Monday, November 9, 2009

Immersing Ourselves

Further to the article that attempted to define a consensus on Star Wars content, this particular study broadens the scope, but targets a more specific concept. You are cordially invited to join me in my analysis of the concept of immersion as it pertains to MMOs.

The Free Dictionary ( defines immersion as

  • (a) The act or an instance of immersing,
  • (b) The condition of being immersed.

So that didn't help.

The Free Dictionary then goes on with a few thesaurus entries such as "sinking", "dip", disappearance" or even "baptism".

Good grief, isn't there anyone that knows what immersion means?

Merriam-Webster ( manages to come a little closer by adding

  • "c. instruction based on extensive exposure to surroundings or conditions that are native or pertinent to the object of study; especially : foreign language instruction in which only the language being taught is used <learned French through immersion>"

Looks like we're on our own.

So let's create our own definition for the word. It's used so frequently with MMOs that we should at least know what we mean when we say it. Certainly we don't mean "engrossed" or "engaged", do we? And while it may lead to such an end, it's not synonymous with "entertained" either.

Let's step away from video games for a moment and consider television, specifically soap operas. And before we continue, you must realize that those words may have never been used together before.

If the latest blockbuster movies are akin to a Playstation 3, then the daily soaps are like a Commodore 64 (look it up, kids). The acting is suspect, the effects are nil, the storylines are predictable and the cinematography is academic. Yet, these shows attract millions in total every week. (Perhaps not, but the idea of doing a search for the viewership totals of soap operas doesn't exactly tickle my fancy. But your mom watches them, and her mom before that. Isn't that good enough for you?)

Certainly these soap opera characters aren't real. Yet the viewers watch religiously with great anticipation and with the capability to discuss in great length the many intricacies of the show with any who display even a passing interest.

That, my friends, is a form of"immersion" at its finest: A complete suspension of disbelief in such a way that the viewer is willing to elevate the fantasy realm into such a conceptual state that it can be considered a reality without crossing over into a dangerous mental territory where reality and fantasy can no longer be distinguished.

In other words, the viewers know its fake, but pretend otherwise. (Or better yet, they choose to forget that it's fake for the duration of the show or discussions that might follow.)

Professional wrestling has been basing its success upon this very premise for years. Essentially soaps and pro-wrestling are one and the same. Tabletop RPGs build upon this also, and it may be no small surprise that nearly every person I've ever known to enjoy tabletop RPGs has also found  enjoyment with professional wrestling in some capacity. (Which leads me to think that if soap operas has more fight scenes, it could pull in an entirely new demographic.)

Come to think of it, magic tricks are built upon this suspension of disbelief. Even their name "trick" tells us it's not real. Yet we watch, enjoy and become (sometimes truly) amazed when the lovely assistant appears behind the other curtain and is somehow completely dry.

It's relatively easy for television or movies to convince a viewer to be willing to accept the false nature of the product. Movies dim the lights and fill you with comfort food. At home, viewers do much of the same on their own as they seek the theater experience. The music is loud and it's considered impolite to talk in a theater, kick the seat, or stand and block the view. Likely because each would break the concentration needed to remember to forget that it's all fake. ("Hey! Down in front!")

Movies and television also have the advantage in that there is very little active participation required of the viewers. Just sit back and enjoy the show.

Video games require direct interaction from the player. It uses the same senses and receptors as television, but is virtually powered by the user. By placing the user in control, they are immediately aware that it is fake allowing them to apply "meta-thinking"; applying knowledge about the framework of the product rather then within said product.

MMOs have a "leg up" on solo/single player video games in that the virtual worlds they create are persistent. When the user shuts down their computer for the night, the game world continues on without them.

Beyond that, the very fact that the user can choose to login or logoff means that they are very much aware that it's not real. The term "it's hard to put down a good book" seems applicable.

The MMO is then tasked with enrapturing the player after they login in order to stave off the moment that they logoff. If that can be achieved, then we have reached a state of immersion. Haven't we?

Perhaps not, even from within the most perfectly crafted MMO.

Quite possibly, the less input required of the user, the more that immersion is achieved. That runs counter to a good and fully featured game that affords many controls, emotes, locations, and things to do with each. Gamers often love complexity. But I think they (we) profess too much.

Are simpler games easier to become immersed with? How many hours did you play your Gameboy Tetris? Pac-Man? Rubik's Cube? (Look it up, kids). Checkers is quite simple. Crossword Puzzles lack complexity. Sudoku is ridiculously simple at its core. To be sure, I'm not claiming any of these are easy to beat, but they do lack complexity without sacrificing challenge.

What of the classic games that have more involved rules and possibilities; Monopoly, for instance. The many derivations can never fully replace the original. Is the game immersive? It requires a good deal of concentration, decision-making skills, adaptability based on the random die rolls and card flips, as well as interaction with other players. Yet you don't actually feel like you own a hotel on Park Place, do you?

Or more importantly, do you feel like a real estate tycoon?

Why couldn't you? Goods, services, property... all of it exchanges hands daily without the sellers ever laying eyes upon the item that is transacted. That encapsulates the stock market almost completely. (Look it up, kids).

Immersion seems to be a state of mind, unique and personal to each individual and given permission to exist for as long as it's willed.

You want total immersion? You've got it. It's you. Yes... that's right... you. You are totally immersed in your life. You control everything there is about it. When you sleep (logoff), life goes on. When you wake up (login), you receive updates about what's happened, and you plan accordingly.

Anything else can only give you a facsimile of life. Whether it's pretending to own a real estate monopoly, forgetting to pick up the dry cleaning while you watch the end of your soap, or shooting stormtroopers because you're one of the good guys, you're making a decision to do it at the cost of everything else.

You know they're not really expensive hotels, home wrecking doctors, or Imperial tyrants, but it's no fun remembering that, is it?

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