The Loss of Emotion and Embodiment in Children’s Gaming
The Game is Changing
In the early days of shoot ’em up computer games, physical gestures in gaming at least partly mimicked physical ones. I remember watching angry friends wearing out ‘Fire’ buttons on joysticks or ruining the space bar on a computer keyboard which acted as the fire button.
Kill and destroy gestures were angry, forceful and partly authentic to their physical counterparts. You’d often see calm gamers build and explode into anger and swearing.
Goodbye, Mr Bond!
Now, cut to a thriller movie: The chilling bad guys of movies such as James Bond were chilling because, when they pressed the red button that released a scared servant into a bubbling pool of killer piranha fish below, they pressed the button, not with anger, nor forcefulness but with a soft, ballet-chilly cruel lightness. The press was almost lazy, too easy, effortless and even indifferent – like some depictions of Roman Emperor Nero’s thumb deciding who would live and who would die.
Clash of the Gestures
Recently I watched a child playing the addictive app war game Clash of Clans. As he re-armed his base with numerous death devices to burn, evaporate and explode people and villages, and as he quickly reloaded guns and restocked with bombs and chemical weapons, his finger presses were not ’embodied’. They were hardly committed physically. They did not show aggression or excitement. They turned war into something light, without real consequence for him. His fingertips brushed the keys as if it all didn’t really matter, as if all this destruction was without consequence for him. (Now this game isn’t a real-time shooter, but it does happen pretty much in real time).
On the Moral Rebound
When we punch hard with an angry roar, we also create a “moral rebound”. The impact of our anger and emotion plays out, not only in the world around us, but also onto and inside us as well. (we hear and feel the sound and impact of our own glorious human roar).
So, the authentic gesture is embodied and usually echoes within us. The resonance goes into our memory and can even lead to reflection and the awakening of either further anger or of conscience. Righteous anger can arise where we feel our gesture was morally justified, or we may feel guilty and that we should make amends or cease our aggressive activity.
War and mass destruction was occurring in Clash of Clans and it was as if this child’s deftly tapping fingers were delivering death and pain in the manner of little ballet feet on the gorilla glass.
Disembodying our Children
For children, these games become, not only a form of disembodied aggression, but even the last vestige of embodied gesturing, a growl and a strong aggressive key press becomes diluted and even disappears completely.
Something calmer replaces it – it can look economic, minimal and even graceful. The presses become a form of cold, functional, spider-like applied movement. The fingers scuttle instead of expressing feeling. Now there may be some benefits or advantages to this ability to detach. It may give us more of a distance from being too immersed. Yet if we lose the ability to embody our feelings, is the price too high?
Clash of Clans becomes a playground for emotionally minimal destruction without moral rebound or reflection. It becomes a training platform in pure indifferent cruelty. The death doesn’t matter because it is pixelated – the practice and imagined experience of it become a lazy afternoon pastime to while away an hour or three. The tiny smile on that child’s face was utterly chilling as he ignited then obliterated another little field of people. Then he looked up, stared at me and said: “What? WHAT?”