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Technologies of Captivation Videogames and the Attunement of Affect

Abstract

This article analyses the skills and knowledges involved in multiplayer first-person shooting games, specifically Call of Duty 4 for the Xbox 360 games console. In doing so, it argues that the environments of first-person shooting games are designed to be intense spaces that produce captivated subjects – users who play attentively for long periods of time. Developing Heidegger’s concept of attunement and Stiegler’s account of retention, the article unpacks the somatic and sensory skills involved in videogame play and discusses how videogame environments cultivate a sense of captivation. In conclusion the article reflects on the politics of captivation for the bodies that engage with these games through the idea of vulnerability as an ‘opening of the body’s capacity for sense’.
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Technologies of captivation: videogames and the
attunement of affect
James Ash (james.ash@newcastle.ac.uk)
Body and Society (2013) 19: 27-51 doi:10.1177/1357034X1141173
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Abstract
This paper analyses the skills and knowledges involved in multiplayer first
person shooting games, specifically Call of Duty 4 for the Xbox 360 games
console. In doing so, it argues that the environments of first person shooting
games are designed to be intense spaces that produce captivated subjects -
users who play attentively for long periods of time. Developing Heidegger’s
concept of attunement and Stiegler’s account of retention, the paper unpacks
the somatic and sensory skills involved in videogame play and discusses how
videogame environments cultivate a sense of captivation. In conclusion the
paper reflects on the politics of captivation for the bodies that engage with
these games through the idea of vulnerability as an ‘opening of the bodies
capacity for sense’.
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1. Introduction
Academic writing on videogames is beginning to investigate the skills that
need to be developed to use a variety of games. This, in turn, has lead to a
recognition that different games require very specific sets of skills and
knowledges in order for users to be successful at them (for example, Reeves et
al, 2009). At the same time, work on the relationship between experiences of
time, space and technology has attempted to uncover the ways in which the
human body is shaped on a variety of ‘unconscious’ levels by different
technologies (see, for example, Thrift, 2004, 2009; Hansen, 2006a, 2006b). It is
my aim in this paper to expand this field of work by thinking through a
concrete example of how users become attuned to videogame environments
through engaging with the multiplayer component of a specific videogame,
Call of Duty 4 (Activision, 2007)
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.
I argue that the multiplayer maps of First Person Shooting games (FPS)
encourage the development of particularly intense forms of attunement as the
maps are actively designed to amplify the potential for intense encounters to
occur between users, which I term via Bogost (2007) the maps’ ‘possibility
space’. This process of attunement is central to the production of captivated
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bodies, which in turn is a key part of the genres appeal and commercial
success. I argue that attuning oneself to the game involves a self management
of the affective and emotional state of being of the user in an attempt to
minimise negative affects such as frustration and vulnerability. Rather than
producing affectively numbed bodies, games such as Call of Duty 4 actively
sensitise users to open their bodies to a variety of affective states in order to
become skilled at the game. The paper therefore points to a politics of
captivation in which the sensual and perceptual relations in the body are
organised and commodified by these games in order to create attentive
subjects. To make these claims, I draw upon observation of two users as they
progressed from being inexperienced beginners with the game to being
competent skilled users, alongside my own experiences with playing the
game.
Many scholars have attempted to destabilize the notion of action as
something which is undertaken by an autonomous and rational subject
(Dreyfus, 2007a; 2007b). This body of work problematizes the Cartesian
dichotomy between a rational mind and an irrational, emotional body. As
Katz argues:
‘emotions which have so often been treated as opposed to thinking are
paradoxically self reflective actions and experiences. But the self
reflection in emotions is corporeal rather than a matter of discursive
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reasoning. Through our emotions, we reach back sensually to grasp the
tacit, embodied foundation of our selves‘ (1999: 7).
Much of our knowledge of the world is tacit; ‘we know more than we can
tell’ (Polanyi, 1966: 4, see also Moss, 1995). Indeed, the very act of trying to
access this tacit knowledge can impinge upon our ability to perform it. For
example, Polanyi explains that skilled pianists can find their movement
restricted or paralyzed because they have concentrated too much attention on
their fingers (1966: 18, see also Sudnow, 2003). Developing this work on
emotion and tacit knowing, a number of scholars have attempted to
understand embodied life through the concept of affect. In this work, affect is
understood as a series of non-conscious capacities and receptivities that shape
the ways in which individuals think and act (for example, Massumi, 2002;
Clough, 2007). However, Blackman argues that these accounts are not
particularly useful precisely because they are based on unconscious processes
which are inaccessible to explicit thought and reflection. As she explains:
‘Work on affect often eschews the concept of the unconscious for a
notion of the non-conscious that is tied to a bodily unconscious
understood through the concept of habit. These are forms of bodily
memory which lie outside of a subject’s conscious reflections and
deliberations, and are often enfleshed within the processes of the CNS
[central nervous system] or proprioception (see Massumi, 2002)’ (2010:
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177).
