Do you ever think you’re a chess piece?

My article on immersion was republished on Kotaku yesterday and again people had problems with my use of the Matrix as a metaphor. When I was writing the post, the main idea I wanted to get across is that suspension of disbelief only goes so far, that the idea that the player should feel like she’s literally inside the game puts unnecessary limits on what videogames can do and how we approach them. So let’s abandon the Matrix and talk about something else.
The Red King from Through the Looking-Glass, sleeping
Chess is, along with Go, the game that represents all games, as well as other social relationships from love to war. It is played and has been played by millions and countless metaphors have come from it.
Chess is made up of what today we might call characters; the queen, the king, the knights, the bishops, the rooks and the pawns. We could say, in this vein, that chess is a battle between two warring kingdoms – kingdoms controlled by powerful queens.
But do we ever identify with these characters? No. You might say the reason for that is because they are too vague, too minimally drawn and too much like ciphers to be called characters. But even if that is true, does this lack of player identification – of never feeling like the game is real – stop us becoming deeply involved in the movements of the game? I don’t think it does. Chess is essentially minimalistic and abstract and yet one could spend the rest of one’s life exploring its intricacies, being fascinated by the possibilities of movement, following the chess metaphors strewn throughout the history of art and seeing chess as a metaphor for life itself.
We could also look at a less abstract board game: Cluedo. Do you ever feel like you’re Professor Plum, wandering through the mansion and looking for clues? Probably not. Does that mean that playing Cluedo is not exciting, that it is impossible to enjoy the intricacies of the mystery? Game movements have meaning, but they needn’t have a one-to-one relationship to reality, not to mention a one-to-one relationship to the player’s subjective reality. Put simply, we can get swept up in a pulp crime story or even a Maths textbook without ever forgeting that we’re holding a book in our hands, that our eyes are scanning over text. I think the confusion comes from representations of human beings featuring in various art works. Perhaps we are meant to identify with these figures, but the feeling of having a close connection to the world of the book/film/videogame/music needn’t have anything to do with that identification, as the same feeling can come from totally abstract works.
René Magritte - The Human Condition (1933)
There’s an interesting scene in Inception where the adept Cobb and the novice Ariadne are discussing the structures of dreams while sitting in a pavement café. Cobb describes how one never really remembers getting to a place in a dream, one just starts there. Ariadne agrees. Leaning in, Cobb then quietly asks Ariadne if she can remember exactly how they got to the café – and when she can’t, the truth that they are inside a dream dawns on her. At this moment the stability of the dream world is called into question and starts to fall apart as glasses, fruit and paving stones explode in slow motion around them. Ariadne’s mind is blown the moment she discovers that the world is not real.
Isn’t that something like the way we view videogames? The visual design of a videogame world can be so impressive precisely because it is not real. A video of Florence is somehow not as impressive as the explorable Florence of Assassin’s Creed 2. They are both representations, but the video is created by putting a camera in front of the real city. It’s not true that the camera never lies, but we trust a video more than a videogame because with videogames the world in the screen was built inside the illusion of the medium. With video the illusion is created by the camera recording light bouncing off real objects – by capturing what is already there, outside.
So, the documentary element of video/film is what gives it its power. This element can be played with – and other elements are important as well – but what makes film so unique is its ability to record/represent reality. In contrast, the power of the videogame comes from it being fake; an abstract construction from top to bottom.
(This is what is so underwhelming about Hollywood CGI and why it is unfair when films like Avatar get unfavourably compared to videogames. The constructed nature of computer graphics is what makes them so pleasing to explore in a videogame, but in film the documentary element is lost and the audience’s imagination has nowhere to move.)
You cannot put a videogame engine in front of Florence and expect to get anything. In this way videogames are more like writing. The pen and paper (or screen and keyboard) don’t need to be anywhere near the real world that the writer is writing about. Indeed, the writing needn’t have any direct relationship to the real world at all. We often call this sort of writing fiction. (Of course, representations of the real world can exist in fiction and fictional elements can exist in journalism, as boundaries between forms of writing are always fluid) Like a historical novel and today’s news, the Florence of the renaissance and the Florence of today have to both be constructed in exactly the same way in a videogame. They are as unreal as each other.
me too
The idea that one should get lost in art – in a particular, illusionary way – is very common, I’d say it’s almost a consensus view. It is a strange idea, though. If there is anything to be got from the cultural activities we call art, then it would seem odd if the focus of art should be to make itself invisible. “Breaking the forth wall” is thought to be a postmodern phenomenon, but it goes back a long way, to Shandy and Shakespeare and Chaucer and all the rest. In fact it began with storytelling itself (or myth or religion or ritual or whatever). Being aware that something isn’t real doesn’t stop it from effecting us.
The call for videogames (and other media) to bypass the consciousness is part of the idea that art should be invisible. But it misses how we really interact with art forms, especially media that needs to be consciously paid attention to, like videogames and text. Music can get into us insidiously, without our knowing or wanting it. We can even be tortured by music. It is difficult to imagine being tortured by videogames.
Reading, playing videogames – these activities require a high bandwidth of consciousness. So to suggest that to make videogames better we must suspend the consciousness, or that the videogame must make our minds wander away from the consciousness process, seems counter-productive. It’s also one of the reasons why the Holodeck would be something other than a videogame, and would instead be something more like sport. Activities involving physical movement do not require the high bandwidth of consciousness that reading and videogaming do. Ask any sportsperson; if you think – consciously – about throwing the ball into the basket then you’ll miss.
So, why am I against immersion? Because it implies that all the various levels of engagement and enjoyment in videogames come from one type of representational reality (realism), because it is used as marketing justification for ever more ridiculous hardware gimmicks, because it implies that we mustn’t be conscious of the way we see and play the game, because it encourages creative stagnation in all areas of videogames (but especially graphics and story) and finally because if you want to be immersed in a narrative then you’d do better by sitting back and watching a film. Videogames require the audience to be a player, so you have to keep your eyes on the ball.


