Digital Places and Virtual Identities

Digital Places and Virtual Identities


Post by Luke Skarth-Hayley (2018 Cohort)

From the Digital Space, Place and Identity Workshop

What is an academic workshop? As someone coming from ten years in industry I was not sure. I’ve since attended several, and have now led one, which I talk about here. I hope this blog sheds light on what a workshop is, what happens, and how it is useful. I led the workshop with my fellow Horizon students Velvet Spors, Harriet “Alfie” Cameron, and Hanne Wagner.

l to r: Luke, Alfie, Velvet, Hanne.     Photo Credit: Jennifer Agwunobi

A workshop is an opportunity to discuss work in progress. It is a chance to engage with researchers who share an interest in the topic. It is also a space to test out aspects of your research. Or you can share a useful skill or working practice that might benefit other researchers. Sharing knowledge and collaborating with other researchers is the best way to think about it.

The four of us delivering the workshop shared some themes in our research. We positioned it as an opportunity to communicate these themes and our ideas within them. We are keen to find potential collaborators, and to build a community around the themes. In the long-term we would like to share works and outcomes via a collaborative virtual space.

Collaborating with others on definitions of Space. Photo Credit: Jennifer Agwunobi

The workshop was for a full day and consisted of a series of activities based around three key themes. These themes were Space, Place and Identity. We sought to examine their use in digital and interdisciplinary research.

My initial understanding of Space, Place and Identity were as follows:

  1. Space was physical and without human meaning or context impressed upon it,
  2. Place was Space with meaning impressed upon it, and,
  3. Identity can apply to Places, groups and individuals. It is multipart, sometimes spatial, and defined by the groups and the Places we inhabit.
  4. There is a complex relationship between all three, each influencing the others.

Velvet, Alfie and Hanne are more capable of explaining the subtleties of these interrelated concepts. Their parts of the workshop sought to explain and investigate them and related theory further. It was great to watch the interdisciplinary group who joined us discuss and unpick competing definitions.

Velvet introduced the structure of the workshop, setting out the key themes and purposes. They also introduced several icebreaker activities to define the themes. I sat with a group that included an architect, an engineer, a humanist sociologist and a human computer interaction specialist.

For the engineer and architect, space is a bounded subsection of a physical region, with places being the physical buildings and rooms. The humanist sociologist defined space as conceptual, and as specific spaces that contain identities. For example the space of the university contains student and academic identities. This shows that different disciplines have different understandings of the same words. There is always much work to do in reconciling these differences to enable interdisciplinary research.

Alfie provided knowledge of human geography and delivered a session where we had to draw a map of a route we regularly took. This showed how different people conceive of the spaces and places they inhabit and move through. Hanne collated the work that took place in the workshop, summarised it, and presented the group’s call to action and intentions for future work.

I provided a brief introduction to various mainstream, emerging and alternative technologies. I then showed how they served as bases for digital space and identity. This led to discussions of the problems and opportunities in these technologies, and how our research examines or is affected by them. As an example: the dominant paradigm of internet services, such as Facebook, follow the client-server model. The client-server model has many client devices connect to one server. The server becomes a “single source of truth”. There are implicit biases in the client-server model. These may then inform identities and spaces on platforms using it.

I then got people to play space and identity-oriented computer games. My PhD research is into game engines for future media with BBC R&D. The workshop was a useful opportunity to get people to engage with some unusual “games”. Specifically, narrative-focused experiences and those without obvious objectives. It was enlightening to see how people responded. It became clear that computer games need technical, practical, and cultural knowledge. Not everyone has this knowledge, or the means to access it. There are also assumptions in interactivity and the term “game”. Some participants found experiences that lacked clear or meaningful agency confusing.

There was discussion around the value of such experiences as compared to games that are more objective-oriented. There was also comparison to other visual media such as television and film with non-interactive narratives. One experience called Flotsam – playable here: https://candle.itch.io/flotsam – gave two people wildly different experiences. One person’s decisions led to an inspiring phrase that resonated with their research. Another’s led to their being trapped in a place the game warned them against. This led to much discussion, particularly given the two-dimensional and limited colour palette of the game. These limitations required more interpretive “work” compared to “realistic” games, yet somehow gave a more meaningful experience.

A resonant message found in a simple experience. Image Credit: flotsam by mark wonnacott

I found the workshop useful on several levels. In practical terms, I have improved my communication, presentation and collaboration skills. The workshop enabled me to engage with varied perspectives. It also allowed me to better understand others’ areas of expertise. Preparing and delivering my part, and the discussions within the whole workshop, gave me much needed clarity in what my priorities are. It is valuable to  intensely investigate an aspect of one’s research. This helps to understand what really matters to you, inspires you, and where best to focus your research efforts to make full use of your skills.

Finally, huge thanks to Felicia Black and the Digital Economy Network for supporting our workshop. We are grateful for all the help in making the day run smoothly!