Interview with Moyra Turkington – Immersion

I figured I might as well kick off a month of discussions on immersion by pulling out the big guns. In this case, the big guns means interviewing someone really smart, which explains Mo’s presence.

‘Mo’ Turkington blogs over at Sin Aesthetics and is an all around smart cookie. She’s probably best known for kicking off the discussions of push and pull which were so much the rage earlier this year. Of course she’s said that those discussions were really preliminary to some other stuff that she was thinking about, and I’m pretty eager to see where all that ends up going.

Mo is also the designer of the super-hot Crime and Punishment. A single-session roleplaying game (designed for the Iron Game Chef 2006 competition) about police procedurals.

Nominally we’re here to talk about immersion, and Mo’s thoughts on it, but in all honesty I’ll be just as happy if we end up talking about something else. This is a chance to pick through Mo’s fertile gray matter and see what we can see.

I’ll end up doing the same thing here that I did in my interview with Sarah Kahn: this thread’s for me and Mo. If you’ve got questions I’m not asking please email me. I don’t think I’m the only one worthy to ask the questions, it just keeps things less cluttered. Then, when we’re done here, I’ll start up a new thread where everyone can talk about it.

I think that’s enough preamble for now. Let’s get to the questions. Well, first: Mo, thanks a bunch for being willing to do this. It’s totally awesome that you’re willing to give up your time and brainsweat. I’ll try not to let it go to waste… So, questions! We’ll start with the easy stuff.

1. Tell me a bit about yourself, in general. Who are you, what do you do, that sort of thing.


41 Responses to “Interview with Moyra Turkington – Immersion”

  1. Mo says:

    Well, I’m Moyra Turkington, obviously. ;)

    I’m 33, and married to the inimitable Brand Robins. We live in a condo in the heart of downtown Toronto, Ontario, Canada. I’m a Business Analyst for Systems in a major telco, which essentially means that I act as a translator between those who use systems and those who make them. I also work to kick the hell out of the system when it’s done to make sure it will work under pressure.

    I’ve spent the last 10 years with the corporation, and landed here by a kind of long and accidental road. I also work internationally sometimes, doing the work I normally do for my company to companies we work with, or partially own, abroad. I’ve lived in Brazil doing that, and I’ll be going to India later this year.

    Before I had a professional “life” I was a complete theatre geek. I did my degree double-majored in English and Cultural Studies (Theatre & Identity Politics mostly) with an almost minor in Women’s Studies.

    I make wetform leather masks, have been teaching myself to draw and spend most of my non-working time demanding that Brand run games for me on command. It only works some of the time; I’m still working on perfecting my technique. I’m also working on learnign to GM. That’ll segue you nicely…. ;)

  2. Thomas Robertson says:

    Welcome and thanks again for answering my nattering questions! I’m tempted to wander off and talk about mask-making, but I’ll refraind (for now!).

    2. Tell me a bit about your gaming. What have you played in your foggy primordial gaming past, what have you played recently, and what are you hot to play right now (and if there’s no game like that right now, what would that game look like)?

  3. Mo says:

    Well, when I was eight, I was left for an evening with my sister’s best friend’s family. Her brother played D&D – and I spent half the evening demanding to know more, and the other half telling stories with his miniatures that I can guarantee had never been told with his miniatures before.

    Shortly soon after, I had convinced my mom to take me down to Harbourfront on Saturday mornings where kids from all over flocked to hook up in their games of D&D. That year was a grape pop haze of dice rolling excitement. I played a half-elf thief in the White Plume Mountain module. We had to go rescue artefacts on behalf of the King. One of them, the Trident of Neptune, was in an obscured treasure pit locked behind a giant crab in a big bubble that was surrounded by boiling water. I heroically left my team to edge sneakily past the crab and won the sword, but while I was behind it, the crab noticed the rest of the group and went to attack them! I didn’t have much in the way of good weapons, so I decided to use the Trident. In order to wield it, I had to swear loyalty to Neptune himself. Since I had no religious alignment that was -no problem-! I duly swore, got a surprise attack and I managed to kill the thing and save my friends… but not without dying brutally in the process.

    No problem! My intrepid fellows hauled my sorry dead ass to the nearest town and resurrected me! They were so proud of what I’d done, they even had a title of nobility bestowed upon my character. I was beside myself with excitement on the way home in the car, and probably hopped up on some serious sugar. I regailed my mom with the story in lurid detail the whole way home. The next week I found out I couldn’t go back because I’d been signed up to swimming lessons on Saturday mornings. I can’t really blame my very catholic mother for pulling the plug on the whole resurrection thing. Plus, my mom’s pretty much an anti-violence-for-the-sake-of-entertainment kind of person, and all of a sudden I was giving gory descriptions of the exultant kill. Giant crab or no giant crab, I’m not surprised she put an end to it.

    Fast forward twelve or so years: I’m in university, and going entirely maenad with theatre. I was invited to join in my very first soap: an improv serial, performed on stage in front of a live audience. It’s called Biosphere: 2013, a dystopian sci-fi comedy about love, murder and mind control in a future that never should be; I’m the villainess. We spend the first month training in our characters, working on physicality and expression, giving them backstories, getting interviewed, running them against situations, and putting them to the test in rehearsal. After that, once a week we’d get together and improv possible advancements of the plot, then the directors would work on a scene list. We wouldn’t get to see it until two hours before the performance; it was the skeleton of the night’s show. You’d have scenes like: “X stumbles upon Y doing Z. There is a confrontation and A is revealed.” You’d have a half hour to sort out blocking and brainstorm ideas, a half hour to warm up, and a half hour to get into costume and makeup before the audience arrived. Then boom! Live in front of a crowd of about fifty on good nights, and they were meddling, heckling bastards, so you had to be on your toes.

    After a couple of those, White Wolf had just released Vampire, and a friend of mine thought that it (without the system, natch) would make a good soap. We attracted big group of regular audience members, and so continued into a second when Mage was released. Through several of the audience and cast members, I was reintroduced back into tabletop, mostly of the Storyteller variety. Then Vampire LARP was released, and we could have the fun of the soap without the pressure, so we played, and played and played. LARPing then was a very different animal than it is now, at least in my experience and opinion. We played on the street and in the cafes and nightclubs of the city we lived in, maintaining a Masquerade not just because it was part of the game, but so people wouldn’t call the cops or kick us out.

    After VLARP caught on, got so big that we needed to have facilities to hold the events in, and attracted people to travel from one city to the next, I didn’t like it so much. More fetishization of the vampire than I liked, too much politicking, too many people all at once, without the very desirable constraint that comes from playing in society without freaking out the normals. It became a whole different kind of story… and one that I wasn’t so interested in playing. I moved to MUSHes, and played on them for years, especially after I moved back home to Toronto, and was working odd and late hours. Then in 97 I fell in with a bunch of tabletop gamers and we played in Storyteller, Shadowrun, Cthulu, In Nomine, and lots and lots and lots of Marvel. Then Brand came up and shook my gaming world once with Unknown Armies and Exalted, and then a second time with Indie games.

    Right now, I’m playing Truth & Justice, Unknown Armies, TSOY and several games of Dogs, including the now infamous Bitches in the Vineyard game. I’m also running a quasi Unknown Armies game called Unbreakable for Brand, which is my third foray into GMing and by far the most successful one.

    What am I hot to play? Well, I’m really turned on to Dogs right now because there’s a mystery to it that I haven’t quite cracked yet. It’s a pretty strong push game that can sometimes feel like a pull game that lets me stay pretty firmly immersed. In TSOY, I’m playing with protagonists that are really nothing resembling heroes. I’m trying to strong-arm Brand into running a game of PTA for me because I’ve been having fun playing with the long range targeting of heroic arcs and I’d like to see what it would be like to have support with that. I’m itching to have a run at Meguey Baker’s 1001 Nights because, well, because when Meg talks, she feels like home, so I’d like to see if her games fit too.

    I’m also really into an exploration of freeform, right now. Over the last couple of years, Brand and I have some wicked awesome solo games under our belts (Unknown Armies, 7th Sea, Truth & Justice). Recently, some of the things that we’ve done with T&J have eluded the scope of what the game is meant to support, so we just gave a go at no-mechanic freeform. The experience has been quite freeing for me, and kind of constraining for Brand. It’s pushed us to learn more about what we like and why we like it and to underline the differences between us. I want to play with it some more, and expect that with all of our time away where we don’t have access to many of our books we’ll get the chance. I’m also interested in finding things that we can play solo, on the fly, on trains and planes and such over the next little while.

  4. Thomas Robertson says:

    That’s pretty dang cool, Mo. I’m having a lot of fun imagining you as a bouncy, over-sugared backstabber. Anyway…

    3. What game, group, or session of play taught you the most abour roleplaying?

  5. [...] Right now Thomas is interviewing Mo over on his blog, Musings and Mental Meanderings. It’s quite an interesting read for those of you who may not have heard Mo’s gaming history. [...]

  6. Mo says:

    I’ve been mulling this one over in my head all day, and I don’t know there is a most. It’s funny how these things tended towards something like the “Life Lessons” that TLC is hawking these days: hard won experience lessons rather than productive, positively taught lessons. It probably has to do with me being grumpy after spending four hours in the dentist’s chair this afternoon.

    My Cthulhu game taught me that no matter how silly, cheesy and over-the-top-Monty-Hall a game can get that it can at the same time find depth and meaning and have a lasting impact on the players. We may have killed Cthulhu *twice* but the two PC’s that played from beginning to end had a lasting, hard won, terribly tested friendship that bled gender and sexuality lines and edged into love.

    Between my first Marvel game and my second In Nomine game, I learned the sheer joy of walking characters into difficulty, badness, complication, and conflict. I also learned to stick up for myself, and to continue doing it despite ridicule that I wasn’t doing the right or strategic thing. (E.g. In Marvel, I led my character be curious about something that had all the hallmarks of a trap to pursue the conflict. She ended up being taken prisoner, raped, tortured and physically modified at the hands of the villain. It proved to be one of the most affecting things that happened in the game, and fundamentally changed everything about the character.)

    My Marvel groups taught me that just because you are friends with someone doesn’t mean that you should game with them. It also taught me how freaking fun melodrama and romance are to an RPG (My character had a long running, complicated wonderful relationship with an NPC that was fraught with all the tribulations that superhero relationships face in the best of tropes, and it cranked the F Factor of the game up hard and fast and strong.)

    My second Exalted group taught me that no matter how hard you struggle and work and build and strive, one person can’t fix a game, that social contracts take the effort and commitment of the entire group, renewed in each and every session, and that no matter how much or how much fun you’ve had with it, that sometimes a game should just be allowed to die. It also started my brain churning about ways to support social responsibility by design (part of the analysis of which lead me to articulate Push/Pull). The game ran four full years, went through many cycles of social contracts, several terrific efforts to get past the humps, but over time the humps got bigger, and the commitment and energy of the group waned.

    My 3rd Exalted Game, “Saurashtra” showed me how positively play could be revolutionized with exactly the kind of social commitment and dedication that my 2nd Exalted game was lacking, and opened my eyes to the power of narrative approaches and tools. There’s some posts on Sin Aesthetics about this game. Check the post for more details of how this game worked.

    My Unknown Armies game taught me how personally transformative an experience roleplaying could be. I have never had a character that I was so connected to, that I have loved so deeply, for her heroics and her faults, nor had such an emotional outpouring, not in character, but on her behalf, quite cathartically. Things that have happened in play have changed me in a direct way, though not in one I’m exceedingly comfortable talking about in this interview (hope that’s OK).

    My 7th Sea game, “Fortune’s Fool” opened the door to the infinite sexy that RPG’s can be… a door I’ll never close again. Brand deftly deployed a relationship map filled with sexual and romantic intrigue that kept my head spinning and my heart racing the whole whirlwind through.

