We often infer more from a game experience than is actually on the screen. We have the capacity to use the game as an imaginative springboard, inferring personality traits, characters, behaviours and a sense of a larger game world beyond even what the developer intended. We make cognitive leaps, little observations and associations that contain the quality of empathy, and so it feels like there is more there than meets the eye.
Videogames are capable of inspiring this sense, just as great novels and movies can, and this is why they are an art. I call these moments numina. Numina are the gateway to achieving magical engineering, and so they are an essential part of what games are. Numina are what lead us to believe.
When I used to work in GAME (in Dublin), a rotating cast of the local schoolchildren and more adult gamers would tell us about the games that they were playing. One common experience that I often heard recounted was when they played Sensible Soccer for the Amiga. Many players believed that the different footballers had distinctive personalities, as though they were people. They could never exactly describe how they knew this, suggesting that it had a glimpse-and-you-miss-it quality.
The players thought that they could see subtle effects in how the footballers acted, momentary actions and other patterns that were not actually in the game. Several years later I encountered a similar phenomenon with Halo. A common perception of the game was that the Elite soldiers in Legendary mode had a unique kind of AI, even personality, that hadn’t been seen in other games. And yet Bungie maintain that they simply scripted great attack patterns.
From my own experience, I remember playing Doom for the first time and getting the sense that I really could see the mountains of Phobos, and would travel to them. All I could actually see was backdrop graphics, and yet I had a sense of an off-screen presence of a whole planet.
I and practically everyone else that has ever really got stuck into a game has experienced numina. Often the we perceive something numinous through an image, voice or language component of a game. It can be as simple as the way that the character animation moves (as in Sensi) or something much more complicated, but they always seem to happen on the periphery.
In theatre there is often reference to an off stage existence that transcends the physicality of the play. In many video games, numina are similar. Look straight at a game of Tetris and you see an increasingly difficult puzzle game of moving blocks. Play it for a while, however, and sometimes you’ll start to get the feeling that the game is deliberately serving you ill fitting blocks on purpose (as opposed to algorithmically). It’s momentary, and your focus is on the main action, but some part of you still feels that there is more here than meets the eye.
Periphery in the context of games means on the periphery of the main action of the game rather than necessarily peripheral vision. When investigating through various parts of the world of Deus Ex, it is common to encounter books, emails and other objects that contain codes to unlock safes or hack computers. As often as not, however, they’re simply background pieces of colour for the game world. They paint the picture of the world beyond the level and the screen, the world on the periphery, and it adds a surprising dimension to the game. The world seems to have a personality, but blink and you’ll miss it.
I dislike the use of the words ‘addiction’ and ‘addicting’ in relation to games because they are thoroughly negative. Artists are not drug dealers, and thinking in that vein largely confines you to making only a certain kind of game. I prefer to think of games as emotionally entangling experiences, like relationships, and I think that numina play a very significant role in establishing entanglement.
Entanglement is a state in which the player cares about the game world. It happens because the world seems to speak beyond its raw loops, through numina. Whether it’s the radio soundtrack in Grand Theft Auto or the simlish language of the characters in The Sims, it’s the non-rational part of the game that speaks to our inner artist.
The human mind is wired toward numinous entanglement as long as the frame of the game is not explicitly visible. Video games move, and so the rules are essentially constraints that serve to keep the play in check. And, as with any dynamic system, they have the capacity to induce a wide variety of outlier effects. Again, it’s on the periphery that the magic seems to happen.
Numina and Thauma
Games encourage players to perceive numina. Fundamentally what we want as developers is to bring players into our world and then play and love it. We want them to feel as though they are a part of something. We pull players into a world and empower them within it to do whatever they want subject to rules. Then we pretty much leave them to make their own cognitive leaps. If we do our job well, the players observe numina and feel that the world is more than the sum of its parts, and through that belief they begin to get a thaumatic sense.
Thaumaturgy (the art of creating thaumatic experiences) comes from the exponential effect of many numina, along with great game dynamics, in a way that hangs together with rhyme as well as reason. Numina open the door in the player’s mind that permits them to start believing that there is more. Thauma is the experience of when the game then delivers on that promise, and the game feels miraculous. It’s the thing that games can do which is unique.
It’s our power.