On Spatial Definitions (And How Pac-Man Enters In)

Due to some summer travel and quite a bit of summer reading in preparation for upcoming exams, I’ve been away from working on this site for some time. I have a bunch of ideas for topics moving forward, and I’ll start here by combining two ideas that I had for blog posts a while back: laying out unmuddled, accessible definitions of space, place, and location (the latter of which I’ve been thinking quite a bit about in my own research), and a recent example of Google Maps’ experiments gamifying space.

A space is a general milieu or context for activity. If I am speaking broadly about different activities or sites generally found in cities, I am speaking of urban space. If I see an empty storefront and wonder aloud what stores might be best to move in there, I am speculating on that space. A place, then, is a space with meaning. If an empty storefront becomes an Urban Outfitters, it has become a place because it is imbued with a meaning performed by those who come and go into the space.

Location, meanwhile, is something that I find much less discussed than space and place, but just as relevant in our rich media environment. Location, as I see it, is a particular position that an individual or a community holds that facilitates place-making – that is, imbuing the space with some sort of meaning. If a consumer receives an advertisement while using a smartphone for the Urban Outfitters store the consumer is about to pass, this is a location-based advertisement and fits with this definition of location. Or, if the Urban Outfitters moves into a bigger storefront a few blocks away, one is likely to speak of its old location and its new location. Both places, then, are now transformed by different contexts of consumer movement toward them (in other words, the store’s relocation).

Now, allow me to bring PacMan into the fold. A few months ago, a colleague of mine, knowing it would be relevant to my interests, sent me the news that Google Maps had taken up various spaces and turned them for a limited time into settings in which one could play PacMan on their interface. Given Google Maps’ previous instances of gaming space on its interface, I was hardly surprised. I was intrigued, however, by how this might tie in to critiques of popular mapping interfaces as simply navigating users through efficient routing to sites of consumption and sending them relevant ads accordingly based on geofencing. Consumption underpins PacMan’s own history; even aside from PacMan’s high status as an arcade game and its eat-or-be-eaten nature of play, its creator, Toru Iwatani, the character itself was based on a pizza. That underlying theme of consumption matches the consumer-driven thrust of Google Maps.

3673756798_2906d1e1d8_o_dIf all my examples thus far seem to appeal to consumption and the commodification of space and place, there’s a reason for that. One of the leading movements influencing how we conceptualize space and place, Situationism, is also tied to consumerist critiques of spectacle given its ties with Guy Debord. This, in turn, has been inflected as a popular mode of critique, particularly for those who study locative art and location-based media platforms.

That, of course, does not mean that my definition of location is restricted to such critiques, something I feel is worth developing given some of my previous research. In the little time I’ve even been in town this summer to go on-campus, I’ve encountered examples of my conceptualization in searching out library book locations (the place a particular book is that one must go to, transforming a shelf into where the place that one book is located) or in navigating on-campus research study locations – you go to the specified location at the chosen time, wherein that room becomes about a given study rather than the manifold other academic activities that likely occur in said room.

While these are more everyday examples, I’ve been driven in my current research pursuits to more fully flesh out what location means in relation to contemporary media in a way that can be portable for other disciplines whose work may involve looking at space and place. In my particular work, I’ve expanded my research to think more so through the nonhuman, state-managed geographies, and citizen science. These are areas that expand prior avenues of focus in situating these different definitions, and ones I hope to flesh out more on this site coming up.

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