The Emergence of the First-Person Body

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Ian here—

What follows is my talk from the Society for Phenomenology and Media’s 2015 annual conference in San Diego, CA.

Let us begin by cautiously approaching a looming term within the history of film theory: identification. It is a massive concept, one that has gained criticism over the past few decades due to this massiveness, weathering the charge that it is so all encompassing as to be irretrievably vague.

Can this monumental word, invoked by classical film theorists such as Béla Balázs, up through the phenomenological/semiological work of Jean Mitry, into the structural psychoanalysis of Christian Metz, and today tackled by cognitive film theorists such as Carl Plantinga, really name one thing? Some have argued no. Noël Carroll, for instance, advocates jettisoning the term due to its slippery ability to gesture towards anything from the basic fact that viewers “see the action unfolding in the fiction from the protagonist’s point of view,” to viewers being “concerned about or sympathetic toward a character,” to the more extreme interpretations of the term, which often posit that we “accept (or confusedly take) the character’s point of view to be our own” (Carroll 89–90). Murray Smith, in a positive move, proposes a new vocabulary, based on a more nuanced “structure of sympathy,” allowing for “alignment” (the ways in which a film’s narration is tied to the knowledge of a particular character) to be divorced from “allegiance” (general sympathy for a character’s plight and goals).

What contributions has phenomenological film theory made within this area? Has it actively generated more nuanced accounts of identification (or at least called for them to be proposed)? Unfortunately, progression in this area has been mixed, at best. There have been strides made to rope Merleau-Ponty into accounts of our visceral and kinesthetic identification with moving cameras, and to, in general, push towards ways in which our self-knowledge as embodied beings inflects the experiences we have, and the assumptions we make, about a film’s point of view.[i] But, rather surprisingly, these discussions never move much past Merleau-Ponty—an odd state of affairs, given that there is a rich history of literature beyond his work that could be turned to when discussing our relations to onscreen depictions of others: Phenomenological film theory could turn, for example, to Husserl on the intersubjectivity of the life-world, Sartre on the ego and the gaze of others, Beauvoir’s socially-embedded ethics, Levinas on the face, Sara Ahmed on queerness and otherness, or Giovanni Colombetti’s recent enactive account of the social experience of emotions. Simply put, this well is deep, and too infrequently drawn from.

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Here, however, is where this paper takes a sharp left turn, as its aim is not actually to make any proposals for new phenomenological theories of cinematic identification. Instead, our trajectory follows a tangential sidetrack, as it considers some proposals for new phenomenological theories of videogame identification.

Why the introduction via film theory at all, then? Primarily because the notion of identification has been one of the major borrowings of contemporary videogame theory from the history of film theory—and with it have come some inherited bad habits.[ii] This paper, then, straddles film studies and game studies, aiming at a phenomenological account of games that can rectify some of the most glaring problems that have hovered over the importation of concepts from film studies into discussions around videogames. It is an account that ultimately loops back around, and, with luck, can re-kindle age-old problems in film theory, pointing new ways forward with the help of new vocabulary.

In short, videogames provide an excellent opportunity for cinema to rediscover itself, to see anew its unique mechanisms and potential by standing in contrast to a medium that evolved out of it. This paper stands as part of a larger attempt to investigate the relationship between games and cinema—one that pushes far past tired and wheezy invocations of “interactivity.”

And far beyond the term “interactivity” we will go: deep into the vocabulary of phenomenology that remains untouched by contemporary phenomenological film theory (to say nothing of videogame studies). The topic du jour is that of pre-reflective self-consciousness. This is a term that has floated around in the history of phenomenological literature for nearly a century—sometimes with minor variations in terminology (for instance, appearing as “prereflective self-awareness,” or “unreflective self-consciousness,” sometimes with “bodily” inserted into the proceedings)—making appearances in the work of Sartre, and, more recently, Dan Zahavi.[iii] Here, I adhere to the rendering “pre-reflective self-consciousness,” in deference to the writings of Dorothée Legrand, whose specific positions on the subject are the most helpful within the context of videogame studies.

What is pre-reflective self-consciousness, and why is it important? I will answer the second question first, by way of criticism of how identification has been handled within film studies.

