Wandering in the City: Time, Memory, and Experience in Digital Game Space





space and place, phenomenology, video games, digital space, virtual space, memory, de Certeau, Halbwachs, Assassin's Creed

How to Cite

Proctor, D. (2019). Wandering in the City: Time, Memory, and Experience in Digital Game Space. M/C Journal, 22(4). https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.1549
Vol. 22 No. 4 (2019): wandering
Published 2019-08-14

As I round the corner from Church Street onto Vesey, I am abruptly met with the façade of St. Paul’s Chapel and by the sudden memory of two things, both of which have not yet happened. I think about how, in a couple of decades, the area surrounding me will be burnt to the ground. I also recall how, just after the turn of the twenty-first century, the area will again crumble onto itself. It is 1759, and I—via my avatar—am wandering through downtown New York City in the videogame space of Assassin’s Creed: Rogue (AC:R). These spatial and temporal memories stem from the fact that I have previously (that is, earlier in my life) played an AC game set in New York City during the War for Independence (later in history), wherein the city’s lower west side burns at the hands of the British. Years before that (in my biographical timeline, though much later in history) I watched from twenty-something blocks north of here as flames erupted from the twin towers of the World Trade Center. Complicating the situation further, Michel de Certeau strolls with me in spirit, pondering observations he will make from almost this exact location (though roughly 1,100 feet higher up) 220 years from now, around the time I am being born. Perhaps the oddest aspect of this convoluted and temporally layered experience is the fact that I am not actually at the corner of Church and Vesey in 1759 at all, but rather on a couch, in Virginia, now.  

This particular type of sudden arrival at a space is only possible when it is not planned. Prior to the moment described above, I had finished a “mission” in the game that involved my coming to the city, so I decided I would just walk around a bit in the newly discovered digital New York of 1759. I wanted to take it in. I wanted to wander. Truly Being-in-a-place means attending to the interconnected Being-ness and Being-with-ness of all of the things that make up that place (Heidegger; Haraway). Conversely, to travel to or through a place entails a type of focused directionality toward a place that you are not currently Being in. Wandering, however, demands eschewing both, neither driven by an incessant goal, nor stuck in place by introspective ruminations. Instead, wandering is perhaps best described as a sort of mobile openness. A wanderer is not quite Benjamin’s flâneur, characterised by an “idle yet assertive negotiation of the street” (Coates 28), but also, I would argue, not quite de Certeau’s “Wandersmünner, whose bodies follow the thicks and thins of an urban ‘text’ they write without being able to read it” (de Certeau 93). Wandering requires a concerted effort at non-intentionality. That description may seem to fold in on itself, to be sure, but as the spaces around us are increasingly “canalized” (Rabinow and Foucault) and designed with specific trajectories and narratives in mind, inaction leads to the unconscious enacting of an externally derived intention; whereas any attempt to subvert that design is itself a wholly intentional act. This is why wandering is so difficult. It requires shedding layers. It takes practice, like meditation.

In what follows, I will explore the possibility of revelatory moments enabled by the shedding of these layers of intention through my own experience in digital space (maybe the most designed and canalized spaces we inhabit). I come to recognise, as I disavow the designed narrative of game space, that it takes on other meanings, becomes another space. I find myself Being-there in a way that transcends the digital as we understand it, experiencing space that reaches into the past and future, into memory and fiction. Indeed, wandering is liminal, betwixt fixed points, spaces, and times, and the text you are reading will wander in this fashion—between the digital and the physical, between memory and experience, and among multiple pasts and the present—to arrive at a multilayered subjective sense of space, a palimpsest of placemaking.

Before charging fully into digital time travel, however, we must attend to the business of context. In this case, this means addressing why I am talking about videogame space in Certaudian terms. Beginning as early as 1995, videogame theorists have employed de Certeau’s notion of “spatial stories” in their assertions that games allow players to construct the game’s narrative by travelling through and “colonizing” the space (Fuller and Jenkins). Most of the scholarship involving de Certeau and videogames, however, has been relegated to the concepts of “map/tour” in looking at digital embodiment within game space as experiential representatives of the place/space binary. Maps verbalise spatial experience in place terms, such as “it’s at the corner of this and that street”, whereas tours express the same in terms of movement through space, as in “turn right at the red house”. Videogames complicate this because “mapping is combined with touring when moving through the game-space” (Lammes).

In Games as Inhabited Spaces, Bernadette Flynn moves beyond the map/tour dichotomy to argue that spatial theories can approach videogaming in a way no other viewpoint can, because neither narrative nor mechanics of play can speak to the “space” of a game. Thus, Flynn’s work is “focused on completely reconceiving gameplay as fundamentally configured with spatial practice” (59) through de Certeau’s concepts of “strategic” and “tactical” spatial use. Flynn explains:

The ability to forge personal directions from a closed simulation links to de Certeau’s notion of tactics, where users can create their own trajectories from the formal organizations of space. For de Certeau, tactics are related to how people individualise trajectories of movement to create meaning and transformations of space. Strategies on the other hand, are more akin to the game designer’s particular matrix of formal structures, arrangements of time and space which operate to control and constrain gameplay. (59)

Flynn takes much of her reading of de Certeau from Lev Manovich, who argues that a game designer “uses strategies to impose a particular matrix of space, time, experience, and meaning on his viewers; they, in turn, use ‘tactics’ to create their own trajectories […] within this matrix” (267). Manovich believes de Certeau’s theories offer a salient model for thinking about “the ways in which computer users navigate through computer spaces they did not design” (267). In Flynn’s and Manovich’s estimation, simply moving through digital space is a tactic, a subversion of its strategic and linear design.

