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Embodied Evil:

The Aesthetics of Embodiment in

Resident Evil 4: Wii Edition

Being a dissertation submitted in part requirement for the degree of MA in New Media

Studies of the University of the West of England, Bristol.

Gareth White

20 August 2007
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Abstract

This work is an auto-ethnographic consideration of video game embodi-

ment using Resident Evil 4: Wii Edition (RE4) as a case study.

Much current critical video game discourse developed from film and liter-

ary criticism either does not engage with the player directly or does so with

an imputed rather than actual player, and includes just the game itself in a

consideration of what constitutes the text. Drawing principally on the phe-

nomenological terminology of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, this work presents a

critical appraisal of the temporary cybernetic assemblage of games ma-

chine and human player in the establishment of an embodied presence

within a cohesive and meaningful virtual environment. The event of game-

play is established by repetitive, pre-reflective action, in which the player’s

bodily intentionality is configured towards ludic, virtual projects. Through

the physical mediation of controller and television the player’s new sense

of embodiment in space is shifted in a way that calls into question conven-

tional ideas of the audience, with particular attention to issues of immer-

sion, presence, interactivity and configuration.


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Table of Contents

Introduction 4

Avatar 7

Cyborgs and Cybernetics 15

Interaction and Configuration 21

Space 35

Immersion and Presence 49

Visual, Embodied Aesthetics 53

Conclusion 58

Ludography 60

Filmography 60

Bibliography 61
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Introduction

Video game study has drawn largely from film and literature theory and methodology,

however, meaning production in literature and film is distinct from experiential meaning

production in embodied video game play (Seaman, 2004). Many scholars therefore

suggest a more diverse disciplinary approach would be beneficial (Krzywinska 2006;

Mäyrä 2005.) Embodiment is a critical issue

tightly interwoven with many other aspects of

video game study which requires further

analysis and clarification if it’s role in experi-

ential meaning production is to be under-

stood. This current work approaches these

issues by closely examining a case-study of

the single-player action-horror game, Resi-

dent Evil 4: Wii Edition1 (henceforth RE4).

The Wii is Nintendo’s latest video games

console, which has achieved great critical

and commercial success as well as scholarly

interest. This thesis, however, is concerned principally with embodiment and only occa-

sionally considers the Wii’s specific qualities where appropriate.

The two most interesting and significant features of the Wii are its interface device, and

marketing campaign. While the former has been the focus of much attention, I believe it

1 Resident Evil 4: Wii Edition. Capcom Production Studio 4. (Capcom, 2007). Wii.
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is rather the latter that has contributed most to the console’s success. However, as this

thesis is concerned with issues of human-

computer interaction it will be appropriate to

provide a brief overview of the game controller,

known colloquially as the Wiimote (a portman-

teau of Wii and remote control).

The first and arguably most important quality

of the Wiimote is its similarity with television

remote control, and difference from traditional games console controllers such as the

Sony PlayStation’s DualShock, which was for many years previously considered to be

the archetypal design for games

controllers. Nintendo’s design greatly

simplified the appearance of the device

while consolidating its complexity inter-

nally, away from the user. In particular

it features motion-sensing accelerome-

ters to detect 3D orientation, wireless

communication with the games console, and an infra-red pointing feature which allows

the game to detect with great precision to the precise direction of the controller when it

is pointed towards the television screen.

The use of this light-gun style interface, along with more natural motion sensing allows

the device to take advantage of the cultural capital of contemporary a great many peo-
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ple already familiar with devices such as TV remote controls. Traditionally game control-

lers such as the DualShock have a great number of buttons and present an intimidating

interface which unsurprisingly turns off non-gamers unfamiliar with its use. The Wiimote

in contrast has been noted as being more easily adopted by a wider variety of people

from a broad range of age and technical competence.

Of particular interest for this paper is the theorisation of the Wiimote in terms of cyber-

netic prosthesis, which will be dealt with in the chapter “Cyborgs and Cybernetics”.

However, this is not intended to be a comparative study between different consoles and

different games. In particular, RE4 is available on a variety of platforms (PC, GC, PS2,

Wii), all of which have unique and significantly different interface devices. While I will

discuss the features peculiar to the Wii version I do so only insofar as they are relevant

to my broader discussion, and without regard to other versions of the same game.
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Avatar

Embodiment in video games tends to be based on the visual representation of the play-

er’s character or ‘avatar’, which in RE4 is seen from a third person perspective, from

behind, looking over the character’s shoulder. The representation of avatar is a powerful

device for facilitating the cyborg player/character identity, also in regard to the way

games hail us both as character inside the game world and as player on the outside. In

the mind of the player this further helps to blur the boundaries between the two worlds

(Lahti 2002: 164).

As the player adjusts to the mediation of the game their sense of identity in this space is

revealed as a negotiated affair, with the player bringing their own sense of self into con-

junction with both the denotative and connotative iconic meaning of the avatar, as well

as its functional or symbolic significance within that world. The degree to which this oc-

curs, however, is debated, with some scholars more concerned with the nature of avatar

as mere interface device, or as ‘vehicle’ for the player to drive (Aarseth 2004; Carr

2002; Flanagan 1999).

In approaching other visual media we might consider the avatar as iconic representa-

tion, but this is problematic with video games due to the player’s special relationship

with it. Rather than merely perceiving the avatar, the game player drives this ‘icon’ and

comes to use it as their embodied presence in the game world. While it might initially be

appropriate to consider reception of this icon using traditional visual media criticism,

Dovey and Kennedy point out that through embodied play the avatar becomes the con-

junction of icon and player and cannot be adequately described as independently one or
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the other (2006: 109, 112). My first impression of RE4’s main avatar (Leon Scott Ken-

nedy) as visual icon was not a

very favourable one. The mid-

length, side-parted blond hair,

half covering his face, pouting

lips and smouldering, down-

turned eyes reminded me of a


Leon Scott Kennedy
photo-shoot from a 1980s boy Mark Owen (Take That)

band. In contrast, the pasty skin

and deep rings around the eyes con-

noted for me a semblance of Nos-

feratu. I half-expected the game to be

accompanied by a New-Romantic
Nosferatu
soundtrack.2
Simon Le Bon
(Duran Duran)
Newman (2002) observes that avatars are experienced as hav-

ing distinct qualities between on-line and off-line interactivity. During on-line play, avatar

representation becomes less significant for players, who often skip off-line sections

when possible, while prior to play it may serve to attract the player to the game.

RE4 is unusual in that it features not one but six player avatars: Leon Scott Kennedy,

Ashley Graham, Ada Wong, Jack Krauser, HUNK, and Albert Wesker.

2It is left as an exercise for the reader to decide whether this analysis says more about me or Capcom’s
character artists.
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Leon Scott Kennedy is a 27 year old U.S. secret agent, and principal pro-

tagonist of the game. Through most of the game, Leon is the player’s

avatar, so through the remainder of this text unless otherwise men-

tioned this is the avatar to which I am referring.

The other principal player avatar is Ada Wong, a

lithe Chinese-American operative for a mysterious

group known as “The Organization”. She ap-

pears during numerous cutscenes of the main game

and is a playable character in her own special mis-

sions as well as “The Mercenaries”, an unlockable

extra mini-game which is only available after

completing the main game. In addition to visual

appearance, character back-story and game ob-

jectives, Ada exhibits different gameplay qualities to Leon. The

principal differences I noticed when playing her were related to

motility. It seemed in my subjective evaluation that the avatar

was moving faster than Leon. This seems appropriate as her character is introduced

during off-line cutscenes with an exhibition of grace and martial arts. She is portrayed

visually and diegetically as stealthy and mysterious. This avatar is also capable of ath-

letic feats such as leaping onto objects that Leon is incapable of reaching. Playing as

Ada feels qualitatively different to playing as Leon, highlighting the aesthetic synergy of

visual, diegetic and ludic aspects of avatar. This coherence of diverse aspects in video

games is an important factor in the constitution of their particular aesthetic.


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During a short section of the game the player ‘becomes’ the 20 year old Ashley Gra-

ham, daughter of the U.S. President and damsel in distress for this

modern fairy-tale. Ashley is shorter than Leon and the camera is posi-

tioned to reflect this, meaning that the player sees the world from a

lower height than they have become accustomed to. The change in

height results in everything looking somewhat larger, enemies in

particular. During my play sessions the strongest shock was that

as Ashley I had nothing in my inventory. Through playing as

Leon for several hours I had accumulated a significant

arsenal of weapons and sundry equipment. With the

change of avatar I was suddenly stripped of all these important

tools. In effect I felt that I had lost something of myself in the process.

This highlights an important aspect of playing RE4, and perhaps many video games, the

role and meaning of inventory as it constitutes the sense of embodiment.

The principal types of equipment that can be collected during the game are weapons,

ammunition, herbs and healing medicines, treasure such as jewellery and cash, and

keys. Treasure exists purely to be exchanged for weapons, ammunition and medicine.

Keys exist purely to unlock access to previously inaccessible areas of the world and

thus effect progression. Weapons and ammunition define the ways in which the avatar

is able to interact with enemies and some objects in the game. Herbs and healing medi-

cines are literally the means by which the life of the avatar is sustained. After taking

damage from enemy attacks, I needed to periodically heal my avatar by applying some

of the remedies. The player’s avatar has a health bar that shows a graphical represen-
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tation of their current and maximum health status. Being hit by an enemy decreases the

current level proportional to the power of their weapon wielded. Some of the herbs that

can be found in the game increase the maximum health value of the avatar, thus mak-

ing them potentially much tougher than at the start of the game.

