When I was young, I had a yellow blanket with a smooth satin lining around the edges. But it wasn’t just any blanket—it was my “blanky,” my ever-present companion in sleep and in play. Most people I talk to can readily recall their own equivalent of my “blanky,” whether it was a blanket, a stuffed animal or some other prized possession.
British psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott would refer to objects like my blanky as “transitional objects,” a term that he used to describe physical objects that the infant uses for two important and related developmental purposes: 1) to differentiate between internal reality and external reality and, 2) to cope with an increasing independence from one’s caregiver.
To elaborate, the transitional object bridges the gap between the solipsism of the infant and the harsh reality of the external world. The transitional object is filled with meaning that the infant projects onto it, yes, but it is also a crude thing that will not act unless physically acted upon. In other words, it occupies a middle space between subjectivity and objectivity that is necessary for the infant to transition into an understanding of the outside world.
The transitional object also helps the infant replace (to a certain extent) her bond with her caregiver. In Winnicott’s view, child-rearing is ideally a process in which the caregiver allows the infant to deal with increasing levels of frustration on her own. Because increases in frustration can be dispiriting, the infant turns to her blanky or her bear for comfort in the absence of her caregiver. The object then, helps the infant transition from total dependence on the caregiver to a marginal degree of independence.
How are video game designers like caregivers and video game players like infants? And how is a video game like a transitional object?
Before I approach these questions, though, I should explain why I’m motivated to ask them in the first place. In his classic volume Playing and Reality, Winnicott argues that the study of any form of human play requires us to also examine the shape of the initial relationship between infant and caregiver. My questions, then, stem from the hypothesis that video games, like all forms of play, emerge from the initial infant-caregiver relationship as mediated by transitional objects.
Game designers are like caregivers because they both, generally speaking, allow players/infants to cope with increasing levels of challenge.
Winnicott argues that, at the start of the infant’s life, the caregiver should meet the infant’s needs “almost completely,” providing nourishment, proximity and comfort at the baby’s whim. But, as the infant gets older, the caregiver needs to gradually taper off in attentiveness, allowing the infant to cope with increasing amounts of “frustration.” In sum, then, the caregiver:
“makes active adaptation to the infant’s needs, an active adaptation that gradually lessens according to the infant’s growing ability to account for failure of adaptation and to tolerate the results of frustration.”
This ideal adaptation of the caregiver corresponds to a general trend in game design to gradually increase a game’s level of challenge, risk and complexity as the game progresses. In the first few moments of Super Mario Bros., for example, there are no pits, just a simple plane on which the player can familiarize herself with the basic mechanics of running and jumping. By the end of Super Mario. Bros., however, the player must expertly navigate perilous pits of lava with near-perfect timing.
Jenova Chen’s concept of “flow” (which he borrows in turn from the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi), is an attempt to provide a psychological foundation for this trend in game design. Chen presents “flow” as the ideal mode of engagement that a player should have with a game. When the game’s challenge increases apace with the player’s increasing mastery of the mechanics, the player is in a state of “flow.” Flow is a middle space between boredom and frustration. If the game remains easy for too long, I’ll get bored. But if the game becomes difficult too soon or too suddenly (often referred to as a “difficulty spike), I’ll get frustrated and quit.
For Winnicott, too, it is important to keep the infant just challenged enough. If the caregiver’s close attention is “continued too long,” the infant will experience reality itself as a “hallucination” that is under her “magical control.” Similarly, a player that is coddled for too long by tutorials and easy gameplay, will feel an omnipotent boredom that precludes any meaningful engagement with the facticity of the game’s systems. On the other hand, if the caregiver does not adequately adapt to the infant’s needs from the beginning (the “difficulty spike” scenario), the results are even more devastating; in this case, the infant won’t even be able to begin to develop an understanding of external reality. Similarly, when game designers do not adequately protect the player from challenge in the early stages of a game, many players simply quit, retreating from the intolerable reality of the game’s systems.
One of the major challenges of game design is that the game must cater to thousands, sometimes millions, of players, whereas a domestic caregiver typically focuses on one newborn infant at a time. As Winnicott notes: “active adaption demands an easy and unresented preoccupation with the one infant.” So how can a game designer be expected to accomplish anything akin to “active adaptation” when the game will be played by a thousands of players with varying levels of skill?
The development of dynamic difficulty adjustment (or DDA) can be read as an attempt on the part of game designers to pay as much attention to the needs of each individual player as a caregiver would to the needs of an infant. DDA is a design feature that assesses how well the player is doing at the game and increases or decreases the challenge accordingly. Binding of Isaac, for instance, will make enemies less challenging if the player is struggling and more challenging if she is advancing too quickly. This adjustment is performed on the fly without informing the player of the change. Ideally, DDA keeps each player in their own personal “flow zone.” DDA then, is an attempt to make the game to be as focused, reactive and adaptive to the player as the caregiver is to the infant.
If video games, like any form of play, emerge from this adaptive infant-caregiver relationship, then how are games themselves—their systems and mechanics—like transitional objects?