The views of game space as tactical have historically (and paradoxically) treated the subject of videogames from a strategic perspective, as a configurable space to be “navigated through”, as a way of attaining a certain goal. Dan Golding takes up this problem, distancing our engagement from the design and calling for a de Certeaudian treatment of videogame space “from below”, where “the spatial diegesis of the videogame is affordance based and constituted by the skills of the player”, including those accrued outside the game space (Golding 118). Similarly, Darshana Jayemanne adds a temporal element with the idea that these spatial constructions are happening alongside a “complexity” and “proliferation of temporal schemes” (Jayemanne 1, 4; see also Nikolchina). Building from Golding and Jayemanne, I illustrate here a space wherein the player, not the game, is at the fulcrum of both spatial and temporal complexity, by adding the notion that—along with skill and experience—players bring space and time with them into the game.

Viewed with the above understanding of strategies, tactics, skill, and temporality, the act of wandering in a videogame seems inherently subversive: on one hand, by undergoing a destination-less exploration of game space, I am rejecting the game’s spatial narrative trajectory; on the other, I am eschewing both skill accrual and temporal insistence to attempt a sense of pure Being-in-the-game. Such rebellious freedom, however, is part of the design of this particular game space. AC:R is a “sand box” game, which means it involves a large environment that can be traversed in a non-linear fashion, allowing, supposedly, for more freedom and exploration. Indeed, much of the gameplay involves slowly making more space available for investigation in an outward—rather than unidirectional—course. A player opens up these new spaces by “synchronising a viewpoint”, which can only be done by climbing to the top of specific landmarks. One of the fundamental elements of the AC franchise is an acrobatic, free-running, parkour style of engagement with a player’s surroundings, “where practitioners weave through urban environments, hopping over barricades, debris, and other obstacles” (Laviolette 242), climbing walls and traversing rooftops in a way unthinkable (and probably illegal) in our everyday lives. People scaling buildings in major metropolitan areas outside of videogame space tend to get arrested, if they survive the climb. Possibly, these renegade climbers are seeking what de Certeau describes as the “voluptuous pleasure […] of ‘seeing the whole,’ of looking down on, totalizing the most immoderate of human texts” (92)—what he experienced, looking down from the top of the World Trade Center in the late 1970s.


On digital ground level, back in 1759, I look up to the top of St. Paul’s bell tower and crave that pleasure, so I climb. As I make my way up, Non-Player Characters (NPCs)—the townspeople and trader avatars who make up the interactive human scenery of the game—shout things such as “You’ll hurt yourself” and “I say! What on earth is he doing?” This is the game’s way of convincing me that I am enacting agency and writing my own spatial story. I seem to be deploying “tricky and stubborn procedures that elude discipline without being outside the field in which it is exercised” (de Certeau 96), when I am actually following the program the way I am supposed to. If I were not meant to climb the tower, I simply would not be able to. The fact that game developers go to the extent of recording dialogue to shout at me when I do this proves that they expect my transgression. This is part of the game’s “semi-social system”: a collection of in-game social norms that—to an extent—reflect the cultural understandings of outside non-digital society (Atkinson and Willis). These norms are enforced through social pressures and expectations in the game such that “these relative imperatives and influences, appearing to present players with ‘unlimited’ choices, [frame] them within the parameters of synthetic worlds whose social structure and assumptions are distinctly skewed in particular ways” (408). By using these semi-social systems, games communicate to players that performing a particular act is seen as wrong or scandalous by the in-game society (and therefore subversive), even when the action is necessary for the continuation of the spatial story.

When I reach the top of the bell tower, I am able to “synchronise the viewpoint”—that is, unlock the map of this area of the city. Previously, I did not have access to an overhead view of the area, but now that I have indulged in de Certeau’s pleasure of “seeing the whole”, I can see not only the tactical view from the street, but also the strategic bird’s-eye view from above. From the top, looking out over the city—now The City, a conceivable whole rather than a collection of streets—it is difficult to picture the neighbourhood engulfed in flames. The stair-step Dutch-inspired rooflines still recall the very recent change from New Amsterdam to New York, but in thirty years’ time, they will all be torched and rebuilt, replaced with colonial Tudor boxes. I imagine myself as an eighteenth-century de Certeau, surveying pre-ruination New York City. I wonder how his thoughts would have changed if his viewpoint were coloured with knowledge of the future. Standing atop the very symbol of global power and wealth—a duo-lith that would exist for less than three decades—would his pleasure have been less “voluptuous”? While de Certeau considers the viewer from above like Icarus, whose “elevation transfigures him into a voyeur” (92), I identify more with Daedalus, preoccupied with impending disaster. I swan-dive from the tower into a hay cart, returning to the bustle of the street below.

