The User is the Message

Examining ludic immersion as an experience separate and different from narrative/aesthetic immersion

Overcoming any ludic challenge, if it actually is challenging, requires a degree of investment. Naturally, the more challenging a ludic obstacle, the more investment of time and skill the player will have to pay in order to overcome it. This would indicate that shooting too low in terms of difficulty actually decreases potential player investment, especially over time.

From the above we should be able to reasonably conclude that, contrary to conventional wisdom, it is better to make a game too hard than it is to make it too easy. This is only valid, however, when the player actually sticks around long enough to see through the difficulty curve. It would help, then, to have something which relies on the player (and not the difficulty, narrative, genre, etc.) to create investment.

An investment device that is hardly dependant on content? Sounds crazy, right? Oddly enough, such a thing actually exists in something we might call “ludic immersion.”

Two Sides of Immersion

Immersion as a goal in game design is a difficult task because of its conceptual vagueness. We can adopt a more objective approach, however, once we separate two related yet very distinct immersive experiences: narrative/aesthetic immersion and ludic immersion.

Narrative immersion (which we commonly equate with the whole of immersion) occurs when the audience becomes absorbed in the protagonist’s identity or the ambience of the environment or setting. This is the feeling one gets, for instance, when one fears for the life of a character in a horror film.

On the other hand, ludic immersion (not to be confused with engagement) occurs when the work addresses our own already existing and internal sense of identity. This is the feeling one gets when one watches a horror movie to see just how much horror one can handle. Any situation about which we find ourselves wondering how we would fare is a case of ludic immersion.

While in the former, we are empathizing with the protagonist’s values, in the latter, we are testing whether own values can stand against or within the work. In other words, ludic immersion is the experience of willful self-expression through restraints authored by a third party.

All of this is still pretty ambiguous though, and the type of suspension of disbelief in ludic immersion is somewhat involved, so it is useful now to examine a case study for better definition.

Ludic Immersion Case Study: Facebook

Let’s (reluctantly) jump on the bandwagon for a bit and talk about Facebook. Actually, Facebook is quite helpful to us because it provides perhaps one of the clearest cases of ludic immersion to which we can refer. Facebook makes ludic immersion obvious in that, while there’s hardly any narrative immersion involved, an automatic and nearly complete suspension of disbelief still takes place.

In Facebook, we mostly allow ourselves to believe that every profile is a direct and undistorted portrayal, whose truth is accepted at face value despite the obviousness of the immense hours spent on meticulously sculpting them1. This immersion is so natural and thorough that many users have difficulty conceiving, or at least acknowledging, that their own Facebook profiles are not in fact complete and true reflections.

Part of this immersion is really an extension of everyday social behavior. We grasp intuitively, emotionally, and unquestioningly that certain aspects of ourselves are simply more presentable, and that the lesser aspects must be obscured to create a “true” depiction of ourselves2. Of course, what this really means is that we are unable to value all aspects equally, that we are loathe to even observe, let alone bring to light, an actual and true presentation of ourselves.

(Consider the studies which have indicated that subjects ”in a room with a mirror have been found to work harder, to be more helpful and to be less inclined to cheat,” or the one in which “Participants identified their personal portraits significantly quicker [amongst a group of portraits] when their faces were computer enhanced... They were also likelier... to call the enhanced image their genuine, unairbrushed face,” and finally, that mirror self-recognition only happens in animals with complex social lives.)

At any rate, this pre-existing investment in our public face (the persona in analytical psychology), or the aspects of ourselves which we are proud of, fuels ludic immersion. It also makes ludic immersion’s threshold to suspension of disbelief much lower than for its narrative counterpart. A reader might approach a mystery novel already invested in trying to figure out the mystery before he even opens the book for the first time. That is to say, the reader already wants to believe that he can solve it, even if he doesn’t believe in the story itself.

The ludic activity (i.e., engagement) in Facebook, then, is the daily grind necessary for the upkeep of the image and relevance of this prioritized, fantasy version of oneself. The kind of twitchy obsession one gets in wanting to repeatedly check for updates (or e-mails, or whatever the case may be in similar experiences)—in wanting to keep up one’s image—that is ludic immersion.

User = Medium = Message

As noted, a ludologically immersed user is fully identified with the parts of his identity which he acknowledges and wishes to make known, and he is articulating them against the grain of reality (ludic challenge, passage of time, etc.) which conspires to reveal the disowned aspects (shortcomings in skill, knowledgeability, relevance, etc.).

A question: how do cheaters enjoy playing a game? Because they are far more concerned with not breaking ludic immersion than they are with actual ludic engagement.

