M. D. Schmalzer

M. D. Schmalzer lives in Raleigh, North Carolina and is a Phd candidate in the Communications, Rhetoric, and Digital Media program at North Carolina State.

Contact information:
mdschmal at ncsu.edu

Janky Controls and Embodied Play: Disrupting the Cybernetic Gameplay Circuit

by M. D. Schmalzer


This article adds to a body of work that maps the ways videogames create a standard videogame playing body and standard subjectivity (namely that of a traditionally able bodied cis-white heteronormative videogame player), but expands this research to show how, through certain game design practices, those standards can be revealed to players as contingent constructed identities. To this end, the concept of “jank” is developed, focusing on “janky controls” or the severing of direct correlation between input and output. This severing disrupts the illusion of perfect control, invisible interfaces, and disembodied, “immersed” play that permeates popular notions of videogame play, helping to dismantle the myth of the “standard videogame player” and allowing for more diverse forms of play (and thus more diverse subjectivities) to be expressed.

Keywords: controls, controllers, jank, embodiment, queer theory



A text file buried in Kentucky Route Zero’s (2013) game files gives instructions for playing the title on a gamepad: “Push buttons and analog sticks and watch for patterns in response until you have a sense of the relationship between the two.” These humorous directions highlight the unstated ways players are assumed to learn how to play and game designers create videogames. Players tend to assume a one-to-one, predictable correspondence between their inputs and in-game outputs. If they press a button, they can be reasonably sure what will happen as there are constant results based on consistent inputs. So, if they play around with the buttons, they should be able to discern a pattern of responses and make the connection between input and output.

At the same time, designers imagine players know how to “play around” with the buttons at all. Players are assumed to have some literacy with a controller (how to hold it for example) and some familiarity with conventional control schemes (“X” on a PlayStation’s Dualshock controller is often used to confirm options, for instance). While this set of instructions (if they can even be called that) are clearly meant to be a joke, the joke lies in the fact that instructions are viewed as unnecessary. Afterall, who doesn’t know how to use a gamepad? And if actual instructions were important wouldn’t they be more easily accessible and detailed? Surely, the designers reason, they can assume everyone will intuitively know how to play (or at least how to figure out how to play).

Assumptions like these about players’ literacies in design and gameplay practices, such as how to use a gamepad and how in-game actions should correlate to players’ input, are a part of what Stephanie Boluk and Patrick Lemeiux (2018) call the “standard metagame” (p. 40), or the “invisible rules” that guide play. They argue rules of play are embedded in the design, marketing, and dissemination of videogames and “train players to consume software in particular, often narrowly defined, ways” (p. 279). These methods of consumption are rooted in cultural and historical productions that are not neutral. As Boluk and Lemeiux point out, standard metagames “privilege a normative, or standardized, body” (p. 40). But, all the while, standard metagames disavow their status as one contingently constructed way to play among many. They become the default, or even only, form of play, and are rendered invisible and thus uninterrogated by many players (and often designers). All of this while creating a standardized videogame playing body, excluding certain bodies from interactions with videogames at all, and limiting the possible set of experiences videogames are able to evoke.

In this article, I add to a body of work that maps the ways videogames create a standard videogame playing body and standard subjectivity (namely that of a traditionally able bodied cis-white heteronormative videogame player), but I expand this research to show how, through certain game design practices, those standards can be revealed to players as contingent constructed identities. To this end, I develop the concept of “jank,” focusing on “janky controls” or the severing of direct correlation between input and output that the Kentucky Route Zero instructions implicitly imply. This severing, as I will show, disrupts the illusion of perfect control, invisible interfaces, and disembodied, “immersed” play that permeates popular notions of videogame play, helping to dismantle the myth of the “standard videogame player” and allowing for more diverse forms of play (and thus more diverse subjectivities) to be expressed.

I first set the stage for this analysis by defining jank in the first section. In the following section, I examine how the cybernetic circuit became a part of the unexamined “standard metagame” to illustrate how janky controls disrupt typical notions of how videogame controls function. Then I turn to an examination of unintentionally present jank in Animal Crossing: New Horizons (2020) to show how jank is a subjective perception based on player’s gaming literacies. I conclude by showing how janky controls are intentionally designed, and how they produce and represent alternative subject positions to the standard gaming body, opening the path to more diverse gaming subjectivities.

Part 1: What is Jank?

