Haunts: Place, Play, and Trauma

Foursquare and its brethren (Gowalla, Brightkite, Loopt, and so on) are the latest social media darlings, but honestly, are they really all that useful? Sharing your location with your friends is not very compelling when you spend your life in the same four places (home, office, classroom, coffee shop). Are these apps really even fun? Does becoming the Mayor of a Shell filling station or earning the Crunked badge for checking into four different airport terminals on the same night* count as fun? I hope not. In truth, making fun of Foursquare is more fun than actually using Foursquare.

*The Crunked badge is for checking into four separate locations during a single evening. They don’t all have to be airport terminals. That’s just my own quirk.

Aside from the free chips I got for checking into a California Tortilla, the only redeeming value of these geolocation apps is that they offer the slightest glimmer—a glimmer!—of creative and pedagogical use. While some of the benefits of geolocation have been immediately seized upon by museums and historians—think of the partnership between Foursquare and the History Channel—very few people have considered using geolocation in a literary context. Even less attention has been paid to the ways geolocation can foster critical and creative thinking. So I’ve been pondering re-purposing Foursquare and its ilk in ways unintended and unforeseen by their creators.

[pullquote align=”right”]Let’s turn locative media into platforms for renegotiating space and telling stories[/pullquote]Following Rob MacDougall’s call for playful historical thinking, I’ve been imagining what you could call playful geographic thinking. Let’s turn locative media from gimmicky Entertainment coupon books and glorified historical guidebooks into platforms for renegotiating space and telling stories.

Let’s turn them into something that truly resembles play. And here I’ll use Eric Zimmerman and Katie Salen’s concept of play: free movement within a more rigid structure.

In this case, that rigid structure comes from the core mechanics of the different geolocation apps: checking in and tagging specific places with tips or comments. What’s supposed to happen is that users check in to bars or restaurants and then post tips on the best drinks or bargains. But what can happen, given the free movement within this structure, is that users can define their own places and add tips that range from lewd to absurd.

This is exactly what Dean Terry is doing. Along with his colleagues and students at the Emerging Media and Communication program at the University of Texas at Dallas, Dean has been renaming spaces and making his own places. Even better, Dean and his group at the MobileLab at UT Dallas are not only testing the limits of existing geolocation apps, they’re building one of their own.

I’m not designing my own app, but I am playing with the commercial apps. And again, by playing, I mean moving freely within a larger, more constrained structure. For instance, within my dully named campus office building, Robinson A, I’ve created my own space, The Office of Incandescent Light and Industrial Runoff. Which is pretty much how I think of my office. And I’m mayor there, thank you very much.

Likewise, when I’m home, I often check into the Treehouse of Sighs. I have an actual treehouse there, but the Treehouse of Sighs is not that one. The Treehouse of Sighs exists only in my mind. It’s a metaphysical Hotel California. You can check in any time you like, but you can never be there.

Just as evocative as creating your own space is tagging existing spaces with virtual graffiti, which you can use to create a counter-factual history of a place. Anyone who checks into the Starbucks on my campus can see my advice regarding the fireplace there. Also on GMU’s campus, I’ve uncovered Fenwick Library’s dirty little secret. And sometimes I leave surrealist tips in public places, like this epigram in yet another airport terminal:

All of this play has led me to think about using geolocative media with my students. Next spring I’m teaching an undergraduate class called “Textual Media,” a vague title that I’ve taken to describing as post-print fiction. My initial idea for using Foursquare was to have students add new venues to the app’s database, with the stipulation that these new venues be Foucauldian “Other Spaces”—parking decks, overpasses, bus depots, etc.—that stand in sharp contrast to the officially sanctioned places on Foursquare (coffee shops, restaurants, bars, etc.). One of the points I’d like to make is that much of our lives are actually spent in these nether-places that are neither here nor there. Tracking our movements in these unglamorous but not unimportant unplaces could be a revelation to my students. It might actually be one of the best uses of geolocation—to defamiliarize our daily surroundings.

