Rooms, buildings, and towns, and the routes among them, are physical spaces. We regularly map how physical space is laid out at smaller and larger nested levels, rooms within buildings within towns within cities within nations within the world.
There is something new today. People can leave a physical space and enter a virtual one. In my gaming room at home I regularly “travel” into virtual worlds with their own designed nested spaces. Of course, my physical body stays in the physical room while a “surrogate body” of mine acts in the virtual world, sometimes interacting, via live chat or messaging, with other people sitting in other physical rooms. My physical gaming room gets connected to virtual spaces and there is a route between them (the Internet).
But this is not all that is new. Today, sets of physical and virtual spaces get linked together such that they constitute a larger sort of nested designed space, akin to rooms in a building, buildings in a town, towns in a city, or cities in a nation, or nations in the world. For many gamers, their gaming room at home is connected not only to the virtual spaces of games, but to the virtual spaces of many different sorts of fan-based, interest-driven Internet sites where they discuss, learn, and teach about the games they play. For these gamers, their gaming rooms are also connected to other physical spaces, such as gaming rooms in friends’ houses where they play together, places where LAN parties are held, gamer convention spaces, meetings of gamer clubs, and, perhaps, too, places where the gamer plays table-top games and not digital ones. We need new tools for mapping melded physical/virtual space.
Now imagine, for some specific gamer, the whole set of physical and virtual spaces, and the physical and digital routes among them, that characterize his or her gaming activities. Let’s call this set of melded and nested physical and virtual spaces a “Squishy Affinity Space” (SAS). I say “squishy” here because, as we will see, this space is fluid and ever changing and hard to strictly demarcate. I say “affinity” because the space is defined in terms of a person’s affinity for games or even just a specific game like, say, World of Warcraft or The Sims.
An SAS is a rather magical sort of thing. It differs somewhat for each gamer and, furthermore, changes across time for that gamer, as some physical or virtual spaces drop out of his or her gamer itinerary and others are added in. Yet, some of the spaces are also in other people’s SASs—sometimes many other people’s SASs. So, an SAS is defined by what given people do and where they go.
So, imagine we take one gamer—call her “Sue”—who is devoted to playing and designing for The Sims, the best-selling set of games in history. We can take a certain period of time—a day, a week, a month, or many months—and map out all the spaces, physical and virtual, and all the routes among them, that Sue takes in pursuit of her interest.
We will make the boundary lines on some spaces and routes on the map thicker than others, based on how much time Sue spends in that space or on that route or set of routes. The thicker the lines, the more time she tends to spend there. We can also, if we like, color-code various spaces and routes based on what Sue does in them or the activities with which they are associated.
This is a map of “Sue’s Sims Squishy Affinity Space.” It maps a big terrain with various sub-spaces and routes in and across it. The sub-parts of Sue’s Sims SAS—whether they are small parts like her gamer room at home or larger parts like a gaming convention space (with many rooms) or a fan-based, interest-driven Internet site (also with many “rooms”)—I will call “affinity sub-spaces,” meaning that they are spaces connected by affinity to an SAS. Just as a gamer convention has a certain sort of social and interactional organization, so, too, do fan-based, interest-driven websites.
Now take the map we have made for Sue. It is, in some respects, unique to Sue— certainly her moment by moment pattern of movement and activity is. But if we compare Sue’s Sims SAS to other people’s Sims SASs we will find more and less overlap with Sue’s. The set of people who have a significant overlap with Sue’s (squishy) map constitute a squishy (not rigidly bounded or defined) group. Let’s just call such a group “squishy fellow-travelers” (SFTs). Who is an SFT varies with time and circumstances and some people are more stably together longer than others. It’s fluid.
Sue interacts with or, at least, has ample opportunity to, with these SFTS, though anyone who has been in one of her affinity spaces or on one of her affinity routes is in a yet larger and more amorphous group with Sue—let us call this group her Sims “affines.” Even though Sue sees some of these people rarely, any given interaction might be significant and so nobody can be discounted. Frequency of contact is not the only significant variable: what we are talking about here is akin to strong and weak ties in the sociology literature.
