A barrow to die in~

An expression that has stuck with me since I first heard it metaphorically talks about being certain that the point for which one is arguing is worth the effort. Though I imagine many who read this will know the expression I mean, let’s be clear: “Be sure that this is a hill worth dying on.”

In life, we have many opportunities to stand on those hills, and some prove to be worth risking death to defend and others really do not. One such hill for me in my gaming life has turned out to be the concept behind the commonly-used term, ‘immersion.’ Given that this post will be about immersion and that the topic for many is one such hill, I hope readers will be willing to accept the creation of a new metaphor. This is not a real hill, most of it is imagined. We aren’t standing on it, but inside it, and… we could die in here, alone and misunderstood. Amusingly for me, the topic of immersion is a barrow I am willing to die in.

This post has not sprung from nowhere. Recently the Death Trap Games blog shared a post on the topic which showed both thoughtfulness and open-mindedness. I prize both of those in RPG interlocutors, so I left a comment which ended up with me sitting here, typing this. Why did I feel so compelled? Well, the short answer is that I could relate to what he wrote on a personal level, as can many, but the neatness of the argument was obscuring an important point. “Immersion in Character” does not encompass the entirety of Immersion.

Read the post in question!

I guess the best place for me to start is with what has gone before. I will try to keep what is not brief, brief. If you would like a longer exploration of the topic, video links will be placed through the text and compiled at the end.

What has gone before:

Points about ‘immersion’ that often surface in localized discussions of play, but which soon sink back into the murky depths or stay below the horizon of the wider oceans of the hobby as a whole include:
1. The concept of immersion is incomplete without the medium into which a player immerses, such as
–immersion in character
–immersion in play
–immersion in camaraderie
–immersion in our perception of game events
–immersion in our shaping of game events
2. We may find ourselves immersed for part of a session, throughout a session, or intermittently.
3. We may immerse in one or many different aspects of play and – importantly – we many not even realize it.
4. Immersion is a temporary state facilitated by the circumstances, interaction with others, and enjoyment.
5. Immersion as a property is not unique to RPGs. It arises in any number of human activities. Further, the most well-known and referenced immersive experience in RPGs, immersion in character, is also not exclusively tied to that type of gaming, or even gaming at all.
6. Identification with or anthropomorphization of game elements (chits, tokens, miniatures, squads, characters, etc.) is a function of imagination and empathy and so is a strong link to immersion in character, but is not a necessary component of immersion itself.

Chocolate and Peanut Butter

An RPG experience where we have reached the end of the session scarcely believing how much time has passed, and with our minds full of action, drama, and imagined vistas, is so delicious that I think we can forgive people for drawing a false conclusion that the play is peanut butter, the character is chocolate, and the whole experience is an endless Reese’s Cup. I love peanut butter cups probably a lot more than the next person, but to equate immersion with immersion in character is to exclude the rest of the candy shop in favor of one flavor. Our buddy might not get into character the way we do, but if we look, we may realize that they are just as engaged with some other aspect of play – and are just as satisfied by that- as we are with character.

If we can take a step back to look at the qualities which define immersion, we can see it in other parts of our lives such as writing, cooking, dancing, procreating, running, sparring, climbing, as well as other kinds of gaming – among other activities. A lot has been written about what this state is, how it can be recognized, how it can be maintained, and how it can be attained more easily. We can also see that it is not just active things like sports and games where it can appear, but also passive ones such as being caught up in a performance, recorded or otherwise. If we can accept that immersion – by whatever name – is something that we can experience in pretty much any activity (no matter how active that activity is or is not) then we have to recognize that immersion in character or whatever else is just one of many types of that experience. That likewise makes it clear that when comparing immersive experiences, superlatives such as better, richer, deeper, etc. do not have much bearing. Immersion, as an experience, is immersion. It will have different qualities and engage different aspects of our attention as fits the thing into which we immerse, but as an experience it is what it is.

We can easily read the trail that leads to the conclusion that RPGs are immersive by design (or by happy accident) and that it is the roles we play into which we immerse. It’s a brightly-lit one and it seems to have logic on its side. RPGs are about playing roles. That role, the character, can be like a window into the imagined world of the game. In some other cases, it feels like it isn’t just a window through which we peer, but like a door through which we step. When that occurs, it gets described as an immersive experience and there we have it: RPGs allow you to immerse in character and that is – as an experience – better than not immersing in character and so for better play, everyone should want to immerse in character! The problem is that the character is not the only route to an immersive experience.

As an aspect of RPG play, immersion in character is the immersive experience that connects to our sense of identity and ability to empathize with others on a personal level, but it is not more intense, it does not have depths that other engagements lack. It is just different and is perceived differently. In much the same way that we have our preferred games, genres, and groups, there are those we will play with who will prefer a situation which facilitates immersion in some other aspect of the hobby than the one(s) which thrill us. Where these preferences are compatible, the distinctions between us simply do not matter. Play will be enjoyable for all. Where they prove to be challenging to mix or wind up being incompatible, some sort of choice needs to be made. That is not always easy. To bookend the choices with the extremes, we may need to talk about playing a different game which suits all of us better, or we may need to talk about changing the composition of the group. This choice is made more difficult if we are unable to recognize or articulate the source(s) of friction in the group. If some in the group are caught up in the notion of immersion being a heightened state of play but then conflate immersion with immersion in character, the risk of alienating one or more players who know they immerse in play – but also know that they do not get into character. It is like being told you are doing something wrong when you are not. Who likes that?

My earliest memory of a truly powerful immersive gaming experience was not in a roleplaying game, though I had been gaming a lot for several years at the point where it happened. Prior to that event, I had not given the idea of describing the actual experience of play much thought. After it happened, I gave it a lot of thought. I could see that that immersive quality had been present with me all along, but it took that really gripping experience of it to open my eyes to what play of an RPG offered to me. I could suddenly see that I deeply connected to the moment where the dice and the numbers transform into description. I could suddenly see that I was more alive when we rehashed the events of a session after play. Each retelling brought the scenes and the emotions into sharper focus. Most strongly, I could see that I was able to step through the character and into another world – even if just for slivers of time – and I wanted more of that.

That first, really strong experience of knowing that I had had an ‘immersive experience’ was in playing BattleTech in a damp basement with paper standees and a bunch of people I did not know. There was no character. None at all. There was just a mech and some loose-leaf with the war machine’s stats on it, and 2d6. Many of us were learning the game, so it had no flow and everything was interrupted with questions. Despite all of that, for long stretches of time that had no time, I was the pilot of that Warhammer. I knew next to nothing about the setting, the ostensible reasoning behind the fighting, or the role of the mech in the culture of the Inner Sphere I had yet to hear about.

Regardless, somehow, I was totally transported to 3025, and I can still feel and smell the heat of the cockpit to this day – more than 30 years later.

Bias toward Preference

We like what we like, and why not? That is just good sense. However, often – for whatever reason – the thing we like gets conflated with good quality for everyone rather than suitability for us. Edition wars, house rules, dice brands, bands, art, cereal, caramel delivery mechanisms…. How often is the thing which gets touted as being ‘objectively better’ not supported by argumentation, but rather by passion?

While some, like me, overcome obstacles, time shortages, and distance to be able to squeeze out what feels like bare minutes of play, and do so for the immersive experience of character, others scrabble just as hard to eke out moments where the toss of a die seemingly stops time and starts hearts. Still others hang on through the week with white knuckles, just waiting for the dropping away of the world and the surge of life that comes from the perfect Python quote at the perfect time. What engages us is personal. How deeply it pulls us under is circumstantial and while we can learn to widen the access road to the water, sometimes it just doesn’t happen.

For some of us, it never happens. For some of us, the games have merits without the perks of an immersive experience. They, like those who cling to the notion that ‘there can be only one!’ immersive experience (and its the one that takes us under) can be resistant to the idea that RPGs can be immersive and put up roadblocks on that access road to the water so they can get more of what they want from a session. Whether we are pushing for a deeper in-character experience, or pushing for more risk, or trying to rig the odds for more gambling over higher stakes, or setting the stage for the perfect blend of insight and cleverness to shape the ideal scene, or making sure the gang is together on a Friday night, we can get lost in enforcing a bias that the others do not uniformly share. The odds of this increase when we lack the habit of communicating about the game as a game and as an experience, and when we lack that habit how could we ever develop a functional vocabulary for expressing things so ephemeral as an immersive experience anyway?

