Saturday, February 19, 2011

Wii and the Aesthetics of Alienation

The inlaws got my family Wii for Christmas. Having lived with it for a couple of weeks it's much easier to understand its popularity. Much hay is made of how Wii and now Microsoft's Kinect are more physically active and (real world) social than other video games. This is undoubtably true, but I think that these are just corollaries to the real appeal. What Nintendo really got right is the artificiality and clunkiness (aesthetically not technically) of the interface. The Wii programmers went completely the opposite direction of most gaming trends which feature realistic graphics and "transparency" of the control interface. By focusing more and more on the verisimilitude of the graphics and the naturalism of characters' movements controlled by smaller more automatic and subtle hand movements on a gaming pad, Gamers games aspire for an ideal where the player is drawn into the alternative world on the screen as fully as possible. The ideal of games like Halo is immersion, for the interface and the real world to disappear as fully as possible. Anything that reminds the player of the artificiality of the actual situation-- their actual body, the computer or TV screen, the bedroom, office or den where they happen to playing--is treated (and rightfully so) as an impediment to the player's ability to unselfconsciously inhabit their avitar's body and the virtual world of the game.
By contrast everything, I mean everything, about the Wii is designed to create a friction between the simultaneous real and virtual experiences. The aim here is to create a graphical world with just enough verisimilitude to create a sensual, physiological pull, but which is also sufficiently artificial to create a counterbalancing push which never allows the player to unselfconsciously immerse themselves in the virtual experience. Take Wii Sports tennis as an example. The court, ball and surroundings are realistically modeled in terms of texture and mass. Trees even shudder in the virtual breeze. Light flows convincingly over objects casting correspondingly believable shadows. Engineers have coded sfumato, the atmospheric illusion of light scattering off of molecules of air, they have programmed lens flare and soft-focus depth of field. These are all very sophisticated perceptual clues that seem excessive especially when one remembers that the inhabitants of this virtual virtuosity are simplistic abstract figures who resemble nothing so much as lego people. Here stylization rather than verisimilitude is the rule to the point that any unnecessary and visually confusing elements-- even the characters' arms have been omitted. The upshot is that the space sucks us in, but the figures distance us perceptually from this world. The space is real but we aren't in it. It is inhabited by a symbol that stands in our place.
The result of this frission is the constant to-ing and fro-ing of perception that conflates actual experiences occurring in the room with the virtual experiences occurring on screen. Immersion wants us to confuse the virtual FOR the real as an alternative to reality. Wii is based on a balance of perceptual artificiality and sensual seduction that encourages the player to conflate the virtual WITH the real to crate a single unified experience which is a fusion of the real and the virtual, nether suffiiently real nor convincingly virtual to allow conscious perception to settle comfortably inside or outside the game. Psychologically speaking, playing Wii presents us with a classic case of dual consciousness or alienation. Marx, DuBois and Lacan never imagined that psychological tension, a schism in the geist could be so darn fun...

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