Blog Post

Much Ado About No Controller, Or, Further Meditations on Immersion/Interactivity

A new post over at the Critical Gaming Project @ UW:

A few months ago, there was buzz about the arrival of Microsofts Kinect for the Xbox and the revolution in gaming the controller-free technology would herald. (Now after its debut to some mixed reviews, the Kinect is still lauded as one of the most innovated gadgets of the year, including the much shared story about the Kinect and an autistic child, and people are already trying to figure out ways to augment and hack and subvert the tech.) I want to extend my earlier thoughts about controller-free gaming and propose a handful more points, particularly drawing my own experiences using the system as well as connecting (pun not intended) the liberatory rhetoric of this new gestural gaming (a lovely metaphor for what its currently worth) to curious and nettling resonances with things like the immersive fallacy, full body scanning, fat shaming, net neutrality, and homeland security and surveillance.

Xbox, Dashboard!

Much like something out of one of the many Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes featuring something afoot, awry, or astonishing about the ships holodeckthe fully immersive, interactive, and simulation chamber, often used for entertaining holonovels or technical simulations, the Xbox Kinect evokes the same kind of hopes and dreams of being able to transport yourself, to engage fully fledged simulation sensorium, to step into a fantasy. It also invokes the thrill and power of commanding and controlling the immersive technology with a voice, with a gesture. It is definitely a satisfying experience to talk to and in a sense handshake with and to be recognized by your Xbox. I am reminded in particular of the second season of ST:TNG in the episode entitled Elementary, Dear Data in which a holodeck simulation of a Sherlock Holmes story is augmented and the character of Professor Moriarty is given sentience. The holodeck Moriarty wakens to discover that he has power and control over the simulation. Moriartys first call for the holodeck arch (the interface, the main menu so to speak for the holodeck) is much like playing with the Kinect for the first time.

I wax trekker for the moment because much of the description of the Kinect (and like devices) recalls for me Janet Murrays important Hamlet on the Holodeck, which is technoutopian about the ability for computers to provide a full and robust narrative experience. The metaphor of Hamlet on the holodeck is the same metaphor of the user and the kinect: its all about immersion and interaction. And as the last Keywords for Video Game Studies graduate interest group meeting tried to wrestle with, the problem with video game immersion is that it is a necessary fiction (as outlined by Salen and Zimmerman:

The immersive fallacy is the idea that the pleasure of a media experience lies in its ability to sensually transport the participant into an illusory, simulated reality. According to the immersive fallacy, this reality is so complete that ideally the frame falls away so that the player truly believes that he or she is part of an imagined world (450-451).

As I said in my previous post about the Kinect, the problem here is that all of the packaging for Kinect-like technologies produce this very fallacy. The controller-free (which is more accurate than hands-free) technology is supposed to plunge you into the gaming experience and the simulated world even as the very same technology constantly reminds you that you are playing a game and that your body is the controller.

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