Immersion, Engagement, and Presence

VideoGameTheoryCoverI wrote a chapter for the Video Game Theory Reader on "Immersion, Engagement, and Presence:  while I was a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at Vassar College. The paper continues to be my most read and cited. (You can find it here). 

I'm designing a film course to be taught online, which has led me to reflect further on our current virtual way of living. Does our live on Zoom meet the standards of  immersiveness (the sense that a viewer/player has that the non-linear world addresses most of their senses), engagement  (level of obsessiveness with the game), and presence (the  feeling that the online environment is real, that is, credible).

Is a graduation ceremony on Zoom immersive? Can you fall in love over social media, with minimal or no face-to-face contact? Are interactive TV shows,  like Netflix's recent experiments, Bandersnatch or Kimmy versus the Reverend, engaging?

I can't really give academic answers to the first two questions. The fact is, my eighteen-year-old will have a virtual commencement, along with the rest of the class of 2020. And my other kid is doing her best not to let lockdown get in the way of first love.

I watched Kimmy versus the Reverend just the other night. I watched it, first, because I'm a huge Daniel Radcliffe fan; in fact, my first act during lockdown was to revisit the entire Harry Potter series. I was eager to see him do something zany and funny. I laughed when he and Kimmy made out. I enjoyed the contrast between adult characters talking like tenth-graders even as Kimmy went on a quest to rescue more women locked up in a bunker.

Was it believable? Not at all. (An adult woman still carrying around her middle school backpack? Even if it is a talking one.... it just defies credibility). Was it immersive? Nope. Every time we had to make a choice about the plot I was thrown out of the immersiveness of the story. 

But it was engaging. Very, very, engaging. From the inside jokes, the pleasure of being with stars one loves, and the silliness that soothes the soul, it engaged. Fifteen years from now the new batch of teenagers will wonder what we laughed at, but we will watch it again and weep with gratitude.

Most of all, I appreciated the effort the filmmakers made to get this show to us during a pandemic. The actors don't seem to really be out on the street—looks like rear projection to me. Unless they are out in the woods and there is absolutely no one else around. Otherwise they are on sets. Except for Radcliffe, who got to make out with not one, but two stars, nobody touched anybody else. The moment where Kimmy releases the women from the bunker and they turn their faces up to the sun was incredibly poignant in a way that people who haven't experienced lockdown will never understand.

Bandersnatch was produced and aired well before our current crisis. The choice points seemed less intrusive to me, though I wondered at first why having me choose which song the hero listened to, or which cereal he had for breakfast, would make a difference. But even that worked into the show's theme, the hero's growing awareness that he might be a hero, he might even be a gave creator, but we are all stalked by circumstances which will limit our options. Developing a theme is the greatest challenge for the non-linear narrative, and Bandersnatch succeeds at this difficult task amazingly well.

Netflix's experiments have inspired me. If we can't interact face to face, let's try bringing that interaction to our screens.