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The first aspect, embodiment, is arguably the most overt. The player possesses a physical body and the NPC does not. To experience romantic love is usually tightly connected with its embodied aspect. Evolutionary psychologists, biologists, and neurologists having examined the physiology of humans argue that romantic love is an evolutionary system in the human brain activated by certain hormones and amino acids (Fisher et al. 2002; Sternberg and Weis 2006; Bartels and Zeki 2000; Beauregarda et al. 2009; Langeslag et al. 2012). As a physiological system romantic love is connected to reproduction and sexuality, therefore physicality constitutes a significant part of its experience (Platek et al. 2006; Fisher 1997; Meyer et al. 2011; Jones 1996). At the same time, the poetics of romantic love speaks of a different story. Platonic love is a whole attitude towards love, in which physicality is refused (Price 1981). Romantic love as a literary genre is founded in works, in which “love did not have as its aim either carnal pleasure or reproduction” (Paz 1995,90). This becomes more prominent in the Romantic era, during which love is treated in the duality of the beautiful and the sublime (Eldridge 2001).

Nevertheless, as Mario Praz notices the sublimity of the romantic object of desire is an experience infused with terror, pain, and mortality— all of which constitute a testimony to one’s own physical body (1951). In the same fashion, platonic love does not negate the physicality of lovers. The lovers choose not to contemplate the physical traits of their relationship because they are very well aware that they are there. The possibility of platonic love turning into physical is always present (Secomb 2007; Plato 2018). Instead, the NPC’s physicality is never a given. It is not that the player chooses not to notice the physicality of the NPC but rather the player must refrain from thinking that the NPC is not a physical being so as to retain as much as possible the illusion of a romance. This is indeed an ontological difference between the physical player and the virtual love interest. Yet does this affect the perception of the NPCs by the player as embodied agents they can fall in love with? I argue that human players indeed perceive virtual characters as embodied agents due to embodied perception.

Following a cognitive neuroscience perspective, Morrison and Ziemke (2005) examine how human players relate to computer game characters. They argue that when we play a video game our brains transform figures on a flat screen to embodied characters. As they explain this is due to the mechanism of visuo-affective mappings, which “transform visual information about someone else’s emotional state into similar emotional dispositions of our own” (73). Visuo-affective mappings compliment the already known visuomotor mappings “when objects in the coordinate system of external space are transformed into a coordinate system of which the body and its effectors (e.g., hands, arms) are at the center,” and visuo-tactile mappings “in which visual and touch information become integrated into the brain’s representational body schema” (74).

Gallese (2005) explains in more detail the neuroscientific workings of embodied perception. We perceive the space surrounding our body, our peripersonal space, the space which our body can act upon and affect, in a different fashion than the extrapersonal space. We do not visually code peripersonal space using a Cartesian or another geometrical system. Instead, our peripersonal space is a motor space, a space which we perceive by a “simulated motor action directed towards a particular spatial location” (26). Our body moves in the space it acts in and not in a predefined space of coordinates. Experiments further support these findings by showing that in the case of peripersonal space the spatial location of an object perceived by brain neurons has dynamic properties according to the change in time because it is a motor space and hence susceptive to time. According to Gallese action and spatial awareness are connected: “Vision, sound, and action are parts of an integrated system; the sight of an object at a given location, or the sound it produces, automatically triggers a ‘plan’ for a specific action directed toward that location” (27). This plan, according to him, is a “simulated potential action” (27). This means that we perceive our peripersonal space by what action plans it can sustain.

As Gallese remarks: “It is interesting to note the closeness of the view emerging from single neuron recordings, and the philosophical perspective offered by phenomenological philosophers on space perception” (2005, 27). Indeed, phenomenological space connects perception with movement; from Husserl and Heidegger to Gadamer, Sartre, and Merleau-Ponty (Zahavi 2002). Building on Husserlian and Heideggerian phenomenology, Merleau-Ponty (1962) set perception as the means by which we experience our world. According to his theory, we are by default subjects of perception and intentionality, intended actions that is, and this is how we experience existence, which is being in the world. He has argued that we perceive our world around us by the tasks we perform with our body. Our phenomenal body structures our world in accordance with its intentional relations with the objects around it. People perceive the world not as an ideal concept, but as a process of making meaning of their bodily intentions; their world exists based on their bodily actions. As a result, the body perceives both the world functioning as a subject and at the same time the body itself as the object of this making meaning process.

