’Feel It, Don’t Think: the Significance of Affect in the Study of Digital Games

Resource type
Date created
As a discourse, digital game studies is still in the process of formation, charting its terrain, defining its terms, and formalizing its methodologies. Even at this early stage, however, the field has already accrued a number of important grounding assumptions and embedded paradigms. Key among these is linear or Albertian perspective, which functions as a structural model for gamespace, and, to a large extent, as an epistemological model for the discourse that studies it. Digital gamespace is a derivative of Renaissance pictorial space. It is designed by and for subjects that belong to a culture of visuality, and know how to ‘read’ an image and to order its space rationally. To date, this visually biased, structural/semiotic angle has tended to dominate the methodological side of game studies. Structure – rhetorical, narrative, taxonomical – is a key concern in much current research, with games scholars calling for the construction of unified vocabularies, taxonomies, rhetorical strategies, and definitions in the field of games and game design. Structural and semiotic approaches have also been used to theorize the experience of gameplay itself, with linguistic and rhetorical models brought to bear on the issue of enjoyment in gaming, and psychoanalytic frameworks used to investigate the relationship between player, character, and gamespace. Approaches to gaming and interactivity remain incomplete, however, "if they operate only on the semantic or semiotic level, however that level is defined (linguistically, logically, narratologically, ideologically, or all of these in combination, as a Symbolic)." (Massumi 27) As any player knows, the rush you get from a good game is not confined to the space of the screen; it is a subrational, bodily thing as well, involving phenomenological or affective dimensions which cannot be programmed into a game, but which are nonetheless vital to good gameplay. Affect is key to the perception of images, and to the notion of meaningful interaction with them. While this is true of any image, it is impossible to ignore in digital games, where the user engages dynamically with moving images. What is lost in structural or semiotic approaches is precisely this sense of image perception as an embodied ’event’. Most games researchers are players as well, and the field of game studies is underpinned by a shared – if not yet widely acknowledged – recognition of digital games as rule-based systems that players interact with on an affective plane, in real space and time. Nonetheless, the notion of affect has yet to be theoretically unpacked to any significant degree digital games researchers, and there is little concensus in the field regarding the definition of the term, which is widely used as a synonym for emotion. As it will be understood here, however, affect is not the same thing as emotion. Affect is a way of describing the ’feel’ or intensity of a game, and as such it differs from the sociocultural capture or qualification of this intensity – the manifest content (narrative, symbolic, emotional, or otherwise) of a game. Affect refers to the unquantifiable features of a game – those phenomenological aspects of interactivity that are difficult to describe and to model theoretically, but which nonetheless make a game come alive. While narrative and structural approaches have much to reveal about the content of a game, they are far less articulate when it comes to discussing gameplay in affective terms. As console-based action and FPS games, pervasive games, and other more ’active’ genres become more popular amongst games researchers, however, they bring with them new methodological requirements. The following discussion addresses some of these requirements. Drawing on the theoretical approaches of Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Brian Massumi, and examining a variety of digital games and platforms ranging from the cerebral (online chess) to the physically involving (Eye Toy), it looks at interactivity along affective lines, in terms of the embodied nature of image perception and the player’s material relationship to digital technologies. Works Cited: Massumi, Brian. Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation. Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2002.
Contact: Eugenie Shinkle, University of Westminster, Department of Design, Digital Med, shinkle@wmin.ac.uk
Copyright statement
Copyright is held by the author(s).