An SAS can be nested inside a bigger one, for example Sue’s Sims SAS might be nested inside a larger digital game’s SAS or an even larger game’s (digital or not) SAS. Or, Sue’s Sims SAS might not be nested in any larger games space, but, rather, in a larger fan fiction SAS, because what Sue largely does with the Sims is not play it, but make graphic fan fiction from Photoshopped images from the game joined with text she has written. On the other hand, two of Sue’s SASs could be related, but not nested one within the other (they may just be like two closely related states in the U.S that she moves between). These related SASs might be a Sims gaming SAS and a Photoshop SAS (which Sue uses to learn about designing images from the Sims for graphic fanfiction, but learns to Photoshop other images as well.
It might be that one interest-driven website—for example TSR Workshop (http://www.thesimsresource.com/workshop/)—is so central to Sue’s Sims endeavors that we can focus on it alone as the heart and soul of Sue’s Sims SAS (it is, after all, a smaller SAS within larger ones), though still tracing where Sue comes from to get there and where she sometimes goes from there (or is led to). We can call such a site Sue’s “home base” in her Sims SAS. People could have several home bases, or none, and some can be physical and others virtual.
Now, all my talk here of games and The Sims is just an example. SASs and their affinity sub-spaces, groups of squishy fellow travelers, and affines are defined by a given interest or passion. This interest or passion can be almost anything: citizen science or citizen astronomy, women’s health, a particular technology, a hobby, a type of design, any art form, media production of all different sorts, and any branch of knowledge (or, for that matter, any branch of crime, hacking, or pornography). Squishy fellow travelers and affines can, if they wish, develop high levels of skills or mastery without any official credentials or degrees. SASs are part of the Pro-Am movement, the Maker Movement, and participatory culture, all of which are driving major changes in how institutions work and when and where they are needed or not needed (any longer) in the modern world.
While SASs are defined by an interest or passion, passion plays a particularly important role. Not everyone traversing an SAS needs to have a passion. Interests, weak or strong, are a common reason people enter an SAS. But it is, nonetheless, passion that is the attractor to the space; it is the passionate who define its norms, standards, organization, and values. SASs are often devices that are well designed to flame interests into passions.
Some SASs or parts of them are intentionally designed by one person or a small number of them. Others evolve more indigenously through bottom-up interaction and participation. Others are a combination of the two. Nonetheless, SASs are today mostly in the domain outside of formal institutions and schools, though they are today a key source of 21st Century teaching, mentoring, and learning.
We can imagine that there will be—or that there should be, at least—a new type of “architect,” a “Squishy Affinity Space Architect” (an SASA). An SASA is an architect of interest and passion in melded physical and digital space. Such an architect will consider, based on a given passion as an attractor, all the physical and digital spaces currently available and new ones that need to be designed and built, and how to meld them and then turn them loose to squishy fellow travelers and affines and let the spaces and routes, the fellow travelers and affines, all evolve, spilt, and transform, live and die. An SASA’s goal is to transform interest and passion in the name of participation, interaction, making, and teaching and learning for better, more equitable, smarter, more moral and resilient people, groups, and societies.
The weakness of today’s “out of school” squishy affinity spaces is often not the digital spaces and routes but the physical ones. Face to face embodied communication is primordial and foundational for humans and will never be replaced, unless and until we become a different species altogether. Face-to-face embodied interaction with people and the world is where “the rubber meets the road” and where we get real impact and change in the physical world in which we are all live.
An SASA must know material stuff as well as he or she knows immaterial stuff (like values, emotions, and virtual worlds). The SASA must always realize that the social worlds of affines and fellow travelers that form us, sustain us, and transform us, nonetheless, start with Sue, that is, start with individual people who need fellow travelers and affines for their full development and flourishing in the world.