In other words, unlike narrative immersion, ludic immersion has less to do with the work/text than it does to do with the user. The work does not provide an identity for the user to adopt so much as it provides the tools for the user to project and highlight aspects of his own identity.

Or to put it another way, the player in ludic immersion is not taking up anyone’s mantle but his own, and the game exists merely as a platform through which articulation occurs.

But, precisely in being such a platform, by defining and limiting the means of projection, the work also informs the values which the user acknowledges, invests in, and prioritizes. The paradox of the ragequitter is that the more the user is immersed, the more he will rage and be driven to quit by the very importance he places on the values highlighted by the game. And visibility was never as important in Facebook as the illusion of “shared uniqueness” through carefully selected favorites before status updates and RSS feeds were introduced.

Or, for Facebook as it is now: we already know our Facebook profile isn’t going to all of a sudden change by itself, and we can check up on our friends at any time. But through the presence of instantaneous updates, the platform of Facebook establishes the expectation that everyone will similarly engage immediately, which in turn causes the user to prioritize topicality and connectivity3.

In a final example, much of Mr. Rose’s critique last month of Steam achievements had to do with problems of visibility of the device itself, or problems in which the device failed to enhance the visibility of the player’s uniqueness (such as all Steam achievements receiving the same credit regardless of difficulty). This is an indication that the very networked, online, and thus presumably always visible/viewed nature of achievement networks privileges the satisfaction of visibility over the satisfaction of execution.

Ludic immersion therefore contains two suspensions of disbelief. A) The user is suspending his disbelief in the fact that the medium can never provide a whole and accurate depiction, and that the platform itself shapes and collapses the articulation. This suspension is then simultaneous to B): the suspension of thinking that only the aspects we are projecting are the real parts of ourselves.

I mentioned already that the latter suspension is a natural product of social interaction. This means that “gamification” can’t actually change or influence anything about the user’s behavior per se so much as it accentuates, intensifies, or pushes to extremes already existing tendencies established through social interaction. If the platform says nothing about the user’s persona, the user simply will not be interested (at least, not in terms of ludic immersion).

The leaves on the Ford Hybrid dashboard, for instance, are only meaningful because the driver already cares about being an eco-friendly person. And achievements themselves are meaningless to those who could care less about sharing the achievements they have unlocked.

Let’s examine these last few points further through the concept of “imagined communities.”

Imagined Communities and Imagined Peers

The phrase “imagined communities” was originally introduced by Benedict Anderson in order to explain the formation of nationalism. Anderson’s understanding was that the printed word caused and allowed readers to imagine membership within a social group through the existence of a text. Extrapolating from his ideas, we can also explore problems of self-determination in ludic media.

Aside from the actual content and language, by merely existing and having achieved distribution, a book already testifies to the presence and thoughts of others. The manner of its distribution, the reputation (or lack thereof) of the authors, and our knowledge of the types of people using that text together form some of the basis for an imagined community of other readers. This basis is then expanded upon through the notion of shared values expressed by the text.

Next, in simply choosing to engage with and invest time in a text, the reader also begins to imagine and assume for granted that others have chosen to relate to that text for the same reasons. A prestigious book is worth reading because it is prestigious -> it makes me prestigious because I am in the company of other prestigious individuals. Meaningful games are meaningful, hardcore games are hardcore, etc. Accordingly, the user projects his persona upon the imagined community of fellow users, which automatically forms an “imagined peer group” within the imagined community towards which the persona is addressed.

The persona, however, is an impermanent thing which changes depending on the social context—it is tailored to fit the community to which it is displayed. This finally encourages the reader to express the values that he perceives his imagined peers within the imagined community value (which are separate from the values expressed by the text).

That sounds entirely unnecessarily complex (a failure of language on my part), so here are some examples.

I said before that Facebook used to be more about shared uniqueness than visibility, but that’s really not accurate. Facebook used to be about visibility through “interesting” favorites and personal details, where now it is about visibility through “interesting” updates. What we deem “interesting” is what we interpret the values of the imagined community to be. There is a distinct “achieving street cred” kind of feel to these activities.

Our opinion, for another instance, of the social groups attached to a certain genre of music almost always impacts whether or not we are willing to allow ourselves to enjoy that genre, as well as our overall perception of the worthiness of that genre. And most of us have probably experienced the “guilty pleasure” of listening to music we are ashamed of listening to. We feel guilty because the image of ourselves internal to the music goes against our external persona.

