Adventures in the Invisible Tent

Here’s a tent.

Invisible Tent

It’s invisible. But it is. There. Walk forward into the space it occupies, you find yourself within the tent.

Inside Invisible Tent

The tent only exists when one is within it. When outside, we see the world without the tent.

This article explores the implication of this uncanny art form on how we build and use virtual environments. It first explains why this invisible tent is considered to be a software bug. The article explores how our ability to accept the uncanny varies from person to person. It then suggests that the spatial, built, environment is far less important than the social structures that exist within them. This topic contains a lot of images. On this page:

Impossible Objects

Escher's Waterfall

Maurits Cornelis Escher‘s Waterfall, 1960. Oscar Reutersvärd’s idea of the “impossible figure” was popularised by Roger Penrose, as the “Penrose triangle”. Escher has drawn an impossible object: The geometry of the structure is an illusion, which logically breaks once the position of the artist (in 3D space) changes.

Like our invisible tent, the (illusion of) reality in the impossible object is dependant on the position of the observer. This mirrors a key problem in quantum mechanics: That one set of things can simultaneously exist in more than one state (Schrödinger’s cat is both alive and dead). It is only the observer of the system that resolves the outcome. Hence, the definition of the observer becomes critical to understanding, well, everything.

In the invisible tent we can both change the position of the observer, and simultaneously (through the “eyes” of 2 separate in-game characters) confirm the existence of both states of the tent. And obviously conclude it’s an unintended graphical programming bug.

But why is that so obviously a bug?

Improbable Spaces

There are many different ways to visualise impossible objects. True 3D renderings can be made. However, the illusion is only maintained when viewed from a certain angle.

Escher’s art has been recreated in various video games from Realm of Impossibility to Diablo 2. These games use isometric-style graphics, which already involve creating the illusion 3D, while restricting the observer to a single angle of view. Such alternative realities are acceptable to us because they appear to be very similar to what we see on planet earth.

Some “innovative” video games like Portal or World of Goo design gameplay around rearranging the physics of the game’s world. In Portal, the player creates 2 portals (holes) in different walls of the same room. An object thrown through one hole, exits from the other hole with the same momentum, but with different direction.


Yet even in such a radical title, the majority of the game’s world is earth-like. In Portal, the player’s character has a head at the top, and legs at the bottom. Those legs walk on a surface textured to resemble a floor.

Look out the window. Ever wondered why the sky is at the top of the view, and the ground is at the bottom? Thought not. The brain is processing information from our eyes, but how it chooses to arrange that information seems somewhat arbitrary. Much as western civilisation draws maps of the world with Arctic at the top of planet earth, not the bottom. In a virtual environment, it would be easy for characters to walk (upside-down) along the top of the screen. But that doesn’t happen, because it “feels” uncomfortable. We’re so used to processing information where the sky is above the person, that such a radical rearrangement would be distracting.

The Final Frontier

Except. Space-based science fiction routinely defies Newtonian physics and nobody seems to care. We implicitly understand that there isn’t much friction in outer-space, and that a relatively small projectile would be enough to cause almost any spacecraft to implode. Yet we’re happy to watch Star Wars craft dog-fighting through space, firing colorful energy weapons, and cornering with complete disregard for their previous direction of travel.

So long as the “artificial gravity” in their spaceships pins everyone’s feet to the bottom of the screen.

Why is Star Wars’ reality so “plausible”? Because the environment is so unlike our own earth-bound reality that there aren’t enough similarities to cause confusion.

The result is an “uncanny valley”: Plausible alternative realities must either be almost identical to earth, or very different. Not in-between. The term was coined by Masahiro Mori to describe human reactions to robots, but was also a theme explored by psychologists like Sigmund Freud.

So, the 2 states of the tent are “a bug” because the tent is in an earth-like world, where humans expect to observe tents in just one state.

Is it that simple? No chance.

