Intro to Immersion 101

I’ve been promising an essay on immersion to a bunch of people for a while now, so as much as I hesitate to use any word so formal as “essay”, I guess this is where it starts.

Hrm, OK. Lets start here:

It can be said that:

  • Narrativism requires active rather than passive participation in the process of the game.
  • Narrativism requires enhanced emotional commitment to the story in order to make it powerful.
  • Narrativism requires strong, dynamic, pulsing characters that make strong, dynamic, pulsing choices to make the story out of.

And I find:

  • Immersive players, by nature of their immersion have clearer ideas and often fuller articulation about the wants and needs of their characters, which can lead (with support) to fuller, more dynamic kickers, and choices.
  • They have techniques, which enable them to make strong emotional investments into the game (via their characters).

And yet, much of the theory around Narrativism seems to suggest that immersion is antithetical to Narrativist play. To this I’d like to say: WTF?

I concede that immersive players who create full, cohesive, complete backgrounds in which their stories are already told and there are no choices to be made, or who’s rich internal dialogue never comes out of their heads and into the story do not make good additions to a Nar game. However, I’d go further to posit these behaviors don’t make good additions to any game at all because they are dysfunctional behaviors and are not complementary to any mode of play. Essentially they’re just the immersionist version of turtling.

Does that mean all immersionists will exhibit these behaviors? By no means. Many immersionists will employ the techniques used in Narrativist games to enhance both their immersive play and the story. They will do so consciously, and functionally, and the game will be better for it.

The problem is, that immersion’s a difficult thing to pin down. It’s hard to talk about because it’s an instinctual and emotional process – that by which we find the place that we can most satisfactorily “plug in” emotionally to the game. I don’t think that those who use characters as their emotional “socket” are the only kind of immersionists, but I’ll talk more about that later. For the rest of this entry, I’ll stick with these folks alone. I’ll also show my biases up front: I consider myself a character immersionist, and I believe that we are frequently given a bad rap.

There seems to be this perception out there that all immersionists talk about their relationship to character as if it’s a magical or mystical process that cannot be explained, and that this leads many of the theorists to get exasperated and decide that immersionists simply are obfuscating because object to the analysis of their play. I disagree with this, and I find it rather dismissive.

There’s a reason why so many immersionists express their immersion experiences in mystical terms: the immersion process is in a secular sense, extremely mystical in that the process is enigmatic, obscure, and it often inspires a sense of wonder in the person who experiences it.

I think that this mode of expression means less that “I object to you analyzing my play” and more a statement of one or more of the following:

  1. I don’t necessarily fully understand the process myself
  2. I have major trouble expressing it analytically because it crosses over from the left brain to the right brain, and I have trouble finding language for it.
  3. It feels less authentic and emotionally satisfying to me when I try and force it language around it.
  4. I’m sensitive about because I’m emotionally connected to it and while I don’t object to subjecting it to the process of analysis, I feel like people are frequently dismissive or belittling about the process and I fear that people will dismiss or belittle me for engaging in it.
  5. It’s an emotional process and I’ve been socialized against discussing emotional things.
  6. I’m doing it for dysfunctional reasons and I don’t want to admit to myself that I’m being dysfunctional
  7. I’ve learned to do it not out of choice, because of dysfunctional stimuli and I don’t feel safe talking about it, or I’m dysfunctional about how I do it because of dysfunctional stimuli and I don’t feel safe talking about it.

So, how do we get around that? I don’t know… yet. I do know that I am a character immersionist, I don’t object to analysis of my play, and while I do have a dose of A, a hefty chunk of B and a little bit of D going on, I recognize that games are being created by both myself and others, and if I want those games to support my style of play. In order for that to happen, we need to find a way to get at what it means. So, this post and the posts to follow will be me talking about the bits I’ve figured out or am trying to figure out.

Some of the stuff that I’ll be talking about in later posts:

  • Description of what immersion means for me as a player, how I came to it, why I like it, and some techniques I use while doing it.
  • Different substyles of immersion
  • Immersion and GNS modes
  • Other immersion “sockets”
  • Mechanics that support immersionist play and mechanics that detract from it (specific to Nar games and actual play examples, possibly more)
  • Probably a whole lot of other blather.

21 thoughts on “Intro to Immersion 101”

  1. Very thoughtful. I’m one of those “immersion is almost always problematic for coherent play” people, by the way, so I am always interested in first-hand accounts of how it’s functional for people. I’ll be watching for more

  2. Hm! We’re talking about similar issues right now on my LJ. Close to wrapping up, I think, but if you’d like to have a look, it’s here. Might want to skip over the Stat 101 lecture at the beginning.

  3. Mark,

    Welcome! Glad to have someone both friendly and with an opposing view. That’s when some of the best work gets done.


    Thanks for the link, that’s one very interesting post, too bad it fizzled after only two pages of responses, as it had a great deal of potential. I’ll probably borrow from your language there for future posts, if you don’t mind. We do indeed see eye to eye.


