Trig­ger Happy

Why do games have the power to phys­i­cally move us with their on­screen ac­tion, even when it’s point­less?


Skate­board­ing is some­thing I’ve never done. If God had meant us to travel that way, he would have given us vul­can­ised rub­ber wheels for feet. But a few clum­sily ne­go­ti­ated lev­els into Vita’s lo-fi 2D ab­strac­tion of the sport, Ol­liOlli, some­thing clicks and I am nail­ing land­ings and catch­ing gar­gan­tuan air, bro, or what­ever skaters say. Oddly, I am also do­ing some­thing else. My torso and neck are stretch­ing up­wards as my chunky avatar flies up into the air, and jerk­ing back down as I stab the land­ing but­ton and hear the crack of wheels on con­crete. My cer­vi­cal spine is un­du­lat­ing like that of an overex­cited goose. Maybe this game can put chi­ro­prac­tors out of busi­ness.

Per­haps you do the same kind of thing, at least in some games. A lot of people prac­tice the ‘rac­ing game lean’, where you tip over side­ways from the waist as your pre­tend car goes into a bend (and if you need to squeeze an ex­tra quan­tum of turn­ing power out of the ve­hi­cle, you tilt the joy­pad as well). Or maybe you hunch slightly when div­ing into cover in a shooter, at­tempt­ing to re­tract your head tor­toise-like into your shoul­ders un­der a hail of en­emy bul­lets.

What is go­ing on in this kind of psy­chomo­tor im­i­ta­tion of the vir­tual ac­tion? It looks like it must in­crease the cog­ni­tive load of play­ing the game, since we are chang­ing the an­gle at which we view the screen as well as co­or­di­nat­ing un­nec­es­sary mus­cle move­ments. My sym­pa­thetic half-jump­ing while play­ing Ol­liOlli on a hand­held con­sole, in par­tic­u­lar, means I’m not even able to keep my full at­ten­tion on the game­world while my char­ac­ter is in the air. But I can’t help my­self.

One way to in­ter­pret it would be as a kind of mag­i­cal think­ing, whereby the player un­con­sciously be­lieves that her ex­tra phys­i­cal ac­tions will some­how in­flu­ence the game. And per­haps just such a di­ag­no­sis of this wide­spread habit was a fac­tor in the de­vel­op­ment of mo­tion-sens­ing tech­nol­ogy like Kinect. “Hey, look at all these people im­plic­itly wish­ing they could con­trol games with their bod­ies! Let’s al­low them to do just that!” But it turns out that play­ers don’t want to do this, at least not all the time and in all games. Per­haps the psy­chomo­tor-im­i­ta­tion habit is just our au­to­matic way of at­tempt­ing to re­solve the cog­ni­tive dis­so­nance be­tween the dy­namic on­screen ac­tion and our own cor­po­real still­ness. If so, we should ex­pect that the more ex­cit­ing the in-game mo­tion is, the more our bod­ies will try to keep up with it. That seems to be the case for me with Ol­liOlli.

Why, then, is the game’s ap­par­ently sim­ple move­ment so thrilling? Ol­liOlli is a les­son in how a de­lib­er­ately tricky con­trol scheme can, once mas­tered, af­ford more plea­sure than giv­ing the player an eas­ier ride from the start. Once you get the tim­ing right, the rhythm of fly­ing up into the air and then land­ing again be­comes in­tox­i­cat­ing. Ar­guably, there is not even any real-world ana­logue to the man­dated in­puts – it’s not as if you have to do any­thing while fall­ing in real life to make sure you hit the ground. There was more struc­tural verisimil­i­tude in Nin­tendo’s snow­board­ing clas­sic 1080° Snow­board­ing, which re­quired you to match the an­gle of the board to that of the slope at the point of im­pact. Ol­liOlli sub­sti­tutes for this a bi­nary rhythm-ac­tion chal­lenge, but the ef­fect is the same: in both games, achiev­ing hu­mon­gous air is all the sweeter.

In the sat­is­fac­tions of get­ting its tim­ing right, Ol­liOlli also re­minds me of the beau­ti­fully gra­tu­itous mu­si­cal fol­lies that are the re­ward level at the end of each world in Ray­man Leg­ends. Here, Ubisoft’s mod­ern clas­sic be­comes a rhythm-ac­tion plat­former as you race through a level clev­erly de­signed to match the beat struc­ture of the mu­sic. Mari­achi Mad­ness, deliri­ously scored to a gui­tar-and-ka­zoo ver­sion of the Rocky theme mu­sic, has a mo­ment with two un­du­lat­ing snakes, one safe (green) and one fa­tal (red and spiky). It re­sults in baf­fling re­peated in­stadeath un­til you fig­ure out that you should jump in time with the mu­sic, and then it’s a com­edy rush all the way home.

We all have our favourite ex­am­ple of videogame jump en­gi­neer­ing: Manic Miner and Jet Set Willy’s par­a­bolic sound ef­fect some­how made the jump­ing end­lessly en­ter­tain­ing. (I never quite un­der­stood, on the other hand, why the al­legedly ‘floaty’ jump­ing in Lit­tleBigPlanet made some people an­gry.) And the Mario games, of course, are the kings of jump­ing as both sym­bolic ex­pres­sion of free­dom and also com­edy weapon. It is as much in this lin­eage as in that of in­die-sports games, I think, that Ol­liOlli de­serves to take a cred­itable place. It is es­sen­tially a plat­form game.

And in all these games I have ex­pe­ri­enced the phe­nom­e­non of psy­chomo­tor im­i­ta­tion, sit­ting up straighter and stretch­ing my neck des­per­ately in the hope that my jump will make it this time. If it doesn’t, of course, the beauty of videogames is that you al­ways get an­other shot at that lib­er­at­ing de­par­ture from the all-too-solid ground.

My cer­vi­cal spine is un­du­lat­ing. Maybe this game can put chi­ro­prac­tors out of busi­ness

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