Strategic Play
The Imagination of Mimicry

The Joy of Ilinx

First published on Chris Bateman’s blog, Only A Game on 26th May 2006

Very little has been written about the ilinx (vertigo) of videogames, despite the fact it is an increasingly potent force in popular games. Ilinx is a pattern 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. As the graphical realism of videogames has increased, the potential for supplying the play of ilinx has similarly expanded.

Caillois identified four cross-cultural patterns of play in his 1958 book Les Jeux et Les Hommes (Man, Play and Games). He 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 early videogames, the graphical power was extremely limited, and it is arguably only recently that we have fully begun to explore the powerful effect of ilinx on players. It can be seen most clearly in any games with the illusion of speed, such as high speed racers like Need For Speed or Burnout, and also in snowboarding games such as 1080 and SSX. In these games, the sensation of high speed movement (which is often enhanced by special effects such as ‘speed haze’) serves to heighten the players enjoyment by artificially inducing a state of vertigo.

Of course, the vertigo we speak of here is not the nausea-inducing kind referred to in medical circles, but rather a vertiginous experience. A rollercoaster produces physical vertigo, but a video of a rollercoaster still produces a certain sensation akin to vertigo provided the viewer suspends their disbelief. Perhaps the clearest indication of this is the power of a car chase when seen on a cinema screen – we become swept away in the speed of the imagery. Physical vertigo is included in Caillois’ category of ilinx, but it can be extended to cover many peripheral situations, and it is these fringe cases that are perhaps most pertinent to videogames.

The videogames industry cannot deliver ilinx independently. Even a ride simulator which invokes vertigo is still drawing upon mimicry to achieve this affect. Ilinx, therefore, can best be understood in the context of videogames as an experience enhancer. Because mimicry is implicitly required for ilinx to function, it may be prudent to consider which of these two patterns of play is paramount for any given play: in a game such as Gran Turismo which identifies itself as 'the real driving simulator', authentic mimicry is given more weight than ilinx, whereas in a game such as Burnout, the ilinx of high speed movement is arguably more important than the simulation implied by mimicry. This can be considered a case of ilinx enhancing mimicry.

Ilinx can also be used to enhance agon (games of competition), although this is somewhat rarer 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. Games which appear to use ilinx to enhance agon include the F-Zero games; the satisfaction (fiero) 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. It adds a degree of excitement to the experience, which heightens the eventual reward. Similarly, a game like 1080 Avalanche uses its ilinx to enhance the eventual payoff of victory: in the final avalanche levels, where the player is asked to escape from a rapidly looming wall of snow, the sense of vertigo achieved is almost palpable, and makes the eventual victory seem all the more sweet.

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.

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 and its many relatives. I contend that one of the reasons 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 is realistic in a certain sense, and certainly they are drawing upon mimicry, but there is an unreal quality. This is expressed in part by the shrewd choice of a non-photorealistic art style, and also by the presence of 'game-like' elements in the game world, such as "power up" tokens. 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 this, and the unreal quality of the game facilitates this freedom to misbehave.

For instance, there is something inherently pleasing about having C.J. (the protagonist in San Andreas) parachute out of an airliner, touch down in front of his family home, mow someone down with a chainsaw, and then opting to stand there and watch the neighbours pass by and make comments about what just happened as if it was the most natural event imaginable. This is not an appeal to realism (a mimicry experience), but as a destructive ilinx experience - as is smashing up every piece of architecture in Blast Corps, Mercenaries, Rygar: the Legendary Adventure or Otogi: Myth of Demons, and perhaps even going on a tree-chopping rampage in Animal Crossing.

Part of the success of the recent Grand Theft Auto games is that they cast their net wide (a product of their not inconsiderable budget, in part, but also the sign of a team who work well together). For instance, these games deliver agon, mimicry, ilinx and even alea (gambling, discovery et al). The contribution of the ilinx elements of these games should not be underestimated, however: when a game can make a person laugh dynamically (that is, without a narrative set piece) it is 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. This can be understood in terms of Huizinga’s Magic Circle: whatever happens inside the game space is not a part of everyday life, and normal considerations are temporarily suspended. Those who attempt to replicate GTA in more 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. The Katamari Damacy games are 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.

The presumption that agon (competition) is the central element of value in videogames places limits on what should be a limitless endeavour: the creation of new play. There will always be a place for games that prioritise agonistic concerns, but it is important to understand that there are more ways to engage a player than by competitive urges alone, and one of those ways is to tap into the creative destruction of 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 surrender to ilinx in a game, and nobody gets hurt. Well, at the very least, nobody real. I believe we will see more and more ilinx in videogames over the coming years as we continue to explore the limitless domain of play.


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