Immersion: Interest in Interaction

Because everyone seems to be doing one, this is my Avatar post.

Why do games have movies in them at all?

Come on, the “should games be movies?” debate has been cycled endless and endless, and the vast majority of developers  seem to have fallen into the “no” category.  But that’s missed the point.  Why do games even have movies at all?  I mean, if games were so great, we could just skip the cutscene development and story and all that and save money.  Games want movies for something.  Players want movies for something.

Avatar struck me because it’s #1 value seemed to be immersion.  Immersion.  You felt it deep and settle in.  Immersion is something game developers value a lot too.  And Avatar used a variety of the same tricks we use to get there.  Sets.  Lighting.  Sound.  Camera moves.  Artfully exposed setting background.  New graphical tech.  Sympathetic characters.  Acting.  Plot.  Tension and danger.

But our goals are different.  In movies, immersion helps draw the audience in so that you can communicate your ideas. In games, immersion helps draw the audience in so they can learn your ruleset so that they can explore and master your ideas.  There’s a middle step there.  And that middle step can be accomplished in a bunch of other ways too.  Maybe we can motivate you to learn and master rulesets because your friends asked you to, or because you get a prize, because it’s culturally significant, or even because your genuinely interested in that ruleset.

This is the key point though.  If you don’t have something better, then immersion is an incredible way to get people to interact.  Human nature seems to be genuinely less interested in interacting with what’s in front of them then in hearing a story.  Immersion is that strong.  So given a choice, every creator wants to have immersion, because (theoretically anyways) it doesn’t hurt your game, and it brings in a lot more people willing to listen.

But it’s ultimately something of a trick.  Unlike movies, games in the classical sense aren’t doing immersion to teach you something, they are doing immersion to get you to do something else.  It’s a betrayal of interest.  And games in the unclassical sense that are trying to teach you something through immersion are betraying that the interaction is important, when it’s really not.  And so critics and potential fans cry foul.

Is there a grey area?  A hybrid of both?  Of course.  As a rule of thumb, I find anywhere there could be a gray area you should live in the gray area.  There are plenty of examples of games that play both sides well.  Portal and Flower come to mind.  But understanding why immersion is being used at all is important.  Why there are movies in games.  Why multiplayer games seem like a different beast, why they don’t seem to focus on immersion in the same way.  Why people complain about games sucking people’s life away without returning any value, like a bad movie.  Often people fall for the immersion (or the rulesets!) and yet don’t receive or don’t care to look for anything on the other end.

Able to love Avatar and regret it at the same time.


One thought on “Immersion: Interest in Interaction

  1. I agree to your opinion of stories being told in games for player immersion, but I would prefer to call it player motivation, because ideally, it pushes players to have an emotional involvement in achieving gameplay goals.

    I would also argue that a lot of “stories” in games aren’t really narratives, but representations. “You are a gust of wind” or “You are a counter-terrorist” as opposed to actual sequential chain of events like movies and books. These are coupled with equally represented gameplay goals like “Blow the petals” or “Kill all terrorists” to provide a context and motivation for players.

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