Playing with Heavy Rain: The Gamepad and Personal Knowledge

Immersion has long been held in popular thought as one of the defining characteristics of video games (Keogh, 2013). A good game, to many, is one where they can lose themselves within the game and its narrative. Such escapist understandings of video games often are projected by mainstream news media, for whom video games represent a departure from the ‘real’ world.

This division between real and virtual can be understood as the cornerstone by which immersion is possible. Within this particular understanding, immersion “comes from devices that isolate the senses sufficiently to make a person feel transported to another place” (Boellstorff, 2008, p. 20).

As such, this particular approach, which is popular within such disciplines as cognitive psychology and mainstream computer science, is able to create elaborate simulations of the physical world through innovative uses of information and communication technologies. Because it is predicated on a notion of the physical space as the space of reality and meaning, this approach fares poorly when it comes to understanding how virtual spaces can generate powerful semiotic relationships that go beyond the physical/virtual dichotomy.

Recent works in anthropology have begun questioning this division between physical and virtual (Boellstorff, 2008). Rather than understanding both worlds as separate and distinct, this approach proposes that virtual worlds are very much part of the ‘real’ world inhabited by agential actors.

Rather than opposing real to virtual, both are understood as spaces where the lived experiences of actors matter. Popular within experimental game design as well as within postmodern theoretical outlooks, this particular approach is well suited to understand the transformative possibilities created when humans and technologies interact. Within this approach, the technology itself too often is ignored.

When in comes to immersion, both approaches actually embrace a similar outlook. While the former tends to understand immersion as the sensory displacement from one domain to the other and the latter often understands it as a performative process of identity transformation,  both approaches tend to conceptualize the physical self as material and the virtual self as immaterial. Both approaches understand virtual embodiment as the domain of avatars.

I proposes a potentially different methodological approach into studies of immersion. Rather than attempting to understand how immersion is constructed through or against a particular understanding of online identity, I follow Alexander Galloway’s (2006) call to pay attention to interface devices in order to understand the moment of translation between physical and virtual spaces. To illustrate how interface devices can be utilized to understand the relationship between apparently separate technologically mediated spaces, I will examine the role of the gamepad (Kirkpatrick, 2009) in video gaming through Michael Polanyi’s concept of personal knowledge.

Personal Knowledge

Polanyi’s (1958) concept of personal knowledge revolves around his critique of objectivity in the natural sciences. To Polanyi, objectivity as classically defined is inadequate to understand the relationship binding researcher, data, and object. The separation of subject from object ignores the personal commitment that researchers make to the higher ideals of science. Objectivity, therefore, always includes a personal dimension where scientific subjects become invested with, and reproducers of, scientific values.

This is achieved, among other ways, through a process of enculturation enacted through the preferred learning model of the sciences: that of the master and the apprentice (Polanyi, 1958). Through the emulation of the master’s practices, the apprentice is able to construct him or herself as a scientific subject through the interiorization of the ‘correct’ scientific values and research methods.

Simultaneously, scientific knowledge production is dependent on this particular form of subjectivity because the production of data depends on the proper execution of particular protocols and methodologies. To Polanyi therefore, scientific knowledge depends on the willingness and capacity of the scientific subject to be transformed by the scientific process. Knowledge production requires an openness through which subjectivity and objectivity are joined: objectivity becomes personal knowledge, or the personal commitment to the ideals of science (Polanyi, 1958).

This points to Polanyi’s conceptualization of knowledge as a process rather than a product. Taking the metaphor of a carpenter nailing a board as his example, Polanyi argues that knowledge does not reside in the product of the nailed board itself. Rather, knowledge is disseminated throughout the entire process: the carpenter must have an idea of what a hammer is or does, of the function of nails, of the uses of nailed boards, and of the actions through which hammer, nail and board come together (Polanyi, 1958).

Critical to this conceptualization of knowledge as a process rather than a product is the tacit dimension of learning that exists within scientific practices (Polanyi, 1958). To Polanyi, scientific practices are acquired through a process of tacit learning where interiorization is enacted through prolonged personal interactions with the scientific technologies that make up scientific practice.

For example, knowing that riding a bicycle requires the fine manipulation of inertial moments does not help one ride from point A to point B (Polanyi, 1958). Rather, one needs to actively interact with the technology in order to understand how one must transform one’s mannerisms in order to use it effectively.

