On Immersion

I firmly believe that immersion should be the primary artistic goal of a roleplaying game.  It is an eminently achievable goal which creates a rich experience that one that can rightfully claim to be more than “just a game.”  Sadly, few people even understand what immersion is, let alone try to reproduce it in their RPGs.

What Is Immersion?

Well, that’s a good question.  There’s a recent really good RPG.net column entry, “On The Nature Of Immersion,” which got me started down this train of thought, that talks about five different things one might mean by “immersion.” For purposes of this discussion, I will define immersion as the process of trying, to the degree it’s really possible of course, to holistically take on your character’s mindset, and to try to experience the game world and events through that mindset.  Metagame factors should be eliminated ruthlessly.  Back in the day (the early ’90’s) we just called this “in-character roleplay.”

Theory and History

Though I’ve seen people play “in character” since the early days of the hobby, Immersion ™ was strongly promulgated as a concept by the “Turku School” of Finnish larpers and their humorously boldly worded Manifesto, in which they delineate four types of gaming – gamist, simulationist, dramatist, and “eläytyjist”, which I will call “immersivist” from here on out because I’m on a low reindeer-meat diet. They say the point of an RPG is to immerse yourself into your character’s consciousness and interact with its surroundings, and that furthermore this is how RPGing can become art.  And this is 100% correct in my opinion.

It’s instructive to see the difference between immersion and other styles.  Some other theorists confuse immersion with “acting,” but this is actually one of the major anathematic stances to them.  The Turku School’s “Larper’s Vow of Chastity” starts with: “1. When playing a character and immersing myself in it, my foremost goal shall be to simulate what happens inside the character’s head, and how it affects his behavior. Hollow pretence I leave for the actors.”  Good stuff in general, though there’s an off undercurrent of “I lick the gamemaster’s boots!” running through it.

The Nordic LARPers later came out with an interesting clarifying paper, Autonomous Identities, which is good reading if you understand words like “diegesis” and don’t mind people quoting Aristotle.  It clarifies how in some ways simulation can be an immersion substitute – “The theory is that the immersionist experiences what the character experiences, while the simulationist only pretends to, logically deducing what the character would do next.”  Eventually  the Nordic scene stepped back from immersion a little in favor of a story/dramatist approach, as you can see in the new loosely-defined but Diana Jones award-winning Jeepform style of LARPing.

Unfortunately, all this stayed largely confined to the Nordic LARPer community, even though immersive concepts are equally (if not more) applicable to tabletop play.

In the American/British mainstream RPG theorist tradition, they pretty much ignore immersion.  The GNS/Forge “indie games” tradition recognizes only the three non-immersive types, and in general the Ron Edwards-driven FORGE group of indie RPG makers have moved from their historically more dramatist/narrativist approach to strongly favor a strange gamist/dramatist mix (We’re telling a story, but with more and more tokens and cards and miniatures and crap!)  that even the more mainstream games like D&D 4e and WFRP 3e have started to adopt in part.  Most of the indie RPG community’s theory work has become ghettoized into being dependent on Edwards and therefore has been pretty much sitting unchanged for a while.  The “Big Model,” his newest approach, might theoretically allow for immersion as part of “character exploration” but its very weakly represented, if at all, in his description of creative agendas.

Outside the FORGE, the earliest RPG “theory” book I know of, Gary Gygax’s “Role Playing Mastery,” (yes, I have a copy, I’m a freak) is unabashedly about tactical (gamist) mastery, even though it does begin by noting that role-playing is half born of the historical minis wargamers and half of “clinical and academic role assumption and role-playing exercises “.

Robin Laws’ “Robin’s Laws of Good Game Mastering” mentions a variety of player types including the “method actor.”  Its definition is reasonably immersivist – “The method actor bases his decisions on his understanding of his character’s psychology” – but in name and in some of the turns of phrase threatens to confuse immersive with the dramatist’s surface “actor” stance which is in reality totally opposed to real immersion.  But if one has an accurate understanding of what pure method acting is supposed to be, it’s a good term.  Immersion and method acting can use some of the same techniques, like affective memory and substitution, but immersion is arguably purer because there is no external audience to please which requires classical acting techniques to be admixed.  Many “method actors” really mix traditional acting with the more immersive method acting techniques, so for RP theory purposes I don’t like using “actor” anywhere near “immersion” because it causes confusion.

