Simon Penny discusses a specific kind of physical embodiment, having to do with corporeal coupling to simulation devices and videogame characters. Reading his call to consider the implications of “embodied involvement,” I began to think personally about a more general kind of presencing — with this volume, with criticism, and with new media criticism.
As someone who spent many years as a student of literature and critical theory, I enjoyed the privilege of studying with respected deconstructionists Peggy Kamuf, Jonathan Culler, and Samuel Weber. In fact, I presented one of the first papers I wrote on digital media at a conference where Jacques Derrida was the principal respondent. I remember him being especially kind, not just as Prof. Derrida, but also as Jacques Derrida comme tel, sharing Thai food with us later in Hollywood. I remember learning that Derrida avoided fried foods, and listening to him try to make sense of the menu. I found him much kinder, much more human than many of my own mentors. It may have been my most important philosophy course, there among the glass noodles and red curry.
My own “embodiment” or psychosomatic interaction with this kind of game and interactive criticism seems to have much to do with my own institutionalized training. Here Derrida’s own split-page, textually-embodied criticism comes to my mind especially. First Person, I realized, appears exactly 30 years after the first publication of Glas, a split-page, non-linear work that Jay Bolter says “challenges a reader to find a path through it.” I remembered reading Geoffrey Bennington’s tissued text on Derrida, Circonfession, with Derrida’s split-page commentary and elegy to his mother. I remember reading this book — not just having read it, but reading it, in the present progressive, my embodied posture on the couch, in the apartment, and all the vectors of emotion that transected me at the time, a time when I was myself split between critical theory and interactive media, academe and profession, linear and interactive.
So having traversed my personal embodiment with Derrida’s Glas and his glass noodles, I find myself here, in First Person in the first person, trying to make sense of what happens when simulation becomes critical, and trying to make sense of it in the sinewy suspensions of First Person.
What does it mean for simulation to become critical? In Penny’s conception, it relates to how criticism becomes embodied, how it encompasses and accounts for physical interactions with a work. Penny rightly points out that if embodied involvement in military simulations trains soldiering, then embodied involvement in desktop shooter games must also train something. Another way to frame this idea is like this: if we want to claim — as I do — that games can teach, inspire, or politick, then we must admit that games may also incite violence. Penny suggests that embodied action in simulations and games creates “nonillusory experiences” and collapses the “gap between `representation’ and `enactment.'” These are convincing statements. But when Penny draws conclusions like, “When children play `first-person shooters,’ they develop skills of marksmanship,” I find myself asking the obvious question, which Penny asks but does not answer, what do they do with these skills?
In his riposte to Penny’s article, Jan Van Looy offers catharsis as one possible answer: players safely discharge aggression in games. Penny hints, but does not say unequivocally, that the player has choices about what they do with their learned, embodied behavior: “There is the possibility that such behaviors might be expressed in situations which resemble the visual context or emotional tenor of the gameplay…. it is hard to escape the conclusion that … first person shooters actively contribute to an increase in gun violence among kids.” or, “It is the ongoing interactions between these representations and the embodied behavior of the user that makes such images more than images.” What is missing, in short, is the First Person, the I that would interact.
To be fair, Penny is not writing about a solution, but rather a problem. He calls for “the theoretical and aesthetic study of embodied interaction.” But it is curious that Penny offers no individuated examples in his piece, save one I, the person of Simon Penny himself describing his own encounter with the art installation Kan Xuan. And it is here that I get the best glimpse at how critical simulation works best, again in the first person. Van Looy points out that some elements of simulations transfer out of game and some do not; I would go further and say that some elements of simulations transfer for some people, or if we can go even further, some elements of simulations transfer for this person in this way. I am happy that Van Looy is not at risk to kill people in the real world after killing virtual people in games, and I should like to think that I feel this way about myself. However, as Gerard Jones argues, we need to learn how to help players (viewers, readers…) channel that violent aggression into productive aggression.
Jones shows convincingly that the deadly, dangerous, or merely improprietous uses of media aggression almost always have to do with kids’ individual circumstances, and how they are managed or mismanaged.
And even though Penny intends “embodiment” to refer specifically to physical presence in simulations, I am not personally interested in extracting pure corporal action from gameplay for analysis. This framing is partly, but not entirely a somatic action. In his piece in the volume, my friend and collaborator Gonzalo Frasca offers a slightly different example of simulation that further clarifies things for me.
A virtual pet, such as a Tamagotchi, is not about description or action, but rather about how it conducts itself in relationship with the player and the environment (behavior). In temporal terms, narrative is about what already happened while simulation is about what could happen.
