Dr Johnson’s Sore Toe: Touch, Naturalism and Kingdom Hearts

In 1710, George Berkeley published Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge, in which he argued that everything that exists is just perceptions in the mind of God. The Principles made quite a splash, though were not taken very seriously. Some years later, when asked his opinion on Berkeley’s theory, Samuel Johnson is reputed to have declaimed ‘I refute it thus‘ and kicked a large stone at the side of the path.

Berkeley is sometimes credited as the founder of what in philosophy is known as idealism[1], a group of ontological positions which hold that there is no such thing as ‘matter’ (physical, or mind-independent, substance). As such, the ontological claims of idealism have usually been received with Johnson’s derision, whatever respect has been paid to their arguments (and in some cases the respect is substantial; Kant and Hegel, for example, are both idealists).

This scorn has much to do with the dominance of the opposing view. Materialism, the ontological position that there is such a thing as matter (or more recently, that there is only matter), is the prevailing ideology of global-capitalist/anglo- or euro-centric/’western’ culture. It is materialists, generally, who write our histories of ideas and who set the terms under which they are taught.

And this is important, because the contention between idealist and materialist is not really so ephemeral or absurd as it seems. Materialist histories frame the issue as one of obscure metaphysical curiosity, but the debate about what exists serves, and always has, as a proxy for a debate about what has value.

Berkeley himself understood his idealism to be fundamentally political. A cleric who would later become Bishop of Cloyne, he saw the turmoil of the seventeenth century as a result of the rise of mercantile and imperialist materialism[2]. For Berkeley, materialism placed matter between humans and God and interrupted our spiritual connection to the divine. Berkeley’s project was to reassert God’s immanent involvement in everything that happens or exists.

One need not buy into Berkeley’s religion to understand the point, though. Idealism holds that value and worth depend for their existence on human (or human-like) experiences, thoughts and/or judgements. Material objects have no intrinsic value, and are only valuable insofar as they sustain valuable experiences. In this sense, idealism is potentially quite radical[3].

Dr Johnson

In video games, materialism becomes (what we tend to call) ‘realism’. I’m not sure anyone has ever explicitly put it this way, but the thesis is roughly that, since it is material objects that have value, virtual objects can only have value to the extent that they are like material objects.

So a key element of video game materialism is simulation – specifically, I think, the simulation of space, time and physics. We see this in the specific cachet afforded to games with fully contiguous spaces (‘metroidvanias’, Dark Souls), games that ‘take place in real time’ (Majora’s Mask, Lightning Returns) and games with detailed physics engines (Half Life, Portal and the many other children of Havok)[4].

There is something else, though, too, that is more difficult to pin down in words. If value is mind-independent, human-independent, then it cannot have the appearance of being man-made. So materialism in games also involves concealing the hand of the designer. For this reason, I prefer the term ‘naturalism’ to ‘realism’.

Naturalism is the aspiration of any piece of art or media to seem ‘found’ rather than created. It is how we can debate the ‘realism’ of the visual effects representing Godzilla in a film, and the source of mysticism about the poetic muse. It’s a particular vice among fantasy authors; we like to pretend that our stories are not crafted, that instead we merely document events in other realities, which arrive in our minds by transdimensional magic.

In games it is the dream of the virtual world that is a perfect, comprehensive equivalent of our own, constructed by algorithms that do more than a human designer ever could[5]. A lot of the excitement around No Man’s Sky came from the suggestion it would generate a whole universe from a set of elegant, computable rules. Something similar underpinned Spore‘s hype, and contributes to the sense of infinite promise associated with Minecraft.

Discussion of naturalism – of realism-in-fantasy – usually crops up when someone is using ‘realism’ to excuse lazy, regressive or harmful worldbuilding; the infamous ‘it wouldn’t be realistic to have black people in The Witcher III‘. This assertion is obviously nonsense, but it’s not the only pernicious product of video game naturalism.

materialism

‘Kinaesthetics’ is a slightly controversial term, and ‘gamefeel’ much worse, but Dr Johnson’s sore toe does suggest that, in some way, tangibility – the capacity to be (or seem to be) touched – is more important to our perception of materiality than visibility or appearance. One of the major reasons that mainstream games discourse fetishizes ‘interactivity’ so centrally is the sense of tactile contact that games (commonly) provide but other screenbound art forms (generally) do not.