I recently participated in a geolocation session at THATCamp that helped me refine some of these ideas. We had about fifteen historians, librarians, archivists, literary scholars, and other humanists at the session. We broke off into groups, with the mission of hacking existing geolocation apps for teaching or learning. I worked with Christa Willaford and Christina Jenkins, and as befits brainstorming about space, we left the windowless room, left the building entirely, and stood out near a small field (that’s not even on the outdated satellite image of the place) and came up with the idea we called Haunts.

Haunts is about the secret stories of spaces.

Haunts is about locative trauma.

Haunts is about the production of what Foucault calls “heterotopias”—a single real place in which incompatible counter-sites are layered upon or juxtaposed against one another.

The general idea behind Haunts is this: students work in teams, visiting various public places and tagging them with fragments of either a real life-inspired or fictional trauma story. Each team will work from an overarching traumatic narrative that they’ve created, but because the place-based tips are limited to text-message-sized bits, the story will emerge only in glimpses and traces, across a series of spaces.

[pullquote align=”left”]They’ve stumbled upon a fictional world haunting the real one.[/pullquote]Emerge for whom? For the other teams in the class. But also for random strangers using the apps, who have no idea that they’ve stumbled upon a fictional world augmenting the real one. A fictional world haunting the real one.

There are several twists that make Haunts more than simple place-based creative writing. For starters, most fiction doesn’t require any kind of breadcrumb trail more complicated than sequential page numbers. In Haunts, however, students will need to create clues to act as what Marc Ruppel calls migratory cues—nudging participants from one locale to the next, from one medium to the next. These cues might be suggestive references left in a tip, or perhaps obliquely embedded in a photograph taken at the check-in point. (Most geolocation apps allow photographs to be associated with a place; Foursquare is a holdout in this regard, though third-party services like picplz offer a work-around.)

Another twist subverts the tendency of geolocation apps to reward repeat visits to a single locale. Check in enough times at your coffee shop with Foursquare and you become “mayor” of the place. Haunts disincentivizes multiple visits. Check in too many times at the same place and you become a “ghost.” No longer among the living, you are stuck in a single place, barred from leaving tips anywhere else. Like a ghost, you haunt that space for the rest of the game. It’s a fate players would probably want to avoid, yet players will nonetheless be compelled to revisit destinations, in order to fill in narrative gaps as either writers or readers.

[pullquote align=”right”]Imagine the same traumatic kernel, being told again and again, from different points of views.[/pullquote]The final twist is that Haunts does not rely only upon Foursquare. All of the geolocative apps have the same core functionality. This means that one team can use Foursquare, while another team uses Gowalla, and yet another Brightkite. Each team will weave parallel yet diverging stories across the same series of spaces. Each Haunt hosts a number of haunts. The narrative and geographic path of a single team’s story should alone be engaging enough to follow, but even more promising is a kind of cross-pollination between haunts, in which each team builds upon one or two shared narrative events, exquisite corpse style. Imagine the same traumatic kernel, being told again and again, from different points of views. Different narrative and geographic points of views. Eventually these multiple paths could be aggregated onto a master narrative—or more likely, a master database—so that Haunts could be seen (if not experienced) in its totality.

There is still much to figure out with Haunts. But I find the project compelling, and even necessary. The endeavor turns a consumer-based model of mobile computing into an authorship-based model. It is a uniquely collaborative activity, but also one that invites individual introspection. It imagines trauma as both private and public, deeply personal yet situated within shared semiotic domains. It operates at the intersection between game and story, between reading and writing, between the real and the virtual. And it might finally make geolocation worth paying attention to.

13 thoughts on “Haunts: Place, Play, and Trauma”

  1. I love the idea of the ghosts here. I think that feature alone could be a pretty cool geospatial hack, although it would probably require an app of its own.

    This reminds me of a joke I once read, and at the risk of hijacking this comment thread, I want to post it here to see if anyone can help me understand the humor of it, or, failing to find humor, share with me the uncanny resonance this seems to have for whatever reason. This has been on my mind recently.

    Some background: My great-grandfather was a humor columnist for the Knoxville News-Sentinel. His library included a number of joke books which I suppose he consulted for material and inspiration. These dusty books are fascinating to look through for historical reasons, mostly because of how different humor was in the 1930s and 40s. For example, many of the jokes are casually (but thoroughly) racist. This one isn’t racist. I’m adapting it as best as I can remember.


