Immersion and the self

My post Against Immersion was mentioned today in Ben Abraham’s useful round-up of videogames journalism, This Week in Videogame Blogging. Commenting on the conclusion of my post, Abrahams says “To offer a quick alternative – my understanding is that in some spiritual philosophies the letting go of ‘self’ can be a path to enlightenment.”
This is an interesting point. I have wanted to write on the concept of the self and its relation to videogaming for a while, but as it’s a complicated topic I haven’t written more than a few notes. So this is what this post will be made of: vague notes made in the spirit of Abraham’s comment.
When talking about the self it is obvious to start with Descartes’ oft-repeated axiom “I think therefore I am”. This is as succinct a definition of the Western concept of the self as one could wish for.
The problem is that it is completely wrong.
The self is essentially the consciousness. Not ‘conscious’ as in being awake, but a brain process that discards information in order for us to focus on one thing at a time while still taking in a huge amount of information per second. This process of focusing makes it seems like there is a centre to our thoughts and that this centre is the self. The illusion is that the self is a kind of “I” inside the brain, a self that controls the mind and the body like a pilot in an aeroplane.
In reality, there is no pilot. The body and the mind are not separate. If there was an “I” inside, then we would never be able to react quickly enough to blink when something moves in front of our face or to pull our hand away from fire when we feel heat. Consciousness is a process with such a low bandwidth – around 10-20 bits per second (the eye takes in around 10,000,000 bps of information) – that it could not possibly be the control centre for the brain. It is just not fast enough.
There is no “I” to think. There is only thought – thought that is inseparable from the body.
Regarding the religious beliefs that Abrahams alludes to, letting go of the self becomes pointless once one recognises that it doesn’t exist. The illusion is here to stay, but it needn’t worry us. There are various illusions that we live with every day that have little effect on our lives; the sun appearing to travel across the sky for example. The religious impulse towards getting rid of the self is similar to the concept of immersion I detailed in my previous post, except the “self” for videogames is not an illusion, it’s the player. Videogames need not trouble themselves with attempting to disappear the player. If dedicating one’s life to Buddha doesn’t do it, then why should a videogame.
Amusingly, the illusion of the self is sometimes called the “user illusion”. With videogames there is of course a user: the player. Immersion, as Abrahams correctly identifies, is similar to religious attempts to get rid of the user. This is my objection to immersion; that the player herself is in the way of videogames being great. What I propose is an acknowledgement that none of us forget we’re playing when we play. Play is not something embarrassing that should be hidden or ignored. It is central to videogaming and it can be profound or flippant, meaningful or meaningless. We should start from this position and move forward, rather than pretend it doesn’t exist and stagnate.

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3 thoughts on “Immersion and the self

  1. The existence of automatic processes does not invalidate the concept of an “I” separate from the brain, just as automatic stabilizers on a plane do not rule out the presence of a pilot. Consciousness has far more than 10-20 bps of bandwidth just in speech processing alone, so I’m not sure where you’re getting that figure.

    Even if the self does not exist, maintaining its illusion may still be undesirable. In fact, the enduring widespread popularity of “the religious impulse towards getting rid of the self” shows how important fulfilling that impulse is, not how quickly it should be discarded.

    • I should have said “on average”. It’s more for some activities. I’m citing The User Illusion by Tor Nørretranders.

      Well, I think we should be aware that the self is an illusion – aware of the limitations of thinking from the self – and accept that it isn’t going anywhere. It’s an illusion like an optical illusion. One can’t force oneself not to see it.

      This religious desire may be important to some, but not to me. I would be more concerned with “cutting consciousness down to size” rather than trying – in vain – to unlearn something I was born with.

  2. “Play is not something embarrassing that should be hidden or ignored. It is central to videogaming and it can be profound or flippant, meaningful or meaningless. We should start from this position and move forward, rather than pretend it doesn’t exist and stagnate.”

    great post. this last line is especially devastating to the (particularly irritating) misconception that games are a new medium that will evolve any moment now, simply because most of the examples of baby steps towards this evolution are painfully remedial examples of play!

    anyway, this comment might be more appropriate on your original post about immersion, but i’d argue for a redefiniton of the term. if i’ve ever lost my self in a game its been due to tight feedback loops and the “flow” state, as opposed to extremely realistic environments that i’ve confused with reality. in other words, tetris is immersive, while uncharted is not.

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