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jgvw 9 (3) pp. 207–224 Intellect Limited 2017
Journal of Gaming & Virtual Worlds
Volume 9 Number 3
© 2017 Intellect Ltd Article. English language. doi: 10.1386/jgvw.9.3.207_1
SETH GIDDINGS
University of Southampton
The phenomenology of Angry
Birds: Virtual gravity and
distributed proprioception in
video game worlds
ABSTRACT
KEYWORDS
This article explores the nature of sensation, perception and proprioception in
contemporary digital and mobile culture, as exemplified in digital games. It argues
that the application of theories of the phenomenology of perception to digital media
and games needs to be extended and adapted to acknowledge and describe the sensing and proprioceptive abilities of technological bodies (both hardware and software) as well as human bodies. The article explores the idea that the embodied
‘feeling’ (proprioception) of virtual physics, particularly gravity, in gameplay
experience must be understood as distributed across and through human and
non-human sensing bodies. It will take the popular mobile game Angry Birds as a
starting point, but will then explore the achievement of distributed proprioception
in other games and games hardware more broadly.
video games
virtual physics
virtual gravity
phenomenology of
perception
postphenomenology
machine sensing
www.intellectbooks.com  207
Seth Giddings
Introduction
The virtual worlds of video games are formed as much from simulations of
physical forces as from simulated space. Virtual physics such as friction, collision, gravity and acceleration are experienced by players not only visually,
as would the movement and action viewed on a cinema or TV screen, but
are also felt. Somewhere between the on-screen action, the algorithmic and
interactive operations of the game software, and the visual and tactile feedback between the game hardware and software and players, virtual forces
have actual effects. This article explores the nature of sensation and proprioception in digital gameworlds. It argues that the application of theories of
the phenomenology of perception to digital media and games needs to be
extended and adapted to acknowledge and describe the sensing abilities of
technological bodies (both hardware and software) as well as human bodies.
Proprioception is a key concept here. Broadly speaking proprioception is the
sense that a body (human or otherwise) has of its own position and movement in space, for instance how a blindfolded person knows whether their
arms are by their sides or held up in the air. I will argue that the proprioception of virtual physics (particularly gravity) and their effects in gameplay experience, must be understood not as simply the human player’s internal sensing
of position and movement, but as distributed across and through human
and non-human sensoria. I will take the generation of virtual gravity by the
popular mobile game Angry Birds (Rovio 2009), among others, to open up an
enquiry into the achievement of distributed proprioception across the diverse
bodies in digital gameplay.
A glance over the shoulder of someone playing Angry Birds would tell
us little about how it feels to the game. The birds’ hardwired irascibility, their
epic and eternal conflict with the smugly grunting porcine foes, and the rickety, puzzle-like architecture are reminiscent of Loony Tunes, particularly Road
Runner. Their world also echoes the dyadic simplicity of earlier computer
simulated ecosystems with predators and prey, such as Foxes and Rabbits. This
world too is a simple, eternal, war between two species: virtual nature, red in
tooth and beak. Its microtemporality is repetitive and minute, its landscape
and structures nothing but architectonic puzzles.
However, this article is less concerned with the game’s visual genealogy
in popular animation, nor its simulated zoology, than with what its physical
laws might tell us about virtual gameworlds – and hence video games as a
medium – more generally. Or – to be more precise – it will explore what the
game feels like – and how it achieves this feeling in its players. The effects
of virtual gravity are central to Angry Birds’ game mechanic and gameplay,
and to many other popular video games throughout the medium’s 40-odd
year history. There are few popular games for smartphones and video game
consoles that are not built around a model of virtual physics in which simulated gravity, collision, friction, or acceleration is key to the gameplay. Taking
the nature and operations of virtual gravity in particular, I am concerned here
with the relationship between – or co-constitution of – virtual and actual
worlds. Not in terms of space, but rather in terms of forces, affects, sensation
and bodies – material and virtual, human and non-human.