    My T&J game, suddenly, violently, showed me how hard a game can hit home, and how much, when you’re playing in dangerous territory, you need to cultivate the trust you have with your fellow players. My character had a few abandonment issues from her childhood when she had been abandoned by her father. She became attached, very quickly and very strongly to a father figure who was the actual father of an NPC she is close to. The father figure chose to die to save the world, and my character had to hold back his son to keep him from dying trying to save his father. There was something in the description of the loss that spiked me in the gut… something that brought me right back into the room where my own, real life father died in front of me some years back. In a heartbeat, I was sobbing. It was brutal for a minute, but not bad, because Brand was there, and I trust him implicitly, and he led me out of it.

    The T&J game has also made me realize how neat an exercise it can be to craft a game to cultivate metaphors and parables for real life issues. In it we emphasize the disparity and dysfunction between dual identities (in game as by-products of living as superheroes) as deliberate metaphors for the damage that disparate social demands cause: of sex and gender, of ethics and morality, of symbol and signified of ideal and reality.

    There’s dozens of others, but I’m tired.

    Bed now.

    Editor’s note: fixed a hanging HTML tag.

  7. Mo says:

    Blather… Just closing the link.

  8. Thomas Robertson says:

    That’s a lot of really cool stuff, and I knew when I posted that question that it was somewhat unfair to make you pick just one. In the same vein…

    4. What is your most powerful roleplaying memory (okay, let’s be honest, memories), what was so good about it (them)?

  9. Mo says:

    Favorite roleplaying moments. Huh. Like that’s an easy one to pin down.

    Okay, this one is going to sound completely cheesy, but it wasn’t. The GM of my first Marvel game was a Wonder Woman *fanatic*. Hard Core. While many of the Marvel heroes happened along and traipsed through our game, heroes from other universes did too, as did real life celebrities and fictional characters. The Endless were very important to the game, and it’s not surprising that Wonder Woman was too. Our characters were fugitives, having killed a man accidentally while underestimating our powers when trying to save one of our friends from being sent to a Mutant Registration camp.

    Life had been hairy and always on the lam with one terrible pursuing threat after another. About this time we were taken, for safety’s sake, to Paradise Island. We decided to stay for a bit, and undergo the trials of the Amazon warriors. The scene that I’m getting to, was after those trials were hard won, when we emerged from the dark into the sunfilled arena, with new silver manacles on (they were symbolic in the game, meant that -we had become part of the Amazon nation, I don’t think that’s a cannon WW thing). We stepped out into the light blinking and the GM described the scene, orchestrated by music (I found out later, actually practiced to the music), all of the Amazons in the arena raised their arms, clashed their manacles together to welcome us as part of them.

    Cheesy? Sure, it probably sounds that way, but in the moment it was epically and perfectly cinematic. It was the first time I ever, had that moment of perfect mental clarity of what it looked like in the “movie of the game”, and one of the first, times a game ever punched me in the F really hard. That moment changed what I wanted out of games.

    On a Changeling MUSH once, I had one of the most memorable games ever, though not fully in a good way. I had a satyr character that was a troubadour, as seelie as seelie could get. She was like the air hovering above the roses, dancing with butterflies in fields saturated with sunlight – actually she was nothing like that, but she was suffused with heart and light and goodness. I did this long intricate arc of story over the course of the year where she, left alone by her lovers, turned inward, and her heart darkening fell terribly from grace.

    Among a long legacy of terrible acts, she hid a dark spirit in the sealing stone to doom the wedding of a man (the Seneschal of the Duchy) who used to love her; all because he dared get over her (even though she didn’t want him any more). Despite her darkness, few people picked up on the changes in her.

    She was friends with a brute of a Redcap who hated the Seneschal. One night they fell into a confrontation, and the Redcap quickly got the upper hand. The Redcap, having won the fight, declared the intention of torturing and killing the Seneschal. It was a consent based MUSH, and the dead man consented to it all, but did not want to play it out. The player of the Redcap and I worked out between us what had happened in the end of the scene: She had cut his lying, inconstant voicebox from his throat in a final revenge and let the Redcap kill and devour the rest of him.

    I had thought that maybe that was the end of it, but there was an investigation, an arrest, and a trial for the Redcap. The trial proceeded badly, things were looking dim, when she advised his counsel that she had proof that the Redcap did not murder the Seneschal. She took the stand, oathed upon her very voice to tell the truth and produced the voicebox, wrapped in silk. She was asked what it was and how she got it, and she told the truth: that she had taken it from him after she had slit his throat. She neglected to mention, and (was not asked to clarify) that he was still alive when she left him in the hands of the Redcap.

    This is where it all went wrong. Out of character chaos and badness ensued. Accusations flew. I was accused of cheating, of lying, of undermining the authority of the MUSH. We barely pushed it back in character, there was a revolution in which the Redcap, myself, a Satyr of dark fate (Brand), and several others rose up against the Duchy and made our escape into the night, banned from the city… and eventually from the MUSH altogether. It was crazy. It was memorable because before it all went wrong, it was perfect plot falling just into place, as this terrible twisted fairy tell like Angela Carter might tell… and it was memorable because it ended up symbolizing everything I didn’t like about MUSHing in general.

    In my first Exalted game, Brand tormented me with a past life I could not remember. A Lunar consort who my apparently evil bitch of a First Age solar had traded a ship for, and in a jealous rage one night had bound his very soul to hers: he would love her, and only her, forever. My newly reborn Solar, quite a nicer sort of person did not have the power to set him free, and so he loved her and hated her, and took every opportunity to torment her about the curse. In the climactic scene of a huge fight against a terrifyingly powerful NPC, one of the other PC’s who was the quintessential archer, let loose an arrow that was meant to hit Zoron (the evil NPC), but Zoron was spinning, clutching Cede (the lover) in his hands, putting him in the path of the arrow, heading straight for his heart. With the game slowing to cinematic slow motion, I stepped Isolde, into the path of the arrow to save him.

    We had a policy of the game that no one could die without understanding what they were doing and consenting to it, and so Brand stepped in to make sure I was damn clear that what I was about to do could kill me, and I consented to death (I didn’t die at in the end, but was horribly, horribly maimed, and saved only due to lucky dice). This one was important to me because Brand had ratcheted up the melodrama romance and I was feeling every glorious, terrible moment of the game, and the decision was so clear, and so bright and so easy…. And a big deal for me at the time.

    I’m way too verbose here, so I’m going to give you the shorter versions….