As I wander amongst the people of digital 1759 New York, the game continuously makes phatic advances at me. I bump into others on the street and they drop boxes they are carrying, or stumble to the side. Partial overheard conversations going on between townspeople—“… what with all these new taxes …”, “… but we’ve got a fine regiment here …”—both underscore the historical context of the game and imply that this is a world that exists even when I am not there. These characters and their conversations are as much a part of the strategic makeup of the city as the buildings are. They are the text, not the writers nor the readers. I am the only writer of this text, but I am merely transcribing a pre-programmed narrative. So, I am not an author, but rather a stenographer. For this short moment, though, I am allowed by the game to believe that I am making the choice not to transcribe; there are missions to complete, and I am ignoring them. I am taking in the city, forgetting—just as the design intends—that I am the only one here, the only person in the entire world, indeed, the person for whom this world exists.

While wandering, I also experience conflicts and mergers between what Maurice Halbwachs has called historical, autobiographical, and collective memory types: respectively, these are memories created according to historical record, through one’s own life experience, and by the way a society tends to culturally frame and recall “important” events. De Certeau describes a memorable place as a “palimpsest, [where] subjectivity is already linked to the absence that structures it as existence” (109). Wandering through AC:R’s virtual representation of 1759 downtown New York, I am experiencing this palimpsest in multiple layers, activating my Halbwachsian memories and influencing one another in the creation of my subjectivity. This is the “absence” de Certeau speaks of. My visions of Revolutionary New York ablaze tug at me from beneath a veneer of peaceful Dutch architecture: two warring historical memory constructs. Simultaneously, this old world is painted on top of my autobiographical memories as a New Yorker for thirteen years, loudly ordering corned beef with Russian dressing at the deli that will be on this corner. Somewhere sandwiched between these layers hides a portrait of September 11th, 2001, painted either by collective memory or autobiographical memory, or, more likely, a collage of both. A plane entering a building. Fire. Seen by my eyes, and then re-seen countless times through the same televised imagery that the rest of the world outside our small downtown village saw it. Which images are from media, and which from memory?

Above, as if presiding over the scene, Michel de Certeau hangs in the air at the collision site, suspended a 1000 feet above the North Pool of the 9/11 Memorial, rapt in “voluptuous pleasure”. And below, amid the colonists in their tricorns and waistcoats, people in grey ash-covered suits—ambulatory statues; golems—slowly and silently march ever uptown-wards. Dutch and Tudor town homes stretch skyward and transform into art-deco and glass monoliths. These multiform strata, like so many superimposed transparent maps, ground me in the idea of New York, creating the “fragmentary and inward-turning histories” (de Certeau 108) that give place to my subjectivity, allowing me to Be-there—even though, technically, I am not.

My conscious decision to ignore the game’s narrative and wander has made this moment possible. While I understand that this is entirely part of the intended gameplay, I also know that the design cannot possibly account for the particular way in which I experience the space. And this is the fundamental point I am asserting here: that—along with the strategies and temporal complexities of the design and the tactics and skills of those on the ground—we bring into digital space our own temporal and experiential constructions that allow us to Be-in-the-game in ways not anticipated by its strategic design. Non-digital virtuality—in the tangled forms of autobiographical, historic, and collective memory—reaches into digital space, transforming the experience. Further, this changed game-experience becomes a part of my autobiographical “prosthetic memory” that I carry with me (Landsberg). When I visit New York in the future, and I inevitably find myself abruptly met with the façade of St Paul’s Chapel as I round the corner of Church Street and Vesey, I will be brought back to this moment. Will I continue to wander, or will I—if just for a second—entertain the urge to climb?


After the recent near destruction by fire of Notre-Dame, a different game in the AC franchise was offered as a free download, because it is set in revolutionary Paris and includes a very detailed and interactive version of the cathedral. Perhaps right now, on sundry couches in various geographical locations, people are wandering there: strolling along the Siene, re-experiencing time they once spent there; overhearing tense conversations about regime change along the Champs-Élysées that sound disturbingly familiar; or scaling the bell tower of the Notre-Dame Cathedral itself—site of revolution, desecration, destruction, and future rebuilding—to reach the pleasure of seeing the strategic whole at the top. And maybe, while they are up there, they will glance south-southwest to the 15th arrondissement, where de Certeau lies, enjoying some voluptuous Icarian viewpoint as-yet unimagined.


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Author Biography

Devin Proctor, George Washington University

Devin Proctor holds a PhD in Anthropology from The George Washington University, where he currently works as a lecturer with a joint position with Anthropology and the College of Arts and Sciences. For the past nine years, his research has focused on how technological mediation affects subjective and social constructs through examinations of online virtual worlds, social media, videogaming, and Internet discourse.