Gaming and the limits of digital embodiment, Robert Farrow & Ioanna Iacovides

  • Dreyfus (1998) identifies three different aspects to embodiment in Merleau-Pontian thought:
  • digital avatars are inevitably embodied in ways significantly different to our own form of being. Digital forms of ‘embodiment’ are never primordial.
  • Nonetheless, the self is always embodied: “at every moment living, breathing, feeling, suffering (being affected), changing and decaying”
  • Merleau-Ponty argues that human subjectivity is embodied, meaning that being a human means being in a world which cannot be reduced to any kind of solipsistic interiority. For Merleau-Ponty, our perceptual relationship to the world—our consciousness—is not a transcendental act, but an interpretation of bodily stimuli. This is expressed in the irreducibility of the Gestalt, and the fact that the world enjoys a privileged place in our perception by its very appearance. Our perception of our own being is embodied and thus there is no ‘view from nowhere’. The objects of perception (including one’s own body) have an inner horizon in consciousness and an outer horizon in the external world. This ‘horizon’ is temporal and future-focused.

  • As Bayliss (2007:5) argues, “though the sense of ‘being there’ may seem to be a direct experience of the game world for the sufficiently competent player, it is intrinsically mediated by the complex relationship between the player and their locus of manipulation, a relationship based on the distinction between embodiment as a state of being and embodying as an act.”
  • The PIM suggests that the sensation of inhabiting a virtual world is dependent on the player feeling embodied within that world, though it is worth noting that this does not necessarily mean the experience will be one of ‘deep’ involvement or enjoyment
  • Calleja argues that “incorporation operates on a double axis: the player incorporates (in the sense of assimilation or internalization) at the same time as being incorporated (in the sense of corporeal embodiment) through the avatar in that environment”
  • a general consensus among designers that immersion is achieved through fostering a sense of embodiment
  • Games allow us a space to be otherwise, to act without consequence and indulge in behaviours which are unusual for us.
  • the player effectively interacts with an extensive fantasy world through an ‘embodied’ avatar. Conversely, the avatar controlled by the player may not be recognisably humanoid in form at all – The extent to which a player can feel embodied in such forms is debatable. Some avatars are evidently more human than others, and manifest different forms of ‘being-in-the game’
  • A player who takes on the role of Cole Phelps in LA Noire (2011) is not emulating an experience so much as experiencing a story about a fictional Los Angeles police department in the 1940s;
  • The digitally ‘embodied’ experience of playing the game differs in obvious ways from an actual experience of the same sort.
  • . In order for the player to feel like they are inhabiting a different physical location three criteria must be met: namely, (1) engagement (based on attention); (2) engrossment (requiring emotional investment or ‘stakeholding’); and (3) immersion (where “total immersion is presence”
  • Kinect in particular seems to embrace the notion of whole-body interaction by removing the need for a game controller: through an infra-red sensor bar and microphone, Kinect is able to track player movements in real time and respond to specific gestures and spoken commands
  • human–computer interaction has developed through a variety of stages and the latest phase involves a shift from graphical interfaces to more tangible, social and embodied approaches. More specifically, this latest stage “draws on the way the everyday world works” and “the ways we experience the everyday world” (Dourish)
  • Jenson and de Castell (2008) suggest that the introduction of novel or bespoke games controllers such as dancemats, motion-sensitive controllers, and guitar-shaped peripherals have contributed to very different forms of gameplay. This tendency in game design—and this is a trend we also observe in mobile and educational technologies—is twofold. Not only are forms of digital interaction starting to use more (or all) of the body as a control device, but human–computer interaction is increasingly based on natural or mimetic forms of movement. Forms of haptic feedback (notably vibration) are often used to promote a sense of embodiment within digital environments
  1.  Physical; the partaking of physical (and distinctively human) form
  2. The second relates to the network of physical abilities and skills we are motivated to develop through our life experiences – intentionally
  3. The third relates to the background understandings of embodiment we arrive at through being members of cultural lifeworlds with other embodied beings. – wordly
  • Embodiment is often understood in terms of its opposition to representation: the immaterial mind ‘opposes’ the material body . The fact that bodies within game worlds cannot conform to this duality is a good illustration of the fundamentally asymmetrical nature of digital embodiment. Consider the example of pain: we never experience the physical pain of a wounded avatar; only a representation of it.
  • We do not relate to bodies in virtual worlds (or in cinema for that matter) in the same way that we relate to our own corporeality. For one thing, we tend not to care too much about dying and we do not experience pain through our avatar: these phenomena are experienced as representation, not as embodied, subjective experience. In this light, the ways in which players are ‘embodied’ within game environments are so unlike our everyday form of embodiment that we might question whether this kind of language is appropriate at all.
  • As social beings, we always find ourselves in a particular cultural and historical context that determines our basic orientation towards the world. Once again following Husserl (1936), Merleau-Ponty argues that to be embodied is to be part of a shared, intersubjective, lifeworld [Lebenswelt] which is the source of meaningful activity. Game worlds are not necessarily meaningful in themselves, however. Block puzzle games like Tetris (1989) or PuyoPuyo (1991) might present visually coherent representations of space but there’s no intrinsic meaning to be found in destroying blocks.
  • Worlds that are convincing are also worlds in which we have something at stake
  • As Heidegger famously argues, human being is fixed and embedded in the world which manifests itself as meaningful through the existential attitude of care or concern [Sorge]: there is no such a thing as a human being that has no interests.
  • While the idea of a totally immersive experience is fundamentally fallacious, the drive towards the techno-utopian fantasy of total immersion may make sense in terms of a need to provide authentic experiences that allow for transfer between virtual and real worlds
  • Part of the enjoyment of watching a horror film or playing a soldier in a first person shooter may stem from the very fact that these experiences do indeed differ from what they would be in the “risky, moody real world” where we are much more vulnerable: it is arguably our lack of embodiment that forms the basis of the appeal.
  • The distance between our bodies and the activities that occur on screen is important to maintain and attempts to replicate our embodied experiences of the real world are in danger of overlooking this


Farrow, R. & Iacovides, I. 2014, “Gaming and the limits of digital embodiment”, Philosophy & Technology, vol. 27, no. 2, pp. 221-233.

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