Each of these categories of items functions in a way that in part constitutes the avatar

and their relation to the world. When the avatar picks up any of these items they are

stored in the inventory, that is, they go from being part of the external world to part of

‘me’.

The inventory is represented as an internal space separate from the game world. Once

an object has entered the inventory it can only affect the outside world as and when I

choose to use it. In material terms it no longer exists as an object of the world, and can

never leave the inventory to become a distinct, external object again. Henceforth it only

exists as a capability of my avatar. When I pick up a hand grenade the object disap-

pears from the external world and there is no means for me to put the object back down

in the same state once it has entered my inventory. The grenade can later be discarded,

but it does not re-enter the external world, it simply disappears from existence. The gre-

nade could instead be equipped as a weapon and thrown, but it is actually incorrect to

think of it as the same object being thrown, it is merely a mechanism for my avatar to

interact with enemies in the game. When thrown it is literally no longer an object but

simply an effect: a visual and sonic explosion and a modulation of the state of entities in

the game world. At no point does the original object ever exist in the same state as it did

before I picked it up. There is no way to throw a hand grenade and then pick it up again.
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The distinction between external world and internal space of the inventory is further em-

phasised by the change in spatial representation and time. In gameplay terms the two

domains of inventory and world are exclusive as the player can only access one or the

other at a time. When accessing the inventory, time in the normal 3D game world is

suspended. The player can manipulate the contents of their inventory for as long as

they like with no change occurring in the external game world. Visually ‘inventory space’

is represented as 2D objective space. The player does not take a subjective, situated

3D position within space as is the case during the main game, but rather perceives and

manipulates the inventory without avatarial representation. That is, without embodiment.

Or perhaps it is more useful to say that external objects are incorporated into the avatar

as my embodied presence in the virtual world. The avatar as a virtually corporeal entity

is changed by this incorporation in terms of its relationship to the world. By collecting


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more weapons and ammunition I develop the potential for my avatar to dispatch more

adversaries and hence progress through the game.

In a manner similar to weaponry, collecting keys allows me to advance through the

game. This time, the incorporation of an external object into my bodily capability (putting

the key into my inventory) changes how I relate to the rest of the game world. What was

previously in effect a wall is now experienced as a portal. There is no sense in RE4 of a

door that can be locked, unlocked and then locked again. There are non-locked doors

that can change from being open to closed and back again without limit and which can-

not be locked, and there are locked doors that can change to unlocked just once and

only in that direction. The unlocking of a door removes the key from my inventory and

changes the locked door into an non-locked door.

In experiential terms, the incorporation of a key changes my relation to unexplored

space rather than to adversaries within my current space. Initially my bodily relation to

space is constrained to the non-locked areas, but once I have acquired a key my capa-

bility of bodily motility is enhanced. Importantly collecting keys in my inventory only

changes the meaning of doors for my avatar, not for enemy characters in the game,

emphasising that the change in state is subjective and tied to my embodied presence

and it’s inventory.

The only exception to this case is during the sections of game when playing as Leon,

leading Ashley. In these situations I am in normal control of Leon, but additionally I have

some capacity to direct Ashley. Her character normally closely follows Leon, giving the

impression of some kind of umbilical cord between the two characters which is felt like
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an extension of the normal unitary avatar. I have limited but direct control of her, and

can issue the commands “Wait” and “Follow Me” as well as some context specific in-

structions such as “Hide” when standing by certain objects large enough to hold her.

When Leon incorporates keys into his inventory he can unlock and pass through doors,

but also takes Ashley with him. During these sections of play it is as if Leon and Ashley

are part of the same entity, of which I as player make up the vital third part. Ashley has

limited artificial intelligence, usually capable of finding her way to Leon, and is in some

way a discrete character, but greatly dependent upon Leon, incapable of any real exis-

tence without him. Leon for his part lacks any kind of intelligence or autonomy without

control from me as player - save from the non-interactive, purely cinematic sections

which intersperse gameplay. Finally as the player I lack any presence without the aid of

an avatar. It is through the symbiotic conjunction of player and avatar that meaning is

established within the virtual world. This hybrid conjunction of human and technology is

the topic of the following chapter, “Cyborgs and Cybernetics”.


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Cyborgs and Cybernetics

"One could conclude that the parasite is manipulating the host's


behavior to make its way into the body of its definitive host.”

-Luis Sera, supporting character in RE4

The spread of new technologies throughout everyday life has led media

theorists to turn to cybernetics as a way to understand the relationship be-

tween human and machine-text (Haraway 1991, Hayles 1999). This

proves productive for theorising a post-Enlightenment notion of subjectivity

which rejects a purely humanistic framework in favour of recognising the agency of

technology in our society (Heidegger 1954). Such an approach raises important ques-

tions for studying videogames as a paradigm for engaging, immersive, meaningful

human-computer interaction (Lahti 2003). In particular Haraway's rendering of the cy-

borg's hybrid nature as a rejection of the binary distinction between human and technol-

ogy has become a dominant motif in new media and games studies (1991). For exam-

ple, Dovey and Kennedy (2006) argue that purely textual analyses cannot account for

the full range of gameplay, which comes about by the cybernetic feedback constituted

by player and machine (see also Salen & Zimmerman 2003; Friedman 1995; Lahti

2003; Cameron 1995).

McLuhan popularised the notion that not only did technology have an active role to play

in society, but that it had a profound effect upon our consciousness (McLuhan 1964). He
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argued that media technologies act as extensions of our senses, and that our con-

sciousness is constituted by the ratio of our sensory stimuli. Ihde (1998) also discusses

bodily and sensory extension in regard to technology, with particular reference to Hei-

degger and Merleau-Ponty. Heidegger (1962) analysed the human use of tools and

noted the way they temporarily change from being discrete, separate objects, to becom-

ing part of the action in which they are used. In the case of video games, the discrete

player and game come together to create a third term or event: gameplay (Dovey &

Kennedy 2006, Giddings 2006). In Ihde’s treatment of tools as sensory extension he re-

fers to Merleau-Ponty with a discussion of how a blind man's cane extends his sense of

touch by redefining the boundaries of the "here-body". This extension of the "here-body"

is involved in the construction of the accumulated, past, habitual body image which

might account for what has been called “The Tetris Effect”: after prolonged gaming ses-

sions, Tetris players anecdotally report visual and cognitive disturbances which appear

to be derived from their game play, such as experiencing a heightened awareness for

the possibilities of objects in their immediate surroundings to fit together like Tetris
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pieces3, as amusingly illustrated by the following comic,4

Within the context of VR or video games, the monitor can be considered as an exten-

sion of vision, and the visibility of (parts of) our avatar body - especially when seen by

the player from a first person point of view - acts as a prosthetic link between the physi-

cal human and its counterpart within the virtual space (Lahti 2003). Huhtamo discusses

how this "bilocation" is simultaneously a representation and source of bodily experience

(1995: 177). There is no simple Cartesian dualism here, no separation of mind from

“meat”, but rather a complication of the constitution of body being present in two loca-

tions simultaneously. Both locations are ontologically different (Aarseth 1998), hence

3 Further intriguing research to consider would be the work conducted by Robert Stickgold at Harvard
Medical School comparing amnesiac Tetris players with normal players who reported dreaming of images
from the game. Of particular interest to this study is the following,

“Co-author David Roddenberry, an undergraduate at Harvard, noticed that one of the amnesiacs who
didn’t remember the game nevertheless placed her fingers on the computer keys used in playing at the
start of a session.”

Leutwyler, Kristin. “Tetris Dreams”, (Scientific American, 2000).


<http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?articleID=0001F172-55DA-1C75-9B81809EC588EF21> (Last ac-
cessed 20th May 2007).

See also <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tetris_effect> (Last accessed 20th May 2007) and


<http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/abstract/290/5490/350> (Last accessed 20th May 2007).
4Gurewitch, Nicholas. “Game Boy”, The Perry Bible Fellowship.
<http://pbfcomics.com/?cid=PBF206-Game_Boy.jpg#191> (Last accessed 19th July 2007).
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are both forms and senses of the body, being determined by their specific conditions.

Huhtamo’s project follows in the tradition of Ihde, McLuhan and Heidegger as an inves-

tigation into the effects of technology upon culture, in which he sees adaptation to

“telematic” environments as being symptomatic of contemporary high-tech society. This

thesis is in many ways an attempt to account for the specificity involved in being a

physical body using technological tools to project one’s sense of presence into the vir-

tual game space.

From the concepts of cybernetics and the cyborg develops the idea of cybertext, the cy-

bernetic assemblage of player and ergodic text - that is, a dynamic text upon which the

user/player must take action for gameplay to come into being (Aarseth 1997). As we

have already discussed, video game play only occurs when player and game interact.

While recourse to a cybernetic framework has been useful to highlight machine agency,

the intention of my work is to attend to the specific material conditions of both human

and machine in their novel 'physiology' (Lister et al. 2003: 374), with attention to the

specifically human qualities of somatic awareness and the technological properties of

the machine which affect them during gameplay.