The term identification, as traditionally employed, rests upon viewers’ positing of characters as subjects, or, alternately, positing the camera itself as possessing certain traits that could be understood as constitutive of some form of subjectivity. This basic kernel remains astoundingly consistent, no matter the specific tradition of film theory one examines. For authors addressing engagement with characters from a background of cognitive or analytical approaches to the emotions, it usually takes the form of positing sympathy or empathy (or some combination of the two) as the primary mechanisms for encouraging identification. Authors following the psychoanalytic tradition obviously take a different approach to the term, but one that is likewise dependent on a fully-fledged theory of subjectivity being applied by viewers to either the camera or the characters of moving image artifacts, one here buried in the unconscious, erupting as an inescapable rehashing of Lacan’s “mirror stage.”

One can agree or disagree with these positions individually, or agree or disagree with the general positions of cognitive approaches to the emotions, or to psychoanalysis. But the fact remains that both ultimately posit that identification relies on some sort of underlying theory of mind or theory of personhood, whether conscious or unconscious, healthy or pathological. What I want to argue here, though, is that neither of these models of identification—whether or not they are accurate—constitute the “ground floor,” so to speak, of identification. Or, at least, they do not in videogames, and this has caused a counterproductive distortion of how the player-avatar relation is discussed in game studies. There is something more primordial at play, where the action really starts. And this primordial level, I propose, is precisely pre-reflective self-consciousness.

As some visual accompaniment for this next part, here is a clip of me playing Deus Ex, a first-person game released in 2000, during a sequence set in a nightclub. In this particular location, players are free to approach one of the few mirrors in the game, and are given a chance to see how their input, heretofore translated only as changes in the game’s point-of-view, are interpreted by the game as the movement of an actual visible humanoid body.

What does player acclimation to the control of an avatar body—whether represented onscreen, or merely implied via point-of-view, entail? It entails, at base, players understanding the relation between their physical action and subsequent visual transformations of games’ displays. Following the sensorimotor approach to perception proposed by Alva Noë and J. Kevin O’Regan, we could say that it involves mastering the contingencies that map motor act to sensory outcome.[iv] Players come to accept responsibility for avatar movements by way of successfully judging, and not being surprised by, their outcomes. Players, in short, first engage with their avatars not as subjects, but simply as that point of convergence between action and mediated perception.

The videogame theorist Rune Klevjer rightfully complains that “identification” is an odd word to invoke when discussing the player-avatar relation, given that “we generally ‘identify’ with other people’s actions, not with our own” (Klevjer 90).[v] This is true, but we can go still deeper: at the most basic level, players cannot be said to attribute their avatar’s actions to another, but nor can they properly be said to attribute these actions to themselves. At base, all that matters is that actions are taken, and that these actions coherently match corresponding perceptual consequences. The mere fact of the coherence of perception and action is enough to establish the fundamental kernel of a player-avatar relation, quite outside of higher-level acts of attribution. The first, most foundational act required of player in order to establish a relation with an avatar is not to accept the avatar as a subject, nor is it conceiving of the avatar as a vehicle of the player’s own prosthetic agency. It is simply to realize action and perception as coherent, to be able to recognize the transformations in a game’s visual, auditory, and haptic displays as a consequence of some action performed on a controller, to establish this sensorimotor circuit as a technologically-mediated unity providing access to a fictional world.

And this is precisely what pre-reflective self-consciousness names. Dorothée Legrand characterizes pre-reflective self-consciousness as a “foundational state” that “conditions the very possibility to recognize oneself as such at the observational reflective level” (Legrand 2007, 498). Instead of taking the self as the object of observation, as explicitly reflexive forms of self-consciousness do, pre-reflective self-consciousness is that remnant of self-awareness that remains when one turns outward to the world; it is, in Legrand’s words, “the experience of the body as perceiving rather than as perceived” (Legrand 2006, 97).

Along with this non-observational quality comes a lack of commitment on issues of identity and attribution. Legrand writes that pre-reflective self-consciousness does “not involve any identification of the subject” (Legrand 2006, 92). When one is pre-reflectively self-conscious, “one’s actions are neither anonymous, nor attributed to oneself;” rather, there is simply “no room to ask the ‘who’ question at a pre-reflective level” (104). Instead, awareness of both body and self retreats to a baseline level, in which both are treated as the “point of convergence of action and perception.” Legrand offers the following phenomenological description:

“[T]o experience actions as one’s own at a pre-reflective level does not mean to attribute them to a self that would have initiated them, or that would observe them afterwards. Rather, at a bodily level, to be pre-reflectively self-conscious means to experience action and perception as coherent” (108).

