Immersion Goals Borrowed from Literary Theory

Borrowed from the literary tradition, I’d like to put forward some new words for your perusal that might help explore the differences of goals that exist under the catch-all word immersion. There may be others that would help too, but I think these three are important.

Catharis: Yes, I know you know this word, but do you know what means in the context of literary theory? Catharsis (which was introduced by Aristotle in The Poetics and means either “purgation” or “purification” in Greek) is the emotional effect a tragic drama has on its audience. The audience of a tragic drama would experience an overwhelming feeling of exaltation or relief following the drama because either they formed a vicarious identification with the hero which cleansed the emotions as if they have themselves had undergone the trauma of the story, or because the audience becomes so engrossed in the emotions for the hero that they are removed from the context of their own lives and return refreshed and renewed back to themselves following the drama.

Kairosis: is associated with the epic novel (association with the Greek meaning “the right time”, and represents the feeling of integration experienced by the audience with the protagonist. It is associated specifically with the moments of moral and psychologicical transitioning of the character in important, dramatically impacting moments. It is interesting to note that Kairosis is often achieved by challenging unique dynamic characters with typical, everyman dilemmas and emotionally engaging in the moments of change.

Kenosis: is associated with lyric poetry, and represents the audience’s abandonment of the ego manifestation in favour of the immediate emotional body and sensory manipulation of the poetic. It comes from the Greek word for “emptiness” and is used to achieve a feeling of timelessness or transcendence.

(If you don’t care about the words in their application in literary theory, you can skip this indented part.

***ETA: There’s more discussion after the indented part. Pick up the post again in the paragraph starting with: “So, what the heck am I talking about?”**

When I look at these terms, I make some adjustments on them to compensate for the differences in the method and process of the act of roleplaying:

Where we in a widely literate, educated and media saturated environment have specified, culturally driven, inherited understandings of drama, and in a world where the lines between the novel the drama and lyric poetry have been distorted, deconstructed and blurred, it seems to me that goals may not cleanly align by the form but can still maintain similar extant resonance to the emotional outreach of the audience.

Where we, as roleplayers, serve as both the authors and audiences of our own characters, inside a dynamic, living drama rather than a static text, we can elect to chase the fulfillment of multiple goals at once.)

So, what the heck am I talking about? Well, I know for a long time I have been describing my particular brand of character immersion as an intense, cathartic connection with the character in which I feel the character’s emotional state acutely, understand the mental process of the character acutely and objectively (rather than the character understands it: subjectively) and feel a vicarious emotional response of my own towards the character.

When I look at this in relation to the terms, I know Catharsis to be my primary goal: It is the place that the intense connection to the character is formed, in which I feel, simultaneously, the character’s emotional state, my own emotional state, my character’s inner workings, my own inner workings and my empathy for the character. Catharsis will make me physically weep when my character’s lover dies in her arms even if she does not shed a tear, because while I feel her emotional state as acutely as she does, I am feeling it vicariously. I am immersed in who she is, but I am not her. The feeling of exaltation or relief is something I can validate. An intense, cathartic immersion experience can leave me feeling a little high in an emotionally-induced endorphin way. This goal, IMHO, is all about feeling (For you following the MBTI stuff, it is an immersive F gamer’s playground).

I also know, although it is not part of my description above, that Kairosis is a frequent goal for me. It here that I go to for the moments of resounding transition; the moments that feel as if the soundtrack on the drama has picked up and the character’s life and the story will never again be the same. The “right moment” of Kairosis is the one where the character and the story interact and change each other, powerfully and irreversibly. This one is both about thinking and about feeling. In order to do this reliably and intentionally it requires a thinking setup, but transitions to feeling mode in the actualization of the moment’s resonance. I suppose it is possible to be setup and actualized both in T mode, but I’m not sure if it would lead to the immersive integration that the goal is looking for. This kind of immersion could serve story socket players as or even more effectively than character socket players. It is also, I believe functionally incompatible with Kenosis.

Kenosis is not a goal of mine, but one that is associated with the term immersion quite frequently in discussion, especially in association with larpers over the pond. Also called “Deep IC” or “altered state flow” or that I have been calling “submersion”, the goal here is to feel completely like the character and to feel as little like yourself as possible. The feeling of timelessness or transcendence is something that a lot of these folks talk about, even sometimes going so far as to compare it to a religious experience. Again, this is also about Feeling, I think (MBTI note: and I would think that it is commonly a goal of “SF” immersive gamer types, who would require strong myth to make a full transition from self to character). Note: This kind of immersion goal would also work as well for a setting socket player as a character socket player: the goal would be to get out of the player’s world and into the world of the player’s character.

