A Play of Bodies: How We Perceive Videogames
By Brendan Keogh
MIT Press, 2018. ISBN 9780262037631
The cult comedy videogames site Old Man Murray developed an innovative and completely objective ‘time to crate’ review system, whereby games would be assessed on the amount of time elapsed between the start of the game and the first crate that the player sees. Often (in the late 1990s and early 2000s) this would be a matter of seconds, leading to some incredibly low scoring reviews. I sometimes feel that a similar system might be required for games studies books; often you can go into a title knowing that it’s going to mention Rez, Proteus, and the Psycho Mantis fight from Metal Gear Solid. It’s just a matter of when rather than if. When I flicked through Brendan Keogh’s new book A Play of Bodies: How We Perceive Videogames (2018) and saw these titles mentioned again, I got a horrible feeling of déjà vu; however, the approach that Keogh takes to even the most ubiquitously discussed games is so refreshing that I quickly abandoned any preconceptions as to where the book would take me.
In A Play of Bodies, Keogh’s central theme is the way in which videogame play is an embodied act. Keogh calls this ‘a phenomenological appreciation of videogame experience’ (p. 17) which he uses to understand how our bodies (rather than our minds) are tied up in engagement with videogames. What does it mean when we talk about how a game feels, even when we are staring at the same screen and holding the same controller as we always are?
After using the multimodal interactivity of Tearaway and the ‘heaviness’ of Grand Theft Auto IV to set up the idea of ‘embodied literacies’ in the introduction and first chapter, Keogh goes on to discuss a wide array of video games with a focus on the embodied act of playing. Chapters on mobile and touchscreen-based play, repetition and failure, and the music of videogames draw upon examples from across the spectrum of videogames. In every case, Keogh aims to understand how the body forms part of a ‘cybernetic circuit’ between the virtual and the actual, in which the game and the player participate with each other in order to create the experience of the game.
The third chapter, in which Keogh examines the experience of console controllers, is the highlight of the book. He draws an evolution of the controller, demonstrating how the development in complexity from NES to Dualshock 4 is predicated upon a ‘cultivated gamepad literacy’ (p. 106) which some players have developed over time. Keogh compares this to the QWERTY keyboard and its early competitors, showing that technological change (and therefore bodily change) depends upon practice, training and commercial dominance. This perfectly and subtly explained my frustration when getting first-timers to play games; often they have not experienced same ‘ritualized repetition’ as I have.
In both the final chapter and the conclusion, Keogh zooms out to examine the political context surrounding his ideas, and this is unsurprisingly the chapter with the most provocative ideas. He makes a connection between the ‘hacker’ archetype and the hyper-masculine ‘gamer’ identity which was at the heart of Gamergate, and contrasts this with a ‘cyborg’ identity which might provide a more inclusive understanding of games, both from the point of view of who constitutes a ‘gamer’ and which games are seen as part of mainstream discussion. The concept of ‘embodied literacy’ has major implications not just for our understanding of video games but also for many cultural experiences in the twenty-first century. Indeed, this is at the heart of the whole argument of the book. Keogh effectively treats all games equally as experiences, acknowledging that mainstream and mobile games can involve using just as much literacy as what might be considered ‘art games’, whilst refusing to close off these games into a special category of their own.
Having said this, this inclusive spirit is slightly undermined by one of his final points. In the conclusion, Keogh argues that videogames studies as a field needs to be more formally separated from study of games more generally in order to carve out a space of its own. Given the emphasis on games as physical objects (and my own passion for analogue games) I felt frustrated that this suddenly excluded the non-digital. Keogh is understandably reluctant to treat a videogame as a ‘digitized nondigital game’ (p. 197), but we may advance further by treating analogue games as ‘undigitized digital games’. Is there something in the idea of cardboard cyborgs?
I read A Play of Bodies on holiday on the beach. As the book jacket became smeared with SPF-lotion-fingerprints, grains of sand got wedged between the pages, and I shifted position to avoid getting the sun in my eyes, it was all the more evident that my reading was an embodied act. So why not playing videogames too? Keogh’s introduction to this topic is accessible, clear and inclusive, and opens up a huge area for future discussion.
Review by John Lean