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I Am The Lizard King

A while back, I stated that certain games have a rich quality of immersion, such to the point that while playing MGS or Ico one could almost peel away the narrative itself and find the experiences wholly composed of feelings of survival and self-sacrifice. Frank didn’t entirely buy it, citing the self-conscious way that Kojima’s games make reference to themselves as pieces of media, or the way Ueda’s puzzles always call back to earlier puzzles in Zelda-type games. Because of their post-modern presentation or acceptance of precedent influences, his concensus was that games (or at least those ones) can’t quite strip themselves of their veneer of player/avatar divide, that there will always be some kind of a conceptual divide, and that the kind of immersion I was talking about was something of a “fiction.”

Sir, in the words Yosemite Sam, them’s fightn’ words.

Now, I’m not here necessarily to defend what I was talking about before, but I think there’s something I didn’t quite raise which I’d like to now. I’m not saying that well designed games make you believe  you’re the character you’re playing as– such an idea is either patently absurd or morally questionable at best. What I’m saying is that well designed games, at certain peak moments, are built to make the player experience or at least simulate the experience of feeling the same feelings their character is going through– When Snake is afraid, the player should be afraid. I don’t think it’s going too far to say that this sort of thing happens in games– in fact, I think it’s something that everyone acknowledges as an occurance that’s quite common, but I believe we may call it something else.

Think of this– we’re not the only species on the planet that plays. Animals play-fight amongst each other. Dogs and cats play with objects we give them. There is a universality of play, and even games with rudimentary rules (whichever buck wins the fight gets the doe) that isn’t exclusive to humanity’s powers of higher reasoning. The reason why certain moments hit us like this is because games have something primeval about them, something primitive that reaches beyond our well-earned intellect, deep beyond even what we traditionally think of as our emotions. Quite literally– and don’t believe for one second that I’ve got the science to back this up– games aren’t really stimulating all the frontal parts of our brains, the areas that work through math equations, decode Joyce for us or write love songs for that pretty young thing with the short hair from the elevator that reminds you of Wynonna Ryder from the early 90′s. Instead, games engage directly with the back ends of our gray matter, the cold-blooded, reptilian parts of our brains, the ones without enough range to understand anything other than life and death, and thus registers everything as either naked, bloodlust agression or myopic, bloodcurdling fear.

In short, games communicate most directly with the parts of our brain too primitive to know that we’re playing a game at all.

Those are the parts of us that are immune to self-consciousness, the parts of us that don’t understand or appreciate irony, post-modern humor or even the broadest of knowing winks. Have you ever had a dream about something dangerous and reach a moment where, rationally, you knew were dreaming, but felt scared anyway? That’s the lizard in us, the fight-or-flight mode that kicks in when we have no more armor of intellect or emotion with which to shield our abstract animal selves. When the monkey on our backs is dead and all that’s left for the poor ape-self is for Charles Darrow to compose a eulogy for its alleged soul, all that we’ve got left in us are those neural pathways and connections we still maintain back from the days of the dinosaurs. We haven’t lost them, though we’d like to think we’ve evolved enough to lose them entirely and become one of those big-brained races out of Star Trek, or something. No matter what we do there’s always some tiny orphan of instinct trapped deep within ourselves, running about a clumsily constructed cage we call a consciousness, which knows only two polar extremes of life: agression and fear– fight or flight.

Games, I believe, tap into this reptilian area of our minds, the zones that can’t calm themselves with self-consciousness because they aren’t self-aware themselves. True, such feelings only last moments, minutes or merely even seconds, but they’re enough to color the rest of our brains and feed the more advanced sectors of our gray matter with pure exhiliration. If I knew more about how the brain works, how fear-centers opperate and which parts pump out adrenaline, endorphins and the like, I might say that games can become an effective way of testing our own chemical composition, balance out our weights in some medicinal, thereputic way. All I know is that games, or at least the well designed ones, are capable of absolute immersion, however brief, because they trick our brains into believing for split-seconds that it’s all a matter of life and death. Blink and you’ll miss it, deny it and it only goes to show you’re going through the first stage of grief at your own demise, after all.

Therefore, when we play MGS, we might not be Snake per se, but at key moments  in the design, we certainly become some kind of reptile…


  1. Charles wrote:

    Well, Bob, it looks like it falls to me to reel you in, though once again I agree with spirit of your post. My feelings lie somewhere between both you and Frank, and in the end we’re probably all correct at different times. I think the central disagreement arises mostly over a confusion about the player’s relationship to a game. Let me jump into that confusion, and see if I can’t help all of us dig out of this hole a little bit.

