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A Psychogeography Of Games #4: George Buckenham

How Place Affects Game Design

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This is article 4 of 6, adapted from my Psychogeography of Games series for London’s Videobrains. If you enjoy these articles, please consider backing me on Patreon.

I’m soaked before I even get to George’s door. He lives in ‘Globe Town’ – a small part of North East London in the borough of Tower Hamlets. I call him from Globe Street and walk up and down, failing to find the landmarks that he can see in the regimented tower blocks. In the end he points out a woman with a Dunlop branded umbrella and via her I find my way to the buzzer.

The buttons are silver rounded pale yellow, brushed steel braille under my fingertips, I tap in the number of his flat, stop to take photos of the stairwell on my way up. Wrought iron, broken frosted glass, paint peeling.

George Buckenham is a Londoner. He grew up in the suburbs of SW London, a place called ‘New Malden’, and today (in a month’s worth of rain) we have agreed to walk across London, without once using a map, from where he lives now to where he grew up. 14 miles (22km).


(Credit)

We set out through the puddles of rain running off the Brutalist social housing of Tower Hamlets, and George talks to me about his fascination with them:

I think they’re really beautiful. […] Something about repetition but also the details in each person’s flat, the doors are different and the stuff inside each of the houses is different, the building all lit up in different colours.

In post-WWII Great Britain, a surprise landslide elected a progressive left wing government. One of the major things they attempted to tackle was a chronic housing shortage. Much of London had been severely damaged in the war, and there were huge slums across the city. Housing became a key part of the founding of the welfare state. In 1946 Aneurin Bevan, minister for health and housing, spoke in parliament against the way the private market and council housing separate the rich and the poor. He said

You have colonies of low income people, living in houses provided by the local authorities, and you have the higher income groups living in their own colonies. This segregation of the different income groups is a wholly evil thing … a monstrous infliction upon the essential psychological and biological one-ness of the community. (Where Will We Live, James Meek)

London was re-built by Bevan’s government, a new breed of social housing as part of it – in line with the ideals of producing environments both beautiful and functional, desirable places to live for higher income groups, whilst also providing social homes that were more than just sufficient but impressive, attractive, well equipped. As part of this movement, Brutalist architects like Ernö Goldfinger, Denys Lasdun, Peter and Alison Smithson re-shaped post-war Britain with open, egalitarian design in mind.

[Brutalism has an] emphasis on materials, textures and construction as well as functionality and equality. The Brutalist architects challenged traditional notions of what a building should look like, focussing on interior spaces as much as exterior. They also showed the building’s construction, unafraid to make a feature of service towers, plumbing and ventilation ducts in their creations.” (Brutalism: Everything You Want To Know But Were Afraid To Ask)

I had always felt a little dismissive of those buildings, but through George’s eyes I begin to find the exposure of the process – of structures, of the strong angular geometry, unfinished surfaces – politically interesting. By exposing a process, you find a way of allowing people to define their own relationship to it.

Shoreditch. Thunder cracks the sky, swiftly followed by lightning. We give over to the idea that we will not get wetter, squelch on. Easily, more easily than we think, we find ourselves navigating the city. We find that when George’s residential compass fails, my cycling one picks us up.

George’s game design career can seem a little incoherent when laid out on paper: Cubes, where you navigate your way around brightly coloured cubes as they fall towards you; Hell is Other People, an early bullet hell work where you play against the ghosts of every player before you; live-play games like Punch the Custard where the conductive properties of custard complete a circuit to count the number of times you can punch it’s non-Newtonian surface; Fabulous Beasts, a game of 3D-printed abstract animal Jenga, where moves in the physical game constitute moves in a digital one.

What unites them is a deep interest in process, ways of doing things. In this his degree in cognitive science shines through – he’s interested in games as intermediary between human, machine and game designer. His games often develop out of pulling at a thread of human or computer behaviour, and riffing off it.

We ponder a puddle that spans the whole of an underpass. George runs through it claiming that if you run faster than the splashback you’ll stay dry. Unable to conceive of being wetter, I take long strides.

We cross the river at Millennium Bridge. Pose for a photo while I worry people might think we’re tourists. George starts to talk to me about the other reason he makes games; his friends.

There’s a joke, and this is half true, like… you go along to conferences and meet-ups and stuff, and make friends, and [suddenly you have a community that spans half the world].

A part of our landscapes are the people we share them with. Part of what motivates George, and unites him with the aesthetics and visual rhetoric of Brutalism, is not just an interest in process, but architecture and computer games as a place humans meet: from which arises community.

The word ‘community’ is one of those words we use a lot but don’t always stop to think about. Jean Luc Nancy and Maurice Blanchot are two thinkers who tried to strip the word ‘community’ of the idea that it’s a product – a solid whole thing which can be wielded by politicians, that can have ‘community leaders’, that ever stands for a static thing. They describe community as impossible, unknowable, unavowable: a thing we cannot describe. Community, they say is a kind of limit. The bit where I stop, and you begin:

that way of destining ourselves in common that we call a politics, that way of opening community to itself, rather than to a destiny or to a future (Nancy, 1991, pp. 80-1).

They use two intoxicating metaphors to describe what they mean by this – death, and the lovers.

Death: I sit with you as you die. And at the same time I know that I am sharing with you a thing – the one thing that unites us all – I know I cannot travel with you, I reach a limit, it is between us, intimately.

Love: they entwine and interpenetrate who in the blindness of one another’s arms thrust themselves together, who cannot ever be one, but love as a way of never never never being close enough.

A kind of profound active empathy, community is impossible because it can never be completed, a destination never reached (I cannot become you, I cannot travel with you in death). They explain that community is a constant process of recognising the same in the different; a notion of habitation in something (someone) one can never inhabit.

Games have the ability to open process to us, invite the player to do, co-create, not just observe a product.

Around about the time we make it to Battersea, George begins to talk about the scene he made for Fernando Ramallo and David Kanaga’s Panoramical, and we return to Brutalism.

I like the optimism of it. I like the sense that it’s like […] they were just building stuff for the public good; they were trying to provide a good thing for people.

George’s Panoramical scene is a love letter to the architecture of North East London seen from the point of view of a train, travelling through abstract, shaded, glitched out space.

It was an opportunity to go, “this train journey, this landscape, is something I really love, […] an opportunity to understand it more deeply by recreating it.

By the time we get to Battersea it has stopped raining. An hour or so later we arrive in New Malden, George’s eyes alight with the people he used to bike, play and walk with.

He describes buying polo mints from a garage with his first girlfriend. He describes the walk to his infant school, the mound of earth worn down by generations of children, he describes his brother buying seven-scoop ice creams from the Italian ice cream man, helping his best friend Soumojit with his paper route.

When George talks about place, he talks about the people he shares it with, the paths between the houses, the routes they took. When George makes games, he is interested in people and process, towards a kind of community, like the Brutalists.

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