And lastly, in a speculative (and entirely unfair) example, it may be the case that Mr. Roger Ebert doesn’t care about games because his imagined community of peers doesn’t care about games—that no imagined peers exist in his imagined community of gamers, who are all culturally and intellectually immature (because games are supposed to be culturally and intellectually immature). And who, after all, wants to belong to such a community?

Anyhow, the point is that ludic immersion is intrinsically a social and dialogical experience. Typically, the less regard we have about the imagined community behind a work, or the fewer peers we imagine to exist within that community, the more reluctant we are to engage the work itself, and the less ludic immersion we have in engaging it.

Introversion/Extraversion in Ludic Immersion

I’ve written before about the idea that gameplay itself is a dialogical process. If the player is not imagining that his efforts are being seen by other players, he is at least imagining that his efforts are being seen by the designers. This is why simple recognition devices beyond necessary feedback, such as scores and achievements (or more complex ones like evolving difficulty), are so important. They reinforce the illusion that the designers are responding specifically.

We can, then, identify two orientations in ludic immersion: the introverted attitude which is satisfied with meeting the designers’ challenges (the internal dialogue with the implied author), and the extraverted attitude which is satisfied when recognition is obtained (the external dialogue with the imagined peer group).

Let’s phrase the above in another way. Orientation in ludic immersion depends on the direction of the persona, whether it is primarily expressed to the self or displayed to others.

For example, if the persona is expressed primarily to the self, the only individual who needs to acknowledge it is the player himself. This allows ludic challenge alone to meet the needs of introverted ludic immersion as any progress made is fully known by the player.

In the extraverted attitude, however, actually arriving at the achievement holds more importance because it is rarely possible to communicate progress. The persona in this case can’t be affirmed until the credit is finally given because nobody cares if you’ve only made it 50% of the way to unlocking an achievement.

It’s important to note here that the two are not mutually exclusive; often the pursuit of the one results in the fulfillment of the other. But rarely is it the case that a player will feel completely satisfied through only one end of the spectrum.

And that is the really crucial thing. It is exceedingly difficult for a game to have real player retention without incorporating both orientations. A purely extraverted social game can become a psychologically taxing grind if the player feels very little accomplishment until recognition milestones are reached. On the other hand, and just as badly, a completely enclosed single player game can begin to feel like unconstructive and onanistic shouting into the aether.

For those of us primarily used to an introverted attitude of ludic immersion, the extraverted attitude appears both shallow and dangerous. The reply to this is that we are engaging once again in a suspension of thought: we are imagining that we are somehow piously introverted and wholly self-reliant, hiding away in denial from the parts of us which seek social recognition. It is the mirror image of the extroverted bias of dismissing solitary play as immaterial and a complete waste of time.

Closing Thoughts: The Question of “Soul” in a Game

I began this post with a proposal that we might be able to utilize ludic immersion in the service of creating deeper gameplay. But nothing really keeps a designer from pushing ludic immersion alone. I must therefore admit to some trepidation in hammering out the above ideas.

The persona is by definition a mask, and a transient one at that. Indeed, too strong an attachment to the persona is regarded as a negative thing in analytical psychology (for self-apparent reasons). Far be it from me, then, to promote blind persona identification.

Luckily, gameplay itself is a natural remedy. I would once again mention a favorite theme of mine: that gameplay promotes psychological maturity and individuation. In this case, the innate pressure of ludic challenge repeatedly makes us recognize that the persona is not all that we are. The sting of defeat/reality is a bitter departure from the persona that builds mental fortitude and resilience.

Even much derided Facebook games cause players to recognize that life doesn’t end if they fail to click the right clicks on time. There’s a real and meaningful (though perhaps unintentional) challenge to them, which is for the player to be able to recognize when it’s ok to let things slide, and to be satisfied with a public face that doesn’t pretend to be able to do all things at all times. These are real and concrete skills—it is simply that any progress made towards this challenge exists within the player alone.

Unsurprisingly then, when we talk about a “soulless” game, it is usually one in which the tension between ludic immersion and ludic engagement does not exist or has been lost. The real failure of such games is in underestimating how quickly we are able to detect when a conversation partner isn’t really listening, but only nodding along instead.

The hopeful conclusion, then, is that neither ludic immersion nor ludic engagement can stand by themselves for long. When one exists, the other is sure to be around somewhere.

Addendum: An Application Example

So much time was spent describing the experience of ludic immersion that how we can put that understanding to actual use was rather neglected. Here, then, is an example in which we use ludic immersion analysis to attempt to solve some of the problems of player agency in MMOs.

