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The Sensible Side of Immersion
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The Sensible Side of Immersion

February 4, 2010 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 3 Next

Always Something There to Remind Me

In Rules of Play, game designers Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman argue that much of the games development community wallows in believing an immersive fallacy. They see two major points as fallacious: that the sensual transport is what a person finds pleasurable, and that a media experience can be complete to the point that, "...the frame falls away so that the player truly believes that he or she is part of the imaginary world."

Their argument is based primarily in the philosophy of mind; Salen and Zimmerman draw on theories of metacommunication, remediation, and identity to feel out the reasons that play is too cognitively complex to yield to the immersive fallacy.

Metacommunication was one of the major ideas coined by Gregory Bateson as he explored "the Ecology of Mind". For their purposes, Salen and Zimmerman explain metacommunication as Bateson does, through two dogs play-fighting.

Though they're nipping at each other, there's also this extra communication that says, "We're not fighting; this is fun." Rules of Play takes it deeper, asserting that players can simultaneously know they're only playing, but paradoxically also enter into and believe a media experience. They call it "a double-consciousness in which the player is well aware of the artificiality of the play situation."

"In the case of play," they continue, "we know that metacommunication is always in operation. A teen kissing another teen in Spin the Bottle or a Gran Turismo player driving a virtual race car each understands that their play references other realities... To play a game is to take part in a complex interplay of meaning. But this kind of immersion is quite different from the sensory transport promised by the immersive fallacy."

This paradoxical double-consciousness, always active during play, is further bolstered by Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin's remediation, which states that there are always intermedia frames. The theory explores relationships between different kinds of media -- it's also used by Zimmerman and Salen to show how the framing of something like a game interface, inside of an operating system, on a computer monitor, is always providing the user clues to the separation between the medium and reality.

In effect, Rules of Play uses remediation in much the same way as it uses metacommunication -- something which both reminds and yet does not -- leaving play as a complex paradox of the mind.

These theories, along with others illustrating the complexity of paper-and-dice role play, suggest that it's impossible for a player to become the character they play. In other words, Rules of Play appears to argue that a player in, say, Street Fighter, can never fully become Chun-Li, or any of the game's other characters.

While we could certainly deploy metacommunication, remediation, and identity theories in certain play situations, human physiology accurately processes what's put in front of it. Immersion doesn't have to be pleasurable, nor pull us to the other side of the screen, to be effective.

Any non-schizoid gamer, even while roleplaying, will know that they aren't Chun-Li. It's our latent physiology which doesn't make any distinction between real and virtual... if such a distinction were even warranted to begin with.

More than a Feeling

In ways beyond just the sensual, gamers increasingly take in their pastime like they would any other place. What's more, treating "play" or "virtual" as something separate from "work" or "real", invokes connotations that don't bode well for the burgeoning form.

Anthropologist Thomas Malaby avoids acknowledging the assumptions folks often make for "play" specifically, that it's by nature separable from everyday life, safe, and fun. Though games can be all three, divorcing games from reality keeps their significance at a distance.

In the article Beyond Play, which appeared in the journal Games & Culture, Malaby writes, "This perspective allows some to hold games at arm's length from what matters, from where 'real' things happen, while others cast them as potential utopias promising new transformative possibilities for society, but ultimately just as removed from everyday experience."

Malaby suggests that games have begun to "...approach the texture of everyday experience." Like reality, games have unpredictable outcomes. Like reality, many are always-available. Pepper the game experience with real people, and some games also become working social spheres, another place we go to interact.

Games like Linden Labs' Second Life and Blizzard's World of Warcraft, have become less an Oldenburgian Third Place, more just another place: like the inside of your car, a classroom or even a coffee shop. On a profound level, for some users these technologies have become as rote as writing, using a telephone, or reading a book. "," writes Malaby, "by their design, can achieve at best only a relative separation from other parts of experience."

Metacommunication may make sense for certain gaming contexts, perhaps playing Rock Band at a party. Certain gestures or statements, made to other partygoers, add a level of metacommunication to the experience. "Quit tamboreening the microphone on my cat, bro." Remediation may act as a distraction. "You don't have enough points to buy that song? This marketplace stuff is bullshit."

Even in cases where sensual immersion is in constant interruption and the neighbors would kindly like it turned down from 11, the game experience is fluid with reality. There's no need for a co-existing duality that only activates when games are near. We process games as we would any other experience, which is why immersion in games can be so powerful. More than any form heretofore, they look and act like a tangible part of the world; like every form heretofore, they are a tangible part of the world.

Games Literacy (figuring out how the hell you play a set game) likely acts as a better predictor of whether a player is sinking into the murky waters of the gaming double-consciousness. When our senses are first learning to process any new media experience, there's always going to be some learning. Sometimes a game system is restrictively archaic -- or just difficult -- it's perceived as too high a barrier for entry. Raise your hand if you know someone who "only plays Wii."

The icons, gauges, and text that fills the screen in your average World of Warcraft raid interface would probably evoke panic in most normal folks -- probably even in some gamers. World of Goo would similarly strike my grandma as a perniciously perplexing. But as players learn new conventions, just as a driver must learn to automatically process icons that explain speed limits, road warnings, or stopping conventions, play seems to mature into just another experience got through media or reality, as ingrained as the next.

Like the driver who remembers nothing of his trip, so rote is the route, so automatic his reflexes, learning the conventions in new games invites the instantaneity of sensual immersion.

Article Start Previous Page 2 of 3 Next

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