The term “jank,” colloquially, has a range of subtly different meanings summed up well by Ryan Cooper (2018): “[Jank is] a mixture of bugginess, minor glitches, strange animations, bizarre control schemes and any other number of possible occurrences or abnormalities.” It is often understood as a catchall phrase for a certain kind of weirdness that, while it may be frustrating and often humorous, does not go so far as to make the videogame unplayable. Jank can be distilled into a narrower definition, however. The suite of weirdness that jank describes are actually disconnects between player expectations about how elements of videogames (software, hardware, interface, rules, mechanics, visuals, etc.) “should” behave and how they actually do. That does not mean that unpredictable events, random occurrences, or abnormalities are by default janky. After all, unpredictability is a central feature of many videogames so players anticipate certain kinds of unpredictable events ex. enemies mixing up their attacks, random loot dropping, attacks causing critical hits, etc. These phenomena may be somewhat unexpected, but they are still within a player’s range of expectations. Players have literacy in, or familiarity with, those kinds of unpredictable phenomena so they are not interpreted as abnormalities, and thus are not janky. Jank is also often used to mean poor craftsmanship. This is a conflation of one of jank’s causes with the experience of jank. Something interpreted as janky may be because of shoddy construction, but the construction itself is not janky. Stated concisely, jank is a player’s perception that a videogame does not behave in the ways that it should.

Any element of a videogame can be understood as janky, and jank has many causes. But in this paper I focus on how jank manifests through a game’s controls. If jank, in general, is the disconnect between expectations and actuality, then janky controls are a disconnect between input and expected output. This understanding of janky controls draws on Android operating system developers’ technical use of the term (“Slow rendering,” 2018). They use “jank” to describe frames that are lost because visuals are not drawn on screen at the same rate that an app generates them. This causes a discrepancy between what a user inputs into the system and the visual output on the screen. The discrepancy between user input and expected output is the defining feature of janky controls. So, a facet of a game’s controls (whether that be the hardware interface, the button mapping, the game’s audiovisual-haptic feedback of the inputs, a player’s lack of literacy with the inputs, ect.) can be said to be “janky” if, from the player’s perspective, input has no clear or logical connection to output. Janky controls are a severing of the cybernetic videogame circuit, a glitch in the flow of information.

I break janky controls into two broad categories based on designers’ intent. They are present unintentionally, or they are intentionally designed into the videogame experience. I note four ways unintentionally janky controls arise: through programming oversites, hardware malfunctions, unclear sensory feedback, or unintuitive controls. Designed jank falls into two broad categories based on the effect it has on the player, either separating player and gameworld, or giving players a better feel for, or connection to, the gameworld. As is the case with all systems of categorization there is slippage between categories (especially when issues of intent and player perception come into play), but these are not meant to be rigid taxonomies. Instead, I use these categorizations as a framework to understand the multitude of ways that our assumptions surrounding videogame play is constantly called into question. Janky controls reveal the ways that control is never perfect and the cybernetic flows of information (aka input=output) are never noiseless. Videogame play, like life, is messy. When we forefront the messiness of play, specific bodies, and the constructed subject positions created by videogames, come into focus. Before exploring janky controls in detail, however, I first detail the noiseless cybernetic circuit of input/output that dominates the “standard” understanding of videogame controls.

Part 2: Cybernetic Control and the Invisible Body

David Sudnow (1983), in his seminal work Pilgrim in the Microworld, describes the experience of destroying three enemy missiles in Missile Command (1980) for the Atari 2600: “As you watch the cursor move, your look appreciates the sight with thumbs in mind, and the joystick-button box feels like a genuine implement of action. Bam, bam, bam, got you three right in your tracks, whatever the hell you are.” This short account is illustrative of the cybernetic circuit that constitutes the typical understanding of videogame play. The screen presents an image, eyes perceive it, thumbs move in response, and electrical impulses alter switches. These switches, in turn, alter the image on the screen to again be perceived by the eyes to complete the circuit. In Sudnow’s construction the “joystick-button box” becomes the prosthetic extension of hands that allows a merging with the inorganic videogame system and a becoming of the “you” that is tangled in this cybernetic assemblage.

“You” is not so easy to identify, however. Brendan Keogh (2018) argues for videogame experiences understood as an “embodied textuality” (p. 21). In this understanding “the synthesized embodied experience of audiovisual design, videogame hardware, and the player’s physical body constitute the site of meaningful engagement with the videogame” (p. 21). The player, then, is eyes at a screen and hands on a controller, but through interactions with videogame interfaces bodies extend through the screen to become embodied behind the glass, feeling the world of the game. Subjectivity is distributed across the worlds and bodies of videogames to constitute the slippery “you” that Sudnow notices.

