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Immersion - is it just me?

Stratomatic1 When I was a kid I used to play Strat-O-Matic Baseball by myself for hours at a time. Decades after they departed for Los Angeles, I ran the 1955 Dodger organization from my imaginary dugout in Brooklyn (I lived in Indiana), managing my roster, arranging trades, and keeping a close eye on my lineup and pitching rotation. I tested theories--could my '55 Dodgers beat the '27 Yankees (no) or '75 Reds (yes)--I replayed seasons and fully immersed myself in a world of player cards, outcome charts, 3 dice...and my imagination.

Those childhood memories came flooding back to me recently while playing Out of the Park Baseball 8, the superb modern baseball sim and spiritual descendant of Strat-O-Matic. Bottom of the 10th at Oakland Coliseum, August 24 1975. Reggie Jackson strides to the plate with one man on, down by a run. He works the count full, then proceeds to foul off 5 consecutive pitches. Finally he sees one he likes and launches it 445 feet over the right field fence. The A's win and clinch the American League West title. It's 3am, and I'm pumping my fist in the air. I'm by myself, and I've been playing this game for hours.Stratomatic3

Lately, I've been thinking a lot about immersion in games. I was provoked by Clint Hocking's talk on the subject at GDC, which was full of insightful ideas and observations, highlighted by examples from a variety of games ranging from chess to Bioshock.

Hocking describes immersion as a binary phenomenon. You're either immersed or you're not, and there's no in-between. If this is so, and I believe it is, then the question for designers would seem to be straightforward - what is required to draw a player into this state? Hocking suggested an answer:

I think there are two primary approaches. For lack of a better way of looking at it, I think we can immerse the player via the left brain, or via the right. Invoking an immersive state via the left brain is essentially drawing the player in using his rational, logical faculties. Drawing him in via the right brain is done by appealing to his sensory or emotional faculties.

As you might expect, Hocking sees the potential for combining these two approaches within the same gaming experience. Doing so would elevate the medium in ways we have only begun to understand.

The evolution of our medium is neither an extrapolation into the future of Sensory Immersion, nor of an extrapolation into the future of Formal Immersion – it is the coming together of these two forms of immersion and the unprecedented potential therein to bring us together.

Hocking may have forgotten more about video games than I will ever know, but it seems to me that immersion can't be pinned down in quite such a formulaic way. There are elusive aspects to engagement and immersion that can't be mapped or fully understood. When I reflect on my attachment to certain baseball games, and not to others, I find it difficult to account for certain very important things.

Earlweaverbaseball_amiga Sensually immersive baseball games have been with us for years, and two more are on the way this week: 2K Sports' Major League Baseball 2K8 and Sony's MLB '08: The Show. I've played iterations of these and previous games dating back to Earl Weaver Baseball (EA, 1987). Year after year these games try to get us closer to the *feel* of real baseball with increasingly faithful renditions of ballparks, player models, crowd behavior, and player AI. This year, 2K Sports unveils a new analog stick pitching mechanic that simulates the way a pitcher releases the ball out of his hand.

These improvements have enhanced gameplay immeasurably. I'm not romantic about Earl Weaver Baseball or Tony LaRussa Baseball - they were fun in their day, but I have no desire to play them anymore. It's hard to beat the widescreen HD view behind the plate in the newest games, and it's fun to hear the personalized, context-specific taunts coming from the crowd when you're playing as Derek Jeter in Fenway Park. These games are chock-full of atmosphere and realism.

But they don't immerse me.

Depthchart_2 Put me in front of my computer running Out of the Park Baseball, fill my screen with columns of text detailing my rosters, depth charts, and transaction reports, and I'm transported - immersed in a sea of big decisions that will affect the future of my players, my team, my organization, and my career. Let me play as any team in the history of modern baseball. No analog stick required.

Don't get me wrong. I love console baseball games--I may finally purchase a PS3 to play MLB '08--and I enjoy controlling the players. But, paradoxically, the more control I have over the physical action, the less immersed I feel in the world of the game. As pitching, hitting, and fielding mechanics grow more complex (and "realistic"), my focus narrows to accomplishing a series of small tasks required to properly execute a pitch or a swing. It can be fun when I get my 3-stage delivery coordinated with my target point and am rewarded with a hard breaking ball that strikes out Albert Pujols. But my mind is not on the situation, as it was with Reggie Jackson. It's on mechanics.

Ironically, being the player detaches me from the player.

What Hocking doesn't account for is my imagination and its power to accommodate all sorts of limitations. By his definition, whatever immersion I experience playing Out of the Park Baseball should come from my rational, logical left brain. By itself, the game provides almost nothing for my right brain. In fact, if you look at the screenshots I've provided, you might say it goes out of its way to steer clear of my aesthetic hemisphere. Some people can see beauty in a spreadsheet. I can't. And the game's play-by-play text is...well, let's just say Vin Scully has nothing to worry about.

Ootpscreen_2 How is it, then, that my right brain engages so thoroughly? It can only be because my imagination bridges that gap and enables me to vividly see and powerfully feel things that aren't there, not even in pixelated form. Here, for me, is where the mystery arises that can't be diagrammed or charted. This immersion is clearly enabled and stimulated by the game, but how much of what I'm experiencing is the game, and how much is me?

Hocking's talk was far more extensive and wide-ranging than I have indicated here. He has graciously provided the text and slides of his GDC presentation. I encourage you to read them - heck, read everything on his site. If you care about video games, you owe it to yourself.