The Ideas of Nu Cartoman. Cartographic Perspectives, No. 9, 1991, pp. 16-17.

The Ideas of Nu Cartoman


Michael P. Peterson

Fulbright Professor / Freie Universität - Berlin

University of Nebraska - Omaha

The following transcript is of a conversation that is reported to have taken place within a corporation that creates video arcade games. The text may be of interest to your readers although it has yet to be verified and its origins are in doubt (suffice it to say that there are numerous spies still living in Berlin). While the discussion seems totally plausible, it should be pointed out that the names of the individuals are somewhat suspicious. Apparently, a new video game is being considered that would use digital maps to contribute to the creation of mental maps. A Mr. Nu Cartoman is attempting to convince his boss, a Mr. Al Dinaro, that the game is worth the investment. Joining the discussion is a Dr. Von Morgen, an outside consultant to the company.


Mr. Al Dinaro: "OK, what's the concept?"

Mr. Nu Cartoman: "It occurred to me that in the process of finding their way through the maze of obstacles that we've built into our video games, children develop some fairly complex mental maps."

Mr. Al Dinaro: "Mental maps?"

Dr. Von Morgen: "Internal representations similar to maps that help us navigate through, or otherwise conceive of, our environment - in this case, through video games that have numerous scenes and a variety of obstacles. Indeed, these mental maps so derived are very complex, often three-dimensional. One could say that the games require a form of spatial thinking and memorization on the part of the youth to which their parents have never been exposed."

Mr. Nu Cartoman: "Right. Anyway, when you consider the complexity of these mental maps, it's astounding what these kids have internalized. But, for what? Stupid games. Just think of the brain cells we're wasting on this stuff!"

Mr. Al Dinaro: "Hey, that's not our problem. We're not forcing these kids to play with these games. Besides, an annual profit of $200 million ain't stupid!"

Dr. Von Morgen: "I wouldn't say it's a waste. Perhaps, the children who play these games are required to conceive and memorize spatial representations in a whole new way. One never knows what the outcome of that will be."

Mr. Nu Cartoman: "I can tell you what the outcome is. Mr. Dinaro, do you know that a quarter of the freshman students at the University of Miami can't find the United States on a world map?"

Mr. Al Dinaro: "Like I said, that's not our problem. It's the fault of the school system and I can't do anything to change that!"

Dr. Von Morgen: "We probably all have the obligation to contribute to the education of our youth. Schools are just part of an overall educational process. Anyway, Mr. Cartoman, what do you have in mind? Combining maps with video games?"

Mr. Nu Cartoman: "Exactly! Maps that are stored in digital form are pretty common these days. They require quite of bit of disk space but we can use a fast CD-ROM to store different maps and multiple frame buffers to increase the speed of display. The game would actually put the person in different places and present them with a series of obstacles."

Mr. Al Dinaro: "Maybe blow-up countries or something like that?"

Mr. Nu Cartoman: "Well, that's not what I had in mind. It should be a friendly process. The kids should get the impression that they are going inside a country and walking along a road or a railroad line or through a forest or mountain. We could even store maps of cities and have them play the games in their own neighborhoods, on the streets that they know. Imagine the type of long-term mental maps we would be creating - mental maps that people could use their whole lives."

Mr. Al Dinaro: "You mean we could change the maps so the the units we deliver to Chicago, let's say, have a digital map of Chicago and the game would take place on this map?"

Mr. Nu Cartoman: "Exactly!"

Dr. Von Morgen: "The first concept you had of 'going inside of countries' is also a worthy one. Certainly, if done properly, maps can provide that feeling. This concept could evolve into a separate product. That would leave room for a game based on a regional map between the world and the city games."

Mr. Nu Cartoman: "Imagine the sense of realism that the children would experience."

Mr. Al Dinaro: "I'm not sure realism is what kids want. Dr. Morgen, would we get a return on our investment? This technology ain't gonna be cheap!"

Dr. Von Morgen: "I would think so. And you can't forget the publicity factor. This would make quite a impression, especially games that are localized to a city or provide the sense of 'opening up' individual countries."

Mr. Al Dinaro: "What about people who make and study maps? What are they called? Aren't they working on more interactive ways of presenting information? Don't they see the potential of the technology? Certainly, they must be conceiving of new ways of presenting information in map form that would dwarf the ideas we have."

Dr. Von Morgen: "You mean 'cartographers.' I don't think you have anything to worry about there. While at one time there was a strong interest by academic cartographers in the process of cartographic communication, that general concern for the map user has disappeared because associated psychophysical empirical research produced few hard results. From what I can tell, maps are now viewed as simply part of a data-base - in a sense, a non-graphical cartography. The results of the empirical work in this area are more difficult to judge and so one simply assumes that it's all leading to something. I have my doubts. They might succeed in helping a few people make maps better, but where does that leave the rest of us."

Mr. Nu Cartoman: "That's the sense I get. The computer has had a big influence on the construction of maps on paper and this data-base view of maps. It seems that computer technology has been used to make map construction easier but not to improve the quantity or quality of the information that we get from maps, and certainly not to improve our mental maps. I think the concept of map as a visual medium is fast disappearing. We can capitalize on that."

Dr. Von Morgen: "The level of computer expertise in cartography is also pretty low. The extent of instruction with computers is simply the use of existing programs that have horrible user-interfaces. One or two semesters of instruction will be wasted just to explain the program before the students are able to create a meaningful map. Of course, the pre-occupation with existing programs is destroying any kind of creativity in the discipline. The students are never challenged to explore the potential of the computer for mapping. And, of course, they are not taught the tools to make such exploration fruitful."

Mr. Nu Cartoman: "I would like to stress one final point. We are considering a whole new way of interacting with maps. The user will be able to move through the map, change the scale and perspective. The user will control what is presented and how and it will all be done intuitively as part of the gaming process. Imagine when these people are presented with a printed map? They'll look at it and say: 'What's this supposed to be - some sort of crude representation of the earth? You mean people used to use these things and thought they were getting some useful information?' Then we'll be sitting there with this technology. The demand for these type of maps will be so great that we'll be able to capitalize on it, perhaps create a spin-off - a whole new company."

Dr. Von Morgan: "Good point! The advantages of this new form of mapping are so great that maps on paper simply can't compete. Most of the rules and practices of traditional map-making will have to be thrown out - they simply won't be valid anymore. People won't want to use maps in the sense that we conceive of them today."

Mr. Al Dinaro: "You mean there might be more money in it in 5 or 10 years? Something really big."

Dr. Von Morgen: "Yes, I believe, something really big."