Posted by: Chris | July 4, 2010

Pop Psychology and Video Games

Perhaps to better Kinect connect with the average Wired reader, Jonah Lehrer ventures out of his comfort zone.  He argues that motion control “interfaces actually do something much more powerful: By involving our limbs in the on-screen action, the Wii and Kinect make video games much more emotional… [because] all of our mental feelings actually begin in the body. Although our emotions feel ephemeral, they are rooted in the movements of our muscles and the palpitations of our flesh.”

However, the post falls apart to two counts.  More superficially, Jonah Lehrer quite obviously has limited familiarity with the interfaces he praises, which negates his ability to say anything meaningful about them.  For example:

Let’s say we are playing Super Mario Galaxy 2 on the Wii. Unlike other game consoles, which leave us stranded on the couch, the Wii actually makes us move. If we want to kill off the Goomba, we need to run around, twirl the remote, and, once we’ve maneuvered close to the evil character, jump on top of him. We are no longer just twiddling our thumbs.In order to prepare for all this combat, the brain automatically triggers a wave of changes in our “physical viscera,” such as quickening our pulses, flooding our bloodstream with adrenaline, and contracting our intestines. While even stationary entertainment can lead to corporeal changes – that’s why the pulse quickens when watching a Hitchcock movie – the physical activity involved in fighting off the Goomba, exaggerates these effects, because our active muscles need oxygenated blood. Although we might look a little foolish, the game has managed to excite our flesh, and that means our emotions aren’t far behind.

Except we are still just twiddling our thumbs.  The movements he described in SMG2 actually involve no motion control whatsoever, undermining all the grand extrapolations that follow.  Sure, this is picayune, but the Galaxy games have been universally praised for their minimal use of motion control and others who have tried to go further have fallen flat on their faces and diminished, not amplified as Lehrer postulates, the immersive effect.  The Wii’s technology is far cruder than what Lehrer assumes it to be and there is no way it creates the effects he envisions any better than a normal game controller.  The Kinect, at first glance, might seem to be a step towards producing Lehrer’s imagined neurological effects, but remember, one of the primary criticisms of the device is its lack of physical feedback and the artificiality of one’s involvement.

More substantively, I think Lehrer pushes his thesis too far.  The physical effects his sources cite as precursors for an emotional response (goosebumps, tears, tightening of the throat) are all simply subrational reactions to sensory input of any sort.  They do not need tactile triggers to operate; indeed, I think I have experience all of the above far more regularly watching movies or TV (probably the most passive media imaginable).  The physical responses that presage an emotional response seem completely disconnected from any physical activity, especially those as primitive as our current motion sensor interfaces.

Its a shame that Lehrer was more ambitious than informed, because there is something about the viscerality of games which few other media can replicate.  I have tried to put my finger on in, with minimal luck, but it is certainly tied into the idea of resonance that Tom Bissel discusses and the Super Mario Galaxies exemplifies.*  Moreover, motion control certainly influences and enhances this effect.  Contrary to some people, like Yahtzee, who think Mario’s little spin should be a button press, I really like waggling the Wii Remote to elicit Mario’s little spin.  There is something delightfully visceral about it that I cannot explain, but also pops up in some other games that similarly use minimalist motion controls, like Sonic homing attack in the Wii Sonic games.  It’s a shame, in a way, had Lehrer spent more time experimenting with the game he cited and less time poking around for a grand theory to peddle, I suspect he would have had some genuinely interesting things to say.  Here’s to hoping Lehrer ventures away from trolling PubMed abstracts again to give the subject another, perhaps humbler, look.

*This is an absolute sidenote, but seriously, the Iwata Asks interviews are all really interesting, full of nuggets about development history and design philosophy at Nintendo, which is especially unusual given the company’s tendency towards privacy on such matters.  I went on a long diversion while writing this post read up on the genesis of SMG and SMG2’s music.  It was quite good.  For example:

Before working on Super Mario Galaxy, I had already been experimenting with getting sound effects to play in sync with the background music automatically.For instance, in Wind Waker2, a sound effect will ring in sync with the music when you hit an enemy, and in Jungle Beat, the sound is played in sync with the music every time you jump. For this game, we wanted to take that system a step further; we experimented to find a way to make that system work with streamed music.And when we got a hold of the raw orchestra data and put it into the game, we thought “This is going to work!” … This gets a little technical; the game synchronizes MIDI3 data with the streaming data, and this is used to process the sound effects at the right time. When Mario shoots off from the Star Ring, for example, harp music plays as a sound effect. If you listen carefully, this harp will sound in perfect timing with the background music. This kind of technique rarely gets noticed however.


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