Monday, April 6, 2009

Immersion & Flow in Storyjam's Liminal Space

In roleplaying game fora, you'll find a great deal of discussion about something called "immersion." Most players seem to agree on a core concept that emphasizes staying in character strongly. The term "virtual reality" often pops up in these discussions, describing immersion in terms of the player's ability to lose his awareness of himself and slip as completely as possible into the character's experience. With regards to story games, "immersion" has become more contentious; some players say that shared narrative authority breaks immersion, because, as a story gamer might put it, moving from an Actor Stance, to an Author Stance or a Director Stance, involves removing one's self from the character. But by the same token, story gamers claim their own kind of immersion—an immersion in the story, rather than their character, which may suggest a crucial, defining difference between a "story game" (concerned with the immersive experience of the story), and a "roleplaying game" (concerned with the immersive experience of playing a role).

Emily Care Boss put it this way:

Immersion is subjective state of mind which each individual has unique requirements in order to enter. What helps me do what I call immersing might absolutely block you from being able to attain what you call immersing. Our experiences of it might also be mutually exclusive. If I could put it into words, what I describe as immersion (in character, game, world or other) might not accurately communicate what my experience is to you, or if it did what I described could be sufficiently different from your experience that you would not acknowledge my experience as immersion. ...

Having said that, my personal suspicion is that there is a shared experience among everyone who speaks about immersion, and the real differences are in what one requires in order to experience that. The differences include system, metagame and social concerns, description of setting, pacing, the whole gamut of what goes into role-playing.

John Wallis describes "mask play" as "a virtual reality: when the player looks around, they see the game-world. They look at other players and see the characters. They look in a mirror and see their character's face. Only by doing this, by shutting out as much of the real world as possible, will the player be able to let their normal personality take a back seat, and allow the personality of their fictional character to take over. I can't describe what that actually means because it doesn't happen often enough to be analyzed, but personal experience makes me think it's worth striving for." (Wallis, 1995) In both of these descriptions, we see immersion described as something mysterious, almost magical. Moyra Turkington puts it in such terms quite explicitly:

There seems to be this perception out there that all immersionists talk about their relationship to character as if it's a magical or mystical process that cannot be explained, and that this leads many of the theorists to get exasperated and decide that immersionists simply are obfuscating because object to the analysis of their play. I disagree with this, and I find it rather dismissive.

There's a reason why so many immersionists express their immersion experiences in mystical terms: the immersion process is in a secular sense, extremely mystical in that the process is enigmatic, obscure, and it often inspires a sense of wonder in the person who experiences it.

I agree, and I find that "mystical" nature itself revealing. The essential experience of mystics carries the name "ecstasy," from the Greek meaning, "to stand beside." Ecstasy involves an altered state of consciousness with intense focus on a single thing, to the exclusion of other stimuli—just like we've already seen so many players define "immersion." One noted psychologist has written a great deal about "the sense of effortless action [many people] feel in moments that stand out as the best in their lives. Athletes refer to it as 'being in the zone,' religious mystics as being in 'ecstasy,' artists and musicians as 'aesthetic rapture.'"

Except the psychologist who wrote that, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, did not have much to say about roleplaying games; he wrote that in an article titled "Finding Flow," for Psychology Today. Csikszentmihalyi's concept of "flow" unites not just religious ecstasy and artistic rapture, but it also sounds very much like the mystical experience of "immersion" that players discuss, and points, as Emily Care Boss suspected, to a shared experience, despite the subjective means of attaining this altered state of consciousness. In fact, just as it did in Csikszentmihalyi's research, the word "flow" in its normal usage appears frequently when players try to describe "immersion." They talk of "going with the flow"; Csikszentmihalyi heard people describe "flow" experiences similarly, as well as "on the ball" or "in the groove." In the middle of a "flow" experience, we become fully engaged with what we do; other concerns fall away. Csikszentmihalyi cites many examples in which people became unaware of their body or the passage of time.

