Narrative Immersion – Reflections on Gaming

by Daniel A. Kaufman

It’s no secret that I am a pretty committed gamer, something that has been true since 1979, when I first began playing Dungeons and Dragons. I was in the sixth grade, and the game resonated with me in a way that previously only novels and movies could, and with a significant difference: It offered a level of narrative immersion that simply went beyond anything that a novelist or director could provide in what are, essentially, passive media.

We are not only story tellers but story dwellers, by which I mean that we inhabit narratives as much as we create them. Elsewhere, I have alluded to the fact that we all need to feel that our lives are part of a compelling, significant story, a need that I think is serious and important and in some sense, fundamental and about which I will have more to say at another time.  But beyond trying to satisfy this need to find the specialness and meaning in our own lives and world, we also derive tremendous satisfaction from inhabiting lives and worlds that are not our own and which have their own distinctive kinds of significance. I discovered this at quite a young age, by way of a number of highly memorable reading, television-watching, and film-going experiences, a few of which I’ll discuss briefly here.

Earliest were Robert Heinlein’s juvenile novels, almost all of which I bought in Tel Aviv, in the mid-1970’s, at Steimatzky’s, an Israeli bookseller.  My mother and I would spend an entire month in Israel every year, visiting our relatives (my father owned and managed a company and had to stay at home), and I would have a lot of time to read, with science fiction being my favorite genre. What made Heinlein so appealing when I was kid were a number of core elements that are characteristic of his juvenile fiction: (1) He wrote realistic, believable child characters, with whom I could easily and closely identify; (2)  He placed them in exotic, sometimes mind-bending situations that challenged and stretched my imagination; (3)  He constructed storylines that more often than not were essentially “capers,” thereby providing a relatively simple narrative route through what might be a very complex landscape, maintaining a sufficient pace to retain my attention; (4)  The storylines were designed such that the child protagonist could be a hero, in the manner of adult heroes, and again, with a kind of realism and believability that made it all seem credible, rather than some kind of infantile fantasy.

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The second experience I can recall, during which I really felt the magic of inhabiting another world is also from my childhood days in Israel and involves the BBC’s production of Robert Graves’ I, Claudius, which originally aired in 1976.  My cousin, Amit, and I watched the entire series during our visit the next year – it was being shown on Israeli television for the first time, if I remember correctly – and we were absolutely mesmerized by it. Though I would come to understand later in my life that I, Claudius is considered to be one of the best television series ever made, even at that young age, I was profoundly affected by its superb cast and source material – Suetonius’ deliciously malevolent, imperial soap opera translated into a modern drama.  The powerful, noble, but ultimately doomed Augustus, trying to keep order and dignity among the members of his house and court, who, despite their breeding and position, are little more than a nest of viperous sadists and perverts. Claudius, narrating the story from the future, in his old age, describing how his lameness and stammer ultimately protected him from those who sought power.  Livia, scheming and manipulating everyone around her, so that her son, Tiberius, might ascend to the throne. Prolific nudity and what to my young eyes was a shocking amount of violence. Utterly marvelous, theater-like performances. It was the first time that history felt alive and that I was able to inhabit the past in the way that I had inhabited fictional worlds.  So intense and powerful were these feelings that after the series was over, I went to Steimatzky’s and bought Graves’ book, after which I spent hours upon hours poring over and carefully copying and memorizing the Julio-Claudian family trees in the back. These handwritten notes are still tucked in the back pages of my original copy of I, Claudius, which remains in my library to this day.

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The third early experience of the power of narrative immersion that I will touch on occurred on my ninth birthday, in the Fall of 1977, when my parents took me and three of my friends to the nearby Port Washington public library, for a screening of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, which originally screened in 1968.

Not Star Wars?  I had, of course, seen Lucas’ mega-blockbuster, when it first released several months earlier, but I was somewhat underwhelmed.  As someone who had grown up with the original Star Trek, in syndication, Star Wars seemed pretty weak by comparison: less science, less technology, a less compelling ensemble and far less imagination.  Ironically, though Star Trek had been conceived as a kind of Western in space, it was Star Wars that really fit that description, from the simplistic morality to the black hat/white hat iconography to the constant leaping from one frenetic action piece to another. It’s easy to forget now, given the hold that Star Wars has on the American consciousness, just how bad these movies really are: wooden, awkward acting (with the exception of poor Alec Guinness, who throughout looks like he’d like to commit hara-kiri with a lightsaber); pacing that is all over the place, but almost always off; silly, even stupid plots … Given the quality of the science fiction I was already consuming by this point in my life, Star Wars could only seem like hopelessly thin stuff.

2001 was simply the most mind-blowing thing I had ever experienced.  Mysterious almost to the point of being completely opaque, massive in scope (despite its much smaller universe, 2001 seemed bigger – much bigger – in every way than Star Wars), sublime in its sheer visual beauty, and combining a careful, precise realism with a truly far-out concept that was on a cosmic scale, the film held me in rapt attention for its three, very sparsely dialogued hours.  Where I, Claudius succeeded in immersing me in ancient history, 2001 did the same with respect to the unfathomable vastness of space and the equally ungraspable span of cosmic time.  Even in my relatively unsophisticated consciousness, I felt almost as if I had been given a glimpse of the shape of infinity and of the ultimate secrets of the universe.  The film’s somewhat inscrutable iconography and meta-narrative actually assisted in my immersion, precisely because it permitted me my own interpretations of what I was seeing on the screen, and as with I, Claudius, the experience left me full of creative urges, one expression of which was to draw an illustrated rendition of the entire film, in comic strip form, something that took me months to complete.  Unfortunately, this creative output has been lost, and I cannot even remember the last time I had those hand-drawn comics in my possession.

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So, I came to Dungeons and Dragons at a point in my life at which I had already developed a love for immersive narrative and for the experience of compelling lives and worlds that were not my own.  What I discovered was that with role playing games (RPGs), the capacity for immersion is at a level and of a magnitude that I could not have previously imagined. And they exist in virtually every genre, beyond the high fantasy that characterizes D & D – historical; science fiction; superheroes; espionage; post-apocalyptic; and more.

A role playing game has three core elements: character; scenario; and systems.  Players create characters who engage in various activities in a created world, within a framework of gaming-systems and rules, and whose abilities and skills progress and develop as a result.  Dungeons and Dragons style role playing, employing paper and pencil, character sheets, rule books, and dice – commonly referred to as “table-top” gaming – is managed by a “Game Master” (GM), who both narrates the game to the players and administers the various gaming systems. Game Masters may set their games in worlds of their own creation or may use commercially produced adventures, set in worlds created by the game company which, in the case of First Edition Dungeons and Dragons, was TSR (“Tactical Studies Rules”).  During my own time as a GM, I did a combination of both, creating a world of my own, with its own history and lore, and then running players through adventures, some of which I had written myself and some of which I had adapted from TSR’s large selection of outstanding game modules.