Harnessing Ludic Immersion to Improve Narrative Immersion

Narrative has an interesting role in ludic immersion in that it helps us realize or materialize the values we are espousing within the setting of the gameworld. The torture sequence in Metal Gear Solid is an absolutely brilliant example of a narrative that expressly employs ludic immersion. It directly challenges the player’s sense of willpower and integrity, and rewards the player accordingly when the narrative recognizes that the player won the challenge.

Actually, any such situation in which a ludic challenge determines a narrative outcome is really a ludic immersion event, not a narrative one. The player is less interested in what might happen per se than he is in whether or not he will get the kind of results he desires—the kind of results that reflect his persona. The persona in such cases acts as the bridge through which narrative and ludic immersion connect.

This is useful when thinking about narrative design in MMOs. In single player games, typically speaking, all narrative outcomes are available to the player as long as he makes the right decisions. The feeling of player uniqueness/individuality (or self-determination) is thus achieved by having the world reflect the set of choices the player makes. Obviously this is not doable, or much more difficult to do, in an MMO.

But the persona in MMOs is almost always about high achievement, through which uniqueness is established. More specifically, it is usually about rare items as this is how most MMOs recognize high achievement.

Often the best gear is locked behind high challenge areas and require considerable determination to obtain. This limits the number of players who have top end gear, letting players who own such items feel unique in the fact that they have accomplished something which the majority of players will probably never get around to. True, such a player isn’t actually unique, but he is one of the “elite.”

We can imbue a similar feeling of uniqueness in narratives through the same method, where the narrative “choice” would be whether or not to pursue a particularly difficult and alternative challenge to produce a certain narrative ending for a quest chain. This is actually already done in many single player RPG’s, where the “best” endings are usually the most difficult to come by.

The trick is that it must truly be an alternate ending—an actual player choice as opposed to a final mandate. The player must also have access to an easier and different narrative ending for the same quest chain (this is why Icecrown Citadel doesn’t quite do the job—you’ve either done it and “finished” the game, or you haven’t). In this way, we can harness ludic immersion to produce the illusion of uniqueness in narratives with a parsimoniously limited set of narrative variations.

MGS1, BioShock, and games like King’s Quest VI or Conquests of the Longbow: The Legend of Robin Hood (a rather under noted and excellent game) which have cumulative endings based on a series of easy/difficult solution choices are all examples of the above method put to use.

More Thoughts on MMO Player Self-Determination

As I mentioned, ludic immersion in MMOs is overwhelmingly about achievement through high end gear. The problem is that everyone ends up getting the same gear (and the same builds), and uniqueness comes to rest on the rarity of a drop more than anything else. This is exacerbated by the fact that the set of items that actually can drop is necessarily limited (there’s only so many epic items you can design).

If we can shift the self-determination structure of MMOs away from loot drops or material wealth, however, we would produce a far more varied and procedural set of experiences.

Imagine, for instance, a Vampire: The Masquerade MMO that plays like EVE Online (good thing CCP is already doing the World of Darkness MMO). But instead of ISK, the player amasses age and social power.

In this case, self-expression would be through lineage (where a childe’s sire would be recorded in his character stats) and the personal history of social choices. Simply by reaching a ridiculous age (by surviving), for example, the player has already achieved uniqueness. Other possible methods include keeping a history of diablerie victims, passing down some of your wisdom to a new generation by embracing new kindred (which you could then control or gift over to another player as a favor), etc. And of course there’s always the social positioning within the main sects and clans.

It’s definitely hard to escape the extraverted, achievement centric view of ludic immersion in today’s MMOs. But there’s no reason why the expression of achievement needs to be based so heavily on, or incentivized so much by, material possession/progress. And, as the above example also shows, this can still be done without resorting to ridiculously high level (or character attribute development) caps that discourage/disadvantage new players.


1 Some of this, of course, has to do with how we often confuse the trustworthiness of friends with the trustworthiness of information they provide. In not questioning their intentions, we also neglect to question whether they are misled. This is a logical fallacy similar to the “appeal to authority”: 1. Source A says that B is true; 2. Source A is a friend; 3. B must be true.

2 We are actually acutely sensitive to the fact that every small detail has a disproportionate impact on our self-presentation. Just as a journalistic photographer must be careful in his framing, the goal with Facebook is also to avoid producing any “undesirable” distortions. It is simply that, in the depths of suspension, such activity is not a conscious act.

3 It’s the same reason we find the ratings tool of manufactured constant crisis alert coverage in 24/7 news channels. The fake urgency of the passage of time and topicality urges the viewer to stay tuned in.

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