Playing in the Zone: Thirdspace in Jet Set Radio Future and Shenmue II

Brett Nicholls & Simon Ryan

Theories of space and time are essential to discussions on game aesthetics. Here we wish take up the question of space, since gameplay is inseparably linked to the process whereby players gain orientation and spatial understanding. Mark J. P. Wolf argues that "unlike the film viewer, who is led (visually) through the film?s diegetic world by the film?s characters, the video game player has a stake in the navigation of space, as knowledge of the video game?s space is often crucial to a good performance" (2001:53). The player?s sense of movement through the space of the game depends on their ability to remember visual markers, recognise patterns, and imagine spatial relationships. At a cognitive level, gameplay does not appear to be qualitatively different from the actual embodied experience of space. While perception is confined to the body as it moves around a single axis that is connected to gravity, in the everyday world we are able to orientate ourselves through the multiple dimensions of the city via maps and devices that provide abstract perspectives (Lev Manovich calls this "augmented reality").

These abstract perspectives are precisely what players need to orientate themselves in the futuristic spaces of Tokyo in games such as Sega?s/Smilebit?s Jet Set Radio Future (Xbox version 2002) and Sega?s Shenmue II (Xbox version 2003) which work with representations of complex urban spaces ? a future Tokyo in JSRF and a retro late-1980?s Hong Kong in Shenmue II.

Clearly there is a difference, however, between the phenomenological experience of what might be called the virtual Tokyo and Hong Kong of these games and the actual Tokyo and Hong Kong. This may seem to be a self-evident, trivial, and redundant statement. But this phenomenological difference, along with the different experience of cinema, has been utilised to argue that ?playing in the zone?, the zone of gameplay, is a discrete aesthetic experience. This discreteness is crucial; academic careers are riding on it. If this zone is discrete then it follows that computer games are unique aesthetic objects that require a distinct discipline, or perhaps more accurately, a distinct interdisciplinary mode of study.

But what can be said about the ontological status of computer games as objects of analysis? Are computer games discrete aesthetic objects that reflect the social world? Or are computer games technical images that are vital in the formation of the social? What follows here are some preliminary thoughts on the relationship between computer games as a technical object and computer games as aesthetic image. The trajectory of these thoughts follow Bernard Stiegler?s contention that the "image in general does not exist. ? the mental image and ? the image-object ? are two faces of a single phenomenon" (in Derrida & Stiegler, 2002:147). The technical object thus possesses its own dynamic, one that is inseparably linked to and emerges simultaneously with the social. In discussing computer games, the singularity of the imagined and the material object (like two sides of a coin) shows that a purely formalist approach to the computer game object needs to be reconfigured to consider the impact of games as aesthetic and technical objects upon the organization of social life.

As the study of computer games begins to coalesce into a field, considerations on spatiality are becoming a matter of urgency. While it is necessary to proclaim the validity of this field of study, the objects of this field demand to be thought in aesthetic, cultural, and political terms. Working through Leirfall's Kantian approach and Lefebvre?s theories on spatiality, Espen Aarseth argues that gamespace ought to be considered as an allegory for the real. "Computer games", he writes, "are essentially concerned with spatial representation and negotiation ... therefore a classification of computer games can be based on how they represent ? or, perhaps, implement ? space ... computer games are allegories of space: they pretend to portray space in ever more realistic ways, but rely on their deviation in order to make the illusion playable" (, Sept 4, 2002).

Playing in the zone is, therefore, constituted by Aarseth through escaping the real while at the same time reliving the real through the game. The game works as a representation of space (ideal or imagined) that exists in representational space (the lived). The slippage between the real and the imagined makes the game playable. It would be impossible, technically, for a game to obey the laws of the natural world to the letter. Conversely, it would be impossible to understand and negotiate a game space that is radically different from lived space. The player "enters" and negotiates the imaginative space of the game in terms of their experience of lived space. Gameplay thus occurs in the interface between lived and imagined space.

Aarseth is wary of the notion that there are different kinds of spaces with alternative qualities. Hence his use of the term "allegory" suggests that "cyberplaces are regions in space". This means that cybertexts are subsets of a larger lived space that provides the basis for the imagined places of play. The use of "place" as opposed to "space" is important here. He suggests, for instance, that Leirfall rightly "takes the cyberspace theorists ... to task for confusing the concept of space with place. Why say spaces when we really mean places?" "Cyberplaces", he continues, "cannot exist as parallels of real, three dimensional space". Three-dimensional space is, after all, where we live bodily. Computer games "are constituted of signs and therefore already dependent on our bodily experience in, and of, real space to be "hallucinated as space" (ibid.).

