On eXistenZ and Immersion: from the Immersive Fallacy to the Immersive Apogee?
Edit: I started writing this blog post as a completely superficial, fluffy entry – mainly about my hair, as you can see below. Then, in thinking about immersion, it became a little more substantial. Somehow, after then getting rabbit-holed into ontology, this then evolved into the behemoth of an entry you see here now. I have no formal training in philosophy (beyond what I looked up in researching this piece), so apologies for any blatantly stupid assumptions I may be making (and for overall n00bishness).
I was going to remove the fluffy preface to this post, because it ended up no longer fitting; I’ve kept it here however, mostly because it amuses me how wildly my line of inquiry changed throughout this. ;)
The Fluffy Preface
So last week, I realised that I’d accidentally styled my hair just like Allegra Gellar from David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ. “DEATH TO THE DEMONESS!” indeed.
Since then, I’ve been thinking some more about eXistenZ some more (perhaps it’s like that Simpsons Halloween special where Homer gets Snakes’ hair? Though yes, I am aware that Snake’s actual hair was transplanted onto Homer and rooted into his brain, but I am selectively ignoring that small detail. Anyway…)
Although I’ve always had a bit of a strained relationship with it (admittedly, for reasons which are mostly superficial), there is of course no denying the importance of this movie to video games scholarship, and certainly, it’s already generated plenty of interesting discussion in the ten years since it’s release. Steve Keane’s chapter, “From Hardware to Fleshware: Plugging into David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ”, in ScreenPlay  is one such discussion of the film, and will be referenced here throughout. To be honest, these may turn into “musings on how eXistenZ helped inform my thinking”, rather than necessarily being about eXistenZ.
Firstly, for those of you who may need your memory refreshed, here is a plot summary of Cronenberg’s 1999 movie, as lifted from IMDB. Although this contains no spoilers, the rest of this post is likely to become spoilery, so be warned.
“Allegra Geller, the world’s leading game designer, is testing her new virtual reality game, eXistenZ with a focus group. As they begin, she is attacked by a fanatic assassin employing a bizarre organic gun. She flees with a young marketing trainee, Ted Pikul, who is suddenly assigned as her bodyguard. Unfortunately, her pod, an organic gaming device that contains the only copy of the eXistenZ game program, is damaged. To inspect it, she talks Ted into accepting a gameport in his own body so he can play the game with her. The events leading up to this, and the resulting game lead the pair on a strange adventure where reality and their actions are impossible to determine from either their own or the game’s perspective. “
The particular aspect of eXistenZ that I’m interested in is the relationship it presents between the player, the game, and the controller. Keane says that “much of the distinctiveness of the film lies in its deliberate resistance to similarities with prior videogame and virtual reality films. Part of that distinctiveness is exactly the fact that Cronenberg concentrates so much on the physical interface between player and game.” Indeed, Cronenberg has this to say, and I’ll use this as my launching-off point for this piece:
“It seemed to me that what people are really doing in computer and video games is trying to get closer and closer to fusing themselves with the game. The idea that a game would plug right into your nervous system made perfect sense to me, because putting on glasses and gloves is a crude attempt to fuse your nervous system with the game. So I went that little bit further – if I want to be the game, the game will also want to be me.”
– David Cronenberg, speaking about his movie “eXistenZ”.
On the Immersive Fallacy
In his chapter, Keane goes onto note that Steven Poole, in his book, Trigger Happy , refers to the relationship between a player and any controller, even a simple joystick, as a “cybernetic connection”, stating that “control is … fundamental to both the omniscient control over, and further involvement in, videogames: ‘the videogame is not simply a cerebral visual experience; just as importantly as it is a physical involvement”. This is also comparable to Martti Lahti’s notion of the ‘cyborgian relationship’ between player and video game, in the Video Game Theory Reader 
Nowhere is a “cyborgian relationship” more obvious than in eXistenZ, which features three kinds of control systems. The first one that the viewer is introduced to are Meta-Flesh Game Pods, which are connected via an UmbyCord (yes, think umbilical cord) into a bioport (an opening – and, furthermore, one that is presented rather sexually) in the player’s spinal cord. This highly invasive interface paradigm is further exacerbated in the game-within-the-game by the MicroPod, which disappears into the player’s spinal cord completely. Finally, at the end of the film, the non-invasive VR system worn by the players is revealed. Therefore, from VR system, to plugging into spines, to pods disappearing completely into spines, Cronenberg increasingly “fuses” the player with the game, making the technology used to do so more invisible, and more intrusive, each time.
