“Embodied Literacy, Skill, and Habit” – Dennis Jansen
Lately, I am becoming increasingly fascinated by the embodied aspects of digital games and digital gameplay. If Brendan Keogh (2018) is to be believed, we cannot truly understand how we perceive and make sense of games without taking into account the fact that we are directing our eyes at the screen, aiming our ears at the speakers, and moving our hands upon the controller in the process of digital play. In his chapter on controllers, he coins the term “embodied literacy” (ibid., 91), by which he refers to the ability of a player to fuse their own body and the input device in “a single, extended performance”, thereby losing the conscious distinction between the actions of their body and the response of the device’s buttons, triggers, and joysticks. Digital gameplay is not only an activity to become engaged in, but also a skill to be mastered.
Early in his recent TiM lecture, Tim Ingold sets up a dichotomy between two types of automatisms: skilled craft mastery, like playing a musical instrument; and habitual automatisms, like touch typing. He argues that the two are quite different, but humanistic theories of embodiment fail to properly account for this distinction. Ingold observes that habit, automatism, and mastery are often seen as phenomena which are sedimented into the body, a process whereby it becomes—as Keogh also describes regarding digital game literacy—increasingly unnecessary to pay conscious attention to the physical actions one is performing. However, for Ingold, there is something else entirely going on regarding skilled crafts. There, thinking is part of the doing! By this, he means that performing a skill, like playing an instrument, is not just the operation of that instrument, but also bodily gestures and postures cooperating with the materials of the instrument in the production of sound. In this process, a crucial factor is “interstitial differentiation” (Ingold 2017, 13): the ability to distinguish between ‘self’ and ‘other’ (e.g. a cello or piano) while simultaneously linking the two together. Skill, thus, becomes more about “finding the grain” of performances and bending it for one’s own purposes—not interrupting the grain by breaking it up in sections, but going along with it and reflecting on that going-along, adapting and letting oneself be adapted as the performance continues.
Questions follow, to which I have no answers yet. In Keogh’s description of digital game postphenomenology, the controller is absorbed into the literate player’s body. Is digital play, therefore, an automatism like touch typing, thoughtlessly performed once the player is fully familiar with the input device? This view cannot account for difficulty curves in individual games, different control conventions across genres, or the frequent occurrence of failure even for players who are considered to be literate. The problem with calling embodied literacy a skill in Ingold’s sense is that, for him, a skilled craft is an interaction between two actual entities, not one actual and one virtual. Digital play seems to stand somewhere in-between, simultaneously habitual and skilful. Consider my interest piqued.
- Ingold, Tim. 2017. “On human correspondence.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 23 (1): 9–27. https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-9655.12541.
- Keogh, Brendan. 2018. A Play of Bodies: How We Perceive Videogames. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.