DGRG Annual Symposium 2019: Geographies of Gaming and VR

Natasha Keen and Imogen Lester-Moseley

The theme for this year’s annual symposium was “Geographies of Gaming and VR”, and hosted at the University of Birmingham on the 3rd July 2019. Almost 40 people came to the symposium, and nearly 300 people tuned in to watch the Periscope livestream.These participants came from far and wide, with Kenneth Lim flying from Singapore to deliver his digital short, and Peter Nelson who led a workshop session remotely from Australia! The main topics discussed included presence, immersion, gaming, virtual cities, embodiment, interdeterminancy, and generative photography, amongst many other exciting avenues of study. This enabled a multi-disciplinary element to the symposium, with speakers from Drama, English, of course Geography, as well as the industry itself.

The organising committee for ‘Geographies of Gaming and VR’ were Hannah Awcock, Emma Fraser, Jack Lowe, Peter Nelson, Phil Jones, Natasha Keen and Clancy Wilmott. The day consisted of three keynotes, parallel paper sessions and digital shorts.

The first keynote session was delivered by Sarah Jones, head of the Birmingham School of Media at Birmingham City University and focused on how presence manifests itself within immersive media. This was followed by the parallel paper sessions, with track 1 focusing on the more theoretical, with examples being Emma Fraser’s Virtual cities, real possibilities: considering place and space in digital media, and Victoria Williams’ Contradictory depictions of embodiment, space and the broadening of experiential horizons in discourses of VR. Track 2 was more applied, with examples being Sally Bushell and James Butler’s LITCRAFT: re-engaging reluctant readers through Minecraft, and Vincent Miller and Gonzalo Garcia’s Autoethnographic research in digital ruins.

The second keynote session was delivered by John Sear, a software developer and CEO of Museum Games – who spoke about his experiences in the industry as well as developing games which blur the virtual and real-world boundaries. After that were the digital shorts, which gave Masters students and others the opportunity to showcase their projects, as well as Dani Ploeger to show his work through a video. These were then followed by our third keynote, Melissa Kagen. A lecturer in Digital Media at Bangor University, she explained how the game 80 Days provokes intentional misplay, queer experimentation, and meaningful mental decolonization, connecting the disruption of gaming norms to the disruption of heterosexual and colonialist prejudices.

Next came the workshop sessions – which gave attendees the opportunity to engage in a range of different activities, such as collaborating on the game Garry’s Mod, visiting different places around the world in Google Earth VR, driving in VR and playing walking sims. Peter Nelson hosted our Garry’s Mod session from Australia, and we are thankful for the opportunity to construct a football pitch from random objects left on an impossibly huge field, though not surprisingly much of it devolved into creative anarchy and spawn-sniping. The uncanny reality of Google Earth VR was highlighted in the blocky renditions of familiar locations. In the walking simulator room, games including Dear Esther, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture and Proteus offered attendees an alternative purpose for virtual environments, challenging the modern spatial imagination and linking to Romantic aesthetics for geography.

Finally, the closing discussion panel was followed by drinks in the staff bar downstairs before everybody headed home. Thank you to all who attended!

Link to video of the event: