The Joy of Ilinx
July 21, 2005
Very little has been written about the ilinx (vertigo) of video games, despite the fact it is an increasingly potent force in popular games. Ilinx is a category of play (identified by the noted sociologist Roger Caillois) associated with the momentary destruction of perception. It can be the vertigo of speed or of spinning, or it can be the intoxicating allure of petty destruction - of stomping on a sandcastle, for instance.
Caillois identified four patterns of play across all cultures, and described ilinx as follows:
Ilinx. The last kind of game includes those which are based on the pursuit of vertigo and which consist of an attempt to momentarily destroy the stability of perception and inflict a kind of voluptuous panic upon an otherwise lucid mind. In all cases, it is a question of surrendering to a kind of spasm, seizure, or shock which destroys reality with sovereign brusqueness.
The disturbance that provokes vertigo is commonly sought for its own sake.
In our study of the gaming audience, we didn't find any particular pattern to the appeal of ilinx (although in our next major study, we will be examining audience patterns in respect of all four of Caillois' categories). It seems that a little ilinx goes a long way to enhancing mimicry, but it can also contribute to heightening the tension of agon (and therefore presumably deepening a fiero payout when one achieves victory in vertiginous situations).
An example of the former occurs in any games with the illusion of speed, such as Need For Speed and 1080... Indeed, I am particularly enjoying 1080 Avalanche at the moment as a mimicry experience, and the sensation of high speed movement (which never takes away from your degree of control) really heightens my enjoyment of the game. The degree of challenge (so far) has been low, so here is a game which is primarily delivering mimicry with ilinx, with agon a secondary concern - perhaps a conscious choice to swing the other way after the disappointing Wave Race: Blue Storm, which abandoned the mimicry of the N64 version in favour of deeper agon. A shame... Wave Race 64 remains to this day one of the most beautiful examples of game environments, proving that poly counts are not the be all and end all of graphics.
The latter case - vertigo enhancing agon - is more tenuous, as most games (Space Harrier not withstanding) can only achieve vertigo through mimicry; the game must simulate moving at high speed to induce vertigo states. However, games such as F-Zero GX (which I'm also playing at the moment; Richard and I are working through it in our weekly games evening) are much more agonistic in nature than 1080 Avalanche (at least what I've seen of 1080 so far). However, the fiero payoff of winning a race in F-Zero is surely enhanced by the mad breakneck speed dash for the finish line - a few seconds of total consciousness destroying vertigo, followed by victory - the fiero experience is smoother... it's not fiero of overcoming frustration, but fiero enhanced by adrenalin (which is surely a common element of the ilinx experience).
However, this is only part of the full scope of ilinx. Returning to Caillois' description of ilinx:
In parallel fashion, there is a vertigo of moral order, a transport that suddenly seizes the individual. This vertigo is readily linked to the desire for disorder and destruction, a drive which is normally repressed... In adults, nothing is more revealing of vertigo than the strange excitement that is felt in cutting down the tall prairie flowers with a switch, or in creating an avalanche of the snow on a rooftop, or, better, the intoxication that is experienced in military barracks - for example, in noisily banging garbage cans.
It has taken me some time to fully process the consequences of this aspect of ilinx in the context of video games, and I'm disappointed that the penny did not drop until after the manuscript to 21st Century Game Design was submitted. (Still, we might make a second edition, and if we don't, there will be other books in the future). This aspect, which might be called destructive ilinx, correlates with the reckless abandon that is allowed by a game such as Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (which I'm also playing at the moment, with friend and co-worker Neil - although not very rapidly).
It's my opinion that one of the reasons that the recent Grand Theft Auto games are so successful at tapping into this side of ilinx is that they are not wholly realistic... The tone of the games are realistic in some senses, and certainly are successfully mimetic, but there is an unreal quality. This is real, but it is also a game. That empowers the player to, for instance, go on a murderous killing rampage, and laugh as they do it. I do not believe there is anything morally wrong with it, and the unreal quality of the game assists this.
For instance, there is something pleasing about parachuting out of an airliner, touching down in front of my family home, mowing someone down with a chainsaw, and then standing there and watching the neighbours pass by and make comments about what just happened as if it was the most natural event imaginable. This doesn't strike me as an appeal to realism (a mimicry experience), but as a destructive ilinx experience - as is smashing up every piece of stone architecture in Rygar (which I'm also playing at the moment...).
Part of the success of the recent Grand Theft Auto games is that they touch all bases (a product of their not inconsiderable budget, in part, but also the sign of a team who work well together). For instance, they deliver agon, mimicry, ilinx and even alea (gambling, dynamic conditions). But the ilinx elements of the game should not be underestimated, because when a game can make a person laugh dynamically (that is, without a narrative set piece) it's tapping into something deeply human. The "game realism" (versus absolute realism) constantly tells the player "this is only a game, follow your impulses"... it allows for a guilt free release of destructive ilinx. Those who attempt to do GTA in realistic tones should think twice about their approach.
It should also be noted that you don't need to be violent to appeal to destructive ilinx. My beloved Katamari Damacy (which I'm continuing to play with my wife - we just discovered comets...) is built upon the ilinx of rolling things up - you are destroying the environment, but not in an overtly violent fashion. Some adults scream when you pick them up, but most children laugh - it's good natured chaos, not bloody carnage, and as the tiny narrative elements underline, no-one gets hurt. And again, it can make you laugh, especially when you pick up (say) your first cat, or you become big enough for people to run away from you.
I'm not against agon in games, there will always be a place for it, but the supremacy of the Type 1 Conqueror play style (which has, to some extent, taken over from the once dominant Type 2 Manager play style) means that it is often overemphasised. Games don't need agon, per se, and can survive on the slightest drop of agon, provided they deliver in other areas - such as mimicry, and as we have seen here, ilinx.
The joy of ilinx is reckless abandon... it can be the vertigo of speed, or of wanton destruction; it need not be violent, but it is always irrepressible - the temporary abolishment of conscious thought. And video games are a wonderful place to explore this category of play, since one can give in to ilinx in a game, and nobody gets hurt. Well, at the very least, nobody real. I believe we will see more and more of it over the coming years.
I might argue that immersive environments in general are a form of ilinx - more than just suspending disbelief, you suspend natural perception. While I am quite used to exploring an imaginary 3D space at high velocity (like UT2k4), but when my grandparents saw this, some of them felt disoriented and dizzy - and they weren't even playing! Since many of us have been perceiving through CRTs for so long, we take this for granted, but the perception you enjoy through games is unnatural. All first person games provide that kind of ilinx - no one runs that fast, or can move their head around so quickly, as they can in UT, or even in CS. So I don't think it's confined to high-octane racing games (though titles like Burnout certainly excel in this area); any game, especially one played from the first person, provides a perceptual form of ilinx as we let the imagined reality supersede our perception of literal reality.
Posted by: James O'Donnell | July 22, 2005 at 02:26 PM
In the general case, accepting virtual reality into our perceptions is more a case of mimicry than ilinx, but there's certainly a subjective call to be made as to how far one wishes to apply the concept of ilinx. I take your point that the motion in a modern FPS is unnatural and has the potential to be disorienting; I think perhaps this is heightened in player versus player situations, as you mention, because one must act at breakneck speed to win. Certainly, as you say, the scope of ilinx is not restricted to racing games.
Posted by: Chris | July 23, 2005 at 11:34 AM
I wonder if its possible to induce ilinx without a literal transition in perspective, i.e. movement. For instance, in Forget About Hollywood the main focus is the mimicry of the agon of getting famous, but I'm thinking a major side ingredient should be the ilinx that comes with living in LA. At least one of the major characters is going to have an addictive "need for speed", that is crystal meth, and there'll be plenty of liquid acid and cocain to throw into the mix. Maybe I can creat ilinx with the PC just sitting on the couch, tweaking fantastic. The way to do this, I suspect, would be to use emotional stability and really fragmented script clusters as the moving data, instead of physical environments.
Posted by: Patrick | December 09, 2005 at 04:01 PM
I had no idea you were planning something so avant garde! I don't think there's much of a commercial market for this sort of artistic project, but that doesn't mean it isn't worth exploring.
Posted by: Chris | December 10, 2005 at 11:38 AM
Could you describe ilinx in another way as the feeling of being "drunk with power"? The buzz of absolute control, where there are consquences, but being heedless of those consquences?
Posted by: GregT | March 13, 2006 at 05:15 AM
I think there's definitely an element of that, Greg, yes. I tend to think about ilinx as the destruction of conscious thought - a vertiginous experience that obliterates rationality. One could be drunk with power and feel in control, which wouldn't be very ilinx-like, but to be drunk with power and incapable of reason - that's somewhere close to the feeling I believe Caillois was describing.
Posted by: Chris | March 13, 2006 at 09:20 AM
(posting here since the recently revised version of this post doesn't seem to allow comments)
Excellent as usual. The sentence "When a game can make a person laugh dynamically (that is, without a narrative set piece) it is tapping into something deeply human." I think illuminates a great deal about some of the best games, or the best elements of certain games.
And again you touch on the particular choices of the GTA franchise in preserving the game-ness of the universe and hence at least some degree of innocence to the destructive ilinix.
There is an upcoming title for the X-Box 360 called Saints Row, which appears to borrow most of the gangster/mayhem cues from GTA but is much more realistic in execution. I'm interested (if not more than a little afeared, to use a archaic colloquialism) to see how it's received. More than enough people mistake GTA as being far more mean-spirited than it really is--how are things going to go over when someone borrows the violence without the sly satire?
It makes me think of Quentin Tarantino and his imitators. Some were able to successfully transplant his sensibilities to their own cultural purview, like Guy Ritchie; but if you ask me, Troy Duffy's Boondock Saints shows exactly what happens when you take Tarantino's penchant for violence without his keen sense of craftsmanship or commentary.
Posted by: Jack Monahan | May 26, 2006 at 12:55 AM