What A Card Game Teaches Us About Moving Through A City
Imagine a map that documented your movement for a year. What locations do you visit most often and why? How do you get there? What would the resulting map of all your travels in that time look like? What would it say about the physical and social structures that shape the contours of your life?
Zachary M. Seward did something like this for the Wall Street Journal. In his story he includes a colorful map of Manhattan and the Bronx. He writes, “The image below is my New York. More precisely, it’s a heat map of where I spent my time in 2010 as documented by my activity on Foursquare, a location-based social network. Perhaps you can guess where I live, where I work and which baseball team I prefer.”
Route, a research firm based in the United Kingdom, could guess even more than that. The firm gave people a device that recorded their every movement for two weeks. Over 50,000 people carried this device, equipped with GPS and WiFi, to track their daily movements and report them on a digitized map.
Below are two examples of maps generated by a day in the life of different London residents:
Route studies these questions in order to understand where people go and what they look at (yes, the tracking device is that sensitive). The firm then combines these individualized travel maps with data which quantifies how people purchase different consumer goods in different neighborhoods. For Route, “understanding where regional spend [sic] is highest enables brands to better target their advertising budgets.”
Route has also developed a “Traffic Intensity Model” that aggregates all consumer movement and “determines absolute population numbers and their travel flow on every single pathway, whether pedestrian or vehicular.” The Traffic Intensity Model helps companies decide which locations for advertisements will be seen by the most people.
Route isn’t the only group to have come up with a “traffic intensity model.” The Situationists, an international group of artists and cultural critics based in Paris, produced one in 1957. Using a paper map of Paris, they cut out the neighborhoods they visited most often, spaced them from each other based on their sense of mental distance between the places, and represented the crossings they used most frequently to travel between these locations.
The Situationists made this map in the spirit of psychogeography, a term coined by Guy Debord in 1955 to refer to “the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals.” Their aim, however, had nothing to do with the acts of buying or selling.
The Situationists were appalled by how bourgeois values were reducing urban life to a series of work and consumption routines. They decried their contemporaries’ lack of lived creativity, connecting their narrow senses of what life could be with the fact that the urban environment was being designed and organized primarily for commercial purposes. Maps like this one worked to reimagine urban space outside of the paradigms of capitalism.
The Situationists were well aware that the field of advertising was developing to manipulate desire and was using psychoanalysis to do so. They sought to subvert this influence by developing a rigorous method of wandering to reclaim their own relationship with place and travel. They deliberately entered into novel experiences in order to study the personal, psychological, emotional, and relational dimensions of life in a context completely separated from their status as beings embedded in an economic system.
Psychogeographers even created games for subverting the organizing principle of commercialism in the cityscape. In one game, players would draw a straight line on a map and follow it as closely as possible. Fidelity to the game required them to ask permission to move through people’s homes, or, if necessary, trespass. Players deliberately put themselves in situations that could not have been preordained by bourgeois custom in order to travel deeper into their own senses of self, place, and social interaction.
That was sixty years ago. Today, the advent of the internet has created new opportunities for the commercialization of place. As tracking data has become less expensive, companies like Route have realized that collecting travel data and connecting it with consumption patterns is big business. Moreover, Route is not alone in digitizing the relationships between commerce and place. Foursquare, the app Seward used to better understand his New York lifestyle, helps users “find the best places to eat, drink, shop, or visit in any city in the world.”
A similar app, Yelp, draws on user reviews to generate maps of consumption opportunities. Yelp rewards users for building identities around their desires as consumers with escalating titles of social media status. Apps like these frame social notions around what constitutes a valid destination—and, by proxy, which places matter. Their collective influence is so ubiquitous that many businesses feel they cannot survive without Yelp profiles. The situationists must be rolling in their graves.
Atlas is a card game in which players explore urban places and map their experiences. Created by Jared Wood (a co-author of this essay) and Richie Rhombus in the spirit of psychogeographic games, Atlas takes players to places they would have never found on their own—and gets them lost in places they thought they knew. Unlike Yelp and Foursquare, Atlas is not easy. Instead, it intentionally complicates the players’ journeys through urban space in an effort to open up new ways of moving through and relating to cities.
Players take turns pulling cards, carrying out the instructions, and recording the results of the game in the form of hand-drawn maps. They alternately assume the roles of Navigator, Cartographer, and, depending on the group, Arbitrator. Designed to be playable in any city in the world, the Atlas card deck has made appearances in San Francisco, Honolulu, and La Paz, Bolivia.
The authors of this article, longtime friends and travel buddies, each played their own respective games of Atlas—in New York City and in Madison, Wisconsin. They then discussed their psychogeographic experiences, unpacking ways that Atlas influenced each of them to reevaluate their relationships to these places—and the art of interacting with them—in unpredictable ways. They share their experiences and reflections below.
