Would the Holodeck be any fun? 1. Myths of Immersion

I long for the day when I can actually step into a fictional world and explore it in all its glory, rather than being constrained to a narrow slice of that world. Who wouldn’t want to be immersed in the world of their favourite game? And there is plenty of attention going into how to achieve enough visual fidelity to create a sense of presence, but this ignores the interaction half of the equation. As soon as people put on a VR headset the first thing they try to do is touch something, and are immediately disappointed when their hands pass straight through it.

If you can see there, you are going to wonder if you can go there. If you can go there, you are going to wonder what you can do there. As designers of experiences, we cannot just focus on the technical challenges of visual fidelity. We also need to pay due attention to the technical challenges of simulation breadth and depth.

The world needs to dynamically respond to the player as well in order for them to not just feel presence, but actually feel immersed in that world. So how can we achieve that? Most players might think that they have a pretty good idea of what this would entail: A vast and complex simulation where the player can go anywhere and do anything. But when the game design literature is collected together it paints a very different picture that most players would find very counter-intuitive. Each part in this series will look at a different myth of immersion and what we should do instead: Realism vs Gamism, Stylised Mechanics, Process Intensity, Agency, How to Make Games of Worlds (Conclusion & References).

Spore: The everything simulator.

Spore: The everything simulator.

To begin, our technology is not quite there yet on either the visual or simulation fronts. We can’t display perfectly realistic visuals, nor can we simulate entire universes in all their breadth and depth, from clusters of galaxies, to subatomic particles, and complex social structures in between. In fact, it might be a bad idea to even try (see Juul, 2007a; Pittman, 2013; and also Salen & Zimmerman’s, 2003, description of the immersive fallacy). Sylvester (2013) describes the simulation dream as the naïve hope that by modelling enough detail or complexity in a game world, interesting situations will just naturally follow, gripping stories will occur, and fun play will ensue: “Most days for most people on Earth or in Middle Earth are quite mundane. It’s only very rarely that someone has to drop the Ring into Mount Doom. Follow a random hobbit in Hobbiton, and you’ll be bored soon.” Frank Lantz (in Wonderland, 2006) explains, “Even if you could by some magic create this impossible perfect simulation world, where would you be? You’d need to stick a game in there. You’d need to make chess out of the simulation rocks in your world. It’s like going back to square one. I don’t wanna play chess again. I wanna play a game that has the dense simulation and chess combined”. Stuart (2015) discusses various approaches to the challenge of getting a world to produce interesting scenarios.

In the past what have we done when realism was not viable? We have gone for a very deliberate and unified stylised aesthetic (Think of Mario or Populous). If we can’t yet simulate a whole world and make it realistic, we might be able to make a stylised version of a world that simplifies some features and exaggerates others. Done consistently to create a unified and cohesive style, this could be extremely effective. Just as there can be “a simulation of a world”, and there can be “a game of a film”, then perhaps there could be “a game of a world”. But what would a game of a world look like?

When we can't achieve realism, we usually try to create a unified stylised aesthetic, as in Populous. This can also be done with game mechanics.

When we can’t achieve realism, we usually try to create a unified stylised aesthetic, as in Populous. This can also be done with game mechanics.

There are many examples that we know it would not resemble. Many games today tend to feel more like you are surrounded by cardboard cutouts on a theatre stage, rather than surrounded by a living, breathing (if fictional) world. And your agency within that world is severely constrained. Often it is limited to killing things in order to collect other things. The world is visually rich, but interactively shallow (see eg Chimelarz, 2013; Up Up Down Down, 2014). As Stewart (2014) puts it, “it would be very nice to see more non-rollercoaster games made. It would be good for there to be more games in which the developer’s hand is not constantly jammed into the backs of players, unrelentingly shoving them through their pre-constructed dioramas”.

In other games the opposite is true, and there is just a collection of game mechanics with only the thinnest sense of a world by occasional references to actual objects. For example in Mario, there might be visual representations of objects, but really those sprites are just decorations on top of game tokens, because nothing makes any sense except as a game. Rieber (1996) draws the distinction between endogenous and exogenous fantasies in games, although Malone (1980, 1981) uses the terminology intrinsic and extrinsic fantasy to refer to the same thing. Endogenous or intrinsic fantasies are directly relevant to the gameplay (like an archery fantasy in a game of darts), and exogenous or extrinsic fantasies are just irrelevant decoration (like the execution setting of the word-guessing game Hangman). And in their experiments they have found improved engagement for games that have intrinsic fantasies, supporting Bateman’s (2014) argument that the mechanics and the setting must be congruent with each other. In either the linear rollercoaster game with little agency, or arcade game with extrinsic fantasy, you play the game with the very clear feeling that this is definitely a game, and not a world. They may be very fun, and very well made, but they are not immersive, and they are not games of worlds.

