In this piece, Abhirami G. explores the role of the virtual spaces, more specifically, open world video games, in providing spatial agency to children and youth during the pandemic.
One of the most significant features of the COVID-19 pandemic is the severe restriction of movement that has been imposed on people in order to combat spread. While this has adversely affected various subsections of the population in different ways, children and youth have borne the brunt of the pandemic more strongly than adults. At an age when children and youth are just beginning to make sense of the various kinds of spaces they encounter in the outside world, they are forced to remain within the confines of their home. In these circumstances, the restriction of children’s spaces has led, in several cases, to children seeking out virtual spatial alternatives to physical spaces they previously occupied. Some of these spaces - such as chatrooms and Internet forums - may be abstract in nature; however, there has been a sharp rise in the popularity of the virtual spaces provided by open-world video games. In the context of this article, an open world video game can be broadly defined as a game which contains a virtual world that can be freely explored by the player. This definition includes games that may not strictly fall into a narrower definition of open-world games, such as Minecraft - technically a sandbox game. While there have been several reports on how multiplayer video games allow children and youth to socialise during the pandemic, there have been fewer studies of how open world games provide alternate spatialities that they can access at will during a time when outdoor movement has been restricted.
What differentiates open world games from other forms of video games is the vast worlds they provide that can be explored, observed and interacted with at will. While some open world games may provide some structure for world exploration through quests and storylines, others leave the world as-is for the players to discover on their own. Still others provide for means by which the player can directly modify the environment. These games have always been a supplement, and in some cases an alternative, to real-world spaces for children and adults alike. However, the availability of such virtual spaces is especially significant to children in the context of the pandemic, when they face increased restrictions both in comparison with their prior lives and the lives of adults during the pandemic. As a vulnerable group that is particularly dependent on the adults around them for freedom of movement, children and youth of various ages turn to the open worlds provided by video games to move more freely than they would be able to in real life. Open world games provide a safe and controlled environment within which they have the freedom to explore, farm for items, battle enemies, find treasure, and more without leaving their homes.
Keeping these characteristics in mind, we can examine two games from the point of view of virtual spatialities - Minecraft and Genshin Impact, both hugely popular among children and youth during the pandemic. While Minecraft has been a gaming mainstay since 2011, Genshin Impact was released in September 2020 at the height of the pandemic, and quickly became one of the highest-grossing games in history. Neither Minecraft nor Genshin Impact are primarily open world games; however, they both feature open worlds that the players can interact with in many different ways.
Much scholarly attention has been given to Minecraft, especially in regard with the use and manipulation of space. A study by Worsley and Bar-El surveys spatial awareness and skills among middle schoolers who play Minecraft, favourably assessing the game’s capacity to impart skills related to spatial reasoning. Another study by Quiring acknowledges the similarities between the physical and virtual worlds of Minecraft, noting that its model of cooperation/conflict and alteration of environments mirrors that of the real world, where humans cooperate or come into conflict with others while also making use of resources around them to improve their circumstances. The Robinson Crusoe-esque player begins from a makeshift shelter to bigger and better circumstances as they explore and understand how to make use of the natural resources around them while simultaneously avoiding danger from hostile enemies and starvation. Resources such as rocks and trees are comprised of a set of “blocks” within the game, which can be dismantled by the player, stored away for future use and used in building items for domestic use. As a game where the protagonist literally begins from scratch in order to create an existence in the world they inhabit, Minecraft allows children to take control of their virtual environments in a way they might not be able to in real life, exploring the world around them in order to interact with, modify and exploit resources to create their own modes of gameplay.
