'The Art of Immersion'

From Frank Rose's Book on How Digital Generation Is Changing Our World

by Frank Rose

24 March 2011

"Immersion Enhanced" by
© Marco Catena used with permission. See more of Marco's work at Marco Catena.com 

The Power of the Hive Mind

Crucially, Why So Serious? was nonlinear. Like hypertext—text that has embedded within it links to other texts, an essential feature of the Web—it could lead you along different paths. Links can carry you deeper and deeper into a story, revealing levels of detail that would be impossible to convey in a single, two-hour movie. Or they can take you into alternate story lines, showing what would happen if you, or the author, made different choices along the way.

Why So Serious? also assumed that the participants would be connected. The game wasn’t restricted to the Internet or to any other medium, but it certainly relied on the connective tissue of the Web. In a networked world, information doesn’t just travel from author to audience, or in a closed loop from author to audience and back again; it spreads all over the place, and more or less instantly. Fans can collaborate with each other, as they did in the search for the cake phones. This is what generates the hive mind, the spontaneous joint effort that transformed The Dark Knight into an experience anyone could take part in.

“Games are about engaging with the most entertaining thing on the planet … which is other people.”

At the same time, Why So Serious? was a fusion of game and narrative. Conventional narratives—books, movies, TV shows—are emotionally engaging, but they involve us as spectators. Games are engaging in a different way. They put us at the center of the action: whatever’s going on is not just happening to a character on the page or an actor on the screen; it’s happening to us. Combine the emotional impact of stories with the first-person involvement of games and you can create an extremely powerful experience.

An immersive experience, you might say. And that immersiveness is what blurs the line, not just between story and game, but between story and marketing, storyteller and audience, illusion and reality.

For most of its 69 years, Batman existed as a series of comic books—printed artifacts that followed certain well-defined rules of narrative and graphic art. It stayed within the lines. You picked it up, you put it down. You could read it or not, but it would not read you. It wouldn’t bleed into your life. As a television series in the sixties, Batman remained very much, as they say, inside the box. When Tim Burton brought the story to movie theaters in 1989, it got larger than life, but it didn’t try to jump the screen. No longer.

The forces that took Batman to new dimensions were at work long before most people experienced the Internet or even heard about it. They could be felt decades earlier at a summer camp deep in the north woods of Wisconsin. Jordan Weisman, a 14-year-old from the Chicago suburbs who would grow up to more or less invent the concept of alternate reality games, was back for his sixth summer—this time as a junior counselor. Camp Shewahmegon fronted on a remote and pristine lake, its thousand-foot shoreline dotted with sugar maples, yellow birches, white pines, and balsam firs. But for Jordan the fun started after dark, when the little kids were asleep and the older ones had the evening to themselves. That’s when the camp’s senior counselor brought out a new game he’d just discovered in college. The game was Dungeons & Dragons. The year was 1974.

When he was in second grade, Jordan had been diagnosed as severely dyslexic. In a way, he was lucky. Dyslexia had been identified by European physicians in the late nineteenth century, but American schoolteachers had only recently been introduced to the idea that otherwise normal kids might be unable to read because their brains couldn’t process words and letters properly. Jordan’s teacher had just attended a seminar on the disorder, and a nearby teachers’ college was one of the few places in the country that tested for it. Since then, years of daily tutoring had given Jordan a way to cope, but reading was still difficult—so difficult he found it almost physically painful.

Dungeons & Dragons gave him a different kind of story—one he could act out instead of having to read. The first commercial example of what would become a long line of fantasy role-playing games, D&D provided an elaborate set of rules that guided players through an imaginary adventure as they sat around a table together. Each player got to pick a character with certain characteristics (human or elf, fighter or wizard) and abilities. The game started with the lead player, the “Dungeon Master,” describing the setting and the plot to all the others. As the game progressed, the Dungeon Master determined the outcome of the players’ actions, often with a roll of the dice. For those few hours, they weren’t a bunch of knock-kneed mall rats in a cabin in the woods; they were axe-wielding warriors fighting goblins and orcs. The images that played out in Jordan’s head during these sessions were so vivid, and the socialization with the other boys so intense, that decades later he remembered thinking, Wow—my life is going to be changed.

