Our Bodies Our Selves

I’ve returned to QWOP after a hiatus (during some of which I was playing… GIRP). Turns out it’s exactly as hard and ridiculous as I remembered it being. QWOP-dude’s wildly cycling legs are, generally, utterly ineffective at propelling him down the track. Instead I seem more adept at inflicting all kinds of injuries to the poor man. Though not intentionally, of course.

QWOP is great for giving us a relation to our own “virtual physicality” in games. The (very reasonable) tendency in most games has been to abstract away a lot of the physical nature of life in favour of giving us many innate powers, whether it’s rapid-reloading of weaponry or sprinting at high speeds or flying. It’s a bit like games would usually rather drive us to our destination than have us, well, walk.

Naturally enough, this removal of the more prosaic details of existence leads to exciting power fantasies and wish fulfilment. We fly through the air, shoot bad guys with deadly precision, and (usually) save the world. On the other hand, it often feels to me like we float through these fantastic journeys, rather than really experience them. So much is given to us as a default, particularly the traversal of space and wielding of highly technical skills, that it can feel as though we’re not quite doing anything. Our role as an actor is reduced to moving a reticule and pressing a button, yet much of the excitement of firing a weapon is in all the sweaty, awful details. They’re all gone.

QWOP isn’t necessarily a great fun game (well, okay, it bloody is), but it does present a great antidote to our perhaps overly enhanced virtual lives. In having to conquer something as elementary as walking/running, we have to re-engage with the super-banal possibilities of games. In doing so, as any QWOP player has experienced on actually managing to run a little, we gain some kind of euphoria of competence that’s frankly hard to feel in other games.

When we try to run in QWOP, we deal with real fundamentals, a game stripped bare. We don’t get given much of anything, and that can be a good feeling too. It has a similar “it’s all there, you just have to use it right” feel to a game like Skate 3, but more more frustratingly and brilliantly elemental.

Whether or not QWOP is “fun” or a “good game”, it’s a signpost for a different attitude to what games can be. They don’t have to be the equivalent of the Iron Man suit – something we step into and find ourselves able to effortlessly do outrageous things. We can go in other directions, pare down the extravagance of most popular titles in favour almost of a meditation on action itself.

And honestly, my heart beat faster the first time I ran 10 meters in QWOP than it ever did in Half-Life 2, Modern Warfare 2, or any other “blood pumping” shoot-fest.

12 April 2011
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