    Welcome! Thanks for the nudge. I’ll have a look tomorrow when my head’s not filled with fog. Cursory glance looks interesting.


    Hungry! You will always be hungry for moooooore! 😉

  4. I consider myself an Immersionist, and I don’t object to my gaming style being analyzed, and I certainly don’t object to narrativist play.

    I’ll tell you what I do object to – narrativist meta-gaming. I don’t like systems and other modes of play that force me to break out of my character.

    There’s probably a fully formed thougt in there somewhere. As you progress with these I’ll see if I can figure out what it is.

  5. Thanks for the welcome, Mo. If it’s helpful, here’s my sticky point. Coherence comes when there’s (sufficient) unity of vision and purpose among players. Immersion as a technique deliberately obfuscates the inter-player communication channels that maintain that unity.

    I completely endorse Vincent’s ‘3 rules’ ideas about how to get around that, by the way. I just think that it’s much easier said than done.

  6. Hi Mo,

    As to this who’s rich internal dialogue never comes out of their heads and into the story

    Many immersives find it disruptive to tell the other players what their characters is thinking as they are thinking it, but have no problem discussing their character’s thoughts offline. Are you talking about the former or the latter? Because I read the former, but your thought only makes sense to me if I use the latter.

    I think that what shiffer is saying, too.

  7. Shiffer

    Welcome! I’m with you. One of the things I’ll be talking about in an upcoming post is exactly that: game processes that help and that hurt, by their timing, their nature, or their feel. I’ll be curious to see if we share a brain around those ideas later, and really do hope you’ll evaluate what I have to say in light of your own particular Brand of immersion, and let me know where I hit or miss the mark.

    And speaking of marks… 😉


    It does clearly delineate where we differ. For the most part I’m right with you. We agree on coherence and that lack of coherence can make immersion a sticking point in a mixed group. I only differ to say that I don’t believe that immersion needs to deliberately obfuscate, only that it can. More on this as I find language for it.


  8. Lee

    Welcome – wow all these people! 🙂

    Actually, I meant something different altogether. By who’s rich internal dialogue never comes out of their heads and into the story I meant people who play entirely inside their heads, and who’s richness of character inside doesn’t translate into a richness of character at the table. I’ve played with a couple of folks who I know well enough to know they have a richness inside their heads about the character but when you play with their character, it’s like talking to a wall: they’re contributing nothing to the game, just using the game to stimulate the rich environment inside their heads.

    Talking about what the character is thinking, either during play or outside of play is a separate thing alltogether. I by no means meant to imply that an immersionist who has trouble using an out of character voice, or breaking character in the middle of play was the pinnacle of dysfunctional immersionism – I think that having that trouble is quite natural, and is in certain situations, evidence of mechanics or system, or social structures that aren’t supporting immersionist play properly.

    Thanks for pointing that out. I hadn’t noticed that that could have been interpreted in this manner.

    Shiffer, if you read this part the same way as Lee, sorry about that. I hope it’s clearer now.

  9. Hi, Mo —

    I’d be really interested to hear your opinions on Polaris. I’ve had a diversity of reactions from Immersion-preferring sorts about the text.


  10. Hi Ben,

    The problem here, as always, is the problem of definition of immersion. That is, I agree with all you said by your definition of immersion, but it’s a straw man argument. Nobody is saying, IMO, that immersion is problematic for narrativism. Rather they’re saying the opposite. That for the definition of immersion that pegs it as a simulationism technique, that narrativism techniques mess with that form of immersion.

    Basically it’s a how some people with a penchant for certain effects of simulationism talk about their problem with narrativism. Including myself. That is, narrativism requires one to get outside of the character to some extent and think about what they want as a player. That pretty much crushes the form of immersion that I, at least, am talking about here.

    “Narrativists” are constantly saying that there’s no problem with immersion and narrativism. But that’s only true if they mean something very different by immersion than what the people complaining mean. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, then I propose that you’ve never experienced immersion in the way that I’m describing. Because if you did, you’d understand.

    It’s not just that I’ve never had this sort of immersive experience with any narrativism I’ve played, but that, having had the experience in sim play, even the idea of having such an experience with narrativism going on seems absurd. It’s like saying, “You can still see with your eyes closed!” Well, sorry, no you can’t.

    I personally have gone to great lenghts to try to describe this sort of immersion. Now, if you say, “Well I’m not talking about that sort or immersion” then the question becomes who are you trying to correct? Because I don’t believe that anyone is trying to counter what you’re saying.

    This is why immersion is so crappy as a term. You want it to mean one thing, and we want it to mean another thing because it seems to fit so well what we’re trying to identify. Until there’s agreement on what the term means, there’s no argument.


  11. When directed here, I thought it was Ben who was posting. Consider that with regards to the social tone of the above post. The content still remains my opinion, however.