For Blackman, the problem is that by reducing bodily memory to
proprioceptive processes any account of skill acquisition or sense-making
become ‘blackboxed‘ into the inaccessibilities of the nervous system. This then
sets up a dichotomy whereby affect is primarily a non conscious process, and
thought is considered to be conscious. As I argue in section three, rather than
being separate or autonomous realms, affect and cognition are interdependent
on one another. Processes of cognition can shape affective capacities and
affects themselves can work to rewire the relationship between thought and
action. In this sense, affects are thoroughly material. As Kavka argues ‘affect is
material that matters‘ (2008: 33). Skill is not simply habitually trained into the
body but actively emerges from a process of ‘mattering’:
! ‘a doubling which involves the evacuation and refilling of a material
! object with the material of feeling that is and is not my own. The point
! of emergence of such affect is the cusp, join, or interface, a point of
! indistinction where subject meets object, same meets other, mind
! meets body’ (Kavka 2008: 34).
In this case affect does not simply operate between body and world on an
unconscious level, but actively creates associations between various material
‘cusps’ which exist within and across a variety of biological and physical
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levels. As Katz argues this is possible because there is only a minimal
distinction between body and environment:
‘The prevailing folk and scientific cultures doggedly refuse to
acknowledge that there is no point of separation between what is
outside and what is inside, no definable limit to the penetration of self
onto world and world onto self, no place where one’s identity neatly
ends and the social environment obdurately begins’ (1999: 16).
I develop the concept of attunement to think through how environments
operate to ‘matter’ affect and in turn how these environments becomes central
to the type of attunement and bodily capacities that can be developed. The
critical point of the paper is that the environments in which attunements are
developed are increasingly commodified. In the case of Call of Duty 4 these
environments are actively designed to produce a state of captivation to
encourage users to continue to play the game. As such the relationship
between affect, attunement and cognition are fundamental to this process of
commodification.
In How Emotions Work, Katz argues there are three ways of analyzing and
studying sensory life. In the paper I concentrate on two of these: ‘interaction
processes’ or ‘how a person shapes his emotional conduct with regard to the
readings and response that others give’ (ibid p6); and ‘sensual
metamorphoses’ or the ways in which emotion can shape the sensual
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framework of action and, thus, bring new habits or forms of conduct into the
world (ibid: 6). While Katz is interested in interpersonal relations between
human beings I want to extend his methods to incorporate the technical
objects, rules and mechanics that form the basis of playing Call of Duty 4. This
allows me to understand how a person shapes their sensory conduct with
regard to the nonverbal readings and feedback they receive from the ‘intense
space’ the game environment produces and how the sensory feedback users
gain from the game environment alters the sensual framework of their future
habits and conduct. These approaches shape my discussion of the empirical
examples developed in sections three and four.
To unpack these arguments the rest of the paper is composed of three main
parts. In the next section, I argue that the multiplayer videogame maps in
Call of Duty 4 can be understood as intense spaces— spaces that are designed
to amplify the potential for contingent encounters to occur between users and
in doing so encourage users to develop highly trained sensori-motor skills to
cope with these encounters. This allows me to explore how the sensori-motor
skills developed in using Call of Duty 4 can be theorized through Martin
Heidegger’s concept of attunement and Bernard Stiegler’s account of the
materiality of the body. In section three, I discuss the somatic and analytic
aspects of attunement , and think through the ways in which they are mixed
in the action of videogame play. In the fourth section, I explore the particular
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form of captivation that emerges as users interact with the intense spaces of
Call of Duty 4. Finally, I end by thinking through the possible politics of
captivation in relation to bodies that engage with videogames.
2. Intense spaces
Call of Duty 4 is a popular First Person Shooting (FPS) game (which means
that users perceive the on-screen environment as if ‘looking’ through the
‘eyes’ of the avatar they control. See Galloway 2002; Crogan 2004), which was
released for the PC, Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 videogame consoles in 2007.
By May 2009 in excess of thirteen million copies of the game had been sold,
which makes Call of Duty 4 one of the most successful shooting game
franchises in the history of videogame consoles (Radd, 2009).
In the single player component of the game, users play as either a member of
the British SAS Special Forces or the American Marines and move through
predefined environments, which are based on approximations of locations in
the middle east and eastern Europe, shooting enemies as they follow mission
objectives and unravel a narrative about a terrorist nuclear threat. While the
single player component of the game is important, the wild success of the
game can be attributed to its multiplayer component. In multiplayer play, up
to eighteen users battle one another on self-enclosed, pre-designed maps over
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an internet connection. There are numerous different multiplayer modes in
which users fight to gain control of flags in a map, or to see which team or
individual user can earn the highest number of ‘kills’ (in the ‘free-for-all’
game mode for example the limit is 20 kills) in a set time limit (10 minutes for
free-for-all games for example), among other objectives.
The professional games press have cited a number of reasons why Call of
Duty 4 is such a successful multiplayer game. For example the game
successfully incorporates a number of features such as a ‘class system’ that
allows the user to customise the different weapons that they will use in game
and the ‘perk system’ whereby users can add different ‘perks’ to their avatars
(such as ‘stopping powerwhich makes the in game weapons more powerful
or ‘sleight of hand‘ which shortens weapon reload times) (Kelly, 2007). While
these factors are all undoubtedly important, I want to concentrate on the ways
in which the maps and rules that structure a users engagement with the game
are designed to produce the potential for intense encounters to occur. As
Malaby (2007) argues, videogames are about the control and management of
contingency (also see Ash, 2010a). As Malaby puts it: games are distinctive in
their achievement of a generative balance between the open-endedness of
contingencies and the reproducibility of conditions for action’ (2007: 106).
Alex Galloway theorises this contingency as operating between two forms of
action that are embedded within videogame play:
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‘[There are] two basic types of action in video games: machine actions
and operator actions. The difference is this: machine actions are acts
performed by the software and hardware of the game computer, while
operator actions are acts performed by users’ (2002: 5).
As a result, Galloway argues that the action of the machine is of equal
importance to the actions undertaken by the videogame user. To become
skilled in the multiplayer mode of Call of Duty 4, users have to learn to work
with the tension between their own actions, those of the other users, and the
action of the game itself. The tensions between machinic and human action
within the multiplayer matches and maps in Call of Duty 4 (and in many other
FPS games) can be conceptualised as intense spaces. By intense space I mean
a space that is designed to generate complex potentials for movement and
action in the contingent space between user and game. These intense spaces
in turn require the development of close forms of attention and concentration
from users if they are to perform well in the game.
Within Call of Duty 4 these tensions are expressed through the particular
design and structure of the maps that users play on, which operate like above
ground labyrinths (there is no entrance or exit but a variety of ways to reach
different points on the map). Call of Duty 4 was released with 16 multiplayer
maps, which can be split into three categories according to size (small,
medium and large). Small maps such as shipment represent an open yard
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filled with shipping container crates roughly 30 by 30 metres. Shipment
encourages a high rate of encounters between users as there are no closed off
areas or rooms and users can run between each corner of the map in a short
space of time (roughly 10 seconds). Larger maps such as ‘Overgrown’ on the
other hand represent farmland spread over a number of kilometres of space
and contain open fields and single story and multiple story buildings which
provide multiple look out points and hiding places.
The complex forms of potential these ‘intense spaces’ serve to frame and
realise can be usefully conceptualised through Massumi’s concept of an
‘emergent field of potential’. Massumi discusses the concept of an emergent
field of potential in relation to a football pitch. For Massumi a football pitch is
not an inert or passive container for the play that takes place on it, but
actively shapes the potential of this play. He argues; “the field of play is an
inbetween of charged movement. It is more fundamentally a field of potential
than a substantial thing or object” (2002: 72).
Whereas a football pitch is a flat rectangle of ground with a goal at either end,
the maps of Call of Duty 4 are more geometrically complex. Any one map can
include rooms, corridors, stairways, balconies and rooftops amongst many
other architectural features of varying sizes and elevation which in turn create
more complex forms of potential encounter between users. In relation to Call
of Duty 4 this means shifting attention away from analysing the kinds of
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generic spaces or locations that are represented in the maps (such as as a city
street, a bog, a warehouse and a creek for example) to understand the
nonrepresentational registers of forces and flows that the geometry of the
architecture affords or constrains (see Ash 2010b, Malaby 2006). For example
in ‘Shipment’ the container crates act to block users lines of sight which in
turn affect what parts of the map can be seen from what position. This
geometry can also be used to inhibit actual contact. On ‘Overgrown’ for
example walls can block firing lines between users, but can also act to enable
indirect contact. A wall in one of the central buildings in Overgrown
(colloquially known as ‘grandmas house’) is often used as a surface to bounce
grenades off of into an attic where users regularly hide for example. The maps
in Call of Duty 4 are therefore designed to intensify potential spatial relations
between users –they are designed to encourage different ways of
encountering other users within a relatively small and limited architecture of
buildings, objects and landscape features.
These nonrepresentational forces are important because users become attuned
to the constant play of tensions between the rules of the game and the
contingent action of other users in these intense spaces. Users do this by
developing various bodily capacities for action and devising ways of
preempting how and where other users will move and what they will do. As
such, the attunements users develop as they negotiate the multiplayer mode
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of Call of Duty 4 have both a somatic and analytic character. For example, the
ability to move the cross hair to an exact point on the screen can be described
as a somatic attunement insofar as acquiring the skill requires users to both
develop their hand-eye coordination and to fine-tune the movement of
various sets of muscle groups in the hands as they manipulate the
thumbstick. When a user uses an intuition derived from past experience with
the game to decide to move their avatar towards a specific part of a level, that
could be described as an analytic attunement to the game. Users draw upon a
range of both somatic and analytic attunements as they navigate the
multiplayer maps in Call of Duty 4 attempting to ‘kill’ their enemies while
they avoid being ‘killed’ themselves. In this way, attunements can be
understood as complex assemblages of bodily capacities and cognitive
processes, which work together in skilled gameplay.
3. Attunement
For Heidegger, attunements are not simply conscious behaviours or learnt
skills within a specific situation; they pervade the ground of our being in
every situation.
‘Attunements are the fundamental ways in which we find ourselves
disposed in such and such a way. Attunements are the how
according to which one is in such and such a way […] And yet this
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‘one is in such and such a way’ is not—is never—simply a
consequence or side effect or our thinking doing and acting’ (1995:
67 emphasis in original).
Attunements are not just feelings or emotional states that begin or exist within
a pre-constituted subject, but work as atmospheres outside and between
individual human bodies. Heidegger likens attunements to a musical melody
resonating through a space. In his words:
‘[A]n attunement is a[…]melody that does not merely hover over the so-
called proper being at hand of man, but that sets the tone for such being,
i.e., attunes and determines the manner and way of his being’ (1995: 67).
