Post Gozo Aftermath

This is an initial post to solidify some thoughts on the experience (experiment?) with mobile digital playful navigation, which we called the ‘Go go Gozo’ game. Carried out over several days between October 15 till 21st (including preparations and de-briefing), the game was played by seven students of Manchester University Geography course on Islands and Islandness. The game’s aim was twofold, first, as an educational tool allowing the students to engage with the Island and learning materials in a novel way, and second, as an experimental setting for the PhD students in our group to examine some of their ideas on mapping, mobility and urbanity. The following text focusses primarily on my own experiences and research interests. I begin with the brief explanation of the game and game outcomes, followed by detailed descriptions of first and second game-days, and concluding with some general remarks and observations.

Bus station with game participants in front of the Gharb Church.
Bus station with game participants in front of the Gharb Church.

Gozing Out

Essentially, the game span two days. Three teams of students (two, two and three people of each) were set upon the game-board which is the island of Gozo, a tiny (67 km2) peep in the Mediterranean, overshadowed by its sovereign Island-state of Malta. The first day consisted of a Situationist Dérive designed by the groups to each other. The second required the groups to race in attempt to find and perform actions on several geocoded coordinates left to them by other groups on day one.

Starting from our lodgings in the western village of Gharb, each group received a Garmin GPSmap C62 receiver, with a pre-loaded open street map (OSM) Gozo map (henceforth referred to alternately as GPS, the device and Garmin). The team selected themes to explore based on previous reading and course topics (description to follow). Each team then designed a Dérive-like experience for another team based on the designer’s understanding of their fellows’ topic, potentially creating a somewhat randomized and alternative exploratory experience (“Walk until you hear Maltese”, “find a place where you are in gender minority”). During the derive phase, the group “planted” eight geocached coordinates with a task attached to them, with relation to the geocaching team’s topic (“Take a picture of something feminine and beautiful”, “Hop, skip and jump in the direction of the Vatican till you see the sea”). To clarify, I present a table of the topics of each groups and their relation to other groups:

Team’s topic/ Day Day 0 Designed a Derive for Day 1 created Geocaches for Day 2 Followed Geocache by
Gender, Masculinity. (Previously dark Gozo) Boundaries Boundaries Religion
Religion: Catholicism and other. Gender Gender Boundaries
Boundaries, inclusion and exclusion. Religion Religion Gender


Day 1: I love it when a play comes together

The game was delayed. What seemed to us (the designers) as concise, concrete and specific guidelines turned to be messy and incoherent. Added to the students’ initial suspicion of the novel teaching method and the didactic needs of the course, the first day of the Game started only on Friday October 18, three days after arrival to Gozo. We drew

I accompanied the boundaries group while trying not to intervene in their conduct, offering minimal assistance and acting primarily as an observer. I used my mobile phone for photo and a handheld Cannon camcorder for video. While I cannot say that I blended seamlessly with a group of three girls, several years younger and about a head shorter than me, nevertheless by the end of the first day I felt that my presence (and filming) was no longer a disruptive occurrence.Here are my notes for day 1, with commentary.

  • The girls are calm but show some signs of nervousness – while semantically oxymoronic, what struck me from the beginning was the pressure our little exercise imposed on the participants. One the one hand, it is understandable, since this was after all art of a graded course. On the other, the first day was about leisurely exploration of the environment, which presupposed a level of casualness about it. The technological element was visibly unnerving, and the unintuitive interface of the GPS did not help.
  • The Garmin started in hands, now in bag, once the navigation become more experiential – [note for the future: timecodes!!! When is ‘now’?] As surmised, the role of the digital locator was not as prominent as expected. Due to the derive nature, the device quickly migrated into pockets (of sufficient volume [how eager we are now to put radiating technology in our trousers]) or backpacks. It was pulled out and used primarily as a contextual locator: what is in front of me, how can I reconcile the conflicting versions of what I’m expecting to find to what I actual find? The hospital example: approaching an unknown public building (in retrospective, a backside of Victoria’s hospital) a debate ensued on what it is. The hospital was marked with a medical cross and a mysterious ‘craig’ .While the holder of the Garmin attempted to question the nature of the place by probing different aspects of the interface (scrolling around, trying to position the cursor on the icon and get better information) one of the other participants went inside the compound and returned after several minutes with a confirmation on the nature of the place. In this case, the GPS served to confuse rather than clarify. Instead of locatind additional visual cues in the physical world, the user searched for richer information in a flawed digital map. When considering the role of the interface, we must always take into account how sometimes they are blinds rather than screens, obfuscating other ways of engaging with the world(s).
  • Fluid perception of space: the tourist sign as a barrier – the team encountered a guiding sign for tourists, and saw it as a barrier, since it connoted inclusion and exclusion. The GPS made no difference in this case, no one looked at it: the sign triggered a mental cue of a barrier for being ‘a part of’. Cultural conventions overrode digital navigation.
  • No attention to space once in the bus: passed “stereotypical tourists” outside. – While guided by a card to find a “stereotypical tourist”, the team went on a bus. As we were passing group of cameras-wielding shorts-wearing individuals, the girls seem deep in their notebooks, the GPS or the card in front of them. Public transportation, and perhaps transport in general, ostensibly has a distancing function, and the illusion of movement when observed on a map (digital or otherwise) take precedent over the world outside.
  • Blocked routes can be temporarily [caused]. A truck driver signaling to pass when you weren’t planning to go there in the first place. – A big nod to the casual in casual power. What happens when you’re approaching a crossroads, doubting your next step and a huge truck pulls out from the street, the driver signaling you to cross? In our case, we did cross and continued walking in the same direction for several minutes, only to reconsider later and return into the same street the truck came from.
  • Pre- thinking about routes, picking into cards, interpreting more towards the end. – Even during the quasi-random derive stage, towards the end of the journey the team began taking shortcuts, looking into the next card to try and adjust navigational practices in order to ‘fulfill’ the cards’ objectives in a better way.

