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Immersion and Persistence
by Glenn Storm on 01/15/10 09:15:00 am

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Previous Post: Competency, Autonomy and Relatedness

In the previous post, the Cognitive Psychology concepts of basic needs from Self-Determination Theory were asserted to be consistent with the dynamics of the sytem of Experience. In this post, the Lens of the System of Experience is turned toward two related experiential conditions that are common goals of Game Design. Everyone should feel encouraged to join the discussion and comment on or debate the assertions presented. All relevant comments are welcome and appreciated.

Immersion and Persistence

As asserted previously, there is no difference between the way the system of Experience operates in the real world and the way it operates within The Magic Circle. Our ability to focus Attention on discrete subsets of the Cognitive Model of the world is a strategy of Efficiency; where we can direct Attention to what is of current concern, while simultaneously abandoning Attention from other areas of Experience.

In the extreme, when Motivation has forsaken the concerns of the real world, including its Perception, Memory and Prediction, in favor of concerns of The Magic Circle, we call this state Immersion. However, Immersion is not exclusive to The Magic Circle. One can be fully engaged in any real life activity, “lose track of time” and find oneself later with no significant Memory of anything during that time outside the activity. Immersion is a state that can be brought about accidentally by daydreaming; where the current task promises no Efficiency gain and Motivation automatically seeks a task that does, or it can be deliberately induced, as in during meditation or when we decide to step inside The Magic Circle to play a game.

When Immersion offers a significant Variation to paths toward Understanding the concerns of The Magic Circle, and if the potential Efficiency tradeoffs are perceived as valuable, Motivation may continue to direct Attention to those concerns even when we do not consider ourselves within The Magic Circle; after we’ve stopped playing the game. When we continue to pay Attention to concerns of The Magic Circle from outside it, due to some ongoing Cognitive Model task that will yield a measure of Understanding, it is called Persistence. And due to the nature of Attention, Motivation will also decrease available Attention effort to concerns of the real world during a state of Persistence of The Magic Circle. Where the real world is concerned, this dynamic is represented as distraction.

Next Post: Beyond the Magic Circle


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Glenn Storm
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Well, if nobody minds me commenting on my own blog first ...

Upon reflection, I think this section is missing the 'understood further' part I should have led to. The other sections appear a bit more complete and I think I just stopped after showing what these two concepts mean in terms of the system of Experience. Let me try and take it a little further to offer something other than what I believe we already agree on in terms Immersion and Persistence. But, of course, if anyone would like to comment, question or debate the descriptions in the main post, please do speak up.

In Game Design, both these conditions involve an overriding Motivation to focus Attention on concerns of The Magic Circle and to simultaneously diminish the Attention paid to concerns of the real world. Aside from the idea that these two experiential conditions appear to clearly illustrate a 'limited resource' nature of Attention; as originally described earlier in this presentation, these extreme forms of Motivation appear similar to that found in another common Game Design concept: escapism.

Instead of The Magic Circle concerns pulling on Motivation to direct Attention toward it, as in Immersion and Persistence, escapism is the idea that the real world is instead either providing a reason to push away Motivation, as with frustration or anxiety, or is simply failing to provide a reason to hold Attention, as with boredom. Whether willfully or via daydreaming, the results of escapist Motivation dynamics appear the same as Persistence to the system of Experience.

This seems to suggest an interesting relationship between The Magic Circle and the real world, in terms of how Motivation is shaped. Either these contexts can push or pull, creating either conflict in Motivation, as in a diffusion of Attention, such as distraction; or creating a powerful current that would definitively compel Motivation.

What does this suggest for the day-to-day decisions of Game Design? Where the game design crosses the boundaries of The Magic Circle and real life, these aspects appear to be strong influences. Guitar Hero uses a unique controller that is designed to provide a strong connection between the two worlds. The player picks up the guitar controller, and despite some obvious departures from a true musical instrument, there are strong queues that are provided by the weight, balance, shape, colors and textures of the controller to support the Perception that the held guitar is as real as any other. This is real world support for the Motivation to focus on The Magic Circle, required for Immersion or Persistence. Conversely, a player using a standard Xbox controller to play a game of a familiar genre will expect some particular conventions of control; A button to fire, perhaps left analog stick for movement and right analog to aim. But, if this game's control scheme departs from convention, and the player encounters this discrepancy while in play, there is a real world component of the game pulling Attention focus out and away from The Magic Circle, causing a Stress condition that requires Attention and eroding the current of Motivation in the game required for Immersion or Persistence. These are just two examples, but the consistency of these dynamics suggest many others are equally applicable to Game Design.

