Gaming Theory: Rules and “Immersion” (aka The Squib Manifesto)

Somebody asked me to talk about Gumshoe. I will, but first I need to talk about a few terms. Like immersion.

A few years back, Jocelyn Robitaille and I and a few other people sat around on RPGNet and spitballed trying to lock down the concept of “immersion” as it applies to roleplaying games. It wasn’t a new idea: it’s existed as long as fiction. It’s simply the point where reality falls away and you have trouble knowing where the stage ends and the reality begins. As human beings, we’re very very good at confusing reality and fantasy. It’s why you can edit people’s brains using only a reflection of their arm. It’s also why we create so much damn literature and art, and part of why we’re so messed up by it all – we are addicted to getting lost between the two worlds. It’s something I’ve always been fascinated with, which is why I love stories about the power of narrative and genre tropes (like Discworld or Thomas Covenant or Roger Rabbit) or about breaking the fourth wall (The Real Inspector Hound, The NeverEnding Story etc). Also, I have mild dislocated synaesthesia, which means if I see somebody injuring themselves, I feel the pain physically in that part of my body, and I have strong emotional transfers as well, so the whole crossover issue is extremely important to me.

Roleplaying is fundamentally about layers of reality and creativity, and almost all of the comedy it naturally produces comes from that. Improvisational theatre feeds on layers of narrative assumption and sharing those assumptions – it depends fundamentally on the idea that if you fake punch somebody, they instinctively fake reel.  Or to put it another way: THIS.

I’m digressing like crazy. The point is, one of the important parts of fiction is immersion in the story, getting caught up in it, and sometimes it gets so strong, we get carried away. Actors talk about the point where they lose the boundary between themselves and the character. Audiences weep when their favourite characters die and reflexively cry out “Don’t go in there” even when they know the characters can’t hear them.  RPGs intrinsicly involve stories, and thus are full of this kind of immersion.

The problem is, that long ago in the history of roleplaying, the term immersion was used to mean something else. This was a style of play which basically rejected any and all rules-speak or so-called “meta-game” play, and demanded the player experience the entire gaming world through the eyes and mind of their character, concerned for nothing else. It was, even at its coining, a fairly extreme definition, and has remained so, to the point where it becomes, I think, fairly useless. Although it clearly involves a similar experience to being immersed in a story, according to its proponents it is unique to rpgs (and thus is unlike anything actors or improvisers feel, although some disagree about the latter), it is unique to players (it cannot ever be experienced by GMs) and most importantly, it is instantly and irrevocably destroyed by rules or metagaming or any outside concern.

It’s this last bit I particularly take issue with, because I believe that one thing rules are GREAT at is breaking down the boundaries between the real and the imaginary.

The simplest example is that if Throthgar the Mighty is swinging his sword, he feels tense because he does not know if his swing is mighty enough to fell a beast. Now, to the hard-core gaming-style Immersionist, there needs to be no extra information to this. He has become Throthgar in every way that matters, so his heart is full of trepidation solely from the story. For me though, I think what makes RPGs interesting is we can do something else to make a link to Throthgar. We can, in our world, have a player take a physical action (rolling some dice) which produce tension (an unknown, random result). This creates a feeling inside Bob the player which is inherently similar to the feeling inside Throthgar; and so without even using his imagination, Bob has a sudden, reactive, unconscious connection to Throthgar that goes beyond merely the imaginary.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I am aware that this may not be precisely the same experience.  And for some, the real world sensory information they are getting from real-world activities can only ever be noise, not signal, to the imaginary information they are getting from the story actions. For those people, mechanics exist solely to create a story collaboratively, not to provide emotional information, and indeed, they find the very idea of mechanics often so noisy they distract from their emotional information.

I however, take a different view. I think since we HAVE to have mechanics of some sort, and since we can never escape the real world sensory information, we might as well use them to inform our imaginary information, and that this is precisely the purpose of RPG mechanics. Yes, they exist to share storytelling around and create narrative elements (whether diagetically or exogetically) but those are perhaps even secondary goals to the former. We are telling a story, and the rolling of the dice are tools to create emotional response, just as props and voice and sets and language are to other storytellers.

