acmipark — a case study of a virtual public place
First Monday

acmipark — a case study of a virtual public place by Helen Stuckey

 


 

Who are the gatekeepers of virtual public space? Sometimes they are not who you expect. A discussion about the issues surrounding the design and reception of the virtual world acmipark: an innovative artwork commissioned by the Australian Centre of the Moving Image. And how they had to keep it ‘nice’.

acmipark is multiplayer virtual world. Created by selectparks (artists Julian Oliver, Chad Chatterton, and Andrea Blundell), it was designed to extend the physical spaces of the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) at Melbourne’s Federation Square into the realms of virtual space. It was produced using a game engine as its base, and worked up from the real architectural designs produced for Federation Square by Lab Architecture Studio. acmipark is a game world with no competitive elements: a virtual ACMI, which can be accessed both locally and globally. Designed as a soundpark, it is a musical instrument which can be played collectively, and, like Federation Square itself, it was envisaged as a kind of public space waiting for a community to define its meaning.

 

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selectparks, acmipark — ACMI façade, 2003 (in–game screenshot).
Images not to be reproduced without permission from selectparks. All rights reserved.

 

acmipark was commissioned in 2001 by ACMI and received funding support from the Victorian State Government through its Digital Media Fund. Completed in 2003, when it launched acmipark could be accessed on–site at ACMI or via a client application that could be downloaded for free online. (Online access was removed in June 2005 due to increasing hardware incompatibility with next generation systems). A multiplayer world, the park can host up to 64 players at one time who may communicate via local and global in–world chat. While 64 players may seem a quaint figure in relation to MMORPGs, it was a remarkable achievement for a sophisticated 3D world created by artists on less than $AU200K.

It was conceived as an experiment in the design of a virtual public space. It is an embodiment of the idea that we are moving our public space into the realm of the virtual. By using a model of a real world public space combined with the collaborative possibilities of the soundpark and the kinaesthetic pleasures of moving through a beautiful virtual place, selectparks hoped to build upon traditional concepts of ‘public’ places.

 

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selectparks, acmipark — ACMI foyer, 2003 (in–game screenshot).
Images not to be reproduced without permission from selectparks. All rights reserved.

 

As a soundpark the work investigates games as performance environments, and at times as ‘instruments’ of performance themselves. The game play and interactivity within acmipark is focused on musical or compositional play. Gamers are able to throw sparkling balls of light, which are a kind of visual musical instrument. The light balls produce melodic sequences affected by the surfaces they hit and the way they bounce as they encounter walls and the other players, enabling an aural exploration of the space. If another player is struck with one of the five differing types of light balls they will experience selected distortion to their visual and aural perception of the world. Special sound installations like the Scratch Rink and the Loop Rink offer more precise control of a variety of sounds and rhythms allowing gamers to play the spaces together in shared improvisations. In the underground concert hall, which takes the form of a vertiginous rock chamber, live performances could be streamed from the Internet, with strategically spaced speakers allowing gamers to experience the sound in 3D as they move around.

 

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Whose park?

Public space is made and not born argues Vito Acconci (2000) in ‘Making Public: The Writing and Reading of Public Space.’ Acconci claims that the public spaces of our cities are negotiated spaces produced by government agencies and private corporations and offered to the public as sites that glorify either state or company. Public space is a contract between the big and small, the institution and the individual. On the other hand Acconci suggests public space can also be a strategy, it can be occupied and remade by those who do not accept the contract.

 

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selectparks, acmipark — Entrance to Atrium, 2003 (in–game screenshot).
Images not to be reproduced without permission from selectparks. All rights reserved.

 

The development of acmipark required a series of negotiations that profoundly shaped its nature. For the reproduction of the buildings, permission was sought from the architects Lab Architecture Studio who supported the project by providing drawings and 3D designs of their buildings. The original concept for the work envisaged that the changing exhibitions of screen–based art being shown in ACMI’s galleries could be shown also in the virtual space, offering remote access to ACMI’s changing exhibitions. Issues of file size and copyright quickly eliminated this idea before the true complexity of it could be explored.

The artist’s selectparks’ vision for user access to the game world was to be compromised in a number of ways by the constraints that ACMI was required to place upon it due to its legal responsibilities and limited resources. For example, concerns regarding ACMI’s compliance to the Privacy Act were raised in relation to the storing of player details by the creation of personalised avatars. These discussions resulted in an agreement that although avatars could be personalised upon logging in they could not be saved and no user details recorded by ACMI.

 

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selectparks, acmipark — Soundcaves, 2003 (in–game screenshot).
Images not to be reproduced without permission from selectparks. All rights reserved.

 

Copyright issues and a duty of care to other visitors/players also affected the type of access that could be supported. Changes were made to the underground concert hall designed for the live performance of electronic music to a “live” audience of avatars. The original concept was that it could support artist–initiated performances allowing for improv and collaboration with others. Julian Oliver, as Delire, is an established electronic musician and part of an international network that would have provided a focus for developing a culture in the space. ACMI’s concern about possible copyright breaches through the user streaming of copyrighted content combined with the risk of obscene or offensive lyrics felt this freedom of access was too high a risk in an area they were not resourced to manage. The concert hall therefore exists as gated space requiring permission and approvals to access its streaming potential and is unable to support any organic community growth.

A proposed graffiti and stencil art option was also considered problematic due to the possibility of lewd or inappropriate interventions and the civil ramifications of condoning an act illegal in the real space of Federation Square.