RE4 provides an instructive example of the way in which my senses could be described

as being extended during play. First of all it will be useful to describe my style during the

early stages of the game. Being unfamiliar with the world, its properties and mores but

being more used to other, more fast-paced action / combat games, I began with an ag-

gressive play style, directing my avatar to move quickly, running towards enemies and

then shooting them. Typically once an enemy had detected my presence - usually by
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line-of-sight, they would issue an audible battle cry. I used this effect to help me locate

enemies as their clear-cut computer code was better at detecting me than I was at visu-

ally spotting them through the trees and so on. In particular the early levels of the game

feature outdoor environment which are often thick with flora. The overall colour-scheme

of the first level is dominated by the muted browns and greys of bark and dirt. In this en-

vironment, the enemies who are local peasants or farm-workers have a natural camou-

flage in their dirt encrusted clothes and skin, blending in with the bushes and trees that

they hide behind. Hence I didn’t depend on my unreliable visual sense very strongly, but

rather found that by running I would quickly alert the enemies to my presence, and then

once they had alerted me to their presence I stop moving and just wait for them to ap-

proach me.

Perhaps unsurprisingly this tactic didn’t work very well for very long. There are plenty of

occasions in the game where enemies don’t announce themselves like this, but rather

silently stalk the player or jump out from around a corner, in classic horror style. As a

result of one too many such scares I compromised my style and began to move more

slowly and carefully in order to find enemies before they found me. As ammunition is

scare in this game, it is preferable to dispatch adversaries safely from a distance and

with a single shot to the head rather than engage in a confused, fast-paced gun battle at

close distance.

After some time of playing like this I noticed that something quite remarkable had oc-

curred in the way I was sensing the presence of enemy characters. Without consciously

being aware of it, I had adapted to visual and physical feedback from the Wiimote and

was using this to augment my slower, and more deliberate approach. In normal play,
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when the “B” button is pressed on the Wiimote a green targeting reticule appears at the

location on the television screen pointed at with the controller. If the controller is moved

to point at a part of the screen where an enemy is then the reticule turns red, and a

slight vibration issues from the controller. This visual and haptic feedback cues the

player into the location of an enemy even when they hadn’t previously seen them. Al-

though this feedback was subtle enough for me not to notice initially, I had begun to

adapt my style of play be reliant upon it. When I entered a new location, especially if it

were dark, foggy or obfuscated by trees and so on, I would stop my avatar from moving,

activate my targeting reticule and scan the Wiimote left and right, up and down across

the television screen. There is a pleasing parallel of the scan lines of the cathode ray

tube streaming electrons onto the screen, and my scanning of the same screen space

with a similar motion of the Wiimote. I realised that I was using the gun as a sensing de-

vice, and this is an exemplary case of the way that human bodily senses are modified

during game play. In order to understand this process is more detail, the following chap-

ter discusses one of the defining characteristics of video game play, interaction, and the

ways in which we become configured by it.


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Interaction and Configuration

“Soon you will be unable to resist this intoxicating power!”

-Osmund Saddler, principle antagonist of RE4

During play, the actual physical body is implicated as central to bringing about interac-

tion. Furthermore as bodily senses are extended to construct a hybrid human/machine

cyborg, the body is doubled and virtualised in the course of interacting with the virtual

environment. Our sense of presence in the virtual world reconfigures Merleau-Ponty’s

“being-in-the-world” as additionally “being-in-the-virtual-world”. That is, we adapt our

bodily senses through the physical peripheral devices such as controller and screen, in

order to attend to what Merleau-Ponty described as our “projects” which occur in the vir-

tual environment. This bodily interaction with virtual projects is the subject of the current

chapter.

While examining a cinematic virtual train ride in which our eyes metonymically represent

the body situated in the virtual environment, Huhtamo (1995) notes that there is a com-

promise involved in the movement from actual to virtual space; the body is simultane-

ously freed form its normal constraints while at the same time coming under the pre-

recorded control of the camera-as-spectator. This represents a complication of the tradi-

tional division between spectator and author which is even more powerful in video

games where the player is allowed to actively participate in a new world, but only on the

machine’s terms. Involving the user in the ergodic production of a text raises questions
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of authorship and put into doubt existing media theories that assume a consistent, static

text body and the authority of a coherent author. It can be argued that all of our medi-

ated relationships are interactive in the act of interpretation and that we do not neces-

sarily passively consume the original, intended meaning (Manovich 2001; Aarseth

2003). Dovey and Kennedy (2006) argue, however, that gameplay consists not only of

interpretative activity but additionally requires a unique form of action in order for the

game to come into being.

Narrative in game studies has typically been concerned with discussions of interpreta-

tive rather than embodied pleasures (Ryan, 2005), and has proved to be controversial in

regard to ludological pleasures of gameplay due to the impact interactivity can have,

“... in literary matters, interactivity conflicts either with immersion or with aes-
thetic design, and usually with both.”5

Providing the player the option to influence an unfolding story is a complex and unpre-

dictable demand on narratives which are typically static and authored by a single voice.

Indeed, requiring the player to act in order for gameplay to take place can in itself dis-

tract the player from the traditional pleasures of non-interactive reception. That is to say

that traditional models for the reception and consumption of narrative cannot be naïvely

applied where interactive videogames are involved, but a rather more nuanced ap-

proach attentive to the specificity of the medium is required.

Newman (2002) proposes an "interactive continuum", ranging from fully interactive ("on-

line") to non-interactive ("off-line"), with degrees of partial interactivity in between. Im-

5Ryan, Marie-Laure. Narrative as Virtual Reality: Immersion and Interactivity in Literature and Electronic
Media. (Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press, 1991).
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portantly on-line play deals with immersion and a sense of presence in the game rather

than the "detached and critical contemplation of complex narrative" in off-line experi-

ences. The aesthetics of on-line gameplay are both interactive and immersive, but this

results in a very different type of immersion.

RE4 exhibits a complex continuum of interactivity. During normal on-line play there is no

attempt at conventional narrative per se. This would correlate well with Grodal’s (2003)

assertion that action-based games stimulate emotions from the sympathetic nervous

system, which are incompatible with contemplative narrative consumption. There are

numerous cutscenes throughout the game, and due to my familiarity with the conven-

tions of video games - and their remediation of film - I had expected these to be off-line,

non-interactive sections during which I could sit back and enjoy watching the story un-

fold. This is generally the case but I was shocked to find that fairly often I would be re-

quired to react to events in the cutscenes. This is not without precedent in video game

history, most typically exemplified and popularised by Shenmue’s6 “Quick Timer Events”

in 1999, and arguably even further back to 1983 with the pioneering interactive movie /

arcade game Dragon’s Lair7.

As I began to play RE4 I brought with me certain assumptions about video game aes-

thetics. Of interest here is the convention that Newman describes as off-line and on-line,

which in most games is clearly delineated. For example, during off-line cutscenes where

the player is not expected to interact it is typical to observe a stylistic change in the

game’s presentation. Often this is indicated by the absence of HUD (non-diegetic ele-

6 Shenmue. Sega-AM2. (Sega, 1999). Dreamcast.


7 Dragon’s Lair. Advanced Microcomputer Systems. (Cinematronics, 1983). Arcade.
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ments displaying the player character’s state such as health, ammunition and score),

and by presenting the display in letterbox format, remediating an artefact of displaying

widescreen film on standard sized television. In order for the original aspect ratio of 16:9

to be preserved on a standard television set’s 4:3 frame, the image is rendered across

the horizontal width as normal, but sections at the top and bottom of the display are left

blank, resembling a

letterbox. These conventions

are not conformed to by RE4

which caused me some

problems early on. During

the game’s intro I was re-

laxed, reclining in my chair

as I recognised certain con-

ventions indicating that the

sequence I was watching was a non-interactive, or off-line piece. This mode of con-

sumption is very similar to watching a film, so I could allow my attention to be absorbed

by the images without having to actively concern myself with my relation to it. The cine-

matography framed the characters on screen in a dramatic way, with a mixture of estab-

lishing shots, close-ups, shot reverse shot, etc. However as soon as the camera cut to a

third-person view from behind and above Leon’s shoulder I immediately sat up and

found myself leaning slightly forward, much more aware of holding the Wiimote control-

ler as I recognised this change of visual technique to indicate a switch to the on-line,

fully interactive mode.


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Later in the game after playing on-line for some time, I was again treated to an appar-

ently off-line section, signalled by a shift in camera away from the trailing position asso-

ciated with on-line play. Therefore I relaxed and was ready to enjoy a conventional

cinematic narrative. However, in RE4, these conventions are not followed and I was

surprised to see instructions flash suddenly on the screen indicating that I had to per-

form some action. In a scene

reminiscent of Raiders of the

Lost Ark, Leon was running

away from a boulder, but rather

than follow my expectations of

simply watching this narrative

device, I was expected to ma-

nipulate the Wiimote controller

to enact Leon’s sprint. As I wasn’t expecting this demand and had put the controller

down, Leon did not run fast

enough, the boulder caught up

and my game was over.

After having adapted to the con-

ventions of RE4, I learnt not to

put the controller down, even

during apparently off-line sec-

tions of the game. This had a cu-

rious effect on the way I experienced them. Rather than either a more conventional
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cinematic reception, or a fully interactive visual mode, I found myself positioned some-

where in between. The aesthetic of RE4 is an interesting example of hybrids and reme-

diation which in itself would make an interesting study.

To conclude my example I would like to describe an event that took place after many

hours of play, when I had become thoroughly accustomed to these hybrid conventions.

