Friday, December 19, 2008

The Mechanics of Immersion

In an opinion piece at Gamasutra, the usually practical Lewis Pulsipher lurched off into the fever swamp of "only mechanics-driven play is real gameplay" advocacy today.

As he put it:

"Immersion" is an illusion of another reality. The danger with this Holy Grail is that we’ll forget gameplay while trying to improve immersion. Games are games: gameplay, not "Art", is what counts.
I find this very strange. Why do some people, including some experienced game designers, feel that any expression of interest in seeing more simulationist or narrativist elements in major games is such a threat to mechanics-driven play that it must be aggressively countered by claiming that simulationism and narrativism are will-o'-the-wisps that should not be followed? What's wrong with wanting games to be more immersive?

Maybe my puzzlement comes from thinking of immersion as being less specific to 3D graphics and more related to Mihály Csíkszentmihályi's concept of "flow": when you're "in the zone," when your concentration is so fully engaged by a game (or other form of entertainment) that you're no longer consciously aware of most aspects of the real world... that's immersion.

As a game design goal, this kind of effect ought to be strongly desired. It's what elevates a good game into a great and memorable game. A highly immersive game creates a distinctive experience that people want to tell their friends about.

What's important to note about this definition of immersion is that it doesn't restrict immersion to being the product of mere dynamics or aesthetics -- it's also possible for mechanics to be so absorbing as to blot out the real world for a player. All of these forms of play content can and do contribute to creating gripping "flow" experiences.

Dr. Pulsipher, however, seems determined to join the strange new breed of gamers who feel compelled to argue (as though it were an obvious fact that only the ignorant or willfully obtuse could deny) that simulation and story are less valid forms of play than rules-emergence, that games with strong simulationist or narrative elements somehow aren't really "games." They try to dismiss statements of interest in deep and well-realized worlds or engaging characters and stories by exaggerating such requests as foolishly extreme demands from a socially inept minority for a "holodeck" or a "chat room" -- or as "Ultimate Escape" or "High Art."

If they're right, and all that most gamers really care about are pure mechanics, then why aren't very popular games rendered with simple abstract shapes or even text? Why spend any time and money on simulationist/narrativist elements if they add no value?

Rather than promoting mechanics-based play by denigrating simulationist or narrativist play, it seems to me that the smart designer tries to engage gamers on all fronts: world-depth and scene-setting, audio-visual style, and sound rules of play. Of course the exact proportion of effort expended on these should depend on the needs of the game being designed. But to suggest that any content other than pure mechanical rules-following actually fails to qualify as "gameplay" and thus deserves less attention from a game designer, is I think to willingly choose to dump all screwdrivers and saws out of one's toolbox so that all that remains is a hammer.

Sure, you can build things with just a hammer... but what kind of working professional actually practices such self-gimpage?

Not every game needs to be a "dream" exclusively. But making the effort to wrap good gameplay inside an appropriate and satisfying dream will make most games more immersive (in the sense of the term given above) than they otherwise would be. That's not a foolish quest for some illusory Holy Grail; it's a practical approach to making games more fun for more gamers.