This is the third post of a five part series that examines the way we experience games and compares these experiences to the traditional concepts of “real” and “virtual.” Here are links to part 1 and 2.
Player interactions with videogame input devices (keyboard, controller, etc,) are often treated superficially in both game studies and game design discussions, and from my experience, players only concern themselves with input devices in terms of optimizing configuration and ergonomics to enhance in-game performance, but there is a more complex and oft overlooked relationship between players and input devices that deserves further exploration. Player interaction with input devices provides the most concrete stimulus to our sense of touch, and this seems fairly obvious, but it is a far more layered interaction than it appears to be. What begins as awkward maneuvering and a few clumsy button presses becomes a seemingly intuitive, immediate extension of the player’s body that induces a sense of proprioception and telepresence associated with the player’s avatar.
When players begin to play a game they’re not familiar with, the first thing they are likely to do is run around to get a feel for maneuvering their avatar, then they test different buttons to figure out what actions are mapped to what buttons, or they look up the configuration in the game’s manual and then test out the actions. All in all, the process seems very unnatural as it involves deliberately thinking about the actions of our hands, the configuration of the input device, and the actions on screen. At this stage of game play, the input device is clearly mediating between the player’s actions and the actions of the avatar, which leads us to distinguish between our body’s real movements and the controller-mediated, digitally rendered movements on screen, but as players become proficient, the input device ceases to be a border separating player input and avatar action. Instead of thinking, “I’ve got to press A to jump,” players are able to act without thinking, and their avatar responds as if it were an extension of their body. What was once an action configured to a specific button becomes movement that occurs seemingly at will; the input device fades from cognizance as players enter a flow experience that does not require language-based thought. It is a trance like stage that some would call “second-nature” or “being in the zone.” I’m sure many of you, my dear readers, have experienced this while cranking out solos in Rock Band or delivering a perfectly timed smash attack in Super Smash Bros. At times, the immediacy of our own actions leaves our conscious selves bewildered. On several occasions, I’ve said and heard others say, “I don’t even know how I did that” after accomplishing an impressive feat of game play.
I attribute the phenomenon of faster-than-consciousness player proficiency to the way players incorporate the feel of the input device, the distance and sensitivity of the buttons, the configurations and the respective actions they’re mapped to, and the physics of the game into their virtual models of the world. Of course, players don’t necessarily know they are doing this, and this incorporation is hardly conceptualized as such, but that doesn’t stop our minds from recognizing patterns in the way in-game objects act and react. These patterns become expectations of how the game “world” works, and this in turn allows players to create a model of the game world in their minds. This model is not separate from our virtual model of the “real” world. Rather, it is a subset of our overall model because we experience it in the same way we experience everything else, as per my first post of this series. However, because videogames are computer programs governed by lines of code, compilers, physics engines, etc, they do function differently than the physical world. They are different than other parts of our virtual model of “reality,” but they are not separate from “reality.”
Mental game “world” models are built from both linguistic and pre-linguistic understanding. In terms of linguistic understanding, players are able to describe strategies and techniques. They can describe their actions and the reactions of the game world, but the split-second decisions that occur during flow experience are much harder to describe, and this is because they are not thought out but rather felt out. Proficient players develop certain expectations of the game world that allow them to sense how far and how fast an avatar will move, jump, strike, fall. They can learn to alter their actions to compensate for circumstance in the game world, and for the most part, they don’t have to think about their actions. For proficient players, game play becomes a reflex, and their avatars become extensions of their bodies complete with proprioception and a sense of telepresence. Proprioception is the sense of the relative position of neighboring parts of the body and of the strength and effort being employed in movement. Telepresence refers to a set of technologies that allow a person to feel as if they were present, to give the appearance that they were present, or to have an effect at a place other than their true location (got it off wikipedia cus I’m lazy). If you think this is far-fetched now, you’re probably going to question my sanity by the end of this post. But you shouldn’t think I’m crazy because I’m not the only one who’s noticed and tried to describe this phenomenon in similar terms. Some scholars have attributed gameplay’s ability to induce proprioception and telepresence to a form of affect. I’m no affect expert, and I’m still feeling lazy, so check out this quote:
“This analytical perspective works to reconfigure the Cartesian mind-body dualism, to force open the lacuna between events that are registered by the organic sensory technologies of the body and the points at which action is required and occurs. Massumi calls this gap the ‘missing half second’ (2002, p.28) where the implication is a recursive physiological ordering; a latency or ‘lag’ between ‘the beginning of a bodily event and its completion in an outwardly directed, active expression’ (Massumi, 2002, p.29). The half-second is occupied with the autonomic reactions of the body, previous to, or alongside, conscious application and exists ‘between brain and finger but prior to action and expression’ (ibid). Cognitive function, that includes semiotic meaning making in Massumi’s argument, does not have a monopoly on the determination of human action (Shinkle, 2005). The half second is an eternity for FPS gamers who have a particular name for the reactions of the body that can occur during game play that are not always cognitive and intentional – the twitch.” (Moore 2011).
