Converging Themes in Cartography and Computer Games

By Ahlqvist, Ola | Cartography and Geographic Information Science, July 2011 | Go to article overview
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Converging Themes in Cartography and Computer Games

Ahlqvist, Ola, Cartography and Geographic Information Science


The history of games goes back at least as far the history of maps and cartography, with evidence of board games being played by humans for more than 5000 years (Whitehill 1999). Maps of different types have played an important role in many recreational games throughout history; treasure maps in board games, schematic reality-inspired maps in Monopoly, regular maps with game tracks on top, schoolyard replicas of continents and the world, maps of fantasy worlds and so on. Further testament to the prominent role of game maps in everyday culture is evidenced by the inclusion of the Carmen Sandiego Game Board in the Library of Congress and the American Congress on Surveying and Mapping (ACSM) online exhibition ( maps/). This report seeks to elaborate on the yet uncharted relationship between modern cartography and computer gaming, and suggest some current converging trends. For the purpose of this paper I will follow Smed and Hakonen (2003) and define a computer game as "a game that is carried out with the help of a computer program." This is a broad definition and includes games that are played on a personal computer, a video game console plugged in to a TV, and even small hand-held devices like cell phones. In order to situate the presentation I will start this paper with a historical summary of games in general. This is followed by the main section where I present five broad themes in current-day computer gaming and cartography. The presentation highlights some of the connections between these two dynamic fields and I argue that there are many areas of potential synergy to explore in the future.

Historical Perspective

Games that incorporate maps go back as far as games have been played. Probably the most well known historical games that use a map is the family of chess games (Parlett 1999), but many other traditional games like draughts (checkers) and Go have their roots in real world scenario simulations where players assume the role of an army leader charged with the objective to overcome an enemy and conquer land. While these games, and chess in particular, are often referred to as the 'original' war games, many similar war strategy games are found much earlier in Indian and Chinese cultures (Michael and Chen 2005). They are all examples of

'serious' war games that allowed players to gain useful insights into tactics and strategy using a birds-eye view of a battlefield.


One of the most important functions of a game map is the way it supports the game mechanics and rules. Many of these historical games employed very simple and abstract maps, often reducing the need for a realistic looking cartography to very basic and abstract topology of territories. Again, the traditional chess board is a prime example with its 8x8 square grid of positions and strict rules for movement of the different pieces. However, this pattern changed dramatically with the first incarnations of modern-day war games, or "Kriegspiel", developed in the early 1800's to simulate real warfare (Mathieu and Barreteau 2006). These war games and many of its followers incorporated real or realistic looking maps to enhance the game experience and they often employed the mapped geography to affect the game mechanics. More advanced war games were gradually developed and notable examples were those developed for the Prussian army where detailed topographic maps in a scale of 1:8,000 were used as the game board.

Soon after the introduction of modern war games, game maps in general underwent a radical change in the mid-19th century when advances in lithography and mass production techniques allowed games to be commercially printed in large quantities. This period also saw a broadening of game purposes, away from the previously narrow focus on practice and training in warfare. In the U.S. a large proportion of board games now focused on factual and educational goals in areas like history and geography (Whitehill 1999).

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