Spatial awareness in games is ubiquitous - so ubiquitous, in fact, that players often don't realise that they automatically internalise its rules. Players are used to the rules of space in real life and understand how to move through it as well as what an obstacle is, and how to navigate around one. Fortunately for us gamers, this conveniently translates to understanding most video game worlds. Ubiquitous does not mean unimportant, however, and as Aarseth, Smedstad and Sunnanå (2003) noted: "space is a key meta-category of games. Almost all games utilize space and spatial representation in some way". While there are many ways to think about space in games, there is one theory that I find particularly compelling: space as a way to create a sense of ownership.
Most games allow players to move through the world, but don't always allow the player to make a mark on it. You can shoot an enemy, go from A to B, or solve a puzzle, but what about more permanent and concrete changes? Let's look at three games that buck the trend.
In-game maps are not always the most engaging UI element. They help, and can look pretty, but tend to leave the player cold. Well, not so in Far Cry: 3. By climbing radio towers throughout the map, you can "liberate" an area and defeat the bad guys' influence on a particular region. Because the map starts red, and your actions gradually make it green, there is a real sense of progression and of changing the game world to make it your own. You can see at a glance which areas you have successfully won over, and this even translates to less enemies in the green areas. A win-win that makes the player feel very engaged with the world itself.
Fallout 4, while not a pioneer in the genre, uses a very interesting technique to let the player make their mark on the world: settlement-building. After liberating an area swamped by all kinds of enemies, the player gets to chose how to make it look and has access to a Sims-like building menu, complete with structures, decorations, workshop items, and free standing walls. The player can even display trophies they have collected throughout the game in the structures they create, as well as sleep or craft new items. A barren ruin can become a bespoke settlement with a sense of investment, and suddenly the world feels a lot more personal.
Finally, what happens when you're lost in a hostile, dark, and forbidding world? And you can't even save your game? You find a bonfire! At least that's what you do in Dark Souls. Space in the Dark Souls franchise is used to highlight the player's insignificance in the world, and to threaten with danger at every corner. Typically, one area ends with the famed bonfire: the only place where the player can save the game, heal, and take a virtual breather; nowhere else is really safe. This is reflected in the bonfire's very primal representation: once a player reaches one they kindle it and spark a camp-like fire, a powerful symbol of light, warmth and homeliness in a hostile environment. A visual and emotional way to own a little part the world.
As Schell (2008) notes, "game designers can learn a lot about creating meaningful and powerful spaces from architects". And indeed games are very capable of using space to represent ownership, either by reflecting the player agency, allowing them to become the architect themselves, or giving them the opportunity to unlock a safe haven away from home in a dark world.
Aarseth, E., Smedstad, S.M. and Sunnanå, L. (2003) '3. A Multi-dimensional Typology Of Games', Proceedings of the 2013 DiGRA. Available at: www.cogsci.rpi.edu/.../new%20topology%20of%20games%20A.%20Arsneth.pdf (Accessed 22 November 2016)
Schell, J. (2008). The art of game design. 1st ed. Amsterdam: Elsevier/Morgan Kaufmann, p.368.
Fallout 4 (2015). Available at: http://www.psnation.com/2015/11/09/review-fallout-4-ps4/ (Accessed 22 November 2016)
Far Cry 3 Relic Locations Map (no date). Available at: http://www.realsg.com/2012/12/guide-far-cry-3-relic-locations-map.html (Accessed 22 November 2016)