    In your original post you seemed to be coming from a traditional viewpoint on ‘immersion’, that of an audience at a movie or the reader of a book, that connected it to the suspension of disbelief. You’ve now amended this to say simply that the emotions of player and their avatars sometimes sync up in moments of extreme tension, such as those of violence or fear. You shouldn’t abandon your earlier conviction, as I believe that you were on the right path.Frank is correct to point out though, that one of the most important part of games is the distance that players have from the events being depicted. This distance is what allows them to strategize and eventually map the system of the game’s mechanics. Without this aspect a game is simply a shallow chain-quest, where players simply memorize the answers to all the puzzles and get their little bit of story (if our class has taught me anything this semester, it is that the dark secret of video games may that most of them are kind of broken as games).

    The strange thing about most of the games that have been mentioned in this discussion is that the player is at all times both the actor, and the audience of their actions. A player’s mind switches so fast from high-level strategizing to low-level, ‘lizard-brain’, emotional reactions that it’s hardly constructive to draw a distinction between the two. To my mind a game is a web of tensions like this, between rebellion and submission, choice and action, context and mechanic, narrative and gameplay, rationality and irrationality.

    Well, I’ve gone on too long, so I’ll just shoot from the hip. I care about Yorda in ICO not because she’s a valuable resource that I need to get through the game (she’s basically a key), or because in certain moments I disappear into the head of the ten-year-old boy I’m controlling, like some Method actor. I care about Yorda as a character, even though I always know she’s just a collection code and textured polygons. The relationship between Yorda and Ico is understated, innocent, and novel for a video game, and by the end you should care about both the characters, with one being more directly under your control than the other.

    Monday, April 9, 2007 at 6:51 pm | Permalink
  2. Bob wrote:

    Charles– I agree that our Ape-brain and Lizard-brain mix quite a lot in the midst of gameplay, but in my opinion they don’t necessarily cancel each other out, which you’re sort of implying they are, at least on an anylitical basis. Take the battle with The End in MGS3– there’s an example of a game moment where the Ape and Lizard feelings work hand in hand to build an incredibly palpable experience. In order to beat The End, you must use patience, stealth and cunning– the Ape-brain– but at the same time you must fight the ever present fear of being caught– the Lizard-brain. The fight with The End, therefore, is a fight between the Ape and the Lizard– pitting the confidence and assurance of the player’s strategic thinking against the doubt and loathing of the player’s fight-or-flight mode.

    Kojima pits the Ape against the Lizard a lot in his games, usually according to this dichotomy. It’s there in MG2:SS when the player must face the Lizard fear of going up against Big Boss in a completely vulnerable state and using the Ape strategy of putting together a makeshift flamethrower in order to stand a chance. It’s there when the player must think past Psycho Mantis or Fission Mailed fear tactics, or The Sorrow’s haunted afterlife, using Ape-like intellect against the Lizard-mongering sentiments of the game itself. To a certain extent it’s always there throughout the game, prodding the player towards the fear of getting caught while sneaking past guards.

    Ape vs. Lizard is used so much in MGS, in fact, it’s hard to see when the battle is reversed, and the player must use Lizard tactics in order to beat the game, instead. In my mind, those are the moments when the player must accept the lack of any strategy or control during a segment of the game and must make a hard decision, no matter what. I see it in Big Boss’ betrayal in MG–though there’s also a healthy dose of Ape vs. Lizard there in thinking past the radio boobytraps–in the moment where the player must cross the electrified floors without any way to cut off their power, effectively draining all your rations. I see it in Ocelot’s torture sequence in MGS, where he player must choose between testing their button-mashing dexterity, possibly dying in the process in a case where they probably don’t have a save-file up to this point, or giving in and dooming Meryl to death. These are great moments in the gameplay where fight-or-flight instinct must be used against over-anylizing situations and literally thinking yourself to death. In either case, though, Kojima comes up with good uses for both Ape and Lizard ways of thinking.

    More to what you were talking about, though– or maybe not– I think that part of our analysis of games on the whole might be a bit flawed because all too often we insist upon seeing the whole picture. That is, we’re usually thinking about games critically only after we’ve finished them, at which point the game is no longer an immersive experience and instead is a finite one with explicit length and a beginning, middle and end which we’re very familiar with. To a certain extent, games only really feel immersive while we’re playing them for the first time and we don’t necessarily know how much longer it will last. Immersion is an in-progress feeling, and doesn’t really suit itself to a past-tense frame of mind. Perhaps that makes it all the more pertinent to document our thought processes during the first runthrough. The next time I play a new title I’m seriously considering keeping a game diary so that I can accurately fall back on how I felt about a game before I’d finished it.