Day 2: The Geocache

Thought nothing by our prior experience, and hindered by the need to wait till two of out team members hide additional individual points for the teams to have a fair game, we started late. The decision to add locations was preceded by a heated late-night debate on the nature and location of said caches. It was decided that each team will get an individual treasure cache with a piece of paper containing a quote and paper citation to help them solidify their theoretical framework. Those caches will be located according to the distance traveled yesterday and to balance the other teams’ (im)mobility. Additionally, a common cache was hidden next to Vicroria’s bus stop, an obligatory point of passage. This one contained a riddle in a bottle, pointing at the location of the final destination to which the teams must travel to win. The riddle red as follows:

Gozo is a place of fable,
that builders sought to make stable.
An impressive feat,
Without a defeat,
Come meet us at a Radical Table.

“Radical Table” being an anagram to ‘Citadel Bar’ and the whole thing alluring to Victoria’s citadel’s role as a defensive fortification that has never been taken. We have also offered a particular scoring scheme: 7 points for each cache, 5 if you found the cache but failed to perform the associated task, -3 for each missed cache, -5 for asking the accompanying PhD students for help. A first successful completion netted a team 30 points and the two caches provided by the faculty were mandatory. Thus, in was possible to get the higher score while skipping some caches, by strategically plotting your course.

Here are my notes on our second day conduct:

  • Devices organize space: first get the points then plan route. – The reason we won was probably due to proper planning. Our first cache took us away from the two other groups into San Lawrenz, and while waiting for the bus there alone, the team found each of the geocached points using the Garmin, plotted them on a paper map of Victoria centre (8/10 points were there) and decided on a course of action (If the bus to Xlendi comes early – we go there first, otherwise we trail Victoria). Still, as expected, the GPS fulfilled a much more predominant role on the second day. The coordinates were still punched in diligently before each subsequent point, even after plotted on the paper street map. The device never returned to the bag, always in the hands of one of the team members.
  • Asking the locals, even with a map à hard to reconcile the digital map with the (hard) territory of the digital path. – This references an event which took place on approach to the team’s custom cache located in Xlendi. Hereby is the map of the area referenced:

View Larger Map

What happened there was a lengthy (several minutes) debate on whether to take the road (marked brown on the map) or the path (red)? To clarify the Garmin display was not as clear as the web version of the OSM, containing no indication of the bridge over the gulf, which was not visible from the place of our standing. Some argued that we should take the clearly marked (and visible) road, and not endanger losing time by following a precarious path which might end in a dead end. Others urged for haste and taking the risk. Despite the potentials of the GPS screen as a piece of contemporary mapping technology, which served as a praxis point for a debate, what tilted the scales was a simple question to a passerby coming up from the path. After he confirmed that the path led indeed to the tower, the team proceeded more rapidly, certain of their decision.

Overall, the second day left less time for notes due to the fervent nature of the exercise. For my own research interests, it was interesting to observe the differences in GPS’s centrality vis-à-vis day 1. Aimed navigation solidified the device’s role as an authority, and anchored the experience in the otherwise intangible coordinates on the global grid.

The reasons such experience was not necessarily relevant to my own discussion of the casual and casual power were as follows:

  1. Device Familiarity – the girls weren’t familiar with the Garmin, nor its controls. For people accustomed to touch screen interface and navigation using devices that use them, the GPS was visibly cumbersome an unintuitive.
  2. Place Familiarity – while casual power in navigation does not presuppose full habitualization of space, it does nevertheless applicable in situations where there is no drastic need of constant navigation, as in potentially alien or dangerous spaces. The team relied on a multiplicity of maps to constantly familiarize themselves with unknown locales. Granted, by the second day the small territory of Gozo contributed to further familiarity, especially around Gharb and Victoria, but the general foreignness of the place (language, architecture) further pushed the boundaries.
  3. Course setting – the pressure of reporting back and getting graded, not to mention awareness to spatial relations as final-year geography BA students, made the setting rather different.


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