Before starting to play the game, a title screen is displayed with options to start a new

game or load a previously saved game, amongst others. If no buttons are pressed on

the Wiimote controller after a minute or so, a purely cinematic trailer for the game is

shown. This is a well made montage of footage from the game which I enjoyed watch-

ing. However, one section of the footage was of a hybrid on-line / cinematic cutscene in

to which the player had to respond. The action was shown using conventional cinematic

techniques rather than the over the shoulder view of on-line play, but an icon of the

Wiimote was rendered on top of this with instructions to press “A+B”, two of the buttons

on the controller. Despite this not being part of the game proper, just a completely non-

interactive trailer, my hands still responded automatically to the stimulus my eyes per-

ceived. When the trailer runs, any button press immediately returns the game to the

normal title screen, interrupting the narrative of the trailer. I was confused and not sure

how to receive the images being displayed, whether I was implicated in them bodily or

not, and what my relation to the narrative was. This issue will be explored further in the

chapter “Visual and Embodied Aesthetics”.

The diversity of meanings for the term ‘interactivity’ suggests a critical aporia in current

thought on the subject, but Merleau-Ponty’s (2002) notion of bodily intentionality can be
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read as a holistic approach to explaining cyborg immersion and interactivity from the ac-

tual, physical body mediated by embodiment in virtual worlds. The body as being-in-

itself always already exists within a relational environment, and acts towards intentional

objects on that basis. When I want to drink, my arm picks up the mug and brings it to my

lips without reflective thought. This is a learnt, bodily association predicated on the de-

velopment of my proprioceptive sense within this environment through repetitive action.

This is the most natural sense of bodily interactivity considered, and this approach with

regard to embodiment within a virtual space should prove productive in the analysis of

my own experience of gameplay.

Grodal (2003) asserts that a greater sense of interactivity is produced by more player

motor action that leads to agency within a possible virtual world, which importantly

places physical motor action as the basis for virtual interaction. Dovey and Kennedy

(2006), meanwhile, point out that cybernetic repetition is a central aspect of gameplay

unlike any other form of cultural consumption. An important aspect of such play is the

notion of ideal performance, manifested to the player in a number of guises but most

obviously as the “High Score”. The quantification of one performance being verifiably

“better” than another is an important aspect of gaming culture, which results in the wide-

spread publication of “walkthrough” and “speed run” guides detailing the steps required

to complete the game with maximum efficiency. Furthermore the very structure of

gameplay consists of what is essentially repetitive action through increasingly challeng-

ing scenarios. The actions central to RE4 are navigation through virtual space and tacti-

cal combat, most often shooting. It is telling that at the end of each chapter in the game

the player is presented with a screen showing a breakdown of statistical data compiled
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during play. The categories are “Hit Ratio” (the percentage of shots fired by the player

which hit enemies), “Enemies Killed”, “Number of Times Killed”, and upon completing

the entire game “Clear Time” (entire duration of gameplay) and “Number of Saves”. The

periodic presentation of these statistics implies to the player a sense of the values the

game makes of the player’s performance. This is further exacerbated by the large num-

ber of features which are only available to players who achieve particularly outstanding

performances.

My initial clear time was around thirty five hours on the normal difficulty setting - some-

what more than commonly reported by other players. After increasing the difficulty set-

ting to “Pro” my clear time actually decreased to twenty five hours. After the initial thirty

five hours of play, my increased familiarity with the spatial tactics of the game, ‘feel’ for

my avatar, and knowledge of solutions to puzzles presumably amortised the increase in

difficulty and so allowed me to complete the game faster than initially. The only differ-

ence in difficulty that I could identify was that enemies required more damage to dis-

patch than previously, which demanded more accurate shooting as ammunition in the

game is scarce so conservation is vital. After completing all difficulty settings and all

mini-games, certain special weapons were unlocked which radically changed the expe-

rience of the game, resulting in my final clear time of just six hours. In particular the

“Hand Cannon”, “Infinite Launcher” and “Chicago Typewriter” all deliver extremely pow-

erful shots and do not require ammunition, thus undermining several core aspects to the

game. With these weapons incorporated into my bodily capability, enemies were re-

duced to a caricature of their previous significance. While they remained a threat as

they could still shoot and kill my avatar, in practice my previous play had taught me to
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target and shoot so well that I could easily dispatch even large crowds of enemies

quickly and easily without serious danger.

Indeed the most striking effect was that other unconventional aspects of the game be-

came more critical to my progress. In particular the Quick Timer Events (QTE) became

the key focus of my latter gameplay. With the main embodied experiences of strategic

navigation and tactical combat mastered by way of repetitive training and the incorpora-

tion into my avatar of powerful weapon capabilities, the only real challenge was in the

special cases of QTEs. These events are distinct from the regular gameplay experience

as they lack the normal sense of on-line interactive embodiment. This is signalled by a

change in camera angle, the presentation of on-screen instructions, and a change in the

style of gameplay and interface. Rather than being immersed by my interactive avatarial

presence in a 3D environment, QTEs are characterised by a more cinematic spectacle,

augmented with tests of pure reflex lacking a fully interactive avatar. That is, while the

avatar is represented onscreen, even when using the same character model, this is not

strictly an avatar as I am not in bodily control of it. The aesthetics of QTEs are closer to

those of interactive hypertext than to on-line video games. Thus, while most of my thirty

five hours of training was in repetitive embodied actions, the infrequency and disjointed

nature of the QTEs prevented me from adapting to them as part of the overall gameplay

experience. It was only when I ‘primed’ myself to expect a QTE that I was competently

capable of success. In this mode I would remember when QTEs were scripted to occur

and so pull my attention away from the relaxed consumption of cinematic cutscene or

the immersive presence of embodied gameplay. I would shift to a third state in the inter-
Page 30 of 69

active continuum: alert to certain specific icons at the expense of both narrative and

embodiment.

This tri-state of interactivity suggests to me both the false dichotomy between narratol-

ogy and ludology, and the inappropriateness of framing interactivity as a continuum.

During my play I felt these states to be quite distinct and would not be able to quantify

their degree of interactivity relative to one another as position along a unified continuum.

Furthermore the transition from one to the other was not smooth and gradual, but a hard

cut, literalised by the sudden, imperative flash of an icon on-screen, or the cut in camera

position and style.

I would go as far as to suggest that each of these states has its own particular aesthetic,

and that the central concern of this current paper is to explore the aesthetics of em-

bodiment which is currently a dominant mode of game play. Ludology has provided a

great deal of material with which to consider game-like elements, and narratology con-

tinues in the great tradition of narrative analysis, but I argue that a more detailed con-

sideration of embodiment is necessary to open up game studies in a productive third

direction.

Dovey and Kennedy (2002) recognise that while the repetitive type of interactivity is ex-

ceptional in video game play, it is not without precedent in other forms of performance

such as the "virtuosity" in sports and music which are both highly dependent upon re-

petitive, physical training. They mention that Quake players describe their performance

with terms that would not be out of place in the martial arts or ballet, such as 'athleti-

cism', 'balance' and 'coordination' (2006: 115). Indeed they emphasise that it is the
Page 31 of 69

physical body of the player (such as manual dexterity and hand-eye coordination) that is

being trained to conform to the game's preferred performance (2006: 110). Similarly

Murray (1997: 153) talks of the game designer as constructing a choreographic context,

within which the player becomes an improvisational dancer.

Grodal also observers that one's sense of interactivity is not fixed, but rather varies with

time and ability. He contends that players’ sense of what he calls “agency” will become

diminished as their activity becomes habitual, and their awareness of their role in the

world is more as an automatic mechanism responding to stimuli in the optimal way. That

is, his use of the term “agency” is related not to interactivity generally, but rather refers

to a sense of reflective, conscious intentionality. Hence, as the player’s performance

improves, their actions become more physically instinctive, rather than cognitive as

there is less need to reflect on the unfolding of each scenario. The extensive amount of

repetition involved has physically trained the player to respond in a pre-reflective, bodily

manner. He contends that in the final, automatic stage of gameplay mastery, one's im-

mersion is at its peak and is "trancelike" due to the sophisticated neuronal reconfigura-

tion between perception, emotion, and motor action, which he describes as “desensiti-

sation by habituation”. It is important to clarify particularly that this desensitisation is only

related to the automatic motor function within the current virtual environment, and does

not address issues of desensitisation to violent visual stimuli, for instance. It is rather the

“habit” of moving in and around space that Benjamin comments on with regard to archi-

tecture,

... buildings are appropriated in a twofold manner: ... by touch and by sight....
On the tactile side there is no counterpart to contemplation on the optical
Page 32 of 69

side. Tactile appropriation is accomplished not so much by attention as by


habit.8

Elsewhere (White, 2007) I have addressed Penny’s (2004) attempts to work through

what this habitual training means for the player, with particular interest in whether violent

video game play can train a player to automatically respond with violence to stimuli in

the real world. His work also attends to issues of bodily action in interactive entertain-

ment, with a particular concern that traditional critiques of visual representation are in-

capable of addressing issues involved where physical bodily action can produce corre-

sponding visual effects. Referring to Foucault (1977), Marcel Mauss (1973) and Pierre

Bordieu (1977), Penny points out a variety of situations which make use of the repetition

of physical action as a form of training, not only intentionally as a way to control the

body (as in martial arts, yoga and football), but also in the way that social behaviours

are subconsciously adopted, and further argues that sports and military training are both

"anti-intellectual" in the sense that such training is only effective once it has been as-

similated into the body rather than the mind.

