The Centipede’s Dilemma refers to the idea that calling unconscious actions into consciousness can cause those actions to become perplexing or even impossible. In the above nineteenth century poem from which the idea was derived, a centipede becomes unable to walk when she is asked to explain the coordinated sequence in which she moves her legs. A more modern point of reference for the Centipede’s Dilemma might be 30 Rock’s Jack Donaghy forgetting how to move his arms while he walks.
Playing a videogame might not seem as complicated as moving a hundred legs at once but many players take the complexity of videogame controls for granted. Many genres of videogames require precise, coordinated movements and swift reaction time.
Gamers with disabilities, for example, might have to navigate a controller in a different way or use assistive technology to play certain kinds of games. The AbleGamers Foundation is necessary precisely because it works to bridge the gap between the dexterity that games assume their players have and the abilities of a diverse gaming audience.
Videogames, then, are rife with potential Centipede’s Dilemma moments, instructive opportunities that can help gamers realize how nuanced videogame controls actually are.
But as games have moved from the arcade to the home and as the average age of videogame players has risen, more players than ever experience games in solitude, only comparing notes with other players through message boards and other digitally mediated modes of communication. Local interactions used to encourage players with the chance to explain their rote, memorized movements to others; online, however, it’s all too easy to shame people for being “bad at games.”
But one game still seems to call everyone back to the couch: Mario Kart. At this point, Mario Kart is an institution. Mario Kart 8 came out in May but many readers have likely been playing the series with their friends and family since the SNES or the N64. Because Mario Kart is one of the last great local multiplayer titles and because it has become so naturalized in game-playing households, Mario Kart 8 can provide videogame players with a perfect opportunity to experience the way in which we can approach differences in knowledge and skill in intimate, local settings.
It might not seem like Mario Kart is complicated enough to function as a case study in this respect. Mario Kart games, after all, have a reputation for being “easy.” “Anyone” is supposed to be able to win a race because of the game’s notorious rubberbanding. The cute Mario aesthetic, too, gives the game a potentially misleading veneer of accessibility and ease. This is a game for “casuals,” “children” and “girlfriends,” the hardcore gamer might say (as his copy of Blur collects dust in the corner).
Mario Kart coasts into homes on the back of its reputation; it assumes that its players have access to the knowledge, skills and techniques that come from years of local multiplayer experience. The game’s manual, for instance, does not provide detailed drifting instructions; it contains eighteen (fairly unhelpful) words under the “Drift” heading. Nor does the manual tell you when to hit the accelerator during the countdown at the start of the race for a Rocket Start; it merely tells you to press “A” at “just the right moment.”
Seasoned Mario Kart players (like myself, I suppose) are like centipedes. We have internalized so much information about the series that we can approach each new entry in the franchise with confidence and bravura. We don’t need a chart to tell us when the Rocket Start is; it’s “right after 2.” We know how to drift in a perfect arc around a turn. We know to brake when a Blue Shell is on our tail so that we fall out of first place.
But Mario Kart is only “easy” because it’s familiar. Mario Kart is only for “children” because children learn how to play it together, teaching each other as they learn.
When Mario Kart 8 came out this year, I had my own Centipede’s Dilemma moment that forced me to appreciate the sort of finesse that Mario Kart does, in fact, require. My friend bought Mario Kart 8 because of Twitter. I can’t blame her. Between Luigi’s death stare and slo-mo Miley replays, who wouldn’t want to get in on some fanciful summertime fun?Mario Kart is for “everyone,” after all.
But as we started playing the game with her friends, I noticed that she was repeatedly finishing below eighth place. As I glanced at her screen, I noticed that she was slowing down at almost every turn or, worse, falling off the course at particularly inopportune moments. She looked completely demoralized by the experience. There are fewer sights more empathy-inducing than seeing a dear friend sulking over a Wii U gamepad.
The next day, we did some private drifting lessons so that she could take the turns in stride. And that’s when I felt like a centipede trying to think about how she walks. As my friend interrogated me about drifting, I realized how much of my Mario Kart knowledge lived in my skin. What seemed completely arcane to my friend was a simple reflex for me,
As she posed each new question about drifting, the technique became muddy, even to me. If you want to play along with my Centipede’s Dilemma home, try answering my friend’s questions to yourself without double-checking on a controller first.
“To start the drift, do you hop and push the analog stick in the direction of the turn simultaneously or in sequence?” she asked.
I didn’t know so I had to pick up a controller and play alongside her.
“Simultaneously,” I told her after taking my first turn.. “Once you do that you’re locked into the direction of the turn.”
The questions continued: “If you’re locked in a direction, why are you still touching the analog stick in the middle of the turn?”
“The automatic turn has a certain angle to it. You use the analog stick to make the turn wider or sharper.”
“What happens if I move it in the opposite direction of the turn?” she asked.
I paid close attention to my thumb while I was taking the turn and was surprised to find that I was indeed pressing the analog stick in the complete opposite direction of the turn while locked into a drift.
As I continued around the bend, I noticed that my thumb was constantly shifting back and forth in precise, rigid movements. Meanwhile, my on-screen character, Yoshi, seemed calm and possessed as he rounded the turn in a clean arc. No wonder my friend was frustrated. Yoshi made it look easy.
“You still turn the same way no matter what.” I reported back. “Moving the analog stick in the opposite direction of the turn just makes the turn wider.”
And as I tried to hold all of my own instructions in mind at once, drifting suddenly felt strange and denaturalized. My friend started taking her turns better and, for a few moments at least, I started taking my turns worse as the Centipede’s Dilemma effect set in.
I began to understand how nuanced this supposedly “easy” game can be. I reflected on my own history with Mario Kart. When had I been taught how to drift? Did it once feel as opaque to me as it did now in the midst of my full centipede freak out?
I thought about children for whom Mario Kart 8 might be their Mario Kart 1. How would they approach this game? How would they know when “the right moment” was at hand for the Rocket Boost? How would they learn to drift? But the answer is obvious. They’ll learn the same way my friend did: on a couch with someone else.
As Mario Kart 8 brings us back to the couch—whether we’re solitary gamers who are calling up friends again or, perhaps, parents who are playing with our own children for the first time—we have new opportunities to approach each other with generosity and to reflect on the level of dexterity that so many games require. The Centipede’s Dilemma might be a jarring feeling but, once it passes, you’re left with a perspective that’s difficult to obtain from behind your own screen.
Samantha Allen writes about gender, sexuality and videogames. She writes regularly for the feminist gaming blog Border House. Her work has also appeared on Jacobin, Salon, Paste, Kotaku, Kinsey Confidential and in Adult Magazine. Follow her on Twitter @CousinDangereux.