The phenomenological point is well made. But there is another important dimension to consider. Aarseth makes a valid point when he posits "computer games as a reductive operation leading to a representation of space that is not in itself spatial, but symbolic and rule-based". Lived space is thus privileged over the symbolic illusion of the game. The game is the binary opposite of the lived, and functions as the object of the imagination. But there is a technical interface at work as well, one that suggests that the game has a life of its own that impacts upon lived space. This technical interface reveals the shortcomings of the phenomenological approach to games, and Aarseth?s insistence upon a discrete aesthetic zone of play. The zone of play is both aesthetic and technical. It can be described as a zone that is caught between what Heidegger refers to as "as" and "as if" structures, between the "as" of the actual and the "as if" of the virtual (McHoul,, Dec 12, 2002). To date Games Studies has certainly hinted at the existence of this indeterminate spatio-temporal zone in computer game play but it is a field which has not yet been explored to any extent. As Jesper Juul suggests, computer games players necessarily hover in a "twilight zone" between interconnecting spaces: the lived and the imagined. The gameplayer, Juul writes, "inhabits a twilight zone where he/she is both an empirical subject outside the game and undertakes a role inside the game" (, Sept 4, 2002). If the zone of play is a contaminated between, then the space/ place hierarchy cannot stand. There is no ground to privilege the lived over the imagined.

The collapse of this hierarchy means that computer games need to be considered in terms of a broader ontology. Here we wish to raise further questions about the spatiality of games and the nature of the players? stake in this particular form of betweenness. Drawing on philosophical and sociological discussions of the unsettled zone of our ontological and social being by Edward Soja and Scott Lash it is possible to overcome the limiting binary opposition between a) an inside (necessity, the same) and b) an outside (freedom, the other) by positing what Lash (1999:4) terms the "third space of difference", the territory of the margin, between determinate and indeterminate forms of judgment, between self and other. Lash derives this third space from his reading of Kant?s third critique, The Critique of Judgement. For Lash, Kant?s concept of reflective judgement allows flow "between presence and absence, same and other. [?] Neither determinate, nor fully indeterminate, but partly determinate in that we have to search for the rule [?] an aporetic space of ambivalence and undecidability in which everything is at stake." If the zone of play is defined as a search for rules (of orientation both inside and outside) then the technical interface remains muddy and indeterminate. Soja (1996:66-88) argues that there are no pure lived spaces and no pure imagined spaces in the strictly aesthetic sense. All spaces are contaminated with the trace of the other, and this trace constitutes what Soja calls Thirdspace. Thirdspace is both lived and imagined. It is the ontological precondition of both Firstspace (empirical or perceived space) and Secondspace (ideological or utopian spaces of representation) and can be considered the messy site of political struggle, where decisions and choices are made. The zone of play that we have gestured toward is the technical precondition, the pre-reflective messiness of Thirdspace.

We are arguing firstly that computer game play only makes sense in spatial structures and secondly that this form of play is linked inseparably to the way we ? Western cultures ? gain orientation and spatial understanding in our navigation of the everyday world. In the world of consensus reality our ability to remember sets of visual landmarks and imagine their spatial relationship from different viewpoints is a vital feature of our negotiation of complex urban spaces. Games are discourses on spatiality. In other words, games do not function as allegories or as poor imitations of the real: games feed back into our understanding of lived space, into the decisions we make as we orientate and move in our everyday world.

Clearly all games involve a negotiation of the spatial field. Even early, more abstract one screen, single level computer games such as Space Invaders (1977) require that players negotiate a spatial field. Wolf sees a resemblance between such early games and the early films of Lumière and Méliès which were produced by a static camera with no editing links to other locations. Both these early films and games also depend for their effect on the spectator?s or player?s sense of a space outside the frame or off the computer screen (Wolf, 2001:55-56).

