At a pub, among friends, a wave of nausea has hit me. There is no pain as such, but rarely has the word discomfort been so appropriate. It’s loud here, all of a sudden, and everyone is standing too close. I grow warm, begin to sweat, my stomach and its assorted, associated tubes feel leaden inside me. My mood drops. While I’m not holding back tears, I could cry if I tried. I do not want to be touched. Between my gut and my mouth there’s a rising sensation. People are fond of endowing aspects of humanity with the function of being ‘that which separates us from the animals’. One such aspect is discretion, sourced from a sensitivity to our bodily functions. We keep our orifices under control, expelling when and where it is appropriate to do so. But my body is malfunctioning, something is not right, I begin to wonder if I trust it to maintain itself. To puke, to piss, to shit, at this time? In this place? Mortifying. And so my focus drops inward, I monitor myself, ready to make for the bathroom, or outside. I grow quiet. Those around me sense something is wrong. My rebellious body takes over my life.
In Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being the character Tereza travels to Prague to meet Tomas and they begin a love affair that will join them for the rest of their lives. When she arrives at Tomas’ flat, Tereza has forgotten to eat and after their love-making, she falls ill. Embarrassed by her rumbling stomach, Tereza feels ‘terrible standing there in front of Tomas listening to her belly speak out’. It is her body’s malfunctioning, the way it loudly makes itself known, that creates her discomfort; this is not how a romantic rendezvous is supposed to go. According to Kundera, ‘Tereza was therefore born of a situation which brutally reveals the irreconcilable duality of body and soul, that fundamental human experience’. Her purpose, for her writer, is to underline the opposition between our physical selves and our inner consciousness. ‘A long time ago,’ Kundera writes, ‘man would listen in amazement to the sound of regular beats in his chest, never suspecting what they were… The body was a cage, and inside that cage was something which looked, listened, feared, thought and marvelled; that something, that remainder left over after the body had been accounted for, was the soul’. Such romantic sensibilities have become unfashionable as the progress of scientific discovery takes the shine off our imaginary interiors. We know that the heart pumps blood, lungs take in oxygen, and that thoughts and feelings are products of the brain and hormonal changes. We are a body, modernity insists, in which complex electrical, chemical and biological processes create the reactions we mistake for a soul.
This is the ‘unbearable lightness’ of Kundera’s title, the prospect of an existence without meaning, of being reduced to redundant, fleshy mechanisms. For me, the sentence with which Kundera closes this chapter is one of the great images in modern literature:
‘But just make someone who has fallen in love listen to his stomach rumble, and the unity of body and soul, that lyrical illusion of the age of science, instantly fades away’.
Every time I read it I fall for the juxtaposing of that lofty ideal of falling in love with the universal simplicity of the rumbling stomach. Between these two experiences stretches such a wide gulf, on one side the extraordinary and on the other the mundane, that it’s hard to reconcile them in one being. Humanity simultaneously reaches such heights and yet remains grounded, and in this duality of experience we find the separation between who we are and what we are.
On the whole, we move through our lives ignoring our body. When the body malfunctions or breaks from the norm through sickness, pain, itching, twitching, and so on, though, it draws attention to itself. At that pub just such an awareness of my physicality consumed me; I was told by friends that I didn’t seem myself. This me, this Jim whose overwhelming focus is on the body, is not me. So the malfunctioning body draws attention not just to itself but also to the separation between me and it. The revelation is a direct result of the dysfunction, just like making ‘someone who has fallen in love listen to his stomach rumble’.
We often talk about ‘immersion’ in videogames, but I wonder if we shouldn’t instead talk about ‘habitation’. More than any other art form games offer the opportunity for those experiencing them to inhabit their space, the aim being that we displace ourselves into the game through the screen and the controller, which satisfy our mental and physical connections respectively. Consider that term – ‘controller’. It’s become so ingrained in our vocabulary that we hardly notice it, but if you consider the meaning of the word in relation to what we’re talking about, it is perhaps revealing. Let’s use God of War as an example. Using the little plastic device with the buttons I take control of this in-game body, making it an extension of my own. Kratos is not Kratos, he is Jim in Kratos’ body, interacting with Kratos’ world using Jim’s choices, which are communicated via Jim’s body, down through the buttons, along the wire and into the game world where they are translated from a button push into a jump, a dash, a stab. My control over Kratos is a direct extension of my control over my own body. I may be railroaded into playing the game in a certain way, progressing the story in a linear direction, but without Jim there is no Kratos, no story, no game, just a blank screen or perhaps an empty avatar that stands there panting but unable to progress.
If I am affiliated with this Kratos body, affecting it within its world, then the reverse must be true – playing the game God of War affects and modifies the identity known as Jim. In the playing circumstance I become a sort of Kratos/Jim hybrid, by taking control of Kratos I add a third element to my physical/inner self dichotomy. Now there’s a physical/inner/virtual element to my self, all interconnected and interacting with one another moment by moment. I’ve just mentioned that Kratos wouldn’t get far without me, but neither would I get anywhere in God of War without him. My decisions are reactions to his immediate surroundings and my actions are filtered through his body.
Chatting to my girlfriend about the premise of this article, she tells me that she is reminded of the way I become absorbed by online sessions of Battlefield 3: the way I’ll swear at other players who cannot hear me, flinch at nearby explosions that put dents in my health bar, wince at suppressive fire that pummels my cover and rains chips of concrete from above. One can often spot an inexperienced gamer by the exaggerated full-body reactions to in-game experiences, the stereotypical example being an attempt to drive with the controller in a racing game, turning it in the direction of the corner. My Battlefield reactions are more subdued, but there’s no doubt that even after all these years of FPS gaming something in the Battlefield experience gets me reacting as though I were inhabiting the onscreen warzone. I know the bullets zipping past pose me no harm but somehow the ramifications of them hitting stand in for any genuine danger.
I’ve argued that we are made uniquely aware of our bodies when they malfunction, and that such dysfunction is therefore revealing of our true situation. We can make a parallel argument for a dysfunctional control scheme, one which is clumsy, unresponsive or just plain broken. Crappy controls shove a spanner in the works preventing the smooth interaction of our inner selves with our virtual selves, disrupting our ability to immerse, to inhabit the avatar. They thus draw attention to the way this relationship is constructed, to the underlying structure of the inner/physical/virtual interaction, just as Tereza’s rumbling stomach and my pub nausea interrupt our immersion within our own bodies. Far more than any effective control scheme, it is the defective ones that reveal wider truths about the way we interact with ourselves and our games. Wonderful as both God of War and Battlefield are, their immersive qualities belie what’s really going on when I play them. At times I forget the process of actions and reactions that pass back and forth between my inner/physical/virtual selves to perform the function of playing. Only when this process is interrupted by a pass I never played in FIFA, or trouble selecting a unit in Civilization, or any number of other annoying malfunctions, am I reminded of the disunity within my playing identity.
I’m not advocating poorly made games any more than I’m advocating feeling like there’s an imminent risk of publically shitting yourself; neither is something to aspire to. But I am saying that there’s an inherent value in having a good prod around into the workings of dissatisfaction because in doing so we may well reveal a truth that satisfaction obfuscates. When we are satisfied we hardly question the structures that support our experiences, just as we barely notice the body until it rebels. In the upsets, there is revelation.
And if you don’t much like that conclusion, I’m also suggesting that bad games can legitimately be compared to diarrhoea. That’s worthwhile enough, right?