Science explains why you’re always getting lost in Los Santos

I’m generally pretty good with maps. Yet here’s a situation that happens to me frequently. I’ll be playing a little Shin Megami Tensei IV, doing some urban excavation in ruined Tokyo, when the screen cuts to a showdown with imps. Afterward, I’ll check the map and then take off in the wrong direction, ending up back where I started. It’s frustrating, no doubt.

A geographer at the University of Oregon has been looking into exactly what confuses us about maps, and game designers should take note. The first stumbling block comes when we shift perspective from first-person to bird’s-eye-view, reorienting the environment in front of us into a top-down view. This is an inherent skill. Either you have it or you don’t. Not much you can do about that. 

But games could really pick up the slack with the second trouble spot. It seems people have all kinds of problems determining which direction is up, so to speak. This requires us to mentally rotate the map in the direction we are facing, so that walking forward takes us in the direction we want to go. When I’m compensating for this in real-life, I simply rotate the map. But in games, the screen is rather heavy. How about a tablet app?

This explains why waypoints have become so popular with huge worlds. It’s a lot easier to follow a line than read a map. But the trouble with waypoints is that by simply following a line we never become familiar with the environments, reducing the beauty and vastness of, say, Los Santos to a game of connect-the-dots. That is to say, hey developers, we need better maps.