Monday, December 19, 2005

Immersion and imagination

I am not sure that I understand the concept of 'immersion' in the same way that self-styled immersionists do, but there is certainly something I do understand and experience that can be called by this name. It is what I experience when I play Trollbabe, but which I experience much less often and less strong when I play Polaris, and not at all when I play Universalis. It is a sense of character identification, of not just telling a story about a character but of being, in some sense, that character.

But, what sense?

Taking my cue from Walton's book Mimesis as Make-believe again, let's say that a roleplaying game is a game of make-believe. Depending on what is happening around the table, we are to imagine certain things. But is everybody to imagine the same things? It would seem so, at least on the surface. If I, playing my trollbabe Ingirid, state that I run towards the troll shaman and punch him on the nose, then surely everybody is to imagine that Ingirid runs towards the troll shaman and punch him on the nose.

But there is a difference, and is related to the role of the appreciator. Everybody is to imagine Ingirid punching the shaman, but in addition I am to imagine being Ingirid and punching the shaman on the nose. It is not just fictional that Ingirid punches the shaman, it is fictional that I punch the shaman.

Maybe putting this in terms of having to imagine things, and things being fictional, seems wrong. It would be more intuitive to say that some systems enable me to imagine myself making those decisions and performing those actions, and other systems do not enable me to do so - they merely enable me to imagine that some character makes those decisions and performs those actions. But I suspect that the parts of the system that enable me to imagine myself as fictionally identical to the character are the same parts of the system that make it fictional that I am identical to the character. (Still following me?) For instance, "each player is allowed to make the decisions of his/her character alone and unhindered by other players" is one such part. (Having or not having this in place is one big difference between Trollbabe and Universalis.) It enables me to identify myself with the character (in the strong sense of imagining being the character), but it arguably also makes it fictional that I am the character.

Anyway, let's not dwell on that too much. What is more important is to identify techniques that will aid / hinder immersion. I'll make several observations, the first of which is probably rather uncontroversial.

Authorship over a character

Fictional identification with a character (immersion) is helped by mechanics that give total authorship over the character's beliefs, desires, decisions and so forth to one player. In Universalis, you do not have authorship over the decisions of any character, which hinders identification with any character. In Sorcerer or Trollbabe you do, which aids identification. In My Life with Master, you only have authorship within certain bounds (some decision are made by the dice and, more importantly, the kind of scene you're in severly limits the possible desires and choices of your character), which puts it in the middle.

Please note that I'm talking about authorship, not about authority! You can have authority about your character without having authorship - that is, although you are allowed to have the final say about what is the case, you can leave it up to others to actually think up and narrate what happens. Authority as such does not aid immersion.

Actor / author /director stance

The division between actor / author /director stance (and whatever other stances you want to identify) has absolutely nothing to do with aiding or hindring immersion. It is not the case that actor stance is in the interest of immersion, or that director stance is detrimental to it. If my character is in a bar and a fight breaks out, I may yell "I grab a chair and hit the sucker on the head!", when no chair has been mentioned before. This is director stance. What goes through my head as a player is this: I realise that chairs make good weapons, I realise that I probably should imagine that I see a chair, and I start imagining that I hit the sucker on the head with the chair. The player and the character are in close correspondence. Yelling what I did makes it fictional that my character looks around, sees a chair, realises that chairs are good tools for hitting people, grabs the chair and hits the sucker on the head. What I, as a player do, and what my character does are closely related. This helps immersion.

That bears repetition and emphasis: immersion is easier when the actions of the player and those of the character are closely related.

Using this principle, one can make a case that playing this scene using actor stance actually mildly hurts immersion. "Do I see a chair?", the player asks the GM. This corresponds to the character looking around, so there is still a close relation between what the player does and what the character does. However, the split second look of the character is more like the split second realisation of the player using director stance, than it is like the several second exchange between player and GM in the case of the player using actor stance.

In general, however, I don't think there is any clear relation between stances and immersion.

(I don't think that actively pursuing a narrativist CA hurts immersion either, but that's something else.)

An analysis of Polaris

Polaris is not, in my experience, a very immersive game. How is that possible? It is, after all, a game in which one has not only authority, but even authorship over the thoughts, feelings and decisions of one's own character. That should help immersion, shouldn't it?