Space Invaders? players need information in the form of rules of orientation to engage successfully in the action of the game. The game consists of a loose backstory of invasion that functions to direct action in the conflict that is the object of the game. The player quickly learns the relationships between the various objects on-screen: the green object (in the flash version of the game that we are looking at) can be moved left and right, and, through the technical interface (spacebar on the keyboard), can be controlled to shoot and destroy the "invaders". There is also a sense of off-screen space. The invader?s "mothership" drifts across the top of the screen and disappears, the "bullets" that the player fires that miss this target fly off screen. In order to play the game it is necessary to understand that the on-screen game world belongs to or is a window on a larger off-screen world: the invaders came from somewhere and the present encounter is a point of intensified action in a larger imagined space.

In the history of games development spatial orientation has become even more complex than this example of an early abstract game. 3D graphics are a technical development that has begun to significantly alter our sense of space. Space does not precede its conceptualisation. Games that present more complex 3D worlds, such as Jet Set Radio Future (JSRF) and Shenmue II, form part of our cultural orientation in and navigation of increasingly complex urban spaces.

In JSRF the need to negotiate the space of the between is evident at the most basic level of the game situation. The gamer is any one of several members of a teenage skater gang that has come together to fight the takeover of the city by Gouji, the downtown corporate boss of the Rokkaku Group, and his henchmen who are backed up by the Rokkaku Police. Professor K., DJ of the pirate radio station Jet Set Radio Future, guides the player through the story-line. A major part of the game involves defeating territorial challengers in acts of graffiti tag executed as complex inline skating routines. JSRF is not a remediated game but a simulated, subcultural "sport" with fantasy extensions. The gamespace consists of nine arenas or chapters and a range of optional tasks. The game designers? innovative use of cel-shaded graphic rendering lends a comic-book style to JSRF?s skater subculture game-world set in a future Tokyo (2024). The aesthetic style of this game sets it apart from the realist-orientated visual regime to be found in many contemporary simulation games.

The game presents particular possibilities within a range of possibilities that mark the messiness and political nature of the zone of play. The player/user interfaces and negotiates a city space rendered in the cel-shaded graphic style. The graphic style of JSRF has been a point of contention in on-line discussions, and noted in interviews with the game?s producer, Takayuki Kawagoe, as "driving towards a very different feel of gaming" (Moore,, Mar 1, 2003). The cel-shaded graphic style resists graphic realism and simulation, and serves as a visible marker of the messiness of thirdness. The experience of this gamespace hovers between a future vision of Tokyo city "as" and Tokyo city "as if". The city is both real and not real in the sense that it loosely represents the actual Tokyo whilst connoting another space where the player plays, reworking and transgressing the rules of civic/capitalist space. At the character level, where the player is actant, the cartoon rendering lacks the specificity of identity and enables players to identify with character type, as opposed to playing specific game roles. And the main characters (Corn, Gum, Yoyo, Professor K, and Roboy, the garage robot who provides the interface with the game?s configuration controls) along with the various characters throughout the game who challenge and join the GG gang (Beat, Combo, Ruth, et. al.) and the rival skater gangs (Poison Jam, Immortals, and Noisetanks, appear to be more ?present? to, and more "filled out" in, the city of the skater gangs. The other inhabitants of the city, including the Rokkaku police, who appear as the skaters make their way through the gamespace, are graphically differentiated from the skaters. They appear almost like cardboard cut-outs, ghostly shadows rendered with less detail, and with less fluid movement. Perhaps a programming limitation, this visual differentiation, along with the ?as? and ?as if? quality of the cel-shaded graphic, suggests that this gamecityspace is a city within the city.

Crucially this city within the city has a social and political character. The player experiences vertiginous movement and the struggles of an underworld of rival skater gangs pitted against the power of corrupt capital. If JSRF foregrounds the complexities of the zone of play, as we maintain, then the game also represents its political nature. Along with the cel-shaded graphics, the "sonic scape" of the game politicises the experience of the visual between. With a minimal use of diegetic sound (players hear skating and grinding and not the sounds of the city), the player listens to the game?s "sick tunes". The characters wear headsets that are tuned to Professor K., DJ of the underground pirate radio station Jet Set Radio Future. Iain Chambers (1994:98) usefully suggests that the use of portable sound technologies, such as walkmans, might seem to represent "the emptiness of metropolitan life, but [?] can also be understood as a pregnant zero, as the link in an urban strategy, a semiotic shifter, the crucial digit in a particular organization of sense". The use of the headsets in the game sets the players apart from the city that is transformed in the course of play. The player is situated in a space that refuses the sociability of urban capital, but at the same time is linked to the game?s skater community. Ultimately the player is co-opted into a skater subculture that would exploit play to resist the tyranny and rigidity of advanced capital.

