On Nov. 19, Nintendo will introduce the most anticipated consumer electronics product of the year: the Wii. At first glance, the Wii might seem like an inferior video game console, at least when compared to the Sony Playstation 3 and the Xbox 360. The Wii’s computer chips are relatively slow, and its graphics lack the sort of hyperrealism that we’ve come to expect from our fantasy worlds.
But what the Wii lacks in processing power, it makes up for with its controller. Unlike every other game console, the Wii controller isn’t built around a confusing alphabet of buttons. Instead, Nintendo uses Bluetooth wireless technology to translate your body movements directly onto the screen. When you swing your arm, a baseball bat moves. When you make a jabbing motion, Super Mario lands a punch. When you swerve to the right, so does Zelda. While Sony and Microsoft exercise your thumbs, Nintendo gives you a full body workout. You might even break a sweat.
This is the Wii’s real innovation. While Nintendo argues that the wireless controller makes game play more intuitive—you no longer have to remember arcane sequences of buttons—it actually does something much more powerful: By involving your body in the on-screen action, the Wii makes video games more emotional.
To understand how the Wii turns Zelda into a passionate experience, we have to revisit an old theory of emotion, first proposed by the great American psychologist and philosopher William James. In his 1884 article “What is an emotion?” James argued that all of our mental feelings actually begin in the body. Although our emotions feel ephemeral, they are rooted in the movements of our muscles and the palpitations of our flesh. Typical of his work, James’ evidence consisted of vivid examples stolen straight from real life, such as a person encountering a bear in the woods.
“What kind of an emotion of fear would be left,” James wondered, “if the feeling of quickened heart beats nor of shallow breathing, neither of trembling lips nor of weakened limbs, neither of goose bumps nor of visceral stirrings, were present?” James’ answer was simple: without the body there would be no fear, for an emotion begins as the perception of a bodily change. When it comes to the drama of feelings, our flesh is the stage.
For most of the 20th century, James’ theory of bodily emotions was ignored. It just seemed too implausible. But in the 1980s, the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio realized that James was actually right: Most of our emotions are preceded by changes in our physical body. Damasio came to this conclusion after studying neurological patients who, after suffering damage in their prefrontal cortex or somatosensory cortex, were unable to experience any emotion at all. Why not? The tight connection between the mind and body had been broken. Even though these patients could still feel their flesh—they weren’t paraplegic—they could no longer use their flesh to generate feelings. And if you can’t produce the bodily symptoms of an emotion—the swelling tear ducts of sadness, or the elevated heart rate of fear—then you can’t feel the emotion. As Damasio notes, “The mind is embodied, not just embrained.”
How might such a neurological process unfold? Let’s say we are playing Super Mario Galaxy on the Wii, the latest incarnation of the Super Mario franchise. Unlike other game consoles, which leave us stranded on the couch, the Wii actually makes us move. If we want to kill off the Gooper Blooper (an evil squid-like creature), we need to stab and parry and prance, not just twiddle our thumbs.
In order to prepare for all this hand-to-hand combat, the brain automatically triggers a wave of changes in our “physical viscera,” such as quickening our pulses, flooding our bloodstreams with adrenaline, and contracting our intestines. Once we start stabbing at the squid, these effects are exaggerated, because our active muscles need oxygenated blood. Damasio calls this process the “body loop,” since the brain and body are constantly interacting with each other.
We might look a little foolish—Wii players tend to resemble bad mimes fighting off invisible aliens—but the game has managed to excite our flesh, and that means our emotions aren’t far behind.
All these bodily changes are then detected by the prefrontal cortex and somatosensory cortex, which connect them to the scary sensation (the Gooper Blooper). As Damasio puts it, “the essence of feeling an emotion is the experience of such [bodily] changes in juxtaposition to the mental images that initiated the cycle.” The resulting state of consciousness—an emulsion of thought and flesh, body, and mind—is our feeling of fear. It is an idea that has passed through the vessel of the body. We are suddenly terrified of a cartoon cephalopod.
This is the irony of the Wii: although it can’t compete with the visual realism of Sony and Microsoft, it ends up feeling much more realistic. When I was testing out the Wii, I was surprised by how the new controller completely altered my gaming experience. Because my body was forced to move as if I were actually fighting off some nasty monster, or swinging a golf club, or ducking a punch, my brain was convinced that I was really inside the game. I was no longer just a hapless guy sitting on the couch. The Wii breaks down that annoying wall separating you from the television screen.
Of course, all this emotion can have its drawbacks. Just imagine how bad you’ll feel when the Gooper Blooper kills off Mario. Because you’ve spent the last few hours inhabiting Mario’s body, his death will be difficult to shrug off. While our brains know that Mario is only a cartoon, our bodies are much more gullible. (As James noted, our feelings also linger longer in the body than in the mind.) Sometimes we just want our video games to be pleasant distractions, without the melodrama that comes from having our bodies involved. That’s why we have the Playstation and Xbox: they only get our thumbs excited.
Originally published November 16, 2006