I also think it’s interesting to note that when looked at this way, it’s unsurprising that there is so much debate about the compatibility of the goals of nar games and the goals of immersion. A goal like Kairosis requires intentional dramatic framing and intention to achieve the synthesis of character transitioning in the right moment and as such would be perfectly compatible, whereas a goal like Kenosis may repel such deliberate constraint, or force the player back into his own head, making the styles incompatible.

Also, it gives some good groundwork for why immersive players are at odds as to what kinds of game processes or mechanics are counterintuitive to their immersion activity. A Kairotic Immersives might not have trouble discussing stakes or out of game strategy to optimize the “right moment”, Cathartic Immersives might have no trouble authoring to intensify drama but could have real trouble any time the game required transition from a Feeling to Thinking mode, such as crunchy calculation or resource management. Kenotic Immersives might find any out of game negotiation that draws them out of character unappealing.

15 thoughts on “Immersion Goals Borrowed from Literary Theory”

  1. Mo,

    Just to see if we’re on the same page (and I think we are, actually), would you say that a person is ‘immersing’ or is ‘immersed’ during those moments of framing or negotiation for the ‘right moment’? That is, in kairosis are people dropping in and out of ‘immersive’ states? Or does it simply not make sense to talk about ‘immersing’ at such a micro level?


  2. Not sure. Maybe it depends on the socket and the game/situation? For me, with a character socket playing Dogs (a game for which the negotiation does not usually disrupt my immersion)I’d say I’m immersed all the way through, but if I were playing BtI (a game which does) I’m likely toggling back and forth dropping in and out of immersive state.

    Whereas, Brand with a 1story/2system socket, would have a better chance of staying immersed right through.

    So yeah, because there is mechanical manipulation involved in the framing/negotiation, it would depend on how much distortion the mechanics gave.

    At least that’s what I’m thinking right now.

  3. Mo, this seems like good stuff – especially picking up on the bifurcation between kenosis and the other 2. I do have a bit of a quibble, though. This seems a bit of restatement of the socket model, mapped to literary terms. katharsis is a character-socket thing, kenosis a setting/color (The ‘deep IC’ experience of character obliterates the player’s subjectivity, so there’s not a strong self/ground distinction – the character is experienced “from the inside”) thing, and I’d call kairosis socketing through Situation!

  4. Mark,

    I don’t think I agree, though it may be that some sockets naturally stick or drop from any of them. The biggest flag about it is that I think many a Kenotic Immersive would absolutely say that they are immersing in character and not in setting. I think it was Jonas Karlsson that told me once about a kind of freeform larper situation where sitting in a closet for four hours experiencing the trauma from inside a character’s head was a desirable thing. Now, this isn’t my personal cup of tea, but I’d say it’s pretty firmly a character socket deal.

    When I think about myself in relation to the kairotic goal, my emphasis is still pretty firmly on character socket (or at least it has up until this point). It has been on the character and the right moment felt inside the character and the psychological and moral transitioning of the character in response to the right moment. A 1story socket person might place the emphasis on the moral implication of the story and see the character as little more than marionette on the puppet stage.

    Besides, when I’m talking about CKK, I’m talking goals, whereas when I’m talking about sockets I’m talking about the means to establish resonance – one of the things you would need to acheive whatever the roleplaying goal is. Clear as mud?

  5. Mo and Mark,

    I agree with Mo that CKK aren’t just sockets over again. However, I think that Mark may have a point in that CKK as goals will have different strengths/usabilities for those with different sockets.

    For example, even though I’m not an immersivist myself, I could see me learning how to get into kairosis — as it seems quite possible to do so with a story socket. I can’t ever see my story socket working well with a kenosis socket because it lacks the exteriror audience/ironic stance that I need in order to get at story.

    So while they aren’t just sockets over again, I think that they definatly have something to say about how the two work together — not every goal will work with every technique qill work with every socket, and so forth.


    I’m not a big immersive in any of these modes. When I do get my “flow” on (which I think is different than what Mo does, and I’ll talk about that when I talk about what it looks like when she immerses) I do a fairly kairosis type thing, and I do often move in and out of flow durring the first part of a game (where much of the setup and heavy lifting happens) and then stay in flow the whole way through – even when moving IC/OOC – once things hit a high pitch.

  6. I’ll second Mark that kenosis involves some profound obliteration of subject/object experience, so I’m wondering how easy it is to actually get that out of most rp experiences. The guy in the closet example strikes me as particularly illustrative–he’s not interacting with anyone, just the stream of ideas in his own head.