As mobile phone hardware and software draw on the development of
kinaesthetic and sensing technologies in games culture more generally (notably
the Nintendo Wii and Microsoft Kinect systems), this game, or more precisely
the playing of this game – is indicative of significant yet under-acknowledged
208   Journal of Gaming & Virtual Worlds
The phenomenology of Angry Birds
developments in everyday digital technoculture. It does not just model a world
of virtual physical forces – acceleration, gravity, momentum, collision, etc. – it
brings into being new relationships, new circuits, between the human sensorimotor system and computer simulation.
Recent theoretical and empirical work in game studies on gesture, technology and play (e.g. Ash 2010; Crogan 2010; Giddings and Kennedy 2010;
Giddings 2014; Simon 2009), and on video game play as ‘assemblages’ of
human and non-human actors (Taylor 2009; Banks 2014), demands that we do
not limit our understanding of sensing and kinaesthesia to the human players.
Building on, but critiquing, the influence of the phenomenology of perception
on screen studies and game studies, I will explore the nature of human and
non-human proprioception in everyday gameplay and ask how the sensing
of gravity is distributed and achieved across the virtual and actual, software,
hardware, nerves and perception, across human and non-human players. I
would suggest that we think seriously about digital media technologies not
only as extensions of the human body, but as sensing bodies themselves,
alongside – in collusion with – human bodies, a collusion that we might think
of as distributed proprioception.1
1. The notion of
‘distribution’ of human
and non-human
behaviour and agency
in technosocial
systems is in part
inspired by Edwin
Hutchins’ ‘distributed
cognition’ (1996).
Virtual gravity in Angry Birds
The game mechanic of Angry Birds is simple and accessible. The player’s only
significant input, in the early levels at least, is the triggering of the catapult by placing a fingertip on the waiting bird (on the phone’s touchscreen),
drawing the catapult elastic taut through a single slide of the finger, and
releasing by removing the fingertip from the screen. The momentum of the
bird on release, and its initial trajectory, are determined by the length of
the stretched elastic and its angle, all established by the same single fingerswipe. Angle and tension are the only variables accessible to the player and
the relationship between the two must be carefully judged for maximum or
strategic effect.
However, the simplicity of this tactile and gestural interface belies the
complexity of the communicational and perceptual circuits between the game’s
virtual world and its player’s actual, embodied world as they come together
and constitute the gameplay event. The simple physics is made experientially
vivid through a combination of audio-visual feedback and the game software’s
processing of the player’s gestural input, as Brendan Keogh explains:
Angry Birds’s audiovisual design gives the game a sense of physicality.
When the slingshot is drawn back, it makes a rubbery, stretchy noise,
giving a sensation of tautness under the player’s finger. Birds feel
weighty as they fly through the air on a slow parabola and hit the structures with a satisfying ‘thud.’ The player makes the smallest input (dragging a finger) and the game offers the satisfaction of watching entire
towers fall down via simulated physics, amplifying the player’s input
with excessive feedback.
(2014: 272)
This model of gameplay – corporeal and cybernetic, mediated and kinaesthetic –
underpins this article’s approach. I am particularly interested in how virtual
movement and action is ‘felt’, how an angry bird might ‘feel weighty’ when the
game circuit seems to allow for no direct physical or proprioceptive feedback
www.intellectbooks.com  209
Seth Giddings
2. Thus games in which
the physical realism
of weaponry is a key
factor will simulate
the effects of gravity
on ballistics – as well
as simulations of
tank warfare see for
example, http://www.
rockpapershotgun.
com/2013/10/28/
going-ballistic-arma-3sbullet-physics-detailedin-video/.
between virtual and actual bodies. How the ‘weight’ of simulated objects in
movement is felt, and hence the nature of virtual gravity, will be the focus.
What is virtual gravity?
The interplay between elastic tension and angle of launch is only part of the
game’s virtual physics. Propelled high into the air, the bird traces a graceful
arc as its momentum is countered by the pull of a simulated gravity. Most
video game worlds are consolidated with a simulation of gravity, sometime its
workings are as simple as keeping their characters on the ground, rendering
predictable movement when they jump, or plunging them plausibly to their
death when they stray from the edge of a cliff or platform. In many games,
such as Angry Birds, virtual gravity is fundamental to the play mechanic and
appeal, and its pull has been felt throughout the history of computer games.
