I confess that, with blankets wrapped around my legs and Homo Ludens opened to pages 2 and 3 crunched beneath an elbow, I’ve watched and rewatched Ghost in the Shell instead of researching like a good little faux-academic. While interviewed in New York, I ad-libbed an answer wanting to understand the ‘ghost’ of a video game, ghost in this context being what the main character of the movie refers to as her spirit, or what it seems like in the cyberpunk milieu, the essence or instinct that comes with humanity that an artificial being cannot have. The use of ghost is, appropriately, haunting, recognizing the human is dead and present only in some supernatural form trapped inside machinery. In the movie, a program gains a ghost after spending enough time connected to the net, which is consistently described with ocean imagery, a collective unconscious of the augmented living. This new sentience and the main character are posed as mirror images, living reflections of one another. I find myself thinking about play experiences gaining a ghost once submerged in human context, and how it pines for a body to live out its newly gained humanity.
Like in many cyberpunk narratives, bodies are blurred, often made grotesque. Ghost in the Shell questions, when the ghost moves from one body to the next, how is that new entity still the same? Bodies are masks, sentimental ones. The body, I find, is an abandoned metaphor in these sorts of narratives, quickly discarded as a mental stepping stone to the question about humanity. It feels wrapped up in tropes surrounding technology and the kind of people typically associated with making it, who loathe the limits of their body. They want to escape from reality, escape their physical form, and once they can do that, they will finally be powerful beings.
Because the medium of play is largely colonized by the dominant culture surrounding technology, involvement and exploration of the body is frequently absent. To many games and surrounding discourse, the player is a pair each of eyes and hands attached directly to the brain, staring unflinching as they imagine systems and methodically tap and click. This extends even to sports and many physical games, which imagine the body as, ultimately, one large controller without a reflection on that transformation in the experience itself, though we see efforts to augment this with transmedia like documentaries and journalism. This is not to say nothing happens with the body, or feelings concerning bodies don’t arise, rather that they are marginalized in the culture surrounding these kinds of play in spite of how fascinating they may be (and there are projects I’m working on to exploit just that. Alas, for another time).
I see this detachment from the body eptimized in the glorification in what might be called the magic circle, or at least, the belief that the game is separated from the rest of reality in some manner. While most will concede that this separation is porous, the concept is deployed in a way that excises play’s relationship with the body. We are alienated from full experience and appreciation of play when the body is erased from design and interpretation. I am speaking in a lineage of critique that can be most relevantly, maybe, found in queer of color criticism of queer theory, where the focus on texts stems from the normalized whiteness, and how bodies (sometimes called ‘sites,’ as in the site of conflict or site of resistance) and their subjective experiences. I find this parallel to many complaints of games being read as just a text, though I would move past that and say things like design are also texts; the particulars of each individual subject is erased, or in my experience in criticism, actively marginalized.
There is a resistance because bodies are complicated. Incorporating subject(ivitie)s decentralizes the game object and forces designers and critics to ponder the infinite relationships bodies can have with an experience. Controllers in particular throttle the ways bodies can be recognized in the design, and is probably the main agent in the absence of body subjectivity in critique. It is impossible to know how another’s bodily reaction will be to an experience, and that exactitude is only necessary for products that promise it. That class critique is also underrepresented might hint as to why these sorts of connections are rarely traversed outside of particular, minoritized niches. Right on the surface, the lack of awareness of bodies assumes a typical body, most definitely excluding those who don’t have it and their experiences. And further on, there is a distinct lack of internalization, digestion, and reflection baked into these experiences.
I find that we don’t often pay attention to how we are affected by play, just that games affect and we are affectable. A game will have fun in it, and somehow we will feel entertained. What is that link in the middle, between the ghost of the game and us? Our bodies are the site of play, where meaning occurs, willing or not. ‘Player’ is a misnomer, when they are considered active agents of intention. We are simply living. In my experience of more sensory-explicit experiences, like course meals and perfumery, this process is inverted. Objects and subjects dissolve into each other, until they become inseparable. The subject is pulled through their own landscape of body feel and associations, yet that these objects affect a politic, and that the subject is susceptible to their influences, seems largely understated if not missing. Or maybe because most art surrounding the body is considered profane, and mainly for titillation, that this process isn’t as emphasized, much like what many games confront now. Either way, it is difficult for those arts to not account for the body, though there is definitely a case for class critique to complicate that. How themes seem to repeat themselves.
What I’m getting at is further awareness of how play is currently occurring with our bodies. The act of touching, the act of seeing and hearing. Not simply to the fact that we are doing those things, because we do them all from different positions, or maybe not at all. Critique that doesn’t fall to body normativity, that incorporates living experience and expounds on the blurring borders between self and play. Where the ghost of the game joins theirs. Games that don’t center immersion, rather the opposite, to prick our senses and remind us that we are alive, that we are more than moving around in disjointed shells.
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