Just because a game is mindless doesn't mean it's without merit, says Brendan.
By Brendan Keogh on July 16, 2013 at 11:30 am
You know what I love? Videogames that don’t make me think. Videogames that aren’t about sparking some kind of intellectual musing on life, the universe, or everything. I love the videogames with more base goals. The videogames that want me to feel something. A gut reaction. A sensation. Maybe a sense of anxiety or a sudden rush of adrenaline.
Of course, as a critic, I do also love those games that are about ‘something’, but as a medium that demands the active involvement of so much of our bodies, I’ll always have a soft spot for those videogames that simply try to invoke some kind of bodily sensation.
In academic writing around videogames, there are numerous articles and books interested in drawing parallels between videogames and theme parks. Most commonly, these articles are interested in the similarities between the two in regards to using environmental storytelling and worldbuilding techniques to give a sense of place and to direct the player/visitor while they feel like they are choosing where to go.
After heading to Warner Bros. Movie World on the Gold Coast this past week, however, I’ve realised I’m much more interested in how both theme parks and videogames focus on and celebrate bodily sensation.
It has been a decade since I last went on a roller coaster, and I had completely lost my appreciation for them. But standing in a 40-minute queue for the 60-second roller coaster that is the Superman Escape, it all came back. That slowly creeping sense of dread as you suddenly realise you have somehow shuffled towards the start of the line. The way your gut drops as this flimsy little vehicle shoots from stationary to over 100km/h almost instantaneously. The fluctuating gravitational pull pushing you down into your flesh one second then leaving you suspended in midair the next. The flimsy, wobbly feeling in your legs as you step out of the car and try to navigate around the overstocked souvenir store. The buzzing, hyper-alertness that comes with a sudden spike of adrenaline that refuses to go away for a good thirty minutes after you get off the ride.
Theme parks generally and roller coasters in particular are utterly unafraid to savour the bodily. To indulge in what we feel over what we think. It was such a refreshing change to just, literally, sit back and feel things.
Many videogames do the same thing. While there is no shortage of great videogames that are about careful, considered, strategic action, I’ve always loved those games that are about unconscious action. The ones that aren’t about ‘thinking’ so much as ‘feeling’.
Audiosurf is perhaps the game that best encapsulates this for me (unsurprisingly, as the game pretty much is just a match-3 roller coaster). As I zoom down tracks crafted from my favourite songs, twitching my right hand ever-so-fractionally to move my avatar left and right, I’m not consciously thinking “I should put that red piece over there” or “Ah, I love these lyrics.” I’m completely and entirely lost in the sounds and the colours and the movements of my right hand, in the exhilaration of the sudden plunges and the sweeping inclines.
Of course, videogames and roller coasters aren’t the only things that work to elicit a corporeal reaction from their audiences. Film and literature genres such as horror or comedy are all about making the audience feel something, be it anxiety or fear or relief or jubilation. But the full bodily attention demanded by videogames, the way they demand the attention of our fingers and hands (and sometimes our legs and our torsos) as much as our eyes and ears make them especially situated to communicate sensations directly to our bodies.
But it’s not just the games that ask me to feel without thinking that I love. I also love the games whose primary goal is to make me act without thinking.
It’s something twitch-based games are great for. I play games like Trials Evolution or Super Meat Boy or Bit.Trip Runner almost subconsciously. My mind glazes over as I repeat a difficult level over and over again. Once, while trying to finish a particularly devastating Super Meat Boy level, my old television glitched out just as the level restarted. The screen went a flat blue. Yet, somehow, I successfully completed half the level before I died. Even without being able to see what I was doing, without being able to intellectually think about when I had to jump and when I had to run, my fingers just kept doing what they had been doing for the last hour and pushed me through half a level before I died on one of the later challenges.
It was a surreal experience — one that helped me appreciate just how much of our body is really at play when we are engaged with a videogame, and just how much undue credit is given to our mind alone. It helped me appreciate just how much we are doing ever while we might be ‘zoned out’.
And that’s why I love those videogames that ask me to not think. Instead of setting up some kind of mind/body divide, they appreciate the pleasures of the body as equally worthy of our time as the pleasures of the mind. It’s something I’ve long known but never really—well, that I’ve never really thought about. It took a roller coast shooting my body 40 metres into the air at 100km/h to remind me that just because an activity is ‘mindless’ doesn’t mean it is without merit.