The development of one very early game, SpaceWar! (1962), was transformed
by the introduction of virtual gravity. This two-player game featured battling
spaceships, animated on the oscilloscope display of a PDP-1 mainframe
computer was changed from a eye-catching example of real-time interaction into a compelling game by the addition a ‘sun’ with a simulated gravitational pull to the centre of the game screen. With this a key strategic element
was introduced. Rather than a simple shoot ‘em up relying on motor skills,
now players had to work with the sun’s gravitational pull. This would ‘give
you speed as you circled it, but if you weren’t careful and got too close, you’d
be drawn into the sun’ (Levy 1984: 63). This virtual gravity opened up new
possibilities for players to develop their own strategies and play styles. These
included ‘the ‘lie in wait’ strategy, in which the player ‘stayed silent while the
gravity whipped you around the sun, then straightened out and began blasting torps at your opponent’ (Levy 1984: 64).
So, what is virtual gravity? How does its simulated pull act on actual bodies?
On one level, virtual gravity is nothing but the operation of computer code on
objects within the game as a program. In a playful but incisive article in Wired,
Rhett Allain (2010) has decoded the simulated physics of Angry Birds, reverseengineering and analysing the game’s relationships of scale and force. Allain’s
analysis highlights the relatively simple mathematics that generate virtual gravity,
and, by extension, the fact that virtual gravity has no direct physical relationship
with actual gravity. The interaction of mathematical variables in the algorithms
of a dynamic software simulation, the ‘gravity’ here is merely graphical output
(see Figure 1). There are no bodies with mass, and hence actual gravitational
attraction, in this gameworld. The simulation of gravity is effected by the plotting of a bird’s movement through the relationship between the x and y axes,
not by the action or pull of the ground. However the graceful parabolic trajectory produced by this interplay, despite its algorithmic generation and the stylized and abstracted cartoon world that it crosses, ‘feels’ convincing and somehow
familiar from our actual experience of, say, firing a catapult or throwing a ball.
The player then is not shooting the bird-projectile in a straight line, as the
first-person shooter player might with his or her more familiar armoury and
linear ballistics.2 Rather, like aficionados of tank-warfare simulation games, the
player must predict the possible curved lines of flight of missiles up and over
the landscape, and hence range as well as direction of aim. Whilst he or she
does not sense the drag of virtual gravity in their own viscera, they must think
it, anticipate it as possibility. Similar code could generate on-screen movement
that simulated quite different physical forces, for instance the forward motion
210   Journal of Gaming & Virtual Worlds
The phenomenology of Angry Birds
Figure 1: Left: Horizontal motion of an Angry Bird in flight (Allain 2010). Courtesy of Rhett Allain. Right:
Vertical motion of the Angry Bird in flight (Allain 2010). Courtesy of Rhett Allain.
of a boat or swimmer crossing a river as they interact with a strong current.
They would be pushed sideways rather than pulled downwards, but the arc
of movement could be broadly the same. Importantly though, the player’s
sensori-motor investment in the bird’s trajectory, his or her visual tracking of
its flight, and his or her embodied memories of other missile-based games,
together form an experience that cannot be separated into its constituent stimuli, nor straightforwardly translated into other simulated movement. So when
we play Angry Birds the pull of virtual gravity is a synaesthetic assemblage of
screen imagery and movement, player investment through interactive agency
(and moments of loss of control), and memories of other, actual, interactions
of play and gravity such as ball games or swings. This feeling takes the form
of either intense satisfaction and kinaesthetic pleasure – as the bird hurtles
towards precisely the spot that will collapse the tottering pieces of scaffolding that will dispatch the level’s last pig, or – as the player realizes that the
bird will overshoot and bounce harmlessly beyond the smugly grunting green
snout of this same last pig – in a palpable yet impotent willing of the arc to
tighten itself, for gravity to exert an extra pull, for the bird to plummet faster.
3. See Gregersen and
Grodal (2008), Toft
Nørgård (2011) for work
in game studies that
engages with MerleauPonty directly.
The phenomenology of perception and digital culture
Game studies offers a wide range of theoretical and empirical approaches to
studying players’ embodied relationships with video game images and action.