In place of taking a singular, coherent, and embodied self as its object, the “self” of pre-reflective self-consciousness is “the body itself considered in its dynamical coherence, that is, as a sensori-motor unity anchored to its world.” “At this level,” Legrand writes, “there is no room for action attribution nor for explicit body ownership,” because, in place of these more complex (and less basic) modes of self-consciousness, at the pre-reflective level “the content of perception itself specifies the agent/perceiver” (113).

Having fully introduced our key term, I now need to make a claim with it. The claim is this: Videogames demonstrate an ability, unrivaled in other forms of popular moving-image media, to exploit the psychological mechanisms involved in pre-reflective self-consciousness. Here, the process of learning to see a world—from players’ basic acclimation to the sensory presentation of movement controlled by physical motions on keys, buttons, directional pads and analog sticks to their specialized mastery of an individual avatar’s specific effectivities—is coextensive with learning to be-in-a-world, to be conscious of a (fictional) bodily self that exists as the point of communication between consciousness and a (fictional) perceptual world, a world that remains stable during bodily movement and exploration. “My eyes and my hand know that any actual change of place would produce a sensible response entirely according to my expectation,” writes Merleau-Ponty (Merleau-Ponty 395). The player-avatar relation rests precisely upon players’ attaining of this sort of predictive certainty that accompanies the mastery of sensorimotor contingency. This constitutes the ground floor of “identification” in videogames—and it is a profoundly different process from that involved in “identification” in cinema.

In what ways does this difference manifest itself? So far, my discussion has been technical, focusing on baseline differences between our perceptual and kinesthetic relations to these two media, broadly conceived. Some more specific case studies are required to illustrate the range of effects that this underlying difference in mechanism can blossom into.

Embedded within the (admittedly brief) case studies that follow, one can find the basic thread of an argument: Namely, that videogames are rapidly proving themselves to be one of the preeminent media forms for communicating the bodily dimensions of affective and emotional states such as vulnerability and shame. What is more, without being overly technologically deterministic, it is a historical reality that this potential seems to have crystallized as new forms of bodily experience have emerged as a technological possibility in games, particularly in first-person games. In the remaining pages, I turn to various modes of the player-avatar relation founded upon a range of subtly different forms of pre-reflective self-consciousness. Here, Legrand’s vocabulary continues to be a guide, supplemented by terms offered by a few other phenomenologists.

Pre-reflective self-consciousness, for Legrand, is hardly a homogeneous category—it includes several sub-modes of awareness, some of which inch closer to reflective bodily self-consciousness than others. One can distinguish, for instance, those moments in which the body is performative, meaning that observational consciousness is stripped away in order to foster a skillful engagement with embodied action (Legrand 2007, 504). This mode of pre-reflective self-consciousness flourished in first person games released in the mid-1990s, with their emphasis on the kinesthetic pleasures of fast, fluid movement. One of the cleanest examples of this tendency is DeFRaG, a user-created mod for Quake III Arena (id Software, 1999), one explicitly designed for players familiar with an extensive array of exploits to Quake III’s physics engine.[vi] Here, the impossibly quick and balletic movement achieved results in the erasure of the feeling of controlling a humanlike body—an erasure reinforced by the fact that, beyond the inclusion of a floating gun in the right-hand side of the screen, there is actually no body available for visible confirmation in the first-person view of the Quake III (looking down, for instance, will produce no view of legs). “Body” here is rendered as pure performative capacity: pure coherence of action and perception.

Over the past decade, this sort of lack of acknowledgement of limbs has been fading away. As modern engines allow for more appearances on the part of the body of first-person avatars, its lack in earlier games has begun to seem increasingly silly. (This fact is parodied in The Stanley Parable [Galactic Café, 2013], one of the last commercial games to be released using the aging Source engine, a relic from an earlier era of first-person shooting.)

