Know Thyself 2


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?


Jim Ralph

About Jim Ralph

Jim Ralph currently resides in sunny Winchester, England. He'd love to hear from you, personally, with any thoughts on his writing or lucrative job offers.

  • Matthew Schanuel

    I’ve been mean­ing to respond to this for a while, but haven’t yet found the time until now.

    I think this is real­ly inter­est­ing; con­trols are a very impor­tant mech­a­nism by which video game expe­ri­ences are embod­ied, I think that’s absolute­ly right. It recalls some of my favorite moments in games… I love when a game express­es a break­down of my character’s body by lim­it­ing my con­trol of the avatar, by actu­al­ly chang­ing up the way my con­trol scheme inter­acts with the game. When my avatar is sore­ly wound­ed, and I am strug­gling to walk, or when I can­not con­trol move­ment, only the trig­ger of my gun, because my avatar is uncon­cerned with move­ment or just doing it auto­mat­i­cal­ly — moments like that are some of the big rea­sons I play video games, and are some of the most star­tling ways of uti­liz­ing the inter­face for great effect. Good arti­cle.

    • T. Dawson

      Such moments can also have the oppo­site effect, though, par­tic­u­lar­ly the “strug­gling to walk” moments you men­tion. It can bring you total­ly out of the expe­ri­ence if done badly — usu­al­ly by mak­ing the avatar TOO slow — because the reduced capa­bil­i­ty of your char­ac­ter can be frus­trat­ing. Think back to the early stage of AC:Revelations, when Ezio is shuf­fling around wound­ed and unable to run until you find some med­i­cine. Perhaps it was immer­sive for the first ten sec­onds or so, but then it almost imme­di­ate­ly begins to chafe and you find your­self mut­ter­ing at Ezio to hurry the hell up.

      It can also be total­ly incon­gru­ous with what we already know of a char­ac­ter. Witnes ol’ Bullet-Sponge Shepard at the very end of ME3; stag­ger­ing at an AGONISINGLY slow pace and look­ing like death, where only ten min­utes before he was able to shrug off direct RPG hits, bone-shatteringly hard punch­es from enor­mous crea­tures, pun­ish­ing biotic attacks and sniper bul­lets with­out suf­fer­ing any loss of func­tion, even when his shields were down. Then, when the devel­op­ers felt they need­ed to add some dra­mat­ic ten­sion, all of a sud­den he’s mov­ing like a Romero zom­bie on a bad day. The whole, slow sequence feels extreme­ly forced and like a cheap attempt to show the play­er how seri­ous the sit­u­a­tion has got­ten. Except that this is the third part of an epic tril­o­gy, the cli­max of a con­tin­u­al slow-building sense of ten­sion and every play­er is already well aware of the scale of the sit­u­a­tion. To get to that point we’d just fought through a bombed-out and wartorn London for cry­ing out loud, so for the dev team to throw every­thing into slow-motion as if we need­ed remind­ing that the stakes are high was entire­ly unnec­es­sary. Rather than invest­ing us in the ten­sion of the moment, the stag­ger­ing Shepard instead serves to frus­trate the play­er.