  12. Hi Mike,

    no problem. Rather than ask you to describe the immersion you’re talking about, can you maybe point me to the place you’ve already gone to the trouble of doing so? I’d like to see how you describe it.


  13. I don’t want to toot my own horn, but the problem of defining Immersion is something several of us went into in depth in this post at my LJ. The approach I suggested was to start by establishing a framework which looks at the varieties of “immersion” functionally, in terms of the challenges and demands they impose on play.

    That could then be used as a basis for discussing the aesthetic benefits of any given variety of immersion. Recognition of the variety would hopefully avoid arguments such as “Immersion is great because it does X”, “No, Immersion sucks because it causes Y”, “The way I immerse doesn’t have to!” etc. I readily admit, it’s really just a longwinded way of saying “define your terms before arguing”. Yet, somehow necessary, I think.

  14. I have found that the players who hold immersive will sometimes get into the skin of their characters and this will create great things happening at the table.

    But sometimes immersion is used as an excuse to make decisions that just aren’t fun for anyone playing under the flag of, “It is what my character would do.” It can be frustrating, especially with a player who has been really key to making the game fun in previous sessions but suddenly I feel like we are at the whims of their imaginative fancy.

    I look forward to reading more about your thoughts on immersion.

  15. Hey Judd,

    But sometimes immersion is used as an excuse to make decisions that just aren’t fun for anyone playing under the flag of, “It is what my character would do.” It can be frustrating,

    Absolutely. In the post on Stance Crap and Authorial Intent I was attempting to talk to that (or at least beginning to).

    I am all for agendas where “natural” evolution of the characters are identified as important. I have trouble having to retrofit a character to something that has happened in game that has broken the character’s continuity. It really throws me out of the immersion seat in a very disruptive way.

    However, when immersed, there are lots of ways to take an active authorial stance. Where the player has partial or full directoral ownership of the world, or is given the time, distance ot help necessary to get to it, active authorial control can be exerted over the character. The issue is really a willingness to do so, or still, a clash of agends. I have a post coming up at some point soon about different positions immersionists take and the need to define preferences up front. Stay tuned.

  16. I never get back to these things, sorry. I was refered back here by a third party, actually. But you asked, so I should answer…

    I don’t want to start out tautologically, but it’s almost the best way to do it. That is, the sort of immersion I’m talking about is that feeling which is destroyed by considering the metagame.

    Eliot got close to it in the discussion he links to. Basically the “immersionist” in this case seeks to create an odd state of mind where he gets a feeling that he has disappeared, and only the character, living in the alternate reality in question, exists. Any metagame discussion (metagame defined as communication at all out of character, or even in character in such a way as to belie player existence) at all can make this extremely difficult to achieve, to say nothing of the problems it presents in maintaining it.

    I’ve likened this to cult activity and brainwashing before, and I think there are some real similarities. To give you an idea of what it’s like. Some have said, in fact, that such a state is intentional psychopathy. I’m not qualified to say if any of these terms are correct. What I can say is that I’ve experienced such play, and that it can be beyond fascinating. The feeling that one is actually becoming somebody else in another place.

    In point of fact it’s an odd duality feeling, because one doesn’t lose track of reality at any point (that would be, IMO, insanity by definition). And I think that one can become more adept at “switching” back and forth. But it’s not easy. As long as you’re making decisions using logic like “I want to see this, so I’ll have the character do this” instead of “I’ll do this” it’s near impossible to achieve.

    Now, all of this said, and despite having liked this form of play at times, I find that it is so rare, and so problematic, that I don’t actually advocate it’s form of play. That is, while I’m defining it here, that doesn’t mean that I’m actively endorsing it or anything.

    What I’m doing is saying that this is one of the many potential meanings for immersion. This form of immersion means that the player will not communicate out of character, or consider what the other players interests are if he can avoid it. So this form of play, completely valid IMO, is also completely incompatible with much narrativism play.

    Further, lots of players know what I’m talking about here. This isn’t the rantings of a solitary individual. When players say, “I’d play narrativism, but it ruins my immersion” I understand what they’re saying. Yes, it could be a dodge, and I’m sure that some players do this, and yes, it’s going to be hard to tell sometimes who is being honest about it, and who is not. But in some cases it’s an honest preference. I don’t have sympathy for players for whom it is a dodge – they need to simply drop it. But I do have sympathy for those who are expressing their honest preference.

    But that’s all irrellevant. Basically by your definition of immersion, no, there’s no conflict. By other definitions, either mine, or the definition of it being dishonest hiding from metagame priority, or other definitions that we have not yet touched on, it is a huge problem, trying to mix this with narrativism.

    Any “narrativists” who say that immersion is a bugbear put up by only dishonest folks either doesn’t understand this feeling and making an honest mistake, or is putting up narrativism propaganda.

    Again, apologies for the lateness of my reply.


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