Immersive Gameplay – Interview with William J. White

August 19, 2012

In honor of the release of Bill White’s and my co-edited volume with McFarland, Immersive Gameplay: Essays on Role-Playing and Participatory Media, I am conducting interviews with some of my talented and erudite contributors.

The sixth interview is with role-playing designer, professor and my co-editor Bill White. He co-authored the article in the volume “Role-Playing Communities, Cultures of Play and the Discourse of Immersion” with J. Tuomas Harviainen and Emily Care Boss. In the article, he looks at Nordic and American interpretations of role-playing immersion, contrasting emotionally resonant and creative play/design philosophies and advocating for a bottom-up definition of immersion, based on communities’ play experiences.

Here are my follow-up questions:

1. As a tenured professor in communications, how do you see the field of game studies developing with respect to your field?

This is an interesting question. One of the first things I did when I was thinking about how to shift my research focus to gaming was to try to figure out how the study of games fits into the field of communication, which has a chimerical disciplinary history that interweaves social psychology, political science, classical rhetoric, anthropology, journalism, information science, performance studies, and things even further afield. One scholar has called communication an “archipelago within the university,” meaning that it pops up here and there within the larger intellectual system of the academy. So it’s not clear for any given class of phenomena what is the “proper way” to study it from a communication perspective. What I found was that communication as a field currently sees (digital) gaming primarily as a medium, like radio or television, and at least to date has spent a lot of time worrying about its dysfunctions, like addiction, alienation, and aggression. At least, that’s the stuff that has been published the most; it overlaps considerably with social psychological studies of the impact of media violence.

But I think that’s changing; the “moral panic” over digital games has been blunted by the sheer cultural force of videogames, computer games, and on-line gaming. So communication as a field is adapting to that. I think there’s more interest in understanding the psychological and physiological dimensions of the gaming experience, with an eye toward providing practical information to game designers. In my chapter with Jiituomas and Emily in Immersive Gameplay we mention in passing some of the ways that media scholars are doing that, looking at “passion” and “flow” and “presence” as central elements of the game experience.

At the same time, there are communication scholars who are taking a more cultural perspective on gaming, trying to understand what it means to be a gamer in terms of identity and belonging to a community. This is an approach that I find more congenial to my own interests. The direction that I would like to take, and to find an audience for, would investigate how gamers form “cultures of production” that are engaged in the creation of meaningful aesthetic experience. This is the thing that connects game studies to the study of what Henry Jenkins calls “participatory culture”; Jenkins is known for his studies of science-fiction fandom.

2. How has that slippery term “immersion” changed over time and space?

This is a hard question! The thing that we try to show in our chapter for Immersive Gameplay is how variable are individual understandings of what immersion is. Ron Edwards, one of the founders of the Forge game design discussion site, makes the point that immersion is often used to valorize whatever one finds enjoyable about the gaming experience. So if what you like is the story, you experience a kind of “narrative immersion,” but if playing a different person is what makes you happy, then you enjoy “character immersion,” and so forth.

The one important change that I hope is becoming increasingly prevalent is a rejection of what Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman call “the immersive fallacy” in their magisterial game design text Rules of Play. The immersive fallacy is the idea that the goal of game design is to create experiences that are ever more indistinguishable from reality—that immersion requires a comprehensive sensory experience in which you are literally “immersed.” But that’s not true! Whatever we take immersion to be, we know it can be achieved in circumstances short of complete virtual reality. We don’t need the holodeck to be immersed. So it’s useful to have a term that lets us challenge that assumption.

3. What role do you see academic works such as yours playing within the game design community itself as it stands?

I would like to think that the academic study of gaming can be in dialogue with the practice of game design, that it can provide insights into the gaming experience that enables designers to interrogate their own assumptions about what makes a game, and what makes a game work. In the heyday of the Forge, this sort of thing happened all the time. The theoretical discussions about Creative Agenda and reward cycles led to efforts to create games that explicitly played with those ideas, producing I think some interesting experiments as well as some real innovations.

Of course, Forge theory wasn’t academic; it didn’t have to justify itself in the institutional context of the academy, which is another way of saying that it didn’t have to talk to anyone other than those inside the tabletop RPG community. This makes it harder for academic game studies to “speak to gamers,” because it’s also speaking to other scholars, trying to enlist them in its project, and speaking in front of an institutional audience (i.e., tenure and promotion committees, university administrators) that has to make judgments about the intellectual value of the work.

But here’s my secret hope: that the academic study and criticism of games can move us as gamers to an appreciation of role-playing as art. I see my own work heading in that direction.

4. What games interest you most these days, and how might we go about researching them?

I honestly cannot stop thinking about Traveller. I run a game at cons that I call “Mustering Out Blues,” where the players randomly create their characters, veterans of military service in a galaxy-spanning space empire now suddenly on their own, and are randomly deposited on a planet in search of gainful employment. What are they willing to do in order to make a buck? If they’re offered 100,000 credits to shoot a man in the head with a laser, will they do it? The gameplay is so interesting, because it involves this constant sense-making of random results, forcing a pattern upon what is essentially “noise” in the information science sense. And yet narrative emerges from that! It’s novelistic, in that not much really happens but we get a chance to get inside a character’s head for a while, but it’s a definitely a story. It says something.

As for studying that, I am a big advocate of the close reading of RPG “actual play” transcripts to see how they produce the fiction. This means listening to audio (and maybe video, but I think that’s inessential) and seeing how the game system’s rules and the the table-level player-to-player exchanges produce the imaginary actions and reactions of characters and game world. The result would be an account of the production of a fictional experience as well as an interpretation of the fiction thus produced. I think that might be really interesting.

William J. White is an associate professor of communication arts and sciences at Penn State Altoona, where he teaches speech communication and mass media courses. He received a Ph.D. from Rutgers University in communication, information and library studies. His research interests include communication theory and the rhetoric of science and science fiction. He is the designer of the small- press tabletop RPG Ganakagok.

Evan Torner is a Ph.D. candidate in German and film studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He is finishing his dissertation on representations of race and the global South in East German genre cinema. As co-editor of Immersive Gameplay: Essays on Role-Playing and Participatory Media, he has also written on modernist film, German science-fiction literature and live-action role-playing, and is the official translator of the Filmmuseum Potsdam’s permanent exhibit “The Dream Factory: 100 Years of Babelsberg.”


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