JJ Gibson’s “Theory of Affordances” set off waves of thought for me in terms of my object of study, Live-Action Role-Playing games. In 1977, Gibson revolutionized the field of evolutionary psychology and systems theory by making up the word “affordance” to explain what something (an object, an environment) offers to an individual. (127). It is a theory that situates itself not in the physical properties of an object, but in the perception of it. Affordances are measured in relationship to the subject doing the perception. The more complex the object and the subject, the more complex the set of affordances, which, Gibson notes, are perceived primarily through optical and sensory information (128). Gibson further defines a niche as a set of such affordances, and he problematizes the subjective-objective dichotomy of thought prevalent in the social sciences vs. the sciences. Affordances, he states, cut across this constructed border and demonstrate its limitations. Affordances exist in the relationship between the object and the user doing the perceiving.
This then relates to Bateson, whose theory is about the reality of perception, and how what one perceives becomes what is true, real, possible. This, in turn, leads to Norman, who states that Gibson’s affordance really is a “perceived affordance”; if a user perceives something is possible, then it is possible, if s/he perceives it is not possible, then it is not possible. This is regardless to whether it actually is possible with the object at hand. An affordance isn’t an affordance unless it is perceived by the would-be user.
When reading Gibson, I had some ideas about the dangers of perceiving objects solely in terms of WIIFM, “what can be done with it, what it is good for, its utility” (129). This narrow perception can lead to a Benthamite fetishization of utility, and a late-capitalist concern about commodification.
Bateson says that what we perceive is difference (differance?), patterns and ways one thing is not like another. To me that means that our perception creates discourse; discourse is created as a result of perceived difference, of some sort of chasm to cross or something to bridge via language. Perception then, creates the exigence for the rhetorical situation. A rhetor perceives, and interprets, and as Bateson notes, his perception is real and personal, and not absolute. As Gibson notes, what the rhetor perceives are affordances, ways to obtain something from the object or situation, which speaks to Bitzer’s goal-oriented communication, and even to Bazerman’s genres. This perception of “Certain facts” distilled from an object (Bateson 459) is what Bateson calls the extrapolation of information. A rhetorical situation then, affords information. What information is extrapolated and acted upon, then depends on what the rhetor perceives. The discourse that is created then travels along pathways and is “energized at every step by the metabolic energy latent in the protoplasm which receives the difference, recreates or transforms it, and passes it on” (Bateson 459). This relates to the rhetorical situation in that we are measuring the effect on the audience. Furthermore, the perceiver/rhetor, in Bateson’s analogy, adds energy to the object and recreates it into the map of it, into something other than its physical properties. In this way, it resembles the idea of a mediator (rather than an intermediary) from Actor Network Theory.
Bateson quotes Jung, who says that “as a difference is transformed and propagated along its pathway, the embodiment of the difference before the step is a “territory” of which the embodiment after the step is a “map.” The map-territory relation obtains at every step” (461). To me, this is demonstrating the iterative nature of the interpretation; as the information is mediated along the pathway from physical object to perceived object, it ceases to be the object itself, but a representation of it, colored by the available information and perceived affordances of the person doing the perceiving. Remembering the object then is an image of the represented image, and further removed from the original object. Any “phenomena” is “appearance”, Bateson says. In other words, all of the world is rhetorically constructed by the seer, who perceives it.
Bateson’s comments about “immanence and transcendence” (467) are making me think about whether they can be used to express the dual consciousness of the player-character during a role-playing game. The player is, simultaneously, him/herself, and the character. The player is the immanence, physically in the world with the other players and symbolic objects, but the player becomes transcendence by being more than
themselves, by entering the imaginative space of the game. If I am Thor, I am myself playing Thor, the character Thor, all Thors before me – representations that are both there and not there, here and beyond, all working together to recreate, remediate and present “Thor.” When Bateson discusses the “false reifications of the ‘self’ and separations between the ‘self’ and experience’ I am transported to the notion that live-action role-playing is unmediated space; that the self and the experience are one. The play exists in a co-created imaginative space that is experienced through the body; the mind/body split is reconstituted as player.
“it is the attempt to separate intellect from emotion that is monstrous, and I suggest that it is equally monstrous – and dangerous—to attempt to separate the external mind from the internal. Or to separate the mind from body” (470).
This fetishization of “pure mind” is the idealistic focus of Enlightenment thinking and cybernetic theory, commonly embodied in the person of a digital avatar. Yet in larp, which is face-to-face interaction unmediated by technology, people are liberated by the concept of imagination – of the alibi of portraying a character — that lets them have emotional and embodied experiences in interaction with others in a shared relational ecosystem. There is not difference in perception between character and player in these scenarios. If it is happening to the character, it is happening to the player, whose body is at risk, and whose bodily reactions perceive no intellectual distance between the constructed character and the player portraying. We constitute the reality of the game by “information processing, i.e. by thought” (Bateson 471). As Gibson says, what we perceive is an “ambient optic array” that “at any fixed point of observation some parts of the environment are revealed and the remaining parts are concealed” (136). A larp is only constructed by the person playing it, and one person’s diegesis will be unlike another’s. No one, not even the Game Master or Story Teller ever has all of the information; thus all reality is based on what the player perceives and interprets. Information may exist, a secret may lie latent, but it does not “mean” or “matter” or “exist” in the sense of being perceived as something that can be acted upon until it is seen or heard, and thus brought into the mind of the player and the diegesis of the game.
Gibson’s use of the biological term proprioception is fruitful in looking at larp. The notion that “to perceive the world is to coperceive oneself” is a theory of how interactive role play and world building happens, dynamically in the larp. The character is iteratively constructed in relation to his/her environment and to other characters. Gibson goes on to say something that I think can be very useful in studying larps: “Only when a child perceives the values of things for others as well as for herself does she begin to be socialized” (139). This seems to refer to a kind of shared empathy, that is fundamental to the kind of collaborative interactive play that is a larp. Call it the “empathy bump” or “alteric escalation”, if you will. When you realize, as a player, that your experience will be all the richer if you play in such a way as to enrich the experiences of others, then you have a social realm. A network is created by this sort of social contract that recognizes (perceives) the self in relation to others and the affordances of the game as being collaborative and shared. The game exists as a set of affordances in the relationship of the players to the environment and the information. A kind of discursive community, a rhetorical triangle (player – environment – information) is created, and through the act of speaking, the reality is created and perceived.
I’m also tossing around this idea that the more divergent the thinking of the perceiver, the greater the number of affordances will be perceived. Thus, the boundaries of possibility – in short, the reality – of something who thinks divergently is much richer than that of someone who thinks convergently. This has implications for the discourse produced. In the case of larps, this affects the outcome of the game, which is only confined to what the player believes is possible for his character within the constraints of the game world and its mechanics.
Bateson, Gregory. “Form, Substance, and Difference” Steps to an Ecology of Mind: Collected Essays in Anthropology, Psychiatry, Evolution, and Epistemology. 454-471. Print.
Gibson, James J. “A Theory of Affordances. An Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. 1979. 127-139. Print.
Avengers 2 Thor. http://img2.wikia.nocookie.net/__cb20111215055347/marvelmovies/images/b/b2/Thor_Avengers2.png
Classic Cartoon Thor. http://static.comicvine.com/uploads/original/11111/111111405/3008667-classic_thor_by_lostonwallace-d4xn712%5B1%5D.jpg
Female Thor. http://hqwallpapersplus.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/Thor-Wallpapers-13.jpg
Little Thor. http://0.tqn.com/d/paranormal/1/0/q/I/2/little-thor.jpg