by: Gary Hayes
…and the never changing human.
Senor Hontar: “We must work in the world. The world is thus.”
Father Altamirano: “No Senor Hontar…thus have we made the world. Thus have I made it”
Final lines of the film ‘The Mission’
There have been several events this week that have focused my attention on the nature of immersion. Within AFTRS and LAMP I have been giving presentations to traditional storytellers and filmmakers about cross-media alternatives to the linear ‘tale’. I have also been preparing to chair the Mobile Content World Australasia next week while today I saw a great presentation from Philip Brophy on “Sexual Robots and Plastic Humans in Anime” - and I have been getting further into the rabbit holes of Second Life (SL) and World of Warcraft (WoW). Now this combination of things has drawn me into trying to answer the age old question of “What defines an immersive service”, why do some experiences keep people hooked until the wee hours, why is TV, particularly getting a bad rap, why films in cinema have a level of ‘temporal’ engagement and why games (especially Mass Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games MMORPGs) keep you entranced. This post may turn into the usual stream of conciousness - but hey thats the wonderful world of blogs. Lets look at some stats before I go any further.
There is a great post from the Daedalus Project in January that has some startling statistics from a sample of 2000 people using mass social network services (and role playing games specifically) and who ‘used’ to watch TV. To sum up, across the board they spend more than 3 times in connected games environments than they do watching TV.
Looking at the chart above (linked from the Daedalus site) we can see across a wide demographic that TV is becoming a ‘nice to have’. Here is an excerpt off the post:
MMORPG gamers spend on average 21.0 hours per week playing the game, and spend on average 7.7 hours per week watching TV. The national average for TV watching per week is around 28 - In other words time that was spent watching TV has been displaced by MMORPG playing. Of interest is the spike in play-time among female players over the age of 35.
Research from many other areas also show that TV is becoming more and more an ambient media type. That radio and now TV are things to have on in the background while you do more engaging things. Here are a three comments from this post again that illustrate this…
I can absolutely confirm your findings. I watch almost no TV anymore since I started playing MMORPGs. TV is pretty much a solo activity, while (at least for me) playing a MMORPG has a large social aspect.
I have the TV on while I play the game. Just as backround noise, otherwise I go nuts. I included time the TV was on as ‘watching TV’ when I took the survey… because I do, rather. I just don’t pay as much attention to it as I usually do… and, it could easilly be replaced with a few good music albums. :shrug:
I’ve noticed a trend with my online friends and myself. We’ve moved a tv into the computer room. Most of the people I play with are male between the ages of 18-40 but still tend to watch ‘cartoon’ or ‘anime’ while playing. We also use voice over ip while playing and comment on the shows while playing.
That last comment about anime leads nicely onto the talk today but first it also shows how TV has become only a small part of a simultaneous mix of media and also against the more immersive media has been relegated to “background noise”, something you put on to fill in the gaps, or perhaps surprise (see later). Why is this? I believe it is the formulaic and mature nature of TV. There is very little truly original or out of the ordinary. TV has become stuck in the thing that once elevated it - the schedule. With a constant cycle of news, ads, reality, soaps, quizzes, murder mystery, etc etc: there is nothing new for younger audiences who are making their own drama on other platforms. Now people make their minds up in 0.2 seconds about a website and what it represents, the same way that young people scan across thousands of TV channels - making their minds up quickly about ‘what it is about’, they are simply speed reading formulaic production. Even broadcast interactive TV (something I was part responsible for creating) is a thin veneer of interactivity that occassionally engaged but only for the small windows of time it was on. Now of course scheduled TV is being diced and sliced and made available in bite size proportions on on-demand mobile and broadband platforms. Anyway back to experiences on the rise and more about immersion from an escapist viewpoint.
Philip Brophy came into AFTRS today and presented an interesting talk called “Sexual Robots and Plastic Humans in Anime”. I am not going to talk in detail about this but highlight a couple of things. He talked about some of the real cultural differences between the country that creates most of the games in the world, Japan, and those who consume it, the West. Something that resonated with me was that the Japanese psyche is all about cosmological connection, that everything is inter-linked and the fantasy that can spring from that leads naturally to forms such as Anime and a game producing culture. Whereas in the spiritually ‘vacuous’ West the perspective on these games are about monetization, escapism and losing the spiritual subtlety inherent in them.