For the purposes of this article, I will initially focus on work that addresses
Vivian Sobchack’s writing on the perceptual phenomenology of contemporary screen media (1994, 2004; see also Marks 2002). Sobchack has adapted
and applied Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s work on the phenomenology of perception (Merleau-Ponty [1945] 2002) for cinema spectatorship, and her work has
proved particularly influential on game studies.3 Put very simply, Sobchack
takes Merleau-Ponty’s insistence on the lived body’s integral role in sensemaking, ‘sense’ in terms of both knowledge or meaning and bodily sensation
or feeling, that the ‘processes and logics of sense-making […] owe as much to
our carnal existence as they do to our conscious thought’ (Sobchack 2004: 4).
At the cinema then, our experience is more than audio-visual and cognitive,
our ears, eyes and minds are inseparable from the rest of our body and senses,
www.intellectbooks.com  211
Seth Giddings
lived experience and memory. These ‘complete’ the experience, our sensual
engagement with the technologically mediated world projected before us:
Even at the movies our vision and hearing are informed and given
meaning by our other modes of sensory access to the world: our capacity to proprioceptively feel our weight, dimension, gravity, and movement in the world […] the movies provoke in us the ‘carnal thoughts’
that ground and inform more conscious analysis.
(Sobchack 2004: 60)
Bryan G. Behrenshausen (2007), Tim Crick (2011), and Melanie Swalwell
(2008) all draw on Sobchack’s theorization of the embodied nature of cinema
spectatorship to explore embodiment in digital game play. On one level then,
video games are screen media and operate a similar play of animated imagery
on the vision of their players. On this sensual level, the video game player’s
physical experience shares some of its aspects with intense engagements with
other screen representations in which the forces of gravity play an integral role,
particularly in action cinema and television where the audience is gripped,
willing the protagonist to make the near-impossible leap over a ravine, or to
recover his or her balance as they teeter on the edge of a tall building, grappling the enemy. As Tim Crick puts it,
Similar to filmgoing, videogaming is a holistic experience and it is precisely
our capacity as sensual embodied beings in the world that allows us to
engage with a game’s artificial world in a way that would engage those
senses in real life. Our imagined perceptions are, as Merleau-Ponty claims,
just as much a part of experience as nonimagined ones: ‘My field of perception is constantly filled with a play of colors, noises, and fleeting tactile
sensations, which I cannot relate precisely to the context of my clearly
perceived world, yet which I nevertheless immediately ‘place’ in the world’.
(2011: 266)
These writers however are careful to acknowledge and address the key differences between cinema and video games in their embodied and sensual pull
on their viewers and players. Swalwell for instance, explains how the interactive and performative demands made of the player by a video game necessitate not only embodied experience and memory of sensations (as does
cinema) but also a training and habituation of bodily movement and performance, ‘kinaesthetic knowledge’ (2008: 78).
Virtual gravity is just one of a range of video game features that address the
player as an embodied and sensual being, however it is generally overlooked
yet integral to many games’ appeal, and, as will be explained below, offers a
critical insight into embodiment and sensing bodies in postdigital everyday life.
The phenomenological concepts set out above will help to explain its workings, however in their tendency to centre the human body as the site of sensing and sensation they do not fully account for proprioception in digital game
play. I will return to this point, but first will briefly explore why gravity itself is
worthy of critical attention: from the nature and significance of actual gravity
for biological embodiment and proprioception, to some of the anxieties that
the ostensibly gravity-free virtual realities of digital media have generated.
212   Journal of Gaming & Virtual Worlds
The phenomenology of Angry Birds
Gravity, ecology, virtuality
In a book on the ecology of children’s imaginative play, Edith Cobb (1977)
offers some rich ways of thinking about the body, mind, play and proprioception in a holistic, ecological framework. Cobb was a contemporary and
friend of Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson and as such was part of an
intellectual milieu that synthesized anthropology and cybernetics up to half
a century before the cybercultural studies of the 1990s. Cobb posits perception as a ‘first order drive’ shared across the animal kingdom and by even
quite simple organisms. Even the most primitive animal, Cobb argues, may
be defined as ‘something that perceives’ (Cobb 1977: 40). The first evidence of
mammalian proprioception is the ability of the developing foetus to adjust its
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