The principal archaeology invoked in his work is in US military technology, following the

development of DARPA's VR simulation engines from the 1980s through the 1990s and

relating it to corresponding developments occurring contemporaneously within the

games industry. He also points out that the U.S. military licensed Id Software's Doom as

a "tactical training tool" (p. 75) and the U.S. Navy's use of The Sims to "model the or-

ganisation of terrorist cells" (p. 76). However, despite showing the shared history and

8Benjamin, Walter. The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction. (1936).
<http://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/philosophy/works/ge/benjamin.htm> (Last accessed 29th June
2007).
Page 33 of 69

similarities between military simulation training and video game play, Penny fails to take

into account their differences. In particular the hyper-mediation of modern push-button

warfare is in many respects indistinguishable from its simulation. I contend that bodily

intentionality in real life and the virtual environments of video games are too different

from one another to complete the chain of perception, emotion, cognition and physical

motor action necessary to enact trained stimulus-response, and that furthermore the

player maintains an awareness and critical distance to their actions which frames a dis-

tinction between real life and gameplay, a distinction missing from the level of serious

commitment brought to military training (White, 2007).

Lahti uses language reminiscent of McLuhan when he observes that action based

games train us through repetition in a manner similar to industrial work: we become

automatons with a "prosthetic memory" (2003: 166). This fits well with Merleau-Ponty's

description of the habitual body as site for the accumulation of bodily experience. It is

literally "muscle memory", and in the case of virtual embodiment this becomes cyborg or

prosthetic memory; our physical muscles become attuned to technological devices such

as game controllers, which act as the prosthetic link between the physical, actual body,

and the virtual world from within which originates the stimuli we physically respond to.

Friedman (1999) describes how this affects not only our bodies, but - also in tune with

McLuhan's notion of consciousness being determined by sense-ratios - our minds. In a

cybernetic relation we develop "cyborg consciousness". This is a clear example of the

issues Heidegger (1954) was concerned with, the instrumentality of technology and its

surreptitious effect upon the way we live our lives. Poster (2002) argues that our every-
Page 34 of 69

day experience of being is now distributed and connected with machines and other hu-

mans through technologies such as the internet. As such this is phenomenologically

novel and distinct from the experience with technology that Heidegger describes. The

current imbrication of human and technological is a new form of hybrid participation

rather than the earlier surreptitious, mechanised control of Heidegger’s dystopian fears.

Indeed, Gee (2004) argues that games force us to learn and adapt through interaction,

and as such train us to become active rather than passive in our modern, rapidly chang-

ing lives, literally to become actors. As has been discussed earlier, through repetitive

physical motor action, games can establish automatic stimulus-response reactions

within the limited confines of their specific space, but more generally their requirement

of interactivity encourages game players to maintain an attitude of curiosity and experi-

mentation based upon their active engagement with media.

Interactivity and the player character’s agency are tightly associated with an embodied

presence in a virtual world. The notions of the cyborg and Merleau-Ponty’s phenome-

nology suggests ways to theorise and reconcile these in terms of virtual bodily inten-

tionality.
Page 35 of 69

Space

“The defining element in video games is spatiality”9

A number of theorists have approached an analysis of video games with an attention to

space (Aarseth 1998, Babeux 2005, Buckley 2004, Miklaucic 2006, Taylor 2005), and

this proves to be particularly relevant for an understanding of gameplay in RE4.

Merleau-Ponty shows that subjectivity manifests as a result of a spatially situated body,

and that our relationships to the world and other entities are predicated upon this em-

bodied nature (2002). When playing RE4, the avatar is the vehicle of the player’s em-

bodiment within the virtual space of the game, and the spatial dimensions of the game

are the environment in which the cyborg player / avatar is situated. A particularly inter-

esting quality of RE4 is that some of the game’s topography is experienced in a number

of different contexts, and through several different avatars. The main game environment

is shared between Leon, Ada and Ashley, with some unique areas only accessible to

each individual character, but the “Mercenaries” mini-game is a particularly interesting

exercise in spatial gameplay. In this mode of play only four levels of the game are ac-

cessible: the pueblo village, castle, mountainside, and water island. Gaming website

IGN provide guides for each of these locations, and their strategies are all described in

spatial terms:

Pueblo ... Speed is the key to survival in this stage. Run to the south end of
the village and shoot any enemies from there. After a few seconds, run to the

9Aarseth, Espen J. Allegories of Space: The Question of Spatiality in Computer Games. (University of
Bergen, 18th May 1998)
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north end of the village and do the same tactic. Running north to south and
vice versa keeps the crazed villagers from surrounding you.

Castle ... Distance is the key to survival in this area. Run from one end of the
area and turn around. Shoot all enemies in the way and head for the other
end. When running up stairs be cautious because enemies will appear out of
nowhere and ambush you.

Mountainside ... Height is the biggest key to survival here. Shoot anybody
from either the top of the towers or from the ground. Each time you approach
an excavated tunnel; you will encounter more enemies so be on your guard.
When enemies climb ladders or jump down from high ledges, take a shot!

Water Island ... You'll have to combine Height and Distance to kill your foes in
this stage. Shoot everyone that climbs up the ladders and shoot everyone
that is standing on the opposite roof. When on the ground, keep evasive and
run from one end to another while shooting those in the way.10

(emphasis my own)

These four levels are intended to be played over and over again with five different ava-

tars (Leon, Ada, Jack, HUNK, Wesker). Playing the same level against the same adver-

saries but with different player avatars emphasises the unique relationship between

avatar and world. Despite using such a limited environment, the game remains interest-

ing throughout these prolonged play sessions precisely because it is an exercise in spa-

tially embodied player agency. Playing as a variety of avatars in exactly the same envi-

ronment allows the player to explore the diversity of meanings this space can have for

each different character. The game has such great replay value because each avatar

presents the player with a new bodily intentionality to the environment.

10VampireHorde, “Resident Evil 4 Mercenaries Mode FAQ”. (IGN, 31st January 2005)
<http://uk.faqs.ign.com/articles/580/580347p1.html> (Last accessed 15th July 2007).
Page 37 of 69

Even when playing with a single, consistent avatar, it’s interesting to consider the

changing ways in which space is experienced. At the start of each level the first thing I

usually did was examine the game map, which is a simplified, overhead plan of the

principal structures and doorways in the level. It shows the location of certain special

areas where you can save the game or upgrade weapons as well as indicating the des-

tination that the player must reach in order to progress to the next level. I used this map

to orient myself in the space, to get an idea of where I was in relation to the other impor-

tant features, and so to identify in which direction I should proceed.

Tuan (1977) provides some useful terminology for understanding my different experi-

ences of space. This first example of examining the map is what he calls “spatial knowl-

edge” and is purely cognitive as it has not been assimilated into the moving body as

“spatial experience”. As I entered each new environment (a room or level in RE4 for ex-

ample), I began by visually examining its appearance, trying to locate significant entities

such as enemies and treasure, and also in an attempt to situate my embodied presence

within that environment through my bodily senses.

Audio cues also play a role in this, but from my own personal experience I found them

to be unreliable; my impression was often that I misinterpreted the location of enemies

when I judged this purely based on the sounds they made. Whether this was due to the

particular set-up of my audio equipment or the positional-audio technologies used in the

game I can’t say. 3D games usually make use of 3D environmental audio which trans-

form audio samples based on the relative location of source and player. For example, a

sound that originates far away from the player will result in the sample being played
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more quietly and perhaps with additional sound filters (such as echo, reverb, or Doppler

shift) to give the impression of the environment within which it is heard. In my subjective

evaluation, it sounded to me that RE4 does not physically modulate audio based on lo-

cal environmental geometry. Specifically an enemy standing behind a door or even a

concrete wall would sound the same as one equidistant to me, but without physical ob-

stacles in the way.

After having familiarised myself visually and aurally with the new environment I would

proceed to move around within it in order to experience the space from a variety of dif-

ferent perspectives. By moving around the same audio/visual stimuli I was able to build

up a better mental model of what they were and where they were located. As Merleau-

Ponty shows, motility is a key component of spatially situated subjectivity (2002: 112 -

170), and this is especially important when viewing a 3D environment projected onto the

2D space of a television screen, as demonstrated by numerous optical illusions such as

the “Necker Cube”11. Initially it can be difficult to

identify what a static object is, especially with the

monocular two dimensional vision rendered onto a

flat television screen. By shifting location we see

the same object from a variety of perspectives and

so build a more comprehensive, pre-reflective im-

pression of the object.

Necker Cube
This initial mode of exploration I call tactical because

11Objects in RE4 provide more visual clues as to structure than the Necker Cube, such as with texture
and lighting, but the absence of stereoscopy and motility can still result in ambiguity.
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of its military connotations. It is a detailed, highly localised mode of being where my at-

tention is focussed on the immediate surroundings and senses. This military analogy is

particularly apt to the subject matter of RE4, where gameplay is principally defined by

combat. By moving my embodied presence around the environment I develop a sense

of spatial experience, that is, I become familiar with the environment in a bodily way - I

no longer need to cognitively reflect on where I am in space, but have assimilated this

knowledge into my bodily experience of motility. I am capable of moving and acting with

little or no reflective thought. I am immersed in a sense of being bodily present in this

environment. This is no longer “space” in Tuan’s meaning of the word, an unknown area

that needs to be explored, but rather has the potential to become a “place”. For Tuan

this term suggests a familiarity and comfort of somewhere predictable and safe.