Of course, we cannot literally touch virtual objects (in the sense of applying force to them with our bodies to stimulate pressure-sensitive nerves in our skin). But we do touch things as we play, and in response to that, virtual objects that we can see touch other virtual objects, and some very deep neural wiring involved in our ordinary hand-eye coordination is activated. The metaphor of touch is often useful to describe the phenomenal (experiential) effects of this process.

Software input/output loops which are not presented in such a way as to be interpreted as touch-centric often invite scorn for ‘not really being games’. This is evident in the response to ‘walking simulators’, which generally deny the player any touching except through the out-of-sight-out-of-mind soles of their virtual feet. It was evident, too, in the ‘excel spreadsheet’ jokes I and many others used to make about football manager games; and it persists especially in criticisms of JRPGs for their heavy reliance on menus and statistics.

It’s worth noting that our vocabulary for describing tactile sensation is not as rich nor as heavily theorised as our visual vocabulary. I struggle, as have many philosophers before me, to avoid my talk of perception slipping into talk exclusively of visual perception. So it isn’t a surprise that the discussion of kinaesthetics has often been burdened with ill-defined use of words like ‘sharp’, ‘precise’, ‘sluggish’ or ‘heavy’. We may each have some feeling about what these words mean, but they are frequently opaque without direct experiential context.

Still, because of the capacity to suggest tangibility, it might be thought that video games naturally favour materialism. Indeed, there’s a very plausible argument that the emphasis placed on realism/naturalism in mainstream gaming has helped create the overwhelmingly conservative climate in the big-money parts of the industry and audience. But I don’t think it has to be this way.

Precisely because of the kinaesthetic element, games are perhaps better-placed to challenge materialism than other screen-bound artforms. Games don’t have to valorise simulation; they don’t have to feel kinaesthetically ‘right’ or like our world. It’s not just that we can experience different kinds of motion and physics, though this is valuable in its own right. Games can challenge our assumptions about the place of materiality in our value schemes.

Sora

‘Dreamlike’ isn’t much better than ‘sharp’ or ‘heavy’ as a kinaesthetic term, but it was the best I could come up with when talking about Kingdom Hearts. It’s not just the kinaesthetics – the game’s wonderful opening movie is rife with the cinematic language of dream sequences, too – but they’re a big part of why the game feels so ethereal.

In the interest of being specific, here’s the things I identified as contributing to this feeling:

  • How much time Sora spends with his feet off the ground. Jumping lasts a long time, and the amount of horizontal steering you can do while airborne has nothing to do with ‘real-world’ physics. To add to that, Sora will jump when you attack enemies that are over a certain height above the ground; the threshold for this is arbitrary and difficult to judge. It’s easy to find yourself floating in an aerial combo almost without realising.
  • Enemy movement. Many enemies in Kingdom Hearts evade damage by moving out of reach or range. This is true right from the very earliest heartless, whose gimmick is their ability to sink into the floor as shadows. This means that often you will reach for an enemy and find it not there. Amid the frenetic visual noise of combat, this can feel like your keyblade passes straight through an enemy’s body.
  • More specifically, the way the camera behaviour interacts with locking on to enemies. The camera follows the wild movements of targeted enemies pretty much one-to-one, so your perspective swings around a lot in ways you can’t control. A lot of things you need to keep track of only happen in your peripheral vision, and you can’t always direct visual attention to them when needed.
  • The game’s environments are generally small, and lead into one another in awkward, difficult-to-follow ways. It’s very easy to get lost, or to feel like you’ve turned back on yourself but ended up in a different place from where you started. You couldn’t build spaces like this; they’d collapse. They can exist only because they are not material, but virtual.

I leapt to understanding these phenomena as dreamlike, I think, because I don’t have many other conventions to apply to a world and physics this different. There’s nothing in Kingdom Hearts‘ narrative, though, to suggest that its events are to be understood as sleeping hallucinations. Sora never wakes up. The game’s world is his world.