 

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Conditions of entry

What was lost in these changes was a sense of the individual having a unique identity in the world with opportunities for expression. Lost too was the ability to actively alter the world or their individual character within it. In acmipark you are in a kind of stasis that enables you only momentary occupation. When you enter acmipark the End User License Agreement (EULA) presents a list of rules that are the equivalent of the conditions of entry for your physical presence at ACMI. In acmipark, however, this behavior policing can be enforced by design. In removing all possibilities for transgression it also removes possibilities for innovation.

 

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selectparks, acmipark, 2003 (in–game screenshot).
Images not to be reproduced without permission from selectparks. All rights reserved.

 

In placing such corporate constraint on the design of acmipark, lost too was the opportunity to identify with a community. Due to ACMI’s stipulations it was closed to the electronic music, stencil art and open source communities to which its creators, selectparks, belonged. By requiring a high–end PC, broadband and technical sophistication to access, it was also beyond the reach of most causal visitors. Further complicating access was the fact that due to budget constraints it was not rigorously tested across a range of hardware or as user friendly as commercial game releases. In addition the work was understood and supported by ACMI in terms of more traditional non–networked installation artwork and an audience of online users was never specifically sought.

 

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selectparks, acmipark — Scratch Rink, 2003 (in–game screenshot).
Images not to be reproduced without permission from selectparks. All rights reserved.

 

acmipark’s envisaged community never came to define its meaning. Ralph Johns (2004), a lecturer in landscape architecture who utilised the project with his design students at Victoria University, Wellington, New Zealand, comments that in general the overwhelming experience of acmipark was emptiness.

 

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selectparks, acmipark — Jumping Player, 2003 (in–game screenshot).
Images not to be reproduced without permission from selectparks. All rights reserved.

 

As an exhibition piece acmipark is an exemplary work: engaging, challenging, beautiful and fun. For visitors to ACMI, acmipark is often the first multiplayer world they have encountered. Its simple interface and familiar spaces offer many the security they need to confidently explore a new technology. Strangers joyfully pound each other with a maelstrom of coloured light balls whilst playing frenetic games of tag leaping on to the roofs of the buildings of Federation Square and chasing each other at great speed through the subterranean caverns chatting offline and on. Visitors invent new activities using the games resources to play amongst themselves and return with others to play again.

 

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selectparks, acmipark — Lightball Trails, 2003 (in–game screenshot).
Images not to be reproduced without permission from selectparks. All rights reserved.

 

acmipark has recently attracted interest from an Australian site with 30,000+ tech savvy Asian–Australian youth subscribers. Perhaps it was a project before its time? Could acmipark be redeveloped to host this sophisticated online community? Beyond the significant technical issues that would need to be resolved in porting to a massive engine, and the licencing of the middleware are the issues of ownership. The ownership of both the art–work acmipark, and the real space of Federation Square and its design. It raises once more the relationship of these as negotiated spaces. And highlights that there are things that can be achieved in the creation of not–for–profit art works, auspiced by cultural institutions and offering free access that do not necessarily translate to other sectors.

 

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acmipark and the architecture of Federation Square

Much of the discussion around the State of Play Virtual Architecture competition focused on the design choices of the entrants in producing simulacra of traditional architecture rather than exploring the potential of the virtual space. Ironically the award–winning architecture of Federation Square is exactly the kind of heterotopic postmodern real–world design that most examples of player–build virtual placemaking are reacting against in their choices for nostalgic visions of old world villages and historic town squares. Lab Architecture Studio’s design for Federation Square deliberately evokes a place, which is unfamiliar and ruptures the cityscape. Yet it is a highly successful public space. In this week of November 2005, as this text is written, it has hosted thousands of joyous Melbournians as they shared the pleasure of watching Australia qualify for the football world cup; a flotilla of school choirs commencing the countdown to Christmas cheer; some impromptu wheel chair races; kids acting out for the camera to the big screen; as well as forming the heart of a union rally of 150,000+ workers against federal government changes to Industrial Relations Legislation. It also is a space that reflects the new conditions of public space and is managed by a corporations law company, the single share of which is owned by State Trustees Ltd. in trust for the benefit of the State of Victoria. End of article

 

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selectparks, acmipark — Federation Square Plaza, 2003 (in–game screenshot).
Images not to be reproduced without permission from selectparks. All rights reserved.

 

 

About the author

Helen Stuckey is the curator of the Games Lab at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Melbourne. She was responsible for the commissioning and project management of acmipark.

 

About acmipark and selectparks

acmipark is a multi–player game world built using proprietary software in conjunction with RenderWare graphics engine. Principal artists: Julian Oliver, Chad Chatterton, Andrea Blundell. Programmers: Matt McKinnon, Tim Patterson, Lorien Dunn, Peter Suwara. Additional art: Andrew Farrugia, Ashley Poon.

selectparks is a media laboratory currently based in Melbourne, Australia; Copenhagen, Denmark; and Oslo, Norway. selectparks was established in 1998 by Julian Oliver and now includes three other key members, Chad Chatterton, Andrea Blundell and Rebecca Cannon.
Web: http://www.selectparks.net

 

References

V. Acconi, 1993. “Making Public: The Writing and Reading of Public Space,” In: Lionel Bovier and Mai–Thu Perret (editors). Hétérotopies = heterotopias. Genève: JRP, 2000.

R.Johns, 2004, “Netscape: Virtual Landscapes of the Internet,” CELA 2004 Here or There? The Global or the Local, unpublished paper.

 


Editorial history

Paper received 16 January 2006; accepted 18 January 2006.


Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution–NonCommercial–NoDerivs 2.5 License.

keep off the grass
acmipark — a case study of a virtual public place by Helen Stuckey
First Monday, Special Issue #5: Virtual Architecture at State of Play III, 6–8 October 2005
http://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/1561/1476





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