A Brief Material History of Gamepads

Personal knowledge and the tacit dimension of learning come into play within the world of video gaming and immersion when the gamepad is involved. Over time, gamepads have undergone a series of changes from simple to complex. This change requires an ever closer interaction with the gamepads in order to achieve mastery. The example of the transformation of the Nintendo gamepads can be deployed to illustrate this situation.

The gamepad for the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) was fairly simple. It was composed of a single directional pad (D-pad) for movement and two buttons for actions. As such, it could be effectively manipulated with only the use of two digits of the hands and was fairly easy to master.

Nintendo’s next console, the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES), offered a more complex gamepad composed of a D-pad and six action buttons, two of which needed to be activated with the index finger of each hand.

The SNES was followed by the Nintendo 64 (N64) whose gamepad introduced an analog thumbstick that required the left hand to handle both movement and action buttons. The N64 gamepad also introduced trigger buttons that requires either the use of the middle fingers or the displacement of the index finger.

The GameCube (GC) was the next console introduced by Nintendo, and its gamepad now included an analog thumbstick for each hand along with a D-pad. Both thumbs are now not only required to do double-duty but must also operate along a spectrum of inputs as opposed to a single digital on/off assumption. For example, applying a small amount of pressure to an analog thumbstick would allow a game character to slowly creep forward. Applying slightly more pressure would result in the character walking, while applying the maximum amount of pressure possible would result in the character running. A digital device would only provide two options: standing still or walking forward at a single speed.

The Nintendo Wii includes all the characteristics previously described but also separates the gamepad into two distinct units to adds motion control, requiring the player to enact the actions on the screen through a proprioceptive coordination of gamepad manipulation and biophysical movement.

Finally, Nintendo’s current generation of consoles, the Wii U, provides a touchscreen on one of its gamepads, which allows direct sensory inputs to be communicated between the gamepad and the player.

Two main trends can therefore be isolated through an historical study of gamepads. First, there is an increased incorporation of the physical body into the process of gamepad manipulation. While this increase manifested itself originally through the additional digits required to manipulate the technology, it now includes the use of the entire body. This particular trend can also be demonstrated by such devices as the Playstation Move and the Microsoft Kinect, both of which rely heavily on the proprioceptive capabilities of the human body.

Second, there has been a shift from digital to analog in gamepad functions. Early gamepads only concerned themselves with whether or not an action was accomplished. For example, a game character was either immobile or in motion. Current iterations of the technology offer a spectrum of possibilities. Rather than a simple absence or presence of movement, a fine manipulation of the gamepad now allows characters to stand still, walk, jog, run and even sprint.

These two trends are at play in the ways in which the gamepad can be known and learned. Like the bicycle, knowledge of the gamepad is acquired through the tacit dimension of learning. Simply being told the mechanics behind the working of the gamepad does not allow a player to master the device.

Rather, it is only through the a process of enculturation that mastery of the gamepad becomes possible. This is well understood by both Sony and Microsoft. Their first respective consoles, the Playstation and the Xbox, mimicked the Nintendo GameCube’s gamepad’s analog input scheme. Contrary to Nintendo, subsequent generations of consoles did not drastically deviate from this original design, thereby allowing a rapid familiarization with the new hardware.

In effect, the gamepad requires a form of personal knowledge. It requires one to be open to possible transformations of subjectivity through the acquisition of certain practices. I will provide an example of this situation through a brief discussion of a playthrough of a portion of a video game called Heavy Rain.

Playing Heavy Rain

A friend and I decided that playing Heavy Rain with other people would be a great way to introduce alternative styles of gaming and storytelling to an audience that was largely unaware that such things existed.

To ensure that all those present would be aware of how the game is played, we began by playing the part of the game called the Prologue. The Prologue acts as a sort of tutorial introduction. It introduces the players to the various commands they will encounter as well as sets up the game’s storyline. In Heavy Rain, the Prologue makes the players play through one day in the life of of Ethan Mars, from his awakening to the fateful trip to the shopping mall where Ethan loses his son.

In order to help with the meaning of the on-screen icons, my friend stood next to the screen and offered helpful advice as to what the various action icons appearing on the screen represented. It was during this first attempt at playing Heavy Rain that some unexpected problems began showing up.

The first player to tackle the game experienced difficulties managing the interface and the gamepad. This player fumbled with the gamepad buttons, which necessitated a shift of the gaze from the screen to the gamepad. Because of this divided attention, the portions of the game play where a series of buttons had to be pressed in a particular sequence to produce a certain pattern were difficult to negotiate.

