Cognition and Media

Background – this week you read about cognitivist film theory, so today we are starting with a little background information about cognition.

  • What is Cognition?
    • understanding the world in order to survive in it.
    • perceiving and interpreting in order to act
    • remember the Ocean of Noise podcast? different animals perceive very differently.
    • a fascinating paper on this is “What the frog’s eye tells the frog’s brain” – READING OPTIONAL
      • “He will starve to death surrounded by food if it is not moving.”

Multiple Intelligences: Increasingly human cognition is understood as being multiple rather than a single generalized capacity, theorized first by Howard Gardner in “Frames of Mind” 1983.

  • study the diagram above, it includes not just reason and logic but spatial awareness, awareness of materials (wet, sticky, strong, bendable) etc. etc.
  • intelligences embedded in a specific body not an abstraction.
  • note that this kind of situated cognition fits Haraway’s philosophical position.
  • note that the idea of an abstract intelligence that we can beam out of our body into a different computational matrix is the philosophy/fantasy of the post-humanists Haraway critiques.

Cognitivist film theory does not follow Gardner exactly but suggests that we construct meaning with respect to three modalities or registers which are not just cerebral but embedded in the body. The theory suggests that film and media makers work with/appeal to different combinations of these three registers:

  • cognitive
  • emotional
  • affective


  • appeals to logic, reasoning processes, curiosity about how things work, for example:
    • diagrams, animations, statistics in Gasland
    • daisy world in Beautiful Minds: James Lovelock
    • the data visualization diagrams in our web-pages
  • also used in crime fiction, whoddunits or any film where the viewers have to put together clues to uncover a secret, for example:
    • Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind gradually reveals the role of the jungle in cleansing the world
Tambien La Lluvia – emotional


  • appeals to empathy, sympathy
  • we follow and identify with the goals, actions, feelings and intentions of the protagonists, for example:
    • we sympathize with the illness and loss of the people in Gasland
    • we understand Costa’s decision to abandon the film crew and help Daniel’s daughter in Tambien La Lluvia.
  • connects the viewer to the emotional situation of the protagonists – typical for narrative film, also used in documentary.


  • appeals to bodily responses, visceral reactions, the level of perception underneath reasoning
  • commonly used to mean “move emotionally”, but in this context affect is about our immediate physical responses rather than the more intellectual ability to empathize or sympathize with others, for example:
    • we jump when the water faucet explodes into flame in Gasland
    • we gag at the sight of Chris Jordan’s birds full of plastic
    • the soundscape of Oceans of Noise appeals directly to our sense of hearing to try to give us a physical connection to undersea creatures

The choices of cognitive/emotional/affective register made by film makers effects the meaning and impact of their films. These different cognitive registers can work at the level of both form and content.

  • Gasland’s jerky cinematography makes us (some of us) feel nausea – the form of the media causes an affective response.
  • Tambien La Lluvia juxtaposes scenes of the ill treatment of indigenous people in the past and in the present – the film’s form lets us make a cognitive connection.

Think about a media project you have experienced this semester. Which register did it appeal to primarily – affective? cognitive? emotional? Why this choice? Which of these cognitive registers are most effective for communicating about the environment? What are the problems of any of these registers?

Extending Cognitive Film Theory to Games

These three cognitive registers also apply to games. Whereas film loops through the eyes and ears in terms of a bodily response, games also loop through the hands, arms, voice and in some VR applications the whole body. When we analyze a film we may ask what it makes us think, how it makes us feel, and the kind of bodily response it evokes: how it is designed using the cognitive, emotional and affective registers. When we analyze a game we also ask how were these registers used to evoke actions, what did they encourage us to do, make us do, let us do. Because we act in games we become complicit with the kind of model/simulation that the game is and at the best we may reflect critically on what we are doing.

Never Alone

Emotional Register: In Never Alone you play (ideally with a partner) as a girl and a fox. The story and graphics build an emotional connection between the two which culminates when the fox dies. But the play mechanics also build this emotional bond as, to achieve certain goals, the two characters have to act in co-operation.

Cognitive Register: In you play as a virus trying to infect the whole world. You bring to the game your own existing knowledge about epidemics and pandemics. One of the choices you have is where to start the virus. I played this game with a group of students and many of us started the virus in a third world nation, figuring that such a state did not have the resources to prevent disease spreading. Reflecting later, we felt a certain moral queasiness about this action.

Affective Register: Clearly many games are designed to directly move the body, by-passing the mind! Games like Walden deliberately challenge some of the norms of AAA games – instead of running and shooting you are encouraged to wander. In terms of affect/bodily response you are relaxing not tensing. Walden can be seen as a walking simulator game, a form which encourages exploration, discovery and reflection and which seems very suited to ecologically themed games.

Think about the game you are playing with your group, or one of the games you played on Monday. Which register did it appeal to primarily – affective? cognitive? emotional? Why did the game-makers maker this choice? How did the game play and in consequence your actions work on this level?

Games are clearly simplified, generalized and abstracted models. Just like any other media they reveal the mental frames the maker(s) use to understand the world. As you work on your game analysis for Group Project 2, these are the kind of questions you should be asking and answering.

  • What connections can you make between the game and the kind of mental frames Haraway is challenging: human exceptionalism, bounded individualism, competition.
  • What connections can you make between the game and the kind of mental frames Haraway is embracing : oddkin, sympoiesis, holobiont, capitolocene, chthulucene?
  • How/does this game align with Haraway’s criteria for media that “stays with the trouble”?


“The aesthetics and ethics of eco-film criticism.” David Ingram in Ecocinema Theory and Practice, eds Rust, Monani, Cubitt, 2013