    There once was an insurance salesman who was unhappy in his work. The drudgery of the job left him drained and he felt there was something missing in his life. This anxiety eventually found its way into a recurring dream where, night after night, he dreamed he was the happy owner of a shoe store. He dreamed the location of the store in amazing detail, including the shape of the windows, the color of the light from the street, the type of lamp post out front, and the texture of the walls. In this dream store, he felt completely fulfilled, completing his daily tasks with a joy he had never felt in his job selling insurance. This dream stayed with him, night after night for many years.

    One day, he happened to find himself lost in a part of the city he rarely visited when, to his utter disbelief, he saw the shoe store from his dream. It was exactly as he had dreamed it — right down to the windows, the street, the lamp post outside, and the texture of the walls. Breathless, he rushed inside and accosted the manager.

    “You won’t believe this, but I’ve dreamed of this exact store every night for years. I would very much like to buy it. Name any price.”

    “Oh, you wouldn’t want to buy this place,” the manager answered, shooing the man back out into the street. “It’s haunted, you see.”

    Crushed, the insurance salesman asked, “Haunted by whom?”

    Closing the door, the manager replied, “You.”


    So is that really a joke? Is it funny? Have you heard it before?

    More importantly, could it be deployed as a haunted geospatial narrative?

  2. @Zach, wow, thanks for the joke—although like you, I can’t see it as a joke at all. It sounds much more like a Borges tale. At night a man dreams about place he’s haunting in real life? Totally surreal. And it reminds me too of the film The Others.

    I wonder if there’s anything in the specificity of the joke: an insurance salesman, a shoe store? I’ll have to think about this more.

    In any case, yeah, I like the ghost idea, and the idea of a haunted geospatial narrative definitely holds a lot of promise. I’m also wondering, at what point does a story-game like the one I’m proposing with Haunts turn into a full-fledged ARG? Is there a meaningful difference between the two? Do all geospatial narratives trend toward being an alternate reality game? Or is simply being an alternate reality story enough?

    1. So, I realize this still has only a little to do with the actual, interesting topic of this blog entry, but I happen to be visiting my parents in Tennessee, and I found the joke book this “joke” came from. I thought it was worth posting. It’s interesting to compare the original with what I wrote from memory above — it must have been at least 10 years ago when I last read it. I seem to have invented a few details, but the essence of it was pretty close. Here’s the original, transcribed from Meier, Frederick, Ed. _The Joke Tellers Joke Book_. Philadelphia: The Blakiston Company, 1944. Page 95.


      It was a peculiar thing, that dream. Every night the owner of a shoe store dreamed that he walked along a street he had never been on before and saw a store located in a perfectly ideal spot. Customers hurried in and out, spending money with free and easy hands. But the dream always ended just before he, himself, could get in to see if he could purchase it. And the devil of it was that the proprietor always looked out of the dream as if he were not only willing but anxious to sell the store to the shoe-shop owner.

      One afternoon, while visiting a strange city on business, the man found himself walking on the street of his dreams. His eyes wide with disbelief, he looked around for the store of his dreams. There it was! Even to the same familiar face of the proprietor. He saw that the proprietor was just closing the doors so he rushed over.

      “Quick,” he panted, “How much do you want for this store?”

      The proprietor shook his head sadly. “I wouldn’t advise you to buy it,” he warned.

      “Why not?” the anxious man demanded.

      “It’s haunted,” was the reply.

      “Haunted? By whom?” wheezed the man in desperation.

      “You,” was the soft reply as the door snapped shut in his face.


      So there it is.

  3. Loved this idea at THATCamp, Mark, and I continue to like it as you flesh it out. The idea of trauma as the thing that holds the story together seems valuable since trauma can so easily be connected to a place in a way that it is never quite connected to time. I know that some people within trauma studies might have a hard time with the idea of traumatic narrative being conceived as a game, however I think that you could defend yourself (what does this say about the academy that my initial thoughts were about this attack and defense paradigm) by positioning the play within the traumatic space as a sort of what Dominick LaCapra calls “working through.” Play, in other words, is a way to familiarize oneself with the space of trauma in a way that is not so immediately cathected or prone to bringing on flashbacks or “acting out.” Play breaks the traumatic narrative, giving the authors or the readers a way to integrate what Cathy Caruth calls “unclaimed experience.”

