Aphantasia & Gaming

A conversation with a friend a few years ago catalysed the understanding that my relationship with media, particularly videogames and books, is different to most. The trigger for this was discovering that I’m aphantasic. Where most people can remember the faces of loved ones, visualise water flowing from a dried fountain, or “see” a cave troll while playing Dungeons and Dragons, I can I see nothing. Just like a blind person is unable to see, I’m unable to conjure images in my mind’s eye; I’m mind blind. Looking back, this has significantly affected my enjoyment of books and games, both positively and negatively.

What’s the Point?

As the conversation segued into her Dungeons and Dragons game that evening, my interest piqued. I’d always been curious as to why people enjoyed communal storytelling. I knew people had fun waging imaginative battles. Larping, I get. The visual aids facilitate immersion. D&D though? It’s not like people can “see” the goblin or cave troll they’re fighting. So, what’s the point?

My friend explained that she can visualise being in a cave, just as much as she can “see” water flowing in a dried-up fountain. To be honest, I just assumed she was fucking with me. Absolutely not above her. However, after speaking with other friends, I realised that I am the outlier. That, when people say “I can really see that,” it’s not just a metaphor or figure of speech.

People who can project their mental imagery onto the world are prophantasic

This was revelatory to me. Mental imagery defines the relationships friends have with their favourite books and games. This lack of mental imagery, confounded by a profound lack of imagination, defines my relationship with the media I enjoy too. While it’s facilitated a fondness of some characters and franchises, it’s most definitely impeded the enjoyment of others; especially as I’ve grown older.

The Gameplay Loop is Not Enough

Everyone’s tastes change as they age. I used to love games like Baldur’s Gate and Diablo. While there is some cool lore, I loved the gameplay loop; it was so addictive and satisfying. However, videogames evolved beyond excelling at one thing and developed the capacity to fully realise rich and diverse worlds, with complex stories and characters. With these developments, my fondness for gaming deepened and I spent increasing time playing more multi-faceted games.

This hasn’t changed. I quickly abandon games where the sole draw is the gameplay loop, such as Rimworld, or those with a looser story, such as Divinity Original Sin. I think that’s because these games require mental representation to fully realise the world and create an engaging story. Instead, I find myself sinking hundreds of hours into games with a satisfying gameplay loop and narrative, or those in which the plot plays second fiddle to well-rounded characters. Games like God of War and The Witcher 3.

God of War review: Stunning reinvention marks Kratos' triumphan

Both of those examples are very different, and two of my favourite-ever games, but I think Witcher 3 is the best example of how aphantasia shapes my relationship with games and books. It’s a game which uses existing material to create well-defined character boundaries to help you assume the role of the protagonist. Essentially an imaginative process of which I am actually capable.

Praise be to Geraldo del Riviero

What I mean, is that I find this process no different to empathising with friends. Representing their mind to try and understand how they’re feeling; theory of mind. The well-defined moral code of Geralt, and his characteristics – such as an unwillingness to slay benign or sentient monsters, contempt for authoritarian personalities, and reluctant willingness to help – facilitate the the representation how I think Geralt would react to most scenarios. While my imagination is confined to this process, it’s what I derive the most pleasure from in games. It does, however, seem to preclude enjoyment of other games.

Geralt in a Bathtub | Know Your Meme

This lack of enjoyment is confounded by my absent imagination, but is nonetheless most salient in games where your character is a blank slate, devoid of interesting characteristics, or those where the story is loose and requires you to connect the dots through imagination. Games like Skyrim, Fallout, Divinity Original Sin and Rimworld come to mind. The limiting factor here, especially in Skyrim and Fallout, is exacerbated by vocal performances lacking inflection, micro expressions and appropriate mannerisms.

So, even if I was capable of imagining a character, I the incongruency between what I am seeing and the delivery is ruinous to the experience. It just prevents a connection to the character and the world, because the character doesn’t feel real. Likewise, in games like Rimworld, where the avatars are amorphous pawns, it requires full mental imagery to create the transformative experience I read about on Steam and Reddit posts. The absence of distinct visuals here adds to the issues found in the games already mentioned.

When the games give me the character parameters, I’m able to fully enjoy the game and bond with the characters. Likewise, the worlds created in games like World of Warcraft and Witcher 3 have also facilitated my enjoyment of their stories in other mediums. Particularly books.

Rules Facilitate Enjoyment

Playing a game, or watching a movie, in the setting of a book is really the only way I can enjoy works of fiction. They provide a referent for the setting and rules for the characters. I think this is difficult to explain to someone with a mind’s eye, but I’ll nonetheless try.

When experiencing characters and a world in text before any other medium, the story has no context and the characters have no mannerisms. It’s just dialogue with perhaps an adjective describing the internal state of the character speaking. Likewise, written action sequences mean nothing to me. They’re just a contextless mass of verbs filling a paragraph before the next story point can begin. However, if I have played a game or watched a movie, this is different. Rules have been established, so I can now appreciate it more.

r/Aphantasia - "Visualize an elephant"
Credit: r/Aphantasia (u/Purplekeyboard)

For example, in combat, Geralt spins off to the side of his foe to reposition himself in an advantageous position when he blocks and takes a sidestep. Having played the game, I now know how that works. While I can’t envisage it as most can, the rules let me know what sort of impact happens as the swords clash. Likewise, because of the amazing performance of Doug Cockle in Witcher 3 I know how Geralt inflects while speaking. Because of this, I frequently laughed while reading the books, which is something I’ve never previously experienced while reading.

Closing Thoughts  

I guess this might seem somewhat alien to you, unless you’re also aphantasic. Learning that people can actually picture things in their minds was, well, mind blowing for me. Similarly, my friends have also been intrigued by how I engage with media. I often ask whether her ability to imagine things has facilitated or impeded her enjoyment of games and media. For sure, it seems like her experience of life is very visual, whereas mine is very auditory and verbal. This has allowed her to enjoy things I don’t, such as games like Skyrim and she’s constantly reading sci-fi books. However, the converse is also true.

I can’t imagine characters from text, so I’ve never experienced disappointment by the adaptations of book characters in film. Changes to story points have irked me, such as the change in the Witcher TV show’s adaptation of The Last Wish short story – if you know, you know… – but never the visuals or depiction of characters.

I also want to point out that aphantasia doesn’t preclude imagination – it just makes mental imagery impossible. I’ve seen posts on r/Aphantasia from those whom play D&D. Likewise, there are numerous artists without a mind’s eye. So, my lack of imagination does seem to fundamentally alter my appreciation of some mediums compared to other aphantasics. These differences do make me curious as to whether my lack of visual imagery inhibited my engagement of imaginative hobbies when I was younger, and so stunted my creativity, or whether I didn’t have that capacity to begin with. Regardless, having learned about this, I am now far more confident about the types of games I will enjoy.


Enjoyed what you’ve read? Check out our review of Ori and the Will of the Wisps, or Part 1 of our Neuroscience in Gaming Series.

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Alex Morrison

Co-owner and senior editor at CountrCultur.com. Lead Editor: Community and Creative at ab-gaming.com

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