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.