Yes, and I think you can immerse best when you are in the stage of 'free play'. However, once conflicts get going, the immersion is mostly lost. Why? The principle I identified in the previous section will help us out. In a conflict, I am negotiating possible events with my Mistaken. As a player, I am considering alternatives, weighing conditions against each other, trying to get the Mistaken to accept what I really want to happen, and so on. I, as a player, am doing all these things; but it is not fictional that my character is doing anything like this at all. My character is making all kinds of important decisions, having strong feelings, and so forth, while I am doing something else entirely. It would be hard for anyone to imagine that I am fighting a demon lord when what I'm actually doing is negotiating possible outcomes of the fight that do not even cross my character's mind. The very mechanics themselves seperate me from my character (in the fictional world), casting me as a benevolent hand of Fate instead of as my character.

If this is right, then immersion should be bigger in Polaris when I'm not using the conflict system. And actually, it is: I feel most immersed when I'm playing my character as a Moon. Because when I'm a Moon, most actions I, the player, take that have to do with my character correspond neatly with things my character actually thinks and does.

Obviously, the above is not a criticism of Polaris, lest anyone think it is. It is a wicked cool system, and immersion is not the 'way to play'. But I hope it has made for an interesting illustration. O, and while we're at it...

Intermittent immersion

Immersion might be helped by not having too much rules stuff in play, but I actually don't think this is very important. It is easy to drift in and out of immersion. You can immerse one moment, do some complicated rules stuff the next, talk about stakes the next, and immerse yourself back in. Please take care to notice that in my Polaris analysis, one fails to immerse not because one has to do things that don't correspond with character actions; no, one fails to immerse because the character makes his/her important decisions and has his/her strongest feelings while the player is involved in something else entirely. If one's important decisions all took place in the free play stage, immersion would not be hurt at all. (Of course, one should also stop playing Polaris in that case; it wouldn't be helping you at all.)

I hope this has been interesting. I thought I was going to write a very short entry, but I was wrong.


  1. I don't know about all the exact details of whatever folks are using for the definition of Immersion, but I know that I really like emotionally identifying to characters I play.

    For example, a while ago I was playing Unknown Armies, and I enjoyed feeling the tensions and stress of my homicide detective serious weighing the need to stop supernatural serial killers vs. the odds that this will eventually threaten his family. That's some intense roleplaying.

    But, for me to feel that, it depends on having a chance to really develop my character by having situations that matter and allow me to express my character. It's not a function of time, as much as it is a function of regular conflict that matters- which is why I feel as attached to my Dogs character of 5 game sessions as I did to my detective of 7 months of play.

    I do know that having to switch characters often can make it hard for me to "fall in" and identify with characters, and I suspect that I might have a hard time identifying with a character in Polaris for just that reason.

  2. Interesting stuff indeed. I'm pondering some of these same issues re: using PTA for my "extreme planet makeover" show or using different mechanics to get a different POV from the players on their characters.

    Keep plugging. :)

  3. Hey Victor,

    I love your work and have admired your thinking for years. But I think you might be falling for obscuring ideas learnt from others. Let me explain....

    Now that I've had a few years to think about it and followed the exploits of someone who clearly plays as an 'immersionist,' I have only one thing to say.

    I reject the term completely.

    I've always found it extremely difficult to swallow the underlying concepts of 'immersionism.' (Which is strange because I fit the profile almost as well as my friend.) The term and the discussions almost always seem to turn on the idea that the player reaches a state where they, however imaginarily, perceive the environment of the game. And that they do this in spite of it all being verbally described and frequently interrupted by real-world concerns. Despite their physical condition or emotions, despite how unrealistic the game, despite having to negotiate their understanding of what is going on in-game, the immersed player is still in this sensory experience.

    I don't buy it.

    I've seen all the signs; going from saying "my character's sword" to saying "my sword;" fearing for the safety of the chara as if it were one's own; having trouble stopping; and up to many other potentially dysfunctional emotional attachments. And you know what?

    It's not about being immersed.

    Any time the topic of immersion comes up, people begin talking about emotional identification with their chara. They discuss 'being' the chara. It comes down to 'making decisions as the character.' But you know what? If immersion was what was going on there, this wouldn't be how it would be described at all. I believe it would be like 'feelings about what happened,' 'being there,' or 'reacting to what happened.'

    That did not come out as well as I would have liked. Let me try a different way.

    As I've heard it, the concept of immersion is that the player becomes immersed in the game. Simply: he goes into it. That's not what I've observed. People who don't do this are all concerned about things that 'break immersion' and yet people who do it seem to have little problem with that. And I think it's because we have it backward.