    Then there’s the last episode of my second Exalted game. I had been playing a Solar, a priest among priests. She was the Rock against which all things must break; she was a torn between her love of God and her love of the man God took from her. Suffice to say, I found the character very engaging, very powerful, very immersable, and as she came into her strength, very difficult to play in the kind of party protagonist game we were playing. I orchestrated her death, planned for it, authored actively towards it, put her on a path of ultimate destruction, and it went off without a hitch. It was great, and immensely satisfying.

    In the Unknown Armies Game, my character, Morgan Rook, a flying woman, was starting to loose her grip after enduring too much trauma (and racking up the hardened notches). She had sworn to protect a woman who was unconscious, and who could not protect herself against a host of terrible, powerful people. She was locked in a vault in the basement of a Vegas Casino with another girl, who she did not like or get along with, when one of her two best friends started to scream outside.

    A Thantomancer was eviscerating him, slicing off his tongue, doing some serious gruesome stuff. When the screaming started, the other girl went for the door, and my character stopped her, thinking the attack was a ploy to get at the unconscious girl. The girl told my character off and ran out anyway, while mine stayed inside, listening to her best friend scream and scream. After a few moments, when she couldn’t endure it any more, when she thought for sure he was about to die, she ran out, and ended up saving his life… but not before he was maimed, blinded, his tongue cut out.

    The guilt of that incident, and of another incident soon after was becoming too much to bear. Brand and I decided to do a whole episode in a radically different style… as a psychiatrist session, with flashbacks to things that had happened, and things about her past that hadn’t ever been explored in game before. My god, that game was brilliant. The scene framing was really wicked cool, the subject matter deeply emotionally affecting and extremely exploratory. Ever once in a long while when we’re playing that game (it goes on and off hiatus as we get consumed with a short run for a while) we’ll go back and do that format again, to reflect on the game, on the transition of the character and to explore new territory.

    In my 7th Sea game last year, Brand romanced my impressionable character with two different men… the rake and the angel boy… the two archetypes most likely to suck me in head over heels, and both, of course, which Brand specializes in. The game where I had to chose between them was amazing and swashbuckling and brutal all at the same time, so it makes the list too.

    In the third Exalted game, the climactic end scene of the character, which I won’t recap, because I’ve gone into it way too often online (here, for example) is one of the single most brutal and moving scenes I’ve ever played…. The whole group was stunned to silence for about 10 minutes following the end of it.

    Recently in T&J I’ve had a couple of really memorable games. Bright, perfectly choreographed, nothing but lean, clean, hardcore play. Brand and I play the game by describing it as a graphic novel, panel by panel, which makes for a challenging format, but one with a constrained economy of expression and a sharp scene framing structure. There have been two games, the one just this past Friday and one about four months ago that have left both of us feeling like we could pick up the incarnate copy of the graphic novel and read it right through.

    And that’s it, because my fingers are tired from typing. Damn you, Thomas Robertson.

  10. Thomas Robertson says:

    Yes, I admit it. It is all my fault. Every instance of awesome play you’ve ever experienced? I accept full responsibility. I’m just that kind of guy.

    So, now we’ve got some background. I tend to find that my ideas about roleplaying come from play, and now we know some more about your play. Let’s get down to the topic at hand: immersion.

    5. I’ve heard you talk about ‘sockets’ in the past. What are they, and how do they relate to immersion?

  11. Mo says:

    Sockets, ayup.

    The socket is the place in the RPG which serves as the participant’s locus of enjoyment. It’s the place where people plug themselves into game and give and take their focus and energy to and from. Obviously character can be a primary socket, as you’ve devoted a whole month to the discussion of character immersion. Also, the first people to raise their hands as being able to identify as having one particular locus are character immersionists we have at least a basic common language to approach the discussion with. It may be a broken language sometimes, but there’s more of it already existing than there is for a lot of other kinds of socket players.

    It’s easy to identify what some other kinds of sockets are. Setting is obviously a socket for a lot of people. System is an obvious one too. We can be pretty damn sure in our community that there are Story socket players. There are other kinds, too. Social socket people. Choice socket people. Probably a lot of others too.

    I think that some people can have more than one socket, that is more than one place that they can plug into the experience of the game, but I suspect that there is always a primary socket, one that is preferred above others. I would say of myself that character is my primary socket, but that I have a distant story socket. Farther still, I could have a social socket and a setting socket, even a choice socket… but the fatrher down the road a game pushes me to go to find a socket, the less like an RPG it will feel like to me, the less it will fufill the body of what I come to games to for, and if always pushed to a different socket, the less likely I will be to continue playing the game..

    I was going to go on, but I suspect I’ve already gone to a point that needs clarification, so I think I’ll sign off here, and let you point to where you want me to keep talking about this (if anywhere at all).

  12. Thomas Robertson says:

    Wow, there’s a lot to unpack here. But first, let’s tie this to our nominal topic, shall we?

    6. If sockets are a way of talking about what really matters to you in a game, what do they have to do with immersion?

  13. Mo says:

    Well, I think it’s important to identify that there are different things we can plug into, and also to have a hard look at the modes that we use to do it. We talk about gaming like just because it’s something that we all do, that it’s something we all do the same way, or that produces the same product, and we don’t and we aren’t. I think that’s why our language gets so muddied and so loaded and we really have trouble communicating.

    What if we can immerse in other sockets? What if immersion is actually not something that has to do with my character specifically, but just has to do with me and my relationship and approach to game? Does that mean that Brand, who’s primary socket is story can immerse there too? Does it mean that hardcore kinky gamist folks are immersing into system? Maybe they can… depending on how they do it.

    Ages ago, Brand and I knocked the MBTI around as a parallel model for gaming. Brand started the discussion of it over on Yud’s Dice (thankfully, because I’m notiriously bad at actually getting thoughts to the blog). In it he talked about the middle profile, the self that approaches game. The place that (I think) pertains to immersion there is the Thinking/Feeling binary. When you are actually playing the game, when you plug in, do you want to think about the experience, or do you want to feel it? This is really critical to your emotional agenda in a game.

