Virtual Bodies in Virtual Worlds

A phenomenology of play in video games


Benjamin Gattet is an interdisciplinary Researcher/Designer/Hacker.  His work revolves around atypical experiences, alternative narrations (wordless, environmental, purely diegetic or systemic), procedural authorship and the phenomenology of play.  He is currently doing a PhD in Game Design and Game Study at Concordia’s Technology Art and Game center.


Introduction: Merleau-Ponty’s project

Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s project in Phenomenology of Perception is to overcome what he calls the classical prejudices (1–93)—mostly, the belief in an objective world—by calling for a return to a proper description of phenomena. This can only be done by putting our unquestioned belief in an objective world aside. This leads to the discovery that the body, as an ambiguous and undetermined being, is our fundamental way of being in the world, and that all consciousness is perceptual. I will use this methodology to undergo a phenomenology of play, and describe the experience of playing a video game. Hopefully this will shed light on experiences of play considered marginal today.

The game body

Description of a learning session

How do I first interact with a video game I don’t know? I sit in front of a screen, take a game controller in my hand and start the game. The controller and the game are still foreign. I ask “How do I play?”, or “what can I do?” I need to learn the “control scheme” of the game. Confronted with different situations, I learn which button does which action in the game. I continuously check that I am doing things right and pressing the correct button at the correct time. I am not yet fully immersed. I make mistakes, try to reflect on them and correct them. I am here, playing a game that is there. But the more I get accustomed to this new way of being that is playing, the less I think about my hands pressing buttons, and the more it feels natural for me. I just jump, dodge, or move. I am entering this immersed state, where the game is no longer external to myself, but starts to make sense in itself, and becomes my new reality. How can we describe this new meaning that arises from becoming familiar with a game?

How do we learn to play?

It would be convenient to think about this learning as a rational process. I think about my potential actions in the game, and then try to enact the correct one to overcome obstacles. The more I play the more I amass knowledge about the game and the more I can think and act accordingly. But learning about a game is not an act of pure reason.

If learning was a conscious act, then I would only have to read the game manual to be an expert player. I would not have to play, and furthermore, I would not be able to play. Learning to play does not deal with a thetic consciousness; learning by playing is necessary.

If learning to play is not an act of the mind, then what is it? Like any other act of life, it can be described as an embodied phenomenon (Merleau-Ponty 100–147). The goal here is not to refer back to the old dualism of mind versus body, but to show that our body grounds us in a world and makes sense of it, in the way that all knowledge, every experience, is not only felt, but understood through it. When we first encounter a game, this embodied knowledge is not yet ours, and our movements are still abstract (Merleau-Ponty 106–112). We are trying to build a living relationship between the movement of our fingers, and the action unfolding on the screen. We live outside of the game and interact with it from the outside. If we manage to reach an immersed state, or in other words, if we “get” the game, we do not think about those relationships anymore. The movement of our fingers becomes the action.

Our actions then lose their abstractness and start being concrete actions in the game world: “Consciousness is not originally an I think that, but rather an I can” (Merleau-Ponty 139). When I act, I do not necessarily think about my actions, for reflection is already an “out of self” process. I just live them, and the world, or the game speaks directly to my body, and its “motor intentionality” (Merleau-Ponty 112–114). I do not think about using an interface (the game controller), for there is no more interface: I directly move and act in the game world.

Learning to play could be compared to learning a language. I start by learning vocabulary and grammar. But it is not a question of knowledge only, for if it was, one could not come up with new way of expressing oneself. Rather, language is about taking up a new modality of living in the world, and making sense of it. Language, like play, is a creative process, and by expressing mine, or by playing, I infuse new meanings in my words, and shape them through my perceptive understanding. I notice this bodily understanding if I play a game for a while, and then stop to go back to the “natural world.”[1] I do not completely leave the game behind. For a little while, I keep inhabiting it. This has been referred as the Tetris effect (Goldsmith). After long games of Tetris, my perception of the natural world changes, and I start seeing boxes that might or might not fit together everywhere. I want to align objects to make them disappear. But this does not happen in rational thought, rather, it is a phenomenon felt in the body. I have a certain power of action in the game that I lose when I stop playing and my body is still attached to it, just like a sailor feels the ground moving after spending a little while at sea. If I play too much Super Time Force, I start wanting to rewind in “real life” when I spill a glass or break my pen. Noticing that is it no longer possible, and being robbed of this modality of being, I might even feel slight distress.

Habit and body schema

Learning to play could also be described as what Merleau-Ponty calls “acquiring a habit” (143–148). A habit has nothing to do with a reflex for there is nothing mechanical in it (143–145). I do not perform the correct timing for an attack or for a dodge in a video game because the visual stimuli on screen is automatically translated into the correct behavior in my fingers. If this was the case, I could never miss this timing, and I could never make mistakes. At the same time, a habit does not deal with objective knowledge. I do not dodge at the correct time because I know I need to, just like the typist does not objectively know the position of the keys on his keyboard in order to be able to type (Merleau-Ponty 145). What is a habit then? For Merleau-Ponty, a habit is a “reworking of the body schema” (143).

