Mirror’s Edge is a first person computer game in which you play an urban free-runner, leaping, sliding, and generally acting fly across the roofs of a dystopian city (see the trailer here). It looks good. In fact, it looks amazing. But, reportedly, to actually play it is even better, sickeningly better.
Clive Thompson, writing for wired.com, suggests that the total interactivity of the environment (if you can see something, you can jump on it, or off it) along with the visual cues about what your character’s arms and legs are doing (they appear in shot as you run and jump) makes the game a convincing proprioception hack. In other words, it remaps your body schema so that you feel more fully that you are the character in the game. When your character runs fast, you feel it is you running fast. When you character jumps across between two buildings and look down, you feel a moment of sickening vertigo.
Research into illusions of proprioception — your sense of where you body is in space — has shown that our body map is surprisingly flexible. It is possible to mislocate your hand, for example, coming to believe that it is directly in front of you when in fact out at the side, or behind you (see video here). Jaron Lanier has reported on an early virtual reality experience he had that made him feel like he had the body of a lobster, with 6 extra limbs. The important feature of all these illusions is that they rely on precisely timed visual feedback. Although visual input can reprogramme our body image, it only does so when there is a tight coupling between what we see and feel. The importance is not the level of detail in what we see, but in the fluidity of the interaction. If Mirror’s Edge makes you feel like you are really are doing Parkour then it is because it has the correct kind of visual feedback (your limbs, in a fully interactive world) with the correct timing.
A final thought: if a computer game really is immersive for something as visceral as free-running, isn’t that kind of surprising, given how complex free running is physically, and how simple the commands used to control a computer game are? Perhaps what this is because when we automatise an action such as a run, a jump or a roll part of the process of making it automatic is losing the experience of the component parts. So, when a computer game feels like real, it is because real feels like nothing — we just ask our brains ‘jump’ and the motor system sorts out the details without our any deep experience of how the jump is performed.