    For me, I socket strongly to character, and I want to feel it. For some people that might mean an altered state flow, for me it means a cathartic connection to the character. Maybe that difference has to do that my secondary socket is story and theirs is something else… I don’t know. I do know this:if the sockets are the things we value in games, then they also are a big part in determining our priorities. Everybody finds a mode and a socket that works to fufill the need: the thing you come to gaming for in lieu of other things.

    We build skills around the things that work, or skills to make things work for us to customize us to maximize fun with the groups we’re dealt with. Immersion is one of those skills. People talk about immersion like it’s a sickness or a goal and nothing in between, but in the end, it’s just a set of skills that let those of us that do it get to what we want from game as efficiently as possible.

  14. Thomas Robertson says:

    Hmm… Good stuff there, let’s do some more unpacking.

    7. How do different sockets interact? That is, how do people with the same primary sockets but different secondary sockets interact, and how do people with different primary sockets interact?

  15. Mo says:

    With work, or clumsily, or not at all. It’s the same as any other skill differential, preference dispute or agenda clash in gaming. It depends on the social commitment of the people around the table to make a decision that the clash is manageable enough to attempt to overcome it, and set up social contracts and build skills to work together. Most times, I’d guess, all of that happens holistcally and without trying, sometimes it happens very explicitly. Often it doesn’t happen at all, the holistics don’t come through, the effort is never made explicitly and people just stop playing together.

    Brand has a strong primary story socket, with a secondary socket that might be system, it might be setting… it really depends on the day for Brand. I have a stong primary character socket, and I would say that when we first started gaming together, my secondary socket was setting. We were playing participationist games; I was playing my characters in his story & world. Over time, through transitions in our games, our play styles have changed because we practice often, and have choosen different kinds of games. Now the distance between my sockets is much shorter, and story is now definately my secondary socket. Our games made changing worth it, and the nar shared authorship styles made socketing to story more possible and fun for me in a way it couldn’t be as a player in illusionist/participationist games.

  16. Thomas Robertson says:

    (Some of you may have noticed that I am a big dummy. I reposted an old question as a new one. You all have Mo to thank for an excellent catch of the moronitude. Mo, as a reward, I shall give you a shiny new question!)

    8. Immersion is a word that means many things to many people. When you immerse, what does that look and feel like?

  17. Mo says:

    Well, if you don’t mind, I think I am going to outsource part of that question to Brand, as he’s better equipped to tell you what it looks like. I’ll poke him to post here tomorrow, if you don’t mind.

    As for what it feels like…

    It’s a deep, intense, cathartic connection to the character, in which I am acutely aware of how the character is affected by the story both emotionally and psychologically, and in which I vicariously experience the character’s emotional state in all of its intensity.

    At the same time, I do not cease being myself or having my own emotions. In fact, when immersed, I personally, (as a player, in case that’s not clear) experience a hightened emotional engagement both in investment in the story, and empathetically for the character, (even if I have no sympathy for her).

    I am literally of two minds in this process: the character who wants and needs and strives on her own, and myself that wants and needs and strives for the story, pushing the character ever on to the moments of catastrophe that will provide the most dramatically wrenching moments of play.

    After playing, I feel a cathartic response – exaltation & relief that is both a psychologic and physiologic by-product of my immersive process. Psychologically, it has to do with the vicarious experience of drama and emotional purging or purification, and physiologically, the intensified emotional response prolonged through the duration of a game can incur a heightened outpouring of endorphins that provide a peaceful, feeling of relaxation and contentment.

    In writing this down, I did a post of my own, over at Sin Aesthetics that you might want to take a look at:
    Immersion Goals Borrowed from Literary Theory

  18. Brand Robins says:

    As for what it looks like when Mo immerses: it looks like an actor in a play rehearsal. The intensity of emotion, energy, direction, and commitment to character is all like a theatre production. I say that it is like a rehearsal because, as some actors get to do, she can stop in the midst of things (though usually in the junction between scenes) to discuss the things going on with the character and story in a rational manner. There is a lot of obvious, and very fast, shifting back and forth between radically different points of focus.

    Oh, she also cries a lot in powerful scenes, and gets all deeply (morbidly) introspective between scenes. It really is less like playing a game and more like having an experience of theatre crafted on the moment.

  19. Thomas Robertson says:

    Mo, thanks for the link, I think that’s pretty helpful. Brand, thanks for providing an outsider’s view of Mo’s immersion.

    9. So immersion is a powerful tool, and one that can do some really cool stuff (as you say here: link to stealing from literary goals article). But most powerful things also present some risks. What can go wrong with immersion? Can it be dangerous?

  20. Mo says:

    Interesting question. Let me start by catching all in saying that I think stuff can go wrong in any kind of invested RPG. But: yes, because many immersion goals push towards diving a heightened emotional context, a personal integration to the fiction or an abandonment of self (note that I’m not talking about different kinds of play in that list) there may well be a greater capacity to skid out and get hurt.

    My play these days is heavily influenced by the likes of one Meguey Baker who wrote some nifty articles a while back: Rituals and Gaming, More Alphabet Soup. In the last five years, with the advent of my Nar experience and the increased power (and responsibility) that comes along with it, my play experiences have become far more exploratory and thus, often play in much more dangerous ground.

    Any group I play this way with now has explicitly negotiated social contracts that include discussion of the intent of the game, of the areas that could be troublesome, about player lines (that should not be crossed) and signs (areas where proceeding is OK, but that has a greater propensity to skid out, or where difficulty might arise) and policies set by the group for how to get through it.

    For example, the Bitches in the Vineyard game that I play with Brand, Jess Hammer, Jess Pease and Nancy McKeown grew out of a discussion we had on Story Games about how playing female Dog in DitV demanded a game with a gendered premise and about the difficulty that both Nancy and I had had in approaching the game as women playing female characters in the world of Dogs. We decided to attack it by pushing the gender issues by making a group of all female Dogs.

    In general, in any game, unless I have reason not to trust the people I am playing with, I have no hard lines in play. However, since this game was focussing on gender issues, and was taking place in the world of Dogs, I figured that fertility would likely be highlighted and knew that one of the other players was interested in specifically exploring that theme. This is an issue that has the propensity to hit close to home for me, and intense play in this arena could trigger an emotional response.

