Notes From the Field: Dwelling in the Worlds that Carry Us

After some field work in northern Canada, Marie-Pierre wrote two articles about how her field work experiences connected with imagined worlds. You should go read them, because they’re fascinating, but here’s a brief summary. In the first, she described how watching Star Trek: Voyager helped her deal with some of the emotional drain and loneliness that is part of field work. In the second article she wrote about walking along a rocky coastline in Nunavik, the northernmost province of Quebec, and feeling a sense of familiarity because of the scene’s similarity to Skyrim. I’ve been thinking about those articles, and wanted to share my response.

By Nick Mizer

Going home to a starship and going to Skyrim via Nunavik are in many ways the same process, one that demonstrates the intertwined nature of self, experience, and world. The more we experience a world, the more we carry that world inside of us. The reverse is also true: worlds we experience regularly can come to carry parts of our selves. We have this interconnected relationship with all the worlds we experience, both the primary world of our everyday lives and secondary worlds like Nirn (the world on which Skyrim is located) or the Star Trek Universe.

When I think about our relationship with worlds, I tend to have a concept that Martin Heidegger developed bouncing around in my head. “Dwelling,” dwelling-pullout-1in Heidegger’s vocabulary, is the human way of being in the world. For a more relativistic, anthropological phrasing we might want to say “’a’ human way of being”, although I think he struck on something that’s pretty widespread in human culture. For a geekier, more multidimensional phrasing we might want to say “being in ‘a’ world”, instead of “the” world, to include the idea of secondary worlds (i.e., subcreations, imaginary worlds). So let’s say that dwelling is a human way of being in a world. There’s a cool implication there that other, nonhuman ways of being in a world exist, like a rocky way of being or a coastline way of being. I don’t want to delve into that too far here, except to put in context this idea of a “human way of being.” We don’t “be” in the world in the same way as rocks or shorelines; there are distinctive features of our way(s) of being. What Heidegger claimed is that “dwelling,” the human way, is inextricably linked with building. By building, he doesn’t just mean construction, like building a house. He also means cultivation, like tending a garden. In tending a garden, we can come to experience it as a second home, a dwelling.

The thing that stands out to me in the experiences you describe is that the worlds you found yourself connecting to or “remembering” are worlds that we would consider geek worlds. By that I mean that they are regularly interacted with by people who would identify themselves as geeks. As a result they are often treated as if they are real, because that is how geeks tend to interact with worlds. Even as we know that they are fictional, geeks engage in what Michael Saler calls a “willing activation of pretense,” which is sort of a mirror image of the suspension of disbelief. One major aspect of this is gleaning details about the fictional world from the stories told about them. Geeks take those details, especially seemingly disparate ones, and order them into cohesive worlds that “makes sense” to them. This is the real work of worldbuilding, and by participating in that process with Star Trek and Skyrim you were building those worlds, you also came to dwell in them.

When I say that you dwelled in them, I mean that parts of your experience became intertwined with those places. Your experience of coming home from high school, and by extension all of your experience of those years, became intertwined with your experience of the U.S.S. Voyager. Another way to think of that is to say that you deposited your high school experiences, to which you can’t return, into your experiences of Voyager, to which you can return at the click of a mouse.dwelling-pullout-2 It makes sense that you would draw on that ability while doing field work; I did the same thing with The Next Generation, which I watched in elementary school. It’s not just that those things are familiar, it’s that they carry bit of home, of ourselves from different times, and even of the sense of community we share with others who are at home on the Enterprise or Voyager.

Focusing more closely on your Nunavik/Skyrim experience, I would put more weight on the fact that the game created a world in which you could “know where to find specific resources and where to be on guard for dangerous animals,” than on the fidelity of the graphics. I’ll return to graphics in a second, but first I want to consider the experiential knowledge you mentioned. It’s an excellent example of what Mark J.P. Wolf, communications scholar and member of the World Building Institute, calls conceptual immersion. Conceptual immersion does not primarily depend on sensory inputs, but on the cohesiveness of a world. Dwarf Fortress, which skilled players can read like the Matrix, offers more opportunity for conceptual immersion than a perfectly rendered 3D VR presentation that had no world context. I don’t make this distinction to dismiss the visual immersion of Skyrim, but to say that its ability to hold strips of your experience depends on a bedrock of conceptual immersion.

A presumably compelling scene from Dwarf Fortress

A presumably compelling scene from Dwarf Fortress

Conceptual immersion doesn’t explain how that Nunavik coastline connected to Skyrim, though. That clearly happened through the visual similarities. Although it’s possible that a more stylized representation of the coastline could have done similar work, it’s unlikely that a northern, chilly coast in Dwarf Fortress would have given you the same sense of familiarity when you got to Nunavik, even if they were conceptually similar. I’d say that’s because Dwarf Fortress doesn’t easily convey ambience. Ambience is like a network of roads connecting worlds, a medium along which worlds can flow. As one of the Dungeon Masters I worked with in my research said, we can use “color or song or choice diction in order to convey” the emotional context of a world. Anthropologist Michael Taussig says something similar in What Color is the Sacred, claiming that color is “polymorphous magical substance. It affects all the senses, not just sight. It moves. It has depth and motion just as a stream has depth and motion, and it connects such that it changes whatever it comes into contact with.” You can see the importance of ambience in your experience in the fact that you found yourself humming the music. Music, like color, flows easily between worlds.

As humans, we dwell in multiple worlds, and multiple worlds exist within us. dwelling-pullout-3We share these worlds, not only with fellow humans, but with fellow things. Not all of the worlds of our dwelling are as distinct as Skyrim or Dwarf Fortress; we also build social worlds, political worlds, ritual worlds. Those latter worlds often seem so natural that we don’t even realize that we have built and continue to maintain them. That’s part of the value of worlds like Skyrim: they sit at a further remove from our daily lives, so the points of connection and travel, like the coast of Nunavik, are more visible to us. This helps us to better understand the world building, the dwelling, that we do in so many other less visible ways.





About Nick Mizer

Although much of my work focuses on tabletop role-playing games, I think that geek culture in general has a lot to offer for anthropological study, from understandings of modernity and consumerism to the role of the imagination and wonder in the midst of those more “serious” trends. As I explore these things, I find myself straddling the borders between anthropology, folkloristics, and performance studies.

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