In an earlier post I listed the seven human senses that interact with games. I also explained that not all of them are essential to engaging with games with Taste & Smell being two of the seven that can be left out. This leaves five essential senses: Seeing, Hearing, Touching, Speaking, and Awareness.
The five senses are employed when we use engage with any media, entertainment, or art. We need all five senses when we read a book, watch a movie, or play a game. Yet, the degree that they are used does differ which helps explain why games are unique. There exists a continuum of passivity to activity that marks how games are different from media like books, music, and shows (including movies, television, and cinema).
To help explain why games are different, I divide the five senses into Passive and Active categories. Passive Senses are defined by their latent information gathering done through the visual and audio senses. Active Senses differ from Passive Senses because they require action and communication.
Let’s begin by discussing the two Passive Senses:
Games, books, and shows all share the need for the Seeing Sense. A video or computer game cannot be played unless it can be seen since all games are played on some kind of screen with projected images. This also applies to movies, cinema, and books. I believe that it is through this shared Seeing Sense that we see the strong influence that cinema and literature has on games since those mediums are far older and better established.
Games, music, and shows also share the use of the Hearing Sense. In some ways it is a secondary sense for games as many of the earliest games (played on main frame and personal computers) did not have sound or had very rudimentary sound. The increased cinematic capacity of many games have made the Hearing Sense critical to a game’s quality and message.
Following the two Passive Senses, we have the Bridging Sense of Awareness. This Sense is unique because it has its foot in both the Active and Passive Realms and essentially acts as the conduit for all Human Senses.
Awareness is our human capacity for thought, comprehension, and problem solving. This is greatly influenced by our capacity in the various intelligences, biases, and education. Our ability to appreciate a media’s aesthetics and message, solve a game’s challenge, and develop gaming skills is based purely on Awareness.
Next comes the two remaining Active Senses that are critical to engaging with games.
Unlike other media, games are unique in requiring a nervous system and body to engage with it. If there is no interaction via a game’s controls and our nervous system’s ability to respond, then there is no game. Touch requires development of skill, timing, and spacial judging. Other media require some very rudimentary Touch Sense such as a book needing a body to flip pages, but there is no skill development in it. An iTunes playlist may need fingers to touch the play button, but there is no skill being developed. Games are absolutely unique in this regards that it demands the player’s Touch Sense be mastered.
Speaking is not just speech, but means communication in the broadest sense. This is an intentional expansion of the term since Touch is also a form of communication but I wanted to make a distinction between the two. Speech in the context of talking is not central to games, but if we think of Speech to include communication and negotiation, then it is critical. A player will communicate with a game through its User Interface by navigating the menus, clicking on narrative paths, and also verbally discussing tactics and strategies with other players. In contrast communicating to music, book, or show is not possible.
Games as a media and medium is the apex invented by humans. They are far more complex than books, music, and shows because they engage the Active Senses. But it needs to be noted that greater complexity does not mean greater meaning! Music may our most primal media with the most profound medium to experience it, but this simplicity does not detract from it, but actually enhances its meaning. Music is the most accessible media and medium of them all.
It is in recognizing that each media and medium has its own specific way to tap into our Senses. Games are unique because their complexity and use of Active Senses beckons us to judge them from their own context.
To illustrate the continuum of passive to active senses and media check out my Infographic on Passive & Active Media.