This terminology derives from cultural geography, and so does not intentionally address

the unique situation of gameplay as Tuan’s interest was in actual human life, settle-

ments and the home. However, the distinction between unexplored, unknown and po-

tentially hostile “space” and the known “place” is still a useful distinction to make with

RE4. It would be inappropriate to describe a familiar room in the game as “homely” due

to the difference in meaning between the space of a home and the space in the game.

In particular as Aarseth (1998) suggests, the use of space in RE4 is defined by the

terms of the game design, whereas the use of space in the home is defined by the

terms of domesticity and social rules. Space in the home often has meaning defined by

familiarity and comfort, but space in RE4 is only meaningful as a means to play, so that

when the possibilities for play have been exhausted, the space becomes no longer

meaningful. My tactical exploration of a potentially new, hostile space is meaningful as it


Page 40 of 69

has implications for my continued pleasure in playing the game. As I explained earlier,

my initial tactic of running head-first through the game resulted in my avatar being killed

too often so it was necessary to adapt to a slower and more cautious approach. This

change in style was determined by gameplay considerations - in order to play and pro-

gress successfully through the game it was necessary to respect the potential danger of

the space. Once enemies have been killed the space loses its threat, but also its signifi-

cance. As gameplay is predicated on a certain degree of interaction, once the significant

interactive elements (i.e., the enemy characters) have been removed there is little left to

enjoy in play.

During one part of the game while playing as Ada in the pueblo village I became unsure

of how to proceed. I had killed all of the enemies in the current location, but could not

see any unlocked exits on my map. Often the trail of new enemies leads the player to

their next location, but in this case that didn’t seem to be the case. I’d made a point of

exploring the area to be sure that there were no enemies left, and hence no parts of the

space that might prove to be significant in gameplay terms. The village was empty, there

was nothing to do, no clues as how to proceed. Clearly I was missing something. The

only possibility I could imagine was that there would be a key of some sort in the village

somewhere, but I simply hadn’t found it yet. Treasure such as keys are normally ex-

tremely easy to spot as they’re displayed with a glowing halo or sparkle in bright, artifi-

cial colours that contrast well against the muted, natural tones of the background. I was

therefore quite sure that if a key was here, then it wasn’t simply something to be picked

up like normal treasure. The only alternative was that I had to do something in order to

receive the key. I quickly ran around the area again, but this time trying to interact with
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objects I wouldn’t normally think of as meaningful. Often when the player avatar ap-

proaches a cupboard or other container a message will appear on the screen indicating

that the object can be opened, and usually some treasure will be found inside. There-

fore I set to running through the village, close to all of the visible geometry I could ap-

proach. While doing this I noticed other objects that I hadn’t considered interacting with

before. Particularly in the pueblo village there are autonomous farmyard animals such

as cows and chickens, which are normally just in the background and incidental to the

game. I realised that I could attack and kill them, and that this was another potential

form of gameplay significance that could help me to progress through the level. In the

village this approach did not actually help directly - it eventually turned out that I had

simply not approached the right object previously - it did make a difference later on in

the game. I discovered that if I shot the crows that dotted some of the levels, they would

- inexplicably - drop treasure when they died.

Perhaps the most important factor for arguing that levels in RE4, even when emptied of

adversaries and incidental animals, cannot be described as “place” is that they no

longer have meaning for the player. There is literally nothing left to interact with in a

‘completed’ level, no treasure to collect, no enemies to overcome, no reason to navigate

the topography. The exception to this might be those locations where a friendly mer-

chant can be found. Whenever I was playing and came across one of these locations I

felt relieved because this place meant a break from combat and a chance to refresh my

inventory. Levels in RE4 are constructed into discrete sections which appear continuous

on the overhead map, but which in practice are separated from one another by internal

doors. Most doors in the game swing open when the avatar pushes them, but doors
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which divide the level into their constituent sections are not shown to open. Rather

when the player approaches them and presses the button to open the door, the screen

fades to black, there is a short pause during which time the new section is loaded, and

the game resumes on the other side of the (closed) door. Enemies never pass through

such doors. Usually when the player comes across a merchant he is in his own small

section of the level in which enemies are absent. This is the material basis for which the

merchant areas could be considered “place”.

The corollary to my tactical mode of exploring unfamiliar space is a strategic mode of

moving through the familiar. Typically in the game I would progress through the sections

of a level in a relatively linear fashion towards the goal or destination. Sometimes it

would not be necessary to explore the whole level in order to progress to the next one,

but there are certain benefits to doing so. In particular the chance to collect more treas-

ure or ammunition which could be useful in latter parts of the game. In such cases I

would likely have to return through areas I’d previously explored in order to get to a door

that I’d initially overlooked but which I’d subsequently identified on my map. I would

need to move from my present location through areas that I had already explored and to

a certain degree assimilated into my bodily experience, and from which I’d already dis-

patched all enemies. This mode of movement is no longer the slow, careful, analytical

and tactical exploration, but rather a high-level, cognitive plan of action composed of

rough structures (rooms) and their connecting points (doors). It is an exercise in navi-

gating through a network of nodes and lines, or in other words, a map. I call this mode

of movement “strategic”, again with the military connotations of long-term or overall

planning. This mode makes extensive use of my spatial knowledge, literally represented
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by the overhead map. However my embodied presence still has to move through the

intervening space and I have to negotiate the particular features of the world that I en-

counter along the way, such as doors and paths. My attention in this process is a com-

bination of visual analysis and cognitive planning. I would typically begin by examining

the overhead map to orient myself and construct a mental plan of action, which could be

verbalised something like this:

“Go through the door which is ahead and slightly to the left of my present lo-
cation. Follow the corridor regardless of which directions it winds. At then end
there is another door to go through. After that turn right and head straight
ahead, then take the second door on the left.”

Once I’d completed this small section of my plan I would examine the overhead map

again to verify I had reached the intermediate point I’d intended, and construct a plan for

the next few steps of my strategy. While executing this plan I would not be consciously

looking for enemies or treasure as I had already dealt with all of them during my initial

tactical exploration. Instead I would see the space only in terms of features pertinent to

my current plan, i.e., doors and paths.

Babeux (2005) uses the terminology of tactic and strategy to consider the relationship of

player to space in a variety of games, appropriated from De Certeau's (1990) analysis of

the repetitive and unconscious practices involved in everyday life, and in particular in

the navigation of urban cityscapes. Babeux suggests that the player attempts to regain

a tactical control of space from the game designer, manifested in the layout and con-

tents of the environment. The creative play that takes places in this process occurs in

the liminal space between real and virtual, and it is in the tactical re-appropriation of
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space that the player expresses their self and makes the space their own. Indeed, in

Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology, it is the space between the body and the world that

allows communication to occur between the two, from which derives our sense of being-

in-the-world.

In addition to De Certeau (1990) and Tuan (1977), Lefebvre (1991) and Soja (1996)

provide some other useful terminology for understanding the space of video games

(Taylor 2005, Buckley 2004, Miklaucic 2006).

Lefebvre talks about “spatial practice” as the material or sensorial qualities of space and

the people and practices that construct and use it, which in Soja’s scheme corresponds

to “Firstspace”. Lefebvre’s “representation of space” or “represented space” is the ab-

stract plan or cognitive knowledge of a space, correlating with Soja’s “Secondspace”.

Both of these forms, the material and the abstract, come together in a meaningful way

as “spaces of representation” or “spatial representation” in a “Thirdspace” which is lived,

experiential space.

Buckley (2004) uses Lefebvre and Soja's terminology to reflect on the use of space in

Myst and Tetris. He identifies Myst mostly as a game of Firstspace due to its emphasis

on visual , navigable exploration, and Tetris mostly as a game of Secondspace by its

use of abstract or conceptual space. He notes, however, that neither of these games

deal exclusively with either one or the other spaces, but observes that it is through the

conjunction of body and game that the Thirdspace or spatial practice of gameplay oc-

curs. In closing, Buckley remarks that Thirdspace is a site for contestation, paralleling
Page 45 of 69

Babeux’s assertion that in the liminal space between player and game there is negotia-

tion, where each attempts to impose upon the other.

Congruently, Giddings (2006) discusses the temporary “event” of “videogame/play/er”,

emphasising that gameplay only comes into being as a lived experience when human

and non-human actors operate upon one another. While Giddings highlights the human

/ non-human relationship of the ‘event’ of gameplay, my current work is more concerned

with shifting the focus back to the human experiential qualities of gameplay, while ac-

knowledging in the process that these are mediated by a machine. As Merleau-Ponty

has shown bodily intentionality is at the core of phenomenological analysis of actual life,

so too does my work attempt to show that the technologically mediated hybrid of actual

and virtual bodily intentionality is at the core of my phenomenological analysis of em-

bodiment in RE4.

Miklaucic (2006) and Laurie Taylor (2005) both attempt to analyse space in video

games with reference to Lefebvre, but furthermore pose questions about our under-

standing of space in the actual world more generally. Miklaucic wonders whether games

can be considered as cognitive maps which help us to understand our location in the

complex, postmodern world. He concludes, however, that the hypermediated,

information-centric interface of his case study, SimCity 3000, emphasises the cognitive

"Secondspace", a representation rather than perception of space, let alone the repre-

sentational, lived "third space", and as such tends to replace actual, lived experience

with the instrumentality of demographics and productivity charts.


