The space of a videogame hums with potential action. When playing a platformer, I feel the potential to mount a particular ledge, or leap over a ravine. When I play a first-person shooter, I relish the opportunity to take out multiple enemies by shooting a well-placed explosive barrel. When I play a puzzle game, I latch on to chain of possibilities posed by a single state change. Game theorists and game designers have adopted the term "affordances" from ecological psychology to name players’ sensed possibilities for action within game environments (Mateas 2004; Pinchbeck 2009; Linderoth 2010; Yang 2013).
However, speaking of only “affordances” misses something. Affordances are not neutral. They hinge upon the bodily capabilities of a given perceiver. In ecological psychology, the sister term “effectivities” refers to these capabilities (Turvey and Shaw 1979). Game avatars are not created equal, and the perceived possibilities for action in a game (affordances) necessarily depend upon the potentials for bodily action (effectivities) of a given avatar. Naming this reciprocal relationship lets us better understand how videogame space is shaped by the bodily abilities of a player’s in-game player-character. It is a first step toward introducing the rich bank of vocabulary and empirical data around the areas of perception, embodiment, and action that the ecological approach has accumulated since its inception. This bank holds enormous potential for the analysis of visual learning, the conveying of action opportunities, and the relationship between user interface and proxied embodiment (to borrow a term from Swink 2009).
Captured video has played a crucial role in crystalizing my thoughts on this issue, inspiring my search for new vocabularies. In film analysis, still frames are useful because they strip away the dimension of motion, arresting the image so that one can pay closer attention to aspects of framing. In videogame analysis, video captured from play sessions performs a similar stripping away. Once I am no longer in the midst of controlling my avatar, I can better observe my own behaviors. It was only once I started watching footage of captured play that I realized, for instance, that I tend to move back and forth when approaching a large gap, judging the environment and gauging my in-game character’s own effectivities through exactly those forms of exploratory action that have been studied within a lab setting by ecological psychologists (Mark et al. 1999).
A secondary aim of the essay is to offer an alternative way of thinking through the relationship between videogame players and their player-characters, one that does not rely on importing the term identification from film studies into videogame studies. In the mid-2000s, there were robust debates over whether games studies should borrow the concept of “identification” from film theory, or whether the term obscured, rather than clarified, key facets of the player-avatar relationship (Morris 2002; Klevjer 2006; Poster 2007). A strong consensus never emerged—rather, things fell into a sort of armistice, with game studies practitioners begrudgingly using the term, while swearing off most of the particularities film studies had imbued it with (e.g. Shaw 2014).
I find this armistice unsatisfying. Identification—across all of its various definitions, and deployments—has always seemed to presuppose too much psychological interiority to adequately address the basic satisfactions and frustrations of controlling an in-game body. As an alternative framework, I turn in this essay to the concept of pre-reflective self-consciousness, as described by the contemporary phenomenologist Dorotheé Legrand. Legrand characterizes pre-reflective self-consciousness as our basic capability to “experience action and perception as coherent”: to understand the changes in one’s perception as a consequence of bodily movement, without wading into the messy psychological tasks of attribution and individuation(Legrand 2006, 108). I find Legrand’s account of pre-reflective self-consciousness—which Legrand herself insists does “not involve any identification of the subject”—to be a much more apt description of the mechanisms by which we become tethered to in-game characters (Legrand 2006, 92). The player-avatar relationship is built from understanding the loop between bodily action and perceptual response. Less psychological than “identification,” and more sensorimotor, Legrand’s conception of pre-reflective self-consciousness provides a firmer bedrock for thinking through things like the control schemes players use to access their avatar’s bodily abilities (a consistently undertheorized aspect of game design, which I have made a point of emphasizing in the middle portion of this video essay).
“We built our knowledge of movement and of the world,” Maxine Sheets-Johnstone writes, describing our process of acclimating to the environment as infants, “on the basis of having learned our bodies and learned to move ourselves. We accomplished such learning by thinking in movement”(Sheets-Johnstone 2010, 172). Arriving at these ideas has been a process of thinking in movement, which makes a video essay an ideal form for sharing them. This notion of thinking in movement, of learning how to move in our bodies, also deeply influenced by decision to include the voices of multiple narrators. The experience of playing a game is highly personalized, more so than that of watching a film. Although the geometry of a game’s level is the same for all players, no two players will move through it in the same way. Each player will happen upon their own discoveries, make their own mistakes, enact their own micro-narratives of movement (I spawned; I mis-judged my jumping abilities; I died). The process of acclimating to the effectivities of a player-character is predominantly composed of these specific, personalized, and unrepeatable moments, with players asking an implicit question with their controller, and being answered by an onscreen consequence. It seemed wrong to subsume these sorts of moments under the umbrella of a collective “we,” so I opted instead for a chorus of “I”s, each voicing their own moments of inquiry and revelation as they build their knowledge of movement and the world. Eventually, my own vocal performance as an “authoritative” narrator drops out completely, as the visuals become more viscerally proprioceptive, and the remaining chorus echoes Legrand’s insistence that pre-reflective consciousness does not attribute actions to any singular psychological identity.
Klevjer, Rune. 2006. “What Is the Avatar? Fiction and Embodiment in Avatar-Based Singleplayer Computer Games.” Doctoral Thesis, Bergen, Norway: University of Bergen.
Legrand, Dorothée. 2006. “The Bodily Self: The Sensori-Motor Roots of Pre-Reflective Self-Consciousness.” Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences 5(1): 89–118.
Linderoth, Jonas. 2010. “Why Gamers Don’t Learn More: An Ecological Approach to Games as Learning Environments.” Paper presented at DiGRA Nordic Conference 2010: “Experiencing Games: Games, Play, and Players,” August 16–17, 2010, Stockholm, Sweden. http://www.digra.org/dl/db/10343.51199.pdf
Mark, Leonard S., Yang Jiang, Sally Steinbach King, and Janina Paasch. 1999. “The Impact of Visual Exploration on Judgments of Whether a Gap Is Crossable.” Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance 25(1): 287–95.
Norman, Donald A. The Psychology of Everyday Things. New York, NY: Basic Books, 1988.
Pinchbeck, Dan. 2009. “An Affordance Based Model for Gameplay.” Paper presented at DiGRA Conference 2009: “Breaking New Ground: Innovation in Games, Play, Practice, and Theory,” September 1–7, 2009, West London, UK. http://www.digra.org/dl/db/09287.31155.pdf
Poster, Jamie M. 2007. “Looking and Acting in Computer Games: Cinematic ‘Play’ and New Media Interactivity.” Quarterly Review of Film and Video 24(4): 325–229.