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Spatial Expectations and Their Effect on Our Experience of Game Worlds

How might game designers exploit our hidden vulnerability to spatial-inspired psychosis? The good news is that many already do.

Every year, 50 to 100 tourists visiting Israel, the vast majority devout Christians, succumb to what is colloquially known as Jerusalem syndrome. Awed by the ostensibly holy nature of their surroundings, they begin to exhibit strange behavior. Many perform acts of spiritual and physical cleansing before taking to the streets and becoming ad-hoc prophets and messiahs. Seemingly normal individuals begin delivering sermons to passers by. Others partake in daily activities to prep the world for the second coming of Christ. Yet others genuinely believe that they are Jesus reborn.

This phenomenon is not localized to Jerusalem. Stendhal syndrome is the name of a similar psychosomatic illness in which sufferers may succumb to dizziness, fainting, confusion, and hallucinations when surrounded by art, particularly in Florence, Italy. Similarly, Paris Syndrome describes the psychological disorders of predominantly Japanese tourists that every year experience temporary psychosis partially brought on by the disconnect between their idealized perception of Paris and reality. While Jerusalem syndrome is engendered by the city strongly matching cultural and in this case religious expectations, Paris syndrome is evoked by the disjuncture between expectations and truth.

An excellent article in a recent issue of Wired exposed the power of spatial expectations in regards to Jerusalem syndrome:

In other words, what you can blame Jerusalem for is looking like, well, Jerusalem. The Old City is a mosaic of sacred spaces, from the al-Aqsa Mosque to the Western Wall of the Temple Mount to the well-trodden stones on which Jesus supposedly walked. Like every city, it’s the combination of architecture and storytelling that makes Jerusalem more than just a crossroads. Great cities, the places that feel significant and important when you walk their streets, always rely on stagecraft—a deftly curving road, finely wrought facades, or a high concentration of light-up signage can all impart a sense of place, of significance. This architectural trickery can even instill a feeling of the sacred. (Chris Nashawaty, "The Jerusalem Syndrome: Why Some Religious Tourists Believe They Are the Messiah", Wired, 17 February 2012)

Yes, those who experience both Paris and Jerusalem syndrome tend to have additional variables that may make them prone to the condition. Many of Israel’s tourist-Messiahs have experienced psychological issues in the past or have gone through great change prior to their visit to Jerusalem. Similarly, the Japanese tourists visiting a suddenly mundane Paris also tend to struggle with a language barrier and generally suffer from jet lag induced exhaustion. Regardless, those particularly susceptible to these syndromes reveal how spatial expectations can trigger powerful emotional and psychological responses.

Of course, game designers should avoid giving players hallucinations, but creating evocative environments is often a major development goal. This might sound weird, but with this knowledge in hand, a question arises about how game designers might exploit our hidden vulnerability to spatial-inspired psychosis. The good news is that many already do.

In many ways, the oddities and incongruities of Fez seek to evoke reactions similar to those induced by Paris syndrome. Many tourists visits Paris with an idealized version of the city in their mind, a construction of famous films and magazine covers that create the illusion of a cultural mecca inhabited by runway models and chain-smoking gentleman in impeccable attire. Gaming enthusiasts come to Fez with their own expectations, created by years of experience with two-dimensional platformers and various genre conventions. When Fez suddenly shifts reality and demands that players navigate a 2D world while thinking in 3D, the disjunction is both pleasing and nerve racking. Strange rhythm puzzles and hidden QR codes violate our expectations to dramatic effect. Like the famous white block in Super Mario Bros. 3, Fez violates our spatial expectations to elicit not psychosis, but joy.

While Fez mirrors the conditions of Paris syndrome, Batman: Arkham City mirrors the conditions of Jerusalem syndrome. The psychotic episodes that tourists experience are induced when reality does in fact match or exceed expectations. The space itself is not an exact replication of a subjectively imagined space but carries enough of the signs the suffering individuals associate with the conceptual space that they hold in their minds. While no angels sing hymns in the streets, Jerusalem is full of devout believers and religious iconography. The space mirrors imagined expectations. The mythology of the city is realized within the actual environment.

As I have mentioned before, “Conceptually, Gotham City is a place that we create using bits and pieces of the city depicted in various mediums” ("Community Building through Movie Tie-Ins", PopMatters, 21 June 2012). It is a city composed of the mythos of Batman in all his forms, patched together from various cultural artifacts, from comic books to movies. We bring our patchwork of spatial expectations of Gotham city when we enter Rocksteady’s imagining of Gotham in Batman: Arkham City.

It is fitting, then, that Arkham City is such a tight composition of Batman mythology. The Joker’s section of the city mirrors his own aesthetic and insanity. Bright lights and billboards illuminate an otherwise dark city and a decaying clown head evokes the Joker’s dark and morbid humour. Similarly, Two-Face’s mansion is gorgeously designed in two pieces, split right down the middle. One side appears well lit and ordered, the other appears dark and tattered, and a terrible rift divides the two. It is the philosophy and general concept of Two-Face realized in the very architecture of the city. The game world of Arkham City mirrors our spatial expectations established by our familiarity with the characters and the extended lore of Batman. The city -- and Arkham Asylum before it -- works marvelously as an environment that seems built from our collective imaginations of the Batman universe. For those familiar with Batman and his villains, the very geography of Arkham City may prove evocative, as it pleasurably matches their spatial expectations.

Jerusalem syndrome and Paris syndrome are both intimately tied to our spatial expectations. Evangelical Christians may imagine a Jerusalem steeped in biblical significance and, upon finding a city laden with religious iconography, feel as though they have been transported into a uniquely spiritual realm. Japanese tourists suffering from Paris syndrome, however, find the disjunction between their expectations and reality too jarring to handle. We enter games with our own set of expectations and assumptions, both related to the history of games and game genres and related to various social and cultural experiences. Mastery over in-game space demands a mastery over these spatial expectations.

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