Feeling is central to this construction of subjectivity. Many scholars have explored the ways that players touch videogames, and in turn videogames touch players, moving them literally and figuratively extending their (both player and videogame’s) presence and influence. Steve Swink’s (2008) “game feel” is one foundational elucidation of this. Swink defines game feel as “the tactile, kinesthetic sense of manipulating a virtual object. It’s the sensation of control in a game” (p. xiii). Feeling the videogame, then, is a sense of direct telepresence within a gameworld, an extension of the body’s influence. It is about the feeling of control over an other, while simultaneously becoming the other through a feeling of the world. This is not a clean process. Videogames, and the subjectivity produced by them, are necessarily a messy construction, as Keogh illustrates when describing “the complex and fascinating ways our bodies engage with videogames: we look at, hear, and touch them with technologically augmented senses and limbs to implement some change, to feel some liminal and flickering sense of presence through the screen” (p. 3). There is never a stable connection to a gameworld. At best there are connections flickering between actual bodies, virtual bodies, and the hardware interfaces between.

Even if subjectivity is flickering during play, the construction of a cybernetic circuit is always emphasized as a key component to the control, virtual presence, and feeling that is viewed as central to the experience of videogames. When scholars like Keogh and Aubrey Anable (2018) expand understandings of embodied videogame experiences by attending to the phenomenological and affective ways the body is always integral to gameplay, it is still predicated on entering into a kind of cyborg construction of the playing body. Despite these scholars’, and others, efforts to emphasize a situated embodied player, the centrality (and necessity!) of circuits of communication between player, hardware, and software have always had the unfortunate side effect of erasing the body from videogame play, at least in popular accounts of videogame play.

This echoes Katherine Hayles’s arguments involving the post-human turn in cybernetics in regards to the ways bodies interfaced with technology become flows of information. She writes:

Central to the construction of the cyborg are informational pathways connecting the organic body to its prosthetic extensions. This presumes a conception of information as a (disembodied) entity that can flow between carbon-based organic components and silicon-based electronic components to make protein and silicon operate as a single system. When information loses its body, equating humans and computers is especially easy, for the materiality in which the thinking mind is instantiated appears incidental to its essential nature. (p. 3)

Flows of information in the form of sights, sounds, and haptic output from the videogame; inputs from the player in the form of trained, precise gestures; and electrical impulses connecting the two create a cyborg entity that quickly, effortlessly, and seamlessly translates information between alien entities, breaking down boundaries between the constituent parts.

This connection is often understood to be frictionless, noiseless. The expert player’s body is incidental. It is simply a conduit through which information flows. Players enter into the cyborg assemblage and are subsumed by the informational flows, hinting at the common watery metaphors of “immersion,” “flow,” and “fluid controls” that permeate discussions of videogames. In the same way that Janet Murray’s (1997) holodeck becomes an invisible gateway into a narrative, the interface, and our embodied cybernetic connection to it, are also assumed to be noiseless and thus invisible. To be good at videogames is, as Graham Kirkpatrick (2009) puts it, “at least partly, a function of not looking at or thinking about our hands” (p. 131). Seamless connections allow hands and bodies to fade away so that a “cyborg consciousness” leads players to be able to “think like a computer” (Ted Friedman, 1999). Players become so “attuned” (James Ash, 2013) to the minutiae of the videogame’s software and hardware affordances (the feel of control) that actions become embodied or unconscious, and thus unexamined. The player’s body is a noiseless channel, through which information flows to create gameplay.

However, that does not describe the experience of every videogame player, nor the experience encouraged by the affordances and constraints of all videogames and their interfaces. Myths of perfect control and fantasies of disembodied realities are what Donna Haraway (1988) would call a “god trick.” These conceptions are the privilege of those that can seamlessly interact with interfaces, and those that desire the illusions of complete mastery videogames so often provide. To reclaim the body, in all of its messy imperfections, I intervene here with an examination of “janky controls,” which promises to sever the taken for granted cybernetic circuit that is assumed to form the basis for videogame play.

Part 3: Unintentional Jank

I begin my discussion of janky controls through a look at unintentional jank, or jank that is not designed; it simply arises incidentally during play. Despite not being designed, instances of jank can radically alter players’ experiences, so they are far from inconsequential or unimportant to understanding the act of play. I locate four ways videogame inputs become unintentionally janky: through software errors, hardware malfunctions, unclear sensory feedback, and unintuitive controls.

In this section I provide examples of each of these categories from one title in particular: Nintendo’s Animal Crossing: New Horizons (from here on, ACNH) for the Nintendo Switch. Through these examples I explore the ways janky controls are socially defined. They are something that is subjectively understood by individual players. So, ACNH can not necessarily be said to be a janky videogame. Instead, I, as a player with certain expectations and literacies, view aspects of the game as janky. Through this analysis, I lay some of the groundwork for understanding how jank undermines the cybernetic gaming circuit and how it can be used as an intentional design decision that subverts standard conceptions of interactions with videogames.