6 thoughts on “Do you ever think you’re a chess piece?

  1. It is unfortunate that immersive realism is prioritised over the sort of sophisticated game design evident in Chess.

    Theres still a place for realistic representations of reality; ie simulations in computer games though, without compromising any of their potential. I see no reason why the immersiveness of those representation would ’cause a player to loose conciousness’ and preclude an opportunity to take a step back and judge his experience of the artform in a critical way.
    These attempts to single out the immersiveness in computer games as opposed to any other medium, sport or act of concentration are misleading.

    Every medium has its strengths and where games try to recreate the efficacy of another, e.g film they are compromising themselves. There is a trend of realistic character recreations and linear narratives, (such as in Heavy Rain,) which will never match the potential of film or literature for the reasons you’ve well described.

  2. Your allusion to sport seems rather contradictory to me. You point out that conscious thought impairs success in the basic actions of Sports, such as accurately throwing a ball, but insist that video games should be a high-bandwidth activity, like reading a complex novel.

    I don’t feel like either situation is mutually exclusive to either type of brain activity. Sure, the individual achievements of a Sportsman may be practiced reflexes that happen without conscious thought, but at the same time, one’s overall success in a sport is often based on activities that require much more conscious thought, like calling and executing a play in football, or setting up the right practice and training regimens to be adequately prepared for the game itself in any sport.

    Similarly, many games require a wide variety of thought patterns, even in the space of a single situation. Cover-based shooters are popular these days, and they often require a balance between high-level thinking, such as prioritizing targets and figuring out angles of attack as well as predicting enemy tactics, as well as the quick, reflexive tasks of aiming and shooting and moving.

    • Yes, there are overlaps. But remember one activity is stationary and the other is mobile. There is a small amount of hand movement with games (…insert wanking joke), but overall videogame movement takes place in the mind, specifically the consciousness. Sport is more complex and consciousness is only a small part of the process.

  3. After reading this article, and the original, it seems that a more apt title would have been “Against Realism.” That seems to be the target of the discussion here. More than once you’ve mentioned stagnation in visuals which in my mind equates to a critique of “realistic” brown and gray shooters.

    Immersion as an industry and (as I see it, more importantly) a critical term, has more to do with cohesion of experience than with realism. I would wager that there are many people who would tell you that World of Warcraft is immersive. I’d also bet that the vast majority would not call it a realistic game. Much the same as your Inception example, the strength of the illusion is in obscuring the “seams.” It’s easy to connect this idea to realism, but I would argue that the two, immersion and realism, are independent.

    Think of the list of examples where this is true: Wind Waker, Bioshock, Half-Life 2, Oblivion (if you stay away from the main quest).

    When a game presents a unified world, including visuals, sound, camera, controls, an effect can be generated with the player which is positive to the experience. You are a part of the game. However, as I said in another comment, the game does not become your reality. The player is still able to criticize even the most cohesive of experiences.

    As an individual, there may be reasons to dislike an immersive game, but to continue to liken it to marketing is a flawed arguement.

    As a side note, the sports analogy is not working the way you want it to. There is just as much muscle memory involved in games as in sports. If you use that higher brain function to think about sliding the mouse to the right hand corner, interpreting the grid of units, hovering over the proper strategic selection and then clicking to produce, you’ll be one terrible Starcraft player, whether you’re playing online or campaign. The same goes for the fireball or dragon punch of Street Fighter, and imagine the list I’d have to write to catalogue the motions involved in lining up a headshot. The complexity of moving the thumbstick alone would probably fill a paragraph.

    Also, the use of macro versus micro as a way to defend the sports analogy would mean that playing a musical instrument requires more conscious thought than playing a game of basketball. It does not. Both activities include both higher thought processes and muscle memory.

  4. Hey, everybody. My name’s Brian and I’m part of a weekly pop culture podcast called Fanboy Remix. This week we did a feature on Oliver’s article on immersion, and we’d love you all to hear it. Subscribe on iTunes or go to to get Episode 2.12: “Full Immersion or Dinner With Penises.” Thanks!

  5. Voorface, I just wanted to tag your comments here to say yours is one of the most interesting video game blogs I’ve encountered.

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