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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 3 of 3

The Book I Read

J.R.R. Tolkien's On Fairy-Stories gives an account of literary immersion which is surprisingly (or perhaps unsurprisingly) fluid with contemporary linguistic and neurological theories. "To ask what is the origin of stories," he wrote, "is to ask what is the origin of language and of the mind." Tolkien also pondered a powerful yet then-nonexistent medium, Faërian in nature (yet perhaps suspiciously like gaming), which could "produce Fantasy with a realism and immediacy beyond the compass of any human mechanism."

While vision is the forte of our ancient reptilian brain, it's currently understood that we process grammar and thought in relatively separate areas in the brain. Evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker believes that the mind -- language specifically -- sits in a separate module than processing sensations like sight.

Four modules identified by Pinker are imagery, phonology, grammar, and 'mentalese,' the mind's internal conceptual language. By all accounts it would seem that weaving sound and image from letters requires not only learned literacy from the reader, but art and craft from the writer.

This is why Tolkien supposed that where the odd, spindly letters of literature are able to create the textured, desirable world, what he called a Secondary World, at play is a higher form of immersion he named Enchantment. Our senses in the Primary World fall away.

No dual consciousness, suspension, or other challenge to belief can be tolerated in such Enchantment. Tolkien notes, "The moment disbelief arises, the spell is broken; the magic, or rather art, has failed. You are then out in the Primary World again, looking at the little abortive Secondary World from outside. If you are obligated, by kindliness or circumstance, to stay, then disbelief must be suspended..."

Primarily because Tolkien felt stage drama to be a bastard form concerning deep immersion, Enchantment was best left to literature. The sight of a human being dressed as a donkey required a tertiary world -- a world too many. And yet he also claimed perusal of elvish lore pertaining to an odd thing: Faërian Drama.

If you are present at a Faërian drama you yourself are, or think that you are, bodily inside its Secondary World. The experience may be very similar to Dreaming and has (it would seem) sometimes (by men) been confounded with it.

But in Faërian drama you are in a dream that some other mind is weaving, and the knowledge of that alarming fact may slip from your grasp. To experience directly a Secondary World: the potion is too strong, and you give to it Primary Belief, however marvelous the events... Enchantment produces a Secondary World into which both designer and spectator can enter, to the satisfaction of their senses while they are inside; but in its purity it is artistic in desire and purpose.

Even when media taps only some sense processes, be they visual or grammatical in nature, human beings learn to combine disparate elements into reasonable wholes. We experience worlds. Even before we get to the millions of examples out there of what does and doesn't make the stuff of a world desirable, that world must osmose through our eyes, ears, and brain.

When the craft being plied combines as many as a contemporary game, and when we're literate enough in such a form to see, hear, believe, and find what we desire, an immersion unlike any seen in previous mediums becomes possible. "Secondary World" takes on a new meaning, and odd double-consciousnesses seem all the less likely.

Don't Stop Believin'

Media Experience seems a more accurate, although perhaps imperfect moniker for what we're doing until four AM, while our British model girlfriends walk out the door. As a concept it connects some of the dots that have traditionally separated games from other mediums. Every form through history -- from the Quran to City of Heroes and CNN to the War of the Worlds radio broadcast -- plies certain art and craft to evoke some experience in the mind of the user.

At its best, the purpose of this art and craft is less exiting from the Primary World (though escape can be needful), but rather experiencing a Secondary World. Enjoying a part of our world made by somebody else (or even a group of somebodies).

This is a point worth highlighting, one made by Tolkien, among many others, on the purpose of such experiences. Though it may seem a tangent (and it could well be one) let Stephen King tell you about his desk -- a desk obtained amidst a long haze of alcoholism and drug addiction, as he discusses in his On Writing.

For years I dreamed of having the sort of massive oak slab that would dominate a room -- no more child's desk in a trailer laundry-closet, no more cramped kneehole in a rented house. In 1981 I got the one I wanted and placed it in the middle of a spacious, skylighted study (it's a converted stable loft at the rear of the house). For six years I sat behind that desk either drunk or wrecked out of my mind, like a ship's captain in charge of a voyage to nowhere.

King's advice on his craft begins with this: "put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn't in the middle of the room. Life isn't a support-system for art. It's the other way around."

The poet, arguably the first designer of experience, used all the ordinance that was his craft for evoking certain experience. In plying many tools, he could draw together previously disparate ideas, questioning old notions while creating new ones.

If more powerful immersion lessens the jump, if realistic media experiences shrink the space for using tools of allusion, expression or social comment, then are the goals of Art made more elusive in today's games? How different a beast is Milton's Lycidias from Shadow of the Colossus? What are we evoking? In answering such questions, this medium will continue to both excavate the parts of its soul still-buried in antiquity, simultaneously carving out those that lie beyond the imagination of the past.

This physiological side of immersion is intimately bound to the psychological and cultural reasons for play. In its use of our senses, in its relationship to texture of reality, in exercising our literacy and imagination, it invites us to experience worlds. We've never left the Primary, the Secondary being simply one of its manifestations. And yet we can believe.

[Photos by Felipe Skroski, foshie, used under Creative Commons license.]

Article Start Previous Page 3 of 3

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