    So as part of our discussion about setting up the Social Contract, I put up the sign: I told them what the issue was about, warned them that it could trigger an emotional response, so that they would recognize what was happening if it happened, and we talked about strategies and policies to deal with it if and when it came up. My request was that we go forward with an IWNAY policy, and allow for pauses in game, where needed, and the ability to ask for specific kinds of support if things went wrong. Then a couple of the other players posted signs about issues that could trigger them, and we committed to stick with each other if the going got tough. I think, in part, just because we had the discussion, things won’t go wrong, but if they do, I don’t think there will be any problem getting the hurt party out and whole.

    In all of the games I play solo with Brand with either he or I or neither/both of us GMing, we have an IWNAY policy in place that says that everything is fair game to explore, and where we hit a bump, we will carry each other through. There are many space and game rituals that we have placed around our play to help with the transition between real life and game play: an apart-space recap of the previous game to establish a context continuum, a verbatim declaration of the social policy that acts like a pledge: “I will not abandon you.” ritual phrases that begin the games, atmosphere altering influences (lowered light, incense, theme songs etc). With these tools in place, transition into the emotional connection to the game (which is critical to my immersion) is quick and easy, and the transition out to safety is supported and immediate, should it be required (which it seldom is).

  21. Thomas Robertson says:

    Mo, that’s good stuff. Especially the reminder that in social interaction people always risk getting hurt. And you’re right, when your emotions get all engaged, the risk only goes up.

    10. What is it about immersion that’s so cool? What can immersion do that other techniques can’t, and what can immersion do better than other techniques?

  22. Mo says:

    Is it cool? I said earlier that people talk about Immersion like it’s either a sickness or a cure and little in between, and I meant it.

    Immersion is a process that fulfills a function for the people doing it. What immersion can do that other techniques can’t is fulfill the goal of that particular player. What it does better, is meet the needs of the player employing it. It’s not something dysfunctional nor is it something to aspire to.

    For me, role-playing isn’t role-playing if there isn’t a level of emotional engagement. If I can’t feel what the character is feeling, and if the character doesn’t feel like a whole person within a continuity and a context, then it is just unsatisfying because that’s the thing I come to RPG’s for. I mean I’m not going to abandon the whole hobby because I have one bad experience, but if I never get what I come for, I’ll stop coming.

    When I play games that make me plug in differently or games that give consistent distortion to my immersive process, I can have fun, but it’s a different kind of fun, more like the fun I might have playing a board game. So the big deal about immersion is that it’s the thing that makes RPG’s unique and valuable to me. It puts the crack in gaming!

    Most discussions around immersion really frustrate the heck out of me. There’s so much confrontation, and it’s really so unnecessary. Part of the problem, IMO is the mystification of language surrounding immersion, which, for the most part, is misunderstood. The process of immersion is a complicated thing, and it relies on a lot of instinctive skills that we’re not used to discussing, and have little essential language for.

    Negative capability, for instance, I would consider one of the most beneficial skills that an immersive can have in her arsenal. Keats named it as an essential quality of a man of literature… essentially the ability to not be disquieted by a lack of realist assurances while reaching for more. It’s here where an immersive can abandon part of the self in search for the other.

    There are other things too: a particular kind of focus, a particular version of multitasking in which the player sets up boundaries in the brain that may seem uncomfortable or unnatural to a non-immersive player in a sort of pat the cerebral cortex (head) while rubbing the medulla oblongata (belly) – like juggling three balls independently in each hand.

    Many immersive players, IME, do not like to explore and put language to the processes that they are undergoing because it makes the process feel clinical and investigation can be counterproductive to achieving the state. Some don’t mind looking at it, but can’t explain it because it’s a deeply intuitive process that would be kind of like explaining why it is you write with your dominant hand. Others are rightly gun-shy because there are more than enough people out there waiting in the wings to tell them that immersion doesn’t really exist, or is just plain dysfunctional, or is just a dressed up form of my-guyism.

    To make matters worse, because that willingness, language and understanding is not always there, a whole lot of descriptions around immersive play are shrouded in mystical or esoteric language. Many of these terms, IMO are used because they feel accurate in cases where the process is actually mysterious and unexplained for a lot of people. Coupled with the kind of endorphin boost I was talking about in the last post, and the kind of process segmenting that some kenotic immersives can achieve that probably edges into self-hypnosis it’s no wonder that some of the language drifts towards the mystical. The problem is, many of the critics shut down listening the moment one of the more esoteric words enters the conversation.

    And on top of all that, with some immersives, there is a tendency towards using language that implies an inability to control the immersive state. They will say things like “I can’t control the decisions my character makes” or “I can’t make the character do things, he just does them.” and critics will growl and moan and remind the immersives that their characters are fictional, which, of course the immersive already knows. What’s the problem here? The end of the statements are missing… usually what the immersive is saying is: “I can’t control the decisions my character makes without disrupting my immersive state” or “I can’t control the decisions my character makes without switching to a mode that is undesirable or not fun for me.”

    Why is this a problem? Well it’s not (really, it’s not!) if everybody at the table is on the same page and is operating under a functional social contract, just like any other mode or technique or what-have-you. Anti-immersives complain: “He won’t author!” “She can’t talk out of character!”, “He avoids mechanics!”, these aren’t signs of dysfunctional immersive players, they’re signs that you’re playing with different agendas and have not accounted for it in thes ocial contract.

    Some immersives can author, some can talk ad nausea out of character, some are kinky bastards, some can emerge from character on one dime, and go back in on another… and yes, some do dislike or have trouble with some of these things. Identifying that ahead of time will save you headaches in the game, or heartaches when the game falls apart due to incompatible styles of play.

    There’s miles of difference between the statements “Your play is dysfunctional” or “Your play sucks” and “Your play is incompatible with mine.” One repels further discussion, the other sets ground rules. One shuts down conversation, the other keeps the door open.

  23. Thomas Robertson says:

    Some solid points in there about where the discussion often goes sour.

    11. You and Brand have talked about Meyers-Briggs typing for roleplaying in the past. Do you see immersion as being related to this at all? Do you think that immersion is closely associated with the Thinking/Feeling dichotomy at one of the three levels? If so, how does that play out?