Software Errors

One cause of unintentionally janky controls is software errors, or glitches. Rosa Menkman, in The Glitch Moment(um) (2001), provides a useful definition of glitch. She describes glitch as a “break from an expected or conventional flow of information or meaning within (digital) communication systems that results in a perceived accident or error. A glitch occurs on the occasion where there is an absence of (expected) functionality, whether understood in a technical or social sense” (p. 9). The label of “glitch” is not something that can be universally applied to every instance of similar phenomena. In fact, glitches (or more precisely the aesthetics of glitches) are often recontextualized as an intentional form of artistic expression. So, the status of glitch relies on the user’s perceptions and expectations surrounding a software’s functionality. The same goes for janky controls; the perception of jank relies on players’ understanding of how their inputs should function.

An example of janky controls due to glitches in ACNH comes from an exploit that causes the player-character to clip out of bounds. When walking through tight passages the player-character normally does a quick side-step, or shimmy, animation to get through the gap. However, placing a bench near an object at just the right distance causes them to shimmy past (as expected) and then quickly snap to the side (unexpected). The result of the movement is the character standing inside the bench. Once this happens the character is then free to run out of the bench and walk through or over any barriers that would normally block their path like walls or the ocean. This is clearly viewed as a glitch by the designers, evidenced by it being patched out, and while playing I did as well. It is not at all how I expect the software to behave, but I read it as janky too.

The snap to the side to enter the bench is at odds with how I expect my character to move based on my inputs. Initially I was quite surprised by it. I didn’t tell my character to do that! I normally expect the cybernetic circuit of input and output, joystick movement and character movement, to match, but in this case my inputs did not directly match the expected output. This was only compounded when the character defied the laws of (programmed) physics and walked right over walls. However, some players, including myself, found this glitch useful, intentionally using it to reach locations outside of the normal field of play. I also used it to create humorous images of my character standing on top of a house or at the bottom of the ocean. Humour is a common response to any kind of jank because of the patent ridiculousness of the unexpected situations that arise. So, after using the trick for a while, it no longer read as janky. I understood how to perform the trick and what inputs would lead to the correct outputs to initialize it. It was perfectly predictable, even mundane. It is possible, then, for players to learn from patterns, recalling the standard conception of videogame controls illustrated by Kentucky Route Zero, and gain a sense of the relationship between inputs and outputs in order to remove the experience of jank.

Hardware Malfunctions

The flip side of software malfunctions is hardware malfunctions. The Nintendo Switch is notorious for an issue with its Joy-Con controllers where the analog sticks register input when there is none. It’s unclear what exactly causes this common issue, but when I play ACNH the result is that my character, whose movement is controlled by the left analog stick, listlessly walks to the left when I’m not touching the controller. Similar trouble occurs with jerks from side to side when I’m trying to run, or when my avatar abruptly faces the opposite direction before I attempt to take a precise action. At other times, the analog stick works exactly as I would expect it to. There is no discernable rhyme or reason to the ways my controller (mal)functions, which makes me constantly aware of the controller’s mediating role in extending my influence to the game world.

Humor is one result of jank, but frustration because of lack of predictability is another common reaction. I am frustrated by no longer having control over my player-character. The janky joystick means neither the controller nor the player-character are prosthetic extensions of my body. I am no longer an islander building a utopian community by planting flowers and decorating my beachfront. Instead, I am painfully aware that I am a body, sitting in front of a TV, ineffectually wiggling little plastic sticks. My subjectivity is not distributed through the system, flickering or not. Jank leaves me on the outside, while the villager I formerly connected to through a functioning joystick meanders aimlessly across their (not my) tropical paradise. They take on a life of their own, resisting my commands in favor of their own seemingly random whims.

Unclear Sensory Feedback

When I do have control of my villager, I am not always sure how my inputs will translate to action because of what I understand as unclear sensory feedback -- in this case visual feedback. ACNH’s environment is laid out on a grid. Actions such as placing items, planting flowers, and building fences can only be executed on individual squares of the grid. This goes for digging holes with my character’s shovel as well. However, I’m free to move the player-character independent of the cartesian segmentation. So, when I line up my character to dig a hole at a specific location it can be unclear which square, exactly, they will dig a hole on. Afterall, there are no lines demarcating one square from the next and the character’s analog range of movement rarely coincides with a position that is perfectly lined up with the square I intend to dig on. So, over and over again, I will attempt to have my character dig a hole in one location, but unbeknownst to me they are actually just over one of the invisible grid lines and they (I? We?) dig a hole beyond where I intended the hole to be. In short, I cannot draw conclusions about how my inputs for digging will translate to specific in-game action. I know a hole will be dug; I just don’t know where that hole will be.

