Sunday, August 9, 2009

The Immerser Report

During my visit to Montreal for Ludicine’s Thinking After Dark conference, I had the opportunity to speak on formations of avatar in horror video games. Specifically, I spoke on immersion - specifically, the sensation of feeling ‘inside’ games during play.

If there are two things that need clarification about these ideas, they are that immersion is both more specific and more simple than common usage suggests. Being part of a grab-bag of about a dozen words people use to describe videogame play, it often does double-duty as a catch-all term that describes any merit of any game.

Is your gameworld sprawling and expansive? Immersive. Do you care about your characters? Immersive! Do you spend the greater portion of your game actually immersed in some fluid? You better believe that’s immersive.

"The Wettening" was a great game. But I could never defeat Wa-wa Wawinski.

Ultimately things begin to stretch out thee limited elasticity of the term. If everything is immersive, nothing is: It begins to mean nothing more than ‘good.’ Thus an ‘incredibly immersive experience’ is doubleplusgood.

Actually, there’s a simple trick to using the term with clarity and purpose. Immersion is always physical. Thus a kid bobbing and weaving while playing a game is an example of immersion. Being sad that your dad is the dream of a ghost’s memory, or whatever, is not.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly: Immersion is easy. Forget suiting up like Tron. You don’t need any Captain N shenanigans to obtain the experience that you’re ‘in a game.’ Often it’s as simple as hitting a button.

There’s a reason for this, and that reason is locked away deep in your brain. Now, my more… penetrating experiments in the catacombs beneath Bedlam Hospital have revealed to me mysteries dark and glorious, but apparently neuroscience knows a thing or two about your thinker as well. Very well. I shall have my day yet!

Here’s a great, if enthusiastic, piece on the current research that’s being done in the field. Elsewhere on these selfsame tubes, neuroscientist Steve Novella explains the phenomenon in detail: The experience of being in one’s body is not automatic – it is a deliberate function of the mind, some feat of evolution, and can be meddled with through any number of tricks and sleights of hand.

I find this to be incredibly revealing, and one reason that games may affect us the way that they do, operating at the some physiological level. Just as this sense of posited self is more complex that flinching from negative stimuli, so too we may navigate games with a more complex presence of mind than “spikes bad, coins good.”

Though, I do think it bears repeating: Spikes baaaaaaaaaaaaad.

- Rook

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