In games such as Mirror’s Edge (DICE, 2008), a parkour-based first-person platformer, the performative self-consciousness of DeFRaG meets a more upfront acknowledgement of the finite capacities—and material presence—of an actual human body.

With its occasional intrusion of the limbs of its protagonist, as well as the occasional grunt or groan on the audio track (to say nothing of the terrifyingly vertiginous consequences of missing a rooftop jump), Mirror’s Edge introduces an edge of vulnerability to its first-person avatar, a sense distinctly lacking in DeFRaG. Here, we see a slight broadening of affective range—one that finds further continuation in the first-person horror game Outlast (Red Barrels, 2013), which deftly uses claustrophobia, the possibility of failure at athletic tasks, and a gory foregrounding of the frailty of the human body to expertly modulate player fight-or-flight responses.

Mirror’s Edge remains squarely within squarely within the performative mode of pre-reflective self-consciousness. Outlast, with its relatively spry player-character, relies on some of this, but inches closer to what Legrand refers to as the “opaque body”: a self-consciousness of the body not as clean vessel of intention, but instead a nervous magnet for attention (Legrand 2007, 500). Legrand’s points on bodily “opacity” here resonate with a number of other descriptions and terms authored by phenomenologists: for instance, Drew Leder’s use of the term “dys-appearance” to refer to those moments in which our bodies show up to us as obtrusive, poorly fit to the tasks we intend to undertake, or S. Kay Toombs’ rich descriptions of the way in which, in instances of injury or illness, “my hand’s unaccustomed ineffectiveness as an instrument of my actions” forces attention to the matter of “how it is that my fingers grasp the handle of the cup” (Leder 84; Toombs 71).

Cinema can certainly present us with frail, vulnerable, and weakened characters—children, the injured, or those living with disability—activating certain modes of empathy. Recently, however, a number of games have begun exploring the unique capacity of the medium to truly leverage this feeling of combating the ineffectiveness of one’s own body. Miasmata (IonFx, 2012), a game perhaps best described as a “first person try-not-to-stumble-er,” puts players in control of a severely ill character, easily exhausted and prone to taking dangerous tumbles if the steeper features of the surrounding landscape are not approached gingerly enough.

The horror game Among the Sleep (Krillbite Studio, 2014) fits players into the role of a toddler, forced to navigate an awkward body through a world not properly scaled to one’s corporeal needs.

One of the central claims of this paper has been that the player avatar-relation is built around, at base, players understanding the relation between their physical action and subsequent visual transformations of games’ displays. As we reach the conclusion, it is important to remember that, although game displays are easy enough to reproduce—via captured still frames, or video clips during live presentations—what is perhaps more difficult, but no less essential, is the matter of control. The emergence of the first-person body over the past two decades is not simply a matter of limbs occasionally making their way into the frames of a game’s point of view. It has also been a transformation of control scheme, of the expectations of input and output, as in-game bodies begin to show up less as vehicles for pure performance, and rather as an unique and finite assemblage of movement capabilities, grounded in and weighted by the limitations of a consistent and decidedly non-cartoon physics. A theory of videogame identification (if, of course, we are going to retain the term at all) needs to account for this: the meeting between hand and screen, between predicating movement and resulting sensory response. It must account, in short, for the ways in which we are not only “subjects”: we are also an encounter of action and perception.

[i]. The locus classicus of this tendency is Vivian Sobchack’s article “Toward Inhabited Space: The Semiotic Structure of Camera Movement in the Cinema,” and the tradition has continued in the work of Jennifer M. Barker and Gabrielle A. Hezekiah.

[ii] . Chief among these bad habits is an over-reliance on the division between “primary” and “secondary” identificiation, as laid out by psychoanlytic film theorists, with an attendant need to laboriously explain the ways in which games work differently, putting far too much strain on a narrow slice of the history of film style—for instance, a repeated insistance on turning to Robert Montgomery’s 1947 film Lady in the Lake (Morris 89; Rehak 119–120; Galloway 43–45; Poster 334–335; Gaut 279–280).

[iii] Giovanna Colombetti presents a helpful and wonderfully pithy overview of the history of the concept of pre-reflective self-consciousnes, cutting through the confusing terminological variations (Colombetti 115–118).