So what are you saying?

I am saying that despite claims to the contrary, immersion exists. I am saying that despite the often baseless certitude of the Internet, it might not be restricted to the singular experience of being in character. I am saying that for most long-term gamers, whether they recognize it now or not, immersion of one sort or another is perhaps a contributing factor to their longevity in the hobby. Most importantly, however, I am saying that there is a lack of reasonable talk on the subject, to the extent that – like so many other aspects of RPGs – the topic routinely gets partially rediscovered and discussed only to routinely disappear again for another crop of gamers to discover and debate about, without anyone really getting to benefit from the insights of the previous generations. If Jon Peterson’s books Playing at the World and the Elusive Shift show us anything is that we are still talking today about the same things with the same vague groping toward meaningful terms that the first gamers were talking about almost 50 years ago. We are talking about them in the same way, seemingly having made no progress in all that time.

For a hobby that operates on text and the spoken word, we are curiously unsuccessful in actually talking to each other in lasting and meaningful ways about what we are doing. We have rules, and we have games of stunning variety and innovation, but the conversations about how to really play them….? We can see the evidence that these are like dew drops in the desert, giving meaning in the moment, but then burning off to be recreated and evaporated some other day.

YouTube Playlist:

If you prefer to work your way through the spoken word, please consider watching some of these videos from the past few years.

Seeking a Dao of Play
A Rupture in Culture
A Vocabulary for Gaming
IC/OoC: One Set of Observations
Defining Immersion

3 Responses to “A barrow to die in~”
  1. Batjutsu says:

    Reblogged this on Batjutsu and commented:
    Runeslinger has written a great article about Immersion and RPGs, as well as the cyclic nature of many RPG discussions.

  2. rshafferclaridge says:

    Hello! Longtime listener, first time caller here. I really loved this post! You have such a wonderfully cerebral, and intentional approach to the hobby, and I always come away from your thoughts feeling inspired. You also have a real facility with your ability to articulate nuanced and granular concepts in a way that gives them their due complexity and import. We are lucky to have you as such an active member of the community.

    I don’t know whether your original post was meant to invite further discussion. If it wasn’t, feel free to internalize my compliments and ignore the rest. However, if you’ll indulge me, your thoughts sparked a couple of my own regarding immersion. I offer the following – rooted of course in your spot-on assessment that “we like what we like” and what feels immersive to me might not to other gamers, and that’s perfectly fine.

    1) Sound and Sense. I have my students in my legal writing class read Alexander Pope’s Sound and Sense. The gist of the poem is that words are not merely descriptive: They also have sounds. And that the sound of the words you choose should echo their descriptive effect, and the senses and feelings you are trying to evoke.

    I feel similarly about game systems and mechanics, and how they should echo the GM and players narrative experiences. One particularly non-immersive experience I regularly feel is with DnD combat. If I’m crossing swords with some highwayman I’m hoping to feel the thrill of the clash of steel, and a deadly dance of thrusts and counterthrusts, parrys and ripostes. But I’m limited by the system. So instead I roll to hit. I miss. And the highwayman waits until it is his turn to try to hit me. Which feels a far cry from the reality of fencing where a mistimed or misplaced thrust or slash leads to immediate counterattack. You’ve written before about the disconnect with the theater of the mind, and group or GM descriptions, which I certainly think plays a part here. But I think it’s deeper than that. I think it reflects a system that (while perfectly good at many things) struggles to be immersive for this particular event. Even a successful roll feels less a daring swashbuckle (if that’s a word) but instead just running through a poor soul who was caught unawares after a poor initiative roll. Even the most skilled GM with the most compelling narration of my failed attack can do little to ameliorate the fact that I missed, and now we are waiting. While the artifice of the game is that each round takes 6 seconds, it certainly doesn’t feel like 6 seconds.

