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