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Taylor’s focus is on an historical analysis of the development of use and meaning of

space in video games. She reflects on the rising significance of video games in popular

culture and ponders on spatial representation and meaning in literature and film, with

reference to Gaston Bachelard (1984). She raises the question of whether a cultural

shift away from literature and toward video games as spatial practice might result in a

new meaning of space in the postmodern world, particularly with the increasing absence

of a traditional fixed space of the family home. The implication being that cyberspace is

increasingly defining our cultural understanding of space, and that therefore videogame

studies offer an opportunity to critically analyse this development. Huhtamo made a

similar assessment in his 1995 work, when he argued that our growing adaptation to

"telematic" reality is symptomatic of broader cultural changes, which calls into question

traditional ideas of the audience, public and private (177). Taylor argues that space is

critical to video games, and that the construction of virtual space is so different to the

construction of 'real' or other symbolic space (such as film or literature) that it is a re-

quirement of game studies to critically inquire into how they become and are lived

spaces.

Finally Aarseth (1998) also invokes Lefebvre’s terminology to analyse space in video

games, particularly with reference to Myst and Myth. His emphasis, however, is to dem-

onstrate that virtual space is always situated within real space. Citing Leirfall (1997) he

points out that virtual spaces are systems of signs rather than actual material space,

and that therefore the spatial practice of video games leads to a representation of space

which is symbolic rather than actually spatial. Games operate according to explicit and

intentional sets of rules, expressly designed to be conducive to gameplay, which to


Page 47 of 69

Aarseth makes video game space symbolic rather than actually spatial, and hence 'alle-

gories of space'. In his argument he is referring to spatial practice as the act of game

designers and artists constructing the space. This clearly does lead to a symbolic rather

than actual space as it is literally constructed from binary digits of 1s and 0s which are

ordered in such a way to symbolise space. However, the difference between the actual

and the symbolic is one of framing; within the 'real world' we take social rules and laws

to be inherent, and it is only within an artificially constructed frame that we can contest

them as such. For example within the 'magic circle' of play or within the confines of the

carnival. Nevertheless we are strongly guided by even an unconscious adherence to

these social rules (for example Foucault 1977). Importantly, the awareness that the

frame of a virtual environment is arbitrary rather than inherent means that it can be al-

tered, and the possibility for transformation that was only available in the carnival is now

open in a virtual world but a real self and sense of body.

The question of actual versus symbolic space is a problematic philosophical issue that I

would suggest is not so easily dismissed. In particular my current work attempts to show

how one’s play within these spaces is constructed by an embodied cyborgian experi-

ence of virtual space; it is my bodily intentionality towards objects within the virtual world

that determines my experience of space. Even though the spatial practice fabricates a

symbolic space, it is actually experienced in the body as an authentic space in which

the player in situated - if only temporarily, and under the specific conditions of immer-

sion which lead to a sense of presence.


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It is telling that the two games Aarseth focusses his work on, Myst and Myth, are both

quite different in presentation and gameplay than RE4. Buckley’s work, as mentioned

earlier, also uses Lefebvre’s terminology in order to consider Myst, but he concludes

that it is mostly a game of Firstspace (spatial practice as it relates to the consumption of

perceptible space) which is experienced as lived, representational space in the body of

the player. Importantly there is no visible representation of player avatar in Myst and it is

a turn-based rather than real-time game, which perhaps contributes to Aarseth’s dis-

counting of it as spatial. These qualities certainly contribute something to the player’s

sense of presence (or lack thereof), and feeling of being embodied within the world. Fur-

thermore, as Miklaucic (2006) showed, a hypermediated interface can result in an ex-

aggerated sense of Secondspace (Lefebvre’s cognitive representation of space). This

would be especially true also for Myth, which is a war simulation game. Additionally

Aarseth’s overall oeuvre can be described as “ludological” as it tends to concentrate on

the ludic qualities of games, that is, the cognitive or structural rather than the personal,

experiential aspects.
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Immersion and Presence

The term ‘immersion’ has a number of different meanings. It can mean a sense of en-

gagement in an activity, but it is also used to describe the feeling of being surrounded

by, or immersed in an environment. It is a form of concentration wherein a loss of self-

consciousness, temporal or spatial location is effected. Embodied immersion in video

games has a special quality due to its relation to interactivity, and the phenomenological

explanation of being-in-the-world; immersion within an environment depends upon our

relationship to it, and embodied interaction provides us with a particular orientation to-

wards the other features of that environment. Traditional media forms such as film ac-

count for the body as site for consumption (Sobchack 2004), and emphasise somatic as

well as cognitive qualities of their media, but the absence of an interactive embodied

presence within the medium itself results in a significantly different form of presence.

Although the body itself is implicated in the reception of these media, any sense of bod-

ily intentionality is uni-directional as reception only. Presence within these media is ef-

fected through what I describe as “ghostly embodiment” as the viewer of a film can feel

as if they were within the world presented, but are incapable of effecting material

change upon that world. In video games such as RE4 the player character adopts a

specific position within the game world, which in turn implies a bidirectional relationship

with the world. In a literal sense, a player cannot exist in a game environment without

the material presence of code and data in the computer’s memory.

Huhtamo (1995) shows that throughout modern history our culture has attempted to

move beyond the constraints of normal embodied life with the aid of a variety of 'immer-
Page 50 of 69

sive' devices - technologies such as the stereoscope, television and VR, but also phe-

nomena such as psychedelic drugs and Eastern philosophies. In particular he identifies

television, wide-screen cinema and Disneyland as symbolising the reorganisation (or

hyper-real seduction in Baudrillard's terms (1994)) of audiovisuality. We could perhaps

add videogames to that list as the most recent challenge to traditional media analysis.

Meanwhile Ihde (1998) discusses the "dimensions" of media through history, including

silent movies with their exaggerated reliance upon the visual spectacle, to contemporary

movies which combine audio and visual. He shows how the physically stationary,

seated viewer is the centre of (embodied) perspective in a vertiginous roller-coaster

movie where the world appears to move around him, whereas seeing the same specta-

cle from an external (disembodied) point of view would not result in vertigo.

Heim (cited in McMahan 2003) defines virtual reality as real only in effect. This definition

could be reframed with reference to Baudrillard's (1994) notion of simulacra such that

virtual reality is that which the user believes to be not real. i.e., the user maintains an

implied dual awareness of both the immediate phenomenological presence of the body,

while maintaining a ludic suspension of disbelief in order to establish the temporary

dominance of embodied presence within the virtual reality. Again, this can be correlated

with Ihde's notion that the "here-body" does not have to reside within the physical body,

as in the imaginative projection of jumping out of a plane, or in a near-death experience.

There are two different ways to imagine the former case: the "here-body" perspective

(embodied, first person, like real life), and the "out-there" perspective (disembodied,
Page 51 of 69

third person, visual spectacle, "image-body"). In the latter case the "now-me" or "here-

body" is separated from the physical body.

McMahan (2003) distinguishes between two forms of realism which support immersion:

social realism and perceptual realism. Perceptual realism is defined as the verisimilitude

of perception between the virtual and the actual world. A common example is the goal of

photorealistic images. In terms of generating a sense of presence, Prothero et al. cite

visual cues such as field of view as significant. Social realism is the believability of the

world in terms of the social or metaphoric structures that locate the player's role within it

(1995). The distinction suggests that understanding the “real rules and fictional worlds”

(Juul 2005) of video games can be assisted by attention to the impression of bodily me-

diation in that world, such as viewing through prosthetic eyes that have a field of view

consistent with that we expect from other visual media such as film, as we shall explore

further in the chapter “Visual and Embodied Aesthetics”.

Despite the traditional emphasis on audio / visual output, Newman (2002) frames

gameplay as corporeal or haptic, which "transcends the boundaries of specific, delim-

ited senses." Newman argues that when interface devices are capable of both input and

output (e.g., rumble on the DualShock or the Wiimote), the self-conscious, critical sense

of "interface" is lost to a "perfect" transparent, unmediated embodied circuit of feedback

which strengthens the player's sense of presence. Lahti (2003) asserts that presence is

determined more by a corporealised perception of motility rather than verisimilitude of

visual spectacle, and that haptic feedback devices envelop the player in virtual body

sensations which are only implied by audio and visual cues. He suggests that haptic
Page 52 of 69

feedback in the cybernetic loop acts as a prosthesis from machine to human, "where its

affective thrills can spill over into the player's space" (2003: 163). Furthermore Lahti

(2002) describes visual representation as the "second order" of interactivity where the

first order is a "corporeal identification and pleasure", and Bukatman (1993) argues that

presence is based on the translating loop of human player's visual perception of the vir-

tual world through to their physical movement. These theoretical explanations seem

particularly appropriate to my case study as my explanations of the Wiimote’s haptic

feedback and the significance of motility through space indicate.

To conclude this chapter on immersion and presence, it remains to return our thoughts

to RE4 and reflect on the particular aesthetic style of the game. Immersion in this game

is mostly exhibited as a feeling of presence within a spatial environment, and it is the

particular type of presence as interactive that distinguishes this aesthetic form. Further-

more interactivity is articulated through the body of the player’s avatar, so the phe-

nomenology of Merleau-Ponty’s bodily intentionality provides some useful conceptual

terminology with which to understand this state of gameplay. The following chapter will

consider issues around the diversity of visual and embodied aesthetics as they’re expe-

rienced during RE4.