  24. Mo says:

    We’re still working this bit out. Yes, my gut says that character immersion, at least the kinds that I was refering to as Cathartic and Kenotic are strongly associated with an F mode gamer type, and I tend to think that people without F’s in either Player or Gamer type will not tend towards pursuing an immersive goal.

    I’m currently amused with the idea that the combination of the T/F personal type and the T/F gamer type together might map a way to the immersive goal of the player. I for example, am a strong T personal type, with a strong F gamer type, and the immersive goals that I pursue combine T and F activities (strong authoring and toggling between character and player brains to get hard F-impacting scenes). Maybe it is that F Player-F Gamer types will always be those that strive away from those kind of goals and seek a more organic, fully F brand of immersion (such as the kenotic goal).

    I’m not saying that’s what I believe so nobody should jump on me about it, it’s just what I’m rolling around in the back of my brain right now.

  25. Thomas Robertson says:

    For what it’s worth I think you’re onto something there. I think there’s a useful link between immersion and the MB typing you and Brand are looking at.

    12. How do you think that different kinds of mechanics interact with immersion? Can some mechanics help you immerse? Can some hinder you in immersion? Or is it idiosyncratic based on the type of immersion a player is looking for?

  26. Mo says:

    I think it depends on immersive goal. Like I was talking about in the C/K/K article, if a player is kenotic any mechanic that requires thought or activity as self will detract from the goal and be disruptive to the player’s immersive state.

    Systems which give the winner of a conflict the right to decide the impact to the loser’s moral or psychological makeup could interfere with any immersive goal, but to a karotic it would likely have disasterous effect because exploration in that specific arena is the point of play.

    For me, a mechanic will most strongly disrupt my immersion when it tries to push me towards having to plug into the game in a T way because the point of play is to explore moments of strong emotional resonance and feel them in a cathartic way.

    Likewise, games in which the mechanics must be addressed or negotiated verbally throughout the course of play are disruptive to me because they break up the emotional continuity and momentum of my feeling the story by asking me to act as me addressing thinky things. I am able to think objectively as my self during a game without a problem, and to talk as myself in the course of play, but in the middle of the emotionally impacting moment, if the game makes me toggle back and forth right then, I’m out.

    I’m not sure if this analogy will transfer, but if you think about it this way: You’re watching Fellowship of the Ring, you’re engaged with the story, really grooving on feeling how monumentous and difficult a task it is going to be. Boromir goes for the ring: Oh no! Frodo runs! Massive fight scene! Boromir is hit, then Aaragorn finds him… and then for the next five minutes, the person sitting next to you, who controls the remote, pauses the movie every 30 seconds to ask you to perform a minor mathematical, analytical or referencing action. By the time you get to “My Brother, My Captain, My King!” does it have the same impact as it would have if you’d maintained a sense of emotional momentum and continuity throughout?

    The magical formula is not a universal one, it’s a personal one, to some extent, and the best that we can hope for as designers trying to make accessible games is to do the best trending that we can. However, immersion aside, paying attention to the timing in which the mechanic is invoked, the kind of action the player is asked to perform and the way it does or does not flow with the resonance of the moment are extremely important designing skills to develop.

    Does the mechanic have to be performed verbally or could it be mitigated another way? Think about the way a player in DitV can push their dice across the table to visually declare their see rather than having to interrupt the narrative.

    If I want to foster emotional resonance in the story, where do I want that emotional resonance to have the most impact, and how can I parse my mechanics around it to protect the emotional momentum and continuity while still providing the support it was meant to deliver?

    Really, who am I designing this game for, what are their methods of play, how am I designing to support that? OR, in a narrative context, what kind of a story am I trying to produce with this game, what kind of resonance should it have, what kind of play fulfills that story, and by designing for it, who am I inviting to the table?

    As for mechanics that help immersion? That’s a nifty question that I’m not sure I have an answer for. My first inclination was to say X mechanic helps immersion by not hurting immersion, which, I suppose illuminates part of the state of things. However, it’s really not answering the question, and the last thing I want to say is that mechanics help immersives by getting out of the way. It’s the last thing because I think there’s potential for more, but it’s kind of unexplored, so it’s hard to find examples.

    One example I could think of though…

    The resolution mechanics in Dogs helps me to immerse in a kind of an odd way. In the conflict all (or at least most) of the dice are all rolled right off the bat. This of course helps not to hurt because it means less mechanical negotiation during the emotionally impacting moments. More than that, though… is that everybody’s cards are on the table, face up. You know what dice they have to play with, what more they could roll in, how far you will have to escalate to get what you want. For a cathartic, or kairotic immersive, this puts the whole toolbox on the table to drive the game and the character towards the goal. A cathartic immersive can use what they have to judicioausly lose or triumph and stoke the emotional fire. A kairotic immersive can drive towards that “right moment”.

    I’ll think on this some more and let you know, here or on SA if I come up with others.

  27. Thomas Robertson says:

    While we’re talking about mechanics, I might as well ask a far too complex question…

    13. Some mechanics disrupt immersion. Do you find that, given time to acclimate and a desire to do so, you can learn to utilize certain mechanics so that they are less disruptive? Or even, given enough familiarity with them so that they are not disruptive at all anymore? I guess what I’m asking is, do you see certain mechanics as inherently and necessarily disruptive, or do you think that you can learn to live with and even thrive with anything? (Quick aside: this is pretty theoretical, I’m not suggesting that people who have trouble immersing under certain mechanics aren’t ‘trying hard enough’, but I am asking about where compromises might lie.)

  28. Mo says:


    Personally, I often find myself building strategies to work around mechanics that are disruptive. I talked a little bit about it here. Our play groups, like most play groups out there, have a mixed bag of styles. I don’t generally ask that mechanics be removed from play because some others in our groups like the game crunchy. However, sometimes we hack to get a desired mod that can work for multiple players at once.