What this quote suggests is that players can develop a preconscious connection to their avatars that is similar to the preconscious connection between brain and finger that precedes action and expression. At this stage of game play, players overlook their interaction with input devices. Their sense of touch transcends the plastic buttons of the controller or keyboard and extends onto the digital space displayed on the screen. Through this extension of the senses, players can feel videogames, and if you disagree, dear reader, I would love to hear your explanation for how professional StarCraft players can make 400 actions per minute (APM), or how Super Smash Bros pros can make around 200 APM (the difference in genre accounts for the discrepancy, but both figures are impressive in their own rights). Here’s another quote to back me up:
“The gamers’ ‘twitch’, a potential product of this translation, has also been equated to the muscle memory of the trained dancer, or that of the surgeon. Swalwell (2008, p.78) compares the finger movements of the gamer to the intuitive movements of the hand of the touch typist, where the interface does not require the application of conscious intention or thought.” (Moore 2011).
The “twitch” is a term used to describe action that bypasses conscious thought. It is precise, immediate, and it makes the mediation between actor, interface, and action undetectable to the human mind; the action occurs before the actor is consciously aware of it.
Ok, so my next point is kind of even crazier, for real.
If we analyze the way our bodies move, we can break down the process into a few phases. For example, let’s say you want to eat some cake. The first thing that happens is that your brain registers that it wants to move the muscles in your arm, but to activate these muscles, the brain must first send a message from the cerebral cortex. This message travels down the spinal chord, and is then broken down and relayed to the motor neurons. The message from the cerebral cortex to the spinal chord is not necessarily the same as the message(s) sent from the spinal chord to the motor neurons. The difference is that each motor neuron is directed to make their corresponding muscle contract in a specific way. This means that the original message is split into separate messages that go out to a multitude of motor neurons, and this occurs because even the simplest movement requires the activation of several muscle groups, supposedly, I don’t know. I’m not a scientist. But ok, so the cerebral cortex sends signals to the spinal cord, and from here, signals are sent to the motor neurons, and these motor neurons allow the agonist muscles to contract concentrically, the antagonist muscles contract eccentrically, and the synergistic muscles to stabilize the movement. After a few messages have gone through this system, you’ve picked up a fork; you’re several steps closer to having some delicious cake. This is some complicated stuff considering that we can do it without really thinking. It’s hardly the immediate connection between will and movement that we think we witness every time we decide to move. In “reality,” the nervous system has several levels of mediation between mind and movement, and this mediation is similar to the mediation provided by input devices for videogame consoles and PCs. In a weird way, our nervous system is like an input device, and our bodies are like avatars. Yes, I’m really going to argue this because it makes sense (to me). We perceive an immediacy between thought and action when carrying out daily activities because we are proficient at maneuvering our bodies, like certain players are proficient at maneuvering in-game avatars, but if we look at how toddlers learn to master gross and fine motor skills, or the way trauma victims have to re-learn how to walk, we can see that mastery of the body is far from intuitive. Rather, it is a process of trial and error that reminds me of a noob picking up a first person shooter for the first time, running into walls while aiming at the floor. We have to learn the configuration of our bodies like a player learns the configuration of a new game. Our bodies are like tools or vehicles that we identify with and embody, but that don’t encompass our whole identity. They are our mandatory avatars.
OK, I can’t handle this post anymore. I’m going to have to come back to it when I arrange my thoughts a little better. I’ll probably be editing it sometime this weekend, but I would love feedback on what I have so far. Some of the other issues I wanted to further develop the issue of embodiment and identity: to what extent do we identify with our bodies. Are our bodies our identity? Ultimately, what I want to demonstrate is that although we can’t feel digital objects with any part of our bodies, there is a distinct way in which we do feel videogames, and this way of feeling games is similar to the way we feel our bodies and establish a sense of presence and identity in the “real” world. I believe that conceptualizing the haptic facet of our experience with games as an extension of self, as opposed to a disembodiment, will allow us to further bridge the erroneous dichotomy of virtual and real that dominates both academic and layperson discussions about games.
TL;DR. Humans have a sense of proproception that allows them to feel the relative position of their body parts and the amount of effort it will take to make certain movements. This sense of proprioception can encompass in-game avatars when the player becomes proficient in any game. We can incorporate avatars into our sense of presence and propriception, effectively making them extensions of our bodies.
this sheds some light on our relationship with out bodies. What seems like an instant connection between will and action is actually the result of learning the configuration of our bodies and extensive practice. We become proficient at manipulating our bodies like some players are proficient at manipulating in game avatars. This proficiency, the seeming immediacy between thought and action, is not a given. It is very much learned. In a crazy way ( i know this sounds crazy) our bodies are our avatars in the real world.