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So, what is it about these types of games that sets them apart, in terms of narrative immersion?  The answer, at its most general level, is that RPGs are participatory, rather than passive forms of entertainment.  The players, as much as the creator, are involved in the game’s realization.  What happens, how the story unfolds, and even the ultimate outcome depend on the players’ choices.  Was your group able to unlock that chest and find the map showing the shortcut out of the dungeon, or did you have to fight your way through room after room?  Did you succeed in persuading the leader of the rebel faction to meet with the King’s envoy or was the land plunged into civil war?  When the final moment came, did you destroy the amulet imbued with demonic power, or did you take it for your own?

The games systems are essential, in that they impose a kind of reality or at least, objectivity on what otherwise would be an exercise in pure invention that would lack dramatic tension.  If, after a long battle, the GM simply declares “You win” or “You lose,” the nakedly made-up quality of the resolution breaks immersion.  But if the win or loss is determined by dice rolls that can be weighted in various ways by your character’s relevant statistics – like strength or dexterity —  abilities and skills, and whatever modifiers may come from special weapons, armor, or other gear, the experience is much more realistic, because it is anchored in systems that are set, established, and maintained, regardless of how any particular game unfolds.

Finally, though games can be played as one-offs, in which characters are created for a single adventure and then discarded – something one finds at gaming conventions and which is referred to as “tournament play” – RPGs really lend themselves towards long, extended arcs, in which the same group of people play through a number of adventures and scenarios, set in a persistent world.  This “campaign play,” as it is called, is where narrative immersion in RPGs reaches its peak.  Player characters and their stories develop in an almost episodic fashion, over a long period of time, alongside the world itself, which changes as a result of days, months, and sometimes years of player activity.  With three of us taking turns creating content, playing, and GMing, two of my best friends and I ran a single campaign, in a single world that persisted over seven years.  By the end, we were playing the grandchildren of our original characters.

Of course, while table-top RPGs are designed in such a way as to create an immersive, narrative experience, the quality of that experience is entirely dependent upon the people with whom one plays – their intelligence, imagination, enthusiasm, skill in writing and speaking, and ability to really inhabit a role.  It also depends on one’s having large amounts of time to play, something that becomes more difficult as one gets older and takes on adult responsibilities and commitments.  My table-top gaming pretty much ended when I graduated college in 1990.


Computer and console technology has made it possible for machines to take over the role of Game Master, as well as manage non-player characters, which means that one can now play RPGs entirely on one’s own and in one’s own time.  The potential for this could be seen in the earliest text-based adventures for home computer, like Zork (1980) and Planetfall (1983), but the real breakthrough came with titles like Baldur’s Gate (1998) and Planescape: Torment (1999).  Add to this rapid and astonishing advances in graphical fidelity and computing power over the course of the early 2000’s, as well as some really smart game design and compelling world-building, and we find ourselves in a video gaming Renaissance, offering some of the most powerfully immersive RPG experiences that I have ever had, including my days as a table-top player.  In closing, I want to talk about three games that I think provide some of the best immersive gameplay in the video game era.

The Power of the Ensemble: Mass Effect 2

The Mass Effect trilogy is science fiction on a scale and of a quality that begs comparison with Star Trek and Babylon 5.  At its grandest scope, it is the story of a repeating, 50,000 year galactic cycle.  Species emerge and evolve to the point of sustaining an advanced, intra-galactic society, whereupon a mysterious race of near-omnipotent machines, The Reapers, appear and wreak destruction to the point of galactic-wide extinction, after which they disappear, and the entire process begins again.  The plot, which runs through all three games, is centered around the final years of the most recent of these cycles and features as its protagonist, Commander Shepherd, an officer in the Earth Alliance, who is tasked with stopping the Reapers and putting an end to the cycle of death and renewal.

The first and third games in the series are concerned directly with the Reaper threat and as a result, are vast in scope.  The second game, however, represents a kind of interlude, in which the Reaper storyline recedes to the background, and the primary focus is on one of their surrogate races, the Collectors, who are attacking human colonies and abducting their residents.  I focus on this second installment, because it represents the best of what is most distinctive of the Mass Effect style of RPG: characterization and relationships.

Mass Effect is a squad-based game, which means that you are always adventuring with computer-controlled characters (with whom and to whom you can talk and issue commands).  Many games have a companion system, but Mass Effect’s is in a class of its own.  The characters are so well designed, written, and voice-acted that the fact that they are computer controlled is almost entirely forgettable.  As one talks with each one over the course of a game, one learns more and more about his or her backstory and eventually, this opens up unique, companion-focused side missions that deepen your relationships and increase your companions’ loyalty.  Mass Effect 2 developed this dimension of the game to a degree and with a polish superior to Mass Effects 1 & 3 and better than almost any other game I can think of.  Never have I cared for fictional characters as much as I cared for those who populate the Mass Effect games and especially, Mass Effect 2.  So much so, in fact, that I find myself thinking about them, even when I’m not playing – like one would think of dear friends with whom one has lost touch.  It is a remarkable achievement and a triumph of writing, voice acting, and of programming branching dialogue that feels as natural as a real conversation.

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World Building: Fallout

The Fallout series goes back to the first big breakthrough in video RPGs, back in the days of Baldur’s Gate and Planescape: Torment.  The franchise eventually was bought by Bethesda Game Studios and given a modern, graphical and gameplay makeover, the “next gen” Fallouts being released in 2008 (Fallout 3, set in Washington DC and surrounding areas) and 2010 (Fallout New Vegas, set in the Mojave desert and surrounding areas).  Just last year, Bethesda released Fallout 4, which is set in and around Boston.

Where Mass Effect is a largely linear game, in which player choice affects the game’s outcome only to a limited degree, and whose greatest immersive strength lies in the relationships one forms with its fascinating, expertly-written and voiced characters, Fallout is an entirely different animal.  With only a minimal story and substantially less realized characters, Fallout provides an enormous, brilliantly conceived, and almost absurdly detailed open world, in which one can do pretty much as one likes.  It’s greatest immersive strength lies in its world-building and in the ability of the player to affect the flow of the game, as well as its outcome.

The world of Fallout is the most interesting and well-realized post-apocalyptic world that I have encountered in all my years reading and watching science fiction.  It takes as its backdrop an alternative history, in which nuclear power was developed to a point far beyond what we have been able to accomplish ourselves and was employed as the world’s primary energy source, providing power for everything, from entire electrical grids to individual cars, television sets, radios, and the like.  It is also a history in which the micro-revolution never happened, which means that computers still fill entire rooms, machines employ vacuum tubes rather than transistors, and robots are large, bulky, and clumsy in their movements.

Culturally, the United States never really progressed beyond the feel-good boosterism of the 1950’s, and this, when combined with the Fallout’s distinctive technological history, is what gives the game its utterly unique look and feel, filled as it is with retro-futuristic iconography and a soundtrack featuring songs from the 1930’s, 40’s and 50’s, by artists like Danny Kaye and the Andrews Sisters, Billie Holiday, and Dinah Washington.  There is no experience quite like that of making one’s way through a blighted, mutant-filled, post-apocalyptic landscape, while “Jingle, Jangle, Jingle” and “Mad about the Boy” play in the background.

