Epic Life: Immersion and Identification in AAA Games–a prelude

My next task, as I see it, is to take my definition of immersion as identification with a practomimetic ruleset and demonstrate its usefulness for understanding the kinds of practomime we encounter most frequently. As I never tire of pointing out, the vast majority of what we call art is practomimetic: we, as the audience, perform it according to its ruleset whether it’s the Mona Lisa or Call of Duty. On the other hand, as I’ve been trying to argue over the past few months, there’s an important difference–maybe the most important difference of all–between a painting and a digital game in the way we the audience are positioned in relation to the ruleset.

When we look at a painting, our performance of the painting may be immersive and interactive. To demonstrate this principle by a reduction to the absurd: we could run around the Louvre yelling “I love the Mona Lisa!” or we could fall to our knees before the painting, murmuring “Leonardo” or we could pretend that the painting has some secret significance in multinational conspiracy.

(The same is obviously true of all the sorts of static art we generally think of as being non-interactive.)

We can thus “play” the Mona Lisa, whether we do it all in our heads or we engage in some spontaneous, peculiar practice in the space of the “real world.” What we can’t do with the Mona Lisa is have the culturally-legible experience of playing it and of shaping our own performance of its ruleset.

I want to restate that point in a clearer, more provocative form, in hope of stimulating discussion: What makes a game different from a painting is not a fundamental discontinuity in the way we express its ruleset in performance, but our (mis)understanding that there is such a difference.

What, for example, if the custom of our society, when looking at great paintings, were to recite a poem about the subject of the painting, and/or the painter? What if the customary poem were customarily to be extemporized, in four lines in an ABBA rhyme scheme, and we were taught from our cradles thus to extemporize?

Does the Mona Lisa stop being a painting in this strange culture of interactive audiences? No, but a “painting” in that culture has ceased to be what we, in ours, call a painting.

What if in this strange culture the custom, when experiencing a game like Call of Duty, were respectfully to leave the controller sitting on a coffee-table in front of the TV screen, and to watch the game’s start-up screen for a while, noting the features that seem salient to us, before turning off the console and going to a café to discuss those features?

One final restatement, and then I’ll let it stew until next time: what makes games special, as an art-form, is our understanding of the role of their audiences’ performative relationship to their rulesets.


  1. So, I’m not sure that you cannot have a culturally legible experience of shaping the Mona Lisa and its rule sets. It seems to me that it is possible to shape the rule sets that surround the Mona Lisa if we consider the nature of the rule sets.

    (1) What is a practomimetic rule set?

    It seems to me that one way we might view a practomimetic rule set is as an interpretation of a distinct practice according to some justification or emotion.

    (2) Does the “justification of a distinct practice” model of a rule set enable people to alter their rule set for the Mona Lisa?

    It seems to me that the justification of a distinct practice model of a rule set enables people to alter their rule set for the Mona Lisa because it enables them to reinterpret the practice according to whatever justification they can imagine for it, which in turn enables them to alter the rule set.

    So, for example, we might say that there are two kinds of rule sets that we could imagine for paintings. One would be the emotive rule set in which one tries to feel the emotion of the painting and the other would be the materialistic rule set where one tries to get the painting to alter the behavior of other people.

    We might say that in a culture dominated by one set of beliefs about the best justification for painting – let’s say the Romantic period – that people would generally take the emotive rule set when examining paintings. We might say as well that in a culture where another set of beliefs about the best justification for painting dominates – let’s say Marxist circles in NYC in the 1930s – people would generally follow the behavior-modification rule set.

    Furthermore, we might be able to imagine a wide set of examples in between and we can imagine people changing their best justification of painting or arguing for other best justifications for painting and thus, in turn, altering the rule set for the Mona Lisa.

    (3) Does the “justification of a distinct practice” model enable people to have a “culturally legible” experience of shaping the Mona Lisa?

    (3.1) What is a “culturally legible” experience?

    So, it seems to me that a “culturally legible” experience is one that can be understood inter-subjectively through mutual reference points.

    (3.2) Can interpretations of a practice or alterations to a practice be understood with reference to justifications for the practice?

    It seems to me that reinterpretations of practices – e.g. painting – might be culturally intelligible because the justifications that people give for the reinterpretation – e.g. enjoyment – would make sense to listeners when the consider how they should behave around the practice.

    Thus running or jumping when viewing a painting – such as a Zen brush painting – would be culturally intelligible when viewed from its justification – enlightenment. The object that they were interacting with probably would not cease to be a painting because it would still be an interpretation that competed with other interpretations of viewing-painting-behavior such as quiet enjoyment or discussion of color.

    Therefore, it seems to me that reinterpretations of a distinct practice enable one to have a culturally legible experience of changing the rule set for an object or discussing the rule set of an object with others without eliminating the underlying practice, concept or pre-interpretive practice.

    1. Author

      Fantastic to see you here, Neale! I think this is exactly right–but it does tend to ignore the incredibly important (for me at least) realm of common practice–what you call the emotive ruleset. That’s what a painting is, as far as Western culture is concerned.

  2. I think I can develop this later in order to formulate some other idea about what makes games unique cultural objects and also to explain why they enable players to craft a wide variety of rule sets.

    Also, I might be able to talk about why people who farm loot for cash are different from ordinary gamers.

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