Douglas and Hargadon respond in turn

Douglas and Hargadon respond in turn

2004-11-04

Choosing between James Joyce and Stephen King means choosing between engagement and immersion. Or does it?

Maybe our culture is so saturated with binaries that we have difficulty avoiding them. Perhaps new media criticism seems to be skewed more heavily toward, say, hypertext fiction than videogames - the equivalent of the scholarly focus lavished on James Joyce while poor old Stephen King gets the academic equivalent of short shrift. But Henry Jenkins’ response projects a sort of elitist haute culture vs. lowbrow division in our article that, on close reading, doesn’t exist. We begin by describing problematic traditional assumptions, after which we describe a continuum uniting engagement, flow, and immersion. We’re interested primarily in the cognitive demands placed on us when we turn to entertainment, especially where these demands touch on familiar and unfamiliar cognitive schemas. The most contentious aspect of our definition - using “widely read” to describe people who prefer engagement in their entertainment over immersion - does not apply simply to books but also to videogames, cinema, television, music, and popular culture, most of which are hardly the stuff of haute culture. And, actually, our interests are skewed heavily toward the immersive: the first draft of our article contained a Freudian slip, “Immersion and Interactivity” for “Immersion and Engagement.” Truth be told, we’re fonder of immersion than of engagement.

Immersion doesn’t imply, de facto, formulaic elements; it entails, instead, the mapping out of clear-cut schemas, providing readers or users with a fairly clear map of the territory ahead. Further, our vision of engagement is a bit more active than Richard Schechner probably envisions, although he quite rightly points out that the interiorized experience of reading or playing an interactive game may seem relatively rich compared with the most impoverished texts – the knee-jerk twitch games, the Harlequin romances and genre fantasies. In our definition, engagement lies not in the number or nature of choices offered us but in the cognitive loads necessary to make sense of the experience confronting us. If we need to resort to extra-textual resources outside the text’s frame, we tend to be engaged; if we sink into a stupor that begins somewhere near Coleridge’s willing suspension of disbelief and rapidly damps out all perception of the world humming around us, we’re immersed.

We’d argue, moreover, that any medium can host texts that occupy spaces all over that immersion-flow-engagement continuum. Obviously, some genres get their effects - enjoy their juiciest sales - from their promise of immersion: ask any twitch player how much backstory she wants, and you’re liable to get a blank stare. Genre readers pay for the privilege of having their expectations satisfied utterly, right down to the twelve or eighteen red herrings salting the average mystery novel. Not surprisingly, digital technologies are already helping us create fresh schemas by melding together elements of what have been mostly separate and distinct schemas. Interactive shoot-em-ups, for instance, borrow heavily from video arcade schemas, requiring fast reflexes and well-honed eye-hand coordination but not necessarily a good eye for reading characters or a long memory for backstory’s ancient history. Simulation interactives, however, hover somewhere between immersion and engagement in the vicinity of flow, which may explain both their addictiveness and the accolades simulations like Black and White have reaped from gaming pundits. When you’re hunkered down with Railroad Tycoon or Sid Meier’s Antietam! or SimCity or, for that matter, The Sims, you’re engaged in building an empire or strategies or cities and scenarios, bound by the constraints of the game’s own time clock. And yet you’re also immersed, dealing with the other-world you’re creating as if it were real in an experience that is essentially open-ended: you can abandon it, leave and come back to it, continue adding to it, even leave things to their own devices and watch them run, a virtual deus abs conditus peering down at a world of railroad robber barons and disgruntled Sims ready to rip one another’s eyes out, still developing and stewing hours after we’ve tweaked our last variable.

Our primary point in analyzing the aesthetic pleasures of interactives: we’re awaiting the eventual redefinition of entertainment itself, in terms of our schemas and scripts. Before the advent of interactives, you needed a detailed script for pure engagement but only a simple, austere script for pure immersion. To play chess or music in an orchestra or Australian rules football with a bunch of mates, I need to know a whole panoply of rules and regulations - what’s acceptable, what’s expected, what’s verboten. To watch a play or film or to read a book, I need only follow a relatively simple script:

1. Watch, or
2. Read.

These scripts, however, are already morphing: playing any interactive game, for example, can require periods where we necessarily shift into and out of engagement mode. Some of Richard Schechner’s response, interestingly, itself describes both modes separately. When we follow Darryl Strawberry’s exploits on the diamond, we’re immersed. When we, however, track his story through rehab, remission, the courts, and seedy halfway houses, we’re engaged. Watching Maggie Smith play a repressed spinster in Lettice and Lovage or Washington Square is immersive. Pondering what Smith’s repressed spinster persona brings to Washington Square via The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne or The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is engaging. What’s most intriguing, most promising about interactives is their ability to combine, to blur, and perhaps, ultimately, to confound these hitherto largely discrete modes.

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