The body schema is how we perceive our body when living: its global position in the world, but also in existence. When I acquire a new habit, I “reshape” this body schema. This allows me to navigate a new expressive space that makes sense for me (Merleau-Ponty 147). Like the instrumentalist (Merleau-Ponty 146–148), the more I play the more I shape my body schema to make sense of the game as an expressive space. The game controller is the instrument for this. As an expert player, as soon as I take up the controller, I no longer think about it, or about the objective distance between my fingers. The controller is like the blind man’s cane (Merleau-Ponty 154): it is no longer perceived, but becomes an instrument with which I perceive. I enter into a relationship with the game, and my body shoots through the screen into the game world.

This knowledge is transferrable from different games, or from different controllers. Someone who is used to playing video games will learn a new game quicker than a neophyte. I do not make a conscious translation of this previous knowledge onto the new “instrument”. I do not first look at the controller and see what needs to be changed, but rather, I incorporate its specificity in my own body, and call up this previous “bodily knowledge” through play. But this embodiment is fragile: if the interface makes itself apparent again because of a “mistake” or an action that does not make sense anymore, I am thrown outside of the game, and back into the reflective pose of thinking about what my fingers are doing.

Beyond the two body problem, the virtual body is our body.

When I talk about my body, I do not point to the physical juxtaposition of my limbs, or to the collection of my sense organs. Those exist and are necessary for sensing a world. But they are not what my body is through lived experience. My body projects itself onto objects, other bodies, and the world. Its shape depends on how I feel: it shrinks when I am depressed and I feel the world lacks possibilities. It grows when this world opens up to my projects and intentions. It manipulates what my interest is oriented toward and envelops things which are familiar. This is what Merleau-Ponty refers to as our “virtual body” or “phenomenal body” (260–261). This is the body of our lived experience that exists outside any notion of an “objective” world. The reshaping of the body schema, this creation of a new “organ of play” (Bredlau) has everything to do with this virtual body. When I play, I use my virtual body to interact with the game and exist in the game world. But I do not have two bodies: one physical, sitting on a chair pushing buttons, and one virtual, projected into the game space. That would still be thinking that my biological body is my main way of experiencing a world, and that the virtual body is a derived body that rests on top of the first one. Instead, there is only this phenomenal body that perceives. When I am playing a video game, I am this body thrown into the game world. Just like when we are living outside of the game, I am this body thrown into the natural world and into existence. The virtual body is not disconnected from the physical. Sometimes, in a racing game, I shift my body to help my car turn faster, because my physical and virtual bodies are one and the same, living in an ever-changing and ambiguous relationship. My hand stretches outside of its physical bounds to pick up objects in the game world. Like a swordmaster who can feel the tip of his sword as a part of their body, I move in front of my computer because I am fully embodied in the game world. When I play Doom, I feel my body flowing around my enemies, dancing from one to the other in an effortless, instinctive choreography.

The game world

There is no body without a world

A body can not exist without a world, for the body is what allows us to have a world (Merleau-Ponty 147). But what kind of relationship does our phenomenal body share with the game world? In the same way that I cannot have a body without a world, I cannot play without a “game”. This game is not something I constitute by myself, but something that exists outside of me that I confront.

The game world is no simulation

Games are not simulations of a physical world. They might contain elements that refer to a physicality, but they are not a transposition of elements from a natural world to a virtual one. They are not a mirror of our reality, for when we play, games are our reality. For the phenomenal body there is not really a difference between being in a game and being in life, because games are a part of life. What games do is propose another world for one’s own body to exist in. I do not play a video game as much as I play in a video game.

For my body, nothing truly exists in isolation, but rather is a matter of figures resting on a ground. Figures are what catch my attention, what directly speak to my body, while grounds are things that recede in the background of perception because they do not make sense for me, and do not speak to my motor intentionality. Playing a game is a matter of shifting a previous ground to a figure, like the previous passenger that becomes the driver of a car (Bredlau). I do not properly see the TV or the computer screen, and I do not really feel the controller in my hand. They are still here in my phenomenal field, but they are not what matters anymore: they become “the ground”, and the game is the new figure to my phenomenal self. Playing a game is not so much embedding myself in a simulated world as a shift in my milieu of existence. When I play a “parkour” game like Dying Light or Mirror’s Edge, I exist in the world, and the world in turn makes sense to my body. I see which wall is climbable, which path is faster, and what part of the environment I can make use of. I stretch my body on my chair when I’m at full speed, I feel tethered when I slow down, and even disoriented when I make a misstep, or fall.

At the same time, the game world is a new collection of figure/ground relationships. Playing is about learning how to navigate this new field of existence, noticing figures, shifting between figure and ground, and even creating new figures. This process remains opaque. The work of the player is to learn to navigate this new world. This is not necessarily a safe project. When playing a game, sometimes I might want to pick up objects, or use something in the game world, but the game does not allow it. This can create discomfort that is directly felt in my body. The more I learn to navigate the space, the more I know, in my being, what is possible and what is not possible to do there.

We can compare the act of playing to falling asleep (Merleau-Ponty 166). I do not choose, as a rational decision, to fall asleep. I take the position of the sleeper, orient my whole self toward sleep and wait for it to come. I do not choose to play, but rather, knock on the game world’s door, take the proper orientation, and let my body be drawn into the game space.



Bredlau, Susan. “Learning to See: Merleau-Ponty and the Navigation of ‘Terrains’.”Chiasmi International 8 (2006): 191–198. Print.

Goldsmith, Jeffrey. “This Is Your Brain on Tetris.” WIRED. N.p., 1 May 1994. Web. 25 July 2016.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Phenomenology of Perception. London: Routledge, 2012. Print.

[1] I’m using here natural world to talk about the world outside of the game world