As described in previous posts, the experiential conditions of flow and sustained engagement provide a succession of Satisfaction points that serve support a strong current of Motivation in a way that is consistent with the requirements for Immersion and Persistence as asserted.

Another aspect hinted at by this dynamic is that Attention may not just be a finite resource at any given time, like that of a water well as described earlier, but also a persistent one, like that of a river that constantly flows. It may be that Attention effort must be spent; that our Motivation is simply channeling a current of Attention resources to where it is deemed to be most efficient, rather than summoning Attention effort. The automatic transition of daydreaming, appears to illustrate that at least some Attention effort is persistently spent in some way. Perhaps the overall dynamics of Experience support this idea consistently.

But, I hasten to add that these thoughts are not part of the formal presentation and they should be considered simply as comments and explorations based on the subject of the main post.

Christopher Wragg
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I would agree that the concept of constant attention that merely shifts focus to where it's needed. Also, bravo for tying in escapism neatly into these concepts. Fiddling, as well as daydreaming is a decent representation of the way our attention wanders to something else when presented with boredom. I don't know if you looked at the previous (really badly drawn) diagram, but If I could put more information on it, it's as if all forces seem to naturally drive us towards a flow condition. Frustration/Anxiety/Boredom Axioms are the natural results that produce a lack of Satisfaction, resulting in the natural drive of Attention (Motivation) to where a better balance can be found.

Another great example is the playing of music while performing another activity, ever notice how music fades away when the activity being performed enters a state of flow, while it becomes a much greater distraction as the activity begins to fall towards one of the other axioms.

This actual set of concepts easily represents why we perform any leisure activity at all. With nothing to do Motivation immediately seeks that which produces greatest efficiency gains. As such it explains why humans strive to learn over other leisure activities (greater efficiency), until anxiety, or frustration is induced and we switch to a more trivial (but easier) task, until eventually boredom is induced, and we return to a more complex task.

This poses another interesting question, what of the drain induced by repeatedly performing a task that has a high attention cost, or is it rather, the drain caused by repeated stress scenarios (which activities with high attention costs inevitably create), how should this drain be represented, as it also triggers a shift in Motivation away from the High Stress task, to something of lower stress.

In this instance it has little to do with actual frustration or anxiety (in fact flow may have been induced), rather actual energy levels. Or do we wish to set aside physical concerns, like energy levels, aside. If we were to include them, I would posit that actual energy levels have a direct impact on the "amount" of possible attention available to the system as a whole, as such, when tired, a person is unlikely to seek out an activity with a high attention cost (hence why when close to sleep we'd rather be watching movies or reading a novel than sitting in laboratories).

Glenn Storm
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Wow! I hadn't thought of fidgeting or fiddling! That's awesome! A totally unconscious behavior that occurs spontaneously when bored or even anxious, as in a 'tell' in poker. That is really cool, Christopher!

Yeah, ever since I mentioned the idea that perhaps Attention must be paid somehow, its been on my mind a lot. There's something to it, and I believe the only reason I had resisted the idea to this point was because of my understanding of meditation and Zen; where the whole point is to reduce Attention effort, or perhaps more accurately, reduce the need for Attention effort. This is not to say it wouldn't be possible to regulate levels of Attention effort, but I was under an assumption that one may be able to bring that those levels to zero. Now, I'm starting to think that both these ideas can co-exist; that overall Attention levels can vary significantly, while the predominate nature of Attention is to ... flow, so to speak.