    Can Kenosis even be maintained in an rp game, since the challenges of interacting take you out of the space? Not that you couldn’t have a kenotic reverie to psych up for the other parts of a game, but to stay kenotic during a game sounds a little autistic or demands an amazingly passive play style.

  7. This is somewhat unrelated to the topic at hand. I appologize for that. But I’ve looked for this information elsewhere, and couldn’t find it. This seemed like the best place to ask.

    What are “sockets”? They’re mentioned several times in the comments. Can you point me to an essay/description of how they are used in RPG theory?



  8. Ian,

    I’m not sure that we’re on the same page. Kenosis as an immersion goal isn’t seeking to be nothing at all, it’s seeking to be nothing of you and replace it with everything of your character. Interacting with other people IC wouldn’t be a problem, though interacting with other people *as you, the player* would definately be.


    *embarrassed cough*

    I’ve been meaning to write that up ever since I mentioned them on my Immersion 101 post a long time ago. The closest thing that there is online is in the interview that I’ve been doing with Thomas Robertson over on his blog in question #5. I’ll be getting around to something more formal on SA as soon as I can find some time.

    Essentially, sockets are the place where people plug themselves into game and give and take their focus and energy to and from.

  9. Mo,

    Oh! I get it. These theory terms are killing me–I don’t think it has to do with how you framed them, but I already have all this baggage as to how *I* use them that I keep switching out to my meanings rather than yours. My bad on that.

  10. Ian,

    Happens to the best of folks some days – the quick catch and turnaround probably means you’ve got less than most. 🙂



  11. Hello Mo,

    Very interesting post! I don’t call myself an “immersionist”, but I definitely get a kick out of kairosis when roleplaying. Catharsis is nice, but that depends on a finished story arc, and letting the game take the time needed for the connection to build. Since I’m mostly doing one-shots, with myself as GM, I don’t usually get to experience it. Playing and finishing the Sorcerer scenario Day of Dupes with Peter Nordstrand was cathartic, and I enjoyed a sensation of sweet melancholy the following days.

    To be totally honest I’m a bit scared of kenosis, and I think I consciously keep some distance to the characters I’m playing. I have friends who would say that this is what roleplaying is all about, and try to set up their games to get to that state. A friend of mine, Jonas BarkÃ¥, calls it deep immersion and says it’s something he strives to achieve. When he and Sven, another friend, plays they arrange things so the players more easily can reach it, even if they would probably rate the forms “LARP, Nordic freeform, table-top RPGs” when it comes to ease of reaching kenosis. It’s simply harder to give up yourself and take on the personality of someone else when you’re sitting in someone’s living room, even if you still can get glimpses of it. I would think those glimpses are what Jonas BarkÃ¥ and Sven are after.

    I know they’re interested, so I’ll point them in the direction to this post.

  12. Mo says:

    think it was Jonas Karlsson that told me once about a kind of freeform larper situation where sitting in a closet for four hours experiencing the trauma from inside a character’s head was a desirable thing. Now, this isn’t my personal cup of tea, but I’d say it’s pretty firmly a character socket deal.

    What you are talking about is the most common form of critique against the form of immersion argued by the so called Turku school of larp (which basically is the ideas of the charming and productive Finnish rpg writer Mike Pohjola). What he says is that you should always only strive after behaving exactly as your character. If the inner logic of the character demands sitting in a closet for four hours you should do so. It’s probably a badly written character, but that’s another thing, they argue. (And things like being locked in alone in a small space for two days and being severely beaten and so on has especielly been done in the Norwegian hardcore-larp scene.)

    Personally I can’t understand this position, even though I see immersion as an important part. The big crowd (in the Nordic countries) of deep immersers get very upset by any physical object that is not ingame: a car in a precar setting, a tie from the wrong time period and so on. I don’t care about this. But I have realized that I always have a huge problem with any speech that is not only ingame. I think this has to do with me being very non-visual, but only living through words.

    This of course also mean that I have a lot of issues wiht traditional rpg, even if I still enjoy it.

    After reading the post I believe to be mostly interested in Catharsis and Kenosis.

    When I play traditonal games I prefer to play in immersion ‘bursts’. Between the bursts you can min-max, plan, discuss the evolvment of the story or whatever. then you have play a scene. Often it’s better if nothing special happens in the scene, since action often is boring. I love intense breakfast chats. I also love scenes of anxiety and breakdowns, but that’s more exhausting.

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