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Foto: Guerilla Games/ Sony Interactive Entertainment Europe 2017

The research project ‘Open World Structures’ is a novel access to the architectonics of digital game worlds. Against the backdrop of computer games as mass media, modern games are commonly produced as open world games. These studies focus on how and by what means the ever-increasing and more complex game worlds are constituted. The centre of this approach is to research the increasing correlation between spatiotemporal courses of action within game intrinsic space and behaviour patterns of everyday life in physical reality. In addition, research taking place in this framework also investigates how playing open world games evoke new world views in the sense of media specific images of natural, urban and cultural aspects. Lastly, the research project explores methods of experiencing virtual worlds and its landscapes with its subsequent potential of regulating a higher awareness and a sensitised critical approach towards our physically real world.

The ‘Open World Structures’ project, led by Dr. Marc Bonner, runs from October 2017 to September 2020 and is funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG). The goal is to develop a transdisciplinary approach in order to analyse the architectonics of ever-growing open world games. The investigation focuses on the modular layout of digital game worlds and their complex patterns generating and governing a media specific distillate of historically habituated man-made behaviour patterns. Today, the latter continues to influence aesthetical experiences and thus, enables individual gameplay experiences. This includes not only the technical constitution of the digital game image medium but also the ontology and mediation of game intrinsic space and its perception.

The project proposes a deep-rooted urge for exploration in open world games. When topographies of games are designed with archipelagos bathed by the ocean, mountain valleys surrounded by steep slopes and mountain ridges or undulating maze-like cityscapes, they simulate a coherent vastness. One of the preliminary findings of the project are the predominantly non-linear navigable and seemingly unmanageable landscapes constituted by complex networks of strategies of involvement, moving away from established or classic narrative concepts. Plots and story arcs are mostly reduced to a minor matter. This shift in storytelling also causes a shift in worldbuilding towards landscape experiences and explorations as ends in themselves.

As such, these open world structures call for a transdisciplinary approach in order to analyse their media-specific distillate of cultural history embedded in world experiences and behavioural patterns. Further case studies involve adaptations of physically real places, nested in the collective memory of popular culture, which are then in turn used as involvement devices. In further consequence, the staging of society is as crucial to involve players as it is of interest how open world games reflect and/or ignore current topics such as (post)colonialism, nationalism, racism or the methods in which they convey history and the man-nature dichotomy.

Given the complex media constitution of open world structures, a distinct analytic model is necessary to satisfy a critical transdisciplinary approach that is constituted from a wide range of disciplines such as Media and Game Studies, Art History, Architectural Theory and History, Spatial Theory, Phenomenology and Embodiment, Anthropogeography, as well as Cultural Studies, to name but a few.

The project will develop such a model tailored towards computer game worlds and its inherent spatiotemporal navigation and appropriation, whilst also accommodating historical constellations in other media. The media-centred analysis incorporates both the staged structures of game worlds themselves and the behaviour patterns of players that take place within architecture-, urban and natural landscape-driven open world structures. The analytic model will contain both approaches, aesthetics of production and aesthetics of reception and, at its core, addresses the matter of (1) architecture in game worlds in the sense of its media specific spatialization, architectural layouts and the role of architecture (as landscape), as well as (2) the architecture of computer games themselves in the sense of systematics, structures and media specific logics between algorithms and databases – worldbuilding from a different angle. Thus, the ’Open World Structures’ project will provide the heuristics for future research by establishing an understanding of computer games as spatial, architectural or world phenomena within the current digital media culture.