Epic Life: Immersion and Identification among the Phaeacians

In this post I outline an argument for trying to study immersion as I described it in my last post. To put that argument simply, the reason to study immersion as identification is that to do so allows us cultural traction over an essential part of the experience of practomime–a part that composers and performers have been manipulating to great artistic effect for millennia, as I’ll try to show. What and whom people identify with, on purpose or involuntarily, is the way cultural roles get established and propagated. If manipulating immersion is also manipulating identification, studying that manipulation becomes imperative for living a rich life in a culture where the manipulation of immersion is, more and more, a commonplace (think Google Glass).

More importantly, though, digital games have in the last 20 years, largely without it being noticed, raised that manipulation to the status of a defining element of the performances they enable. The deficiency in my opinion of previous attempts to describe immersion has been that those attempts have not taken into account this potential for manipulation. Either something is immersive or it isn’t, according to these previous treatments, and if one part of a ruleset is immersive and another part isn’t, the relationship between those two parts isn’t given artistic weight, but instead is usually considered a fault in the ruleset’s design.

The relationship between immersion and interactivity has been fairly well described, especially by Ryan, but, again, without note of the potential for manipulation. I am suggesting here in the Epic Life series that understanding immersion in terms of identification not only connects immersion securely with interactivity but also allows us to read the way rulesets manipulate both immersion and interactivity in integral relation to the work of self-fashioning that goes on in the cultural makeup of practomimetic performance–the way players become themselves by playing.

The concept of identification is a very slippery one. By it in this context I mean the creation of a likeness with the self. The claim that immersion can be described as identification with a ruleset, then, suggests that immersion arises in the performer’s/audience-member’s understanding of him or herself as a reproducer of the ruleset–as the ruleset generates the performance the performer/audience-member generates the ruleset for him or herself–indeed as him or self, while the performance is underway. We are immersed, that is, and for example feel that “we are there,” when we represent the story to ourselves, letting that representation serve as our reality in the course of the performance.

To demonstrate the potential benefits of looking at immersion this way, in this post I’ll look at the first of two practomimetic moments I’ll be treating in this post and the next, this one from the Homeric Odyssey (the one in the next post will be from Papo y Yo). Both these moments not only manipulate interactivity and immersion, but provide meta-fictional meditations on the nature of immersion and interactivity. As we’ll see in both instances, a reading that centers on the nature of the performer’s and audience’s identification not just with an avatar but with the entirety of the ruleset within which he and they are performing provides the most satisfactory description of the cultural effects (or, if you like, the meanings) of these moments of practomimetic performance.

In Book 11 of the Odyssey, Odysseus has narrated himself into the underworld as he tells the story of his wanderings to his hosts, the Phaeacians. Thus far, he’s seen a great many queens of the past, but none of his friends from Troy.

Unexpectedly, he decides he’s done for the night.

“And I would not tell the stories of all the women, nor even name them,
the number of wives and daughters of heroes I saw,
for before that immortal night would perish too. But it’s also the time
to go to bed, either on the swift ship, having gone to my companions,
or here; and my conveyance will be a care to the gods and to you.”
Thus he spoke, and they all were completely in silence,
and they were held by astonishment throughout the shadowy hall.

To put it succinctly: Odysseus is breaking the Phaeacians’ immersion. Their response demonstrates that that immersion turns on identification with the ruleset he has set up for his performance.

And Arete the white-armed began the words:
“Phaeacians, how does this man appear to you to be
in form and size and the balanced wit within him?
And he is my guest-friend, and each of you shares in the honor.
So don’t send him away in haste, nor withhold
gifts for one deserving. For many possessions
lie for you in the hall, by the favor of the gods.

To “get” this passage, really, you have to realize that Odysseus’ entire story, with all the monsters and the magic, is about xenia, ritualized guest-friendship, and is itself a sort of xenia gift (think hostess-gift) from a man who has nothing, and arrived naked on his hosts’ island. When Queen Arete responds to Odysseus breaking off the tale, and the immersion, by demanding that her magnates offer gifts (to which demand they comply) to this guest-friend of hers, she shows that she identifies with Odysseus insofar as she seems him as a paragon, but, more importantly, she also has internalized the ruleset of his tale: Odysseus is the master of guest-friendship, constantly turning it to his advantage both in the narrative to the Phaeacians and in the Odyssey as a whole; now Queen Arete’s immersion in that tale makes her follow its ruleset the same way that after a long immersive session of Tetris bathroom tiles look like they’re falling into place.

To put it another way, Queen Arete has identified with the cultural practice that conditions both narrative rulesets: guest-friendship and the gift-giving that constitutes its most essential element. The ruleset Odysseus outlined through his performance, much as a digital game reveals its mechanics in the course of play, Arete now declares to be a part of her own, personal cultural make-up.
What happens then confirms that the queen isn’t the only one who has experienced this kind of immersion: King Alcinous says

O Odysseus, we, looking at you, don’t guess you at all
to be a deceitful and thievish man, such men as
the dark earth feeds, wide-sown,
making up lies, from which no one might know anything;
for you there is a form upon your words, and noble wits are in you.
You catalogued a tale with understanding, as when a bard does it,
the griefs of all the Argives and of you yourself.

Then he asks Odysseus to come to another part of the story and say if he saw any of the other Trojan heroes in the underworld, and Odysseus continues the story, into the best part, where Odysseus meets Agamemnon and Achilles.

Just as Queen Arete has identified with the xenia in Odysseus’ tale, King Alcinous identifies with the renown of Odysseus for his lying tales, the other defining element of the story he has been telling. (The most iconic of the adventures recounted by Odysseus, the encounter with Polyphemus the Cylcops, for example, turns on both xenia and lying.)

Alcinous states here his immersion in the story in terms of what he thinks of Odysseus, but those terms are explicitly a reproduction of the ruleset, as ironic as they are (because of course Odysseus is in fact a liar): Alcinous has made a likeness between himself and the ruleset, in inserting himself into it.

Here we find the meta-fictional element I mentioned at the outset: Odysseus manipulates the immersion of the Phaeacians, breaking it at precisely the right point so that they can demonstrate their identification with his ruleset; Alcinous responds by comparing him to a bard, which is the ruleset within which Odysseus himself is performing. But just as Odysseus at the outset of his tale distinguished himself from a bard (Book 8: more or less, “I think it’s a great thing to listen to a bard, but now you want to hear about me”), Alcinous here draws the same distinction in the very act of making the comparison–the king’s immersion reproduces the ruleset, and at the same time calls attention, meta-fictionally, to that reproduction.

In the next post in the series, I’ll show how Papo y Yo does nearly the same thing through making the player repeat actions so as to reproduce the ruleset of the game as a ritual, in the pursuit of crafting another, “real” ritual to bring about the purification called for in the narrative of the game’s story.

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