I asked him why the Japanese are less into MMORPGs then, than other parts of the world and he replied that there is a strong belief that the relationship with avatorial representation (online or not) is as relevant in the physical space (they dress up as anime type characters) as it is in the virtual space - in fact if they want to personally represent characters they prefer the physical space. Identity is amorphous in Japan, a tree, cat, plant, human are all relevant and interchangeable - very fantasy RPG. The Western (mostly US) attitude to MMORPGs in that it is often about creating, playing in and generating a new world, a frontier, a land grab with associated, rampant capitalism. That is certainly true of Second Life which at times feels like the Wild West - perhaps a replacement for the real world that is oh so over populated and where Western culture can live out its dreams - for a fee. The key point about immersion here is that the Japanese have an existing ’storyworld’, deep connection or grammar that permeates the anime form and is passed from film to film, game to game. The games they create naturally continue this narrative continuum and these experiences are enticing to western audiences who are after spiritual fulfillment as much as game play.
As an example of how the ‘west’ tends to corrupt what are potentially wonderful sandboxes of how we may evolve as a species (who knows one day on other bits of rock in space;) here are a couple of very recent experiences in Second Life (see previous posts on ARGs and Personalization in SL) - and the associated ‘agency’ or engagement that goes with it. The first is nationalism and bringing the old world into the new. One of my houses is on a hill. Someone, ‘presumably’ from the US, has bought some land next to it and immediately erected the American Flag. OK this may not be as bad as a nuclear power station or a skyscraper that others have had to endure, but why on earth would you want to flaunt real world nationlism in a borderless, country-less virtual, nirvana type world. I have politely requested they reconsider their motives of course. Anya, a neighbour, had another land issue, this time more about land access and neolithic, militant attitude. You can follow this on her post - Outrageous Militia Style Behaviour. The point here is that in social networks things can become very personal - when you have ’space’ of your own that is impacted by and impacts those around it. This resonance is key to immersion.
In reference to environment in Second Life there are endless real world representations - everything from fantasy islands to recreations of real cities but mostly endless malls. Yes like ‘anytown’ America large buildings lined up on grids selling the same stuff you get in the real world. In World of Warcraft I have experienced a great deal of pack animal activity, which is actually part of the ‘Lord of the Rings’ type of narrative in that world - but I do find it less compelling for reasons above (the west mis-reading of the fantasy genre) and my points in a previous post.
Are we cheating on ourselves and playing it safe. Adopting the same old attitudes, following formula yet again, regardless of the potential of these open environments? I believe most humans are indeed afraid to break the mould and be different, they need to be guided by narrative, to have clearly identifiable characters in films and role play games. Given unlimited possibility or something remotely familiar most of us will go for the latter. There is also a point about identity that is worth mentioning - the differences between a true Role Play Game vs something that is more improvised or free form vs something formulaic. Being able to represent yourself ‘in’ the medium (which is why so many people still want to get on TV) obviously goes back to our evolution - trying to be accepted by our peers, the tribe/pack (now by showing off in virtual spaces or on a quiz show) through to our persona being resonant in the experience. Virtual worlds that allow a Japanese style, connection to any living form is actually part ‘of’ our evolution. This could get deep here but I will stay in shallow waters and just say - being able to personalize yourself and your environment and not be fixed a playing a wizard, a character or ‘being’ a quiz contestant is highly empowering. Empowerment is critical to immersion.
So why are these ‘new worlds’ becoming so addictive to many millions? Why is staring at a screen becoming a turn-off? Why are mobile devices never going to be the one and only device through which any kind of immersion takes place? What ‘are’ the ingredients of immersion. Here are some key ones that quickly spring to mind to aid ‘experience’ producers and offer an alternative approach to service creation. These are non-exhaustive and echo the above ramble:
SCALE - of the experience. The size of the screen and the amount of story world to explore has enormous impacts on immersion - as well as the detail of individual objects within the ‘world’. This is why when I have been recently looking at mobile content, the only ones that stand out are services that connect people, that create something larger than the isolated thing in your hand, the pawltry representation of you. Mobile has to involved sharing content, telling stories and using physical space - sounds like the Japanese psyche again! One of the reasons cinema will exist for a long time is that the large dark room filled with people is a captivating environment. Now, imagine a cinema where the image is a locked off-shot, of a shared world and all the audience are controlling and representing different characters engaged in a common goal or story. Ummm.
