This post is significantly changed from a talk I gave at Different Games. It was prompted by Jon Stokes approaching me and helpfully telling me that my talk made no sense, so hopefully this post will be more clear. SPOILER WARNING: I spoil Brendon Chung's excellent Thirty Flights of Loving.
As a self-proclaimed developer of "personal games", one thing that puzzles me about these games and empathy is that no one really knows how emotional transfer between players and games works -- like, what's really happening when you control a character in a game? Do you sympathize directly with the narrative situation, or are you role-playing, or do you think more in strategic terms, or what's going on? These words -- flow, immersion, empathy, role-playing -- how much do they really explain or predict how we, as humans, experience video games?
There's very little actual research on this because, I think, the game industry isn't interested in funding it and finding out. About the only researcher I've heard of is Jonas Linderoth and he argues for severe skepticism, or that games don't actually teach you anything outside of games -- and that isn't something the game industry would want people to hear.
Instead, the game industry is content to keep throwing the immersive fallacy around. It's the idea that you'll buy into a game world so completely that it will immerse you like millions of gallons of water and you will forget you are playing a video game. In video games, it usually translates to minimal HUD elements, iron sight aiming, high polycount models with high resolution textures, and tons of voice-over acting: it is a really arbitrary standard of presence informed by a really arbitrary standard of realism... it is expense and production value as ideology.
Here's one idea: tell them about this thing called "immersion." It doesn't actually correspond to any research or theory as to what's immersive or not. It lives in the same apartment as "cinematic", an all-purpose word to evoke the fantasy of a fantasy of how media works. Immersion is a marketing ploy, designed to sell games with trivially engineered features like "immersive iron sights" and "no HUD" by selling a false narrative of (supposedly necessary) technological innovation. "Click on faces in new ways!"
This is the absurdity engine behind the back cover of Crysis 2, claiming that its virtual space aliens can "respond realistically" next to a cybernetic nano-crotch. Okay, fine -- it's okay, and even a little fun, to joke that these aliens respond realistically, as if you can compare it to some real-life standard of alien behavior. But we well-informed "gamers" don't read it as complete and utter bullshit. In our heart of hearts, we read it as a slight exaggeration of some innate "tru g4m3r" understanding of how games really are realistic and immersive, and we're the chosen enlightened few who will truly experience their immersive potential. In practice, "Immersive" is just code for "not Farmville."
... So, given the substantial interests in maintaining a lazy, barely-formed conception of immersion that privileges expensive games with expensive production values, we should just abandon that term. Let the immersive fallacy win. Burn the forests and sail away.
The dialogue has been poisoned, much like the "what is a game" debate, and it's not worth salvaging. Instead, we need a word that's flexible enough to acknowledge the gray area of perception / emotional transfer, while swiftly driving past it, a word that defies definition but is specific enough to establish a territory, a word that invokes a smidgen of immersion but also grew up insulated from the cult of immersion's poisonous tentacles.
I think that word could be "focalization."
Imagine you're watching... Iron Man. Who's the narrator? There isn't one! But still, we need a way of talking about the camera, the point of view that has a specific attitude toward the hero and world: the camera thinks he's pretty great, often orbiting around him, delighting in his character. But what about when the camera lingers on Gwyneth Paltrow for a bit, then cuts to a shot of Robert Downey Jr. staring at her? In that instance, we're staring at Ms. Paltrow with Robert Downey Jr's character, who is quite taken with her for some reason.
Again, there is no narrator. But we could say that there is a focalizer (Iron Man), focalizing himself and his self-image (the camera zooms in on his suit doing cool whiz-bang stuff), or maybe focalizing his love interest to help you understand that she is clearly beautiful and not disgusting. The target of focalization -- the Iron Man suit (who thinks the suit is great?), a love interest (who loves him?), a funny situation (who finds it funny?), a scary building (who's afraid of it?) -- is the focalized.
Eons ago, literary criticism had a huge debate about what "focalization" exactly meant. (Sounds familiar.) In the end, of course, nothing was really resolved and it stayed in this strange gray area. It means something like "point of view" or "perspective", but maybe it's less rigid than those two, and implies less embodiment and more dynamicism?... perhaps it's not really about inhabiting or role-playing characters or people exactly, it's about consciousness and the ways in which the reader or player's attention gets focused.
This sounds like the perfect baggage for a word to have: we kind of know what it means, but we don't, really. It means whatever we argue for it to mean, and everyone knows its meaning is somewhat fluid. So how do we use it? Here are three example close readings of indie first person games:
In Thirty Flights of Loving, it is not clear who the player is: sometimes they are a protagonist with a close relationship with Anita and Borges, and sometimes they are a disembodied "viewer" examining out-of-context art assets and learning about Bernoulli's law. Like, who are you when you're walking around the endgame gallery? Are you the protagonist's consciousness, in a sort of strange heaven? Does a flashback mean the character is reminiscing, or is it outside of that character's awareness?
That tension, between being inside the story / outside the story, is what makes Thirty Flights compelling: jump cuts suggest a personal, discontinuous experience of time and memory where we forget boring times and constantly re-live important times. So you focalize Anita and remember her various quirks -- you're always staring at her, looking at her as she peels oranges or drinks hooch or stumbles drunkenly or angrily points a gun at your face. I think all players, even if confused by most of the game, understand that their character loves and cares about Anita -- because you're always focalizing her to make her seem compelling, and focalizing through this player character who loves her, often in sympathetic ways.