There is no error in hardware nor the software in this example. The jankiness here is caused by two things. The first is audiovisual-haptic feedback that does not clearly adhere to specific game states (at least as I as the player understand it). This happens often in videogmaes, for example, in fighting games where a character’s visual model and the area that they are able to be hit are two different sizes. However, in both the case of ACNH’s digging mechanics and fighting game hitboxes the other cause of jankiness is the player’s familiarity with the videogame. The more I have played ACNH the fewer digging errors I make (at least when my controller functions properly). I learn this through the same means that I come to understand, over time, whether or not I will be hit by an attack in a fighting game. I have become more attuned to the ways movement, the grid system, and digging work in the game so -- while I still have some difficulty because of the visuals -- I rarely feel the disconnect between input and expected output that characterizes janky controls. This is because I have gained some literacy in reading the screen and inputting commands to control my character.

Unintuitive Controls

The concept of literacy is important to understanding jank generally, but it is particularly relevant in looking ahead to designed jank and understanding the last category of unintentional jank: unintuitive controls. Jess Marcotte (2018) uses the term “control literacy” to describe “the player’s ability to pick up and use a given controller or any other set of learned conventions for controlling a game.” This kind of literacy, as Anna Anthropy (2012, p. 15) points out, is always learned, but Marcotte notes that literacy becomes invisible to adept players. David Parisi’s (2015) work on the “standard console controller” draws attention to the fact that literacies are not only developed over the course of playing an individual game, they are also designed into control devices. Literacy between controllers is encouraged by the “fairly conservative refinements,” as Parisi describes them, of videogame controllers over time. Every new iteration of controllers, with few exceptions, are incredibly similar to previous versions. This is a part of an “ergonomic branding” by console designers, which is meant to impress “the brand’s identity into the muscles, joints, fingers, and thumbs of the player/consumer through the design of controllers that manage to remain materially constant across successive generations.” Literacies are ingrained at a physical level creating videogame playing consumers that are able to become expert gamers across systems and console generations.

Literacies are also promoted from title to title through the consistent mapping of actions to certain inputs. This is especially true for titles within the same genre or style of games. For example, in first person shooters, the left analog stick is mapped to moving within the game space while the right analog stick is mapped to moving the camera and thus aiming. Players new to the genre (or to using a console controller) will not have the literacies built up to play these games effectively. Their movements and aiming may be erratic as they fumble over their thumbs attempting to connect their movements of the joysticks to in-game movements. This disconnect will be read as janky to novices, while the expert player will feel no disconnect at all. It will simply feel like a natural prosthetic extension.

My familiarity with console controllers comes primarily from multiple generations of PlayStation’s DualShock controllers. These controllers feature four face buttons labelled: X, Circle, Triangle, and Square. The two important buttons for this anecdote are the X at the bottom and Circle on the right. X is almost universally mapped to the “accept” or “confirm” actions and Circle is mapped to “decline” or “reject.” This is the case in nearly every modern PlayStation title, including the menus on the PlayStation 4’s home screen. The Nintendo Switch’s Joy-Cons, while being usable in multiple configurations, can be used as a controller very similar to the DualShock with four face buttons (labeled B, A, X, and Y) arranged in a similar pattern and location as the Dualshock’s buttons with the B corresponding to the DualShock’s X and A to Circle. However, the functionality of these buttons are swapped on the Switch. The B at the bottom is “reject” and the A on the right is “accept.” Time and again I press the incorrect button, expecting a certain output, only to be surprised when my character declines an offer I wanted to accept or exits a shopping menu instead of purchasing an item. Even if only momentarily, my expectations of the actions that had become ingrained in me through other branded control schemes are not met. There is a moment of jankiness that was not caused by poor design nor unclear output, but my own lack of literacy in a particular control scheme.

We can see how all game controls are potentially experienced as janky because jank is not necessarily something inherent to a system or title. It is instead predicated on the player’s understanding of how the system functions and their own gaming literacies, some of which are deeply ingrained and physically embodied. With this in mind, I will now turn to ways the experience of jank can be fostered through game design and how these kinds of intentional jank affect the player’s understanding of their embodied relationship to the videogame and their own body.

Part 4: Designed Jank

While any game can be interpreted as janky, designers can exploit common literacies and expectations to encourage the experience of jank. I sort designed janky controls into two categories based not on their causes, but instead on the effect that they are meant to have on the player. The two categories I locate are janky controls that are meant to exclude the player from the cybernetic videogame system and those that make the player feel a stronger connection to the gameworld.

