three spaces

The field I am doing fieldwork in consists of three spaces (or kinds of spaces) at least. First there are the conceptual communication- and interaction spaces made possible by the Internet-infrastructure, respectively by the various Internet-services like www, e-mail, IM, IRC, and ftp running on top of it. Very common, I know; inside academia nearly everything cyber- deals with these spaces. But more often than not they are associated with communicaton, seldomly with interaction. Good examples for the latter’s presence are ftp and IRC’s DCC feature, because exchanging ‘things’ like pictures, movies, demos, program-applications, or code itself undoubtedly is an action. Granted, all those come in the shape of files—indeed are files—which somehow induces their being connected to the concepts information and communication. But e.g. an artefact, like a picture, in the first instance is percepted as a picture and is interpreted accordingly. This interpretation, the actions based on it, and the cultural background of both is what the anthropologist is interested in. Albeit good for illustration [pun not intended] pictures are a mediocre example for supporting my point, as pictures clearly are a way of representing information. Let’s take another ‘thing’: imagine a game, or even better a mod is exchanged. Basically it of course consists of program-code equalling information. But one does not simply look upon a mod like upon a picture and absorbs the contained information. Instead one uses, that means plays a mod. The situation is more alike to giving a cooking pot to someone, than to talking to someone—a ‘thing’ has been exchanged, not merely information (of course the exchange per se communicates something, too).

Max Payne gamespace
The second kind of space is multiplayer gamespace. Again—seen from a technological vantage point it is perfectly correct that ‘in the end’ an online-game is ‘nothing but’ calculating machines swapping information aka communicating (only some of this information is human input via interfaces). And for cyberanthropology it would be downright suicidal to neglect this technological perspective/interpretation. Knowledge of the Internet’s protocol-layers, and at large knowledge about the functioning of all technologies involved is indispensable. Alas anthropology focusses on human interaction and its culturally-informedness. No one can make me believe that “At the moment I am just making computers communicate” is on any player’s mind while engaged in a Q3A deathmatch. Just as no one walking into a building thinks “I am about to enter a structured amassment of bricks, which in turn are aggregates of hydrous silicate”—the incomparable Linus Pauling may have been an exception. In multiplayer gamespace interaction shines up most clearly.

But for certain reasons the Max Payne (MP) games lack a multiplayer-function, therefore the members of the modding-community can not interact in Max-Payne gamespace. (Sometimes this shortcoming is bypassed by switching to another game—the meanwhile historical UT2K3-bout ‘MPHQ-staff vs MPA-staff’ is an example—MPHQ won.) But on another level, inside their minds, they nevertheless share singleplayer space by means of shared experience and memories. I got aware of this when KerLeone and I had a talk in meatspace about the story-plot of Half-Life‘s singleplayer mode. An anthropologist-friend of ours—who had overheard just bits of our conversation—stepped up to us, coffee-mug in hand, and asked what geographical region we were talking about. KerLeone, still immersed in our topic, said: “Black Mesa—zeph has been there, too.” The colleague immediately continued his stroll along the corridor, and I think I heard him mumbling faintly: “Where the hell … —bah, them geeks!” Walkthroughs are a kind of institutionalized manifestation of cognitively sharing singleplayer gamespace.

The unfathomable black void of MaxEd
And there still is a third kind of spaces cognitively shared by the members of a modding-community. They are computer-generated, but not situated ‘between the phones’: The at first glance unfathomable black voids of diverse 3d-editors’ viewports. Simplified a game like Max Payne consists of the following elements: game engine (lacking access to its sourcecode gamemodders can’t tinker with it in the case of MP), scripts (bits of code controlling e.g. events), particle effects (fog, fire, and the like), sound (music, atmosphere, noise), character models (the player’s avatar and the shapes of NPCs), animations, maps (the topography or architecture of the gamespace), and level items (everything the player can ‘collect’).

To modify the game-engine (if possible) and to edit or create scripts a text-editor is needed. Seemingly nothing spectacular here—but every dedicated coder will tell you otherwise. Since the advent of interactive programming writing code indeed has become a culture, or cultures of their own. Not wanting to discuss the issue in depth now I allow myself to point you to “The psychology of computer programming” (Weinberg 1998 [1971]) and to Biella Coleman’s recent work—she promised to put her thesis online as soon as possible. Only so much: Already when I script comparatively simple items like doors for MP-gamespace a flurry of imaginations, speculations, and ideas takes place inside my head. Thoughts about effects and consequences in gamespace, about logic and relations, and so on intermingle and create a whole which may be conceptually grabbed by ‘space’—all triggered by ‘just’ messing around with text.

Back to the unfathomable black voids. To create particle effects, character models, or animations you normally need professional 3d-visualization software like 3d studio max. As this is a very complex application you moreover need lots of knowledge, skills, and experience. And that is the ultimate motivation for sharing this space, too. For non-professionals mutual instruction and training seems to be the only way to cope with demanding 3d-software. Like walkthroughs for gamespace online-tutorials do a lot here—ranging in format from text-only via graphic-novel likenesses to movies (see 3dbuzz for an immense collection). Then there are comments, criticism, and discussion in forums. But sometimes the tutelage even happens in realtime. I was present at an IRC conversation between top-mapper TheHunted and top-allaround-modder Froz. Both had MaxEd2 (the editor used to create maps for MP2) running while TheHunted taught Froz how to create bent pipes:

Tue Jan 11 17:25:39 2005
[17:38] <Froz> TheHunted can you teach me how to do those bendy pipes cause I’m not sure
[17:38] <Froz> I need to do the “pipes” for a bed end
[17:40] <TheHunted> anyway, lemme just open up maxed
[17:40] <TheHunted> alright, lets do this together
[17:41] <TheHunted> draw a pipe with 8 sides on the grid
[17:41] <TheHunted> and lets extrude it a bit for better looks
[17:42] <Froz> I think I got it already :I
[17:42] <Froz> I did a 8 faced cylinder
[17:42] <Froz> extruded the one side to the direction of the bend
[17:42] <Froz> copypasted and mirrored it
[17:43] <TheHunted> yep
[17:43] <Froz> set the end of it to match the other end
[17:43] <TheHunted> just add an angle to the top face by using the left/right arrows, then align the grid on it and then copy paste and mirror
[17:43] <TheHunted> thats all
[17:44] <TheHunted> you might want to add the andle 7,5 to your preferences
[17:44] <Froz> k
[17:44] <TheHunted> raising the angle 3 times at 7,5 degree steps will give you 3 or 4 pices to make up a 90° angle. cant remember the exact number anymore

The two communicated inside IRC’s interactive space and simultaneously shared MaxEd2’s 3dspace cognitively while I sat and ‘listened’ as I already had read a tutorial on bent pipes originating from TheHunted’s vicinity.