Python palaver perhaps I should have used JavaScript (or: trying to code without a clue / running before walking)

As part of my PhD thesis, I’m arguing that there are other ways of mapping Rochdale both collaboratively and creatively. One of the maps that I’m “making” is a text game map that tries to explore the more phenomenological side of Rochdale in a creative, and collaborative, way. This game works with the premise of “chose your own adventure” – maybe more than a little bit influenced by sci-fi geekery and a love of Fighting Fantasy books – with the additional aspect of the gamer inputting additional information such as their own name and thoughts. Here’s a bit of a reflection on writing a game that attempts to map place in a creative and collaborative way.

Wider aims of the game

  • To assist with spatial thinking with a focus on exploring a geo-specific site through a brief description of the land and the literature (the physical and cultural geography)
  • To produce creative non-fiction in the form of place writing that acts as a map and creative fiction in progressing the game (creative writing and digital literacy).
  • To demonstrate a creative way of mapping Rochdale & reflect on the process (creative-critical mapping)
  • To explore at least two literary texts of the town (pedagogic / literary exploration)
  • To incorporate an element of collaboration (collaborative mapping with the gamer)

I’m not a programmer but I appreciate a good learning curve, also I need to know this stuff as a 21st Century humanities scholar. Back in February I learned about Mapbox and online mapping design, then in chunks during June – August moved on to learning Python, a programming language that sits behind mapping software such as  ArcGIS and QGIS. As the third part of chapter three of The Thesis* talks about digital mapping, I decided that I really should have a moderate grasp on it in order to understand some of the arguments and critique on digital cartographies. I’ve been inspired by quite a few digital humanities mapping projects – they’re great as they’re accessible and not mired in “academese” – such as Bristol’s Know Your Place, and fellow northerner and Rochdalian Dr Katrina Navickas‘s Political Meeting Mapper (side note: last year, Katrina kindly sent me a chapter she’d written on radical dialect which was incredibly useful for chapter 2).

The rough plan, then, was to create something that “maps” Rochdale involving creative writing, combing the literary geographies of Rochdale, and incorporating existing geo-locations. (The eventual game should map on to GoogleEarth using geo-specific references but I’ve not got around to this yet due to a bit of family upheaval so this will probably end up as a post-doc side project – if I can get it to work!). It’s not a massive game; it’s a prototype and demonstration of another way of “sensing place” and a form of “textual” map.  As Denis Cosgrove writes in Geography and Vision.  Seeing, Imagination and Representing the World: ‘written narrative and description hold as significant a place as cartographic representation…the graphic can be textual as much as it can be pictorial’ (p. 6)’. This textual representation is what I’m trying to portray through the game with other ways of portraying place through process and progression. Further, there’s some work on the spatial practices of gamers but, so far, I don’t think anything on the practice of place (or of making place in the imagination) in gaming (see Lammes, 2008; Shaw & Warf, 2009; Ash & Gallacher, 2011). Happy to be pointed in the direction though if there is something out there and you’re reading this as a computing/media scholar (hello!).

The game I’ve written uses Python v. 3.5.1 (which I’ll lob up on GitHub at some point in the spirit of collaboration and sharing) but much of the coding is based on Dragon Realm which I’ve hacked around.

“Now for something completely different”**: concerns

  • Lack of skills: currently my applied maths skills leave something to be desired and Python as a high-level programming language involves some level of mathematics comprehension – the learning curve here is at a sheer 90°.
  • The individualistic nature of gaming: there’s a dialogue of sorts between user and Python program  (plus programmer) there’s no real community/communities created- another aspect of sensing place.
  • Lack of dimensions: with this game one can map description, however, it’s difficult to map phenomena such as colour, smell, temperature, emotion, sounds etc. It’s not a full sensory experience and is somewhat linear (one of my arguments is that unlike time***, place is not linear; there is more than one narrative/way to understand it).
  • Different levels of literacy required: in order to participate – either through learning a new language (ie Python) to adapt the game, and language required in being able to understand how to interact with the game.
  • There are issues around accessibility: with inclusive technology you can “hear” the game through software on your computer, however, the game is not accessible to all (it’s not translated into other languages, requires high level cognition etc.).

This is not to put anyone off learning code, in fact, in these digital times it’s a useful skill, however, I did go back to the drawing board with it several times. And was a little frustrated to learn that perhaps if I want something that’s playable online I should have considered learning JavaScript as well but never mind! Still, the bits that do work are moderately collaborative and it does act as a map of sorts!  It’s definitely not a perfect way to map place; there are still problems in collaboration and offering creative control of the “destiny” aspect of the game (do you make it back to the bus station or will you end up in the Rochdale canal?!). However, I’m hoping to demonstrate in The Thesis that there are many ways of mapping and this is just a creative example of one of them.

So, still what the Computer Genius I live with calls a “newb” but getting there albeit gradually…

Further Reading 

Ash, J., Gallacher, L.A.(2011) ‘Cultural Geography and Videogames’, Geography Compass, 5:6, pp 351-368

Cosgrove, D. (2008) Geography and Vision.  Seeing, Imagination and Representing the World. (London: I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd)

Crampton, J. (2010) Mapping: A Critical Introduction to Cartography and GIS. (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell)

Shaw, I.,  Warf, B. (2009) ‘Worlds of affect: virtual geographies of video games’ Environment and Planning A, 41, pp 1332-1343

Lammes, S. (2008) ‘Spatial Regimes of the Digital Playground: Cultural Functions of Spatial Practices in Computer Games’ space and culture, 11: 3, pp 260-272

 

For those wanting to learn Python these are the websites I’ve consulted:

Dive into Python 3

Invent with Python (learning made interesting with games and other such fun)

 

Side notes

* The Thesis now merits its own proper noun!

** Apparently, Monty Python references are actively encouraged when working in Python. Yes. Really.

*** The idea of the temporal is one for consideration at some other point – time is linear, it always moves forward, yet memory flits back and forth, you can move through time zones (the cultural measurements of time), and all this fascinates me.

Finally, if you’re interested about the digital humanities, the City University of New York Wiki on the Digital Humanities has a useful, collaborative, primer. (It’s one of many sites on this area of scholarship, however, I quite like it!)

 

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