A University of Salford academic wants to encourage digital designers to return to the great English tradition of landscape writing from Wordsworth to Ruskin.
Umran Ali, senior lecturer in creative media, worked in the games industry before joining Salford as programme leader on its BSc in computer and video games. He is still involved in freelance projects, such as one to visualise “the regeneration of Bradford city centre in a fully interactive form”.
A keen walker and climber, he has long been interested in finding ways to “link back digital landscapes to real environments” and the feelings they evoke in him. Yet today’s games industry, he argued, is “still in the black and white era, with companies doing their own thing” without any underpinning philosophy for their design work.
It was while reflecting on such issues for his soon-to-be-completed PhD that Mr Ali came across the writings of the Victorian critic John Ruskin and his dictum that artists should “go to nature in all singleness of heart, and walk with her laboriously and trustingly”.
Ruskin, he said, had “a passion for geology and natural sciences” and was quite capable of “studying a rock formation for a week to do one pencil sketch. It is not good enough to draw from memory. You have to look at nature and find your creativity there.”
Such ideas once inspired landscape painters and so could inspire games designers today, he said. Yet although “augmented reality” techniques now mean that “virtual spaces can have all the power of real spaces”, Mr Ali believed that too many in the gaming industry still fall back on what he calls “golf course design”.
To take the debate forward, he has produced a series of three books on Virtual Landscapes in video games exploring everything from “the giant mushroom forests of Morrowind” to “the tropical underground caves of Phantasy Star Online”.
After a trip to Snowdonia, “reflecting and trying to relive what Ruskin recommended”, he drew on his experiences to create an experimental game and a design methodology he hopes could be useful for both indie designers and the mainstream games industry. He has organised field trips as part of his teaching and wants to embed them more formally into his courses.
If virtual landscapes are to make the kind of emotional impact that landscapes in film often do, Mr Ali said, their creators should listen to Ruskin’s edicts and “get out into the real landscape. You won’t be able to take full advantage of the technology we now have by just sitting in your bedroom.”
They would also be well advised to look again at the rich treasury of English nature writing that emerged from the late 18th century: “a great heritage which should be referenced by games designers”.