(Re-)Positioning the Senses: Perceptions of Space in 3d Gameworlds

The accepted abstract for the Philosophy of Computer Games conference 2011 in Athens, Greece.

(Re-)Positioning the Senses: Perceptions of Space in 3d Gameworlds

As has been noted by Gregersen and Grodal (2009) (through the work of Gallagher (2005)), we perceive actions and events related to our bodies through “visual, somatosensory, and proprioceptive systems” (p. 67). It is through both the somatosensory and proprioceptive systems that we are aware of our sense of touch and the movement of our bodies, an idea we can use to understand the player’s connection to the game controller as a feedback device. In playing a videogame, we are conscious of the restrictions of the controller in relation to how we are able to move the character through the gamespace. This is particularly evident in relation to the character’s ‘locus of manipulation’ (see Bayliss (2007) and Gingold (2003)), and how the player is able to move the character in relation to objects, platforms and other characters that may be in the way of its path. Encountering an obstacle that prevents the character’s movement will cause the controller to imitate a sense of friction, as the up command on the d-pad no longer issues a response.

It is through focusing on the concept of the ‘locus of manipulation’ that this paper will seek to understand how the player develops spatial relationships in the gameworld through both the visually constructed virtual world, and the associated feedback of input devices that guide the player-character through the gamespace. The focus, in particular, will be on games offering the player a chance to move the characters through three-dimensional space, along the z-axis of the gameworld. By understanding the characteristics of space in relation to the player’s perception of space, this paper will discuss the progression of controller based games, through to what Juul (2010) terms ‘mimetic games’, such as the Wii and use of Playstation Move and on to the recently released ‘controller-less’ peripheral of Microsoft’s Kinect.

In the absence of any somatosensory feedback from the (lack) of a controller, our spatial awareness becomes focused on purely visual and auditory signifiers onscreen. This raises questions about the construction of space in each instance, and how the player understands space through both the controller and their experiences of virtual world design in different game genres. How does the absence of any somatosensory feedback affect the spatial awareness of the player, as they try to control characters or objects in 3D spaces? And, what other influences might the player draw upon in their understanding of space in 3D worlds?

This paper explores how changing the control systems and input devices in games, challenges the player’s perception of space, and how this can be understood and represented. It will draw upon ideas from phenomenology, in particular the work of Merleau-Ponty (1962), as well as visual constructions of virtual space through the work of Nitsche (2008) and Stockburger (2006). In doing so, the differences in the player’s perception of space will be discussed through an analysis of videogames such as Little Big Planet, Kinect Adventures, Tumble and the mini-games in Wii Fit.


Bayliss, P. (2007). ‘Beings in the Game-World: Characters, Avatars and Players’, in the proceedings of IE2007, Australia.

Gallagher, S. (2005). How the Body Shapes the Mind. Oxford:Clarendon.

Gregersen, A and Grodal, T. (2009). Embodiment and Interface. In Perron, B and Wolf, M.J.P. (eds.), The Video Game Reader 2. London: Routledge.

Gingold, C. (2003). Miniature Gardens & Magic Crayons: Games, Spaces, & Worlds. Masters Diss. Georgia Institute of Technology.

Jesper, J. (2010). A Casual Revolution. Massachusetts: MIT Press.

Merleau-Ponty, M. (1962). Phenomenology of Perception. London: Routledge.

Nitsche, M. (2008). Video Game Spaces. Massachusetts: MIT Press.

Stockburger, A. (2006). The Rendered Arena: Modalities of Space in Video and Computer Games. PhD Diss. University of the Arts, London.