The Immersion Hurdle

January 2, 2014

“Immersion”.  It means… well, it usually means one of the following, or a combination of the following:

– Player emotional identification with the character

Actor stance – making choices only from the limited information and motivations of the character

– Not having mechanics be a motivating factor in decisions and actions in play

– Not having mechanics interrupt an experience of the fictional events

Most discussions using “immersion” turn out poorly because people may be referring to only one of these things, or a combination, in a very different way than anyone else in the conversation.

Two other factors are that:

a) techniques or game mechanics which fulfill one or some of these requirements are completely antithetical to others.

b) most of the mainstream game systems are pretty terrible for achieving these goals.

Emotional Identification

Some of the best games I’ve played where I’ve really been emotionally moved by the character’s situation?  That I felt torn between situations, agonized by emotional bits?   Have been some of the most “meta-game” (as people tend to call them) systems.   Games where maybe the players have set the scenes or defined problems ahead of time, or games where there’s a Flag mechanic to push play toward certain relationship issues, etc.

Emotional identification is NOT dependent on limited information or even restricted to ‘character-only’ control of the game – emotional identification depends on being able to address the character’s emotional conflicts in play.

This doesn’t require mechanics to make happen, though mechanics tend to make it easier and reliable for a group to coordinate it happening.

Experiencing the Fiction and Mechanics

There’s a lot of things that can break the way someone wants to experience the fiction.   The easiest universal way is to have events occur that shouldn’t, given the game/setting you’re playing.

Funny enough, mechanics can be just as useful as tools to make sure the game sticks to the fictional results that fit the expectations, as they can end up breaking them – depending on how they’re designed and what those expectations are.

For one group, a system’s mechanics might support them in getting the fiction they want, for another group, the mechanics intrusively produce the fiction they DON’T want…

Second, the experience of the fiction is sometimes claimed to be disrupted because too much energy/effort/thought has to be put into handling the mechanics.  This, too, varies from group to group.

Between both of these, you can see that Immersion as a goal is a Simulationist goal – the fidelity to an experience in play.   A lot of Immersion discussions break down because it’s basically people arguing over which KIND of sim play is “right”…

And the Bigger Hurdle

Often you see the question of “How do I get more Immersion in my play?” and the obvious answer is, “Just use simple mechanics that the GM handles and no one else needs to deal with.”… which if the group actually wants what is part of that question, shouldn’t be a problem.

Of course, this answer is always rejected, because the real reason is that  not everyone actually wants to play that game, so the question isn’t actually “How do I do this thing better we all want?” but actually, “How do I change the minds of the other people playing, to want the same thing I want?”

The bigger hurdle of immersion is the one-true-way-ism built up around it, as the only form of “real roleplaying” (aka, “All other forms of roleplaying enjoyment or goals are stupid roleplaying”).

There are plenty of mechanics, systems, and design tools for helping players get emotional identification, having mechanics that help reinforce the setting/genre expectations, not break them, and even to do so with relatively quick or easy handling time: it’s just that you can’t actually USE any of them if you restrict yourself to character motivation as the only possible method of directing play.

The most fervent proponents of Immersion often name goals that are at odds with the methods they are committed to.  This is because the methods, not the goals, are the markers of identity used to mark them as a “good roleplayer”.

And as long as the techniques and methods are considered the benchmark of “good roleplayer” it means that people will be unable to discuss the them without making it a defense of their identity, nor consider any other possible ways of getting to the goals they claim they want.

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