The only time when we aren't focalizing directly through that character is the endgame gallery walk. That break in focalization structurally splits the focalization: our body dies in the police chase, yes, but maybe our mind lives forever on that highway, when everything was perfect. Maybe there's a sort of transcendent focalization, free of physical and bodily constraints, so that they can just live in that feeling forever.
I think a really elegant aspect of focalization, though, is that it's not entirely literary. Other fields use different but similar words to describe a certain focusing of experience. Let's say you're playing GeoGuessr -- what elements do you narrow-in upon, what are the different ways to "take-in" this thing you're faced with?
In Detarou's room escape-ish games, you focalize the puzzles. Almost all of Detarou's first person room games use similar puzzle methodologies of exploring an environment to decode symbols and open obtuse combination locks. These are hyper-rational, practically mathematical systems of interactions. However, Detarou alternates these formal puzzles with frightening images of absolute absurdity and surrealness, like some random dude flinching at a desk with clothespins attached to his face. (Also, there's almost always a creepy panda character who will make you lose the game if you interact with it at all.)
Again, we witness this compelling tension of experience. Brendon Chung cuts cameras frequently and switches consciousnesses on you; Detarou lets you focus on this puzzle aspect of the world, only to keep jolting you out of that puzzle-solving mindset because not everything in the world is solvable or makes sense. A concept of "flow", then, seems kind of oppressive, homogeneous, and perhaps deceitful.
If we're to criticize "flow," it also makes sense to look at the tension inherent in the concept itself. Game design's account of flow (popularized by Jenova Chen) imagines it as a sort of channel. In Csíkszentmihalyi's original account, however, flow is not a channel: it is a corner, a relatively small sweet spot where high challenge level and high skill level converge. The implication is that only difficult games, with high-level players, will create a flow state. Low skill levels and low challenges, however, result in apathy -- self-aware players know that the game is patronizing them. (I also find Csíkszentmihalyi's account to be problematic in different ways from Chen's: what is the difference between apathy and boredom, and does relaxation really go in the lower-right corner?) If you're a believer of flow in games -- which is the true flow, here?
The other problem with flow, as imagined today, is that it privileges experiences of "high flow." We rarely celebrate games with low flow or so-called un-immersive experiences, even though that's exactly what makes Detarou's games so compelling. Game design's concept of flow has its own "design politics" embedded within itself, politics that impose orthodoxy and threaten experimental diversity in games.
The great thing about focalization, in contrast to flow or immersion, is that it doesn't take a side. Virginia Woolf's novel Mrs. Dalloway has a cast of a dozen focalizers and frolics in its own convolutedness -- like in one chapter, you're focalizing through one character who imagines what another character thinks of another character as they dream -- and this lack of boundaries between characters is what makes Woolf's writing so fresh and powerful. A Dashiell Hammett novel with a fixed hard-boiled detective narrator, however, can be just as compelling. Convolutedness and clarity are tools, not values. It's how you use it.
Again, flow and immersion have too many values embedded within them. "High immersion" is supposedly never a negative. For "immersion" to be a truly apolitical formalist design concept, the gamers and marketers who popularly invoke its name should be debating the horrors of games that are "too immersive" -- indulgent and oblivious games with a breathtaking lack of self-awareness, games that think they're Incredibly Interesting Things And No One Can Possibly Realize How Ridiculous This Is. (see: SuparnaGalaxy vs. every space opera universe powered by convenient mythology and space magic.)
Thecatamites' Pleasuredromes of Kubla Khan functions in a different way: it mocks those who would ever argue for the power of immersion. Here, the world is totally absurd and irrationally constructed, but the running commentary on the bottom insists that everything is intentional and extremely educational and artfully deep, and the problem is that you're not appreciating it enough.
Stoic rationality ends up looking more absurd than absurdity, and edutainment games are less educational than Doom. This constant plea at the bottom of the screen to focalize the "majestic yurts" as he does? It simply emphasizes how unmajestic they are, and how patronizing / racist the speaker is being, and how artificial this entire game environment is. It is a scathing criticism of the newly re-emerging edutainment genre, and Pleasuredromes directly addresses the potential of "immersive learning" -- there is little to no promise in it, because it pretends that learning is something you deposit in someone's brain and that games can do that.
(Are games actually effective as rhetoric? At a talk, Ian Bogost took Molleindustria's McDonald's Game as an example: some players ended up sympathizing with McDonald's, which means some players won't "get it" unless they leave the game behind and read the artist's statement, or read commentary on the game. Bogost points to how subsequent Molleindustria games often have explanations next to them now. Can games reliably communicate complex arguments, or is it dependent on players to interpret games and project those arguments onto their gameplay? If so, doesn't that mean games don't actually teach anything by themselves?)
But the people who actually do control and enforce educational policy -- with their bug eyes and flapping mouths -- will likely never play Pleasuredromes. They will never be critical about what immersion is, or what learning is, or how video games can / can't immerse, or how video games can / can't teach, or what kind of thinking actually takes place in games. At the same time, they will claim to understand it completely and claim to be able to wield it.
So, to review:
1) We don't know how video games work.
2) The game industry argues that games "immerse", but immersion theory confuses realism for presence, and production value for realism.
3) "Flow" is a contested concept. And even if were more stable, it still imposes values of high flow > low flow. Destroy these value systems.
4) Instead of trying to convince the game industry and its supporters that they're wrong, let's just cut out their language entirely and render their marketing apparatus irrelevant in the context of theory.
5) I think "focalization" is a good and useful word with a shady-enough past.
6) In games with less narrative, "focalization" is useful to think about how mechanics and worlds are in tension with themselves.
7) Games can't teach us anything beyond hand-eye coordination. It is later reflection, outside of a game, when we realize what happened and teach ourselves.