All the games in the series start at some point after a catastrophic global nuclear war, which has left the world nothing but an irradiated husk populated by dangerous mutated animals and people, in which various factions, representing any number of interests, vie for power.  With the sparsest of plot-related nudges, one is thrust into the wasteland after the opening sequence and tutorial, and from there on, what you do is entirely up to you, and what happens in the world is entirely a matter of what you choose to do.  Which factions will you ally yourselves with and which will become your enemies?  Whom do you help and whom do you hurt?  Who are your companions and what alliances or enmities do they bring with them?  These choices heavily affect the course that the game takes, as well as how it ends.  In Fallout 3, there are two factions and several possible outcomes, while in the subsequent game, Fallout New Vegas, there is easily a dozen factions, and so many possible outcomes that  there is disagreement amongst enthusiasts as to precisely how many there actually are.  And in what has to be one of the smartest and most rewarding ways of ending a game, Fallout presents the player with an epilogue, in the form of a slide show, in which a narrator shows and tells you what ultimately happened to every person and faction you were involved with, as well as the enduring result of all the choices you made, while playing the game.

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Customization and Systems: Deus Ex – Human Revolution

Deus Ex is another franchise with a venerable pedigree, the first game having been developed by Ion Storm and released in 2000.  It was hailed as revolutionary in its design and mechanics and praised by fans and critics alike.  After a poorly received sequel, the franchise was bought out by Eidos Montreal, who, taking advantage of the advances in graphical fidelity and PC and console performance, released the sequel the franchise deserved, in 2011 — Deus Ex: Human Revolution.

Firmly cast in the cyberpunk genre – surprisingly, a rarity in video games – Deus Ex imagines a future, the cultural, social, and economic landscape of which is dominated by human augmentation via cybernetic implants.  Augments are powerful, highly desired, and expensive, and the companies that develop and manufacture them are at the top of the corporate pyramid and enjoy substantial political influence.

Human Revolution takes place at a time when augmentation has become a source of political controversy and conflict, with “humanist” – i.e. anti-augmentation – groups becoming increasingly powerful and gaining allies within the political establishment. You play Adam Jensen, Security Chief for Sarif Industries, the top company in the augment industry.  The game’s opening and tutorial sees Sarif Headquarters under violent attack, by a group of augmented super-terrorists and Jensen so severely wounded that he is near death.  As the opening credits run, we see him on the operating table, where he is receiving a body’s worth of Sarif’s top-shelf cybernetic augments.

The game’s story has you investigating the attack on Sarif, which brings you deeper into the politics of augmentation and reveals a number of behind-the-scenes powers and conspiracies.  It is masterfully conceived and written and maintains its noirish air of suspense until the very end.  Writing and voice acting are top-notch.  But where Deus Ex truly shines, with respect to its contribution to narrative immersion, is in its character customization and game systems.

Character creation and development is deep and highly customizable, with augments covering nearly every imaginable modality — enhanced speed and strength; infrared vision; enhanced hacking abilities; stealth; pheromone-based conversation enhancements; the works – and the game is designed to make play responsive to your particular Jensen’s design.  Want to emphasize stealth and non-lethal combat techniques?  The game can be completed from start to finish without killing a single person, aside from enemy “bosses.”  Want to emphasize strength, armor, and lethal combat?  You can run and gun your way through most of the levels, though the going will be tough.  Develop your hacking skills and you’ll be able to open every door and container, giving you alternate routes through various maps, as well as cash and loot.  Invest in your pheromonic augmentations, and you will be able to intuit the personality types of the people you talk with, opening up special dialogue options that make it possible to manipulate them into doing the things you want.  For any situation, there are a number of different methods of approach that depend upon your chosen augmentations and your ability to read the environment.  If Mass Effect is most immersive with respect to its relationships and Fallout with respect to its world, then Deus Ex is most immersive in its tactical situations – in the way in which you develop your character and skills and complete your assignments and missions.

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I do not want to give the impression that RPGs are the only types of video games in which one can have an intensely immersive, narrative experience. The First-Person Shooter (FPS) genre is also known for its narrative gems — Half Life; System Shock; Bioshock; S.T.A.L.K.E.R. – and those interested in narrative immersion in video games outside of the RPG genre can check out the dialogue I did with independent game reviewer and YouTuber, Noah Caldwell-Gervais, on BloggingHeads.TV.  (Link below.)   But pound for pound, pixel for pixel, I have always found RPGs to be the most immersive of them all, from my early days playing tabletop Dungeons and Dragons to today.  I have been busy enjoying post-apocalyptic Boston and its environs in Fallout 4, and I wait with great anticipation, the next installments in the Mass Effect and Deus Ex franchises, later this year and early next year.



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48 responses to “Narrative Immersion – Reflections on Gaming”

  1. HI Dan, well that was pretty awesome. I started into RPGs the same time you did. Up to that time, my reading and movie watching experiences were primarily fantasy and horror related, though Star Trek was present from my earliest childhood memories. Once into RPGs I played just about anything that came along. Any genre. Two of my favorites (among so many) were Call of Cthulhu (horror) and Paranoia (comedy-filled dystopic sci-fi).

    I also liked nonRPG table top games, especially if they could suck one into roles though they were not really story driven (definitely not led by a GM). Some of the best were Talisman, DungeonQuest, Fury of Dracula. Of course I also liked war games and what are called European games (where there is no violence and goals are something like building rail or power lines).

    But I have a completely different experience with video/computer games. Mainly a lack of experience. There were some interesting games here and there, including atmospheric puzzle-solving games like Myst, but I have not kept up with them at all.

    I liked Might & Magic and Heroes of Might & Magic, as well as the Neverwinter Nights game which allowed me to re-enter D&D without needing a GM. The great thing about NN is that it allowed people to make modules or campaigns just like in D&D. The fan made modules which you could share through the NN site were in some cases better than the company made campaigns. It was like being back in the early days, but now I could directly see the action. I was really happy when people began remaking the original D&D modules and I finally got to play (most of the way) through the campaign you posted the covers for.

    Intriguingly, I played NN with a gf for a few years, linking computers to play as fellow adventurers through different campaigns and modules. When we broke up, and the way we broke up, left me realizing that in essence the NPCs and adventures we had might have been the only real things in that relationship.

  2. You lost me at the first person shooter part. I loathe those. It seems to me that there is only one first person shooter game – and only the skins and themes change.

  3. I saw 2001 A Space Odyssey in 1968, in Glasgow’s Cinerama – a giant curved screen. An utterly immersive experience, although the rest of my family were not particularly impressed by the film, as I was. In particular my Dad was sure that they had expended the entire budget on the first two thirds of the screen.

    Oddly enough I have never seen it since.

