Immersion, Credulity, and Investment

[General,Research] (04.12.08, 11:28 pm)

How do games get that incredible feeling of immersion and being there? Sometimes, games don’t even need to be believable, but they have a capacity to snare in the player. They just manage to pull the player in to a mental state that is synchronized with the logic of the game world. When this phenomenon happens in a state of performance, the result is flow, which has been examined in many situations. Immersion does not necessarily require high performance flow, it may be as simple as stepping into the magic circle. Realistically, though, the magic circle is a very strange object, and its borders are permeable and fuzzy. How can we understand immersion, or at least credulity, to make use of it in game adaptations?

One way of looking at this is looking at how people use or work with adaptations. In the work that I am doing I am thinking of adaptation as very similar to fan-created content. The goal of the experience is not to replicate the affect of reading the book from which the adaptation is derived, but rather it should be similar to writing, or co-writing, a story set in the world. Writing conjures up ideas of narratives and stories which may be unwelcome in describing game experience, though, so a more fitting analogy is perhaps playing in a tabletop roleplaying game set in the world.

However, the issue of immersion remains. This issue is a problem because of the nature of adaptation games. A natural feature of games are their systematicity, and it is common for players to test and experiment with the system as an artifact. This is often very enjoyable and leads to an uncovering of the simulation mechanics. Bartle calls players who do this Explorers. Whether you agree with his typology, it is impossible to not acknowledge that players do this. But, when trying to create some sort of world that is an adaptation or at least strongly about some narrative theme, this boundary testing becomes problematic. The conventional response most games have is to make the story or “fiction” of the game orthogonal to the gameplay. Many games do this to varying degrees of success. But if the game world is heavily simulated, how do you deal with it? The immersion fallacy discussed yesterday gives a very telling lesson: some degree of orthogonality is necessary.

Some of this conflict stems from contradictions that arise between immediacy and playability. For example, many recent high-budget games that attempt to create immersive experiences have tried to find ways of hiding as much of the user interface as possible. In HCI or New Media terminology, this is generally called immediacy, a concealing of the fact that there is an interface or medium. Nonetheless, this has tended to irk some players. The reason why is simple: While immediacy makes clear the representational world, it conceals the simulated world. The interface is the player’s window into understanding the mechanics, and the mechanics is what enables the player to participate in the world.

Facade wants to keep the player in the world, and a certain amount of cooperation is required for the experience to successfully play out. For the player to push the boundaries too much, the drama falls apart, and the player is kicked out of the apartment. This is an entirely reasonable reaction in an interactive drama, but it’s not very satisfying in a game. In a simulated adaptation game, would it be reasonable to cause things to grind to a halt if the player behaves incoherently? Probably not. So how do we get, not even immersion, but credulity? Players who push at boundaries are doing so in their effort to explore, but this process is threatening and disruptive to the idea of narrative. What can be done to get players to take the experience seriously?

The Sims does a great job in letting players do whatever they want to the poor sims, and exposes lots of details about the interface, mechanics, and structure. It constructs a dollhouse in the most clear terms. There is no representational ambiguity about the mechanics, nothing that is especially hidden away in the interest of immediacy. It is still not open in its mechanics, but never once is the player mistaken that the mechanics are there. Nonetheless, the game is very compelling and popular. Players love testing boundaries, and they do it all the time. It is a fine tradition of Sims players to torment their Sims in the worst ways possible. That doesn’t break the experience, though. The sims are not believable as people, but they are absolutely credible as characters.

Drama, even improv drama, where the awareness of the construction of experience is especially thin, is credible. It may even be immersive. The audience watching the actors knows that a stage death is not real, that a stage kiss is not a real kiss, and that Kenneth Branagh is not Hamlet. There is an illusion that is created, a willingly suspended disbelief, a boundary, a 4th wall. In drama, literature, and other narrative media, this boundary is generally maintained and respected. This respect is very different from what tends to occur with boundary exploration in games.

Tabletop games are interesting because some player types, and especially new players, are very aware of the game as a constructed system of rules. Power gamers will wish to exploit the rules to grant themselves as much power within a game as possible. The matter of believability would seem to be lost on these players, but that misses some of the fine points about the experience. Like players of the Sims who torment their characters, power gamers exploit the system to achieve goals, but in doing so attain a certain satisfaction in having created or contributed something within the world. Power gamers are not always destructive, their intense focus on mechanics may be just an effort to understand or appreciate the world better. A good GM will maneuver around power gamers without necessarily cutting the experience short and walking away. Similarly, a simulated adaptation game must account for players exploring the mechanical boundaries of the simulation gap.

One way of handling incoherent play is to punish or dissuade it, rewarding coherent play with viable rewards. Necessarily some varieties of incoherent play could be made impossible altogether. Necessarily, these must happen to some extent. However, the reason why players explore is not destructive, and efforts to quell this exploration with restriction or concealment of mechanics is a necessarily bad idea. That alienates players and disengages them. Instead, players seem to gain something from a sort of shared authorship, a co-construction of experience. Even the most rules obsessed power gamer will feel satisfaction for having contributed something in a tabletop game, and sadistic Sims players feel morbid glee in their agency over their characters. The that ties these together, alongside players who aim for smoothness of experience, tabletop players who get into their roles, or theatergoers is their sense of investment.

Investment returns to the sense of fan culture and the extension of a story world. Developing a game around the player’s co-creation of an experience (a feature similar to the heralded emergence), would partially permit some degree of player incoherence. If the player is rewarded with a coherent experience through playing coherently, and perhaps a gently guided experience while playing incoherently, then that might just work. Unfortunately, play-sensitive player guidance is a hot topic in interactive storytelling AI. So we’ll have to see how that goes.

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