Friday, December 29, 2006

Chapter 2: Nature and Human Nature

Values and Attitudes
Environmental Assessment
Restorative Effects of Nature

On page 41 we return to the concept of affordance, attributed to the perception theorist J.J. Gibson from:

Gibson, J.J. (1979). The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception, Houghton Mifflin, Boston. (Currently published by Lawrence Eribaum, Hillsdale, NJ.)

Our text tells us that the Gibson affordance theory is "central to many modern explanations of human affinity for nature and landscape aesthetics (Summit & Summer, 1999). Briefly, certain features are said to "afford" shelter, food gathering, or an opportunity to survey the landscape." (p. 41).

The idea that environments might appeal to us more when they give us "opportunities to survey the landscape" suggests empirical tests we can do in environmental psychology that modern technology makes possible. There is a scene in the live-action film version of the avant-garde sci-fi "AeonFlux" (2005, starring Cherlize Theron) where she must navigate a hostile labyrinth (the scene was actually filmed in a Nazi-era wind-tunnel complex for testing aircraft in Berlin). To make the environment navigable, a map of the complex is implanted in her forearm. As she arrives she feels disoriented, but when she calls up the map she suddenly gives a smile of satisfaction. You may have felt the same if your car, like our Honda Civic Hybrid, has an on-board GPS system, or if you have been hiking with a hand-held GPS. Suddenly a very confusing and disconcerting landscape is rendered legible by the presence of a map that always shows you where you stand in relation to the environment. Something we thought of as hostile becomes deliciously mysterious instead.

I noticed a marked change in my own attitude toward virtual landscapes when I tested this theory recently using two Sony Playstation 2 games. The first was Resident Evil 4. This game, by Capcom, is a terror fest in which you run through the damp woods pursued by zombies and other killers. It is a point-of-view shooter game, so you are basically always looking through your own eyes. Unlike the previous Resident Evil titles, in which you have a bird's eye view of a threatening burned out, dark urban landscape but thus can see zombies before they start attacking, the new game puts you in what should otherwise be a relaxing environment -- a forest in daylight. The environment, however is threatening precisely because you can't see what's around the corner or what is coming up behind you. You find yourself running up hills and into open spaces from which you have "an opportunity to survey the landscape" and find you can only relax in these sorts of spaces. The game teaches you what it must have felt like when wilderness was a landscape of unknown threats (see pages 26 and 27 of our text: The Changing Meaning of Nature).

Playing Resident Evil 4, you begin to understand what "led the Puritans to view the wilderness around them as a hostile, threatening landscape inhabited by servants of the devil." (p. 27) But something curious happens when you start using the "map" function in the game (which allows you to see an overhead blueprint of the entire landscape). Armed with this extra dimension of knowledge you suddenly find yourself a lot calmer. The effect is even more pronounced in the Sega game "Ecco the Dolphin, Defender of the Future", the second game I have been studying. Playing the part of "Ecco" the dolphin, you must face "The Perils of the Coral Reef". The environment is alien and hostile -- filled with marauding sharks, stinging jellyfish and deadly piranhas, and, to make things worse, for a marine mammal, the undersea world lacks the affordance of oxygen, meaning that if you stay under too long, you drown. This gets particularly daunting when you are trying to navigate through tunnels and dark caves without knowing just how far you must go before you can get to the surface to take another breath. I found the game incredibly threatening and frustrating until I discovered that you can press the x and the square key on the game pad and call up a map of the coral reef. The map not only shows you where you are, which direction you are heading and how long the tunnels are, but indicates threats in red and goals in green blue and yellow. Forewarned is forearmed. With this knowledge the coral reef suddenly felt a lot less intimidating and I found myself able to relax and enjoy exploring the beautiful marinescape.

I found the same to be true while playing HalfLife and Area 51, where you spend most of your time in uncomfortable underground bunkers being attacked by aliens and mutants. Then I tried something new -- I went on line and started reading the "walk-throughs" on . Ign provides not only great text descriptions of each stage of the game, but provides great screenshots so you can get to know your virtual environments before you plunge into them. Other sites have video walkthroughs. The upshot is that you can get yourself familiar with the environments and their threats and affordances and all of a sudden they don't seem so frightening, even when they are ugly and filled with monsters (as in Resident Evil, HalfLife and Area 51).

In this way, education about an environment can be demonstrated to make a crucial difference in our attitude toward it. Roderick Nash (1982) is referenced in our text on page 27 saying that in contrast with the fearful Puritans, "although their principal attitude toward nature was also utilitarian, the settlers of the middle Atlantic colonies benefited from a more hospitable environment and expressed somewhat different attitudes. Many were of the Anglican faith, and were better educated, wealthier, and more likely to study and appreciate natural phenomena than were the Puritans of New England." The text goes on to say that Thomas Jefferson "believed that nature could be better managed through understanding rather than conquest."

To test whether an ability to "survey the landscape" and study and understand and anticipate its affordances affects one's attitude, one could conceivably explore how people's desires to "conquer" the environment and its denizens (the theme of so many shooter games in the world of video games) changes with better knowledge of the environment. Role Playing Games (RPGs) like the Final Fantasy series, seem to rely more on exploration than conquest, and the thrill of the hunt seems to be geared more toward exploration and discovery than elimination of threats. If there is a weakness in the video game world it is perhaps that the designers assume that the public wants to enter an environment of threats and to conquer those threats through destruction. But, in an echo of the development of Romanticism, the virtual wilderness is inspiring its own "evolving concept of the sublime: a sense of awe and reverence, sometimes mixed with elements of fear (e.g. Burke, 1757, Kant, 1790)..." Just as American writers such as James Fenimore Cooper and painters like Thomas Cole and Albert Bierstadt "began to celebrate and romanticize the vistas of the untamed lands of North America", many game writers and artists are creating romantic game environments that are gaining in popularity. In our attitude toward RL environments at the turn of the last century "Fear and hostility still dominated most people's feelings about wilderness, but a new minority began to celebrate the wild lands as places of beauty." Similarly, at the turn of this new century, some video games are emerging to satisfy another "new minority", in which the object of the game is to design and manage the environment through understanding rather than conquest.

One such series of video are those produced by Will Wright at Maxis, such as SimCity, SimCity 2000SimCity 3000SimCity 4 The SimsThe Sims OnlineThe Sims 2The Sims Stories
SimEarthSimAntSimLifeSimFarmSimTowerSimHealthSimIsleSimCopterSimGolfStreets of SimCitySimTownSimParkSimSafariSimTunes and Spore . Spore, in particular, takes the managing of nature to a Jeffersonian all time high: in this game you get to play God and, starting with a single cell, set the rules and evolve an entire planet, through and beyond civilization into the final stage of exploring the universe and then, following Francis Crick's idea of "directed panspermia", the sending of spores of life into space to start the process again.

Second Life, which may have evolved out of the bellicose "World of Warcraft", has taken the behavioral consequences of inhabiting increasingly non-threatening environments to an even higher level; in Second Life, where the entire landscape has been rendered legible and safe (for more on this see James C. Scott, 1998 "Seeing Like a State") through extensive detailed maps, instant teleporting and the ability to defeat gravity and fly, and where anybody can be a creator or designer and "play God", people don't set about waging war or conquering wilderness, but spend their time building their own eutopias, peopled by their friends and families and lovers, where the basic mandate is to create and display and discuss.

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