    Reading “The Lord of the Rings” when I was 9 was also immersive. I couldn’t read at all until I was 7, so it was a little like climbing Everest after practicing on a back garden rockery. But I was completely there at every word. Peter Jackson and his art directors have no idea what a frightening place Mordor is.

  4. labnut

    I love your theme and especially your opening statement which says something very important:

    we inhabit narratives as much as we create them … we all need to feel that our lives are part of a compelling, significant story

    And yet I read the remainder of your well written essay with growing dismay. I think you have accurately represented the spirit of the times and that is what is so dismaying. What is also dismaying is that you see nothing wrong with it.

    To illustrate why I will quickly describe my youth. Every day, after school we would descend on the school playing fields. School sports were compulsory. We would play rugby, football, hockey and cricket. We would take part in every athletics discipline and all the swimming disciplines. We would run a cross-country nearly every day. After sports we would take part in the many school societies, such as chess, bridge, debating, astronomy, etc. Phew, by lights-out we really needed to sleep.

    We learned to compete fairly. We learned to lose without resentment. We learned team spirit and loyalty. We learned that competition was fine in a framework of rules and with a just arbiter. We learned to respect the loser and unhesitatingly helped up a competitor who had fallen even if that meant losing a place. We learned not to take advantage. On the sports field we were learning the social lessons that would sustain us on the playing fields of adult life. And incidentally we were developing strong healthy bodies that were a necessary platform for a healthy mental life.

    In the fullness of time I had children and a different story emerged, dominated by immersive gaming platforms, so addictive that few had time left for sports. That was bad enough but the content was what dismayed me. The themes were tribalism, aggression and death. You collected weapons and killed people, either alone or as a small band. You took great pleasure in killing people or monsters.

    Now I ask you, in the formative years of adolescence, which is the better, more healthy influence? The sports centred upbringing of my youth or the violence imprinted upbringing seen today? When I look at the content of these games then I ask
    1) is the gun centred culture of the US not inevitable?
    2) is it not inevitable that the US sees violence as the natural means of resolving disagreement?
    3) are mass killings not another inevitable result of violence imprinted youth living out fantasies in a real world?
    4) is the extreme affective partisan polarization of US politics not an outcome of training in narrow tribalism?

    I could go on but I want to signal my disquiet at what I think is a powerfully malignant force that is disturbing the development of adolescent minds.

  5. This is simply a matter of lack of experience. Half Life 2, System Shock 2, Bioshock, and Bioshock Infinite, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. These are *amazing* games and *very* different from one another, with the exception of the Bioshock games, which belong to a single series.

  6. I was a competitive tennis player as well as a gamer, so yours is a false dilemma. And I entirely reject your assertion — made by the religious fundamentalist fanatics back in the 1980s against Dungeons and Dragons — that these games are, in themselves, bad for people.

    What makes me sad is that you could find so much negativity in a heartfelt account of a major creative influence in my life. I think that says much more about you than about me or gamers.

  7. mpboyle56


    Anyone who has read Homer knows that graphic depictions of violence are not new. Further, the more genteel upbringing to which you allude clearly did nothing to abate, for example, the carnage of the First World War, so I’m not convinced by the general thrust of your argument, which could just as easily apply to 1950’s westerns. The larger issue of technology and physical exercise or technology and violence has nothing per se to do with the topic of the essay.

  8. labnut

    I was a competitive tennis player as well as a gamer, so yours is a false dilemma

    I admire that. False dilemma? I don’t get it.

    your assertion — made by the religious fundamentalist fanatics

    False linkage. Just a reminder of who I am so that we can avoid this kind of false labelling in the future. I am a real lefty-liberal Catholic who has a strong affinity for Terry Eagleton’s neo-marxist views. Nota Bene.

    What makes me sad is that you could find so much negativity in a heartfelt account of a major creative influence in my life

    I am really sorry you perceived my comment in this way. I have consistently expressed my admiration for your writing and always tried to make thoughtful, positive contributions in response. My comment is intended in this vein and I think I asked important questions that are in no way a reflection on yourself. I am really sorry that you took it that way and it was unintended.

    I think that says much more about you than about me or gamers.

    Now I think you are over-reacting and going a step too far by casting personal aspersions. What my comments say about me is that I always search for deeper insights and understanding. I think I asked important questions about the influences of different styles of upbringing that deserve serious consideration, not snide dismissal.

  9. Excellent article! While I started gaming about 3 years ago, the first video game I ever played, was PONG. I’m 57. In 91 I bought my first PC. My son, 8 at the time, loved it and loved gaming and never looked back. Even these days he still gets together with friends to play Dungeons and Dragons. I bought him Skyrim as few years ago, along with a copy for myself, but found it so complicated that I’ve played it very little. A couple of years ago, I discovered Bioshock Infinite and Deus Ex: Human Revolution. I’ve also recently started playing Mass Effect 2 and Fallout 4. All of these–absolutely captivating!!! I’m also a science fiction fan. I read Heinlein way back as well.

    I don’t agree with “labnuts” criticism at all. I WISH this level of video-gaming was available to me when I was a kid (Pong didn’t really scratch that itch!) My parents pushed me to play almost every. bloody. sport. out there, hoping ONE of them might interest me. None did. I hated sports, team sports especially. I just couldn’t get into them, because I was not at all sports minded/inclined. What interested me was Television, Science Fiction movies and books, Music (piano lessons for years + Tuba playing) and Drama.

    My son’s interest and time spent over the years playing his video games, also not inclined to playing sports, gave him exactly what I wish I had had. He didn’t play the games so that he could sadistically enjoy killing. No, it was the challenge of the game and challenge to build his skill at mastering them that kept his interest going. His Mom and I were happy that he had that interest and encouraged it. He didn’t miss out like I did.

    To this day, someone would have to pay me a lot of money to watch a full game of any sport on TV. Sit me down in front of my computer to play one of these video games, however, and before I know it it’s 3 in the morning, 6 hours later. And, yes, while I may be shooting at a lot of people, things, monsters and robots, I find it immensely satisfying to be stepping up to the challenges these games present. It takes me out of my boring real-life shell and makes me a part of an immersive experience and story that has no real-life parallel. They make me feel like I’m living in another world, most joyfully discovered at this stage of life, giving me something of tremendous interest and value. Your article here has helped to fuel that interest. Thank you!

  10. Labnut:

    Re: the false dilemma, you suggest in your comment that gaming is somehow at the expense of physical activity. That’s the false dilemma. One can be a gamer *and* play sports, as I was and did.

    I did not refer to you as a religious fundamentalist fanatic. What I said was that your objection to gaming — that it makes people violent, anti-social, etc. — is exactly the same objection that religious fundamentalist fanatics made against Dungeons and Dragons in the early 1980s.

    I fully understand that you read deeply and charitably. I just was upset that what to me seemed such a positive essay came across so negatively to you.