Exclusion From The Cybernetic System

The first category of designed janky controls I will discuss is meant to exclude the player from the gameworld through the severing of clear correlation between input and output. The most commonly used method for producing this result is through control schemes that actively resist traditional control literacies.

Jesper Juul and Marleigh Norton (2009) differentiate between difficult games and difficult interfaces, or games that challenge players through the tactics and strategies they must employ to be successful and games that challenge players through the difficulty of inputting commands. Jule and Norton’s invocation of difficult interfaces share some similarities to designed janky controls, generally. Janky controls are an interface that gets in the player’s way, stopping them from easily and effortlessly controlling the gameworld.

In many videogames, take for example an action game like Ubisoft’s Assassin's Creed (2007) series, the player-character performs extraordinary feats with, relatively, little effort on the players' part. Simply holding one button down while tilting a joystick forward causes the player-character to scale incredibly high, sheer walls, towers, and cliff faces. Of course “easy interface” is somewhat of a misnomer. It’s only easy if the player has the requisite literacies and ability to physically manipulate the controller, but the relatively minimal inputs required for these actions are intended to be effortless. The diegetic body performs incredibly difficult and physically demanding leaps, but the player easily performs these actions with little effort exerted either mentally or physically. The player’s body is forgotten as information noiselessly flows through it, directly controlling the diegetic body. With the playing body erased all that is left is the diegetic body, which the player has the illusion they perfectly control. Of course, every action taken by the diegetic body is not controlled by players’ inputs, but there is enough of a sense of direct, moment-to-moment control that leads to the feeling of merging with player-character (and cybernetic videogame system as a whole). Couple this with standardized control schemes that become embodied literacies, and expert players easily can temporarily forget their bodies (or at the very least their hands on the controller).

This seamless merging, as discussed earlier, can become dangerous because it leaves unexamined the specificity of embodied relationships to videogames. Shira Chess (2017) argues that from a “bodily perspective, gaming is generally built from ableist presumptions” (p. 152). The hardware itself is constructed with particular bodies in mind, as is evidenced by the lack of diversity in standard input devices, but just because there have been largely “conservative refinements” in controllers, Anthropy (2012) argues: “games and the controllers with which players interact have become more and more complex. This is not to say different: layers of complexity have simply been added to the same few models of games and the same few models of controllers” (p. 14) So, videogame controllers retain the same basic shape and functionality -- meaning they are made to be used by one type of body -- yet their increased complexity means they are made for people that already have embodied literacies built up. All the while, videogames assume the physical ability to use controllers, creating a preferred user position that Elizabeth Ellcessor claims stands in for “the” user and the “the default experience of the medium” (p. 63), which does not, and cannot, account for bodies that do not fit the ideal.

Diegetic gameworlds contribute to narrow conceptions of bodily videogame subjectivities as well. For example, Samantha Allen (2013) argues that titles featuring extreme freedom of mobility, such as Assassin's Creed or open-world games like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (2011), portray the freedom and control that is the typical experience of cisgendered people that do not typically feel material restraints on their movements because of their gender that many trans people face: “for cisgender gamers, the supreme motility of open world games often functions as an exaggeration of a freedom of movement that they may already enjoy in the physical spaces of non-game worlds.” This is not limited to gender identities, of course. Race, class, sex, age, disability, etc. contribute to motility as well, however the point here is that videogames tend to be made to express the lived reality of particular kinds of bodies. But many people’s embodied experience of the world and of their own bodies is not one of effortless mobility. Chess sums this up nicely saying: “gaming bodies are complicated, they are messy, and controlling a gaming body does not always work as intended.”

Janky controls can be used as a means to disrupt the effortless flow of information, demonstrating that no gaming body always works as intended, revealing the standard gaming body to be a contingent historical construction and generating alternative subjective positions. Game designer Bennett Foddy has made his name creating games with intentionally janky controls. His browser game Qwop (2008) gives the player the relatively simple task of controlling a sprinter running a 100m dash. Running a straight line in videogames is often as easy as pressing a button or tilting a joystick, such as in ACNH or Assassin’s Creed. But Qwop makes it a bit more complicated. The sprinter’s right and left thighs are controlled by the “Q” and “W” keys respectively, while the calves are controlled with the “O” and “P” keys. The keys are spaced so far apart I am forced to use two hands to manipulate all of them, and each hand is responsible for parts of both respective legs. To complicate an already complicated situation, it is difficult to predict the effects of any individual input, as every input causes dramatic changes in the runner’s body and the game gives little feedback or instruction in how its physics work. This is a clear example of a difficult interface. Novice and experienced players, myself included, tend to make the runner fall flat on his face or tip over backwards in unusual contortions. After much practice I am unlikely to navigate the first 10m much less finish the full race. This is not to say that players cannot form literacies in Qwop’s controls and mechanics. It does mean, however, that the controls are interpreted as janky for most because the game does not adhere to commonly held literacies. I cannot link my inputs directly to outputs because I do not have the literacies (and it is unlikely most players do) to extend my influence effectively into the digital space.

