Resolving Reality: From Theme Parks to Digital Gamescape

Paper accepted to Visual Contagions Conference, University of Geneva.


Long before personal computers were popularized, gameplay has been rooted in space since our perception of the self is spatially based, framed in intimate relationships with architecture, landscape, and objects. This spatial cognition of the self, psychasthenia as Roger Caillois appropriates from psychology, is the anchoring of one’s identity by being able to situate one’s body in space. Spatial cognition through play in turn feeds back into architecture in the emergence of theme parks and amusement parks. Gameplay happens in the materialization of an immersive game world in buildings where architecture concedes its criticality of a capital A to a user system and becomes the environment agent that is equal to a player agent. As a voluntary involvement in some degree of pretending, as Johan Huizinga postulates, play precedes culture as the most primitive human activity. Assuming that is true, theme park architecture is a toy-medium of gameplay, a combination of adventure and puzzle solving. Video games that construct an immersive world are another, more recent toy-medium, a technologized theme park. And in the games on the adventure-puzzle genre spectrum, spatial cognition plays a leading role in the designing and delivering of the game experience. Without the real-world constraints, digital gamescape can be free to shift gravity, diversify means of spatial transport, and engage in visual illusions of impossible space. In digital gamescapes unbound by natural laws of physics, the player’s psychasthenia and identity are differently framed as they are still directly contingent on the body’s relations to the surroundings in the architectural sense. Digital gamescapes are dizzying at first, because the digital game world follows different spatial rules than the natural one in theme parks, subverting common sense and previous knowledge, often resulting in paradoxes and contradictions with the inhabited reality. But players adapt to a new psychasthenia and resolve a new reality following rules in the virtual space. This paper examines this reality resolving, identity re-anchoring process in architectural digital gamescape in the contemporary applications of Manifold Gardens, Subliminal, and Monument Valley, in dialogue with theme parks in the historical context. The discussion is framed around psychasthenia or spatial self-perception, the environmentally made self-consciousness, in both real-world architecture as spaces of play where game theory applies, and the digital gamescape where architecture is deployed in the service of game.

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