Super Mario Emotion Theorist

Part of my thesis work centers around the notion of tying the body back into composition. That is, I’m investigating ways in which techniques from improvisational theater–a form of expression that relies entirely upon the body’s ability to “write” characters, worlds, and situations–can be incorporated into the writing classroom. For me, the way that we (I) teach writing are almost wholly dis-embodied; writing, we tell our students, is a solitary activity that must be performed in silent, contemplative isolation from others. Do your own work, we say, keep your eyes and your ideas to yourself. Writing reflects our interior lives, those lived within our minds and distinct from our bodies. Despite much reading and too much reflection, I’ve not found any answers to these problems that satisfy me.

So I read Josh Lehrer’s recent post on a blog called The Frontal Cortext with my thesis-prickles in mind. In his post, “Body Games,” Lehrer examines the revolutionary effect that the success of Nintendo’s Wii have had upon video game design. Of most interest to Lehrer is the re-placing of the physical body into the game+player equation.

At the close of his post, he summarizes these now-and-future innovations:

For decades, video game designers have been obsessed with visual realism, as if the eyeball was the key to our emotional brain. But accurate graphics have diminishing returns. At a certain point, we don’t need more pixels – we need more physicality. For the first time, video games are taking advantage of their specific medium, exploiting the features that other entertainments (such as movies and novels) are missing. No other form of culture, after all, depends on the verb “to play”. (We play video games – we don’t watch or read them.) But here’s the thing about playing: it’s much more captivating when the play itself is a physical act, when we play not just with the mind but with the body.

~ from a post titled “Body Games” by Jonah Lehrer @ The Frontal Cortex blog

What Lehrer’s ignoring here, I think, is the ability of words on the page to inspire physiological changes like those that, as he notes, were first described and analyzed by William James. James argued that all emotional responses are grounded in the body; at its most simple, James’ theory suggests that if you want to be happy, you should smile–that the physical act of smiling (the movement of your muscles, the physiological responses that those actions trigger within your body) is the emotion of happiness. If text on the page did not possess the ability to trigger such responses, why would we weep at the end of Anna Karenina? Why would we laugh at Bertie Wooster or be scared by Stephen King novels? All of these texts have hold within them the ability to create physiological responses in the body and thus emotional responses within our mind/body selves. Though these texts contain the ability, the possibility, of creating or inspiring such a response in its readers, such responses aren’t inherent; that is, everyone who reads “The Shining” won’t spend a week sleeping with the lights on.

Lehrer is right in that game design in the past 10-15 years has relied heavily upon the notion that more “realistic” and “life -like” graphical images, characters, and worlds are capable of triggering emotional responses in their players that are strong enough and positive enough to keep the player coming back for more. You could argue, however, that, driven by the Wii, video game designers are moving back towards the text-based games of the semi-ancient past; in such games, the words were the *only* medium that the game designers had to create a desirable emotional response (and thus, ensure engagement) within their players.

So again, I ask: what connection is there between text and the body? Between reading and physiological response? Between *writing* and enacting?

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