Player-Character is What You Are in the Dark

The next essay in “Dungeons & Dragons and Philosophy” is “Player-Character is What You Are in the Dark:  The Phenomenology of Immersion in Dungeons & Dragons” by William J. White.  It attempts to talk about how we do and can get immersed in the fictional worlds of Dungeons & Dragons and other tabletop RPGs using the principles of the philosophical viewpoint of phenomenology.  Now, I’ve actually studied phenomenology a bit as part of my Philosophy degree and have played some tabletop RPGs and have studied a bit of immersion as part of my Cognitive Science degree and from all of that I’m going to do what I don’t normally do and criticize the essay itself:  the essay doesn’t seem to actually really address immersion and doesn’t even really use phenomenology to say much about immersion.  It raises some specific cases that seem a bit controversial, and also raises some questions, but doesn’t really seem to tie them all together or into phenomenology at all.  So on both ends it strikes me as not really managing to do what it set out to do.

But there are a few issues that it raises that I want to talk about, so that’s what I’m going to do here.  And the first is the idea that the immersion in these games doesn’t come from visualizing what’s happening — or, at least, not that alone — but from the non-visual aspects, which would be, I suppose, the facts about the game, which if we are talking about the “typical” way would include the strategies you might use to overcome a challenge, how much XP you get from it, what abilities you gain on your next level up, and so on, which are the mechanical facts of the game.  The risk in including such things in “immersion” is that intellectual challenge and reasoning can be “immersive” without actually being the same sort of “immersion” that we get from fictional worlds.  If, for example, I am working on a tough math problem or some tough logic puzzles or even thinking about some tough philosophical problems, I will be immersed in them to the extent that I’m not paying attention to and am not aware of anything else, but I don’t feel in any way like I’m in some kind of mathematical or philosophical world like I am in a good game or in a good movie or book.  Intellectual problems like the tactical aspects of RPGs capture our attention but don’t capture our imagination, and good works of fiction and good stories in general capture our imaginations and co-opt in order to entertain us . That’s why when you’re dealing with a good logical puzzle you don’t get your immersion broken by following the chain to its logical conclusion (even if that conclusion is a surprise) but also why you won’t accept illogical consequences.  In a fictional work, if the chain works out to something that doesn’t seem to fit with what our imagination has filled in for the world it will break immersion, regardless of whether that thing is really rational and logical or not.  Thus, our imaginations are drawn into that world, and will keep us there no matter how strange or different from this world that world is, as long as the world plays by its own rules and/or distracts us from noticing that it isn’t.  The mechanical aspects, then, seem to create a different type of immersion than the storytelling aspects, and the storytelling aspects tie tighter to visualization — since they appeal to the imagination — than the mechanical aspects do (even though you don’t need to explicitly visualize in the imagination to have your imagination immerse you in the storytelling aspects).

This is also why the essay makes a good point in talking about how using better technology to make things more real doesn’t necessarily make them more immersive, but the point there is a bit shallow because the point is both true and not true in interesting ways.  Where it isn’t true is that it can indeed be easier to become immersed in a more realistic work because our imagination doesn’t have to do as much work to get us into that world and accepting it as a world that we are in and in some way experiencing.  However, we run into issues with the “uncanny valley” when that happens, which seems a reflection of the idea that when a world is more realistic we expect it to act more like a real world and should it ever not align it is easier for us to lose our connection to that world.  If we don’t have to engage our imagination as much we fall into the world more easily, but then our imagination isn’t prepared to fill in the appropriate gaps when things become too unrealistic.  Thus, we are more likely to be immersed in the crazy things that can happen in a cartoon than when they happen in a live-action remake because in the cartoon we accept that this is not a real world and our imagination transports us into that not-real world and suppresses any internal criticisms that that isn’t a real world, while in the live-action — even with really good special effects — the imagination will not save us when things get too far away from the real world.  Things you can get away with in a cartoon, then, are not things you can get away with in a live-action work, even if it’s done really well, and the reason, it seems to me, is that we don’t need to imagine the world in a live-action world, and so our imagination isn’t available to patch that world up should things go awry.

Another point which ties into the first point is about the game elements vs the story elements is an early comment where these RPGs, as White puts it rely on the “foregrounding of game over story“, and thus in some sense making the mechanical game elements and the entire notion of “play” take some precedence, at least, over the story.  The problem I have with this is the what distinguished D&D from its tabletop strategy predecessors was that while those games used story merely to facilitate game, D&D used game to facilitate story.  The game elements were there to allow the DM and the players to collaborate to produce a great story, which even led to the idea that if the game elements were getting in the way of the story the DM could invoke Rule 0 and suspend it.  For the strategy games, the opposite was true, as they would take real-life or fantasy scenarios as a framing device to facilitate the tactical gameplay the games were trying to produce.  They didn’t, say, simulate the battle of Gettysburg in order to make the players feel like they were really fighting in the Civil War and hoping that they’d identify with a specific side, but to provide forces and stakes that were both well-known to everyone and also interesting.  Players are interested in seeing if they could make the battle come up different — like I am interested in doing for the entirety of World War II — rather than in really being Lee or Meade and seeing things they way they did.  I don’t want to be Hitler or Stalin or Churchill or Roosevelt but have some interest in seeing if history could have been different and, if so, how.  This is different from how I’d feel in a historical RPG where I would, to some extent, want to feel like how I’d feel in that world going through those monumental events, or even like how I’d feel watching a movie about Churchill’s decisions early in World War II.  The mechanics in an RPG are there to facilitate living in that world and telling a story about it, while the story in a tactical simulation is there to facilitate making strategic decisions about that world.

Which brings me to my final point, about the role of dice in these games.  Wright makes a rather big deal about what dice bring to the game, but does admit that really all they do is bring some kind of objectivity to the world and that collaboration.  If a player wants to try something that might conflict with what the DM wants to have happen in the world, the DM can declare that it simply wouldn’t work and so it won’t happen, but then the players start to get resentful over having no control over their characters and what they do.  The DM could allow everything, but then that would risk making the world inconsistent and nonsensical.  Both sides want some way to distinguish between things that it would be really difficult to do but might be worth doing in a pinch versus things that their characters ought to be able to do but might flub.  Dice allow for this, as the player comes up with the action according to the world as described by the DM, the DM determines how difficult that would be in that world, and the dice then decide if that risk was worth taking.  Wright’s example of a paladin praying to be freed from the captivity of aliens is a prime example of this:  the world dictates that a paladin ought to be able to pray to their god to ask for aid, but given the situation it succeeding should be very difficult, and when the dice say it succeeds the DM needs to find an in-universe way for that to happen.  All collaborative and driven by the at least impartial mechanism of the dice.

That being said, you don’t need to use randomness for that.  Games like Amber Diceless eschew dice and insist that the collaboration be more direct and more constant and resolve those things that way.  So dice themselves are not that important, and in fact can even hurt the collaboration and the world by making it too difficult for a player to do an action even if in the genre of story they’re in it would be expected that their character could do it.  So perhaps Amber Diceless’ approach works better, where the player would ask to do something and the GM can say whether that fits with the world of Amber or not and who their character is.  But dice themselves are not a unique solution and sometimes are even a problem for building immersive worlds collaboratively.

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