Greg Stolze’s “How To Play Roleplaying Games” at least promulgates “setting logic” (aka simulationism) and notes that role-playing “can go deeper and have a more profound impact” by confronting characters with challenging issues.  But then it goes more to the basics like “show up to the game, pay attention, and don’t be a disruptive prick.”  Sadly, and I’m not saying it’s not needed, most “how to” RPG documents tend to turn into a list of stuff you should have learned in elementary school.  I’m not criticizing Stolze on this point; my interaction with the larger RPG community through the RPGA indicates that a lot of people need that.

Anyway, clearly game theory outside the ice-bearing countries doesn’t get into immersion much, but then again it’s largely either mired in basics or enslaved to Ron Edwards.

Why Immersion Via Tabletop And Not LARP?

Some of the folks reading this may be Nordic LARPer types.  I had a discussion with a couple after the inciting RPG.net column, and they tend to feel that immersion is easier in or more relevant to LARPing than tabletop.  I actually disagree pretty strongly with that.  Let me start with a pretty brutally worded analogy.

Q: Which is more immersive, a book or a movie?

A: A movie if you’re stupid, or a book if you’re smart.

After saying “Oh, snap,” think about that for a minute and we’ll proceed.

I would say that LARPing can probably be more immersive that tabletop when:

a) It is very well done, with realistic scenery and props

b) The characters are very close to the players in physical makeup

But that’s a big “if.”  It creates a lot more jarring things that block immersion in many other cases.  Some guy carrying an orange “please don’t shoot me, cops” gun is frankly less convincing than just being at a table imagining a guy with a gun.  And if all my characters are out of shape thirtysomethings that’s great, but wandering around the Dragon*Con hotel or campsite needing to take a dump doesn’t make me feel more like a robotic killing machine from Mars.

Even if one could get to the ideal “holodeck” type solution to address a), you would still have trouble until you got “Avatar” type solutions for b)…  At the current tech level and the current level of sophistication of LARPs I personally have seen around, I strongly prefer a completely imagination-based field to promote immersion.

It’s the same reason I find books to be more immersive in many cases than movies.  Haven’t we all been disappointed with a movie adaptation of a book because “that’s not how I imagined that would look?”  Or where one really crappy CGI shot breaks you right out of the suspension of disbelief?

Furthermore, In a LARP with props, there is the promulgation of one “objective” truth of how things behave.  But there is little value to that and more value to each player’s separate subjective diegesis.  And the more you force the subjective diegeses to collide, the more likely you are to shake someone out of their immersion.  It reminds me of the GM advice in Robin Laws’ excellent game Feng Shui, to not use tactical maps.  “Revealing your map locks you into a precise conception of the area…”

Anyway, I’m not saying you can’t LARP immersively, but I am saying that there is little reason to believe immersion as a concept is inherently LARP-focused (except for the historical accident that the only folks that seem to be really into immersion are also Scandinavians who are really into LARP) and that there are good reasons to even prefer tabletop for immersion in many circumstances.

The Immersive Tabletop Game

All this isn’t just theory.  I’ve run and played in immersive games, and those groups have found them to be immensely rewarding.  I had one game that had the explicit goal of character immersion run for five years in the mid-1990s.  I’ll ping my players from that game for insights from their point of view, but for me at least it really hit the heart of what it is I wanted out of role-playing.  For many years I’d had fitful stabs at it with “normal”
casual RP games but I knew it could be so much more than that.

And it’s not really all that hard.  Though there are helpful techniques, 80% of the work is just getting a group of people to sit down and say “Yes.  In this game I am going to try to get into my character’s brain and look at the world through their eyes.”  Mainly you just need everyone to agree with that goal and for the GM to be trying to facilitate it (like any style, when different players are heading for different agendas, you end up with the least common denominator).  The players have to be emotionally unstunted enough to emote a little bit and the GM needs to keep his “in world” viewpoint going strong so that he can allow the PCs to get along with0ut making metagame decisions.  With a little practice, that’s really not very hard.  You can start out as simulationist and let things develop from there, and sim is a good fallback point that doesn’t “ruin things for everyone else” at times you can’t immerse well.