In other words, humans become attuned to situations in particular ways: they
pick up the ‘vibe’ of a room through the shared moods within that situation,
for example (see Dreyfus, 2000, 2002). Within Call of Duty 4, users always-
already bring a set of preexisting attunements to the game from their previous
life experience, but in playing the game they develop a new set of
attunements which take on a particularly skilled and intense character
through the atmosphere the multiplayer environments generate. These
atmospheres have a culpable effect on the body of users, inscribing and
generating new associations in thought and action. Bernard Stiegler argues
that bodily capacities for sensori-motor action develop through humans’
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ability to unknowingly retain past experience, which is achieved through two
kinds of ‘bodily memory’ (also see Latour 2004). Drawing upon the work of
influential biologist August Weismann, Stiegler argues that:
‘[E}very living sexual being is constituted by two kinds of
memory, which […] have been called germinal and somatic—the
genetic memory of the species preserved in DNA, and the
somatic, individual memory preserved in the organisms nervous
system’ (2003: 158).
For Stiegler the body exists in a state of what he terms ‘retentional
finitude’ (2008: 188). The body is a kind of living or somatic memory, which is
composed of various retentional apparatuses. Stiegler suggests that the
body’s organs are shaped in a number of ways, most of which do not come to
human awareness. In this way, the body can be understood as a retentional
apparatus for experience, but it also acts as a site of selection with regards to
what is interiorized (or retained) by the body organism and what is left
exterior (or ‘forgotten’) (Stiegler, 1998, 2008: 126-129, 2009). Selection and
memory are therefore intimately linked. The corporeal body is the ‘site’ of
selection; it is actively shaped by the atmospheres and events to which it is
exposed and it retains aspects of those events across the life course, both
intentionally and unintentionally (see Crogan and Kennedy 2009 and Crogan
2010 on how Steigler’s work is useful in understanding videogames).
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In addition to these two forms of memory, Stiegler posits a third: tertiary
retention. Tertiary retention is an exteriorisation of human memory into
objects in the environment. As Stiegler puts it: ‘a tool is, before anything else,
memory’ (1998: 254). The material properties of an object imply specific kinds
of uses, gestures and comportments and the continued existence of these
objects implicitly allow all manner of somatic and analytic knowledges to be
passed down through and across generations and populations of humans
(Stiegler, 2010: 10). Taken in this sense the maps, rules and interface systems
of Call of Duty 4 can be understood as environments for the transmission of
tertiary memory into users gestures and actions (somatic and analytic
attunements) as they play the game.
Drawing together the concepts of atmosphere, resonance and attunement, in
the next three subsections I outline how the atmosphere of intensity generated
by the environments and rules of Call of Duty 4 produces and inscribes the
body with a range of somatic and analytic attunements. Rather than
accidental or neutral, the development of these attunements are central to the
creation of a state of captivation in users. As I argue in the fourth section these
examples demonstrate how a state of captivation is actively engineered into
being by the environments of the game itself.
a) Thumbstick sensitivity
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Videogame users rely upon a range of somatic attunements, such as the tacit
knowledge about how fast or slow to move an analogue stick on the Xbox 360
control pad in order to produce a corresponding movement in the avatar on
screen. In Call of Duty 4, the sensitivity of the thumbstick can be changed in
the options screen. The default setting is ‘1’ or low, which means that a large
degree of movement on the stick will produce a small degree of movement in
the avatar. Most beginners are not aware of the importance of thumbstick
sensitivity and so leave it on this default setting. As users become more
experienced with the game, they tend to increase the sensitivity of the stick,
such that a small movement in the stick will produce a larger movement in
the avatar. This has the effect of increasing the potential speed the avatar has
to move around the space. When changing the sensitivity setting, users
require a period of re-familiarisation. The user must become de-attuned to the
previous relationship between thumb and avatar movement and concretise
new relations in the body to deal with the increased sensitivity between the
avatar and the movement of the thumbstick. With a low sensitivity, the user
has to push the stick further if they want to turn the avatar 180 degrees on its
axis in order to shoot a user opposite them. Whereas, with a higher sensitivity,
it may only take a very small movement to create the same effect on screen.
This attunement and the atmosphere it generates between users will then
affect the way in which the user community as a whole approach the game.
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Returning to Stiegler’s account of tertiary retention, both control pad and
thumbstick sensitivity acts of forms of memory that shape the kinds of
somatic and analytic attunement developed. Indeed the material plastic of the
thumbstick and its physical limitations for movement form the possibility
space for the development of somatic memory to be developed in the body of
the player. Whether set fast or slow, the digital and material properties that
determine turning speed encourage users to become senstised to the
movement of their avatar. As players become more skilled and increase the
thumbstick sensitivity this increases the speed of encounters between players
in general, which in turn increases the speed of play in the game as a whole
and so on. In other words the particular mechanical properties of the game
create a generalised atmosphere of how the game can and should be played.
