GDC 2012: Forget 'immersion' -- player attention is what matters, says Lemarchand

Words like "immersion" and "engagement" aren't very helpful in evolving game storytelling, says Naughty Dog's Rich Lemarchand, advising developers to learn to think about how human attention works instead.
Understanding how human attention works is essential to the core of a good game experience, believes Naughty Dog’s Rich Lemarchand. “I’m hungry for knowledge about the human mind,” he says. In particular, Lemarchand feels a personal dislike for words like “immersion” and “immersive”, and their relatives “engaging” and “engagement.” “We use these words all the time when we’re talking about what makes games great, but do we really understand what they mean?” Analysis of this issue played a major part in Lemarchand's well-attended presentation at GDC 2012's game design track. Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman’s Rules of Play established the concept of the prevalent “immersive fallacy” idea that claims that the pleasure in gaming comes from making the player believe he or she is actually sensorily involved in an imaginary world. Lemarchand agrees with the pair's assertion that this idea is a "mistake," he says. “Certainly the level of identification that we have with the protagonists in the movie would suggest that we get caught up in fantasies quite readily,” he says. And Naughty Dog spends plenty of time studying other media in the quest for new ways to create the suspension of disbelief. But the idea of enveloping people in some other place and time has never sat well with Lemarchand, who questions the goal of making players believe they’re someone else. Who would want to be entertained if they genuinely believed they were Uncharted Nathan Drake, always on the precipice of dangerous structures and at the mercy of gunfire? It's true that sometimes sensory inundation can change our identity in interesting ways that are worthy of exploration, says Lemarchand, citing examples like the Sleep No More theatrical installation in New York or the film Enter the Void. But it may not always be the most constructive avenue for video games, and it's certainly not the primary one. Games like Stout Games’ Dinner Date or SWERY’s Deadly Premonition, or games from Tale of Tales, reveal that the relationship between a player and the lead character is not so easily parsed as direct one-to-one representation. Although Lemarchand stresses he doesn’t want to quibble about semantics, he still feels that in the context of discussions of how games can become better, “immersion” is a bit misleading. Goals like “getting attention” or “holding attention” are, to him, more apt and interesting than the concept of “creating immersion” per se. And the idea of “vigilance” – essential to jobs like lifeguarding and air traffic control – is essential to gameplay. But vigilance is tough, and players can get fatigued: “After the first fifteen minutes of playing close attention to something, we become much more likely to miss new, relevant information if the sensory footprint of that information is small,” says Lemarchand. Players can become as readily fatigued of interesting, stimulating tasks as they can of protracted, boring ones, and anyone will begin to become distracted, stressed and irritable after a while of focusing on the same thing for too long. We have two different kinds of attention: The first relies on the orienting reflex – when a big change in the field of vision, sudden loud sounds or sudden motion or simple novelty, and executive attention, where the environment prompts choices from players on where to direct his or her attention to within an environment. This second type is essential to player agency – and mainstream games don’t take enough advantage of the fact that what players choose to pay attention to in the environment is part of how they express themselves. And there are three major categories of attention-grabbing elements: Aesthetics are excellent at garnering attention immediately, but poor at holding them on the long term. Players can become compelled by character stories and social narratives over a duration, but the depth of engagement with the attention span is only moderate. A third element that can be leveraged to earn player attention is, of course, gameplay systems. When well designed, "gameplay is like mental catnip to us," Lemarchand says. Strong systems allow video games to sustain player attention longer than any other media. Too often, says Lemarchand, games assume the player is merely reactive, and gameplay can be more enriching for players if designers made this presumption less. Dynamics yield emotional responses for players, recommending the MDA Workshop paper by Robin Hunicke, Marc LeBlanc and Robert Zubeck as essential, simple reading on how to visualize gameplay. “We can cut through the confusion about what immersion and engagement might mean, simply by saying ‘good video games get and hold our attention, using a mix of the elements in these three categories,” Lemarchand concludes. "This kind of framework cuts us loose from subjective ideological evaluations... and leaves us free to evaluate what does and doesn't work, both functionally or artistically," he says. Lemarchand's friend Robin Hunicke of Thatgamecompany also enjoys using attention to subtly guide the player. She's even coined a term for it, he says: "Attentional design." It's evident in the opening sequence of the studio's upcoming Journey, which communicates the player's goal through a gentle visual change that shifts the player's focus onto the intended objective in just the right way. Lemarchand highlights that attentional design is just like any tool and should be applied prescriptively. "I'm not trying to be reductive, [or] ... to explain things away with brain psychology," he stresses. But better understanding and implementation of the psychology of attention, in Lemarchand’s view, will be a far more fruitful pursuit for game development than simply focusing on concepts of realism in pursuit of the vague idea of “immersion.”

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