Cybershells, Shapeshifting, and Neuroprosthetics: Video Games as Tools for Posthuman ‘Body Schema (Re)Engineering’

Gladden, Matthew E. “Cybershells, Shapeshifting, and Neuroprosthetics: Video Games as Tools for Posthuman ‘Body Schema (Re)Engineering’.” Keynote lecture at the Ogólnopolska Konferencja Naukowa “Dyskursy Gier Wideo.” Facta Ficta Research Centre, Kraków, June 6, 2015.

Cybershells, Shapeshifting, and NeuroprostheticsAbstract. In a number of popular video games, the player character’s (originally human) body undergoes a temporary or permanent transformation to take on a radically different physical form, such as that of an animal, mythical creature, machine, or cloud of energy. In fantasy games, such a transformation might be caused by a magical spell, ability, or item; in science fiction games, the character’s body might be transformed through cybernetic augmentation, mind uploading, or ‘jacking in’ to experience cyberspace through a virtual avatar. In the real world, researchers have found that the human brain utilizes a ‘body schema’ to control the body and interpret sense data received through it, and that the brain displays a significant ability to update its body schema to reflect bodily changes resulting from growth, illness, injury, or the addition of prosthetic devices. However, it is unknown how dramatically a human body can be transformed before the brain loses its ability to communicate with and control it. This question of whether the human mind can interact with the world without the use of a human body has occupied philosophers from the times of Aquinas and Descartes through the present day. Here we argue that video games can play a crucial role in aiding us to solve this mystery – and thus in ascertaining the extent to which the reengineering of the form and function of the human body envisioned by many transhumanist and posthumanist thinkers may or may not be possible. We begin by suggesting that differences in how body transformation is depicted in fantasy versus science fiction games reveal game designers’ implicit insights into the limits of our brain’s ability to adapt to a changed body. We then argue that the sensorimotor feedback loop experienced while playing video games – which is not present in other media such as books or films – creates a unique opportunity to explore how greatly the human brain’s body schema can be extended or transformed to accommodate the possession of a radically non-human body. In this fashion, the designers and players of computer gamers are working at the frontiers of an emerging field of ‘body schema engineering.’ Their experiences will aid humanity to understand the extent to which it may or may not be possible to develop posthuman technologies such as xenosomatic prosthetics (which provide a human mind with the experience of possessing a body radically different from its natural human body), neosomatic prosthetics (which physically replace all of a person’s body apart from the brain with a synthetic housing that may or may not resemble a human body), and moioprosthetics (specialized neosomatic prosthetics that encase the human brain within a standardized ‘cyberbrain’ that can be easily swapped among different robotic ‘cybershells’ in the form of humanoid or animal bodies, vehicles, or buildings). Finally, we suggest that reflecting on computer gamers’ in-game experiences of possessing and utilizing non-human bodies can help us to anticipate and understand the novel psychological conditions – whether disorders or enhancements – that may result from the long-term use of body-altering neuroprosthetics. Through their exploitation of video games’ body-transforming capabilities, gamers can become pioneers and heralds of new posthuman ways of existing and interacting with reality.