    I am firmly convinced that what is going on here is a form of ego projection (similar, but not identical to the psychological use of the term). Simply: he reaches out to it. An immersionist, as it seems to be portrayed, would need the game to provide input which he would assimilate into what he 'perceives.' A player who is projecting their ego would actively go after what his chara senses.

    This concept is based on the observations of people who make very deep connections with their chara. It almost never includes a chara who is distinctly different from the player's own ego or internal self-image. Taken to the dysfunctional extreme, these players have serious problems dealing with their chara's bad experiences.

    The reason this is a more functional explanation for me than immersionism is that it also parallels the concepts of character identification and suspension of disbelief experienced in movies, for example. When you go to a movie, you don't even believe that you are 'in there' and yet you suspend your disbelief, identify with characters, and react to the emotional events that occur...without 'immersing' in the movie.

    Ego projection also makes it easier to understand how all of the interruptions and real-world compensations of gaming don't interfere with the pleasure of supposed immersion.

    Although I have to admit, in the end, this is merely a terminological problem I experience. I'm talking about the exact same thing, but am trying to use a less misleading term for it. It's just that the semantics of 'immersion' always seems to bring additional, incorrect expectations that 'projection' wouldn't.

    A quibble, but it gets to me.


  4. Fang,

    Very interesting, but either I don't understand it, I don't understand what you mean by immersion, or I've observed contradictory incidents.

    If I understand you, then this ego projection would fail with characters that differ significantly from the players' self image, and player enjoyment of bad things happening to the character.

    I've seen players play in what I'd thought was a very immersive fashion without the sort of ego projection that you describe. They do talk about 'reacting to what happened' and so on. And they play such that if you stopped them in the middle of it, they'd have trouble thinking out of character for a few moments. But an hour after the session can sit there with a beer in hand and say 'my character was a total shit head in that instant, I'm really looking forward to him getting his comeuppance.'

    Maybe this is not immersion? Maybe this is acting instead, and something different?

    I certainly agree that ego projection happens, but I'm not sure it's quite the same thing as what I thought immersion was.

  5. Wow Claire, that's really great. I never looked at it that way. Lessee....

    When I say ego projection, I don't mean...I dunno, 'self projection.' While I enjoy the occasional game of 'what would Fang do with super-powers,' that isn't what I mean.

    Your ego, as far as I know it, it the 'you-ness' of you. We could pull your ego out and drop it into a medieval peasant body (where the body knows what it knew from before our intervention and has only its old memories) and it'd still be you.

    I've played vicious serial killer vampires with a taste for bloody crime scenes, but that isn't who I am. But you'd know in an instant that someone else was playing them if I traded them off. That's what I call ego projection. And I think that's what you've described in your examples.

    Like I've said elsewhere, to me the semantics of 'immersion' implies that the game world wraps itself around you. (And if it is meant that you 'immerse' yourself in the chara role, that would be, um...'character immersion,' I think and significantly different then the semantics of plain 'immersion.') Projection (or more specifically ego projection) would be sending the 'you-ness' of you into the game world. It's a fine point, but on one hand the world has to exist for you and in the other the world exists because of your interest. Or put another way, 'immersion' seems to imply that you expect the world to do its thing to you, and in the other you expect to do things in it. Hmm...maybe I can't describe it.

    Sorry 'bout that.


  6. Hey Fang,

    This seems to be mostly a question of choosing the right term. I can see you problem with "immersion"; I don't like "projection" any better, because it seems to imply that you can somehow travel to a fictional world.

    Given the point of my post, I'll tout "imagined character-self identity" as the best description of the phenomenon I mean with "immersion" - but that's quite cumbersome. (Please note that the identity is only imagined; the imaginer knows that it is not real, just like the movie-goer knows that the monster in the screen is not really going to eat him.)

    Anyone knows a better term?

  7. Hey Victor,

    That's a really good point. Perhaps we should focus on something that's not so metaphorical. Bankuei seems to be on to something; maybe something along the lines of identification or 'buy in' which more literally describes what's going on.

    Any other thoughts?


  8. Let's keep the terminological thing in the back of our minds. I think what I called "immersion" here is an important part of much roleplaying, so we should find a good term for it.

    I'm also interested in what Mo's interpretation of "immersion" will turn out to be.

  9. Does anyone other than me view Polaris conflict as the Knight's internal monologue?