What’s Wrong With Michael Nitsche’s Video Game Spaces

I’ve been wanting to write several other blog posts recently, but I just haven’t had time to get them together. I have one about the differences in space between Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas, one about the spatiality of Assassin’s Creed, and one that expands on Bobby Schweizer’s post on the Aperio blog last year about airport spaces in games. But I’m now deep in the writing of my thesis, and I just haven’t had the time to focus on any other writing. Instead of these other, more broadly interesting topics, I’m going to get a little academic.

See, one of my most valued texts in my research on video game spatiality has been Michael Nitsche’s ‘Video Game Spaces: Image, Play, and Structure in 3D Worlds’. This is a great book for anyone interested in game spaces. When I first read Nitsche’s introductory chapter, I thought, “Well, this guy’s pretty much written the exploration of game spatiality I would’ve done”. It turns out that’s not exactly the case, but it’s still a great book.

However, one of the issues I have with Nitsche’s approach to game spatiality is that it’s a little unidirectional. Nitsche’s central model of game spatiality is a division into five planes:

Nitsche's Five Planes

It’s a great model, and I like most of it. The bit I don’t like about it is that the way Nitsche describes it, there’s too little give-and-take between the different planes. Rule-based space informs mediated space, mediated space informs fictional space, and so on. That’s just not the way I think of things. If mediated space informs fictional space, surely fictional space must also inform mediated space?

Part of my reason for thinking this way is that my view of spatiality is based heavily on Edward Soja’s ‘trialectic spatiality’. Soja starts from the tripartite spatiality of Henri Lefebvre, who describes spaces as composed of three parts: spatial practice, representations of space, and spaces of representation. These can be briefly (but not entirely accurately) summarised as perceived space – the way we see space; conceived space – the way we think about space; and lived space – the way we use space. Soja takes Lefebvre’s three parts, and re-interprets them as a totalising, overlapping, simultaneous and composite construction. Soja basically says that each element is informed by the other two, and all space is all three elements at once. As Soja puts it: “each term appropriately contains the other two, although each is distinguishable and can be studied in splendidly specialised isolation”.

Soja's Trialectic Spatiality

So this is where we get back to Nitsche’s five planes. Nitsche himself attempts an approximate mapping of Lefebvre’s tripartite to his model of five planes, equating rule-based space with ‘spatial practice’, mediated space with ‘representations of space’ and ‘representational space’ as a combination of fictional, play and social spaces. This works alright if we just stick with Lefebvre, but it falls apart if we go with Soja. Because Soja insists that all the elements must inform each other, that the flow of context and influence is multi-directional. Hence: if mediated space informs fictional space, surely fictional space must also inform mediated space?

  1. You are up to something. On the one hand, I am also arguing for a connection between the different layers. On the other, I feel that I could have spent more time on covering the experiential part of game spaces. “Fictional” relates to it but there is certainly a lot more work left out. For example, I have gradually shifted toward the physical side of things since the book publication. Asking questions like “how does the digital space de facto change the perception and construction of physical locations?” The more you include the space we breath in into the discussion, the further one drifts into phenomenology.
    So, in short: yes – the different sub sections of any of these models have to be interdependent. It is a quality of space that it operates on many different levels at the same time. I would love to see your own take on that in more depth.

    • Adrian Forest
    • December 16th, 2010

    Hey, glad to hear from you. I’m very much focused on the player experience of game spaces, which (in your model) I see as a composite of mostly fictional space, but also mediated and rule-based – although of course the other two have an influence as well. Coming from a literary studies background, my focus on player experience is heavily influenced by Barthes’ more post-structuralist turns. So the social space as context for player experience is something I see as pretty significant.

    I’ve written some stuff for my thesis that I’ll probably post bits of here soon, about the ways I see particularly social space as impacting on the fictional space, specifically the way the player’s familiarity with the real-world Washington, D.C. will inevitably influence their experience of Fallout 3’s Capital Wasteland.

    • luis
    • April 3rd, 2011

    hey man, interesting pov. is it possible to have your email? there is something i wanna ask. tried to find your email on the site but to no avail.


    pd. this is no spam or b/s. i mean, i wouldn’t have taken the time to write all this… ty!

      • Adrian Forest
      • April 3rd, 2011

      Sure, Luis. I’ve sent you an e-mail.

  2. Hey buddy – you should read Stockburger’s PhD thesis on the subject. He does a great deconstruction of Soja and Lefebvre’s first (perceived) second (conceived) and third (lived) spaces. It’s available on his website. Honestly, best piece on space in games I have EVER read.

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