Epic Life: Describing Immersion

In the posts in this series so far I’ve demonstrated that games condition humanities. The rulesets of the past, beginning (from the perspective of the traditional canon of Western literature) with the homeric epics, enable the performances of the present; those performances iterate the rulesets, inviting future performances in the great chain of practomime.

My next task, as I see it, is to advocate for a particular response to the working of this great chain. Or, to put it another way, for a particular way of doing humanities. Or a particular way of playing games.

That response is to live an epic life–that is, to play humanistically, to perform reflectively, to do humanities and know that we are doing humanities, so that our games, and our lives, are always getting richer and worthier of our heritage. I want to suggest that living a rich life in our digitally-inflected world demands that we be able to analyze games, and their culture, humanistically.

To make my case for this response to the great chain of practomime I have first to propose a new way of describing a central phenomenon of the experience of play, the one that goes by the much-debated name “immersion.”

Who has not marvelled at the power of a digital game to engross the player, and so to afford the familiar sight of a person holding a controller gazing at a video screen, oblivious to the events going on around him or her? That engrossment is of course the phenomenon covered by the term immersion, from an “I know it when I see it” point of view.

Perhaps it is not as natural today–under the very influence of the culture of digital games–to make the corresponding formulations “Who has not marvelled at the power of television to engross the viewer?” and “Who has not marvelled at the power of a novel etc.” and “Who has not marvelled at the power of a storyteller etc.”

That it’s not as natural doesn’t make it less true–especially for anyone (like us) interested in the past and the ways it can help us understand the present. Marie-Laure Ryan raised this same issue with our understanding of digital immersion in Narrative as Virtual Reality: Immersion and Interactivity in Literature and Electronic Media, a book that answers many fewer questions than it raises.

Despite attempts like that of Ernest Adams to separate out different “forms of immersion” the phenomenon is demonstrably unified across all forms of play. The social sciences come to our aid, here: asking the immersed performer questions like “Did you feel like you were listening to Elizabeth Bennet?” and “Did you feel like you were at Longbourne?” would net similar results whether the version of Pride and Prejudice under discussion were the novel, a film, or a digital game of any kind.

That unity may I think now be described much more emphatically in light of my arguments in The Rules of the Text. That’s part of the reason I think the phenomenon of immersion needs a new, humanistic description: this enormously important piece of the aesthetics of mimesis has never to my knowledge had anything like a systematic treatment, probably because prior to the advent of digital games and their culture the role of the performer’s interaction with the ruleset was so hidden that it could only be uncovered via theoretical works like Barthes‘ and Iser‘s–though of course as anyone who’s been reading along knows, I think Plato figured it out a long time ago, without the helpful image of a kid with a controller in front of a screen.

But the more fundamental reason for a new description is that the development of a thicker description of our relationship with our play practices–the kind of thicker description that will enable the epic life I want for me and for you–demands that we see our engrossment in our performances not as the goal of play (compare Adams’ piece, cited above) but as the basis of our psyches’ interaction with the practomimetic ruleset–the very point of our entry into the ruleset. As the point of entry, immersion is subject, in practomimetic (artistic, if you’d rather) performances, to creative manipulation, like the manipulation I’ve noted in BioShock and Mass Effect, which allows the sort of reflection I’m proposing as the basis for living an epic life.

I’m therefore going to make the case that immersion, defined as “any engagement with an activity in which a person loses his or her awareness of his or her actual immediate situation” arises, both in the specific case of engagement with works of art and in the more general case of immersion in activities like knitting and driving,in a player’s identification with a ruleset.

Obviously, it’s going to take several posts fully to make that case. For the moment, I’ll leave you with the aha-erlebnis that led me to this new description. Playing Super Hexagon one day, I realized I was immersed, but that although I had certainly invested myself in my tiny triangle it was the entirety of that triangle’s situation–its plight, if you will–that was immersing me. I didn’t feel that I was running around on a pulsing colored plain, dodging barriers that were closing in upon me; rather, I was taking actions in a way that characterized me as being the game–I was the triangle, but I was also the barriers, and the pounding music. My identification was with the ruleset. See how much your mileage varies, if you get a chance, and let me know.


  1. (I really wish you could spend more time on these posts. Which is not to say that I think they are lacking, but instead that I get to the end and get disappointed that there isn’t more there to mentally work through each time. Of course, that’s probably because I get bits of these threads fairly often and have a better idea of where you are going than other readers.)

    I’ve also been playing Super Hexagon again and trying to think about it terms of immersion too. I’ve been trying to mentally prepare myself to finally get around to writing about the ideas we discussed months ago in reference to the suture moments in the recognition of the lack as a driving force toward player movement. The realization that, at least in Super Hexagon, we are inculcated into its symbolic order and have to be able to “talk” back using its language. Unlike in so many other games, this has to become naturalized very quickly to progress.

    We have to let ourselves be “manipulated” to induce the flow state necessary. It’s not strategy, but a fluidity of conversation between code and player. We shift from subject to, well, subjected. Identification with the ruleset is maybe not even enough. It might be an internalized ruleset composed of game rules *and* control rules in one larger circuit. After all, we do have a body even if we disconnect temporarily from an awareness of it. We are pressing buttons somewhere, somehow.

    1. Author

      Well, I have a feeling I don’t think we have a body in the same way you think we do–I’m still a committed Lacanian on that point. It really changes things radically where the importance of identification is concerned when the body is just another signifier. ūüėČ

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