On the old vs. the new

I think it's fair to question the motives behind striving for "immersion," sensory or otherwise. "To be immersed" shouldn't be an end unto itself; it's a means to achieving some specific mix of sensation, but what?

I think that, at its essence, traditional, sensory immersion imparts a feeling of wonder: wonder at being in a wholly different place and experiencing a context outside our everyday, to feel new in some way. It rekindles that feeling of endless possibility that surrounded us in childhood, which I feel is a very good thing indeed.

Big, expensive, sensorily-complete video games have spent decades pushing towards the sense of truly "being there" in a simulated space. The player is drawn into the fictional world, and is given the chance to exist there for some time before returning to our own. It gives us new places to visit, places that have never existed and that never will.

These experiences are most often solitary, shutting out the rest of our world so that we can exist wholly in the other. Is this isolating? Lonely? Escapist? Maybe it is, if too are the experiences of immersing one's self in a novel for hours, or sitting silent and still in a darkened movie theatre, or listening through a new album end-to-end, headphones on and eyes shut.

There is of course more than one way to achieve this sense of wonder. A new paradigm is emerging, one more connected, more plugged-in, more integrated into our own daily experience than the old model of immersing the player in a constructed world. Augmented reality games, driven by the explosion of smartphone adoption, point to a future where video games provide the wonder of the new and unexpected in a different way: by weaving fictional elements into our own world, infusing our everyday surroundings with the fantastical, teaching us to see our familiar world with new eyes. Your house, apartment, street, the nearby woods, populated now with fictional characters, mind-bending anomalies, cryptic glyphs-- all supported by your social network of friends and fellow players, experiencing these things together as a living community. A brave new world.

The question, I think, is whether these two paradigms inherently conflict with one another-- if one is ever set to supercede the other, leaving it a relic. The old paradigm may only be "old" inasmuch as it is universal, timeless: beyond being formally similar to nearly every form of popular entertainment in human history-- from staring into the flames as a story is told around the campfire, to the Greek theatre, to the novel, film, radio, television-- it also shares the key quality of the most vital examples of all the above forms: the ability to transport us to an entirely other realm of experience.

That is the difference between the two paradigms of immersion: one, the traditional, transports the player to another world; the other, newer paradigm, transports elements of otherness into our own. And so, while potentially powerful, the new paradigm cannot provide us with incredible, imagined places to explore. The city of Rapture could never have existed as augmented reality; the new paradigm cannot take us to Wonderland, only put the White Rabbit in our backyard. While it might be less of-the-moment, the old paradigm feels somehow that much more integral to the human condition.

And so when I see the traditional notion of immersion drawn along generational lines-- associated with Generation X, as the new paradigm is to Generation Y-- I can't help but feel it's short-sighted (perhaps a more accurate comparison would be Generation Y versus every prior generation.) The implication that the desire to immerse oneself in a new and unknown world is unhealthy, immature, self-destructive or even suicidal, feels reactionary and narrow: one need not assume that the urge to visit another world emerges from a desire to obliterate our own world or ourselves, to run as a coward from our real-world problems, our stresses and worries and all the grown-up stuff we deal with; perhaps, instead, we are running from just those things of which the new paradigm is built: endless chatter, meaningless noise, bombardment by ads and IMs and text messages. As opposed to being self-destructive, the desire to shut off the outside world might be meditative-- a respite; a temporary communion with a pure experience (and, indirectly, with its creators.)

This ability to transport the player to impossible worlds is what I love about video games, and it's what great art and entertainment has been achieving for thousands of years. It's also why I don't worry too much about the rise of Facebook and iPhone games turning these sorts of experiences into dinosaurs, rendering them obsolete and then extinct. As a species, we will always want to visit new places, born out of the imaginations of our most creative minds; we will always want to be immersed in worlds other than our own. Despite hailing from Generation Y, you'll have to call me old-fashioned: long live the old paradigm.


GKokoris said...

This a really articulate way to juxtapose the two schools of thought.

I'm firmly entrenched in the old paradigm of carving out new worlds, to the extent that I'm usually at odds with more successful developers, but I've done an awful job of defending my rationale.

Mad props for making your case so concisely.

Martin said...

I agree with you completely.
I never managed to get through Clints presentation so I never got to the core of it but if it is what you summarize in the link text then I would say that he is very much wrong.

I remember climbing out of the spaceship in Unreal (the first one) and being totally floored by those beautiful vistas.

I could probably have experienced something similar by travelling to exotic places far away but it was a lot easier and cheaper to get immeresed by playing a video game.

I'm not suicidal, not even all that worried and stressed out, and I still enjoy losing myself in a well crafted game world (or movie for that matter).

Shay Pierce said...

The human mind has a peculiar capacity to "learn worlds."

A child's brain is capable of learning the rules of the physical world; moreover, as we grow, we're capable of learning the rules of particular parts of the physical world that might have peculiar rulesets of their own (say, fluid dynamics). Finally, a very important skill for humans is the ability to enter social situations and learning the rules unique to that new "social world" - which often have their own very unique and important rules.

This capacity to "learn a new world" is something our brain is good at, but which perhaps we don't get the chance to do very often. It's one of the "muscles" within our brain; and exercising it from time to time is both necessary, and enjoyable.

And this is one of many niches that games can fill. A good example is something like Portal, or Braid: a world like our own, but in which there is a very different set of rules in place. In experiencing this world, we exercise our brain's ability to learn new and unfamiliar rules. Ultimately, we master those rules, and enjoy expressing the mastery we've obtained by using it to navigate easily through this world which we once found so baffling.

Entering, and ultimately mastering a new world is a basic thing that humans are good at doing, love to do, and need to be able to do... and games can exercise that part of our minds in a way that nothing else can. To me this is the exciting thing about the idea of games immersing the player in another world.

BeamSplashX said...

It's funny you mention mastery; Ollie Barder of Mecha Damashii (http://www.mechadamashii.com) talks about the critical backlash against many solid mech games if they have unique controls.

Even though a games's functionally unique controls are akin to learning to pilot a robot, reviewers and many gamers simply see a game in which you shoot things in first- or third-person and wonder why the controls don't match similar games.

Perhaps audiences need to be "taught" immersion? Portal has FPS controls, making the leap much easier than learning Armored Core, for example.

JPLC said...

It's funny when people equate the "old" immersion with escapism and the like. What about the notion of exploration? One could argue that to explore is to leave the world behind, but I think that's a bit of a fallacy. I take exploring more as learning about the whole scope of things. Not leaving the old world behind for a new one, but enlarging one's concept of the overall world; discovering new places on our globe didn't divide the idea of the planet, but expand it.

This especially holds true for immersive fictional worlds since many of them are actually commentaries on the real world. Most science fiction, for example, is blatantly allegory; District 9 is not about aliens, but about human racism. Some may think we "leave" the real world in immersive "old" games, but really, we never do. And augmented reality seems to just ignore that fact sometimes.

Michael Samyn said...

I think the solitary nature of the "old" immersion is essential. Because you don't bother other people with it. Augmented reality games are a nuisance to everyone who is not playing them. They disrupt the social fabric. And this social fabric was already a perfectly fine game to begin with, one that everyone is playing. Augmented reality games are a typical manifestation of the "iGeneration", the selfish generation, who think only of their own little person. And as such, probably, already old itself. If my own early teen children are anything to go on.