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Opinion: Why Immersion Shouldn't Be The 'Holy Grail'
Opinion: Why Immersion Shouldn't Be The 'Holy Grail' Exclusive
December 19, 2008 | By Lewis Pulsipher

December 19, 2008 | By Lewis Pulsipher
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[Immersive realism may be the "Holy Grail" of game development, but should it be? In this column, author and designer Lewis Pulsipher argues that most players don't want "role-fulfillment," in support of the idea that strong mechanics -- and even player design awareness -- is a more suitable goal.]

"I think a video game is all about articulating a dream." Mark Meadows, as quoted in Virtual Apprentice Computer Game Designer (p. 7)

"Immersive": "generating a three-dimensional image which appears to surround the user” Webster's New Millennium Dictionary of English (second definition)

"Grail": 1. A cup or plate that, according to medieval legend, was used by Jesus at the Last Supper and that later became the object of many chivalrous quests. Also called Holy Grail.
2. often The object of a prolonged endeavor. (The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition)

Some well-known game industry professionals, especially those interested in establishing video games as "Art" (with a capital "A"), believe that the goal of game-making is to produce a game so immersive, so "real", that it becomes an equivalent to the Star Trek holodeck or the world ofThe Matrix -- a detailed simulation of reality.

A recent representation of this point of view is Steve Gaynor's 'On Invisibility in Game Design'. If I can characterize his point of view, he feels that gamers should not notice the "hand of the designer," so that the game will feel more real and less like a game -- hence the reference to the designer's "invisibility".

Is this "immersive" separation from reality what all designers should strive for? Absolutely not. While immersion may be a worthy goal to pursue, it is not where most game designers should concentrate their efforts if they want to pursue their profession successfully.

'Role-Fulfillment' Versus 'Rules Emergent'

While role-fulfillment is at one end of a spectrum of game types, at the other end is the "rules-emergent" game, one that doesn’t depend on a story (dream?) for its interest; where the interest comes from the interaction of the mechanics with the player(s), and of the players with one another.

Immersiveness is certainly more attainable with video games than with older non-electronic games, though it is easy to argue that pen-and-paper Dungeons and Dragons provided make-players-cry immersion long before video games could aspire to it.

Yet most non-electronic games are generally not immersive simulations; not "role-fulfillment", not "articulating a dream". Part of this is the limitations of the medium, but part reflects the purposes of the players.

Such games are often social occasions, and if there’s any immersion, it’s with your friends, not within a dream or alternate reality. Such games may be competitions, to see who can work best within the framework of rules and mechanics, and immersion is irrelevant. In these cases, everyone knows they’re playing a game, and the designer need not feel an urge to be fully "invisible".

Some might suggest that games are "progressing" from the rules emergent tradition of early video games to role-fulfillment. But is that the case? Apparently not from the game buyer’s point of view, at least.

Immersion And The Mainstream Audience

Look at popular Wii games, and at casual games. These are generally rules-emergent games, with no pretense of "immersion". Arguably, Nintendo chose not to compete in the technology-driven "realism" field with the Wii, and most casual games are 2D, not 3D.

The high numbers of buyers and players of these games suggests that a significant proportion of the audience -- if not the majority -- wants to play games, not immersive "simulations".

Put another way, is the immersive simulation (Star Trek Holodeck, Matrix) only the desire of some of the hardcore fans? Shooters may be seen as the poster-child for the immersion Holy Grail: known to be popular with young, hard-core, male players, but less so among older males and female players. [Check the recent Pew Survey, question K14: shooters were played less by teens (males and females not separated by gender) than any of 12 game categories except survival horror games.) ]

The core market's criticism of the Wii reflects the "quest for the Holy Grail" of immersiveness. To hear it told, Wii isn’t "next-Gen" because the hardware isn’t up-to-date, because it’s not “immersive”.

Yet as Steven Levy pointed out (Nov 2008 Wired magazine, p. 114), "the Wii, Guitar Hero, and the iPhone have shown us that we can interact intimately with the digital age without ‘virtual reality’ immersion."

And venerated Nintendo designer Shigeru Miyamoto has said: "we want to entertain people by surprising them . . . we are nothing but entertainers." This certainly doesn’t require "immersion".

While casual games are not generally individual big sellers, some of the Wii casual-style games are. And casual games as a whole are likely to be the growth area in video games, not AAA fare. Why?

It seems there's a significant number of adults who want to play a video game for a while to relax, to have their attention diverted from ordinary life. They don’t want to be immersed in some simulation, some dream-fulfillment–if nothing else, they don’t have the time for it!

Perhaps teenagers and 20-somethings, frustrated with a heavily-monitored existence and (apparent) lack of freedom, want to immerse themselves to escape their frustration, but that’s not the norm for gamers. The hardcore male teenagers and 20-somethings are the most vocal -- but the average video gamer is now older than that, and not overwhelmed with frustration.

Hills First, Mountains Later

Developers deeply committed to making immersive AAA games may not notice all the hills around the very high mountain they’re trying to climb to attain the Holy Grail. Climbing the mountain is a worthy goal, but most video games are in the easier-to-climb hills–-easier for players, and more practical for publishers and developers.

While games may not be recognized as "high Art" until we attain the Grail, profitability and employment for thousands of artists, engineers, and designers depends on games that are good games, not High Art or Ultimate Escape.

From a designer’s point of view, the immersiveness of games ultimately depends on technology and large amounts of money, not on the imagination of the designer. If a designer wants to make highly immersive games and is fortunate enough to work for a company that can afford to pursue that quest, well and good. But most professional game designers do not have the opportunity to make immersive games, or do not want to.

In historical board gaming, a related discussion has gone on for decades, posed as “realistic simulation” of warfare vs. “good playable game”. In general, the most realistic “simulations” (realistic in historical terms, not, of course, in personal immersion) have been poor games.

"Immersion" is an illusion of another reality. The danger with this Holy Grail is that we’ll forget gameplay while trying to improve immersion. Games are games: gameplay, not “Art”, is what counts.

Many of the games that go furthest toward immersion do not offer gameplay that interests the majority of game buyer. They are temporary illusions rather than long-term favorite games.

Let’s not make the mistake of equating escape from reality with fun. Games have been enjoyable for centuries, long before escape from reality was a major design component of any game. Video game designers, most of the time, should concentrate on good gameplay, not on extremes of illusion.

[Dr. Lewis Pulsipher comes from the non-electronic side of game design, and teaches video game design at Fayetteville Technical Community College, NC. His most well-known game, Britannia, is among the games described in Hobby Games: The 100 Best, edited by James Lowder. ]


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