essay

Immersion as ‘drowning the body’

“[T]he game industry is content to keep throwing the immersive fallacy around. It’s the idea that you’ll buy into a game world so completely that it will immerse you like millions of gallons of water and you will forget you are playing a video game.”

I’m glad that I came across Robert Yang’s “On focalization, and against convenient understandings of immersion / flow” today as it gave me some hope that I might not be alone in the thought that immersion might actually be bad and that maybe we should give it up. That in trying to engulf the player into their world, the game (as a system) might be overwriting the player herself. That the loss of self, currently thought of as a good reaction to the game, might actually be the loss of voice.

It’s an idea that has haunted me for about a week now. As part of doing research for an essay on object-oriented feminism (yes, it exists) for a class, I stumbled onto a collection of thoughts by Levi R. Bryant titled “Feminist Metaphysics as Object-Oriented Ontology– OOO/OOP Round-Up“. Buried deep within the post was a sentence that has utterly changed how I think about immersion and how Csíkszentmihalyian flow, while it might be useful for describing religious experiences or even high-level play, might not actually be an ideal state for players.

“The forgetting of the real is always a masculine gesture.”

It’s rather simple, right? To forget the real is to give up the ‘body’. It’s giving up everything that feminism has taught us: that the ‘body’ has a materialism performed into reality. That ‘body’ is conceived through discourse and within a cultural position. Every ‘body’ is unique because its materialism as experienced cannot be replicated.

Yet, here is immersion, at least through this lens, standing opposite to that. It is positioning the system as superior and of overwriting the ‘body’ of the player. They have no voice, no agency. They are yet another gear in the tyranny of the system. It’s perhaps the extreme of the overdetermined-ness I have dreaded in considering these interactions.

This, of course, brings me back to Yang and the intriguing usage of “focalization” as perhaps the return of inter-subjectivity and interpretation. It’s thinking about the focusing action, of what might be shown in connection to what was previous shown. (And maybe even narrativizing the juxtaposition of the two as well.)  Yang has two great examples of this. First, in connection to Iron Man:

“But what about when the camera lingers on Gwyneth Paltrow for a bit, then cuts to a shot of Robert Downey Jr. staring at her? In that instance, we’re staring at Ms. Paltrow with Robert Downey Jr’s character, who is quite taken with her for some reason.”

And then from Thirty Flights of Loving:

“So you focalize Anita and remember her various quirks — you’re always staring at her, looking at her as she peels oranges or drinks hooch or stumbles drunkenly or angrily points a gun at your face. I think all players, even if confused by most of the game, understand that their character loves and cares about Anita — because you’re always focalizing her to make her seem compelling, and focalizing through this player character who loves her, often in sympathetic ways.”

It’s a suture moment. From Iron Man, it’s the shot-reverse-shot moment that folds the viewer into the semiotic order of its world. It’s a common technique in film that will have a shot of an object of desire and then the object looking at it. The viewer is passed between their points of views in order to link the two within the created narrative of the one watching.

Even though Thirty Flights of Loving, with its fantastic jump-cuts and time compression, pushes this to the forefront of understanding its world, it’s not uncommon for most games to enact frequently invisible suture moments on the player without them realizing the purpose of such an action too. The introduction cutscenes in most videogames act in this way, for example.

The character is shown doing what they do and acting in a way coherent to the story being presented. Their motives are established. And then the very next shot is from the player’s perspective with instructions about how to act in the same way. The player is sutured into the system through being shown who they should be and then given instructions about how to be that way. The player, as a ‘body’, is neglected in this way. It is forced to conform to this new shape.

It’s what makes giving up immersion as  a useful term something I am interested in exploring more. I am also increasingly convinced, given this outlook on what immersion should do, that it might be why game criticism might be so lacking at times. With game reviews overemphasizing the system over the player, the ‘body’ is being ignored. It’s often not what was felt or interpreted, but how ‘lost’ the person was in the simulation or engrossed in the system. It’s so immersive! I hardly remembered I was living at all!

I am especially in agreement with Yang then on “The game industry argues that games “immerse”, but immersion theory confuses realism for presence, and production value for realism”. That somehow, if they exponentially increasing spending on a game for more ‘realistic’ graphics and audio mechanics, this will mean better games. As if “better” means faster immersion and a quicker lose of self to its system.

If that is the case, then feminism is desperately needed. We must remember our ‘body’. The player must always examine how they think about the game — and what the game might trying to make them think. Reflection on the game as experienced is vitally important. If immersion is the ‘drowning of the body,’ then players need to surface from time to time. They need to remember who they are and that stopping a game is not the end of an experience, but the beginning of a greater conversation between ourselves and the machines we play with.

(If you have the access, I also recommend checking out “‘Girls Welcome!!!’ Speculative Realism, Object Oriented Ontology and Queer Theory“. O’Rourke does a good job of surveying many of these ideas and the sources especially are a rich vein I have been spending some time looking through recently.)