The subjunctivity in Frasca’s commentary is important; he argues that the “potential of simulation is not as a conveyor of values, but as a way to explore the mechanics of dynamic systems.” Frasca goes on to argue for a videogame version of Augusto Boal’s Theater of the Oppressed, which offers the player opportunities to think critically about the play’s representations. What’s happening here is that individual players are getting the opportunity to frame their own encounters.
Despite the hopes of the military-industrial complexes, simulations are not objective. I have suggested a broad definition of simulation, one that may be helpful in furthering this critical project.
A simulation is the gap between the rule-based representation of a source system and a user’s subjectivity.
As I have argued here and elsewhere, simulations are subjective systems that create crisis in their players. In the context of the definition I just cited, I argued that criticism is a process of working through the crisis that the “simulation gap” creates. This is an individuated process of making sense of how embodied representations — and here I understand the term to entail combinations of actual and potential somatic responses — affect individual players: Penny performed such an act on Kan Xuan. In her article, Phoebe Sengers suggests a similar process at work in Socially Situated AI — “an agent designed for a physical, cultural, and social environment.” If first person shooters do develop skills of marksmanship, the question to ask of them shooters is what players (parents, teachers, critics, etc.) do with those skills, and how we as players (parents, teachers, critics, etc.) contribute to those choices. The possibility space of the game exceeds the game and spills into the world. It is here that violence becomes possible, but also ideology, learning, emotion. This is a space of crisis, a place where the player admits and questions his own assumptions about representations in the game and in the world, as corporal, cognitive, and evaluative processes. It is not a clean, comfortable place.
Warren Spector tells a story apropos of this topic, and again a personal story, about his wife’s reactions to playing Deus Ex.
7 The game is famous for offering multiple solutions to any problem, including but not limited to combat. When the player does choose to fight, the representations are ghastly; Spector talks about wanting Deus Ex to be a game capable of creating repulsion. When his wife saw the results of shooting at dogs — a scene of thrashing, wailing, bloody repugnance — she put the controller down, and announced that she couldn’t continue. This, in Spector’s eyes, was a success, not a failing of the game. “Neither art nor games can change reality,” says Frasca in his article, “but I do believe that they can encourage people to question it and to envision possible changes.”
When Gonzalo and I designed The Howard Dean for Iowa Game last year — what became the first officially endorsed US Presidential candidate game — we hoped to create a simulation gap that would engender critical thought on the part of the player.
We have been criticized for the decision not to represent political policy in the game, but the project’s goal as commissioned by the campaign was to motivate existing supporters to participate in grassroots action by showing them its process and its power. Players placed virtual supporters on a map of Iowa and played three simple grassroots outreach projects to make their virtual supporters more effective.
The game’s success among supporters came from its ability to create an embodied experience of outreach, something that no other campaign communication ever did. In another prexy election game I am designing (but still sworn to secrecy about), I find that my main design strategy centers around how I can create these simulation gaps, these spaces of inquiry that open up during and after the game is played. Embodied experience must not be limited to the inevitability of raising a gun; or, as the example of Deus Ex illustrates, perhaps embodied experience can also incite the inevitability of not raising a gun.
Responding to Penny’s piece, Katherine Hayles (who, perhaps incidentally, perhaps not, was my dissertation chair) suggests the notion of “cognitive entailments” for the absorption of assumptions “through physical actions rather than conscious reflection”; but Penny writes in his response that he favors “a new more holistic conception of `embodied mentality’ where physical enactments are not thought of as being separate from the cognitive flow of the user.” Said otherwise, embodied interactions with simulations couple and decouple from other physical and cognitive processes. The nuances of in-game vs. in-world physical enactments are not simply analogous. In the case of a shooter, the connectedness of physical enactments seems easy to map, but clearly there’s much more to physical embodiment than merely stimulating and rousing muscle memories.
For example, violence isn’t the only kind of subjective activity games can engender. Recently, Ben Sawyer and I designed a suite of educational games to teach telecommunications technology concepts to 8 – 12 year olds.
We were recently struck by how much of the design process was bound up in anticipating how our representations of the concepts we wanted to teach would become fungible in classroom-extension and real-world usage scenarios. Because we were consciously binding the game design to a set of potential responses to its core concepts, part of the design process entailed mapping the gaps between the game’s representation of the concepts we wanted to impart, and the kids’ application of these concepts. This kind of design strategy forced us to think about individual players and teachers, and of course to involve them in the process.
This promise and threat of embodied behavior in interactive representations leads me back to my memories of Derrida, and the inability to distinguish a promise from its opposite, a threat. For the player to be able to put down the controller — or the gun — she must have the option of not putting it down — but she must also recognize that choice as such. Put even more simply, critical simulation is a process that takes place, necessarily, in individual players, and is only usefully expressed as such, in the first person.