This difficult, janky, interface, which is the very site of connection to the videogame, is designed to be an incredibly visible barrier to perfect control. I exert much energy fumbling over my fingers, trying as best I can to hit the correct buttons to make some semblance of a running motion happen, but, even when I have figured out a general strategy for how I want to input the buttons, my fingers can’t seem to do it right. I have to look at my hands to remind myself which finger is controlling which button and then make the next step to connecting button to runner’s muscles. I’m always at a remove. Like when my controller malfunctions, I am painfully aware that I’m not running a sprint; I am sitting at a computer pressing buttons and struggling to do even that! The janky controls force me to acknowledge my body with all of its imperfections.

Janky controls call into question the default subject position by undercutting the assumption that players are always able to accurately manipulate on-screen action through physical inputs that meaningfully translate into the game-states they desire. This reveals that players are only able to display mastery over games because they have been disciplined by games to behave in certain ways while games have been designed for their bodies.

Not only that, but janky controls show even adept videogame players that their bodies are janky. There are no glitches that cause the runner to fall over. The system works exactly as intended, it is me, the player, that disrupts the flow of information because I cannot effectively interface with the videogame. Janky controls make “standardized players” aware that the standard body most videogame interfaces are designed for may not be “standard” at all, as they are shown alternative ways of designing games that do not interface effectively with their bodies. Not being able to control the body, and by extension the action of the game, defamiliarizes a player’s body. All bodies, then, are shown to be glitched, imperfect and situated in embodied relationships with technology, and when all bodies are janky, in effect, none are. The standard body becomes one of many different ways of inhabiting the world and interacting with videogames, not just the way. This can open the door for some amount of empathy between players of a variety of embodied experiences (a topic I will explore in more detail in the next section). Janky controls that are designed to resist standard gaming literacies can erode the standard metagame, even if only slightly, paving the way for diverse game design practices and allowing for diverse players to engage with them, helping to redefine the standard subject position created by videogames.

Connecting to the Gameworld

The second category of designed janky controls may seem somewhat paradoxical. Janky controls are defined by a severing of direct relationships between input and output, and I have just shown the ways that janky controls can leave the player self-consciously on the outside of the system. But I argue that, at times, this loss of control can actually give the player a better “feel” for the gameworld. Earlier I linked game feel to direct control, something that Steve Swink and others do, but perfectly controlling a presence in a gameworld is not the only way to form a connection to the gameworld. We have to look no further than theories of identification in film studies (Elizabeth Reich and Scott C. Richmond, 2014) to see that no control is necessary to forge a connection between viewer and image, for example. However, I argue that the presence of janky controls, themselves, can cause players to feel an embodied connection to the gameworld.

For example, in Grand Theft Auto IV (Rockstar, 2008), I take the protagonist, Niko Bellic, to a bar. When leaving, Niko is, predictably, drunk, which has many effects on the game’s mechanics. Relevant here is that the camera erratically sways side to side, while Niko himself stumbles over his feet, trips backwards, and constantly loses his balance. The camera and Niko’s character model move in erratic, unpredictable ways to the point that, while I still control Niko’s general movement, I can never be sure how exactly my inputs will translate to output because of the constantly changing variables. Despite my best efforts to walk in a straight line down the sidewalk, attempting to compensate for all of the erratic and disorienting motions, Niko inevitably falls to the ground or stumbles into the street.

These mechanics are meant to make me feel the loss of control that comes with being inebriated. So, by separating my inputs from predictable outputs I have the experience of losing control of a body that comes from being drunk. Mind you, I do not have the direct experience of drunkenness. I do not become inebriated, nor do I experience all of the other effects of being drunk that Niko would, but I do gain an understanding, and direct experience, of a facet of his mental and physical state giving me a feeling of connection to Niko and his experiences. By removing the correlation between inputs and outputs we could say that I gain an empathetic understanding of Niko's drunken situation.