And you bring up another idea that I really can't say I was buying yet; that conditions of Frustration, Anxiety and Boredom act as regulators directing Attention to a balance of flow. I mean, that is similar to Csikszentmihalyi's description of one who is predisposed to flow, but he also recognizes that it doesn't predominate in our culture. The common reaction to Frustration is, as with any Stress, a repulsion of Motivation, which tends to break the system of Experience from the current activity in some way. The common reaction in our culture is to avoid Stress of any kind, leading most to pursue what Csikszentmihalyi called passive leisure, as in watching TV, rather than active leisure, as in a hobby.* It's almost as if for some, Frustration, Anxiety and Boredom act as regulatory conditions encouraging Experience to engage in a flow activity, while for others they act as reasons not to engage in activity at all. Csikszentmihalyi's findings, if related to the positive psychology movement, support the idea that this difference is entirely a matter of perspective on challenge; or in other words, on Stress in relation to overall Understanding. This really is about whether one sees Difficulty as Crisis or Opportunity.

To address your questions with regard to Attentions' relation to energy levels, I think this is really well supported in terms of electrochemical energy and the impact thermodynamics have on the brain. There appears to be plenty of evidence (and yet, I fail to cite atm) supporting the idea that cognition consumes energy and, further, that general dynamics of a fuel consumption system apply.

Now, the key thing about flow, which I elaborate on a bit on that post, is that it takes a chain of linked challenges; that is, the Efficiency gained overcoming a challenge will inform, and make relatively easier, a subsequent challenge. This, as opposed to, a series of totally unrelated challenges that just amount to a series of Stress conditions. When challenges are linked, as in flow, the rise of challenge difficulty overall can exist, but because one challenge increases skill that can be applied to subsequent challenges, the relative Attention costs do not increase as much. So, I just want to clarify that repeatedly performing a task with a high Attention cost (overall), might not be as relatively high a cost to a player who's skill has increased due to the relationship between the challenges.

Neat comments, Christopher. Thank you.

* - These are the leisure activity examples that Csikszentmihalyi commonly uses; but he clarifies that there's obviously exceptions where television can be active and hobbies can be inactive.

Christopher Wragg
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Hrm, actually did a little more thinking on this. What if we consider Flow to be the desirous state of being, it's one in which attention costs reduce and efficiency gains increase over time, it's effectively the most potent approach to understanding. While a particular experience causes a repulsion of Motivation when it hits one of the three Axioms, this could still be considered a drive towards flow. Motivation shifts to a different task, often in these scenario's it's almost like it seeks a recharge of energy level, switching to a task with low to no attention cost (sleep being the ultimate representation of this), and thus switches to leisure activities. but as with anything if leisure activities prolong, due to a lowering of efficiency gains (due to repetition), eventually boredom occurs and a shift in motivation occurs once more.

Now the drive towards flow becomes far more apparent on a minute scale. Within any given task their are multiple minor activities, each of these producing their own (flow/frustration/boredom/anxiety). For instance when a particular approach to a task appears frustration, motivation (rather than switching activity entirely), switches approach. This process occurs until either a) a system of flow is induced within a particular task, or b) the entire task reaches one of the axioms and motivation switches task.

The best example of this I can come up with is, funnily enough, online gaming. Playing against an opponent, repeated deaths lead to frustration which leads to a different approach to fighting that opponent. Anxiety occurs against stronger opponents, either leading to a change in tactic or change of game, and boredom occurs if the challenge is proving too easy, leading to often creative or amusing methods of combat. Each of the successful changes represent a minor state of flow, which in a good game, might represent an overall state of flow within that game.

Anywho it's not perfect but it's an interesting idea of layered levels of experience.

Glenn Storm
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Good thinking! I wholeheartedly support the notion of layering in consideration of this system. I haven't found much to contradict the idea that on small scales the same dynamics generally apply as they do on larger scales.

I think we're in general agreement. Overall, flow is a desirable state and it can happen to a greater or lesser degree at various times and in combination. But, I do want to caution if the idea is seen as analogous to a general force that will apply consistently. A balanced flow state can be maintained, but the propensity to seek out a flow state does not appear to be as consistent as other dynamics described of the system of Experience; such as Anxiety, Boredom and Frustration. From Csikszentmihalyi's data, it is clear that (at least in current Western culture) a proper flow state is relatively rare when talking about leisure at least. When he looks at people at work however, the story does change. Despite our common view of work in Western culture (work is hell, TGIF, wanting to play hookey, etc.), the reports from people engaged in work; that is, while engaged in progressive tasks at work, actually describe a flow state. This work from Csikszentmihalyi is definitely going to spark interest for you.