b) Reload time of weapons
As complex assemblages of different bodily capacities, ‘somatic’ attunements
such as learning to move the thumbstick accurately also extend into and affect
more overtly ‘analytic’ forms of attunement. For example, users can become
aware of the reload times of different weapons and use this knowledge,
alongside other attunements they have developed, in order to determine how
they approach specific encounters within a match (to some extent at least). If a
novice user—who is facing off against an enemy—only has one or two rounds
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of ammunition left in their weapon’s magazine, and they know their gun
takes more than a second or two to reload, they may back away from the
encounter because they know that during this temporal window (the
reloading animation) they will be vulnerable to enemy fire. If, however, they
know that their weapon reloads quickly, they may continue to attack in the
hope that it might startle or surprise the other user. This could give the novice
user a window of opportunity in which to kill the other users avatar. The
difference between weapon reload times is often minimal, but it can be crucial
to a user’s success or failure in the game. For example the ‘P90’ weapon takes
3.5 seconds to reload from empty, whereas the ‘Scorpion’ weapon takes 2.67
seconds to reload. This 0.83 second of difference is tiny, but it factors into
decisions about when and whether to reload nonetheless. Indeed, this
temporal difference is so small that users are forced to make it without
purposeful reflection about the reloading time. The difference in reloading
times must be internalised by the user as they become familiar with the game
in order to allow them to respond effectively to emergent situations in a
match.
Success in Call of Duty 4 is contingent upon a whole number of variables
beyond weapon reload time. Other attunements and capacities are implicated
in particular encounters and can contribute to a user’s success or failure in
any given encounter. For example, experienced Call of Duty 4 users are likely
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to have a more highly developed capacity for aiming the reticule, which
allows them to approach an encounter in which their ammunition is low
differently. They do not necessarily have to reload the weapon; they might
attempt to use the final two rounds to ‘kill’ the enemy because they can have
confidence in the capacity they have developed to hit their target dead on
(more often than not). In this way, the potential for movement and accuracy
that is rendered visible to a body through the development of its capacity to
move and aim accurately also affects the taking place of thought as a process.
That is, the way in which a user reacts and responds to the low ammunition
situation above may be dependent on their capacity to aim, which is itself
developed through the contexts which brought these somatic attunements
into being.
In describing characteristics of attunement, the terms somatic and analytic
are not simply stand ins for long-established divisions between body and
mind, or thought and action. Rather, both analytic and somatic attunements
are largely tacit, although they can be brought to reflection through conscious
effort or through the review of past experience. Somatic attunements do not
emerge from the development of forms of analytical attunement; the
development of somatic attunements leads to the potential for reflecting upon
these attunements in an abstract way and, thus, the further development of
attunements within the game, which can be drawn upon both consciously
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and unconsciously.
c) Sight lines
An experienced user of Call of Duty 4 is likely to have gained a fairly precise
‘knowledge’ of the angle(s) from which they will be able to peer around a
corner in order to shoot into a building, and they are able to use this
attunement (in combination with a range of other attunements to the game) in
order to make, often split-second, ‘decisions’ about where, when and how to
take a shot. Shooting into a building from too shallow an angle may provide
them with no access to a room, but moving backwards to get a wider angle
might expose them to sniper fire from across the valley. Furthermore, users
often come to recognise specific alleyways (or other areas within the game) as
‘danger spots’ because their experience tells them that users tend to snipe
from one end to the other. A novice may unwittingly charge down the
alleyway, however they are armed, but more experienced users might change
their course of action depending upon their understanding of the capacities of
their weapon and their confidence in striking their target. An experienced
user who is armed with a shotgun, for example, would usually choose an
alternative route to flank the sniper because the know that their shotgun has
insufficient range to ‘kill’ a sniper at the other end. This could leave them
open and vulnerable to attack inside the alleyway. Alternatively, a user who is
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armed with a rifle (which has a far longer range than the shotgun) may risk a
head on confrontation with the sniper in the alleyway so long as they are
confident of their ability to hit their target reliably at long range.
Movement around the level is, then, dependent on complex understandings
about how all manner of variables can affect one’s chance of survival within
the game, as well as an understanding of the specific areas that tend to gather
specific kinds of weapon users in particular configurations. Crucially, these
‘danger spots’, angles of attack, and so forth are not universal; they are not
‘coded’ into the video game space. Instead, they emerge from the ‘possibility
space’ between the operator actions of users and the structured maps of the
game (Galloway 2002). As such, they change from user to user and match to
match as differently attuned users deploy tactics in a range of different ways.
The ‘open skill’ (Reynolds, 2006) of playing Call of Duty 4 (and, indeed, many
other FPS games) is not produced by learning or memorising a generalised set
of ‘rules’ for each level or map; it lies in the ability to respond to events in
context-specific ways as they emerge in the moment and which, to a large
extent, cannot be anticipated ‘ahead of time’. Furthermore, while experienced
users become aware of various tendencies within a game and are able to
become familiar with ways of moving around a particular map or level, they
do not consciously think through these processes in most encounters; skilled
users are able to ‘automatically’ react to changing circumstances within the
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match as they need to.
The ability to reflect upon your videogaming activity in order to recognise
that other users tend to gather at one corner of a level, for example, only
emerges through a familiarity with the game which can be developed through
sustained use (it may require over twenty, fifty, one hundred or more hours of
use, depending on the specific capacities of the user involved). For
experienced users, both the analytical aspects of attunement (for example, the
ability to recognise the patterns in which other users tend to move) and the
somatic aspects of attunement work alongside one another. As they learn to
play Call of Duty 4, novices rely upon a developing set of attunements, which
are largely somatic in character. Inexperienced users are unable to register
the tendencies within the game because they appear to be completely random
at first. It is only through experience with the game over time that they are
able to analyse the various tendencies within the game and use this, more
analytic, attunement tactically to their advantage in encounters with
opponents.