  11. Hi Dan, I forgot some things…

    1) I, Claudius was great. The first time I saw it was in my late 30s, and it still held up with time… even with what appeared a small budget (beside cast?).

    2) I have nothing against video/computer games. My lack of experience may have made me seem dismissive of them. It’s all a time & money issue. I have always wanted to play Elder Scrolls (did you like them?), and Bioshock. One of my colleagues has been massively pushing Mass Effect so I figure when I get the chance if it isn’t fantasy I will probably start there.

    3) Did you read Ready Player One? I thought it was overhyped but it was a fun read just for a stroll down memory lane for gamers from the 1980s.

    4) It wasn’t just religious fanatics against gaming. Lots of people hated D&D, though yeah the religious types went nuts over it so did liberals. Did you ever see that schlock movie Mazes and Monsters with Tom Hanks? As it happens my high school D&D club got sucked up into the media maelstrom for a short bit when one of the people in it murdered a couple. Some asshat detective tried to tie everything to gaming and spin it that way in the media. Apparently that was the thing he wanted to be known for… fighting ROLE PLAYING GAMES!

  12. Hi Labnut, I understand how you might jump at the immediate connections you did… except that you were reading a very nice, positive piece about gaming. Is Dan the exception to your concept of how gaming will effect a person?

    The reality is that gaming can allow you to socialize as much as sports. You mentioned chess club as being something (apparently) positive. How are these other games different (with regard to ability to socialize)?

    As it happens, the people into sports around where I was were generally jerks that while certainly socializing together were not building some super positive character. They were “jocks” and regularly picked on and/or beat up “nerds”.

    In games you don’t have to be all about killing… Dan specifically stressed that in one of the computer games he described… and can be all about building a positive character. You bring to gaming what you want. Sure there are games that are all about violence. But then… some might argue… so is Shakespeare.

  13. mpboyle56

    Re: the panic in the 1980’s over D&D, etc, a new book is out by the University of California Press focusing on the reaction being rooted in a fear of powerfully imagined worlds:

  14. I agree with Dan. His gaming account, as he said, was “a heartfelt account of a major creative influence in my life”. And that’s all it was, not a philosophical dissertation…

  15. I think that my inability to become immersed is the main reason why I can’t get into gaming in any big way. But as I get older this problem extends to all forms of art. I cannot watch a film or television show without thinking that these are people standing in front of cameras reciting lines who will go and get lunch later and go home to their nice comfortable homes. It doesn’t help that the scheming villain in one show was the genial, self-effacing hero I just saw in something else.

    Increasingly I am finding that as I read books I cannot put away the idea that someone sat at a typewriter, notebook or word processor and made this stuff up and wonder why I should care about people that someone just invented.

    I notice with my kids there is a sort of ironic detachment about the way they game rather than any immersion or suspension of disbelief, and this seems to be common in their age group. At an age when they were keen on something called “Garry’s Mod” I asked how they could put up with something so glitchy, they replied that the glitchiness was the entire appeal. They meet their school friends in ruined cities that they have just built, as casually as we used to meet our friends at the park. But it is not just that the buildings are all deserted and falling apart and that there are no people but mutants and monsters, it is also that the laws of physics themselves seem to be falling apart. They laugh and yell “physics!” when the flying contraption they have whistled up won’t take off because part of it has become merged with the ground.

    I would also add that the time they spend gaming (and watching gaming reviews) is about the same as the time I used to spend watching television, and they appear to have next to no interest in television. As such, it seems to be an improvement.

  16. davidlduffy

    Are professional philosophers more likely to be science fiction buffs? There is so much cross fertilisation – eg what seems like 90% of philosophical thought experiments (a certain number very clunky qua SF and often not very original). Going the other way so many SF plots and several writers (has anyone read Too Like The Lightning yet?). Maybe the very way one reads SF – cognitive estrangement, metaphors that become concrete and can be dealt with analytically – tricks gullible kids into thinking metaphysician is a worthwhile future career path ;). I guess this might extend to certain types of gaming too (my exposure to such things started with Advent on a PDP minicomputer, where the intrinsic puzzle solving pleasure is pretty pure).

  17. labnut

    Please read carefully this newly published and important paper about the influence of running on the brain:

    A growing body of evidence has shown that running is responsible for neurogenesis with important benefits such as improved cognition, improved memory and much reduced depression. Until now the mechanism was unknown. This paper is something of a breakthrough because for the first time it demonstrates a plausible, measureable mechanism that may account for the demonstrable benefits of running.

    Cathepsin B, an exercise myokine, is generated in the muscles during prolonged running. Cathepsin B passes through the blood/brain barrier, promoting neurogenesis, with improvements in cognition and memory.

    Much more work needs to be done to refine our understanding of this process. I am hopeful that this will lead to a standardized blood test that will act as a guide to sufficient running to maintain brain health. Your doctor will have one more reason to admonish you 🙂

    But for the moment it is important confirmation of the great value of running, not only for bodily health, but also for mental health.

  18. labnut

    Our lives are drenched in narratives and in fact our remembered lives are nothing but a narrative. It is through narratives that we makes sense of our lives. They create and reveal the meaning in our lives and through narratives we impart values to those around us. Our personal narratives coalesce into larger narratives that bind us together in family, friendships and nation.

    Narratives are all we have. They are the time machine that bind our memories into a cohesive whole. Narratives are not the truth but are society’s approximation of the truth. Narratives are also the finest expression of our imagination and creativity. They express our hopes, fears and longings. They are a celebration of the human spirit. Our literature, history and religion are the record of human narratives. Our minds feed on these narratives. We gain strength, purpose and meaning from them. Last night at Mass I gained huge hope and consolation from one of mankind’s oldest narratives as I struggled with grief.

    Narratives are healing. Grief and trauma counselling essentially consists in building alternative, affirmative and healthy narratives that displaces the painful narratives. Narratives are also cautionary, preparing us for the hardship, loss and grief we will suffer.

    Narratives are more powerful than you can imagine. My former boss described how he was compelled to close down a large company, to rebuild it from scratch, because its internal narratives were dysfunctional beyond repair. No team building, procedural or management changes could overcome those internal narratives.

    From all this we can see that narratives are central to our lives, vital to them and powerfully shape us. Why then would we expect that dysfunctional narratives would not be harmful? Of course this far-sighted and intelligent readership would never succumb to faulty narratives. But I am not talking about you, the elite among the elite. I am talking about Joe Soap, and Jon Plumber, ordinary humble folk without your considerable advantages. I am talking about the great unwashed majority, people untrained in critical thinking. I happen to really like the great unwashed majority, finding them much preferable to the faux intelligentsia, so I use that phrase advisedly. Today’s narratives are more persuasively packaged than ever before. Do you really believe they have no adverse influence? Really?

    Finally, Dan-K, a word of apology to you. I understand that your essay is a celebration of a vital stage of your imaginative exploration of a mental universe. It is important to you and similarly it invokes many celebratory nostalgic memories among others. I respect that and think it is important. Your essay tapped into a larger concern of mine and I have given voice to that concern. Please accept that my concern is not a criticism of your enjoyable essay, although I accept it introduced a jarring note.

