The Magic of Cartography

Maps are awesome. They are useful, informative, and often gorgeous. Maps in computer games are especially useful, informative, and almost always gorgeous. No matter which genre of computer games we pick, maps take an inherent part in the design.

First-person shooter maps serve as a helpful tool for navigating the surroundings in the heat of the battle. Open-world games like to stun the player with the scope of their maps, promising dozens of hours of immersive and maybe sometimes a little bit samey discoveries. So-called Metroidvanias shine with their map design that involves lots of secret-finding, shortcut-opening, and backtracking. Maps in RPG games combine everything already stated and more—they immerse and sometimes puzzle. Even if the game has no built-in map, it’s expected that the players should create one themselves. Mapping the levels with pencil and paper was an integral part of the gameplay in old-school dungeon crawlers. Even some point-and-click adventure games challenge players with puzzles that involve navigating through some convoluted and deadly maze with no chance to solve without patience and a bit of cartography.

Not including the basic map in the game of the above-stated genres is a perfectly valid option for game designers to challenge the player. But we cannot have a strategy game without a map. Because maps in strategy games are a lot more than just a helpful tool.

Birthright: The Gorgon’s Alliance (1997)

In “On Exactitude of Science,” Borges tells the story of an empire that invests all of its science points into cartography. The result is a giant map on the same scale as the empire itself, and even generations since the empire’s crumbling, some pieces of this map still remain. This short story is cited at the beginning of Baudrillard’s “Simulacra and Simulation” as an introduction to the concept of the hyperreal—a representation without an original referent.
Maps representing real-world places are pure representations, symbols with actual references to physical reality.

On the other hand, maps in computer games, specifically strategic ones, especially 4X and grand strategies, are references to themselves. Even if we consider Crusader Kings III’s detailed map of Medieval Europe, its historical reference becomes redundant when we start the game and action begins—borders change, kingdoms rise, and empires fall.

The map and the in-game world are synonymous. Therefore, no matter how much strategy games try to create the feeling that the player is a general that bends over thoughtfully over the table map or an intergalactic emperor that eyes the galaxy through some high-tech display, it’s all mere aesthetics. Functionally, maps in strategy games are reality itself, and their goal—apart from pleasing the sight and conveying information—is to engage the player and create that particular fragile link that triggers the suspension of disbelief. They share this goal with another type of fictional map that can be found in fantasy books.

The Map of Middle-earth from the Russian edition of Lord of the Rings

The fantasy genre in literature is totalitarian—it is expected that every minor aspect of imaginary life would be explained through world-building. How magic works, what people eat, how dragons are classified, and of course, where everything happens. The map of Middle-earth on the flyleaf of Lord of the Rings is meant to accompany the text of the novel and—by contextualizing the plot progression—to assist the text in the reader’s engagement. Therefore, it is the representation of an imaginary world and not the world itself—we don’t see the Fellowship’s journey from Rivendell southwards (maybe just as static lines representing the general route in some versions of the book); we can’t affect it in any way, and it will never change whatever cataclysm may happen thousands of years after Frodo’s departure to Grey Heavens.

Sid Meier’s Civilization (1991)

Albeit the same goals, 4X maps achieve them by doing what fantasy novel flyleaf’s maps never do. They don’t need to contextualize the narrative—they are the narrative and the manifestation of its progression. Therefore, along with being informative, they have to be dynamic—the player’s actions are not only seen through the map, but they also directly change it. Hence, the seemingly derogatory term for Grand Strategy Games—Map Painters. No one should take offense at somebody calling his favorite game a Map Painter! Changing borders and painting the map with your chosen colors is one of the primary sources of satisfaction and pleasure while playing these games. Mastering the game means mastering the world and vice versa.

One of the most influential essays in ludology is Huizinga’s Homo Ludens, in which game space is metaphorically described as a magic circle—a semiclosed circle that distances players from the real world while simultaneously being a part of it. Huizinga also argued that by stepping into the magic circle and partaking in the play ritual, the player finds herself in a place of order, leaving the chaos of everyday life outside. But this assumption doesn’t hold water when attributed to computer games, especially strategic ones. One of the most important sources of the player’s pleasure from playing strategy games is struggling with the sense of uncertainty.

Uncertainty can manifest itself through various means—what lies under the fog of war, which strategy the opponent would choose, what random event would happen next turn—the more intricately game systems intertwine, the more uncertainty injected into the play, and consequently, the farther from the truth gets the statement “game is order.” When the 4X strategy is mastered until no uncertainty is left and a complete order reigns, it’s a vocal sign that it’s time to look for another 4X game.

Europa Universalis II (2001)

Sybille Lammes suggests a more nuanced metaphor and replaces the magic circle with the magic node. When a circle’s borders create dichotomies (order-disorder, inside-outside), nodes in a cultural network develop hybrids. Games as magic nodes remain ritualistic but don’t detach their players from the disorder of reality and don’t isolate the cultural space. One such hybridization, which Lammes sets as an example, is interactive cartography, essential in such games as the Civilization series. It’s a hybridization of abstract and timeless maps with a personal spatial experience of touring. In other words, by exploring the map, players experience a personal tour but simultaneously partake in the activity of abstract cartography.

Additionally, by hybridizing personal and abstract (social), strategy games also translate hegemonic spatial relationships into the realm of subjective: «Players are endowed with a power of marking territories and empires and can thus create their own (post)colonial stories by translating world histories into personal stories.» (Lammes, « Cultural Functions of Spatial Practices in Computer Games,» 2008)

Master of Orion II: Battle at Antares (1996)

Every time we boot up the 4X game, we begin the personal adventure in the brave new world that fuels our interest with its uncertainties on our path to resolve the disorder of things. And on the other hand, we get a chance to rewrite history or reshape the future by partaking in the most epic roleplaying session ever.

While the strategy game map is not a representation, but a hyperreal simulacrum, the game itself, a magic node in the cultural network, represents (and often misrepresents, let’s be honest) the reality itself. Politics, economics, colonialism, cultural evolution, utopias, dystopias—everything! And this “everything” becomes our playground. Cure all of society’s ills or see the world burn in spectacular flames of war? Min-max and paint the world in solid color, or role-play a noble but humble leader of the people? It’s all legit, it’s all acceptable, and it’s all shown through the magical map. By mastering the map, you master the world. And with a little bit of magical illusion, not merely a game world.

4 responses to “The Magic of Cartography”

  1. >role-play a noble but humble leader of the people

    Usually not an option, as your only level of internal politics is often “tax go low to make happy go up”


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