It might feel solipsistic, as so many games do, as if only Sora is real, the game’s environments sustained purely for his experiencing. But Kingdom Hearts‘ story includes at least one character as real as Sora: Riku. Not for nothing are all the game’s most compelling boss fights duels against Sora’s closest friend.

Kingdom Hearts isn’t really about Heartless, or Maleficent and the Disney Princesses, or even defeating Ansem(/Xemnas/Xehanort). Those are part of its iconography, they add meaning, but the heart of the game is the relationship between Sora and Riku. Everything that happens matters mainly because of how it affects the two boys’ understanding of each other.

All the ways in which the world is made to feel intangible, insubstantial, materially impossible, serve to prioritise this emotional and social core. Yes, one can take an interest in other elements of the story, as subsequent games have done, but Kingdom Hearts itself lives and dies by how it engages you in Sora’s effort to understand Riku, how their conflict, the slight desynchronisation of their goals as they begin to mature, moves you.

Bishop Berkeley

Idealists do not deny that the tangible, physical world exists; Doctor Johnson’s sore toe proves nothing. Instead, for the idealist, the things we commonly take to be material exist only insofar as they facilitate relationships among human experiences.

It is not that there is no rock for Johnson to kick; the rock is the relationship between the brown, irregular shape you see and the stinging pain in the good doctor’s toe. We use the expression and concept ‘the rock’ to communicate about the pain he felt; to explain how it came about, how it might be ameliorated, and crucially whether you can empathise with him over it.

Something similar can be said of scientific ‘reality’. We (take ourselves to) know that atoms exist because they are the most effective way of relating many different experimental results. To the idealist, those experiments are ultimately experiences, and atoms are nothing over and above the explanatory relationship between those experiences.

If this seems trivial or silly, consider that exactly the same goes for ‘big’ concepts like justice. Justice is a concept we must agree on, that we must negotiate from a position of equality. Just as Dr Johnson may invoke the rock as an explanation for the pain in his toe, you may invoke injustice for the pain of how you have been treated by an organisation, culture or individual.

This appeal asks me to recognise not only the negative experience you have had but also your moral sense, your capacity to make judgements about your experiences. It asks me to acknowledge your humanity, your personhood.

A materialist treatment of justice (and here, to add another loaded word to the mix, ‘materialist’ starts to line up with ‘essentialist’) holds that justice – like the table – is a thing that exists independently of us, above us. It is not a thing we create and live, but a thing we discover.

And ‘discoveries’, of course, are more a matter of who gets to claim them than of who does the actual finding. So it is that Columbus could ‘discover’ the Americas, a landmass settled thousands of years earlier and even visited from Europe many times before him. To get credit for a discovery, you must have a platform of influence and power from which to make your claim.

You can see where I’m going with this. Materialism enables those with a platform to ignore or dismiss counterclaims, to bypass the process of negotiation that would otherwise humanise the marginalised. Appeals to ‘nature’, ‘realism’, ‘objectivity’ and so on all serve this purpose, to excuse the powerful from negotiating on even terms with the disempowered.

Kingdom Hearts shows one way that video games can challenge these assertions. Free of our-world physics, the game conveys thoroughly how intangible its objects are. Things matter only insofar as they matter to people.

 

[1] Like any history, the history of ideas is more complicated than this. Berkeley’s is the first comprehensive, unequivocally idealist work of the modern period, but other things that might legitimately be called idealism predate him by up to a couple of millennia.

[2] The hypocrisy should not be overlooked, that this came from a man of noble birth who would rise to Bishop of an Anglican congregation in Ireland.

[3] Etymologically, the consonance of metaphysical idealism with political ‘idealism’ (naive optimism) is barely more than a coincidence, but it is not entirely inappropriate.

[4] None of these games draws its sole appeal from its approach to simulation, but the highlighted features are prominent in responses to and discussion of them.

[5] Of course, a human designer did achieve everything the algorithm achieves, by creating the algorithm, but naturalism insists or at least pretends otherwise.

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