Immersion

There was a brief period of my life where I was an academic. I was embedded daily in scholarly culture, surrounded by people who were all interested in tangentially similar things to me, and we all were having similar sorts of conversations. My days were spent studying and thinking about literature–what it is, what it can do, how it does the things that it does in different ways, and where to situate it within a particular cultural and social context.

I loved books, but I found that I was becoming a type of critical person I didn’t particularly enjoy being around.

So I left.

I left for a number of reasons, but one of those reasons was very similar to what Lisa Ruddick writes about in an excellent article called “When Nothing is Cool“:

Repeatedly, we will find scholars using theory—or simply attitude—to burn through whatever is small, tender, and worthy of protection and cultivation. Academic cool is a cast of mind that disdains interpersonal kindness, I-thou connection, and the line separating the self from the outer world and the engulfing collective. 

The simple truth of it was that I and others picked apart something that I thought was singularly unique and cool to the point where it ceased to have meaning. Ask me about Steinbeck, Morrison, McCarthy, O’Connor–I’ll have a breadth of criticism available to provide on cue. Ultimately, the study of books became stale and uninteresting because I lost the ability to immerse myself for some time. I’ve regained that ability, but I no longer really want to drop back into the academic waters.

So what does that have to do with board games?

Well, for starters, I don’t want to do that with board games. So when I talk about what I believe immersion is, and what it can be in the context of a game, I’m going to do it in such a way as to preserve the connection to myself, which in turn preserves a connection to fun.

So, here we go!

Immersion: or, stop thinking about thinking

Immersion is a beautiful thing, especially for people who are adrift. I have struggled with a sense of meaning and order my entire life. Religion and faith, while fascinating to me, never had an ontological pull that strapped me into a chair and shouted a reason to live at me. Many people who know me personally are surprised by this (I’m a pretty bubbly dude), but I am often disconnected from the purpose that drives many people to achieve and accomplish.

This is precisely why games have been compelling to me. They are designed experiences that have an ability to drop me right inside a particular set of rules and meaning. Some people call this distraction, to which I respond, distraction from what?

Immersion, in my experience, comes in many different varieties, but can often be categorized into two different branches: the puzzle and the thematic experience.

Puzzle with friends

I enjoy a wide variety of games, but some of the best provide an interactive puzzle, with myself and my friends trapped inside. The end of the game is the way out of the puzzle, but until we get there, we’re going to be climbing all over one another, pulling one another’s hair, and generally just being nusances to each other. Concordia is my current example of this. Everyone is trying to build these little trade houses all around a map of ancient Rome or Greece or something, and the object of the game is to have the most points at the end, determined by the spots where you build your houses, and the types of point multipliers you can purchase to make your commercial empire more profitable.

In my experience, most games of Concordia have each player picking a path to success and trying to work toward it, maximizing their own gain along the way and minimizing the gain of the other players. It’s never combatative, but far more interesting than a crossword or jigsaw puzzle, because you can optimize yourself better or worse, and the boundaries and ruleset of the game reward you for doing so. You’re almost never karate chopping someone else’s stuff, because within this generic Greco-Roman world, you are trying to make money, not get into wars.

Some games, particularly eurogames like Concordia, do not go out of their way to provide thematic immersion, but are immersive nonetheless, in a way that a Rube Goldberg machine is immersive. You want to see how all the parts and switches play against one another, and you want to see if the choice you made mattered in reference to the game you just played. Puzzle-like games are immersive meaning-making machines, which is an exciting prospect (when done well).

Themes to die for

The second is a sort of thematic immersion. In other words, are the toys the game provide cool?

There are probably people who will get up in arms when I start referring to games as toys. I don’t mean it reductively. There’s a wall up when we watch a movie, play a game, go see a show, or play with a toy–a wall between us and reality. That wall protects us from the fact that the actors are actors, toys are toys, and that the story is a lie. Games do the same thing with their components and rules. A seamless interplay between cool toys and interesting rules builds the wall between us and reality.

War of the Ring is a fantastic example of this. Setting aside its near clockwork perfection as a design, the game really does make me feel like I’m the baddest bad boy (as Shadow) or the goodest good boy (as the Free Peoples). The toys are good. When I’ve got a massive pile of soldiers stomping all over Helm’s Deep, I’m in it, and when the Free People’s player sends some Ents in to wreck my party, I’m even more in it.

Just look at it!

Often, Theme and Puzzle intersect and you get a beautiful game. I think Great Western Trail pulls this off well, featuring just enough Old West to make you feel like you’re about to mosey on down the trail. But don’t forget about optimizing your cow deck. And moving your train everywhere in the world. My favorite thing about GWT is how it makes everyone start talking in the game’s language, using “delivery spam,” “cow strategy,” and “being a dick with the buildings,” without anyone batting an eyelash.

THE TRAIL THE TRAIL

Immersion isn’t about turning your brain off, it’s about turning off the part that doesn’t help you live a happy and healthy life. Immersion is indulgence in a fantasy that makes you feel good, and I can think of few better reasons to do something, especially because this particular indulgence is harmless, and might teach us a thing or two along the way.

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