As he told me this story, Weisman and I were sitting in his lakeside guesthouse in the Seattle suburb of Bellevue, the snow-covered peaks of the Cascade Range rising in the distance beyond the water. Bellevue’s downtown has the raw look of an insta-city, but here on the shores of Lake Sammamish it felt secluded in an upscale, north woods kind of way. Now in his late forties, Weisman was slender and soft-spoken, with dark, curly hair and a salt-and-pepper beard that gave him an almost Talmudic appearance.

“Here was entertainment that involved problem solving and was story based and social,” he recalled, taking a sip of coffee. “It totally put my brain on fire.” Ultimately, it led him to fashion a career in game design and social interaction—two fields he sees as intimately connected. “Games are about engaging with the most entertaining thing on the planet,” he added, “which is other people.”

On his way home from Camp Shewahmegon that summer, Jordan convinced his parents to stop at Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, a small resort town near the Illinois border. He wanted to buy his own copy of Dungeons & Dragons, and the only way you could do that was to see Gary Gygax, the local insurance underwriter who had invented it with a friend. Gygax had a passion for games, but no publisher was interested in taking this one on, so he had published it himself and was selling it out of his house.

Jordan started a Dungeons & Dragons club when he went back to school that fall—the beginning of what would become a lifelong pattern of entrepreneurship. After graduation he attended the Merchant Marine Academy and then the University of Illinois, but before long he dropped out and started a company he called FASA Corporation—short for Freedonian Aeronautics and Space Administration, after the fictional nation in the Marx Brothers’ film Duck Soup.

Building on the role-playing game genre that Gygax had started with Dungeons & Dragons, FASA created games like BattleTech, a science fiction title inspired by Japanese anime—the animated films and television shows that were beginning to turn up on videocassette in the United States, usually with English-language subtitles provided by fans. Launched in 1984 as a board game, BattleTech existed in an elaborate fictional “universe” of warring feudal states set centuries into the future.  Over the years it morphed into a PC game, a console game, an online game, a series of novels, and an immersive simulation in Chicago that enabled players to sit in a virtual cockpit and engage in combat with other players.

In 1999, Microsoft acquired a spin-off company called FASA Interactive and moved it from Chicago to the woodsy Seattle suburb of Redmond, not far from corporate headquarters. Weisman became creative director of Microsoft’s new entertainment division, which was about to launch the Xbox—the console that would pit the company against Sony and its best-selling PlayStation in the video game business.

Weisman’s new role gave him creative oversight of everyone developing video games for the Xbox. One such group was Bungie Studios, another Chicago-based game developer that Microsoft had bought and moved to Seattle. Bungie’s big project was Halo, a shooter that had generated rave reports after being demonstrated at game shows in prototype form. In 2000 and 2001, as the Bungie team was retooling Halo to be a game that could be played exclusively on the Xbox, Weisman helped the Bungie crew create a backstory for the game, like the universe he had devised for BattleTech.

“You need characters,” he explained. “You need plotlines that can be extended and moved to other media to create a more robust world.” Weisman’s team put together a Halo “bible,” a compendium of information about the characters in the game and the universe in which it takes place. They made a deal with Del Rey Books to publish a series of novels that would flesh out the Halo story. But while Weisman was spending most of his days thinking about Halo and other new Xbox titles, on his own time he was thinking about an entirely different kind of game.

In truth, Weisman didn’t really care that much about video games. He liked storytelling, and game developers at the time were far too busy trying to deliver gee-whiz computer graphics to pay much attention to story. Ever since his days at camp, he’d loved telling stories through interaction with other people. Now he was starting to think about how interactive stories could be told in a way that was organic to the Internet.

“What do we do on the Net?” he asked. “Mainly we search through a ton of crap looking for information we care about, like an archaeologist sifting through dirt.” Gradually, after months of midafternoon rambles through Microsoft parking lots and 3:00 a.m. phone calls with a young protégé named Elan Lee, this line of thought evolved into the notion of a deconstructed narrative. They could write a story, fabricate the evidence that would have existed had it been real, and then throw the story out and get an online audience to reconstruct it. That was the theory anyway—that we humans would forage for information the same way other species forage for food, and use it to tell ourselves a story. Now all he needed was some way to try it out.

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