SENSES - goes without sayiing that the amount of senses that are engaged by an experience gives it most potential to immerse. Now as I have said before we dont need to consider full immersive reality rather make sure as well as intellectual and emotional engagement you consider sounds and the grammar of visual. Probably forget about touch, taste or smell for the moment - leave that to the porn industry to work out.
SERENDIPITY - how the world or show you are watching has elements of surprise. As mentioned earlier the more scripted and formulaic the less immersive. People only watch a film for the fifteenth time, I believe, because they strangely hope that there may be something different OR they are peeling back the layers, looking at minute detail and looking way beyond the basic narrative. Something like Second Life has the potential to be very serendipitous, other role plays less so, an unspoilt new film at the cinema can surprise, sadly TV and pop-music are at the other end of the scale.
STORY - does the narrative engage. This is obvious, if there is nothing for you to be drawn along by (even your own story in some cases) then you will switch off. Jackie Turnure one of our mentors on LAMP and a professional script writer covers this in a recent podcast we did.
PERSONALIZATION - Hence the title of this blog. How much can you minutely affect the world and yourself in it? How much will the world reflect you for being there? Most importantly, how much of your real world personality can you bring with you into the experience. In a TV show that has SMS vote in you can steer it very, very bluntly. Some shows allow you to put personal content into them for all your peers to see, some virtual worlds allow you to move the ornament on the shelf 3mm to the left or turn it into an ocean, blogs allow you to broadcast your views to potentially millions. It is all about making the world feel like you belong.
RESONANCE/CHOICE - How much control or agency do you have over the experience? Are your actions permanent and seen by all? Can you really do and say what you want - freedom of choice. True resonance is like a virtuous circle, you do something and there is a response that forever changes the environment. Like real life. The pushed media of TV, radio, cinema has zero resonance, it all happens in your head. Which is why stories ‘have’ to be based on life’s shared drama. In truly interactive models your actions have impact and will reaction will take place.
TEMPORALITY - How real time does the experience feel? Scheduled TV never feels real time - the only successful shows in the future will be live events, music, sports, live news etc: Everything else has a dubious future in the scheduled world. MMORPGs feel real time when you are in them because of all of the above. Ones that have scheduled events or require you to invade or fight at a certain time are more about story than true immersion. I could go to second life now and stand still for two hours on a beach somewhere - or I could find some friends to talk to, take part in a game, or go clubbing, explore, or build a house. Each of these is also about choice taking place when you want them to. If you decide to do things as a couple or a group then obviously - like real life - compromises temporally will have to take place.
ESCAPISM - or ‘play’. This goes back to my earlier point about the reason for play and associated spirituality. Why do adult females around 35 (to choose an example demographic from the earlier stats) want to play in MMORPGs? Is it as much about escaping reality or constructing ideality? Does the representational nature of these worlds mean so much more subconciously than endless souless advertisements on TV, or another episode of a soap, or fomulaic hollywood film? Does selecting an identity that is impossible to achieve in real life become a most powerful addictive escape? I suspect all of the above. In terms of building ‘play’ - it should be as fun making it as doing it. I have mentioned before that sometimes authors of experience get so lost in the creation process they forget someone has to watch, play or take part in it! Then it is much weaker an experience. Today the experience author has to create tools for play, rather than fixed media and fixed routes through it. Randomness can go someway there - but for true immersion through play, think of how much the imagination can run wild with a piece of paper and some crayons, whereas the latest ‘limited’ electronic gadget ends up on the shelf after and hour.
Which reminds me - my blog time limit of one hour writing is up. Yes I am strict with myself. I will add some more if I get time. But for now I will leave you with the tip - gauge your own levels of immersion as you do different things and work out why you are so. That isn’t easy but no one ever said it would be.
“…thus have we made the world. Thus have I made it”