  19. Labnut: No, I don’t believe that people need — or ought — to be protected from “dysfunctional narratives.” And given that this would essentially involve eliminating or censoring entire genres of books, films, and television programs — there goes Horror movies! There goes gritty cop shows! — I can’t believe that anyone living in a free society would even contemplate it.

    I think that game designers are among our most talented artists working today. Not only does what they do not “concern” me, I celebrate it.

  20. Labnut: Unfortunately, I absolutely loathe running, so no amount of health benefit is going to get me to do it.

    Fortunately, I haven’t been having any problems with my “cognition,” so there’s that. 😉

  21. labnut

    Fortunately, I haven’t been having any problems with my “cognition,” so there’s that

    Normally I would agree, given the high quality of your writing, so I am puzzled that you should go on(as before) to make an unfounded insinuation. First you make the unexceptional comment:

    ” I don’t believe that people need — or ought — to be protected from “dysfunctional narratives.”

    While that is not an argument, you are entitled to express an opinion(though an argument would be better). But then comes the kicker:

    I can’t believe that anyone living in a free society would even contemplate it

    Who said that? Why drag this in?

    Diligent searching of my comments reveals no such statement, so why drag in the insinuation? I pointed out a problem and said nothing about a putative solution.

    In any case your statement is plainly and factually wrong. There are any number of people living in a free society who happily contemplate reducing free speech. The fascist liberals who are so intent on silencing unapproved speech are one example. (hee hee 🙂 )

  22. I had a healthy fantasy life as a child. As a young child a created an alter ego ‘super-seth’ to compensate for a needy older brother with bullying tenancies. Later I read and enjoyed Tolkein and C.S. Lewis. I think I was 10 or 11 however when I became immersed actively in sports ( mostly playground basketball ) even though I was small, and no one in my family had a similar interest. My fantasies then became a constant real life challenge to overcome my limitations and there was definite personal narrative to that effect – again I was the hero of the narrative (on occasions anyway ).

    I never got into gaming although I did create my own sports statistical games (basketball & baseball ) using cards and dice which I would play with a friend from time to time but never obsessively.

    What I find most interesting about this discussion is the way our preferred immersions become part of our identity and how when they are criticized we take it personally.

    I feel like Labnut sometimes over glamorizes a preferred activity, in this case sports culture, at least form my experience. I have found none of the various cultures I have engaged in to be free of sham & artiface, and as other commenters have mentioned there are certainly ugly aspects to the culture. I do agree however with Labnut on the benefits of maintaining fitness (especially aerobic ), which in my experience transfers to many other areas (mood, cognition, motivation, peace of mind, self-confidence, etc….).

    I wasn’t a fan of running myself until I realized I was getting to old to be banged around all the time in contact sports so I decided to give it a try. The feelings that accompany the adaptations that allow running without that sense discomfort are amazing. It is a regular and constant source of joy in my life. Sometimes Dan, it feels as though there is bit of a reflexive negative response to those who participate in the fitness culture. I recall the use of the term ‘health nuts’ in a ‘thread on meaning of life TV’.

    I can appreciate the immersion into the worlds of gaming Dan describes. While it doesn’t initially appeal to me I could see in the right context how I might enjoy it. My approach is to try to cultivate skills and participate in a range different types of conscious experiences stretching myself physically, cognitively & imaginatively if I can, but I wouldn’t denigrate the approach of anyone who finds meaning & fulfillment from any one of those areas.

  23. Hi Labnut, I’m certainly not going to criticize running, or any exercise. yes it has measured benefits for brain fitness. So does sleep. And so does… video game playing:

    (better working memory)

    (better performance and even increased grey matter)

    I think the point to be made is that none of these things, including running, determines the quality of what purposes you put your mind to. A person can be a runner and still be a jerk or even a psychopath.

    You bring up dysfunctional narratives. But (leaving out the obvious point that not all are dysfunctional) the narratives in games are fiction. Yes if you start treating games as reality, not being able to distinguish between when you are playing and when you are not, there will be problems for you. However there is no evidence suggesting most people (even the unwashed masses) lose themselves to that degree. It is a compartmentalized narrative.

    More importantly your argument strikes at all forms of art, not just gaming. And it certainly strikes, perhaps more so, with religious narratives that have active prescriptive demands about the real world.

    MPBoyle gave a nice link to a book about the antiD&D craze and the description has something pertinent to say about your position, particularly given your religious faith…

    “A coalition of moral entrepreneurs that included representatives from the Christian Right, the field of psychology, and law enforcement claimed that these games were not only psychologically dangerous but an occult religion masquerading as a game. Dangerous Games explores both the history and the sociological significance of this panic.

    Fantasy role-playing games do share several functions in common with religion. However, religion—as a socially constructed world of shared meaning—can also be compared to a fantasy role-playing game. In fact, the claims of the moral entrepreneurs, in which they presented themselves as heroes battling a dark conspiracy, often resembled the very games of imagination they condemned as evil. By attacking the imagination, they preserved the taken-for-granted status of their own socially constructed reality. Interpreted in this way, the panic over fantasy-role playing games yields new insights about how humans play and together construct and maintain meaningful worlds.”

    By the way, nowadays you can combine running & exercise with RPGs:

  24. Hi Robin, I’ve experienced what you describe from time to time. But they are very isolated and rare cases.

    To me the ability to drop such intense focus on “actual reality” (these are actors) and enter “optional realities” (they are who they claim) is part of play/imagination and pretty important.

    But I am curious, does this not extend to everything? What in life isn’t people taking on a role in public, which they take off at home in private? What written word (even serious) isn’t the product of someone sitting at a keyboard (though few may have typewriters)?

  25. Seth: Really liked your comment. I do, however, very much enjoy sports and was once a competitive tennis player. I’m actually getting back into it now, with the hopes of being able to compete in the middle-age amateur brackets. Will have to lose about 50 pounds, though, which will be quite hard. We’ll see how much I really want it.

    But yes, I can’t abide health nuts. Especially when they seem to lose sight of the fact that health is an instrumental good and not an end in itself.

  26. Hi dbholmes,

    What written word (even serious) isn’t the product of someone sitting at a keyboard (though few may have typewriters)?

    My issue was not with the keyboard, typewriter or notebook part, rather with the “making stuff up” part. Having compassion for figments of people’s imagination.

    Granted “making stuff up” applies to quite a good deal these days including journalism and increasingly science. Yes, I have a problem with that too.

    To me the ability to drop such intense focus on “actual reality” (these are actors) and enter “optional realities” (they are who they claim) is part of play/imagination and pretty important.

    I agree, hence my sadness at losing this ability.

  27. labnut

    Fantasy role-playing games do share several functions in common with religion. However, religion—as a socially constructed world of shared meaning—can also be compared to a fantasy role-playing game.

    I am so accustomed to uninformed bias against religion that I usually just shrug and move on. I expect better from philosophers who routinely disappoint. Bias, it is apparent, will blind even the finest cognition. And then I come across a comment like this, that is so egregiously wrong that it cries out for a reply. So here goes.

    Bearing in mind that immersive gaming platforms vary widely, they tend to have these features.
    1) you assume an imaginary role;
    2) with the role you adopt a goal of conquest, acquisition, domination or subjugation;
    3) you pursue that goal with violence;
    4) you accumulate weapons and kill as many people as possible with great relish in the pursuit of your goals.

    To make this equivalent to religion is surely the most facile, wrong headed step in reasoning ever. Speaking only for Catholicism, since that is where my experience lies:

    1) We don’t assume imaginary roles or persona. We remain solidly ourselves. Let me qualify that. We try to become better people, more ethical, more caring and more compassionate.
    2) Our goal is not one of conquest but of love. Read the source documents of Christianity, the Four Gospels, and you will see a message of great nobility, one of love, humility and meekness. We are commanded to help the poor, the sick, the imprisoned and all unfortunate. See especially the Sermon on the Mount.
    3) We pursue that goal with generosity, self-sacrifice and love. I see first hand how my own little parish does so much to help the poor and unfortunate. I see that story repeated in towns and cities across our country. We run hospices, medical clinics, hospitals, aid distribution centres and many other forms of assistance right across the world. We are the largest single charitable organisation in the world.
    4) We do not accumulate weapons, we do not kill people. Instead large numbers of Catholics are being persecuted or killed across the world, even today.

    I know many of these loving, generous, kind and compassionate people. They deserve your admiration, not shallow, cruel dismissal of their wonderful work.

    This famous prayer expresses the core ethos of Catholicism:
    Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace.
    Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
    Where there is injury, pardon;
    Where there is doubt, faith;
    Where there is despair, hope;
    Where there is darkness, light;
    Where there is sadness, joy.

    O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
    To be consoled as to console,
    To be understood as to understand,
    To be loved as to love;
    For it is in giving that we receive;
    It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
    It is in dying to self that we are born to eternal life.

    And this famous prayer from St Teresa of Avila expresses that we should achieve this by becoming more like Christ:

    Christ has no body but yours,
    No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
    Yours are the eyes with which he looks
    Compassion on this world,
    Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
    Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
    Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
    Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
    Christ has no body now but yours,
    No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
    Yours are the eyes with which he looks
    compassion on this world.
    Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

    To compare this noble message with violence and conquest driven fantasy games is an absurd travesty of reason and the facts.

  28. 4) We do not accumulate weapons, we do not kill people.

    This is only true recently, I am afraid.

  29. labnut

    Dan-K, please read again the Prayer for Peace, carefully. That is truly what the Church believes and that is what the Church practices. It is a message of unparalleled nobility and this is why Pope Francis is a moral leader in the world today.

  30. This has nothing to do with what I said, which is that this posture on the part of the church is very recent — indeed, in real, historical time, it’s only been this way for about 5 minutes.

  31. labnut

    You have a very strange conception of five minutes. My comment has everything to do with what you said, the present is what counts, unless the past has some mysterious, hitherto undetected ability to reach out across the centuries. Here, let me give you an example. King Henry VIII was a really unsavoury, murderous thug. Now try using that to attack the present day monarchy in Great Britain. The mocking, sneering laughter that rings out in Buckingham Palace will be followed by a smart, and amply deserved, kick in the pants from the liveried footman at the door. Or better still, try blaming Angela Merkel for the misdeeds of Adolf Hitler. Get that right and you will go down in history as the author of The Counterfactual Principle of Historical Blame. Good luck, I’m not holding my breath.

    Finally I must say that it is so damn tiresome that people use every possible occasion to drag their anti-religious prejudices into a conversation. My advice is that people should keep their prejudices at home and sit on them.

  32. labnut

    My mind is boggling. I am trying to imagine a scenario where I should be held accountable for the rapacious misdeeds of great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-granddad-Peter Smith-The-Terrible. No doubt that he was a terrible person, if the slanted, biased, incomplete, malicious propaganda is to be believed. But what makes me responsible? Is he I? He would deny that this modern day wimp could possibly be he. But nobody can hear his testimony in the witness box. No, the prosecution cries, the past is controlling you so you are responsible for the past. Can I change the past? I shout in desperation. No, the past is controlling you, is the triumphant rebuttal from the prosecution. Therefore if we punish you we have punished the past. Case closed.

    The past sniggers from the grave. You are the fall guy. Just accept it and move on until you find your own grave. From there you can blame as many people in the future for your present misdeeds as you wish. Take my word, it is great fun, liberals are such suckers for stupid reasoning.

  33. We don’t agree on this, I’m afraid. I think history is quite relevant and the Vatican II is very recent history. Prior to that, the Church was leveling the blood libel and charge of deicide against *my* people; this, of course, following millennia of vicious and violent Church inspired anti-Semitism across Europe.

    Oh, and by the way, Merkel and her generation *were* blamed for the Holocaust.. That’s why the German government paid for my college education, via reparations to my mother, for having murdered most of our family and putting her and her immediate family in Bergen Belsen.

    She still receives reparations to this day. Which means 20 year old German taxpayers are paying. You may not think this is right, but apparently, the Germans felt it was their responsibility.

    So, yeah, we disagree completely on this. After several hundred years of good behavior, I might give the Church a pass. But in light of what a bad actor its been up until Vatican II? Nope.

    And yes, I am also a fan of Francis.

  34. Thanks for calling my reasoning “stupid.” Apparently, however, it is also the reasoning of every German government since the Second World War, who have decided to pay reparations to Jews who were in the concentration camps and by extension, their descendants.

    This is, of course, way off topic, so I think we should end this part of the conversation here. I hate the fact that this good-feeling piece has turned into such an ugly conversation.

  35. labnut

    turned into such an ugly conversation.

    that is what happens when prejudice is imported into a conversation. Note that I did not import the prejudice. I merely responded to it.

    Do you reserve the right to attack the good work of countless thousands of people and then use the tactic of double jeopardy to blame the person who defends the good work of these thousands of people?

  36. labnut

    I unashamedly and unapologetically defend the marvellous good works of the Church. I see so many humble, ordinary people working with love to help the unfortunate. I see this repeated across the towns and cities of my country. I see a Church that works for peace, love and social justice. It is a crying injustice that the angry and the malicious should attack and misrepresent their work. The true ugliness can be found in the words of their attackers.

    You may censor my words but you will have read them. Shame on you.

  37. Hi Labnut, I’ll write more later, but you seem to have made a mistake which has spiraled out to an angry discussion where you seem very upset. Please calm yourself a moment.

    First, I didn’t write the quote you are upset with. That was the author of the book. I gave it as a something to consider.

    Second, you took the analogy well past what was meant to be taken from it. The only point (to consider) was that they were both shared social constructs, and I assume you agree your religion is a shared social construct?

