Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Immersion - what's it good for?

I want to react to Sarah's excellent blog post. For now I'll just comment on a very small part of it and talk about that; I'll leave other things for later. It is related to things said in the comments to my previous post, to the piece by Internisus I quoted, and in fact to a lot of things I have heard over the years. Here is the snippet:
So this is the great advantage of Actor stance: facilitating immersion.
Immersion. What is it, and what it is good for? Immersion apparently is a mental state in which we identify ourselves with a character; but identify outselves with that character in a very specific way, namely, we achieve for a moment something that approaches forgetfulness about the difference between ourselves and the character. When I say: "I am like Hamlet, for I too think incessantly about my interior", I am identifying myself with Hamlet, but I am not immersed. But when I read the play and feel rage at the king's betrayal and want to revenge myself on him, and feel the urge to make him drink from the poisoned chalice--then I am immersed.

I love Hamlet the play, and am in awe of Hamlet the character. But when I read it, I am not in the mental state which I just described. I don't identify myself with any of the characters in this strong way; I don't have the feeling that I am present at the scene; I have no wish to act in it. I may be sad when Hamlet dies, but that is not an emotion Hamlet seems to feel at that point. I am very aware that I am reading a play, and I am enjoying the act of reading - which is my act, not that of a character in the play. I pause to reread some of the lines, speaking them out loud. I remember what Harold Bloom or some other critic wrote about Hamlet; I am thinking about my own interpretations. There is always, between me and the fiction, a distance; and it seems to me that this distance is necessary for good reading. No character within Hamlet can have an interpretation of the play (except perhaps Hamlet, who we feel knows that he is in a play of which he is in some sense the author - but never mind); I can, and must.

To take another example, which is even clearer: the stories of Borges. Is it possible to immerse oneself into the fiction of Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, or that of the Library of Babel, or that of Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote? Most certainly not; all these fictions were written, it seems, with the express purpose of making immersion impossible. And yet Borges is universally acknowledged as one of the greatest writers of the previous century. Are we immersed in Ulysses, or are we rather all the time self-consciously reading literature and reacting to what we read as literature?

Is immersion not a danger to mature and thoughtful reading?

Make no mistake, I am not trying to set up a dichotomy between reading for your enjoyment and reading for academic purposes. True reading is reading in which we use all of ourselves; this includes our empathy and emotion, but not to the exclusion of everything else. I thoroughly enjoy reading Hamlet; I laugh at the jokes and weep when the sweet prince dies; and at the same time I am thinking incessantly about the meaning and structure of the play; I am savouring the beauty of the verse; I am obsessing over the question what Hamlet feels and thinks when he says "The readiness is all. ... Let be."; and so on. This seems to me the fullest way to enjoy Hamlet. Putting yourself so much in Hamlet's shoes that you can no longer at the same time enjoy the play on all the other levels will not only decrease your enjoyment, it will also make it (paradoxically) quite impossible to understand the prince himself.

If the Actor Stance facilitates immersion, this is its great disadvantage, for immersion - as I understand it - is but a shallow way of reading. My examples were from static fiction, but why would interactive fiction be different in this respect?

Perhaps I do not understand immersion; or perhaps I judge it wrongly. Please join me in discussing it, here or at some other place.

My kindest regards,
Victor

6 comments:

  1. When I think of immersion, I think of it more in the sense you describe: "using all of ourselves." Immersion to me is when one is fully engaged with a work (not a character) and gains suspension of disbelief. That is, instead of thinking, "Man, this type is kind of small, and there's a typo in the second paragraph," you think "Wasn't Hamlet a bit harsh on Rosencrantz and Guildenstern? Is he so obsessed as to discard even his friends, who aren't aware of Cladius's duplicity?"

    Even in your Author stance, there is an implied actor. When you're immersed in an Author-stance game, you're thinking "How can I affect this story?" instead of "How can I interact with this game?" The immersive effect suspends your disbelief, making you think of the internal story as real instead of the external game.