Exploring the Uncanny

In Exploration is Dead, Long Live Exploration, I wrote about how the need to explore video games had increasingly been replaced by information-management skills. However, true forms of game exploration still exist, such as the art of reaching a place in a virtual world that the designers did not intend anyone to visit. Typically it involves clever use of a character’s abilities, or finding “holes” in the terrain. This MMOwned topic contains many examples. Below is Mrtiller in Silithus.

Mrtiller's Silithus Exploration

These people are exploring the uncanny: Seeking out the near-reality that is so uncomfortable for majority of players.

Jennie Lees started to make the connection between the exploration of abandoned places in the physical and virtual world (a lot of my comments there re-emerge in this article). Urban exploration typically involves accessing disused buildings, underground spaces, or tall structures. Activities range from historical interest groups, through games like Russia’s Dozor, to trespass-based exploration. Below is Ali_Explores “On ur counterweightzz”.

Ali_Explores On ur counterweightzz

The aim is to reach somewhere that exists, but is outside the immediate reality of most of the local population.

These people are a niche in society. But their activities demonstrate that the definitions of uncanny – how far away from reality we are prepared to venture – differ from person to person.

Urban Art

Some of the most intriguing art exists within the uncanny. Almost by definition, you won’t find it in a gallery; you can’t buy it and take it home.

Banksy's Flower

Banksy‘s Double Yellow Line Flower on Pollard Street, London, 2007. An introduction to twisting the established rules of urban reality.


The Office for Subversive Architecture‘s “Intact”, 2004-6. The refurbishment of an abandoned concrete railway signal box to resemble a quaint country cottage. It relates to a specific time and place: Theoretically a desirable area to live it due to its proximity to the City of London, Shoreditch is one of the most deprived, least desirable locations in London.

Of course for most people, this is all too uncanny: It should either not be seen, or be replaced with a more normal reality. “Graffiti” tends to get painted away local council workmen. And the old Shoreditch (Bishopsgate) railway yard is now being covered in iconic-ally expensive commercial office buildings, as the financial district of London expands east-wards. Like the urban and MMOwned explorers, these uncanny artists and architects seem destined to live at the margins of society.

Our ability (or otherwise) to accept the uncanny is important, because it would seem to constrain our ability to evolve into more spatially – and socially – complex realities. To be able to accept that the tent both exists and does not exist, depending on the position of the observer. To simultaneously live in more than one social group, without feeling the need to merge them together. Or even to understand that the cat is both alive and dead.

The Mean Streets of Dalaran

But. It’s easy to misunderstand the role of place.

Look at these 2 images of Dalaran, currently the busiest capital city in Azeroth (World of Warcraft).

The (Empty) Filthy Animal

The Filthy Animal, the Horde faction’s inn. Designed like a physical world bar, with seating, tables, food, drink, a cosy fire… And, except for the staff, it’s empty.

Idling Mounted

On the street, outside the Horde enclave. Many of the characters are idling in the street, while mounted on various different creatures. None of them are moving. The pink flying creature (above the well) is a particularly rare flying mount, gained by completing a year-long sequence of activities.

The physical world equivalent would involve a “night out” sitting in the parking lot (car park), never entering the bar. Madness. What’s going on?

Although Dalaran may look like a fairly typical human settlement, what you see has nothing to do with the built environment. It has everything to do with virtual consumerism: Mounts are being used as a visual statement of player characters’ expertise, accomplishments, existence. Signs and symbols, without significant use or exchange value. Mounts cannot be ridden inside buildings. And the whole purpose is to be seen, so one must mount up in the busiest place, which tends to be in the street.

It’s Irrational, Stupid!

I think it was unfortunate that some of the earliest academic work on Massively Multiplayer Online Games was conducted by economists. Unfortunate because economists tend to assume rational consumer behaviour, when so much of what people are doing transpires not to be rational.

Consider my favorite virtual commodity, fish:

  • Ask about anglers’ favourite fishing places, and less than a quarter of the explanations mention the type of fish caught – even fewer its value. Artistic, emotional and social themes are just as important as practical reasons. (It’s much the same for physical world recreational anglers.)
  • Almost 20% of all fish catches are while trying to complete a daily quest (something done for many different reasons). Another 20% are caught while idling in Dalaran (which contains nothing of auctionable value). Something similar is due to training cooking skills (most of which is similarly worthless).
  • Only 1/4 of the Fish Feast cooked are ever sold at auction, in spite of them having the highest (auction) sell-price of any cooked fish. The “social economy” – supplying goods directly to friends – transpires to be just as important as the market-based “cash economy”.

