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Charles Herold

Science Writer Claims Wii Turns "Stupid Arcade Games" Into Passionate Experiences

By July 5, 2010

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There is an interesting article at ScienceBlogs.com that proposes that the physicality of playing Wii games  can engage players emotionally in a way not possible in traditional games where movement is confined to the hands.  The author, Jonah Lehrer, discusses at length the theories of William James, a 19th Century Harvard professor who proposed, according to Lehrer, that emotions originate in the mind rather than the body (you can read James' article on the subject here if you are more patient than I am).  Apparently James claimed, for example, that it is the perception of changes in the body like faster heartbeats and trembling that cause us to register fear.

Lehrer then discusses James' theory in terms of Super Mario Galaxy 2.

How might such a neurological process unfold? Let's say we are playing Super Mario Galaxy 2 on the Wii. Unlike other game consoles, which leave us stranded on the couch, the Wii actually makes us move. If we want to kill off the Goomba, we need to run around, twirl the remote, and, once we've maneuvered close to the evil character, jump on top of him. We are no longer just twiddling our thumbs.

My response to that paragraph was, "has he actually played Super Mario Galaxy 2?", a question brought up in a number of comments on his site, along with the equally pertinent question , "does this guy play video games at all?"  The description of gameplay in SMG2 is highly misleading.  You do not, in fact, run around or jump in the game.  Mario does these things, but he does them in the standard video game manner that involves twirling the analog stick and pressing the "jump" button.  SMG2 does have a little Wii remote waggling in it, but it is hardly a good example of a game that goes beyond thumb twiddling, and it is definitely a game played sitting on the couch.

I'm a little skeptical of what I've read of James' theory to begin with; I would say the brain registers fear and causes the body to tremble.  I do know that physical responses can cause emotional ones (studies have shown that forcing a smile can make you happier), but your brain is still going to have to register a threat before your body is going to react to it; at least in my oh-so-humble opinion.

I'm even more skeptical of Lehrer's application of this theory to the Wii.  The main problem is that the games most likely to use the Wii's gesture gaming possibilities are often the least emotional, like tennis and golfing games.  While these games have you swinging your arms, swinging your arms is not, ultimately, a very emotional act.

This is one of the great flaws in Lehrer's article; it would only make sense if the Wii were making you move in ways connected with emotion. While the Wii does often offer a greater physicality in game play, it seems unreasonable to believe the amount of pure physical movement effects the depth of emotion. After all, a faster heart beat or a little trembling are not huge physical movements.  Gamers often twirl their analog sticks desperately and passionately, as though it is the most important thing in the world, and ultimately it is compelling gameplay that makes them do so.  Often gamers on the couch will move and wave their non-gesture-sensitive controllers around not because they have to, but because they're too excited not to.

This is not to say I don't think that the underlying theory doesn't have some merit.  If you combine effective game play and emotional story with more gaming phsyicality, the end result could well be a more immersive, emotionally powerful experience that that offered in a button-mashing game.  But if Lehrer cannot offer a convincing real-world example of this, then he shouldn't embarrass himself by coming across as a gaming novice who doesn't understand how Wii games - or any video games -  are played.

July 12, 2010 at 2:14 pm
(1) Isaac Rabinovitch says:

I’ve been reading your game reviews for a long time, with great enjoyment. But….

Don’t want to get into your difference of opinion with Lehrer, but your description of William James as a “19th century Harvard professor” doesn’t add a lot of credibility to your side. This dismissive label ignores James’s crucial role in laying the foundations for the modern science of Psychology; his writings on the subject are still required reading. James started out as a physiologist, and was particular noted for his work on the physiology of behavior. To dismiss all that with “I would say that the brain registers fear…” is pretty lame.

I can understand that you don’t have the patience to read James’s work. But that same impatience pretty much disqualifies you from having any serious opinions on the topic.

July 12, 2010 at 2:35 pm
(2) Charles Herold says:

In terms of my description of James’ credentials, since Lehrer doesn’t bother saying who James’ is (perhaps he is writing for people who already are familiar with his work) I just looked him up on wikipedia and thought “Harvard professor” sounded better than “psychologist,” since it indicates some degree of expertise and respect. It was not meant to be a dismissive description.

It’s a fair point that I can’t write intelligently on James’ theory, but all I say is I’m skeptical in a post that is primarily focused on Lehrer’s writing on a subject that, from his description of Super Mario Galaxy 2, he is no familiar with than I am with James’ work.

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