The mechanics of a virtual world are just as important as visual fidelity for becoming immersed in that world. But comparatively little attention has been given to the simulation half of the immersion equation. Many pervasive misconceptions abound.
The mythical immersive game is a hyper-realistic simulation, with mechanics that model the functionality of the world in detail, mountains of data stored on the computer for all of those details, and a vast play space that has no boundaries to the simulations or actions of the player, and no directed influences on the player’s choices. Such a simulation would be virtually impossible to make and, more importantly, not very interesting to immerse yourself in. Instead of making a simulation of a world, it might be more effective to try to make a game of a world.
Achieving complete realism in either visuals or mechanics is not currently possible. However, just as perfectly realistic visuals are not absolutely necessary for immersion, neither are perfectly realistic mechanics. The most effective option might be to make games of worlds, where all function has fiction and all fiction has function. This aims to ensure all fantasy is intrinsic to the gameplay, all mechanics are diegetic, and all visible fiction is responsive. The game and its mechanics needn’t necessarily be realistic, but should probably be iconic (resembling the fiction in some capacity), and could be stylised (simplifying and altering the way the fiction works to more efficiently convey the experience entailed by the fiction). Simply having consistency in the style and interaction of the mechanics will go a long way to improving immersion. Once you pick a point on the realism-gamism spectrum, be consistent with that and make sure all your mechanics also fit very closely to that point. And ensure that the mechanics fit with each other, consistent with an internal logic. Achieving this consistency can be helped by shifting the focus from data intensity to process intensity, by methods such as emergent gameplay and PCG. Process intensity using emergent gameplay also improves agency by allowing the player to do whatever is logically possible according to the world’s rules. This increases the chances that the player will be able to act upon perceived affordances. Perceived affordances could be also be used as a form of indirect control to reduce the chances of players bumping into the boundaries of the simulation, and also to combat directionlessness by constantly providing obvious playful activities to pursue.
The best virtual worlds we are likely to see in the near future, won’t be the complete, realistic simulations that most people expect. They will be games of worlds. The real world is adequate for living in (some of the time) but when it comes to virtual worlds, they need to be good to visit. We need to keep that in mind. We are designing worlds that are not good to live in, but good to play in, to build in, to fight in, to socialise in, to explore, or even to break.
Would the Holodeck be any fun?
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