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  2. I think perhaps I understand immersion in a different way. I identify more closely with what Gregory describes, although I wouldn't go so far as to say it involves suspension of disbelief.

    I interpret immersion as something more along the lines of "being fully present" to a piece, where my focus and thoughts are completely engaged by the characters, setting, and actions. I don't think that it necessarily requires me to suspend disbelief for this, however.

    My interpretation Victor's description of his experience with Hamlet would be that he is immersed in the piece, very much so. Not necessarily because he identifies with the character or has suspended his disbelief, but because his reading of the work causes his thoughts and feelings to be fully engaged.

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  3. Thanks for the response!

    Let me preface this first by saying I'm no expert. There's a good chance I'm mangling a bunch of ideas. In addition, I haven't read Borges (which is my own fault; there's a LOT that I still need to read), so I cannot comment on that.

    I interpret immersion similarly to how you have - breaking down the barrier between a reader and the character - but I disagree that it takes away from mature and thoughtful reading; in fact, I'll go a step further and say that a lot of works expressly encourage it.

    I realized shortly after I posted that all the examples I gave were theatre works. I don't think this is an accident, upon reflection; theatre, after all, is designed for a present audience. Much of staging, costume/set design, lighting, sound, and the like exists in order to reduce the distance between the audience and the work.

    Hamlet is also a tragedy, and the form is arguably set up to encourage immersion. To take a few examples, Hamlet's been provided with the most soliloquies. Even in the beginning, the only in-depth conversation with the ghost we get is the one he hears. By the end of the first act we have our "villain figure" and "hero figure" set up and know who to identify with - more on that later, though.

    Going back to my other example, Sweeney Todd, the deck is a lot more explicitly stacked. What we get of Turpin sets him up as utterly, utterly, utterly unsympathetic, to the point where (If the production leaves Turpin's song "Johanna" in - most don't - then the deck just gets that much more stacked.) By comparison, everyone else looks like a hero. In effect, this says "It's OK to root for Sweeney." And so the audience does, and Sondheim's great craft is apparent in how long, and through how much, he keeps this up.

    Immersion doesn't always last forever, though. At the time of Hamlet's death - or that of any tragic figure, really - you're not immersed anymore. He's done something that, in effect, kicks you out of immersion. Maybe it's the Polonius scene. Maybe it's what he does to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (for me, this is it). There are usually plenty of chances in something like this. Whatever it is, it's a point of no return, if you will. The reader can then - is forced to, really - reassess everything, and the whole interpretation changes.

    IF goes even further. The player makes the narrative move forward. He or she is, from the very structure, a lot more invested in what happens to the character, because he or she controls it. Some works are designed more for immersion than others, of course. I think really interesting things can be done in taking this concept all the way, especially in IF.

    You make a very good point about characters not interpreting the work, or even being aware (most of the time) that they're in one. The reader does. Perhaps a reader can "step back" temporarily to interpret. That would be in the back of his or her mind - a little like mistrust, perhaps.

    For what it's worth, in in my own experience, I find that if I detach too much, I lose a lot. I had to self-correct many times while playing this year's IFcomp, for instance. I found myself playing like a tester, or an editor, and it took a lot away from my experience of some works until I caught myself doing it.

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  4. You inspired me to go and re-read this old RAIF post about immersion:

    (link)

    I think one effect of immersion is that it puts you in a more open and receptive state; you are engaged with the story, empathising with the PC, and not distracted by the mechanics of the interface.

    So I don't think of it as a "shallow way of reading"; immersion is the effect that IF authors are usually aiming for. If I wrote a game and someone told me they felt really immersed in the story, I would feel that they really did "get it".

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  5. Is immersion not a danger to mature and thoughtful reading?

