Making Mental Maps and 3D Spatial Awareness

One of my most-valued skills is my spatial awareness and reasoning. I’ve always enjoyed that I can walk around a place and quickly learn how to navigate through it. It has been incredibly useful that I never get lost in any city, the woods, or even in 3D environments. And while I am not so exact that I wouldn’t use a tape measure to double check, I’ve very good at visually estimating the size of things in a space that I’ve spent time getting to know. I rarely use that last skill anymore, but it was incredibly useful in my theater days when I could judge just by looking at something if it was even possible for it to get through any given door or opening. Now, it only comes in handy when I am moving homes or rearranging my house and I can tell just from a glance that my bookshelves will fit perfectly in a specific location.

I’ve met a lot of other people with good spatial awareness and reasoning skills, but I’ve yet to meet another person whose skill in meat-space also extends (one to one) to virtual and 3D spaces. Thanks to the inclusion of maps in most games these days, most people don’t need this kind of spatial awareness or navigational memory, but there are still cases where it is useful. For instance, my friends and I frequently return to playing Minecraft and I have become the de facto navigator when we go to explore somewhere new. Not because I’m more skilled, braver, or more knowledgeable, but because I never get lost, no matter how deep we go into a series of corridors and tunnels that look exactly the same as all of the other ones. One of my friends is so hopelessly bad at finding his way back that he’s lost multiple bases on every Minecraft server we’ve ever done. Which is why he always builds them near mine, now, since I can always get home and then tell him how to get home after he’s gotten lost hunting for beehives.

This skill also extends to 3rd person view 3D video games as well. I always know exactly how to get anywhere from everywhere in Breath of the Wild or Skyrim, for instance. And I always know how to get to nearby secrets from wherever I am, if I’ve found them at least once in a previous playthrough. I used to tease one of my ex-roommates when he’d play Breath of the Wild, always telling him I know where the thing he’s looking for is and then offering suggestions about directions to go for “I dunno, something interesting.” It was all in good fun, since if he asked me to stop I would and he teased me back about how easily distracted I was when playing Breath of the Wild (and am now that we’re playing Valheim). But this level of memory and awareness is a skill I’ve taken for granted.

Now that I’ve started playing games as part of my “calm down before bed” routine, I’ve learned what it is like to play a game without that skill. It’s not like my brain is shutting down or I’m losing it entirely, I just get super dozy towards the end and I’m not always super aware of what I’m doing or where I’m going. I’m usually playing something laid back like Pokémon or Animal Crossing during this time, so it’s not a big deal if I get lost or am momentarily confused, but it is a bit weird to realize I don’t have a full mental map of a video game I’ve been playing.

I haven’t gotten deeply into VR yet, mostly because I’m pretty confident it will make me sick and I’ll get vision headaches from it due to my particular ocular issues, but the times I have played it, I’ve been able to enjoy this same spatial awareness and mental mapping. As the technology advances, becomes more accessible, and the worlds more immersive, I am excited to bring my spatial skills into my video games. I’m not sure if it’ll track completely, but I’m super good at tracking stuff in my environment and that seems to be most of what VR games are right now. I’m excited to finally be good at video games if this holds true.

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