How relevant is this, however, to video games as we currently know them? Is there any truth in Cronenberg’s statement that players are “trying to get closer and closer to fusing themselves with the game”?
With that in mind, let’s talk about immersion. There is this concept of “total immersion” that many players, developers, and academics alike hold in their esteem as the “Holy Grail” for games – the idea of the Holodeck-esque fantasy. However, as with many such concepts, we’re in disagreement about what it means, exactly. The dictionary definition is of course, as Janet Murray describes in Hamlet on the Holodeck , as something akin to “the physical experience of being submerged in water”; thus for Murray, immersion is something that “takes over all our attention, our whole perceptual apparatus”. Further definitions of immersion have taken it to mean varying levels of ‘engagement’ with a game, such as a study by Brown & Cairns . The only thing we’re in agreement on as game academics, it seems, is that we all apparently mean different things when we talk about immersion.
One definition of immersion that I rather like however, and be quite helpful in understanding the concept, is presented by Taylor , who distinguishes the concept and it’s definitions into the dichotomy of diegetic immersion and situated immersion. Diegetic immersion is “immersion in the act of playing a game”, where as situated immersion is immersion in, “not only the act of playing a game”, but in the experience of acting within the game space. The latter is akin to the concept of “presence” – and indeed, according to Tamborini & Skalski’s categorisations of presence in Playing Video Games , we can further equate situated immersion to spatial presence (which I’ll talk more about later).
There’s any number of examples I could pick to illustrate the widespread nature of the following sentiment, but to take just one from an academic publication, Tamborini suggests that “the strength of an electronic game’s influence is determined by the game’s ability to enhance immersion.”  He asserts that “the technological features associated with the interactivity and vividness in games heightens the user’s sense of involvement with and immersion in the virtual environment”. This is a rather common assumption of course, and not one that’s limited to academia either (examples: one and two)
In Rules of Play, Katie Salen & Eric Zimmerman illustrate another such example of situation immersion:
“All forms of entertainment strive to create suspension of disbelief, a state in which the player’s mind forgets that it is being subjected to entertainment and instead accepts what it perceives as reality”. – Francois Dominic Laramee, “Immersion”.
However, they instead refer to such an idea as the immersive fallacy: (you can read the whole extract from Rules of Play here)
“The immersive fallacy is the idea that the pleasure of a media experience lies in its ability to sensually transport the participant into an illusory, simulated reality. According to the immersive fallacy, this reality is so complete that ideally the frame falls away so that the player truly believes that he or she is part of an imaginary world.”
In Trigger Happy, Poole also asks such questions of peripherals and potential developments in virtual reality hardware: will these in fact actually “narrow the field of possibilities”? I referenced this in my previous post too, but for more recent discussion, Leigh Alexander’s Kotaku article “In Defense of the Classic Controller” also reports the idea of the immersive fallacy, along with some great quotes from a number of game developers.
As Salen & Zimmerman point out, the “danger” of immersive fallacy “is that it misrepresents how play functions… and game design can suffer as a result”. They suggest that the way in which games create meaning for players is via a mechanism of “double-consciousness”; that is, it is “something separate from, but connected to the real world”. A player’s relationship with the game is not as straightforward as one of “direct identification”; instead it is a “multilayered experience”, which Emma Westecott has likened to a relationship between a puppeteer and puppet in her presentation at DiGRA 2009 .
In this sense, the player is fully aware of the character as an artificial construct. This constant transfer of identity, which Steve Swink in Game Feel  describes as “capricious”, is what makes games fun engaging. He notes that on one hand, players feel what Jonathan Blow calls ‘proxied embodiment’; that is, feeling as though an avatar is an extension of their own body. However, the capricious flow of identity means that this extension can be “withdrawn” at an instant:
“We can say ‘Yes, I am amazing!’ as we effortlessly wipe out a room full of Marines in Half-Life and moments later scream “No, Gordon Freeman, you stupid sumbitch!” …as we accidentally fall off a cliff to grisly virtual death” – Steve Swink, Game Feel
Swink suggests that in this way, players avoid blame, but maintain engagement, “getting back to the pleasurable sensations of control more quickly”. Thus, Swink suggests that utilising this sense of proxied embodiment is a “useful tool” for game designers. Going even further than this, Salen & Zimmerman suggest that games actively play with a player’s sense of double-consciousness, and that in order to do this, game designers should acquire a more “sophisticated understanding of how their media works”. Self-referential games may just be one part of this, though not the whole picture by any means.
