Being one with the machine — Bodies in Play

Katta Spiel, Kathrin Gerling,
KU Leuven

Alberto Mora
Oct 2, 2019 · 3 min read
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When players play games, they collaboratively create a space that none of them could have created individually. We argue that the surrogate body theory, as used in Media Studies to describe cinematic experiences, can be of use to understand that space. The surrogate body, as a shared entity between them, is a body that belongs to both and neither and only exists as part of their interaction.

As a fundamental difference to the cinema, in play, human bodies are much more active. There are specific actions players have to perform to engage with a game successfully. Bodies and actions become literally dedicated to the interaction through the increased somatic involvement digital games of any kind require. In our analysis of a range of play scenarios, we explicitly focus on the technological contexts as well as the interplay of affect and actions players commit to the play experience.

As an example, we looked at games on mobile devices and smartphones. Those games often need to accommodate short attention spans for engagement, but encourage progress upon return (i.e., Spaceplan, Candy Crush or even 80 Days). While the physical distance to tablet devices is comparatively short and, in moments of touch, even immediate, players' emotional responses can be limited by the social circumstances. For example, it might be undesirable to fully display a range of affective reactions while riding public transit. Hence, the expressiveness of affect is socially constrained, which impacts players’ experiences. A sharp contrast is given by virtual reality games, in which players suspend their visual sense to focus entirely on the game environment. Often, auditory information can be similarly isolated, and tactile sensations are reduced to the handheld parts of the interface. In some cases, notably installations, players can also enter an entire space that is dedicated to a particular game. Hence, players’ perceptions are fundamentally transposed and oriented towards the game.

In this research, we also subtly questioned the hegemony of the written word as a basis for theoretically driven research. While thinking through drawing is — by far — not a new idea, we rarely find it within games research. Through drawing, we critically engaged with relevant elements of surrogate body theory and explored relevant parameters. Drawing revealed the relationship between players’ bodies, the screen, and the distance between both. There was some indication in our theoretical work that there are differences between contexts of cinema and digital games. However, in drawing, we could gain more qualitative and precise insights into these differences.

Going further from our analysis, game designers could leverage the surrogate body theory to inform the choice of suitable platforms for their content. Instead of following the latest technological trends, designers could make more conscious choices in designing their games alongside desired embodied experiences — not just in explicitly fully embodied play scenarios.

Contact author: Katta Spiel

CHI PLAY session:
Broader Reflections
Paper title: The Surrogate Body in Play
Thursday, 24 October 2019, 16:30–17:30

Please feel free to also write comments or questions for the authors in the space below!


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