    As it happens I also like the current Pope, though I do not think it is strictly fair to judge all past Popes (and the history of the church) by him.

    Religion was not being abused at all here… a claim which is somewhat ironic given what was referenced in my post was a book about religious organizations attacking (along with some on the left) D&D. This happened… in my lifetime (as I noted).

  38. Hi Labnut, (part 2) in addition to missing the point of the quote, and ironically act as if an RPGer is attacking religion when the reverse was explicitly being discussed (and documented), you fronted your argument with an errant list of what is common to games.

    I don’t think anyone in gaming (and here I am talking about RPGs) ever came up to me and suggested I should really play a game for points 2-4 on your list. There may be dungeon crawls but then that is sort of setting aside (the point of) immersive RPG.

    In fact it is as if you completely ignored Dan’s comments about the games. I’m going to use Mass Effect as a primary example. A friend that really likes it constantly said what a great storyline it had, and its interactive nature. You are exploring a story. Yes there could be violence, but enjoying violence with “great relish” is something you have projected onto a very neutral thing. In the case of ME (from what I understand) the goal is not about drooling over one’s console while killing as many living things as possible, but rather discovering a secret and then liberation of people.

    Maybe there is more to gaming than exists in your philosophy?

    For me it has always been about a feeling of exploration, puzzle-solving, sometimes growing more powerful/unique as a person (in interesting ways), and socializing. That last point (as Dan discussed in detail) can be had even if one is alone with NPCs. Here one is socializing with the game creators in the form of the personalities they have peopled their world with. Sort of like interacting with “characters” at live action play-events, or (as a child) with a puppet/doll that your parent or friends were holding and acting as if real.

    It is principally about imagination and fun. It is enjoying fiction, like a book or a play or a movie but interactive.

  39. Hi Labnut,…

    “Note that I did not import the prejudice. I merely responded to it.”

    I really hope you take a moment to relax and understand this is not true.

    The quote you “responded to” was from an author about actual events where religious people and liberals (basically authoritarians of all stripes) attacked RPGs because the prejudice they had against people thinking certain things they did not like.

    He was not slamming religion, but pointing out that those religious people who attacked D&D were missing the idea that such games are simply a form of socially constructed reality (in this case for fictional entertainment purposes) like religions (which are not for fictional entertainment purposes)! And basically those religious people attacking RPGs were promoting their reality as the only one allowed, while/by asserting the dangers allowing people to entertain such alternative constructs might create (a tendency you have demonstrated in in this thread exhaustively)

    The criticism was of specific people and types of actions.

    The position taken was positive and curious about social constructs.


  40. Labnut: It’s all good, my friend. You and I go way back to the early days of Scientia, and I view our friendship as beyond these sorts of disagreements. I won’t censor you, and know you are only motivated by good will. A person with my background is never going to think well of the pre-Vatican 2 Church, but that has nothing to do with my personal relationships and friendships.

    Peace, my friend!

  41. Hi Dan (and all), of interesting note given the topic of this essay… the science fiction and fantasy writers of america (SFWA) has apparently just allowed writers for games (whatever kind) to join their organization. Previously it was restricted to books and screenplay writing.

    They are finally acknowledging and rewarding the degree of creative work that goes into building such worlds for people to enjoy. 🙂

  42. labnut

    It’s all good, my friend

    Yes, it is indeed.

    Peace, my friend!

    And peace to you, in that lovely Jewish sense of the word.

  43. dantip

    Hi Dan,

    This essay was excellent. I really resonated with your discussion of D & D, and its participatory and creative nature. My brothers and I used to play table top RPG’s all the time, except we actually made up our own with legos — something we called lego RPG.

    I noticed that you didn’t mention all the interesting features that come with online RPGs which involve playing with other people (such as Diablo or world of warcraft). I played Diablo I, II, and III a lot when I was in middle and high school, and came to find that playing the game with other people was very interesting since, it seemed naturally, a unique economy and culture emerged from the players. There were particular items and therefore “looks” that were in fashion, as well as an abundance of terms and abbreviations that all players knew (indeed, you could spot a newbie based on his knowledge of Diablo lingo). Scam artists attempted to finagle your items from you, players made friends, and groups would meet to complete quests or duel with one another. I found so many social and cultural features of ordinary life in these online games, which was always fascinating to me.

  44. Björn Carlsten


    Great essay! The only thing I might take issue with is that you chose the prequel over the original Deus Ex game, but oh well.

    I especially appreciated what you had to say about the narrative structure of pen and paper roleplaying games. When I have the opportunity to be dungeon master, I try to find ways to play with this participatory kind of narration. For instance, in a game I’m currently running, I had one of my characters trapped in an illusion–unbeknown to the player (call him player 1) of the character–created by a demon. (Think Descartes’s evil demon, only not quite as clever or all-powerful.) In order to make the illusion more convincing, I recruited another player (player 2) for him to play his own character in the illusion, in such a manner as he imagined player 1’s character imagined the character of player 2 to act (the demon had mind-reading powers and had access to the character’s thoughts and beliefs). So the challenge for player 2 was to put himself in player 1’s shoes, and play his character accordingly, and the challenge for player 1 was to realize it was trapped in an illusory world (itself inside a fictional world!) and break free, before the demon devoured his character’s mind completely.

    Things like this is difficult to explore outside of roleplaying games, which makes them so interesting to me.

    Anyway, I hope to see more articles like this one in the future. Kudos.

  45. Dan T.

    I played World of Warcraft from Vanilla through Cataclysm, as well as the original Guild Wars. I left out MMORPGs simply because including them would have made the essay twice the length. I might very well do an entire essay just on them, in fact.

  46. Bjorn: Because the essay was focused on immersion, I chose HR over the original Deus Ex, because the voice acting is vastly superior and the gameplay much improved. This does not mean I think HR is a better game overall.

    Your game sounds fascinating and a little bit like the best sequence in Dragon Age Origins, where you actually go into the Fade.

    I really appreciate your kind comments.

  47. Björn Carlsten


    Yes, Dragon Age served as an inspiration for my game. In fact, the demon was a sloth demon, as with the sequence in DAO, and the vision my player received was one where several plans and ambitions were achieved, without much effort on the player’s part. A long time nemesis had been assassinated, “off screen”; members from the character’s estranged family suddenly found it within themselves to reach out and seek forgiveness; and so on.

    It was an amusing little game on my part as DM to see how far I could push the fake vision–in conspiracy with the other player, who was there to confirm the authenticity of everything that was happening–before he finally realized what was actually happening.

  48. Jake Z.

    Interesting that the essay is less about narrative and more about world-building, which I think games are superb at. The sense of presence in a world you can get from games is unparalleled in any other medium. But what immerses me most in a game is gameplay. Great gameplay can facilitate the wondrous feeling of “flow,” that allows one to inhabit a game fully. Rocket League is my game of choice to achieve this state. No narrative at all, but complete immersion.