Steve Poole further asks what will happen to the ‘pleasurable unreality of human-body physics’ that allows a player to somersault like Lara Croft or deliver crippling moves in martial arts games?” Indeed, this is the cognitive dissonance described by Gregersen & Grodal in Embodiment & Interface . It is the experiential-uncanny valley type effect when real to virtual action mapping is partially, though not fully, realised.
“Counter intuitively, it seems for the moment that the perfect videogame ‘feel’ requires the ever-increasing imaginative and physical involvement of the player to stop somewhere short of full bodily immersion. After all, a sense of pleasurable control implies some modicum of separation: you are apart from what you are controlling. You don’t actually want to be there, performing the dynamically exaggerated and physical perilous moves yourself… you don’t want it to be too real.” Steven Poole, Trigger Happy.
On breaking the immersive fallacy – and reaching an “immersive apogee?”
So, that is the immersive fallacy as it stands – but looking into the future, with technological advancements dictating whole new human-computer interface possibilities, are things still so straightforward?
In thinking about the immersive fallacy, we might note that there is almost something like an uncanny valley effect at work, in which the closer we attempt to map actual embodied actions to virtual actions via a control interface, the less desirable or immersive it becomes. However, where do we re-emerge from the valley? What is the “peak”? Interfaces like the ones in eXisenZ, of course. Here’s an a theoretical graph for the ‘uncanny valley’ of interfaces (click for BIG).
You’ll notice I put current controllers, be they classic or rudimentary gestural ones such as the Wii, on a par with each other in terms of the magnitude of immersion they offer. At the bottom of the “uncanny valley” in this graph are what I’ve called “hyper-modal interfaces” – that is, interfaces which are all-singing, all-dancing, read in numerous different types of inputs from the player, but offer no sensory feedback.
We’ll come back to the Meta-Flesh Game Pod/Pilgrimage’s VR system in just a minute. Whilst such technology as in existenz is currently still theoretical, brain-computer interfaces certainly aren’t. At the entry-level, we can think about noninvasive brain-computer interfaces which generally work by wearing some kind of cap or headset with electrodes and reading tiny brain signals off your scalp. These aren’t too new, and indeed, such interfaces have suddenly witnessed an explosion in companies trying to market them for the video games industry; examples such as Emotiv, Neurosky, Neural Impulse Actuator are just a few. However, perhaps we can consider these to fall within the realms of the immersive fallacy? Only time (and research) will tell.
However, what about devices that can input signals directly into the brain? The advancement of deep brain stimulation and nascent photonic brain control (very cool link!) herald a future in which, ethical questions notwithstanding, technology such as that in eXistenZ (more accurately, Pilgrimage’s VR system) suddenly doesn’t seem all that far away.
If an interface could hypothetically directly manipulate a player’s brain and nervous system, and thus, what they see, hear, smell, taste, and feel – and thus perceive – what does this mean? This raises questions about the nature of reality, and of course, existence, itself. Hence, we’re in the realms of ontology.
Of course, given a player’s brain and central nervous system are being directly manipulated so that all she can see, hear, smell, touch, and feel is a game world, how can she then know what is real and what is not? According to Descartes, perhaps the only thing that that she can be totally sure of is her mind, for that is needed to be able to ask such questions in the first place and cognize her existence. In such a view, all we can therefore know is our own subjective inner life. So, we have every right, perhaps, to be as equally sceptical about “the real world” as we do about the immersive game world. However, Descartes did not deny the reality of bodies, whereas Berkeley and idealism go further; they suggest that all we know of the word are the sensations that we experience as a result of the brain and sensory activity. Therefore, would the game world actually exist for our player.
This lends itself to solipsist thinking, however, in which everything is a product of one’s own mind, that everything is a creation of one’s own invention. Additionally, this is all in the rationalist tradition, which asserts that an understanding of existence rests on an understanding on the relationship between the psychological and physical. We’ll come back to this briefly, but moving forward to modern, Continental philosophy and thus the concept of phenomenology, we can frame all this thinking in a different way, and instead think about our experience as beings living in the world.
Indeed, ‘being-in-the-world’, or “being there”, was conceived by Heidegger. It is upon this that the concept of presence or indeed, situated immersion is based. The notion of presence is central in the virtual reality literature, and, as Marvin Minsky tells us, has been a central component of such endeavours since their conception. The notion of being-in-the-world, or Dasein (as Heidegger called it, meaning ‘being there’, etymologically speaking) was central to Heidegger’s philosophy; he was concerned with the experience of being – that is, being Dasein. This is an existential ontology, which means it is more concerned with we, as Dasein, relate to the world, starting as beings who are already engaged with the world.
