Saturday
Oct152011

Talking to the Wall (7): Idle Hands

I’m proud of my hands.

When I look down at them, I don’t see the gnarled, nicotine-stained skin stretched over my prematurely arthritic, PlayStation-ravaged joints. I don’t think about the great novels they might have penned, the pianos that could have been made to sing with their untapped dexterity, or even of the beautiful women they might have briefly (and inexpertly) pawed.

I try not to think of pawing at all, if I’m honest.

Video Game Controller Ornaments, via Technabob

Instead, I think of the countless worlds they’ve saved, and the equally countless galaxies they’ve helped to destroy. I think of the trillions of points they strung together with unthinking, automatic precision as they executed benihanas, nosegrinds and manuals when they found the perfect line in Tony Hawk 2 or 3. I think of last second dodges and barrel rolls in frantic Phantom class races, or of them punching the air (or my friends) at unlikely, last-gasp victories in dreadfully handling Dodges at digital Laguna Secas.

 I also remember the endless hours of turgid, terribly written dialogue they helped me not to have to read as they instantly skipped on to their next chance to smash, maim, shoot, jump, fly, hide or seek out secrets. I think of ‘Do you want to continue?’ and I think of pressing ‘yes’.

Increasingly, though, I’m forced to conclude that Microsoft hates my hands. This confuses me because, as well as saving the world and being easily forgettable, my hands have also been pretty adept at handing over fat wads of cash for their products, and even more fat wads of fatter cash for their overpriced, fat controllers. For every imaginary, electronic victory, my bank account has simultaneously been defeated at the hands of my hands. Stupid hands.

I hate my hands.

Even so, my hands are being glared at by an Xbox’s beady, unblinking eye. And judging by the ever-widening gaze of the spying little lens in their graceless Kinect, it’s fairly obvious my hands are of no more use to me or them. This is, after all, a staring machine that has been built to recognise where my arms are at all times – even if I’m having a quick paw – at the same time as it stubbornly refuses to believe in the reality of my fingers. Instead, it demands that I jump, wave, sway, wobble and talk at it. As long as I don’t try using sign language.

In short, if I want to have fun, it demands that I have to start having fun by pretending to act like I’m already having fun. It’s a bit like designing a cart that looks like a horse to lead a horse that thinks it’s a cart.

SNES X-Ray, via geekologieI can, at least, see where they’re coming from. Playing games has changed from a simple reflex-battering monkey-button into a convoluted, codified mess where inputs have multiplied like morons on holiday. I mean, who wants to know what you press to jump, when you can instead just jump. And why learn stupid, abstract control systems, when your body is the controller.  Look:  I’m waving, not frowning. Thanks, Microsoft.

With this apparently simple promise, Kinect, along with its motion-enforcing competitors, is being pushed with all the dreary joylessness of an organised fun day. Put the action into interaction, they tell us, at the same time eclipsing meaningful interactivity with meaningless activity.

After all, seeming transparent and being transparent are very different things, as even Mister Cameron might have to admit one day. Just how transparent is a machine that translates a real jump into a digital one? You’re no longer controlling your character so much as imitating what you want them to do. But I’ve never read a novel and thought, you know, what this book needs to really come alive is for me to pretend to do all the actions that are described. That wouldn’t be life imitating art, so much as an artless idea of live interaction.

Whether you’re flying through your gameworld by holding up your arms or by holding down a button, it’s still a code. Only now, it’s one you’re supposed to think is natural; both of them are an active language of control, even if only one of them looks like a machine in your hand.

All this may make me sound like a snide, old luddite. But I’m worse than that – I’m a rational, snide old luddite. I’m somebody who isn’t sure why being conscious of learning a language is considered inferior to being self conscious about talking to a machine that makes you wobble. Because the joy of gaming isn’t about either pressing buttons or waggling like a fool. It’s when you forget that you’re interacting at all, no matter how you choose to do it.

That’s why I resent being told that our hands – for all their videogame history – represent the limitations of the past. A past of having to learn and commit and engage until things become natural. But effort is out and immediacy is in, regardless if the trade-off leaves us with much less engaging games to engage with. Human evolution didn’t end with opposable thumbs, but videogame evolution continues apace by cutting us off at the wrist as if that’s supposed to be a liberation.

We should be glad all that handy stuff is done with, says the Kinect. An end to dreadful, tedious games like Ocarina of Time, or Halo, or Final Fantasy, or Tetris, or Mario 64. No more of those awkward, irrelevant experiences that make up every single game on the ‘100 Greatest Games Ever Made’ lists. Finally, we can awake from the 20 year delusion that those old-fashioned, buttony games were anything other than an insult to our bodies. Bodies that we can now see on our TV, thanks to the incredible technology that allows us to treat hundreds of pounds of circuitry as a glorified mirror. You know. For dancing.

Jumping around like a Ritalin-deficient berk is the future. And that future is so good that most of it has titles with the word ‘party’ in. Welcome to the unbridled brilliance of Your Shape: Fitness Evolved, Sports Island: Freedom, Game Party – In Motion, Zumba Fitness Party, and Fighters Uncaged. Fuck having a pet. Why not have a Kinectimal? Real life is nowhere near as real as waving at it on telly. What could be more natural than that?  Oh Brave New World, that has such games in it.

I'm going to miss my hands.

Reader Comments (2)

"In short, if I want to have fun, it demands that I have to start having fun by pretending to act like I’m already having fun". Isn't that how everyone does anything? Like that Adam Werrity, pretending to be an adviser...?

Sunday, October 16, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBunky

I think it's more like Dr Fox pretending he still had a career, rather than Adam Werrity pretending to be anything that, in truth, he wasn't. But if, in order to start having fun, you're expected to act like a shady, secretly-funded, ferret-eyed, shifty little Tory crook, then count me out of that, too.

I should have called this You Handsome Devil, really. Bugger.

Sunday, October 16, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterbutton monkey

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