A further aid to the player?s visual orientation is provided by the game map which can be accessed at any point in the gameplay. The map displays an active set of vectors revealing the location of the player and the graffiti target sites. The map can be rotated to match the player?s current viewpoint. Recourse to the game map enacts the idea of the cognitive mapping of urban space as cultural orientation at the most literal level: the abstract representation of city space outlines the political aims of the skater collective in terms of the challenge of the city territory which has still to be liberated from the Rokkaku Group. It is interesting to note that this liberation is conceived of in the game text primarily in aesthetic terms as symbolic reterritorialisation by graffiti, a strategy which is not dissimilar to the methods adopted by anti-globalisation, environmental activists or culture jammers.

In contrast to Jet Set Radio Future, the "rules of orientation" in Shenmue II, a quest-based adventure game, centre on the urban myth of the male martial arts practitioner who seeks an alternative to, or engages in lines of flight from the world of commodified social relations. The player?s entry into the diegetic world of the game, a more realistically orientated visual regime, is already informed, as is the design of the game itself, by Hong Kong and Japanese cinema, the constant recourse of children?s television to martial arts themes and the innumerable martial arts videogames which have gone before. The decision-making process in the game is keyed to and accompanied by the unfolding of this chapter of Ryo?s life-story. In other words, the topological field of this cityspace game is charged in some considerable measure by myth in the same way that Lash argues the space of the post-modern city is grounded through the stories we tell about it.

Shenmue II has a correlate in games such as Myst or text adventure games such as the Zork series and The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, with fast-twitch extensions. The avatar, Ryo, arrives in Hong Kong, he is a stranger in search of the Dragon Mirror that was stolen by the martial arts mafia who also caused his father?s death. His goal is to recover the Dragon Mirror and avenge the death of his father, and he is forced to negotiate the unfamiliar city of Hong Kong (earning money, using maps, interacting with the city dwellers to get information). The avatar is in much the same situation as anyone arriving for the first time in a new city with limited resources.

We wish to posit a relationship between our navigation of actual cities considered as a perceptual topological field and the way that players orientate themselves in gamespace. Topology is the study of charged relational fields, and relates to the turbulence between the interconnecting layers of gamespace. Games are charged (in this sense) by the game designer but the challenge for the player is to work out where the charged parts of the game field are. In Shenmue II, Ryo has to search for the boy, Wong, who stole his bag. He asks city dwellers if they have seen this boy, and they point the way to the noodle house at the end of the alley which becomes a point of intensity within the game (the player has to engage here in combat in an effort to get the bag back). In referring to the topological field we mean the perceptual field, the imagined sense of space ? the mental map. What we might call the rules of orientation in actual cities and in city games, i.e. the ways we navigate these spaces, are similarly constituted. The common-sense "real" of real cities is far from stable. Our spatial orientation in the physical world is never completely settled even though habit makes it appear to be. We have only to engage in a new activity, or find ourselves suddenly off the beaten track in a foreign city to have to engage in the rapid decision making necessary to gain orientation. It is not that the activity in the physical world and in the game world is the same, but the decision-making process, the perceptual navigation of space, is closely related. We draw on information that is gathered in a similar manner to the avatar, Ryo. The object is different, certainly ? we go to different places for the necessary information ? but we can say that the game models the perceptual process and this modelling is not always subject to the ?lived real? but intersects with and impacts upon it.

The games discussed here exemplify well the unsettled nature of Thirdspace, its inherent messiness. In computer games the once clearly defined relationship between the actual and the virtual, as Heidegger defines it, is no longer possible. We are suggesting here that a productive way forward for games studies is to examine the messy intersections that constitute the zone of play, between playerspace and gamespace, the space of turbulent collision between the actual and the virtual. As we read it, the city as topological field is charged through the operation of memory and memory in its turn is configured by narrative. Myth, derivative urban myth in the case of games like Jet Set Radio Future and Shenmue II, stories and basic ordinary language rules of orientation serve to figure the topological field as map. This process brings perceptual form to the field as charge/vividness/intensity, especially to the nodal points of the city gamespace such as important junctions and concentrations where people gather and significant encounters take place which advance the gameplay. We are suggesting here that the spatial topological field of computer games is a productive one for further research. As game studies asks what is a game, in the process forging a formal vocabulary, we think that it is necessary to consider how games are constituted both in and as fields of social and cultural relations.



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