The Keywords for Video Game Studies graduate interest group (GIG) will continue on Wednesday, November 10, 3:30-5:30 PM, Communication 202 with our second public reading group/workshop on “Immersion/Interactivity.”

The Keywords for Video Game Studies working group, in collaboration with the Critical Gaming Project at the University of Washington and the Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory (HASTAC), is supported by the Simpson Center for the Humanities.

What to expect

Those who came to the “PLAY” session can expect a similar dynamic next week. Our goal is to get a bunch of people, from a variety of fields and all different points in their academic careers, who have an interest in gaming into the same room to tease out the issues and angles related to immersion and interactivity. There is no structure or agenda, just a forum for lively discussion.

What to read

As fodder for the session, we hope everyone can read the following essays:

  • Marie-Laure Ryan. “Immersion vs. Interactivity: Virtual Reality and Literary Theory”
  • Salen & Zimmerman, “The Immersive Fallacy” from Rules of Play
  • Jenova Chen, “Flow in Games (And Everything Else)”
  • Aarseth, “Introduction: Ergodic Literature” from Cybertexts

If you have a UWNetID, you can find copies of each essay on e-reserve. If you do not have access to UW e-reserves, please contact us and we’ll work something out.

What to play

Though we will undoubtedly talk about many different games, we have selected the following games to serve as common points of reference for our discussion:

What to discuss

Immersion and interactivity seemed like a perfect follow up to our previous session on “Play” and the conceptual legacy of Huizinga’s “magic circle,” for they seem to carry some of the same contradictions. Last time we talked about how Huizinga describes the magic circle as marking play off from everyday life, yet at the same time is trying to make the case for the centrality of play to the development of culture. It is apart from social life, yet drives it.

Likewise, the relationship between immersion and interactivity is more complex than is often assumed. Just this week, for example, in the momentous Supreme Court hearing, California made the common claim that “acting out” on-screen events in violent video games is “especially harmful to minors.” Conveniently left out of this argument — and it is always left out — is any explanation of how virtual-world interactions transition into real-world violence. Even though we have plenty of theories about active viewing and we were getting “lost” in books long before video gaming was even a thing, it is simply taken for granted that gaming’s immersive interactivity is inherently more influential than other media. No explanation of how or why, its just “more.” Thus, though “Immersion” and “Interactivity” are often paired together, frequently used interchangeably, and consistently cited as the defining characteristic of the video game medium, both concepts remain under theorized.

In broad terms, the “immersion” gets defined in one of two ways. First, there is the sense we commonly think of that Janet Murray describes in Hamlet on the Holodeck, as “the sensation of being surrounded by a completely other reality, as different as water is from air, that takes over all of our attention, our whole perceptual apparatus.” This is what we think about when we say we get “immersed” in the world of Bioshock‘s Rapture. The second version of immersion is closer to Mihály Csíkszentmihályi‘s concept of “flow” or single-minded focus. This is what we mean when we say we are immersed in Tetris. It has no world to imagine ourselves into, yet can be wholly absorbed by the experience.

Interactivity folds into these concepts in different ways. Marie-Laure Ryan argues that imaginative immersion has an antithetical relationship to interactivity, for awareness of the implementation apparatus, the controller, the HUD, the game itself, can interrupt our experience of “being there.” Salen and Zimmerman, on the other hand, refer to this as the “immersive fallacy,” the assumption that players “forget” they are interacting with a video game when they feel immersed in a virtual world. Instead, what is important to understand is how games are structured to give meaning to the kinds of “non-trivial effort” Espen Aarseth says constitute ergodic texts. Jenova Chen adapts Csikszentmahalyi’s theories of flow to chart the perfect coordination of challenge and player skill to channel this effort into a feeling of flow. And yet, it still seems something of our imaginative investment in fictional worlds, how that happens and what that means, is getting lost.

Like last time, here are some questions to get us going.

  • What is the relationship between immersion and interactivity?
  • What are the essential qualities of each? And how are they generated?
  • How has the explosion of gesture-based motion control systems influenced these discussions?
  • Where is player agency in these concepts? Are there political ramifications to consider?
  • How do these terms, and our culture’s insistence on connecting them to video gaming, shape our conversations about gaming?
  • What are the implications of reading games through these terms?

Feel free to comment on these here or add your own questions. Either way, immerse yourself in these topics then come interact in our discussion Wednesday, November 10 3:30-5:30 in CMU 202.

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