    I wonder how the idea of Haunts could be integrated with the locative art that William Gibson writes about in the opening pages of Spook Country. The names of the two projects alone suggests some correspondences (although Gibson is talking more about the hidden traces of government conspiracy rather than ghosts).

    As for the difference between Haunts and an ARG, I think the two are potentially very close to one another. One could almost say that Haunts is the alternate reality (or the underconference, if you will) of the current crop of geolocative services. I think the boundary between the two becomes thin simply because the concept of ARGs is so dependent on moving through real space that has been tweaked in some small way (physically or otherwise) by the game.

    1. @Brian, thanks for your thoughts regarding my use of trauma as the backdrop for this story/game. This is the part of Haunts I hadn’t fully theorized yet, but it does seem like trauma works as the unifying concept behind what will otherwise be a diffuse and chaotic experience (as something dealing with trauma ought to be). My call to retell the same traumatic kernel again and again from different narrative and geographic perspectives gets at that “working through” idea.

      The class I’ve been thinking of for Haunts is also the class in which we’ll be reading House of Leaves—which is another reason why trauma seems to be a natural focal point for the story/game.

      In fact, now that I’m thinking about it, I can imagine the entire class organized around trauma and new media. I used to teach the class as a straight-up electronic literature class, but I always felt that concept never held together; it was too centrifugal, always threatening to careen off course. But it seems to me that there’s enough post-print lit and e-lit out there dealing with trauma that the idea could really work, and hold the class together in a sustained way.

      1. It’s interesting how pervasive trauma is within postmodern, electronic, and post-print fiction. Not that there isn’t plenty of it within modernism. But there’s something about the present that seems to suggest that trauma is perhaps the thing that literature should grapple with. Perhaps this goes back to the horrors of World War II and the Holocaust or the problems of Vietnam (since I–like you–focus primarily on American lit, I’ll just be nationalist in my categorization). Or maybe it has to do with the postmodern thrust toward multiple perspectives on past events, which is akin to what trauma pushes “us” (writ large to stand for both victims, readers, and theorists) toward.

        I think the hardest thing about teaching a thematic class is getting students to understand that they can view each of the texts in more ways than just the frame that yokes them together on the syllabus. Seeing, in other words, that trauma texts aren’t just about trauma. Perhaps that should be part of Haunts as well: thinking about how to expand the play to be more than just iterations of the traumatic kernel.

  4. I love the concept. The way you’re reworking a haunt and its occupation of space reminds me quite a bit of David Marriott’s Haunted Life: Visual Culture and Black Modernity – he thinks through the bizarre affective experience of watching visual images that have a haunted presence to them, e.g. someone who you know will soon die. He then extends this to consider how slavery may serve as the haunt of a lot of trans-Atlantic visual culture. You’re extending this metaphor of cultural trace to all kinds of radiating networked technologies that now invisibly refashion and permeate spaces.

    One question though, why not involve aspects of geocaching and have narrators create artifacts? I think it would be worthwhile to resist the tendency to create something that could be compiled into a database and to explore the intersections between digital and physical ephemera.

  5. Mark, I love the idea of repurposing mundane Web applications–a sort of virtual performance art I’ll now give further thought to.

    Have you read _Wisdom Sits in Places: Language and landscape Among the Western Appache_ by Keith Basso (page at Amazon), especially the chapter “Stalking with Stories” which originally appeared as a free-standing article? The chapter describes a cultural landscape where collectively remembered stories are attached to places in the landscape and invoked through place as a way to regulate shared behavior, and would be a terrific reading assignment to compliment a project like the one you describe.

    I’m also surprised that no one has yet mentioned _The Sixth Sense_, which I immediately thought of when I read zachwhalen’s joke (which I find intriguing, but not funny) above.

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