4. Captivated bodies
The complexity of the intense space that Call of Duty 4 generates and the
range of attunements users have to develop to cope with this complexity
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encourages the construction of captivated bodies. Captivation is the process
by which bodies enter a state of engaged and focused concentration in order
to successfully negotiate the ongoing flow and immediacy of an encounter.
The experience of the surrounding environment is diminished for those
experiencing intense captivation (see Crary 2001, Lahti 2003). While
captivation is arguably the outcome of engaging in many different activities,
the multiplayer mode of Call of Duty 4 produces a particularly effective form
of captivation because the complex spaces of the maps acts as forms of
tertiary memory. They are designed to illicit high levels of contingency, which
in turn forces users to concentrate as closely as possible to what is going on in
the game if they don’t want to be continuously killed by enemies.
During the ethnographic period of my research it became clear that beginners
had to focus very hard on what was happening in the game. Events such as
being spotted and shot by another user would often be over before the user
had a chance to register what was going on, let alone respond to this event.
For beginners the game is saturated with an atmosphere of unease, which one
respondent described as a constant feeling of being ‘on edge’ while playing.
As the same user put it: ‘whenever I am playing in a match online I never feel
safe or secure, I never know if an enemy will creep up behind me’.
This sense that the unexpected is always around the corner, that an enemy
26
could creep up and kill the users avatar at any moment, actively encourages
the user to concentrate their attention to every possible form of sensory
feedback provided by the game. This sensory feedback encompasses both
visual and auditory stimuli. For example Call of Duty 4 provides the user
with locational sound cues. All avatars in the game produce footstep sounds,
which, provided you have a stereo sound enabled headset or speakers, allow
the user to anticipate where enemies ‘are’ relative to their avatars location
within a map, without the need for visual confirmation. The importance of
these forms of sensory feedback is emphasized by the fact that users can
unlock a perk in the game called ‘dead silence’ that reduces the volume of the
avatars footsteps to almost nothing. This gives users a big advantage as they
can sneak up from behind enemies without being heard.
The limited field of vision provided by the first person perspective, which is
much narrower than regular visual perception, alongside the selective forms
of locational cue enabled by the sound design in the game, encourage users to
develop an elevated sense of perception and attention. My own experience of
this elevated sense of attention, as a beginner, was embodied through a sense
that my whole body ‘strained’ to pick out particular visual and audio details
from the environment of the game. This was experienced as leaning forward
towards the screen, squinting my eyes and turning my head to pick out
differences in sound from the left and right speaker, which may give away an
27
enemies position. This sense of contingency and the elevated sense of
attention required by this atmosphere of contingency is also actively
amplified by the architectural design of the maps themselves. For example in
the ‘Crossfire’ map (a map based on a bombed middle eastern street scene) all
of the buildings have multiple entrances and exits as well as a variety of open
windows. Rather than a single exit which a watchful user could guard (a
tactic that is derivatively termed ‘camping’) users have to be mindful of other
users throwing grenades through open windows, or running in through
another entrance and stabbing the user in the back. The maps are designed in
this way to encourage continuous movement of users which in turn amplifies
the potential for contingent encounters to occur.
The control interface of the game also encourages users to concentrate and
react to events within the game with minimal physical expenditure. As
Kirkpatrick argues, the control pad is a site of translation where small inputs
on the pad result in large outputs in the game world. Referring to the act of
throwing a javelin in a game he argues: ‘something of the experience of
throwing a javelin—its tensions in the body, its discipline, its conscious
manipulation of weight and energies—gets condensed into the hand’ (2009:
134).
This process of translation and condensing means that one only has to move
ones fingers and thumbs a few centimetres to perform the full range of the
28
avatars movements and abilities. The secondary result of this translation is
that the interface enables a minimal distinction between thought and physical
reaction. Nelson terms this connection ‘the seam’, which is both a form of
connection and separation: the controller joins us to the game, yet remains an
unstable encounter that can easily come undone’ (2009: 69).
The material properties of this seam, which becomes more transparent as
users develop a somatic attunement to the game, enables users to engage with
the game over long periods of time because they do not experience excessive
cardio-vascular exercise as one would in regular exercise. In this captivated
state, ‘hours become like minutes’ (as one participant in a Call of Duty 4 online
game session explained to me). Within the comportment of captivation, the
recollection of an evening’s play is often reduced to memories of one or two
particularly intense, contingent or exciting moments that become
foregrounded in a user’s mind. As the same participant explained further:
‘It becomes like a blur. I can feel physically exhausted after a long
session, yet I can't really remember what went on. Normally I can
just recall bits and pieces, maybe a couple of really good or lucky
shots I got, or maybe a high kill streak [where the user kills a
number of enemies in a row without dying]. I'm left with more of a
feeling than remembering distinct things’.