Give it a try!  I don’t have a lot of sympathy with people that have the “one way” they like to roleplay.  Maybe it’s a well kept secret, but you can play one game sim, the next gamist, the next focus on story, and the next try immersion.  Broaden your horizons.  I don’t like certain games or styles, but I play them when my gaming group wants to.

Future Topics

If anyone’s interested, I can go into:

  • How to run an immersive tabletop game
  • How to play in an immersive tabletop game
  • Simulation as a gateway to immersion
  • Isn’t immersion bad?  Aka Bleed, or “Isn’t that how that Egbert guy went nuts?  And that Elfstar bitch?”
  • But immersion makes me “uncomfortable,” aka George McFly syndrome

15 responses to “On Immersion

  1. I tend much more to want to tell (or be part of) a good story than to be interested in personally exploring the emotional depths of characters I create. I rate this as a personal quirk: as a repressed Yankee I’m deeply reluctant to explore the emotional depths of anything. Others will have different predilections.

    This is relevant to the goal of Immersion in that most gaming groups are made up of a diversity of folks, not all of whom are going to have the same intangible goals for a game. The acting world deals with this by assembling companies of like-minded individuals (e.g., there are those that swear by the Method, and others who feel that it is little more than glorified obsessive-compulsive disorder).

    The key practical trouble is one of scale: finding a sufficient stock of like-minded gamers means that we are in most cases limited to modes of play that are sufficiently adaptive to be attractive to a reasonable cross-section of gamers. So unless you are either blessed or dedicated enough to find or assemble a suitable pack of Immersives, the question becomes more one of how to practice the Immersion plan in the context of a game that may not necessarily be completely dedicated towards that end.


    • Hey Bruce! This is definitely true. When I started the game that would become the “five year immersion campaign,” we effectively split a large gaming group into two; Saturday was the immersives and Wednesday night were the casuals. In fact, there were two guys who started with the immersives but got shaken out when they realized we were serious (we hadn’t really even gotten to the immersion, just serious sim put them off). We were blessed with 10 or more active gamers of which a decent subset wanted to at least try immersion.

      But to an extent this is a problem with a gaming group not being self-aware about the possible creative agendas – it’s hard to accomplish any particular goal, immersion or narrative or anything, if you don’t discuss or agree on one, it tends toward lowest common denominator.

      My other gripe is that it assumes people have to do only one thing – I’ve played in sim games, storygames, slightly-better-than-board games… Just as one can play different systems and genres, one can play different creative agendas if they actually think about them. So to some degree with this article I’m saying “think about creative agendas and try some out.”

  2. I’ll just note quickly that the campaign I’ve been playing online with my friends has been the most immersive campaign I’ve ever played (and I’ve roleplayed quite a long while).

    • Cool. What’s made it that way, you think, more of the “book not movie” factor in terms of removing extraneous elements?

      • I do not know how others — I know there are others who have similar experiences — would say it, but in my case I find text less distracting than images (I have a problem of recognizing human faces, so a LARP is no-go even with people I’m supposed to “know” — I’ve couple of times nearly made the mistake of greeting someone else who I thought to be my Significant Other of last fourteen years, so it is not exactly a small level of inconvenience to me), and text also leaves a great deal more room for imagination.

        It is kind of like how people say “Haley in Order of the Stick is sexy” because there are all the elements for “sexy” suggested, but none explicitly drawn, and thus it is left to your own fertile imagination to supply the exact flavor of sexy.

        It also helps that there’s a very good GM who writes evocative text, and his focus of running the story is also tight: although the descriptions are evocative, they’re never purple nor excessive, and even the greatest wall of text spam is engaging to read.

        Further, there’s always a possibility to log the session, and drop it into a text file and later reference it for details; in addition to this, there are write-ups and notes of the world, NPCs and other relevant info available.

        Then there’s separation of IC and OOC; it is a bit difficult thing to explain, but when a text-snippet in an on-going scene is prepended with OOC, brain just filters it out like people filtered out those black-clad kabuki stagehands.