Unconvinced? Try this:

Advertisement: Secret Gold Guide.

It’s an advert for a “gold making” guide – techniques that teach the player to make money within the game. I advertise many similar guides, even though competition (and probably a decline in the need for money to achieve things within the game) means they do not sell as well as they used to.

In the first week of display, earnings through this advert exceeded all other advertising revenue, even though the advert only occupied 10% of the site’s advertising inventory. Other adverts primarily sell to ability to earn “gold”. This advert primarily sells the prestige a sexy flying mount.

Die-hard economists will insist that the mount has utility (it allows faster travel), and in part they are right. There is some rationality in player actions. But there’s mounting evidence that the dominant form of economy is irrational, socially driven, consumerism.

Animal Farm
World of Warcraft’s operator, Blizzard, continue to refer to items like mounts and minipets as “vanity”. They increasingly sell them for US Dollars – directly, or through franchised products. These items do not make the underlying game any easier to play – they do not change game-play mechanics. So, it is argued, they have no influence on the equality of players. That objective defined Blizzard’s policy on Real Money Trading: “Everyone starts off even [in WoW]. In the real world that’s not true, but in WoW everyone starts even, and the RMT stuff messes with that.” Yet WoW increasingly resembles an exclusive gymnasium: There are lots of machines to help you keep fit. And you may even play on them from time to time. But the main reason you join a gym (rather than just jogging round the park) is to be seen by other people at the gym. WoW is a social world in which vanity increasingly dominates. Selling vanity for hard currency may be commercially attractive, but ultimately will have a significant impact on “player society”. And – frankly – denying this currently demonstrates hypocrisy (or ignorance) of Orwellian proportions.

The Importance of a Big Tent

So, for most people the invisible tent is a bug because it is too uncanny. But maybe that doesn’t matter, because the tent is merely a visual back-drop to a social simulation? Our mistake was to be concerned about the tent, instead of the people stood around it.

The tent is still important, because without it the social interactions would not be sufficiently realistic to be plausible. Before we can commune, we have to agree on a common reality, otherwise we’ll spend the whole time arguing about stuff we can’t resolve. Like which way is up.

Or maybe not. There are at least 2 alternative logics:

  • De-immersion: Will Harvey first developed There, then IMVU. IMVU is, in many ways, a more basic version of There: IMVU focuses on the social/avatar elements. So do we need the virtual world at all? IMVU – and increasingly many Facebook-style games – suggest that the social elements of complex immersive worlds continue to work well without the complex immersive world. Why try harder? Of course there are also examples such as WeeWorld‘s synchronous (virtual) world doubling the sales of virtual goods. Presumably it became easier to be seen by others, and hence more important to be seen wearing the “right” clothes. (Wolfshead provides some evidence of de-immersion within WoW.)
  • De-canniness: As people become familiar with different virtual environments, experience makes them less likely to be confused by the uncanny. This outcome cannot be assumed: Early adopters of new technology are more likely to be “explorers” than wider society, while later users will tend to have lower tolerance for the uncanny. Equally, worlds designed to match earth-bound expectations of reality have no need to “push the boundary” and create anything different, so their users will never experience anything different.

The absolute arbiter of reality seems to be other people. If we agree, then it is, because the social component dominates. Dislike of the uncanny may always keep us locked into earth-like realities. But the fact that the fabric of those worlds appears to be secondary to the people within them, makes me wonder why we still tend to think of reality in physical terms. Tent or no tent.

2 thoughts on “Adventures in the Invisible Tent”

  1. the “Invisible Tent” was within what world / game
    or did you make this ,

    so since you have “defined” what it is that i do
    in video games, that most others see as a waste of time

    what is this behavior called ,, by you
    i call it “adventuring”,, ( ala tomb raider)

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