Others have previously noted the strong parallels between Csikszentmihalyi's concept of "flow" and "immersion" in games; I would go so far as to say that "immersion" simply means flow in the context of a tabletop game, just as ecstasy means religious flow, and "aesthetic rapture" means artistic flow. I think this also describes the "liminal space" of a storyjam—at least, ideally. Whether we immerse in a character's experience, losing our sense of self for a moment to see the world through the eyes of a fictional person, or we immerse in a story, losing our sense of self for a moment to exist in a shared imagining, at the core of both lies that mystical experience of slipping outside of ourselves to "stand beside" and see the world from a different angle.

Does this definition help us at all, besides giving a name to what others, like Emily Care Boss above, already intuited? I think so. You will notice, too, that in the previous descriptions, players describe "immersion" as something they do not understand, and thus, something they cannot cultivate. Everyone has favored methods of creating "immersion," but no one can agree on what methods work best. Most players resign themselves to the notion that immersion either happens, or it doesn't. They have little control over it. A secret combination of the right time, the right place, and the right people might result in immersion, but duplicating the formula seems absurd. That uncertainty might heighten the thrill of hunting it, but many more players abandon the activity because of it. The really rewarding part of play—the immersion—happens much to infrequently. But the work that Csikszentmihalyi has done with flow has created a set of known techniques to help it along; as my permaculture teacher Larry Santoyo might put it, we can create the conditions for flow, or immersion, to happen.

Flow happens when we have clear goals and clear feedback. Roleplaying and story games alike often create impediments to immersion by design, then, if we accept that immersion simply describes flow in a particular context. They often eschew any clearly stated goal, and rarely provide clear feedback. The idea of setting flow itself as such a goal seems suspicious; we might design towards that as a goal, but we could best achieve that by setting the player towards some other goal that we have clearly defined, that has importance and value, and the player knows she has a chance to achieve. We'll also need to find better ways to provide feedback to players to let them know their progress.

Video game designers have focused on this for some time now. They have recognized that immersion in video games means maintaining flow. Csikszentmihalyi describes flow as occurring in a narrow channel where your skills perfectly match the challenges you face (1990:74). If you have skills greater than the challenge, it becomes boring; if you face challenges greater than your skill, it becomes frustrating. But staying in the "flow channel" poses a challenge, since using your skills will increase them, so a steady level of challenge might produce an initial flow experience, but continuing the activity will slip into bordeom as your skills increase. By the same token, increasing the challenge too quickly will make the experience slip out of the flow channel and into frustration. To maintain flow, the game has to keep increasing the challenge in step with increasing skill.

In a recent episode, the College of Mythic Cartography podcast interviewed Evan Gardner about his language fluency game, "Where Are Your Keys?" Derived from the ACTFL levels of proficiency roadmap, the WAYK game has both diagnostic and educational capacities; it indicates how much fluency you have, and then begins instruction at that level. It provides immediate and constant feedback, another condition for flow, that thus allows for the challenge to constantly calibrate to the learner's ability. I find it no coincidence that WAYK teaches fluency—flow—rather than "language acquisition" or "vocabulary building." And in fact, Willem Larsen, inspired by WAYK, has gone on to write about a "learning revolution," that sees all learning in terms of fluency (flow).

So, rather than leaving the "liminal space" of a storyjam up in the air as something mysterious that we might achieve or might not, I think we have clear goals that can create the conditions for an immersive game experience, to allow the storyjam to flow:
  1. The jam needs a clearly-defined goal; something inherently valuable and something the jammers feel they can achieve.
  2. Jammers need frequent, clear feedback on their progress towards that goal.
  3. The level of challenge must constantly gauge the jammers' skill, and adapt to that level.

Moreover, we even have a model to emulate and learn from in Evan Gardner's "Where Are Your Keys?" fluency game. This provides an exciting model for designing games, one that promises a game that, instead of just hoping that immersion might happen, could actually create the conditions to cultivate it. Tomorrow, I'll write about how I can use this to design the Fifth World, by setting clearly-defined goals, providing feedback, and adapting the level of challenge organically to the jammers' skill.

  • Csikszentmihalyi, M. 1990. Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. Harper Perennial.
  • Wallis, J. 1995. Through a mask, darkly: Connecting players and roles. Interactive Fantasy, 3

1 comment:

Willem said...


Yes, sounds a lot like the new pedagogy for polaris, doesn't it?

I've always considered the whole 'immersion' thing far less elusive than most rpgers think of it. I think you've definitely hit on the right track. Looking forward to your next post!