    I think that speaks to a truth you touched on that we develop these wonderfully nuanced systems, but rarely talk to each other about our lack of communicating about immersion. In some ways I think that failure reinforces some game systems that are perfect for certain situations and imperfect for others. While rolling for initiative I think works wonderfully to immerse you in gunslinging or ranged combat games, as you can almost feel the itch of your trigger finger, it works less well in other games. Because we don’t often talk about immersion effectively, perhaps we are missing opportunities to reinvent or reimagine systems in more immersive ways. For an example of a positive immersive experience I point to FASA Star Trek, which in many ways is a deeply flawed game (especially for a Star Trek game) but does a wonderful job of putting you on the bridge of a starship under fire, as consoles spark and explode around you.

    2) Men with no name. I appreciated and resonated with the (surprising) amount of immersion you can feel with a character who is barely developed. I think the focus on character immersion has led to perhaps an overemphasis on extensive character backstory generation. That’s a good thing, but can lead to more moments which break immersion. If I thoroughly develop a character I get a sense for who he is, and what (I think) he should be capable of. So when the dice don’t confirm my beliefs about who my character is, that can feel frustrating. On the other hand, if my character really isn’t anyone, then the dice teach me who he is, and what he is capable of. And it feels a little less disappointing when he can’t do the thing I want him to do. In some ways having an ill-defined avatar allows for that wonderful feeling of discovery as your character’s actions and rolls teach you about who the character is. Even with a well-developed character, some of my favorite moments in gaming are learning something about my character that I didn’t previously know.

    Since you shared your immersive experience, I hope you will indulge me as I share a recent one of mine. It was playing one of the recent reboots of the XCOM series of computer games. It was a bit surprising to me because I often don’t find computer games to be terribly immersive. But it was a similar situation to yours: A soldier with a randomly generated name, nationality, and callsign. No backstory, except perhaps the one I had imagined for her. I made a poor tactical decision, and she got killed. That was that. Her death served no important plot function. She was not pre-destined to die. There was no cutscene of her comrades memorializing her. Her death served no purpose. She died because I got sloppy. It bothered me to a surprising degree, and I drank quite a bit that night.

    Looking back, I think I associate my immersive response with several important facts: a) I was in complete control of the situation, so I had control over her survival; b) I was playing within a game system that encouraged and sometimes demanded aggressive tactical play; c) The system was percentile based, with a rather notorious random number generator that had worked in this particular soldier’s favor before; d) death was a distinct possibility and was permanent. That’s what made this all feel so immersive to me. As I type this, I am struck by the fact that because the soldiers are all randomly generated, there’s no one else with whom I can adequately share this experience. She wasn’t in anyone else’s game. I’m the only one who ever knew her, who remembers her, and can mourn her. And now I need another drink.

    • Runeslinger says:

      It has been a while since I have found this sort of comment waiting for me on this blog. Thanks for reading and for taking the time to share your thoughts. The kind words were nice to read, too~

      To respond in reverse order, your second point on Men with No Name is a solid example to use with my notion of Premature Imagination, expanding that warning out beyond the moment of a decision or declaration to link solidly with other points of description and determination which can as easily be contaminated via character poisoning. The skill we learn is in how much understanding of character is right for us as we begin each game. We don’t have to like either situation where Player A gets more out of detailing a character than Player B who prefers to discover the character in play, but we can certainly benefit from being aware of their default preferences and how much flexibility they and the chosen game have to accommodate each other.

      For point 1, well, gamers as a whole generally seem to know that system matters, but it seems like not as many as I would like to believe carry that onward to the rest of the idea: How does it matter, to me, in this game, with these people? To rely on your example, how does the length of a turn affect how combat is imagined and described? This is something that really sticks out to me. In Mythras it can be a challenge for people to learn how to smoothly use Action Points to play quickly and inventively. In FFG Star Wars it takes people time to get over the notion that one roll connects with one discrete action. This baffles me a bit because very few games actually work that way, outside of D100 and Palladium. When I still played D&D, turns were a minute long. One roll did not mean one strike then, and even in a shorter turn of a handful of seconds it still doesn’t. If we allow these discordances to continue, even if we do not really notice them in a full and conscious sense, they still add up and contribute in some negative way subconsciously.

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