This isn’t exactly rocket science, but it does cause problems on the internet because for some people, if you talk about the concept of Immersionism, you can never talk about rules, and it is laughably, obviously counter-intuitive to do so. Hence I need to take all this time to establish the other point of view, jut in case. And on RPGNet, we ended up coining two different names for these things, to keep the Immersionist-Play-Stylers happy that we weren’t horning in on their turf. Currently their thing is called “deep character immersion” and the other thing “setting immersion”, a wholly unsatisfactory attempt to keep the peace. Again, I’m just making this clear so that anyone else who gets confused when I talk about immersion knows what’s going on – I’m talking about when reality and imagination blur, not a playstyle. Perhaps for the purpose of sanity we should call that something else, like Getting Into It or Squib.

Yes, squib will do nicely.

The interesting thing about Squib is that it is an art not a science, and that what squibs one person will completely fail to squib another, or different types of rules can cause different kinds of squibs. For example, in Tynes and Stolze’s Unknown Armies, the GM is encouraged not to tell the players how much damage they’ve taken. Why? Because in real life you don’t know how injured you are, and keeping that game information secret causes a squibbing connection from your real world self who does not know how close his playing piece is to being Out Of Play, and your imaginary self who has no idea if he has just a messy scratch or if he is about to take the big dirtnap. However, what this sacrifices is the OTHER sense of squib which comes from taking hit point damage. If I have 40 hit points and an attack does 38, that’s a huge amount of numeric information. If you think in numbers, as many people do, you feel the WEIGHT of that. That’s a big number, and it sends the mind reeling at the size of it. And THAT sense of bigness in the mind of your real self provides a squib connection to the severe physical pounding your imaginary self just took.

By choosing what kind of information to transfer, you can choose the kind of squib effect you want. However, not everyone interprets information in the same way. If you believe the Fleming/VARK model, there are four distinct ways in which people take in information – visually, aurally, textually and kinesthetically (through touch). I think what you might find, if you poked at this further, is that people who thrive on kinesthetic information might prefer boffer LARPs, people who are visual prefer costumed freeforms, and people who are aural like the GM to do long descriptions of their gushing wounds and wish he wouldn’t just keep talking about how many hit points he took, and people who are textual are quite happy to hear the hit point information and instantly translate it into the same description in their head.

What’s problematic is people often think that their way of getting information is the only/best way, and that therefore, if a GM is reducing everything to numbers, he is a “bad GM” and the GM who talks in adjectives is a “good GM”. You might also hear people say that the way it is done in Unknown Armies is “good design” and that hit points is “bad design”, despite both ways having just as much value for emotional transfer. Add the internet and these silly decisions can quickly turn into hard laws of design or holy wars of belief.

In truth, I believe that a good GM is like a good teacher – he tries to engage all four learning types at his table, and evaluates his players to find out how they prefer their information delivered – and knows their strengths, weaknesses and preferences in delivering information. A good designer doesn’t always have the options of covering all media, of course, but one of the impressive things we saw recently in RPGs last year was a much wider consideration of the kinesthetic, in games like WFRP 3rd ed and FreeMarket, which used lots more physical tokens.

Anyway. That’s how I see it.

3 thoughts on “Gaming Theory: Rules and “Immersion” (aka The Squib Manifesto)

  1. This is why I’ve simply done my best to phase the word “immersion” out of my gaming discussions.

    Back in my rec.games.frp.advocacy days, the term “immersion” was used pretty consistently to mean “getting 100% inside your character’s head”. From there, I’ve seen that root of the term metastasize into all sorts of different meanings while other people have brought an understanding of “immersion” from other mediums and applied it inconsistently to gaming, as well.

    Furthermore, I’ve found that even when you try to specifically define what you mean by the term and use it in that sense, other people will assume that you mean something else entirely by it.

    It’s a word which has assumed so many meanings — most of which are so delicate or intangible that they are difficult to pin down in any case — that it has ceased to have any meaning as far as RPGs are concerned.

    So, like you, I find other ways to talk about whatever meaning of “immersion” I’m interested in discussion at the moment.

  2. I’ve been talking about this some in my “Tales from the Rocket House” column over on RPGnet, and I’ve found that using “Immersive-Stance” for the old Rec.games.frp.advocacy definition (which is important to me, and which, I think, has been somewhat mischaracterized in this blog post) is helpful for distinguishing itself from the more general “immersion,” which means different things in different concepts (gaming, media, baptism,🙂 etc,,,)

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