Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Immersive games, ambiguity and player experience

The American researcher Jane McGonigal has been very active in defining and developing pervasive games. In the article “A Real little Game: The Performance of Belief in Pervasive Play” (2003) she show how the players negotiate the boundaries between pervasive games and “real life”. Jane McGonigal has a background in Performance Studies. She focuses on the performance and on how the players are performing in order to make the game happen. In the article McGonigal argues that the players maximize their play experience by performing belief. In other words they are pretending that they believe what they know is a part of a game is in fact real. According to McGonigal they are doing this to gain a “Pinocchio effect” which is (the desire for) the game turning into real life or the opposite: that the real life turns into a “real little game”.

McGonigal uses the term pervasive play about: “mixed reality” games that use mobile, ubiquitous and embedded digital technologies to create virtual playing fields in everyday spaces. According to McGonigal immersive games, are a form of pervasive play where it is built into the communication of the game to say that it is not a game – or just not to mention that it is a game. This is to create the illusion that what is happening in the game is in fact part of the real life. The relationship between pervasive play and immersive games are illustrated in the following model:

McGonigal argues against the critiques that claim immersive games are in fact ”schizophrenia machines” designed to make sane people paranoid, and against that the player actually can not differentiate between game and reality. She states that when the players express their game experience they actually verify these prejudices, by describing how the game has altered their view on their daily lives, that when the game ends it is like waking up after a long sleep where you suddenly realize that there is another (real) life that has been neglected and a player even published a recovery guide. But these statements are mixed with remarks that make it clear that the players are fully aware of the deceit:

“Now here we are, e very one of us excited at blurring the lines between story and reality. The game promises to become not just entertainment, but our lives.”
McGonigal insists on a difference between an actual belief and then performing belief. She draws on Richard Schechner, the originator of Performance Studies, who distinguishes between two kinds of play: 1) “make believe” and 2) “make belief”. Make believe protects the boundaries between what is real and what is pretended. Whereas make belief blurs the boundaries between what is real and what is pretended. I have made this model of the two situations, in which I see the pretended as a subset of the real:

This being so there is a difference between 1) pretending to believe and 2) purposely denying the performance in order to believe “for real”. Jane McGonigal suggests that:

“The frame of representational play remains visible and sturdy to players in even the most believable performances of belief.”
This means that there is a frame, which let players know which actions and elements represent play and which that do not. This frame is visible at all times according to McGonigal. One of McGonigal’s core claims is that the longing to believe is a central driver for players of pervasive games. They are longing because it is impossible to actually believe that the game is real.

McGonigal rejects the idea that players of pervasive games should be credulous. Instead she makes use of the historian Tom Gunning’s analyzes of the first spectators. He rejects that spectators react on the first films with screams and flight is a result of pure naivety. Instead he suggests that the spectators have been “engaged in a sophisticated, self-aware suspension of disbelief”. The earliest spectators were intentionally playful participants in the creation and maintenance of the illusion as the players of pervasive games are.

When playing a game the player can experience to be “absorbed” in the game: the game has the full attention and the player becomes one with the game. The player experiences immersion. McGonigal states that it is assumed that immersion is desired by the player and it is seen as a conscious choice to surrender to the experience hoping to be immersed into the game. McGonigal makes the point that this does not fit the idea of a credulous player, that is unaware and naive about what is happening. By parting consciousness and immersion the critiques also contradict the major play theories that define play as voluntary. McGonigal writes this off as hysteria:

“By debunking the seminal myth of the naïve immersive gamers, we can stage an intervention in the centuries-spanning cycle of suspicion and hysteria over progressively and mimetic media.”
Instead McGonigal describes what is happening: The players are performing belief – it is a willful suspension of disbelief. She dubs this “the Pinocchio effect”.

McGonigal ends by stating that the best pervasive games are make the player more suspicious of, more attentive to, the world:
“A good immersive game will show you game patterns in non-game places; these patterns reveal opportunities for interaction and intervention.”.
She concludes by saying that the players’ performed belief is a conscious decision to prolong the pleasures of the player experience and a part of this prolonging is to use the skills acquired in the game on real life.

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