    Mostly though, my work-arounds are really ways to pull the system. By identifying what it is the mechanic is trying to produce in the game and preemptively providing that thing, the mechanic can stay in place and becomes less intrusive to my play; I co-operate with it better, rather than competing with it to win my immersion. I think that this is just an exaggerated version of the kind of social maneuvering and appeasements that we make on a regular basis to accommodate each others’ personalities. I’ve been told that it sounds like an impressive skill, but it’s one that we use on a smaller scale unconsciously, everyday with our friends, our families, our co-workers. In this situation performed with conscious intent, and using a matrix of two or more personalities for every participant, it’s just a more complex model. Rarely does this work to stop disruption 100% of the time, but it can make it livable. However, I’m not sure that I could find a workaround for all mechanics to make them jive with myimmersion.

    The one that I always come back to as a show stopper is games that resolve conflict through narration rights. By this I don’t just mean that if you and I are in a conflict in the system and you win that you get to tell me what happens to me but that you get to tell me what I do. Also, there are harder lines where serious co-ownership exists. It’s hard, at least for me, to maintain an empathic “subjectified” connection to a character that I do not have continuity rights to. That character will be too changeable, or too one-dimensional, too out of context to feel like a whole person, or a self. I could maintain an empathic “objectified” connection to them, in which case I could care about what happens to them, and even in time, learn to live with kairotic immersion alone, but I suspect that it wouldn’t have the same kind of overall emotional resonance that I’m looking for.

  29. Thomas Robertson says:

    Working around mechanics is an interesting phenomenon, and one I don’t think is found only in immersion-seeking interaction. But it’s a solid point.

    14. You point out that one of the things you find important for immersion in your character is control of that character. Is that because of the specific type of immersion you enjoy, or do you think that control is a key to any sort of immersion? That is, how do issues of control play into immersion for people who like to immerse in story (or system, or whatever else)?

  30. Mo says:

    I’ve been trying to come up with an answer for you on this one, and in the end, I think that what I wanted to say that I’m not sure it’s the control that’s important, it’s the continuity. If I were to play a game with co-owned characters that had some kind of support for achieving a continuity of character in handoffs between one player or another, , I might be entirely cool about not maintaining control over the character. Maybe there’s some kind of game out there that does that, but if there is, I’m not aware of it.

    The reason that control seems important is just because achieving that kind of synchronicity between two different people without training or tools is really, really, really hard. Most of the time, we don’t even walk away from a game with a similar understanding of the game or a similar report of the experience. As people, we have different filters that say what is believable, what is cool, what is striking, and what is fun.

    Over on The 20×20 Room Brand quoted Neel Krishnaswami from some other place as saying “When you take a point of view to get a slice of the game, you get a story — protagonists, antagonists, and supporting characters emerge. However, you can slice a game in multiple ways, and get multiple stories. And in each slice, who the protagonists are is different. All from the same play session.” That’s so true about life, really, not just RPG’s. So if we can never fully form an objective reality by synthesizing our subjective realities, how hard must it be to create a consistent feeling character who reacts subjectively to a story and a world that both players are on their own subjectively experiencing and reacting to?

    Double hard to reach the “consistent feeling” when the players are immersionists, because the rich internal tapestry of a character – the psychological and emotional context of that character that makes the character feel like something worth of being immersed in – how can two different people’s perceptions of that internal tapestry be merged into one and comprehensively and equally be .understood by both people to allow either player to immerse? Maybe there’s no way we can do it 100% but there might be ways to get us closer, tools and social processes to get there, if we want to try.

    The people that play fiction RPG’s in which the protagonists are handed off from one writer to another manage it to one extent or another (I’d be interested in finding out if they do actually feel a continuity, and if they would consider what they do an immersive act) and I think this is helped along by having a single written “bible” of what happened as a result of their play.

    So in the end, I think what I am saying is that control is only important because it is easy and efficient in producing the right kind of consistency of character that allows an immersive to plug into, and not control for its own sake.

    As for how someone who immerses into story or system might deal with control? Well, like fiction RPG players have help from a text, system socket folks have a written contract to which they can refer to, and this cuts out a lot (but you only have to have a look around on RPG forums to know that it’s not all) of the disparity between subjective perceptions; There’s a rulebook. System socket players surrender control to that contract, by agreeing to play within it (indeed, if there were no contract, and no agreement wholly or modified, then there is no play). When things break down, and there is no meeting of the minds of a particular item in that contract, the game (and I’d think the immersion too) ceases until an agreement can be made. System socket play goals are concrete, and their play happens in a confined cage-match arena of the system, whereas character socket play goals are more abstract and take place in the continuously amorphous arena of the character’s (or arguably player’s) mind.

    Story socket goals are somewhere in between, however, because establishing a continuity of story is necessary to more players, there are more and better tools to help establish it. You’ll notice that some of the biggest mitigating tools out there are about control: there’s a GM and it’s her story that we play in, or we shift that roll, and the person who owns that authority has that right. We have contests for who gets to say what happens, or we just have equitable distribution of turns, or we do it by pure meritocracy. Often, the authority is limited by the system to help maintain continuity (or other things).

    Why is that? Again, because it is easier and more efficient than it is to build tools to mitigate social behaviour. Building systems and tools that build player skill or move the play group towards a unified vision where continuity is a guaranteed byproduct of play is much harder (and possibly impossible). The thing is, if it could be done or at least moved in that direction a ways, it would support not only the process of achieving a communal continuity, but a whole host of other benefits such as… well, facilitated social contracts for one.

    And I know you’re itching to Thomas, but don’t ask me how we will build it, I’m still working on that one myself.

  31. Thomas Robertson says:

    Fine. Deprive me of the fun and impossible questions. I’ll just ask other tough ones instead!

    15. Back when you and I (and others) were tossing the ideas of ‘push’ and ‘pull’ around, one of the things we talked about was the way gender (and other) socialization can impact the ways we prefer to play. Do you think that this applies to immersive preferences? That is, do you think that our immersive preferences are, at least in part, a function of the way that we are socialized?

  32. Mo says:


    Life got very busy indeed. Mind if I pick this up in India, say, end of next week? I’ll be better able to think if I’m sitting by a pool with a mango lassi in my hand.

  33. Thomas Robertson says:

    No problem at all, Mo! I imagine the mad dashing to prep for the trip has been a trifle time-consuming.

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