2005-06-02 : Immersion
You know that thing where you're so into your character that you adopt her emotions, mannerisms, outlook, mood, heart and soul? It's a rush? You aren't thinking about your character, you just do what she'd do without thinking? It gives you deep insights into your character that turn out, on reflection, to be deep insights into yourself, your friends, and the world? It feels totally alien and natural at once? You crave it? That's what I mean by immersion. I assume that's what everybody means by it.
This is more a rant than an essay. Perhaps you will accuse me of geek hate!
1) Way back in the dim history of the endeavor, someone noticed that one of the qualities of immersion is that you don't really think about anything else. Being an emotionally stunted moron, or perhaps just not thinking about it very hard, this person concluded that immersion happens because you don't think about anything else.
Why his friends didn't step in and say "uh no that's stupid" I don't know. Why his fellows didn't laugh him out of the endeavor I also don't know. But now look what we've got!
(Okay, probably it wasn't just one person and his negligent friends and fellows. Probably it was a whole series of small stupidities perpetrated by otherwise smart, reasonable people. Whatever.)
2) Now what we've got is a lame fixation on bogeymen. It's taken as given that a whole raft of entirely positive things will prevent immersion. Things like: game rules where you make decisions as a player, not as your character. Having input into the game's fiction outside of your character's actions and immediate reach. Acting on your shared ownership of your fellow players' characters and allowing them to act on their shared ownership of yours. Thinking about your character's past and future decisions from your own point of view too, not exclusively your character's. Having goals and plans for the game outside of your character's goals and plans. Playing more than one character!
"Will prevent immersion." What nonsense.
I grant that you don't do those things during immersion, at its most intense. But saying that those things prevent immersion is like saying that the commercials prevent your favorite TV show.
3) I dismiss out of hand anyone who says "I once played a game where we admitted our shared ownership of our characters [or pick one], and I didn't immerse at all, therefore..." Okay, you didn't. Drawing conclusions from that is like "I once played Shadowrun, and it sucked, therefore dice pools are anti-fun." Might it, just possibly, have been something else that prevented your immersion? Something maybe coincidental to admitting your shared ownership? Or possibly some combination of admitting your shared ownership plus something else not on the list?
I dismiss, like I say, out of hand. I trust you to think harder than that.
4) Some of you think that I'm saying or about to say something like this: "our intent focus on immersion has blinded us to other, just as fun ways to play." And you're already responding: "maybe so, Vincent, but immersion is my favorite, and those other ways to play may be just as much fun but I don't like them as much." Wrong!
See, that buys into the stupidbad false dichotomy. Let it go. What I'm really saying and about to say is this:
Our shared misunderstanding of what makes immersion happen has parched our experience. WE CAN HAVE IT ALL. Our big monkey brains are fully capable of having immersion and those other kinds of fun all at the same time.
So time to choose. Here are your choices.
Door 1: You immerse. When you immerse, immersion's the only kind of fun you have. When you don't immerse, it's not fun at all.
Door 2: You immerse. When you immerse, you have immersion plus other kinds of fun. When you don't immerse, it's fun anyway.
I don't know about you, but duh.
5) Okay, what's really behind Door number two?
I propose that Immersion happens when three things coincide. Unlike points 1-4, this is not rant, it's an honest proposal. Banish stupid conventional wisdom, reflect on your experiences, evaluate critically, and then yes! Argue, construct, disclaim, make counter-proposals of your own. This is the conversation.
The three things are the affirmed rightness of your vision, permission to act with passion, and faith in the robustness of the game's fiction. ("Time" is not one of the three, although they all take non-zero time to develop.)
The affirmed rightness of your vision
This is social. Your fellow players share ownership of your character, remember; you want and need for them to affirm that your vision of your character is right. They trust you with your character. They won't step in and contradict, override, undercut.
Permission to act with passion
Furthermore, whatever you have your character do, they won't react defensively. If your character threatens something they value, they'll deal with the threat passionately in response, but without ever carrying the struggle up into the social level.
You aren't constrained by the fear that having your character act might step on someone else's toes.
Faith in the robustness of the game's fiction
And you have to trust that the game has room for your character in it. You can't be worrying whether this decision that your character's making might break the game. You have to know, securely enough that it's unconscious, that even if your character transforms the game entirely, the game'll survive.
There. The affirmed rightness of your vision, permission to act with passion, and faith in the robustness of the game's fiction.
6) Personal to J: You and Vicky Vance make enormous sense to me in this light. Far more sense to me than "PTA forces distance between you and your character." What do you think?
Personal to Meg and Emily: in our Ars Magica game, sometimes I'm a particular character, of course. But most of the rest of the time I'm like half-immersed in Acanthus, Severin, and maybe Dezjo or Manuela or whoever else needs to be at hand. I'm thinking as myself, but with my characters right there, jostling and ready to jump up if anything catches their attention. So that's wicked fun. How about you?
Personal to me: in Moose in the City, when Ron passed me that note, my heart just filled with my character. It was the opposite of an undercut; it said that Ron saw my character clearly and was committed to me fulfilling his potential. It was a powerful affirmation.
So sharing ownership can absolutely foster immersion.
7) Immersion and RPG design. Look back now to the list of bogeymen. See how any of them might screw up immersion, by screwing up one of the three thingies, but needn't?
How about a famously non-immersive game: Universalis. Is it because Universalis has such metagamey rules? Because you have to pay attention to things other than your one character? I propose that it is not. I propose that it's because your vision of any given character is always at least a little bit contentious. Your fellow players rarely positively affirm the rightness of your vision, and never formally; the best affirmation you can usually hope for is for nobody to sling coins at you to challenge it. Consequently you don't bond with any of the characters in that immersive way.
So could you design an RPG specifically to foster immersion, but still a solid, well-designed no-myth formalist game? I bet you could. I bet you could and it would work a charm.
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