A Sense of Place

I've been playing an iPhone “game” recently* called Curiosity? Curiosity? was created by a somewhat eccentric video game designer, based on a simple concept: there is a giant cube, made up of millions upon millions of tiny cubes. The goal is to get to the center of the cube, and in some sort of scheme that reminds me faintly of Ready Player One, the last cube apparently contains “life changing information.” More interesting is how you get to this last cube: to “play,” all you have to do is tap on cubes to destroy them. One by one. But don't worry, you aren't tapping on these millions of cubes by yourself: this is a multiplayer game. People across the world are sloughing off layer after layer of this cube with you. There's something slightly meditative about it, though maybe it scratches a particular itch for the inner OCD in me that enjoys simply, methodically clearing a space.

But that's not the interesting part. Only one person will be able to destroy this inner cube, and thus learn the secret of what sits inside the cube. And given how far away that cube is anyways, the reward is very abstract and unlikely. So, you have all these people chipping away at this cube for, well basically, no reason at all. But they're there. You can't see them, and no one has identities or avatars or even accounts to access this mystical cube, but you know that they are there because you can see the results of their actions. Cubes across your screen randomly explode. Zoomed out, you can watch swaths of cubes slowly disappear, revealing the cubes behind them. From the highest level, little streaks of light flash up where uncovering is happening quickly. But most strikingly, every time I visit the cube, it is different. The landscape has changed, the colors are different, the very spot that I am “standing” on seems to have changed out from under me.

Weirdly enough, this highly constrained environment has come the closest of any game, website, etc. to creating a real sense of place for me. When I open the app, I feel literally like I'm looking through a wardrobe into something else, someplace else. Part of it is this real sense of decay. The virtual does not decay, we know this. But even more so, these scripted spaces (generally) only accept the impact of our own actions in very specific, constrained ways**. In my time spent with mechanical engineers, one of the things they looked at was the pattern of wear on an object, the patina that forms simply as a result of human touch. Loved objects, they wear this. But that fundamental power of human touch, the fact that our hands not only exist, but also do, is hidden in these worlds. Software engineers design analytics systems, they don't see touch, they see numbers.

I also think it's the form: I'm not sure that this game would feel this way if if weren't for the fact that it exists on my iPhone. I think that says just as much about the intimacy of that thing than it does about the game itself. My phone isn't just a phone, it is a world creator. In my pocket, I carry not just information, but a kind of second space: though we move through the world more anonymously and independently than ever before, though I am constantly walking alone, I'm not really alone. The phone is a kind of “second screen” for life: in here, I am not alone. In here, all my friends are close by. They aren't with me in that they're not witnessing the same big screen as I am, but in these virtual spaces, they share a screen with me. For many of us, where closeness in the real world is precluded by responsibilities and busyness, leaving that second screen open and close, by sharing our attention with that second space, we create a new sort of closeness.

Curiosity? makes me feel like this isn't a bad thing: that space exists and now we must facilitate new kinds of communication with it, communication embodied in the emotions of presence and touch.

* I put game in quotes because it is only a game in a colloquial way, because we do not yet have a name for these sorts of digital playthings, where the most appropriate word would be toy, if it were not for the infantile connotation that word has accrued.

** It strikes me that one of the most notable exceptions to this rule is Minecraft, but I suspect (though I do not play), that it is loved for precisely this reason as well.