Geography and Games

By Adena Schutzberg

Just after the world graduated from Pong, the first popular computer game with a very basic form of tennis/hockey, it moved to games with maps.Remember PacMan with its mazes of increasing complexity? And Defender, where a lone flier swept along the earth's landscape to save humans from space invaders? (History here.) Today, gaming and geography go hand in hand in a variety of ways.And with the big E3 show just wrapping up in Los Angeles last week, it's time to have a look at the state of the art and to consider what, if any, role we in the geography and geospatial technology might offer.

Video Games
E3, the Electronic Entertainment Expo is a conference for interactive gaming with the tag line of "where business gets fun." The event celebrated its 10th anniversary at this year's event.Among the games announced there, I found two with explicit geo-references.

Ski Racing 2006 - The downhill ski game promises to reproduce the actual courses for the 2005/2006 World Cup season.GPS data were used to model the courses.

Tony Hawk's American Wasteland - The next in the skateboarding series visits Los Angeles in the 1980s.As one reviewer put it, "Because the city is so big, you get a map, which aids your progression and ability to see different objectives."

_ challenges the player to actually drive that city's streets, picking up and dropping off fares.And, of course, all those fantasy "battle" games have maps of one kind or another.Equally, or perhaps more interesting, are those game with "real" maps in them.I found a few interesting ones outside of the E3 hoopla.While there will always be a Taxi Driver, a game based on the film (where one smashes cars), London Taxi Rush Hour challenges the player to actually drive that city's streets, picking up and dropping off fares.Battlefront.com allows players to upload actual ArcGIS data for new geographies.Fantasy and reality are coming together in new ways all the time.

And that, of course, brings up the idea that players can create their own "maps" for all sorts of video games.Not surprisingly, there's quite a bit of discussion of these "mods" (modifications) on online game forums.High school students want to use the geography they know in their games, or so the story goes.Some years ago a sophomore created a "map" of his high school to be used in the then popular "Duke Nukem" game.And, this spring, a student in the Minneapolis area wanted to do a "mod" of Counter-Strike with his high school as a backdrop.The first person shooter nature of the game gave his computer teacher pause and has since evolved into a "no deaths" game of points that involves electronic Nerf guns and Nerf balls.I suppose that concern simply illustrates where fantasy and reality get too close for comfort.

GPS and Gaming
_There have been quite a number of games introduced that take advantage of GPS (or some other form) of location determination.I suppose the first was now "old fashioned" geocaching: key in coordinates from the Internet of hidden treasures and seek them out.Geocaching has expanded to include hiding and seeking of a GeoPoker log entitling one to a new card to assemble a poker hand among others.

Today's games involve virtual treasures like fish.Others take video games "to the streets" as Pac Man literally chases the ghosts in PacManhattan.There's a fairly complete index of location-based games here. The International Game Developers Assocation (IGDA) has a forum devoted to this topic (and a special interest group, too).To me, these still have a less than compelling quality.Another "old" sport, orienteering, sounds equally compelling and players need not worry about getting a good signal, since they use maps to find controls.

_But hope abounds for more exciting location-based games as Tiger Telematics brings Gizmondo to the U.S.in August. (It's already available in Europe.) The gaming console includes a GPS receiver and communications tools, and the company showed off its "gang warfare game, Colors" at E3 (
warning graphic violence on this page).I found a breathless review of it here.A second game called City is also in the works.I suspect that the manufacturer will want to make the "location-based" aspect of the device a key distinguishing feature as it attempts to compete with the other game consoles on the market. (Recall that MapInfo's Envinsa platform will power the Gizmondo LBS games.)

Tangentially related, this week, in conjunction with E3, Amp'd Mobile, a 3G mobile entertainment company, announced distribution partnerships with 16 game companies.Among the new partners is TeleCommunication Systems, Inc.(TCS)."Leveraging their advanced Graphical [sic] Information System (GIS) capabilities and location-based application expertise, TCS is working to fulfill Amp'd Mobile's vision of edgy and cool location-based mobile applications by custom building original Amp'd concepts targeted to the 18-24 market such as Handset Locator and Skatepark Finder."

Simulation and Education
Reader Greg pointed me to an interview in Newsweek where "Will Wright (creator of the Sims) talks about his new game - Spore.The game (which sounds really cool) was inspired by the Powers of Ten. It's also a great example of mapping and game design intersecting." Says Wright about the game, where single celled organisms can grow and evolve to sentient beings, gather in tribes and invent technology to travel to stars, "I don't want players to feel like Luke Skywalker.I want them to feel like George Lucas." Wired has some pictures of the game.

One industry watcher, Raph Koster, chief creative officer of Sony Online Entertainment, writing in the LA Times, noted that games, even simple ones, are helping to expand children's horizons."The childhood game of Chutes and Ladders is a multidimensional map of a non-Euclidean space - that's heady geometry for a kindergartener." So imagine the ideas in today's video games.

One thought I had while researching this story was that in the games, maps are used as, well, maps.What about a game of mapmaking? I didn't find one, but did find this related idea.Said one video game "guide writer": You need to "have excellent spatial awareness (for Driv3r, I recreated all three cities in map form -- that took three weeks, and three years off my life)." The fellow was a history major, by the way.So, in other words, he created maps from the virtual landscapes to help guide players.

My Take
So is the geospatial industry involved in this new use of mapping technology? It's becoming involved.The reference to ArcGIS data in the Battefront game is a start, though I expect that the developers simply found that data was available in that format, and thus used it.I don't expect ESRI actually marketed to the company.(Please correct me if I'm wrong.) MapInfo jumped into the LBS gaming space with Gizmondo, though that area is not one executives identified as key.We'll have to wait and see if either of these areas "take off" for ESRI or MapInfo.

My gut feeling is that gaming and geospatial technologies are a bit like mapping portals and geospatial technologies.While the Microsofts and Googles of the world are bringing maps and location-based services to consumers, the traditional academic and commercial geospatial companies are for the most part, staying the course in their traditional roles.

I see the same thing with gaming.I expect the big geospatial money winners it the gaming area be the same ones apparently winning with Microsoft and Google's portals: the data providers.

Parting thought: What ever happened to the closest thing to a game from our industry: ArcGlobe? Ever hear about it after the few demos at the ESRI User Conference? I didn't.

Published Monday, May 30th, 2005

Written by Adena Schutzberg



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