For this player, learning to play the game involved learning how to use the physical gamepad as much as it involved learning the rules that governed the game space. After this initial period, the difficulties were not as acute but were still present. The player did manage to slowly guide Ethan around his bedroom, carefully exploring the various options that were available. Under this player’s guidance, Ethan walked onto his porch to admire the scenery, opened his closet before deciding that it was not the right moment to get dressed, and found a letter from his wife that had been slipped underneath the bedroom door. After this brief excursion, the gamepad was passed on to someone else.

This second player did not experience the same gamepad-related problems as the first one. This player had previous experience of video games and of Heavy Rain, and so knew what to expect. This second player was quite adept at controlling the game character and the only hesitations came when deciding which actions the game design would allow to be performed. It was under this player’s guidance that Ethan finally exited his bedroom. Ethan was guided to his shower before bringing him downstairs for dinner with his children and wife.

These different experiences of The Prologue quickly made it apparent that a game such as Heavy Rain required a personal knowledge (Polanyi, 1958) of the gamepad itself that can only be acquired through long periods of interacting with the technology. Because a player’s eyes must be constantly looking at the screen so as to not miss any action icons that might appear, it is impossible to sneak a glance at the gamepad to ensure that the correct buttons are being pressed.

While a familiarity with video games allows a player to accomplish this feat, it is a skill that is impossible to teach to others. One can only guide unfamiliar players as they fumble their way to success. As Polanyi (1958) describes for scientific learning, the personal knowledge required to manipulate the gamepad requires the player to open himself or herself up to transformation as he or she interacts with the technology. Rather than solely affecting the character, Ethan Mars, the on-screen events are directly affecting the players.

The game made them fumble with the gamepad and caused them to unite around a seemingly innocuous digital artifact, thereby rearranging the social relationships within the ‘physical’ room. As such, this high level of familiarity needed with the gaming technology allows the gamepad to act as a a link between the ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ of the game world by rewriting the boundaries of the game and drawing the player within them.

Throughout Heavy Rain, Ethan is subjected to a series of events that are designed to test his dedication to his kidnapped son. The second portion of the game that was experienced by the group was the chapter called The Bear, and it is during this chapter that players experience the first of these events. In this chapter, Ethan is led to a car containing a Global Positioning System (GPS) unit. Once he enters the car and turns the GPS on, a recorded message instructs him to drive to an overpass overlooking a highway. Ethan’s first task is to survive a five mile drive into incoming traffic, in rainy weather.

The Bear is a chapter that requires a finely-tuned knowledge of the gamepad. The player is bombarded with action icons, most of which requiring a near-immediate response. If the player is not fast enough, the icon disappears, which results in negative consequences for Ethan. Perhaps partly because of the difficulties experienced while attempting to play through The Prologue, no one volunteered to play through this particular chapter.

My friend was then required to take possession of the gamepad. Despite his foreknowledge of the chapter and affinity with the gamepad, he still had to keep his eyes riveted on the screen and pay close attention to the action. Despite all of this, he still did not succeed in perfectly repeating all the actions that the game required of him.

Ethan’s trial begins as the player eases him onto the off-ramp and into incoming traffic. Action icons appear very quickly, necessitating the player’s reaction. A car’s headlights appear, requiring Ethan to swerve. Construction workers are repairing the road, forcing Ethan onto an unpaved portion of the highway. A series of toll booths appear and a choice must be made of which one Ethan will go through. The siren of a tractor-trailer blares: will Ethan try to squeeze between it and the concrete retaining wall or will he risk blindly crossing to the other lane and hope no car will hit him? Throughout this chapter, the player is presented with such choices, all of which require a near-instantaneous response. Oftentimes, more than one action icon is present on the screen, thus increasing the confusion and the difficulty of the decision-making process.

While this action is happening on-screen, the player manipulating the gamepad is not passively sitting in the seat: eyes are fixed on the screen and thumbs are riveted to the gamepad. With the appearance of each action icon, the player jumps into motion: fingers press buttons or push thumbsticks. The entire body moves as the gamepad is shook up and down or side to side in response to the game’s demands. The player is moving to a beat dictated by the game, which effectively draws the player within the game world and creates the player into a game element. This situation is possible because the knowledge of the gamepad can only be acquired through repeated interactions with the technology.

The tacit dimension (Polanyi, 1958) of the learning experience requires that players invest themselves in the game. They are required to leave themselves vulnerable to the actions that the game forces upon them. In order to play The Bear, players must accept to become the ‘passive’ element of the relationship: players are not so much acting as reacting. They must accept to be ‘played’ by the game, to have their actions and movements dictated by the digital environment. If the knowledge of the gamepad could be learned any other way – by reading a text, or by observing a demonstration – then the boundary between the ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ of the digital game would remain.