If the idea of ‘immersion’, or at least, situated immersion doesn’t work in video games is that really because of the dual-identity nature of games, or is it because current technology falls short in really convincing us that we are ‘in-the-world’? That we are Dasein? According to the rationalist philosophies defined above, we can argue that a brain-and-nervous-system-manipulating interface triggers all the necessary features of our physical existence that the mind is thus affected. We could counter this by considering Cartesian dualism, which would suggest that the mind and the physical body both exist and are separate. However, if all a player can perceive is the game world presented to her by an imaginary brain-and-nervous-system manipulating interface, then where indeed, is her mind?
Perhaps one could argue that she would still have her memory. Indeed, whether you subscribe to an idealist, materialist, or dualist view, one could argue that surely the player would remember that she is in a game – that is, she would remember the act of entering the game – or if not, at the very least, would remember that she has a “real life” and the details thereof. This is one aspect of video game play as it stands, we cannot ignore. Players do not find themselves in a game without knowing how they got there, nor do they forget who they are. However, memory, just like the evidence we receive from our senses, is unreliable, according to Bertrand Russell, who pointed out that “the world could have come into existence five minutes ago with everyone in it with ‘memories’ intact’, all remembering an entirely unreal past”. Indeed, within the context of our imaginary transCendeZ/eXistenZ type game, perhaps this is a design decision – whether or not the player’s memory should inform them that they are playing a game (there is, in fact, a nod to this in the movie too – Allegra tells Pikul that the experience of entering the game can vary from a ‘smooth interlacing’ to ‘jagged cuts’ etc).
Indeed, if a player finds themselves in the game world with no memory of their “real life” or that they even entered the game, could this be like the Heideggerian concept of “throwness”? Are they then truly Dasein?
You might be reading all of this wondering why this even matters. Indeed, this is essentially all a version of the ‘brain-in-a-jar’ thought experiment, that countless philosophers have tackled more expertly than I have; and more recently, about the nature of VR and reality. Professor Kevin Warwick, infamous Cyborg-wannabe, who, amongst other things, embedded a 100-port pin in his arm allowing for brain input and output, wrote about this in the context of The Matrix.
However, if we are thinking about the concept of the immersive fallacy, which suggests that immersion cannot work in games, because in order to be meaningful, they require a “double-consciousness” – or, the “capricious transfer of identity”, then the things I’ve discussed here are following the idea of “immersion” through to its most extreme case. What happens to the “immersive fallacy” when we do? Does it stop mattering altogether because we are then, in a new perceived reality altogether? What is the next step?
In eXistenZ (the film), it isn’t necessarily made explicit to the audience whether the protagonists (Allegra and Pikul) know that they are playing transCendenZ. However, when they start playing eXistenZ (the game) within the game, they are aware that they are playing a game (double-consciousness). Within this game, they begin playing the MicroPod game, of which they are also aware (triple-consciousness?). Of course, the film’s final line is telling: “are we still playing the game?”
However, perhaps the point at which we really become Dasein in an environment and perceive it as reality is when we feel ourselves being able to create and/or play new games within the world.
Consider the uncanny-valley-like graph I posted earlier for immersion. The point at which the immersive fallacy stops mattering, as we are potentially in a new ‘reality’ altogether lies at the peak.
This is perhaps an “immersive apogee” – the point at which we can so infallibly accept our presented reality as our primary consciousness that we are free to create and/or play new games with a sense of double-consciousness within them. With these games, the player would have a puppet-puppeteer type relationship.
I am toying with whether such a concept should be called the ‘immersive singularity‘ (or even, an ‘immersive meridian?’); as soon as it reaches this point, it no longer exists, there is no longer any “immersion in the game” as the game, is essentially, reality. Thus we can consider whether this state is ever ‘truly’ reached.
It then logically follows that a player who has reached the immersive apogee/singularity can then go onto play video games in their ‘new reality’ with closer and closer mapping, this cycle is able to start all over again.
Each of these colours therefore represents a new reality, or layer of reality, or however you wish to see it.
And finally… I couldn’t resist. I’m sure if you’re following this you won’t have failed to notice that we can plot this backwards, too. Yes, even this ‘reality’ could be a game. Thanks, solipsism!
(I’m sure there might be a better way of mathematically expressing all this that is lost in the back of my mind somewhere. Let me know if you have any insights!)
So, in conclusion, I suppose what I am proposing is this definition:
The immersive apogee (singularity?) as the point at which a video game player [through manipulation of their somatosensory system] is so wholly in-the-world that they create and/or play a new game within the world.