Because, according to Winnicott, the transitional object marks the infant’s first step toward understanding that things in the world have a “vitality or reality of [their] own,” it must be able to “survive” the infant’s “pure aggression.” Only after the infant attempts to destroy the object can she truly love it. As Winnicott pantomimes on behalf of the infant: “You have value for me because of your survival of my destruction of you.”
A video game, similarly, should be able to survive the player’s attempts to “break” it, or to intentionally thwart the intent of its design. There are cases in which breaking a game can become a game in itself but, generally speaking, a game that can be broken is at risk of becoming invalidated. For example, the original Deus Ex (2000) allowed the player to climb walls by building ersatz ladders made out of proximity mines. As game theorist Jesper Juul notes, such an exploit “make[s] the game less enjoyable” as the player no longer needs to engage meaningfully with the full range of the game’s systems in order to progress.
The fact that such game-breaking exploits are frequently found and popularized within days of a game’s release is a testament to the fact that video game player’s naturally test the boundaries of a game’s rule set. Much like infants, video game players need to know that an object will not bend to their every whim before they can take it seriously as an externally imposed reality. When the game holds up—when players fail to circumvent barriers to progression—it accrues value and demands the player’s respect.
Apart from their mutual ability to withstand aggression, both video games and transitional objects are curiously poised in a “third space” between pleasure and reality, between subjectivity and objectivity, between internal and external worlds.
Video games, like transitional objects, are neither pure projections of our subjectivity nor are they simply objects that can be reduced to a crude, material existence. This is partially, but not quite, what Jesper Juul is noting when he refers to games as “half-real.”
For Winnicott, the transitional object is the infant’s first tool in realizing that the world is not fully contained inside her own mind. It is a wake up call from the idea that there is “nothing but me.” But the transitional object nevertheless remains animated by the infant’s subjective needs even as she grapples with its external facticity. In other words, it’s not a “subjective object,” strictly speaking, but it’s also not “an object objectively perceived.”
At a basic level, the fact that video games are a uniquely interactive medium that require player input serves to situate them firmly in this middle space between the poles of subjectivity and objectivity. Games impose an objective, intransigent reality onto the player: lines of code that circumscribe her actions. But the player must animate the systems of the game with her own input and imagination. The game is neither an idiosyncratic byproduct of the player’s mind nor is it a radically independent object; rather, the player’s subjective experience of the game is radically intertwined with the game’s objective reality.
Winnicott dramatizes the paradox of this third space by noting that the infant cannot answer the question, “Did you create [the transitional object] or did you find it?” On some level, the infant is beginning to understand that she did not simply conjure up the transitional object. But she also remains unwilling to accept that it was simply presented to her from without, as a present. As a child, I wanted to believe that my blanket was with me from the beginning of my life even though I knew, at some level, that my parents had simply purchased it for me.
This paradoxical positioning of the transitional object bears a strong resemblance to the discourse around player “immersion” in video games. Warren Spector, project director on Deus Ex (2000), notes that, in an immersive game: “nothing reminds you that you’re just playing a game—not interface, not your character’s back-story or capabilities, not game systems, nothing.” In an attempt to make games more immersive, designers have started to either minimize heads-up display (or HUD) elements or find creative ways to incorporate the HUD information into the game world itself. Dead Space (2008), for instance was widely praised for its HUD-less design. As game developer Greg Wilson notes: “… nothing screams ‘this is just a game’ louder than an old-fashioned HUD.”
But video game players are clearly aware of the fact that they are playing games. Immersive games, then, involve their own sort of paradox: “I know I’m playing a game, but don’t tell me I’m playing a game!” The player knows that the game is not her pure subjective reality and she further knows that the game must be an external system in order to hold her interest. But, at the same time, she does not want to admit that the game is just lines of code on a disc. Just as an infant would insist that her teddy bear was “real,” the video game player captivated by immersive game design wants the game to feel “real” while simultaneously knowing that it isn’t. It is precisely by accepting this paradox, however, that she is able to become “’lost’ in play” (to use Winnicott’s words) and to enter the “near-withdrawal state” that we often associate with game playing.
Why does it matter if video games are transitional objects?
I’m drawn to the metaphor because Winnicott provides us with a theoretical framework that does not pathologize play, that does not cast play as a regression to an infantile state. For Winnicott, “no human being is free from the strain of relating inner and outer reality,” and, as such, we never fully stop leaning on our transitional objects. In other words, spending time in the third space between subjectivity and objectivity is a perfectly natural thing to do. But Winnicott goes even further to suggest that play retains a positive value throughout one’s life. He argues that it is “only in playing that … the adult is able to be creative and to use the whole personality, and it is only in being creative that the individual discovers the self.” In a Winnicott-inspired framework, playing a video game, like any form of play, is not a regression to an infantile state but a healthy continuation of a form of play that first took shape during the infant-caregiver relationship.
Samantha Allen is a transgender woman, ex-Mormon and a PhD student in Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Emory University writing a dissertation on sexual fetishism. She writes regularly for The Border House and has contributed to Kotaku. She is also an erstwhile singer-songwriter. You can find her on the web or on Twitter.
Juul, Jesper. Half-Real: Video Games between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds. (MIT Press.)
Winnicott, D.W. Playing and Reality. (Tavistock Publications.)