This body is not the fixed body of human anatomy. It is a lived body that has the ability to expand and extend. Merleau-Ponty gives an example of this in the walking stick of a blind man. For the blind man, Merleau-Ponty concludes, the stick is now part of his body, thus his body does not stop at his hand anymore but rather at the end of his stick providing him with expanded intentionality and perception of being. In the words of Merleau-Ponty, “the blind man’s stick has ceased to be an object for him, and is no longer perceived for itself” (1962, 165). The same applies to instruments and tools. Merleau-Ponty describes how when a secretary masters the blind system of writing on a typewriter, the typewriter stops being an object for her body, but instead constitutes an extension of her bodily abilities that affords a novel intentionality and perception: “To get used to a hat, a car or a stick is to be transplanted into them, or conversely, to incorporate them into the bulk of our own body” (166). Then the stick and the typewriter are no longer perceived objects but instruments that augment our perception: “a bodily auxiliary, an extension of the bodily synthesis” (176).

Applying Merleau-Ponty’s theory to video games, Rune Klevjer (2012) argues that the same workings are at play when we experience a game world. According to him, the avatars in games function as extensions of the players’ body that allow them to extend their own bodies inside the screen. He particularly calls them “proxies” of the physical body inside the game world, since when the player controls an avatar the avatar is not any more an object on itself but an extension of the body of the player on screen (30). Klevjer describes the control of avatars like controlling a marionette, through which the bodily actions of the player are extended to the screen, on the environment of the marionette, enabling the player to inhabit by proxy the avatar’s world.

For Klevjer, the in-screen extension demands an alteration of materiality that is essentially unique. When Merleau-Ponty says that for the blind man his body used to be here, where his fingers end, but with his stick his body is now there, at the point of his stick, both here and there reside in the same physical world. That is not the case with digital games. Klevjer contends that this is where the simulation of digital games lies; in the conceit of the continuation of tangibility. Nevertheless, I argue that this pretense of materiality does not affect the extension of the body, since this extension is a matter of perception. After all, although Merleau-Ponty had not anticipated a phenomenon like digital games, his theory is not limited by physicality: “The word ‘here’ applied to my body does not refer to a determinate position in relation to other positions or to external coordinates, but the laying down of the first co-ordinates, the anchoring of the active body in an object, the situation of the body in face of its tasks” (1962, 115).[1]

Merleau-Ponty may have conceived his theory based on the physical world, yet he did not consider it a prerequisite. On the contrary, it is the ability to manipulate one’s body according to one’s own intentions that attributes the state of worldness to the surrounding environment: “I can, therefore, take my place, through the medium of my body as the potential source of a certain number of familiar actions, in my environment conceived as a set of manipulanda” (1962, 120). Thusly, if we can act upon an environment to achieve certain tasks, then we immediately experience this environment as our world. We only need a body to anchor upon objects within this environment. In that sense, digital games offer the potentiality of worlds the player can inhabit, as they are environments the player can perform actions in. The fact that digital games are images on a flat-screen makes no difference to our perception. Since we can act on this space we perceive it as our peripersonal space, the space of our embodied actions.

This argument is supported by the neuroscientific application of Morrison and Ziemke mentioned before. They contend that our perception works the same way when we perform tasks in our physical world and “when we navigate through apparent positions in a game world, using the joystick to act upon objects within the game world as if our veridical hands were actually in that world’s space” (Morrison and Ziemke 2005, 74). How does this relate to the player’s treating NPCs as embodied agents? This is

explained by the visuo-affective mappings referenced by Morrison and Ziemke, which are activated when we experience the emotional responses of others, in a virtual or the physical world. The cognitive workings of this are discussed in the following section.

  • [1] Heidegger’s term would be Geworfenheit, being thrown into the world (1967, 135). For a more comprehensive application of the term to digital games see Vella and Gualeni (2019).
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