        Breaks are also somewhat less disruptive — you learn to expect breaks as people are typing up stuff (so the play doesn’t necessarily doesn’t stop if someone needs to nip to the bog); however, again, it doesn’t break the immersion as it is a part of experience — it is a break which gives you time to re-evaluate what your character really would do next. Since my character is actually someone who is pretty much connected 24/7 to the Internet, I can also Google up information my character would know, and no one will throw a fit. Likewise, if someone else is playing an expert on field X, they can Google relevant info to insert into their poses.

        I can sit in front of my computer, with headset blasting mood-appropriate music — our characters even have their own theme music! I can re-read the text and see if I missed a bit without disrupting other players. I can ask the GM questions via private channels if I didn’t understand something without alerting anyone else that this is going on and disturbing them.

        Oh, more later, if I can think of anything to add. Campaign ongoing at the moment. 😉

        • Cool. I have to say, I’m not sure I’d prefer a completely non face-to-face format, but it definitely has things to recommend it. In our high immersion campaign I practiced strict information compartmentalization and was doing a LOT of notes, taking people aside, etc. Chat/IM serves that purpose perfectly.

          • I personally find the non-face-to-face format liberating: it removes all judgment of the character based on the person’s actions/appearance in realspace (the Suspenders of Disbelief tend to get lots of overtime work when the player of a dainty pixie princess digs into his Cheetos, and this dilemma isn’t limited to just LARPing). It presents a WYSIWYG environment — the character is really there. (Caveat: I repeat — I have a great online group with requisite maturity, cognitive capabilities and above all, literacy and genre knowledge/emulation.)

            It also makes it easier to do actions you wouldn’t normally do in a tabletop game (in my case, partially because of tabletop players, partially because the game system heavily encourages success and discourages failure); when success gets too glorified, failure easily remains uninteresting and thus undesirable. This hasn’t been so in that online game: if you fail, it is bound to be interesting in every sense of the word. Usually in “May you live in interesting times” sense of it. (Then again, protection against permadeath is hardwired to the genre of the campaign; the protagonists really are protected by Genre Fiat here, which is all cool with us.)

            Although it also removes the pleasure of seeing “caught my GM with his pants down, proverbially speaking” (not everyone is necessarily a master of hiding their surprise, after all), it also means that there’s more time for him to think about what to do next, rather than pull a lame rabbit out of a hat.

            In any case, I can say that this has worked out very well for me, and I’m having great time with it.

  3. Great post. But I’m feeling stupid – I thought simulationism and immersive play were basically the same thing.

    I’d love for you to help me understand the difference, and also give us some more detail about that immersive campaign you ran.

    • Cool, can do. The short form of the sim/immerse thing is embodied in the quote “The theory is that the immersionist experiences what the character experiences, while the simulationist only pretends to, logically deducing what the character would do next.” Simulation (relating to one’s character) is outwardly driven and “third person,” Immersion is inwardly driven and “first person.”

      Outwardly they can look the same, as the results from asking yourself “What would a chaotic good fighter do?” and “Having taken on Mikhail’s persona, what do I do?” may be pretty close, and thus sim is a good fallback point. It’s more different in the subjective experience and the subtleties of the character’s behavior.

      There’s an interesting school of thought that says you can immerse along three axes, character, setting, and story. I’m not 100% sure I buy that, but it’s worth a thought.

      • “There’s an interesting school of thought that says you can immerse along three axes, character, setting, and story. “

        I would actually go as far and say that hey, this is actually how that campaign mentioned above has worked for us. Even if I am not the GM, I can easily dip into the mindset of the several big key NPCs provided, I can “feel” the setting, and I have a sense of the story being woven around the characters and events.

        Epic Awesome. 😀

  4. Superb post. I’m in the process of splitting a group of immersives off from casuals (although some have chosen both groups, which I support) and I’ll definitely share this with them. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the additional topics you proposed. In the meantime, I’ll peruse the links you’ve provided. Great stuff, thanks!

  5. The dude playing Sindawe


  6. I’d be very interested in posts on how to run / play immersive tabletop games. (I currently run a local LARP game, Cambridge University Treasure Trap, and have played and run a lot of tabletop too – currently playing a UA online game and running a fairly ‘board-game’ style game of 4e; I consider myself an immersionist as a player and would like to hear how to make it happen more in tabletop…)

  7. Pingback: Roleplaying: The Simulation « Casting Shadows

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