Jared, New York City, 2016
I grimace at the grimy bricks as we lay down for a midday catnap on a Washington Square Park walking path. I didn’t expect my brother, a clean-cut, khaki-clad Yale student, to suggest this as our “comfortable place to rest.” Who can rest in a place like this? There is hardly an unoccupied spot in the park this sunny summer Saturday, and it’s buzzing with social energy. As I close my eyes, my mind wanders into a meditative state, awash in the conversations of others.
I’m still thinking about the world-class jazz trio we saw playing for donations. For me, they perfectly symbolize the impossible pressure, competition, and artistic standards I associate with New York City. But what do I really know about this place, anyway? This is my first time actually being here as an adult.
I don’t fall asleep, exactly, though it is surprisingly restful to lay down on the sticky bricks and close my eyes for a spell. Who would have thought. I look over at my younger brother: eyes closed, not a line of tension on his face. Thinking back, I realize my idea of the city that never sleeps is based mostly on having known a few hardworking artists who moved there and moved back, exhausted by being small fish in a big pond. That, and watching Seinfeld after school as an adolescent. Maybe I’ve just been projecting my own image of this place, seeing what I’ve trained myself to see. We’ve walked at least a few concrete miles today, guided by cards to bustling streets, hidden alleys, and public parkways. Atlas has illuminated some of the personally- and commercially-conditioned projections I have carried into this place, and shown me the city up close in a way no guidebook could.
We’ve reclaimed the art of traveling for ourselves by pulling cards and carrying out their whimsical, unexpected instructions. Our deeply embodied experiences of place have led us to notice how the built environment is affecting our bodies, psyches, and imaginations. Our conversations reflecting on these experiences have inspired deeper creative and emotional connections with each other as we wonder together about why we travel and what we are unconsciously bringing along with us.
Stepha, Madison, Wisconsin, 2017
I draw a curved arc on the map and, in accordance with the card pulled, we walk the path of the arc. It takes us through a school yard, a front yard, and a raspberry patch into the median strip of an expressway. A wrought iron fence runs lengthwise along the center of the median strip.
We climb the fence once, and then again. Though technically legal, this is both unconventional and inconvenient—as evidenced by the plant matter that collects on our clothes and skin as we leap to the ground. This plant stuff, and the histamine reaction that it produces on my skin, demonstrate the way in which urban planning more broadly, and landscaping more specifically, works through our bodies to shape where and how we move through urban spaces. It categorizes some activities as not legally, but structurally discouraged through gradients of convenience and comfort. We are both aware that we are highly visible to the people who are driving by on either side of the median divider.
Throughout the course of the game, I wonder: to what extent am I “allowed” here? And how come? The landscape is always communicating to me what it is and isn’t made for—both through my body, and through real and imagined public responses to what I could be doing where.
I reflect on the social model of disability, which emphasizes that individuals are disabled by society—and the built environment—rather than by inherently disabled bodies. I ruminate on the idea that elements of hostile architecture—such as spikes and partitioned benches—are only the most egregious examples of the ways in which built spaces are made for some bodies, some uses, but not others.
Playing Atlas brings my attention to the ways our environments shape our range of motion in the city and my relative ease in some environments and the perceived (or real) precariousness of others. These influences, mediated by my embodiments of ability, race, class, age, and gender, shape my movements through urban space and my relationships those around me—which, once acknowledged, can be pushed back on.
In our conversations, we reflected on how Atlas gives us tools for resisting the fixed, universalizing ideas of places suggested by their commodification. By surrendering our comfort and agency along with the idea that our travels should have any aim beyond finding new ways to connect with place, we dove deeper into our sensory experiences and embodied identities with a new awareness of our conditioning and, thus, our freedom.
Though the increasingly commodified cities in which we live look very different from mid-century Paris, the practice of psychogeography is more relevant now than ever before. Atlas encourages players to enter their own psychogeographic studies by making maps of their game, documenting not only the places they wander to, but the physical and psychological journeys of doing so. While these maps don’t help anyone get from point A to B, they do recall visceral memories of what it felt like to be somewhere—and why.
Atlas opens up new ways of relating to place by suggesting that we refocus on that which cannot be bought or sold: the unique richness of the shared experiences we create together. By destabilizing the influence of commercialism and the fixed sense of meaning it creates, we find new opportunities for cohabitation in a world that, despite everything, continues to surprise and inspire us.
Featured image: “The Atlas of Friendship,” a painting depicting a psychogeographic representation of friendship. It maps the paths between the homes of two friends, superimposed over an imagined landscape of the mind. By Richie Rhombus, 2016.
Stepha Velednitsky is an Edge Effects editorial board member and a M.S. student in the Department of Geography at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. Her most recent contribution to Edge Effects was “The Case for Ecological Reparations: A Conversation with Jason W. Moore“ (October 2017). Her work examines themes of technology, nature, space, and power in the industrial environment. Twitter. Contact.
Jared Wood is a writer, musician, and traveler. He is, along with Richie Rhombus, a co-creator of the game Atlas. He writes about experiential education, travel, and utopian ideas for urban organization on his blog, and he composes and performs with Oakland-based avant jazz trio Open Sorcerer. Wesbite. Contact.