I hope my musings above have offered at least some scope for further thought on this topic. You may be wondering, though, is there much of a point to this? Is it all in the realm of futurology? Or worse, pure ontology? ;) [Note: In case it’s not obvious, I’m being slightly facetious and this is made in the context of “double-consciousness” of my identity as an engineer here. ;)]
Looking again at the definition I’ve proposed above however, you may notice this post is somewhat cyclical. Having gone to the extreme imaginings of future immersion, this definition, you may notice, is rather open. That was originally unintentionally so, but then I realised it made sense. After all, it’s perfectly normal to play games within games, even in our current experience of video games, right? This could range from the common practice of pre-defined mini games (bejewelled within World of Warcraft, etc) to emergent game play. After all, the visual and kinaesthetic experience of playing even World of Warcraft is somatosensory manipulation to a extent. Could the above definition, then, be just another definition for immersion in general?
I would argue not, though the ensuing discussion merits a whole separate piece of writing of its own (not one as long as this if I can help it!), so I will refrain from answering here. However, it is certainly open to your thoughts and discussion.
Throughout this piece, I have entertained the idea of the immersive fallacy. I proposed that it could be likened to the uncanny valley. However, whilst it is something I do agree with, it is with one caveat: I would say it applies only for games as we know them.
For technology as it is right now (since we do not yet have the total-brain-and-nervous system-manipulation interface), perhaps we cannot look to virtual reality research when we’re thinking about games. Virtual Reality is as it is named; an attempt to synthesize reality. Indeed, Bolter & Gruisin (1999) state that “virtual reality is immersive, which means that it is a medium whose purpose is to disappear”. Games, however, rely on knowing that you’re playing the game. The double-consciousness, the capricious transfer of identity between player and character; the puppeteer-puppet relationship. Games rely on this fantasy to drive them and make them fun. Presence, therefore, whilst useful in VR, is not useful in games.
As Gregersen & Grodal noted in Embodiment & Interface: “the continuing work on making new interfaces points to the problem of how to activate the basic experiences of agency, efficacy, and ownership leading to immersion in relation to the player’s embodied interaction with the screen-and-speaker world”. If we can solve the game design problems associated with new novel types of interfaces, then maybe we need not experience an uncanny valley type effect at all; rather, it would look like an exponential curve up to the point of the immersive apogee. Maybe the mistake here is plotting interfaces against immersion in the first place. Futurology aside, novel interfaces offering a closer mapping between real life and the virtual world do not of course hold the answer to more engaging “immersive” games. Though, on the other hand, they should not be ruled out either. Instead, as Salen & Zimmerman offer, perhaps a greater understanding is required, by those who design games, of “how their media operates”.
Indeed, how to deal with new interfaces is a design problem, but also a new opportunity.
1. Keane, S. (2002) ‘From Hardware to Fleshware: Plugging into David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ’ in Geoff King and Tanya Krzywinska, eds, ScreenPlay: Cinema, Videogames, Interfaces, pp.154-65. London and New York: Wallflower Press
2.Poole, S. (1999) ‘Trigger Happy’ Publisher: Arcade Publishing; Location: New York
3. Lahti, Martti (2003) “As We Become Machines: Corporealized Pleasures in Video Games” in The VideoGame Theory Reader, (edited by Wolf and Perron), Routledge
4. Murray, Janet. (1997) Hamlet on the Holodeck. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press
5. Brown & Cairns (2004) Retrieved from: http://complexworld.pbworks.com/f/Brown+and+Cairns+(2004).pdf
6. Taylor (2002). Retrieved from: http://etd.fcla.edu/UF/UFE1000166/taylor_l.pdf
7. Tamborini, R. & Skalski, P. (2006). The role of presence in the experience of electronic games. In Vorderer, P. & Bryant, J. (Eds.), Playing video games: Motives, responses, and consequences. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
8. Tamborini, R., Eastin, M. S., Skalski, P., Lachlan, K., Fediuk, T. A., & Brady, R. (2004). Violent virtual video games and hostile thoughts. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 48(3), 335-357.
9. Westecott, Emma (2009) “Player Character as Performing Object” – Proceedings of DiGRA Conference 2009
10. Swink, Steve (2008) Game Feel: A Game Designer’s Guide to Virtual Sensation
11. Gregersen, A Grodal, T (2009) ‘Embodiment and Inteface’ in B Perron and M Wolf (eds.), The Video Game Theory Reader 2, Routledge, New York