I use the example of Niko Bellic’s drinking and emphasize the (perhaps banal) point that playing the videogame does not make me drunk to highlight the role, and limitations, of empathy in implementations of jank and videogame design more broadly. To demonstrate this, I will briefly turn to Bonnie Ruberg’s (2019) analysis, in Videogames Have Always Been Queer, of another game that heavily utilizes janky controls: Octodad: The Dadliest Catch (2014). In Octodad, the player-character is the eponymous Octodad: a middle-class, business suit wearing, suburban husband and father of two who just so happens to secretly be an octopus. It is a stealth game where the player is tasked with navigating Octodad through the world without anyone noticing that he is, in fact, an octopus. However, because of the extremely complicated controls it is nearly impossible to control Octodad in a way that looks remotely like a natural human. In the same way that individual muscles are controlled by different buttons in Qwop, Octodad maps different inputs to every one of Octodad’s limbs, making any precise movement, much less stealthy movement, a ludicrous proposition resulting in a control scheme that would be described by most as janky.

Ruberg links playing Octodad to the act of passing. They argue that “players quite literally play at heternormativity, attempting to convincingly perform the role of straight, cisgender, masculine father” (p. 85). At the same time there is an embodied dimension to this because of the janky controls. As the player contorts their fingers in strange, difficult configurations that they likely have no literacy in, Octodad “must literally contort his body to the world around him” (p. 101). The player feels the lack of control and unnatural movements that the out of place invertebrate does. Ruberg likens this to the experience of trans people that must make their bodies conform to a world that is not built with them in mind, and it is easy to draw parallels to the experience of those living with disability as well. Through the janky controls that Ruberg calls “queer controls” (p. 85) alongside the narrative content “the game does not just represent difference. It allows players to inhabit that difference” (p. 85).

This is a compelling reading of the ways controls in general, and janky controls in particular, can implicate players’ bodies in the creation of meaning and diverse embodied experiences. At the same time, however, we should be cautious about how we portray the empathetic connections videogames can generate. Ruberg summarizes their arguments as follows: “Octodad offers the compelling opportunity to step inside a series of experiences that resonate with LGBTQ lives in a way that is at once representational, interpretive, and deeply physical” (p. 100). That being said, players, whether they are queer or not, do not “step inside” specific queer experiences at all through the act of playing Octodad. Playing Octodad is not, literally, the experience of being Octodad nor of passing, in the same way that controlling a drunk Niko Bellic is not the experience of being drunk yourself. We neither become nor completely experience the embodied realities of the player-character that we, however jankily, control.

This is not to say, however, that we do not connect to or feel the experiences of the virtual characters through our embodied relationship to them. Donna Harraway’s (1988) understanding of empathy comes to mind here. She tells us that empathy relies on “the ability partially to translate knowledges among very different -- and power-differentiated -- communities” (p. 580). So, janky controls, like those found in Grand Theft Auto IV and Octodad, allow players to both feel the loss of control their virtual bodies experience that is often at odds with the mobility and control they are accustomed to feeling while also translating that experience to a partial understanding of the embodied experiences of others.

As one final cautionary note on empathy, I should acknowledge the assumed subject position of players. The perspective of the standard subject position is often centered when discussing empathy in videogames, which would mean videogames are first and foremost created to facilitate the learning of standard gamers by modeling for them non-normative experiences. This is a thing that videogames can facilitate, but videogames can be and are made for those that are outside of the standard as well. So, we must be aware of the pitfalls surrounding the discourse of empathy that reassert the dominance of standard metagames instead of acknowledging that diverse videogames model the experience of diverse gamers for those gamers’ own enjoyment as well. Worlds are modeled that resonate with diverse experiences (which could include the lack of control or mobility janky controls model) not for someone else’s growth, but for the pleasure of those that actually live those experiences, allowing them to be hailed as videogame playing subjects instead of being placed outside of an exclusionary and constructed norm.

Part 5: Conclusion

I have attempted to lay out a cursory analysis and categorization of janky controls. My overarching goal with this analysis was to disrupt the taken for granted assumption that gameplay is a perfectly functioning cybernetic circuit between player and system. In doing so, I have built on existing analysis that considers how videogames have assumed a standard videogame playing body and how some titles, whether intentionally or not, disrupt these subject positions through their controls. I argue that these disruptions open videogames to more diverse forms of play, foster productive empathy in some gamers, and help create videogames that speak to a wider range of lived experiences.

As hinted at earlier though, jank is a far-reaching concept that applies to more phenomena than just controls. Jank, is after all, nothing more than the breaking of player expectations. It can manifest in games intentionally or not; be humorous, absurd, or simply frustrating; be found in graphics, memory storage, mechanics, or any other constituent part of videogames; and often is found in conjunction with glitches or technical breakdowns. Jank necessitates a breaking of a standard metagame, and thus, opens the opportunity for pushing gameplay and game design in unexpected, experimental, and often more diverse directions. So, in closing, I would like to advocate for an attention of jank as a method for revealing the unconventional ways videogames (and players) are pushed outside of the conventional and standard.



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