The world of video games challenges the experiential division between virtual and physical spaces. Video game technologies make explicit use of the fact that virtual and physical environments can be accessed simultaneously. In this sense, virtual and physical are separate, but they are also coexistent, and the boundary between either can be negotiated through the use of technologies that specifically require one to become aware of ones own embodiment.

By being grounded in personal knowledge (Polanyi, 1958), by forcing a learning process through sustained embodied material interactions, technologies such as the gamepad act as boundary objects (Bowker and Star, 1999) that allow their manipulators to simultaneously exist materially within both virtual and physical environments. This is not to say that the rules that govern existence within either space are identical, but that a closer attention must be paid to the kinds of technologies that are used to link both worlds, and to the assumptions inherently constructed within these boundary crossing devices.

Understanding existence within virtual and physical worlds as a form of simultaneous material embodiment through interface devices consequently recasts immersion as resulting from personal transformation as opposed to inherent division. It recognizes that virtual and physical spaces do operate under different rules, while simultaneously recognizing that these rules will impact the very identity of the person that negotiates his or her way between them. It also refocuses the attention on the discursive and political role played by technology in creating embodiments that are able to negotiate various methods of existence.


Popularly, video games are understood as escapist leisure. However, the world of video games can be a potent entry into the theoretical understanding of embodiment with both virtual and physical worlds. Video game technologies such as the gamepad highlight that both the virtual and physical worlds can be understood as a network of coexisting realities that are accessed through material immersion.

Video games highlight how many of the technologies constructed to access either space are predicated upon the assumption that each requires a different embodiment in order to be experienced. By being an artifact that enacts immersion through personal knowledge, the gamepad highlights that many of the very technologies used to navigate between physical and virtual spaces enact a boundary where virtual and physical embodiments are constructed as ontologically distinct rather than inherently material.

Recent developments within the world of video games appear to support the notion of a simultaneous material embodiment through interface devices. For example, the new technologies of motion capture and motion sensing such as the Microsoft Kinect, Playstation Move or Nintendo Wiimote rely precisely on the fact that existence within virtual spaces is achieved through a material embodiment negotiated through particular devices. The question, therefore, is not whether virtual is real and real, virtual. Rather, the questions focus on understanding how materiality is reconfigured through technology in ways that allow a material access to both virtual and physical spaces.

These insights become especially important when one considers the ways in which gaming technologies are transported increasingly to other spheres of practice. For example, simulation technologies have a long history of association with military training, and new game technologies are incorporated increasingly within such environments (Derene, 2008; Smith, 2008). The increasing move towards information technologies within military environments lends itself well to such incorporations.

If such technological movements also are accompanied by discourses that stress the division of physical and virtual as well as the conceptualization of virtualized identity solely through avatars, then the incorporation of new gaming technologies within other spheres of practice potentially will result in a separation of practices from ethical effect and affect. A material understanding of embodiment within modeled and virtualized spaces forces one to consider how our own agency impacts not only others but also ourselves.


Boellstorff, T., 2008. Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human. Princeton University Press, Princeton.

Bowker, G., Star, S.L., 1999. Sorting Things Out: Classification and its Consequences. MIT Press, Cambridge.

Derene, G., 2008. Wii All You Can Be? Why the Military needs the Gaming Industry [WWW Document]. Popular Mechanics. URL (accessed 4.26.10).

Galloway, A., 2006. Gaming : Essays on Algorithmic Culture. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis.

Keogh, B., 2013. Across Worlds and Bodies: Criticism in the Age of Video Games. Journal of Games Criticism 1(1).

Kirkpatrick, G., 2009. Controller, hand, screen: Aesthetic form in the computer game. Games and Culture, 4(2), 127–43.

Polanyi, M., 1958. Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Smith, R., 2008. Five Forces Driving Game Technology Adoption, in: Interservice/Industry Training, Simulation, and Education Conference (I/ITSEC) Proceedings. Presented at the Interservice/Industry Training, Simulation, and Education Conference (I/ITSEC).

About Erik Bigras

Erik Bigras is an independent scholar. He studied as a PhD Candidate in the Department of Science and Technology Studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He graduated with a BA in Anthropology (2009) from the University of Prince Edward Island (Canada) where he focused on the creation of subjectivities through digital media. He's been playing video games since the mid-1980s, but expanded his gaming interest to table-top RPGs in the early 2010s.
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