Playing Call of Duty 4 does not produce cardiovascular exhaustion in the
29
same way that going for a run might. Entering into a state of captivation can
lead to a complex mixture of negative and positive bodily affects. Users often
complain of experiences of fatigue, overexertion, frustration and stress after
several hours of play because becoming and being captivated draws the body
into a specific mode of concentrated comportment. In playing Call of Duty 4
online, this state of concentrated comportment can manifest in the physical
ways in which users hold their bodies. During my research, I observed users
shifting forward in their seats during online matches, with their shoulders
and back arched forward, and their muscles tensed in readiness to react. My
participants remained in such readied positions for long periods of time
because the outcome of the encounters in which they were involved resulted
in sensory stimulation that did not involve the overt displacement of the
physical body.
Returning to Katz’s (1999) account of emotion discussed at the beginning of
the paper, we can draw a number of parallels between playing Call of Duty 4
and the limited ability to express frustration exhibited by the car drivers in
Katz’s study. For the motorway driver the car itself becomes a means to
express complex emotional states. The material structure of the car offers
limited options for communication and so anger becomes expressed through
basic physical acts such as sounding the horn or shouting.
In Call of Duty 4 users are also cut off from their competitors or team mates in
30
the sense that they are not physically co-present with one another. While it is
possible to ‘voice chat’ using the Xbox 360’s headset and microphone, many
users choose to play in silence. Emotional communication is therefore often
limited to the transmission of forces that are enabled by the game (such as
running, shooting, stabbing or throwing grenades).
Alongside this limited form of communication there is no direct relation
between a positive or negative encounter and the release of any physical
tension associated with the outcome of such an encounter. Successfully
‘killing’ other users produced a range of responses—from cries of triumph, to
punching the air with a fist, to shouting expletives—but users quickly
returned to their concentrated position in order to deal with the next threat.
The duration of the physical release of energy through the displacement of the
body or cry from the throat and mouth, for example, was not equal to the
duration in which the user had been in a captivated state. In other words, the
physical energy economy—between the states of captivation and their release
—was unequal, both in terms of the intensity and the duration of each state as
it was experienced. Tennis users often cry out while they serve, but the serve
also involves a massive amount of physical energy expenditure alongside the
concentration necessary to aim and perform the serve at all. In Call of Duty 4,
high levels of concentration are required in order to shoot an enemy, but
without a similar level of energy expenditure.
31
What this points to is the development of shared ‘somatic modes of
attention’ (Conrad 1993) that are expressed by Call of Duty 4 users in an
(attempt) to manage and control their affective and emotional states. Winning
or doing well encourages forms of bodily release, such as shouting or
punching the air, but these responses were not ‘rational’ - they had no impact
on what subsequently happened within the game. Developing semi-conscious
attunements on the other hand, enabled users to develop skill and thus
minimise their experience of frustration with the game as they learned to
avoid making (retrospectively) ‘obvious’ and costly mistakes.
While there is a clear representational politics evident in the violence depicted
on screen in games such as Call of Duty 4, these shared somatic modes of
attention point to a politics of bodily affect brought about by the particular
material and computational rules that structure users engagements with one
another and thus inhibit and enable experiences of frustration. Returning to
the earlier example of beginners who feel vulnerable to attack while playing,
developing attunements as to how and where enemies will appear acts to
guard against a sense of affective vulnerability. In other words, developing an
attunement to Call of Duty 4 is as much about attempting to minimise
experiences of troubling affective states as it is about doing well and winning
matches. For the beginner who plays Call of Duty 4 one often feels to be
particularly sensitised and vulnerable to what is going on in the game, in the
32
sense that one has to literally strain ones senses to pay attention to what is
happening as closely as possible.
Developing an account of attunement complicates a narrative of videogames
as producing affectively numbed, aggressive or simply disaffected bodies.
War and (by association) war games and toys have long been associated with
a hypermasculine desire for control and power in which the male body is
presented as a ‘strong’ and ‘tough’ (Goldstein, 194; Nandy, 1988; Scheff, 2006).
However I have argued that to gain competence with Call of Duty 4, one has
to open up ones body and become affectively vulnerable. This process of
opening the body to sensory feedback from the game is necessary in order to
be able to respond fast enough to events that occur within the game, such as
spotting an enemy, or ducking for cover, which in turn are attunements that
one has to develop in order to do well. Becoming more attuned to the game
does not result in the simple disappearance of this sensitivity or the creation
of a dissaffected body. Instead this sensitivity becomes internalised into the
body as particular forms of somatic and analytic attunement.
5. Conclusions
In this paper, I have demonstrated how users develop expertise and skill at playing the
Xbox 360 game Call of Duty 4 through the concept of attunement. In doing so, I
have explored the complex folds of somatic and analytic attunement which
33
are implicated in gameplay. In this way, the paper does not seek to separate
out or oppose processes which are either conscious or non-conscious. Instead,
the paper develops an account of videogame practice in which cultural,
biological and technical processes are equally implicated. In doing so, it
attends to the complex assemblages of bodies and technologies in playing Call
of Duty 4 and begins to think through how the action of becoming attuned to
videogame play can encourage the development of specific capacities.
Without denying the difficulty in making absolute distinctions between
particular kinds of activity and the attunements cultivated by them (and on
which they rely), we can argue that in Call of Duty 4, these assemblages are
particularly intense because of the ways in which the spaces and the rules of
the game are designed in order to maximise the potential for contingent and
surprising encounters to occur between users. In this sense these
environments operate as forms of tertiary memory to produce an
‘atmosphere’ of intensity, which bodies become attuned to.
