Tuesday, June 15, 2010

You are a controller

I'm incredibly psyched about the Kinect (a.k.a. Project Natal), Microsoft's upcoming motion controller for the Xbox 360. Many of its titles do indeed look like updated EyeToy titles, and in my book, that's great---if Sonic Free Riders is basically EyeToy Antigrav with a (finally!) working control scheme, I will be overjoyed.

I loved the EyeToy, even with all the gimmicky minigames. Like any sensible person, I found it incredibly immersive to make my body into a controller, and I was delighted by the total concentration induced by the physical gameplay. It's not unlike the effect of playing Rock Band (music, with its deep evolutionary origins, is a handy shortcut to physicality)---instead of the tunnel-vision concentration of most games, you get a kind of effortless oneness.

Unfortunately, a lot of gamers don't seem to feel that way---the comment sections over at Kotaku and Joystiq are full of whining from people who think all this flailing is the opposite of what games are for. Some of this is simple fat-ass don't-wanna-get-off-the-couch laziness, which is worth what it's worth. Some of this is horror at the idea of looking silly, though for those who complain that the people playing the games look like morons, I'd like to ask them if they think people look less moronic while staring slack-jawed at the TV with a controller in their hands.

But what's most prevalent is the typical North American Male horror of being made aware of their body in any way at all. The list of things that completely freak out typical North American Males includes dancing, being cruised, going to the doctor, and, apparently, motion controllers. What all these things have in common is that they make the body cease to be a tool, to be used as transparently as possible, and make the body instead an object in itself, a thing to be considered and evaluated.

In fact, it might be that part of what's driving gamers' horror at the Kinect (and the Wii before it) is a sense that they're losing an essential aspect of video games ---the mediation of an avatar. For a lot of hardcore gamers, much of the appeal of their entertainment of choice is the change to get out of yourself. You get out of your living room and into another, better art-designed world. You get out of your daily grind and into a bunch of challenging yet surmountable tasks. And maybe most exciting for those already deeply alienated from their bodies, you get out of your own meatsack and into a body vastly more responsive, agile, and capable. That sitting on the couch playing games makes your own body even less like that of your digital avatar is a classic irony of addiction.

As Douglas Copeland's Microserfs so ably dissected, much modern tech culture is built upon a foundation of body-horror, and a desperate need for body-escape. Video games ably meet this need, offering the player the chance to become an NFL star, a beefy marine, or a sexy babe gunfighter (and really, what guy hasn't wanted to be in the body of a hot chick, if only so they could play with their own boobs?). But if your body is the controller, then your body has to be subjected to the same sort of stress-testing and evaluation that every new gaming system is subjected to---it's like being cruised by the cattiest of queens! No wonder so many gamers look on motion control with a desperate, frozen sneer, hoping no one dares to glance below their necks.

1 comment:

Ed Howard said...

While there's surely a lot of truth to the idea that motion controllers subvert the sense of avatar identification that gamers like, I think much of the aversion to motion controllers is much simpler and less psychological. As you said yourself in the second paragraph, a lot of the stuff that's been developed for motion/body controls so far has been intolerably gimmicky.

And a lot of the rest has consisted of poor substitutions for real activities: I'd rather go to the driving range than play Wii Golf, because motion controllers, so far anyway, only approximate real activities, in ways that are pretty unsatisfying on the whole. In comparison, traditional video game controls have less relationship to reality, and therefore don't really compete with reality in the same way. I'm not the biggest gamer, but the best games I've played are about storytelling, and exploring the game's world, and discovery, and puzzle-solving. Motion controls seem to be about simulating physical activity, in which case you might as well just go be physically active instead of playing at it in your living room.