The setting of Hangman is an example of extrinsic fantasy. Does guessing a word really have anything to do with public execution?

The setting of Hangman is an example of extrinsic fantasy. Does guessing a word really have anything to do with public execution?

Juul (2005) uses the term fiction to refer to the alternate world presented by a game (real or fictional). For example, the medieval setting and the idea of knights and bishops is part of the fiction of chess. Some games are entirely abstract and don’t have any fiction, like Tetris. But in other cases, a game will have obvious game mechanics that are inconsistent with the fiction of the game. Juul would say these games have incoherent worlds. For example, the fact that Mario has three lives doesn’t really have any explanation in the game world. When asked to explain why Mario can resurrect himself three times, players refer to game balancing rather than the fiction. He has three lives because that makes for a fun game. It is functionality with no fiction. These mechanics that break the coherence of worlds are not diegetic.

Doom has an incoherent world. Why exactly is this research facility full of candles and carelessly-placed barrels of toxic waste?

Doom has an incoherent world. Why exactly would  a research facility be full of lava and secret doorways and hundreds of explosive barrels?

Diegetic is a film term used to describe when sound and music actually have a plausible source in the film’s world (eg a nearby street musician) rather than clearly being an artificial soundtrack layered on top (Cecchi, 2010; Nunez, 2007). But this concept has also been applied to games (Game Design Patterns Wiki, 2011, 2014b; Juul, 2005). A game mechanic would be diegetic if it had a plausible explanation in the fiction, and thus appeared to simply be an implementation of the fiction – an element of realism rather than gamism.

On the other hand, a piece of fiction may have no functionality (see eg Pittman, 2013; Tutenel et al., 2008). These are the static props, distant mountains, and invulnerable flocks of birds in games. For example, you come across some very realistic kids playing soccer, but this completely fails to feel like part of the world because you can see that the fence between you and the kids was put there so that you couldn’t interact, only watch this predetermined sequence of events (Chimelarz, 2013). Even with the high degree of visual realism, this sequence is not compelling because it is obviously not interactive or dynamic. Breslin (2009) uses the term responsiveness to describe sandbox games that support and react to a wide array of player actions in interesting ways. Fiction that has no functionality (that is not responsive) is going to feel like fake set dressing (Destructoid, 2008). In fact, some researchers have found that players are very good at rapidly identifying irrelevant decoration and learning to ignore it (Frasca, 2001a; Haider & Frensch, 1996; Juul, 2005, 2007a; Rambusch & Susi, 2008; although see also Bateman’s, 2013a, 2013b, description of the wrapping paper fallacy).

 Red Faction 2 has plenty of fiction without function. That wall can crumble, but that plank on the ground is invincible.

Red Faction 2 has plenty of fiction without function. That wall can be blown to pieces, but that brick on the ground is invincible and unmovable.

However, if fiction is given function without gameplay justification, it is often criticised by players as an intrusive element of unnecessary realism (Toups et al., 2014). For example, having to walk across actual miles of terrain in a role-playing game, having to manage the ammunition of individual units in a strategy game, or having to stop to eat regularly and sleep at night in a shooter game. In a sandbox of gang violence and crazy vehicle stunts, imagine the annoyance of having to maintain social relationships by regularly taking your cousin bowling (Know Your Meme, 2012; McGuire, 2012; Whitehead, 2011). Crawford (1984) called these tacked-on mechanics dirt, but Sylvester (2013) calls them hair complexity, because they just stick out of the game system, on top of everything else, without really connecting meaningfully to any of the other mechanics. Including a mechanic just because it is realistic can seem arbitrary and detract from the experience when it doesn’t serve any gameplay purpose.

Diablo 2 had a stamina bar that didn't add any interesting combat gameplay and just slowed you down when exploring. It might be realistic that you can't run forever, but it is also annoying.

Diablo 2 had a stamina bar that didn’t add any interesting combat gameplay and just slowed you down when exploring. It might be realistic that you can’t run forever, but it is also annoying. The stamina bar is just dirt / hair complexity.

Is there a way to put all these ideas together to come up with a cohesive explanation of immersive mechanics?: Realism vs Gamism


Would the Holodeck be any fun?

1. Myths of Immersion

2. Realism vs Gamism

3. Stylised Mechanics

4. Process Intensity: Game as Referee

5. Agency and Affordances

6. How to Make Games of Worlds


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