A glimpse of the Minecraft world
Genshin Impact is an altogether different kind of game, where a protagonist known as the Traveler journeys across a fictional land. In the process, they come across various allies and enemies in the seven nations that exist within the game, completing quests both for short-term goals and in fulfilling the long-term goal of finding their missing sibling. The open-world quality of the game, which features a vast and richly detailed environment, as well as the largely non-linear order in which quests can be completed, allows players to create their own path for themselves in the open world in order to advance ranks and progress within the game. The world can be interacted with in several ways that mirror real life; the most prominent of these would be the presence of various “elements” in the would such as wind, water, fire and ice, which can react with each other in order to create distinct elemental reactions such as freezing, melting, and vaporisation.
A still from Genshin Impact
Vella draws upon Edward M Casey to identify two different ways in which players can inhabit, or dwell, within a virtual game world - hestial, which centres around a central home territory that players can regard as a locus they come back to, and hermetic, which draws players out onto a path they must traverse. In this light, Minecraft and Genshin Impact can be respectively classified as possessing hestial and hermetic qualities. While Minecraft encourages the player to explore and gather resources, it ultimately draws them back to the home they have built for themselves, which anchors their relation to the spatiality of the game world. In Genshin Impact, the journey that the Traveler traverses is itself the locus around which players orient themselves, as completing main and side quests forms the bulk of the gameplay. While a home-like dwelling can be unlocked by players above a certain level, it is explicitly removed from the rest of the world as a separate entity. The closest entities that can be seen as hestial in quality are locations known as Statues of the Seven, where players can heal and upgrade their stats; however, as several of these exist across the map, there is no central location that acts as a locus within the game. Both kinds of dwelling are crucial aspects of development that children experience in real life.
However, while “normal” circumstances allow for a disconnect between the virtual world and the real world, in the context of the pandemic, the external world becomes suddenly more unreal than the virtual world. The open world inhabited by the player in the game thus becomes a space that allows for a deeper identification with reality than would have been possible otherwise. It is easier to inhabit a fantasy world with soothing visuals and music than the deeply uncertain realities of the pandemic, much more so for children and youth. Anecdotal evidence also suggests that game worlds allow players to experience a sense of normalcy that they may not have experienced otherwise - for instance, a YouTube comment from a Genshin player comments on how the “Lantern Rite” event that occurred around the time of the Chinese New Year allowed them to experience a festive feeling during the occasion that was absent from the real world. (Seion_)
A full-scale survey of gamers who play open-world games is beyond the scope of this blog post. However, the reconfiguration of spatial awareness and engagement among children is likely to be one of the many ways in which the pandemic has changed human life and society. While there is a general tendency to label any effect video games have upon children as inherently bad, this phenomenon is not good or bad in itself - indeed, its effects are unlikely to be observed any time in the near future, not until much after a sense of normalcy is restored to the world. In any case, we can conclude for now that regardless of the implications of this kind of spatial understanding, open world video games are likely to be of immense use as a coping mechanism while adults and children alike continue to come to terms with the rapidly changing world around us. When global events makes us feel powerless and alone, open world video games can provide the player with a sense of belonging and, more importantly, normalcy.
Abhirami is a fourth-year student of English Studies at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Madras. Her new favourite pandemic activity is running around the Genshin Impact map for absolutely no reason.
Quiring, Tyler. "From voxel vistas: Place-making in Minecraft." Journal of Virtual Worlds Research 8.1 (2015).
Seion_. Comment on “New Genshin players won't remember these”. YouTube, 8 Dec 2021, youtube.com/watch?v=iprbM-HUE6c&lc=UgyAFESzQVe_nZUydMZ4AaABAg. Accessed 20 February 2022.
Vella, Daniel. "Dwelling in Digital Game Worlds." (2019).
Vella, Daniel. "The Wanderer in the Wilderness: Being in the virtual landscape in Minecraft and Proteus." Bergen: in Proceedings of The Philosophy of Computer Games Conference. 2013.
Worsley, Marcelo, and David Bar-El. "Spatial Reasoning in Minecraft: An Exploratory Study of In-Game Spatial Practices." Computersupported collaborative learning 2 (2020).
YouTube comment by user Seion_ about the Lantern Rite event cited in the article: