Making Maps Available for Play: A Design History of Game Cartography Interfaces

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When players are immersed in a video game world, the map serves as a way for designers to provide scale and foster player behaviors like exploration. Over time, video games have moved from 2-dimensional, flat, tightly bound worlds to 3-dimensional, open worlds. The map has undergone a concomitant transition from the literal space of play to an abstract object that must be consulted in a separate space from play, offering its own interactive affordances. We offer a history of what we term “game cartography interfaces” – the space where players view and possibly interact with a gameworld’s map. We begin with a discussion of mimesis and transmedia practice from the early history of video games (e.g., Zork, Rogue). In these games, players were tasked with drawing maps on their own, since technology was insufficient to facilitate mapping in-game. We continue with a discussion of computer roleplaying games like Ultima, Final Fantasy, and DragonQuest. Here, the map could sometimes be viewed as an object but it was primarily also the space of play. We conclude with a discussion of the impact of 3D games like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Guild Wars 2, and Arma 3. These robust, large-scale game worlds provide players with a separate space to deeply manipulate a game map. The use of outside knowledge from smartphone mapping applications and the need for online play provide a useful discussion about the re-interpretation of transmedia mapping practices without technical limitations.