Differentiating Physical And Conceptual Interactions In Video Games (And Art)



Recently I read an article on a site called Nightmare Mode called “How You Got Games Wrong: It’s All Interactive”. It was written by a gent named Eric Lockaby.

There are a lot words, especially in the beginning and the middle, but the most interesting words were at the end of the article where Dr. Lockaby gives his opinion on what makes video games unique. I think he’s wrong, though, and I think he’s wrong because of a cognitive illusion that many in the game community fall under when trying to compare games to other forms of entertainment.

But before I get into that, let me say that I like Corporal Lockaby’s last name; I think it’s cool. Also, let me say that the main purpose of his article is to point out how other forms of art and entertainment are just as interactive as video games. This is something I totally agree with and I’m happy to see someone addressing this idea. Games are just as interactive as anything else…





Except, I disagree with Commander Lockaby’s listed methods of interaction. He considers four types of interactions to be present in all mediums of art, go read his article if you want to know specifics, but my problem is that his categories are subject to the cognitive illusion I mentioned earlier.

In general there are two methods of interactive engagement when dealing with art: physical interaction and conceptual interaction. Most people writing about games fail to recognize this difference and end up taking physical interactions in games and comparing them to conceptual interactions in other mediums. A physical interaction is where you interact with the medium through physical mechanics and sensory equipment. A conceptual interaction is when those physical objects are interpreted based on a variety of conceptual parameters and learned meanings.  Moving Mario across the screen is not the equivalent of considering a character’s motivations in a book; one is a physical interaction and the other is a conceptual interaction. Mario moving across the screen is the book equivalent of turning pages with your hand; they are both physical ways to access more of the medium’s content.

The failure to discriminate between those two types of interactions is an understandable mistake. We normally don’t think about the physical interactions we engage in with other mediums since they are so minor and intuitive. Most of our physical interactions with art or entertainment don’t extend beyond instinctive behavior such as looking, listening, and touching. In fact, books are the most physically interactive medium next to video games since they require consistent page turning to continue experiencing them. And I suppose that’s a genuine difference video games have compared to other mediums: they require the greatest amount of physical interactions which are also the least intuitive (Precise hand eye coordination with mouse and cursor, high levels of manual dexterity with mouse and keyboard, accurate timing, and quick reflexes. Also et cetera). Also, I think it’s fair to say that another thing that might make games unique is that as a medium of entertainment they have the greatest variety of physical interactions, within their different genres, when compared to other mediums, but that’s not what I feel like thinking about right now.

I’ll continue.



  1. Rory Summerley

    I agree with you, there is definitely a distinction to be made since physical interaction is the one that first comes to mind, I think, when people hear the word interaction. Lockaby’s article does provoke some interesting talking points though. I wonder then if (physical) interaction can be claimed to be a key or even unique feature of videogames, a thought that Lockaby attempts to disprove in his article. There are other media that involve physical interaction such as certain types of performance art but it seems a much stronger component of games.


    • Philtron

      I agree that people tend to think “physical” when they think about interaction. But, as I said throughout my article I think physical interaction is not unique to video games. Physical interaction is key to every medium. How would you be able to experience any art if it didn’t have a physical component. I think there’s just more emphasis placed on physical interaction in the design of games than the design of other entertainment.


  2. Pingback: The difference between the physical game and the conceptual game | Electric Cartilage And The Games That Don't Exist

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