Game design is a series of universal theories that can be applied to any facet of play, yet most people think the disparity between video games and tabletop games is too large to broach. Rather than seeing these concepts as a dividing line, let's take a look at some concepts often speculated to be solely digital and bring them into the tabletop environment.
There is a widely accepted theory among the digital games industry, as well as among its press, that moves to propose that a game should create an experience where the player forgets their existence in the real world and begins to believe that the game, or designed entertainment, is experiencing reality firsthand. Alternatively, Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman oppose this idea in their book Rules of Play, and describe it as a concept known as The Immersive Fallacy.
The Immersive Fallacy is the idea that pleasure of a media experience lies in its ability to sensually transport the participant into an illusory, simulated reality. The immersive fallacy also proposes that the new reality is so complete that the frame falls away, and the player believes they are part of an imaginary world. Salen and Zimmerman criticize this concept of immersion, as it is less a matter of experiencing a game, and more of joining the game in play through interaction.
Game designer and programmer François Dominic Laramée wrote the following on the concept of immersion in his essay, Immersion:
“All forms of entertainment strive to create suspension of disbelief, a state in which the player’s mind forgets that it is being subjected to entertainment and instead accepts what it perceives as reality.”
Warren Spector, acclaimed game designer and lead designer of Deus Ex speculated the following on this topic:
“Is the Star Trek Holodeck an inevitable and end result of games as simulacra? The history of media (mass and otherwise) seems pretty clearly a march toward ever more faithful approximations of reality—from the development of the illusion of perspective in paintings … to color moving pictures with sound beamed directly into your home via television to today’s immersive reality games like Quake and System Shock.”
These comments are pointedly exaggerated to influence conversation, but propose the future of immersive entertainment becoming a full virtual-reality simulation where the user experiences the interaction with the media through sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch, until they are completely encapsulated in the new reality, stripped from their own.
More frighteningly, is this something the modern consumer would be looking for in their entertainment, as a complete escape from the world they occupy into a new experience of immersion?
Elena Gorfinkel, a film studies scholar, responded to Spector’s comments with the following criticism:
“Immersion is not a property of a game or media text but is an effect that a text produces. What I mean is that immersion is an experience that happens between a game and its player, and is not something intrinsic to the aesthetics of a game…For example; one can get immersed in Tetris. Therefore, immersion into game play seems at least as important as immersion into a game’s representational space. It seems that these components need to be separated to do justice and better understand how immersion, as a category of experience and perception, works.”
Gorfinkel here postulates that immersion is not a trait of media that can be aestheticized, but a concept that is wholly and entirely produced through the interaction of the game and the consumer of the game. Gorfinkel also moves to state that immersion is not a matter of graphics or details of the aesthetic quality, but a method in which a game interacts with its player, as well as the depth of that interaction.
Often, I will hear about GMs attempting to immerse their players in a variety of ways at the table. A large component of these theories is adding something externally to the game outside of the game to better position the players in the setting, such as music. This is a concept I usually balk at, as music can be helpful but often adds another element of the gameplay that the players cannot interact with, nor was designed specifically for the game.
The immersive experience must come from the play itself, being the experience that the players are obtaining through the adventures they take within the game. Rather than spending time finding a music sting or ambience that could generate a feeling in the game, that feeling could be generated by more efficiently designing the play rather than the external.
I’ve put both theories of immersion into this article, as I would like you to draw your own conclusion, be that from immersion through aesthetic or immersion through play. Regardless of choice, the end result should always be creating immersive experiences for the player.
Do you have any experience with immersive events? Have you, as a player or as a GM, ever found yourself drifting into another world as you play? Does all of this sound completely silly? Let us know in the comment section, we would love to hear your opinions and stories!
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