essay, video games

The Third Self

Reading… is the act in which the subjective principle which I call I, is modified in such a way that I no longer have the right, strictly speaking, to consider it as my I. I am on loan to another, and this other thinks, feels, suffers, and acts within me.”

Georges Poulet presents that idea in his work “Criticism and the Experience of Inferiority”. It is the basis, at least in part, of some of the framework by which the reader-response theory stands as way to interpret a work, specifically a book in this example. He posits two parts to every reader: the “consciousness” who is “inherent in the work”, “active and potent” that “occupies the foreground” and is “related to its own world, to objects which are its objects”, and the “I myself” that must “record passively all that going on in me”. The process of reading then is the passing of information between these two selves during the “lag [taking] place, a sort of schizoid distinction between what I feel and what the other feels; a confused awareness of delay, so that the work seems first to think by itself, and then inform me what it has thought.”

The process of reading then might be thought of as the mechanic process of reading and the dynamic process of reading. In one, the pure symbol exchange and interpretation is taking place. Each word is considered and the chain of ideas is constructed in one long row of thought as taken from the page and rendered from the language and context, the first self of “I myself” that “record[s] passively” . The second process is feed this train and builds the narrative, it is the second self builds “its own world, [of] objects which are its objects”. Especially in the sense of reading a story, this duality, as Georges Poulet notes, “provokes a certain feeling of surprise within me. I am consciousness astonished by an existence which is not mine, but which I experience as though it were mine.”

There is the story being read and the narrative being constructed within the reader’s mind as the story, line by line, is consumed and feed into this construction. The two selves act together in order that we gain empathy via the point of view within a piece. We come to understand a created person — “thinks, feels, suffers, and acts within me” — by, in a way, becoming that person via the interchange of the “I myself” and the “consciousness… inherent in the work”. The constructed self imagines the scenes from which the reader has taken in via a mechanical process. Language goes from potential to active via the processing of an organic mind from a work. And this seems to make sense in the case of reading a book. What about the the process of play?

Mary Flanagan, in her book Critical Play, quotes from urban planner Edward Soja and his thoughts on “thirdspaces”. The physical world, “previously understood geographies” as phrased by Flannagan, are in the “firstspace”. The “conceptual, ideological or semiotic spaces of representation and mental forms” are the “secondspace” (253). The combination of the two, the melding of “subjectivity and objectivity, the abstract and the concrete, the real and the imagined, the knowable and the unimaginable, the repetitive and the differential, structure and agency, mind and body, consciousness and the unconscious, the disciplined and the transdisciplinary, everyday life and unending history” according to Soja, is the “thirdspace”. It is in this place that Mary Flannagan says play takes place — “[t]hirdspace is the site for play and struggle.”

To return back to the understanding of reading,  I would like to introduce an additional idea of there being a third self. It is this self that acts in play, is connected to the avatar and to which all actions come from and are facilitated through during contact with the magic circle of games. Just as the mechanical process of reading is the “record[ing] passively” before the narrative construction and the interpretation of a space is merged with its physicality, the third self is the kinetic representation as derived from the understanding and ongoing interaction with a game. The player reads the scene as shown, constructs a narrative and then acts. The first self is the biological input from a device into the organic processor. The mind considers the states of the game as it relates to the narrative so far built by the player. The the third self, that which is tied to being a role, takes action.

In a locative sense, play takes place as interactions from the third self within the “thirdspace”. It is here that the transformative powers of games come from and is key to understanding how that power can be used for both education and entertainment. Games can present the necessary visual and auditory feedback for players to create unique narratives that are limited only by the second self of the player. The tools that games can and do present allow for Subversive Play (e.g. Critical Play), otherwise stated as emergent play in many contexts and by other authors. The creative re-interpretation of spaces, objects and themes as interaction between the first and second self as realized by the third self mean that games have replayablity, additional narratives that arise not from the process of reading again but from the interaction loop of the third self acting and the first self understanding the changes to the stimulus.

Just as books can allow readers to assume different points of view by becoming the characters in the story via developing empathy, games can exceed this by allowing both the actualization and direction of the story itself in many cases. The narratives of the second self may need to be attuned to the different changes that the author has put down, changes in characters and plot movements from a book or movie. Games, however, give over progress to the third self, the one acting and moving the avatar on the screen. The first self must continue to record what is going on during the mechanical reading but, in the case of games, the third self can divert or even change flow between events in the story. It can always subvert the set down plot path. (Which is why Games Aren’t Stories.)