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The Intoxicating Power of Touch in Games

Searching for the physical in a medium and an era increasingly dominated by the electronic and virtual.

Last week, I asked my friend, Dave, to destroy one of the playing cards from our weekly game of Pandemic Legacy. The way the game unfolds requires you to destroy pieces or deface the board at certain times. It was time.

"No way," he said. "I can't do it. I can't destroy a game piece." To my left, my friend, Steve, chimed in that he was more than happy to. He gleefully tore the card to shreds. Two reactions—one horrified, one ecstatic. It's unfathomably taboo to destroy a physical object and there's not much in-between to reactions when commanded to do so: you are either Dave or you're Steve, you either shrink in the face of the permanence of the solid or you delight in the transgressive thrill of its destruction. But there is no shrinking from the task in Pandemic Legacy. It's a co-operative board game in which you and three others play germ-fighters during a global pandemic (hence the name). The story changes each time you play, and with it the mechanics. If a city falls to riots, you put a sticker next to it on the board. When one of the characters dies, you tear their sheet in two. You write on it and rip it. And, when it's done, this solid thing which runs you 70 dollars is unusable, the damage done in the course of playing the game rendered permanent and irreversible. Not only that, but because there is a narrative which relies on plot twists, you can only ever play it once even if you did buy a second copy.


Photo by Owen Duffy for VICE

But of course the weight of that moment, the significance of the physical act, is very much the point for me. I crave touch in a world which is increasingly made of wireless signals and broadband. It can't be duplicated in video games. I can see the sun outside my window, turn to my screen and see a facsimile of it in Witcher 3. I can hear a bird chirping and hear it through my speakers. Taste and smell can't be duplicated, but neither is as omnipresent or vital to the day to day human experience as sight, sound, and touch.

I've been playing fewer video games lately because of this. This isn't to say that this will always be the case—Breath of the Wild is already making a strong bid for my interest—but it is to say that it has been the case for several months.

I've done what I always do when I need touch: I've been painting miniatures. Scores of them. Meticulously, painstakingly, to the best of my ability, I've huddled over what was once strictly a computer desk but which is now a multi-purpose piece of furniture spattered with paint and covered in little molded plastic soldiers, with 70 dollars of daylight lightbulbs and fancy LED lamps washing the entire area with a perfect blue-white glow devoid of shadows. Wherever I end up writing, I'm the Games Workshop guy, the expert on Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000. I started playing in the late 1980s as a boy, I worked their retail arm at the turn of the century, and I've just generally been engrossed in "the hobby" for as long as I can really remember. In 2003, I threw my hands up at the crass way Games Workshop drove their games into the ground with endless price increases and patent trolling. I drifted away for the better part of a decade, all the while knowing on some deep, lizard brain level that I'd be back, that there's no way I'd stay away forever, even as I sank my prior free time into MMOs, endless sports simulations, and Dwarf Fortress.

I remember the first time I held a Dual Shock controller. I remember the low buzz and faint vibration in my hands as I was beaten up in one of the Tekken games. And I remember, in retrospect, how it didn't feel like touch at all. Rather, it was unsettling, because getting punched doesn't feel like the buzz of a controller, nor does riding in a helicopter or dunking a basketball or any of the other things which match buzz to action. It's touch by computer, a simulacrum of a sense. It's unsatisfying in the extreme, sometimes annoying. It's not real.

It's a gulf which video games seem unable to bridge and I wonder if the current obsession with virtual reality is born of the desire to simulate touch without relying on the crude mechanisms of buzzing controllers—a quest to have touch without touch. In VR, there's a strange reliance on reach in those few games I've played, a funneling toward leaning forward and grasping at something with a hand. And if you get it? Nothing. Air, or the omnipresent coldness of plastic and wires. The video game world is left, once again, with the simulacrum of touch.

Photo by Ian Williams

Back to whether you're a Dave or a Steve. At the heart of both the creative act of painting miniatures and the destructive act of playing Pandemic Legacy, there's the sense of touch and the primacy of physical objects. And, again, they simply aren't around anymore. How could you create an experience like Pandemic Legacy in video game form? You could create a version of the rules for video game play, of course, but how do you destroy a virtual object? How do you evoke the sense of revulsion Dave felt in pixels? How do you indulge in the transgressive glee of destruction? We barely even buy discs or cartridges anymore. They're not ours, but rented, subject to deletion by Valve or Sony the second they get bored. Think of what you delete over months and years. I churn through dozens of PDFs in a given year, buying them, reading them, deleting them to free up hard drive space, and then forgetting I ever owned them. Vendors I barely remember close down, taking with them books and games I bought and discarded. Yet I've wept at the loss of physical books and can't imagine throwing away even a bad one with the same lack of care with which I delete documents from my computer. I'll be back with video games, with all their noise, flashes, and melodrama. I'll be back soon. For now, I hunch over my desk, an assortment of tiny plastic, metal, and resin statues in front of me, my brush slathering paint and ink over them, and I'm reminded that this is mine.