way that it exists in GTA games. Within GTA, as you mention, one can follow the path of the game, experience the narrative, complete the goals, and that kind of stuff. However, my instinct usually leads me to drive around and explore the city, eventually commit an accidental crime and get into a police chase, and so on and so on. Through having this kind of accidental and passive game play exist within GTA the game extends beyond the majority narrative, I don’t feel like I’m simply being sucked into a singular and consuming narrative but rather that there is now a secondary aspect of my life that frees me to worry less (within the game) about breaking the law, speeding, etc. etc. But I think that within ARGs one could provide a similar sort of non-narrative game play to increase the This is Not a Game aesthetic and additionally to achieve a goal of ARG that I think is perhaps underestimated or overlooked which is that ability to allow the ARG to show players that there is a certain manipulatablity to our surrounding world that extends from the game outward, in the same way that a puppet master can create a narrative to augment reality, the player can engage in that world of the narrative outside of the singular instances that further it – you can extend that somehow. I’m not sure how, but I think that GTA is a good place to look.

  5. I just wanted to use one comment of yours as a jumping off point. You observe that the boundaries of a space can often be subjective: one may imagine the boundaries of a region according to the edge of a highway while another may demarcate a region based on particular landmarks personally meaningful to them.

    While this is definitely true, I find it interesting what kinds of boundaries are subjective (or at least, acknowledged to be subjective) and what kinds are seen as objective. Some kinds of boundaries are acknowledged by everyone because of their purely physical character: everyone agrees where the lake begins. But other kinds of boundaries give the impression of neutral objectivity even though they are unambiguously social in character; city limits and property lines are two obvious ones. Often these social boundaries become reinforced with physical boundaries (gates, walls, locks).

    On a map, though, the congruity between represented boundaries and their “real world” counterparts is always flexible. The way one labels a map is often a political question; to use a contemporary example, Google maps will label contested territory differently based on which country it detects you are searching from. For our ARGs — particularly our own group’s, since we want to use maps — it might be interesting/fun/provocative to intentionally “mislabel” (maybe “counterlabel” is a better word) regions to challenge their accepted character.

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