Returning to Blackman’s (2010) account of affect that was discussed in the
introduction of the paper we can begin to think productively about the
relationship between affect, emotion and vulnerability. Vulnerability is often
framed as a negative or problematic disposition or situation in which one
feels uncomfortable or out of control (Bissell, 2010). Rethought through Katz’s
methodology and this case study we can consider how a certain kind of
34
affective vulnerability exercised in skill development is a highly useful state
to enter if one wants to cultivate a sensitivity that is necessary to become
competent in a specific activity. Developing Blackman’s argument about the
difficulty of separating conscious and non conscious processes, I have argued
that with right level of skill, conscious feelings, unconscious affects (and vice
versa) can emerge into and out of perceptual awareness as and when the
situation arises. The paper has also furthered Blackman’s call to move away
from a model of the non conscious as determined by the central nervous
system. Rather than passively and nonconsciously reacting to the
environments of the game, Call of Duty 4 players actively attune themselves
to these environments, ‘mattering’ new relations between the body-brain-
environment assemblage as they go. The form of vulnerability generated by
beginner Call of Duty 4 players is then the outcome and mutual feedback
between conscious and non-conscious processes. Reframing vulnerability as
an ‘opening of the body’s capacity for sense’ that crosses both affective and
emotional levels, we can further interrogate the relationship between
technologies, bodies and processes of skill acquisition.
Exploring the relationship between vulnerability and technology becomes all
the more pressing when it is recognised that environments in which users
open their bodies to vulnerability are the same environments that are
designed to produce captivated subjects. In terms of Call of Duty 4 it must be
35
kept in mind that the architectural design of the maps operate as forms of
tertiary memory: they implicitly attempt to transmit particular kinds of
somatic and analytic attunements embodied in users responses to them in
order to keep the user playing the game. Videogames therefore attune affect
for the explicit ends of increasing users reliance and consumption of these
games and services. If this is the case then it is important to understand the
extent to which these attunements are reflexive and how well users are able to
challenge them. Doing so will allow us to investigate how particular rhetorics
of captivation and reflex exhibited affect the bodily capacities that users
develop as they play videogames like Call of Duty 4. In turn this example
offers a possible starting point to think through the corporeal effects and
implications of an increasingly commodified ‘retentional economy’.
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James Ash is a lecturer in Media at the University of Northumbria. He
received his PhD in Human Geography at the University of Bristol in 2009.
His thesis investigated practices of videogame design and use. His current
research is concerned with post-phenomenological accounts of technology
and the politics of retentional environments. He has published work on
videogames and technology in a variety of journals including Transactions of
42
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1
The analysis and conclusions presented here cannot simply be extrapolated
to other genres outside of First Person Shooting games because the specific
play mechanics of particular games can be so different. These differences
would of course produce different forms of attunement and skill development
and thus require their own analysis. Further to this I have not addressed the
broader subcultural practices associated with the game that operate around a
number of websites and Youtube.com. On the broader sociality of gaming see
Walkerdine 2007.
1
This ethnography took place over the course of approximately two months
(for around thirty hours in total across the months of October and November
2008). Over this period, I observed the users develop various capacities for
movement and action. During this time, I learned to play the game myself
alongside these two users, and experienced the transition from an unskilled
beginner to competent user for myself. These observations and experiences
have informed the general discussion and examples throughout this paper.
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This article examines the ways videogames become animated by looking at gaming practices that subvert traditional notions of play: specifically tool-assisted speedruns (TAS). A TAS is a playthrough of a videogame that is preprogrammed by a human so that the inputs can be automatically played back in full without a human operator. This practice requires an intimate knowledge of the inner workings of gaming systems, often to the point of productively breaking the games through glitches and exploits. These extreme practices give a unique insight into the ways animation occurs within videogames and reveals games to be animated in a variety of ways that are often not primarily directed towards the visual nor humans. This article outlines four of these modes of animation separating them into multi-tiered ‘layers of animation’: sensory output, game states, code, material, and operator. TASs help to demonstrate these layers are actually discrete forms of animation that do not necessarily impact one another from becoming individually animated.
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Existential phenomenologists hold that the two most basic forms of intelligent behavior, learning, and skillful action, can be described and explained without recourse to mind or brain representations. This claim is expressed in two central notions in Merleau-Ponty's Phenomenology of Perception: the intentional arc and the tendency to achieve a maximal grip. The intentional arc names the tight connection between body and world, such that, as the active body acquires skills, those skills are “stored”, not as representations in the mind, but as dispositions to respond to the solicitations of situations in the world. A phenomenology of skill acquisition confirms that, as one acquires expertise, the acquired know-how is experienced as finer and finer discriminations of situations paired with the appropriate response to each. Maximal grip names the body's tendency to refine its responses so as to bring the current situation closer to an optimal gestalt. Thus, successful learning and action do not require propositional mental representations. They do not require semantically interpretable brain representations either.Simulated neural networks exhibit crucial structural features of the intentional arc, and Walter Freeman's account of the brain dynamics underlying perception and action is structurally isomorphic with Merleau-Ponty's account of the way a skilled agent is led by the situation to move towards obtaining a maximal grip.