[iv]. See O’Regan and Noë, “A Sensorimotor Account of Vision and Visual Consciousness.” For monograph-length follow-ups to this initial article, see Noë, Action in Percetion, and O’Regan, Why Red Doesnt Sound Like a Bell: Understanding the Feel of Consciousness.

[v]. Klevjer deserves credit for making several insightful and quite necessary points in the short section of his dissertation in which he pursues a phenomenological analysis of the relation between players’ and avatars’ bodies (Klevjer 89–96).

[vi]. I was introduced to the existence of this mod via the excellent work of Dylan Lederle-Ensign and Noah Wardrip-Fruin in their paper “What Is Strafe Jumping? idTech 3 and the Game Engine as Software Platform.”

Barker, Jennifer M. The Tactile Eye: Touch and the Cinematic Experience. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2009. Print.

Balázs, Bela. Theory of the Film: Character and Growth of a New Art. Trans. Edith Bone. New York, NY: Dover Publications, 1970. Print.

Carroll, Noël. The Philosophy of Horror, or Paradoxes of the Heart. New York, NY: Routledge, 1991. Print.

Colombetti, Giovanna. The Feeling Body: Affective Science Meets the Enactive Mind. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2014. Print.

Galloway, Alexander R. Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2006. Print.

Gaut, Berys. A Philosophy of Cinematic Art. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2010. Print.

Hezekiah, Gabrielle A. Phenomenology’s Material Presence: Video, Vision and Experience. Chicago, IL: Intellect, 2010. Print.

Klevjer, Rune. “What Is the Avatar? Fiction and Embodiment in Avatar-Based Singleplayer Computer Games.” PhD Thesis. University of Bergen, 2006. Print.

Leder, Drew. The Absent Body. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1990. Print.

Lederle-Ensign, Dylan, and Noah Wardrip-Fruin. “What Is Strafe Jumping? idTech 3 and the Game Engine as Software Platform.” Paper Presented at the DiGRA (Digital Games Research Association) Conference 2014: “ the of Game ,” August 3–6, 2014, Snowbird, UT.

Legrand, Dorothée. “Pre-Reflective Self-Consciousness: On Being Bodily in the World.” Janus Head 9.2 (2007): 493–519. Print.

—. “The Bodily Self: The Sensori-Motor Roots of Pre-Reflective Self-Consciousness.” Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences 5.1 (2006): 89–118. Print.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Phenomenology of Perception. Trans. Colin Smith. New York, NY: Routledge, 1962. Print.

Metz, Christian. The Imaginary Signifier: Psychoanalysis and the Cinema. Trans. Celia Britton. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1982. Print.

Mitry, Jean. The Aesthetics and Psychology of the Cinema. Trans. Christopher King. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1997. Print.

Morris, Sue. “First-Person Shooters—A Game Apparatus.” ScreenPlay: Cinema/Videogames/Interfaces. Ed. Geoff King and Tanya Krzywinska. New York, NY: Wallflower Press, 2002. Print.

Noë, Alva. Action in Perception. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004. Print.

O’Regan, J. Kevin. Why Red Doesn’t Sound Like a Bell: Understanding the Feel of Consciousness. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2011. Print.

O’Regan, J. Kevin, and Alva Noë. “A Sensorimotor Account of Vision and Visual Consciousness.” The Behavioral and Brain Sciences 24.5 (2001): 939–73; discussion 973–1031. Print.

Plantinga, Carl. Moving Viewers: American Film and the Spectator’s Experience. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2009. Print.

Poster, Jamie M. “Looking and Acting in Computer Games: Cinematic ‘Play’ and New Media Interactivity.” Quarterly Review of Film and Video 24.4 (2007): 325–229. Print.

Rehak, Bob. “Playing at Being: Psychoanalysis and the Avatar.” The Video Game Theory Reader. Ed. Mark J. P. Wolf and Bernard Perron. New York, NY: Routledge, 2003. Print.

Smith, Murray. Engaging Characters: Fiction, Emotion, and the Cinema. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1995. Print.

Sobchack, Vivian. “Toward Inhabited Space: The Semiotic Structure of Camera Movement in the Cinema.” Semiotica 41.1–4 (1982): 317–335. Print.

Toombs, S. Kay. The Meaning of Illness: A Phenomenological Account of the Different Perspectives of Physician and Patient. Boston, MA: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1992. Print.

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