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Less buttons, more immersion: Part II December 13, 2009

Posted by Cesar in thinking me.
Tags: , , , , ,

I have been very busy lately, hence the inactivity period. But that also gave me time to think more about immersion in video games, once again the subject of my blog. I confess I have been thinking about it since I wrote the first post. I talked to a lot of people and collected a lot of opinions. The subject is so deep I am pretty sure many have written PhD theses about it.

Be that as it may, it is my belief that we can break the fabric of video game immersion into three components. Let me try to elaborate.

First and foremost is the will to play. Huizinga‘s amazing Homo Ludens brilliantly discusses the importance of play and how playing is a primitive impulse. And I quote:

Play is older than culture, for culture, however inadequately defined, always presupposes human society, and animals have not waited for man to teach them their playing.

Play is not real life and the investment in this abstraction activity is deeply embedded in animal behavior, from little puppies to man! Playing serves many purposes, from relaxation and sheer entertainment to training, the latter being, I believe, the fundamental force acting on the selection of playful individuals to move forward, leaving the others behind. Many times we play to practice. And it is such a deep feeling that we never stop to think about it. But playful pretending is replete of mind and body exercises that serve as preparation for the challenges of life.

Contrary to other forms of entertainment, like literature, music or movies, which also carry big doses of immersion, video games are interactive. One can argue that literature and the other are interactive as well, since our mind reacts to the stimuli, creates new universes, feels. But while this is true, it is a different kind of interaction and only with direct interaction do we achieve true playing experience. And this is the basis of any video game. It is after all a game, and as such it triggers all key primitive impulses Huizinga describes so well. So to me the most important aspect in video game immersion is play itself. If we want to understand the subject, we have to start from that and understand that the reasons for playing electronic games are the same as the reasons for simply playing.

Humans, like most other animals, have a natural, instinctive, genetic if you will, predisposition to playing. When facing a game, our brains increase their receptivity to abstraction, we know beforehand we are facing a new set of rules, different from the ones quantum physics and society impose.

I doubt immersion in games can happen unwillingly. The player must want to play. That’s why I put this at the top of the list. The first step towards immersion is the desire to get into the new world the game offers, hence the importance of predisposition to play.

I had the opportunity to talk to Matthew Sakey about this, more specifically about the appeal of Demon’s Souls. We both believe Demon’s Souls success is highly related to its level of challenge. Challenge represents exercise, practice. It reinforces our basic instinct to play. So while the game still needs the initial impulse to get the player started, it reinforces the act of playing by offering a tough but fair challenge.

More on the subject very soon.

See you space cowboys…



1. Durval - December 15, 2009

One os the most important characteristics of reality is that every action meets a certain resistance. When the resistance is too big, the action can’t be achieved, it is impossible. When the resistance is small, the action is easy, effortless.

Games must also oppose some resistance to the player’s actions, otherwise there would be no fun, the game would play itself and provide no satisfaction to the player. But in games, differently from reality, the resistance – that is, the difficulty -may be controlled, may be dimensioned to the player’s capabilities.

Or, in other words, games are learning environments. Maybe games are the ideal learning environments, where learning is motivating and pleasurable.

Cesar - December 15, 2009

I couldn’t agree more. The whole concept of games as learning environments apply to any kind of game, electronic or not. That’s to me the reason animals play.

It seems somewhat unfortunate that evolution made us playful and humans at some point decided to fight the instinct and teach in a not so exciting way (black boards, slides, etc). I guess it is not that easy to teach differential calculus through a game.

Since we like to play and we are speculating games are training environments, would it be fair to say we have an instinct to improve? It seems like the natural conclusion if we play instinctively and playing is learning.

Durval - December 16, 2009

Improvement has a value conotation – to become better – we improve when we learn good things, but we may also learn bad things. Learning cycles are often self-driven and need some kind of direction in order to meet the objectives of a more comprehensive system.

Durval - December 16, 2009

Yes, improvement, adjustment, learning, are related to natural selection, change and complexity.

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