Geography 970

February 21, 2010

Maps for Play

Filed under: Uncategorized — Daniel Huffman @ 10:14 pm

Fei’s post on Ovi Maps Racing reminded me of my first experiences with GIS and cartography, which involved computer games. I played a lot of games when younger, like SimCity and Civilization, that took place on maps of fictional locations. I first learned how to find and manipulate DEMs in order to load them into certain games, so that I could play on the terrain of my hometown.

I think this is an easily overlooked realm where a lot of people encounter presentations of geospatial information. They see maps in computer games, on board games, in the jackets of fantasy novels. I would be interested to know how many people interact with maps of fictional locations vs interacting with maps of actual locations. I’ve never played World of Warcraft, but I have friends who probably know more about the location of elven towns than they do about towns in their own county.

(Side note: A Google search for “cartographer” turns up, for 3 of the first 4 hits, a WoW-related download to make maps look better, I think).

Maybe I’ve not noticed, but it seems like there’s not much dialogue between cartographers and these sorts of fantasy map people. This seems to me like a missed opportunity. As cartographers, we complain here and there about poor quality maps. If we would like people to demand better maps, we need to fill their lives with examples of them. Games and fantasy seems like a fine place to do that. Especially because it’s filled with people who want to make maps. They want to design maps for their stories, build maps for the games they are designing. People interested in learning. Some of these people are going to get jobs with Google someday, and create the next round of interactive mapping displays.

While exposing people to our ivory tower influence might be nice, I wonder if, in fact, computer game programmers have (or should have) influenced us. They’ve been designing interactive digital basemaps for a long time. In the early 1990s, you could play a computer game with a full color basemap designed to accept a randomly-generated geography and multiple pieces of information on top of it (army icons, city names, etc).

Sid Meier's Civilization

I’m pretty sure this thing sold more copies, in 1991, than any sort of digital map of actual geographic reality. The map above was interactive (you could click on various tiles for information) and animated (watch units move). It changed dynamically to represent game conditions (those little brown roads could be built or removed, for example). In 575, Mark talks about how people have certain expectations on how to interact with a map — what sorts of things they can click on, how they can pan around. Some of mine have probably been influenced by games like this.

Others of you may be able to comment more authoritatively on whether or not the world of academic and professional mapmaking has interacted much with the world of maps for fun, but it seems like there’s some good opportunities there, for us to influence the quality and design of maps being shown to large numbers of people, and to learn about map interface design from people who’ve been making money off of it a lot longer than we have.


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