    Tuesday, April 10, 2007 at 4:12 am | Permalink
  3. Charles wrote:

    Once again Bob, I think we’re in pretty close agreement here. One thing I will correct you on is when you say that I believe that our ‘ape-brain’ and ‘lizard-brain’ should cancel each other out in analysis. I must have been very inarticulate, because I actually think the opposite. My point was that you can’t analyze them in isolation form each other because they are so intertwined. Last night we talked about games being conversations, something that’s come up in several posts, and what I’m saying is that one of the important conversations that’s happening in a game is between a person’s ‘ape’ and ‘lizard’ brains. It’s these irresolvable tensions, in this case between two mental faculties, that should be examined. We should be talking about ‘the thing itself’, not ‘ideas about the thing’.

    Tuesday, April 10, 2007 at 3:39 pm | Permalink
  4. Bob wrote:

    In any case, I take credit for “Ape vs. Lizard” lexicon from now on.

    Tuesday, April 10, 2007 at 10:02 pm | Permalink
  5. frank wrote:

    “…while playing MGS or Ico one could almost peel away the narrative itself and find the experiences wholly composed of feelings of survival and self-sacrifice.”

    Bob, this is a different, and much more sophisticated, idea than the what is typically meant by “total immersion”. The total immersion that I am calling a myth is the fantasy of a seamless, holodeck-style simulation in which the player is transported into a perfect replica of the situation being represented, indistinguishable from reality.

    The idea that games are shot through with moments of pure, unthinking emotion and visceral, autonomous reflex is certainly true. That these moments are often woven together with other kinds of awareness and thinking and myriad subtle and distinct flavors of consciousness is the point I am trying to make.

    I think its pretty interesting to examine the status of emotion in games. Like, is the fear you feel in a game identical to “real” fear? On the one hand, it seems obviously identical. But then, why do we enjoy game fear? Does the enjoyment come afterwards? Is the fear identical to real fear, and then a few seconds later some other part of the brain kicks in and puts the real fear into a new context where we can enjoy it? (a kind of a “fear sandwich”). Or is that other part of the brain aleady operating *during* the sensation of game fear, always already framing it, if only a little, and game fear is never quite identical.

    I think it’s worth occasionally paying very close attention to our experience while playing a game so that we see what’s *really* going on, instead of what appears to be happening at first glance. So I love the idea of your game diary and encourage you to do it.

    Thursday, April 12, 2007 at 4:15 am | Permalink
  6. Bob wrote:

    “…The total immersion that I am calling a myth is the fantasy of a seamless, holodeck-style simulation in which the player is transported into a perfect replica of the situation being represented, indistinguishable from reality.”

    God, the fucking holodeck. This is one more reason I prefer Star Wars to Star Trek.

    Thursday, April 12, 2007 at 4:45 am | Permalink
  7. Bob wrote:

    Okay, serious comment now– yes, the awareness of the player’s position of safety does tend to distance them from the danger of the game, sometimes dulling the emotional effects, but this is only really a problem during replays, similar to what happens after you watch a movie a repeated number of times. If you’ve seen The Usual Suspects once, it’s never going to fool you again. Just so, if you’ve played MGS once, odds are you’re not going to play with the same kind of fear you used to have of getting caught. You beat the game the first time, so there’s really no reason to think you won’t be able to this time.

    In all fairness, this phenomenon actually occurs far more often in games than in other media thanks to the whole life-and-death structure their challenge demands. After you’ve gotten a game-over once in a game, none of the subsequent ones really hit you in quite the same way. Fear of dying all too easily becomes replaced with the anxiety, and eventually annoyance, of losing, after our Ape-brains have wisened up to what our Lizard-brains weren’t able to understand at first. In this sense, you’re correct, that games employ a distance that can destroy “immersion.”

    And yet, the fact that this distance is there, actively subverting the experience of immersion, is one of the reasons we submit to the experience of gaming in the first place, isn’t it? Besides everything else it does, the “Magic Circle” provides gamers with a place where they can ritually allow themselves to die and live again. On a more psychologically sound level– games provide a place where it’s okay for us to lose, where we can pick up and start over again, unlike as it is all too often in life. In this way, all games are kind of meant to deconstruct the Lizard-brain fear, because possibly that’s what games are meant to do to begin with. In allowing for, and indeed actively encouraging players to fail without keeping them from continuing, games are about getting past our emotional and intellectual barriers so that we can finally win. The mantra of the medium ought to be “If at first you don’t succeed: Try, try again.”

    One of the reasons we play games is because they provide a space where we can be less than perfect without judgement, and go forward to attempt perfecting outselves, learning from out mistakes. Or maybe that’s just why I play games.

    Thursday, April 12, 2007 at 5:33 am | Permalink

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