    If by "immersion" one means what you describe, a fully emotional investment in the work and the loss of boundaries between oneself and a character, then maybe it is a danger. Certainly when Plato, in the Republic, argues about the dangers of mimesis, he says that he is concerned about the ability of art to make things seem acceptable to the audience because the audience regards them uncritically, especially since most non-philosophers lack the pharmakon (a drug or medicine, or in metaphorical terms an antidote) that would allow them to experience mimetic art with understanding and to distinguish realistic from unrealistic and noble from base behavior. This seems similar to the kind of uncritical emotional connection you might be positing for a player character and the player.

    While I'm less convinced there's any moral danger, I do see the "player=player character" connection (ie, that the game should be trying to make the player think he is the character) as both simplistic and often unproductive narratively. That said, I don't think very many games succeed at anything resembling this anyway: I hardly ever think of the character I'm playing being a projection of my real personality, or of my really sharing the character's motivations.

    I think many people talking about IF and immersion mean something a bit broader (as the response comments already show): they are interested in a quality of the interaction, which is that as players they are fully engaged with interacting with the game in the ways intended (how do I gain this treasure? how do I render a moral judgment on the Baron? how do I persuade this girl to go on a date with me?), and minimally distracted by other kinds of interaction (editorial nitpicking, fighting the parser, testing to see how many swear words the game knows). The precise nature of the critical engagement you bring to the piece is thus not constrained by immersion; if anything, successful immersion is more likely to produce thoughtful criticism of the art while failed immersion will produce grumbling about the game's technical problems (if that).

    This said, some works do highlight their own artificiality (while perhaps still being immersive in the sense I described) and this I think is a Brechtian attempt to get the player to emphasize his intellectual responses over his emotional ones.

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  6. Immersion, to my mind, is a state of mind.

    When I read for vicarious enjoyment, it is because I AM immersed. I would assume others experience this the same, but I'll restate anyway..

    When I read for enjoyment, be it text, IF or otherwise, I am immersed to the point of losing awareness of the self and the other. From a neurological perspective, I suppose it's safe to say my analytical processes are - while not suspended - at least in abeyance.

    So what breaks this? Inconsistency. Very strong unpleasant emotional concordance (eg, reading something which evokes an extremely unpleasant memory and/or the flight response). Poor spelling or grammar that is not contextual.

    While the actor stance does facilitate immersion to some degree, I don't believe it's necessary.

    Consider most sci-fi/fantasy - and here I refer to Eddings, Gemmel, Douglass, Pratchett - none of this is analogous to the actor stance in that it is written from an external omnipresent viewpoint - yet it is all immersive to the point of missing one's stop on the train.

    That's in the context of a narrative, however. IF is not, strictly speaking, an immersive narrative. Many of the functions of IF - or indeed any game as opposed to narrative (I'm calling it narrative rather than text as I'm thinking other media should be included - movies specifically) actually break immersion.

    Dying / being stuck / reloading.. all of these are a disjunct unique to interactive systems such as games. I sit and read through Feist's Magician and the immersion is unbroken except by a major external stimulus or biological imperative. Not so with (for example) "The Dig" where I keep putting the fossil's spine backwards, or Fallout I/II/III where I reload the same combat three times as it's unavoidable and must be completed to progress, or Planescape:Torment where I reload to see what the different conversation trees lead to.

    I'm not sure the original question makes sense. "Immersion - what's it good for?"... Well, my personal opinion is that immersion is a goal state, not a tool. I engage in particular behaviours in order to be immersed, I don't become immersed in order to experience a narrative in a particular way.

    While actor stance may be a tool to facilitate immersion, it's not the only one, nor is it a necessary condition.

    The alternative is what you'd call analytical enjoyment. I read or game non-immersive things because I want to encompass the system involved, I want to see how the story plays out, I'm researching, or for some other reason. This is a cognitive act, and immersion is NOT the goal state, and indeed it hinders it. If I'm immersed, I don't see those things I'm seeking, or catch the subtleties of language use I'm interested in, or trace the story arc in a meta-sense (as examples).

    Hamlet has cropped up as an example. I'm not immersed by Shakespeare when read as text - ever. I CAN be immersed when viewing it as a live performance, however.

    Anyway, that's my take. Cheerio!

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