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Visual, Embodied Aesthetics

Generally in RE4 we view the scene from a position just behind Leon, looking over his

right-hand shoulder, maintaining a relatively constant distance and angle. This point of

view is usually called “Third person, trailing”.

The use of this camera position has important ramifications for the player’s relationship

to the game and their avatar. My strongest first impression was that there is no way to

manipulate the camera position or angle independently of the avatar. This lead me to a

strange feeling of not knowing who or what I was. Initially, without actively engaging with

the game one might take on the position of the disembodied or ghostlike eye of cinema,

located behind and above the avatar. But during play I began to associate myself with

the representation of Leon that I could see. I identified the avatar as myself, which I

could also, oddly, see from behind. This development was due to being able to recog-

nise my own actions as being enacted through Leon. For example, I could see that
Page 54 of 69

pressing the A and B buttons would cause Leon to shoot. In turn, I then came to associ-

ate my button presses and Leon shooting as one and the same. This sensation is fur-

ther enhanced by my movement of the main Wiimote controller which acts as a target-

ing device on the television screen. Where ever on the television I point the controller in

my physical hand, Leon would adjust his body position to point his gun.

However, this was not without its problems. The dissociation between me-as-avatar and

me-as-camera caused some ruptures in my sense of embodiment during play. During

one firefight later on in the game, I was standing on the battlements of a castle, trying to

shoot an enemy below whilst protecting myself from his fire by hiding behind the wall. I

could clearly see my enemy and it was apparent to me that my avatar, Ada, was mostly

hidden by the crenelations. I pointed the Wiimote at the enemy and shot, but did not

seem to hit him. I realised that the targeting reticule had not turned red, despite pointing

directly at the enemy. This suggested that the game did not acknowledge the enemy as

being within line of sight. I believe the problem was due to the difference in point of view

between me-as-camera and me-as-Ada. While the enemy was in sight from the cam-

era’s point-of-view, Ada’s position obscured her view, so when I shot at the enemy, she

just shot at the wall right in front of her. Frustratingly from this position Ada was still re-

ceiving fire from the enemy that I was unable to target because her head - but not her

gun - was in a clear line-of-sight.

The problems do not end there. In another scene toward the start of the game I was

fighting a number of opponents in front of me, and was surprised to find a further adver-

sary suddenly occupying a large portion of the television screen as he had entered the
Page 55 of 69

scene without my noticing. This was due to a lack of peripheral vision. The human eye

has a potential field-of-view (FOV) of over one hundred and eighty degrees 12 but video

games typically use a FOV of around ninety degrees horizontally. Furthermore there is a

difference between using a widescreen and standard size television due to the ex-

tended horizontal area of the former. This effect is due to the relatively small area of our

natural FOV which is taken up by the television screen during play. Sitting several me-

tres away from a fifty centimetre screen means that we are only using less than ten of

our potential one hundred and eighty degree FOV. This is like seeing the world wearing

horse blinders, which is a dramatic example of the trade-off implicit in the technological

mediation of our senses. Virtual reality systems which use head-mounted displays set

very close to the eyes, and large, curved Cinerama screens can display images that oc-

cupy almost all of the natural human FOV. These systems thus mimic the projection of

images we expect from our normal lives, they fulfil our desires for a transparent immer-

sive experience which increases our sense of presence. In contrast, playing RE4, even

on a widescreen television, can be a disturbing experience. In order to adapt to this new

constraint on my vision I found that I had to actively reorient my avatar left and right in

order to be able to maintain awareness of my surroundings.

Grodal (2003) presents a combination of structuralist, physiological, psychological and

phenomenological theory for analysing video game aesthetics as stories in which we

are embodied. His definition of 'story' emphasises the interrelation of perception, emo-

tion, cognition and action, with events focussed on at least one human being. Grodal's

12To demonstrate this surprising assertion, look ahead and extend your arms to either side of your body
until you can only just see them in your peripheral vision.
Page 56 of 69

emphasis is on the the chain of perception, emotion and motor action of a "living agent

in a natural environment". He clarifies this by suggesting that Tetris is not a narrative

experience because it lacks an "agent-in-time-space". Murray, however, makes a case

for the interpretation of Tetris as allegory or "symbolic drama" (1997: 142-7). Taylor

(2005) rejects the use of the term 'narrative' to describe the player's relationship to

space in games such as Quake, arguing in terminology similar to Lefebvre and Soja that

the representational space of video game play is fundamentally different from the repre-

sented space of film or literature as it is a lived, phenomenological space.

Grodal asserts that emotions experienced from a first-person perspective (as in the

case of 'real life' or a video game) provoke action from the (active, fight-or-flight) sympa-

thetic nervous system, whereas the detached, third person perspective (such as in film)

provokes emotions of empathy (pity, admiration and so on) from the (passive) parasym-

pathetic nervous system. There is an interesting correlation here with McLuhan who

stated that "media, or the extensions of man, are 'make happen' agents, but not 'make

aware' agents" (1964). That is, the new, technological media do not afford contemplative

parasympathetic emotions13, but rather the active coping of the sympathetic nervous

system. This bodily attention to emotion is supported by Damasio's rendering of emo-

tions as temporary physiological changes in the "body proper" (2004: 53). This corre-

sponds with Merleau-Ponty's argument against the Cartesian mind/body split, that emo-

tions have a physical basis occurring within "le corps propre".

13 Although games such as Myst are clear exceptions.


Page 57 of 69

This case study has demonstrated the unique qualities of embodied video game playing

as distinct from other media forms, and it is the overall purpose of this thesis to argue

for the study of this form as a a unique aesthetic. Clearly there are cases of remediation

where conventions from other media are incorporated into that of games, but I argue

that it is important to recognise the particular differences and begin theorising from that

point. Given the increasing cultural significance of video games, and the particular

dominance of first and third person embodied presentation, it becomes clear that as a

scholarly discipline it is necessary for game studies to engage directly with the medium

as it is experienced. Interestingly, Aarseth (1998) believes that simulation rather than

narrative is to become the leading pedagogical means to convey knowledge and expe-

rience.
Page 58 of 69

Conclusion

The story of Resident Evil 4 deals with the anxiety of human and non-human, the fear of

being taken over by an alien entity, technologically born. This is a familiar motif in the

technological imaginary, and a familiar concern in the mainstream media’s attention to

video games. Far from this alarmist perspective my interest lies in an attention to the

aesthetic quality of video games as an emerging medium.

The processes of meaning-making in embodied gameplay are clearly different to those

of traditional spectatorship. For ludologists this implies a rejection of existing media the-

ory and methodology, as they fail to account for the specificity of the medium. While lit-

erary or film narrative forms may have limited applicability to the study of games, an out-

right rejection of narrative denies an important aspect of gameplay. Embodied interac-

tion in virtual worlds constitutes an environment in which both technophilic idealism and

technophobic paranoia can run rife. The reality is that our reception or consumption of

narrative in literary form is significantly different to our experience of embodied interac-

tivity, and this in turn results in a need for a consideration of meaning making practices

within such environments.

This discourse of embodied meaning making appears to be novel and significant

enough to require a thorough attention to its specific material conditions, which is cur-

rently absent from critical game studies. Cybernetics and the notion of the cyborg has

been useful to reintroduce technological agency to a critique of video games, but further

attention to phenomenological approaches, in particular perhaps in respect of architec-

ture, sports and music may suggest terminology or theories of consumption or participa-
Page 59 of 69

tion that could also be of use. I propose to continue this study during my PhD, analysing

video games with specific attention to embodiment, and in particular to consider the re-

lationship between immersion, agency, technology, human senses and meaning.

Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology seems promising for dealing with the human aspects,

and Ihde’s work is suggested as a useful resource for understanding the role of tech-

nology in this framework.`

In exploring the question of embodiment in RE4, this dissertation has attempted to

cover a wide variety of ground but the current study should only be considered an intro-

duction. We have barely touched on the complex issues of the body as articulated by

cultural studies more broadly, space and presence extensively examined by virtual envi-

ronment researchers, cultural geography and the urban cityscape. Finally there still re-

mains a need to integrate the important work already carried out by narrative and game

studies scholars.

There is still much left to explore in this growing body of work.

[14,900 Words]
Page 60 of 69

Ludography

Doom. id Software. (1993). PC.

Dragon’s Lair. Advanced Microcomputer Systems. (Cinematronics, 1983). Arcade.

Myst. Cyan Inc., (Brøderbund, Midway, 1993). PC.

Myth: The Fallen Lords. Bungie. (Eidos Inc.). PC.

Quake. id Software, (GT Interactive, 1996). PC.

Resident Evil 4: Wii Edition. Capcom Production Studio 4. (Capcom, 2007). Wii.

Shenmue. Sega-AM2. (Sega, 1999). Dreamcast.

SimCity 3000. Maxis. (EA Games, 1999). PC.

Tetris. Alexey Pajitnov, (1985). PC.

The Sims. Maxis. (Electronic Arts, 2000). PC.

Filmography

Raiders of the Lost Ark. Spielberg, Steven. (Paramount Pictures, 1981).


Page 61 of 69

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