What’s the difference between experiencing Presence and Immersion in a world? Or in techno-social systems of any kind?
Full Show Notes: https://www.thejaymo.net/2023/10/15/301-2333-presence-in-worlds/
Permanently moved is a personal podcast 301 seconds in length, written and recorded by @thejaymo
The past few weeks I’ve been reading a first draft of a friend’s textbook on digital storytelling in Extended Reality. Something came up whilst reading it that I’d like to tease out for myself. What’s the difference between Presence and Immersion in a world – or techno-social systems of any kind?
In the 1970’s Dungeons and Dragons reshaped culture forever; with its ontological-vertigo-inducing innovation of entering a simulation in the first person. The immediate conceptual run out of the idea into computing still shapes our lives every day. (This by the way, is the subject of the middle section of my book The Web Was A Side Quest).
A decade ago, discussion around digital dualism was where I hung out on the Twittersphere. Coined by Nathen Jugenson in 2011 he criticised Sherry Turkle’s term “second self” to describe online presence. His critique was that conceptually splitting so-called “first” and “second” selves creates a “false binary” because “people are enmeshing their physical and digital selves to the point where the distinction is becoming increasingly irrelevant.”
I don’t want to rehash any of that discussion. But I will say that 10 years on, the idea of virtual selves seems secondary to the types of virtual worlds we bring ourselves into. Worlds we feel presence and immersion in.
Across academic disciplines these terms have specific and different meanings. In Games, Theatre, Film studies etc and further complicated by some scholars’ (and society at larges’) tendency to use them interchangeably.
At the cinema the process of crossing the threshold into the ‘world of the film‘ is ‘the suspension of disbelief’. In puppetry traditions across cultures, in particular Japanese bunraku, the opposite occurs. One is not asked to suspend one’s disbelief, but instead one is invited to believe. These are two very different ways of thinking and approaching the situation at hand. The adoption of a certain kind of world(view).
The phrase ‘Suspension of disbelief’ originates in poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s two volume book Biographia Literaria. Influenced by Kant’s notion of imagination as a shaping power, Colerdige uses the phrase suspension of disbelief to describe the relationship between people and “fictions”. Or in his words “phenomena regarded as implausible”. Part of his wider project of trying to keep the mythic realm alive during the growing mechanist culture of The Enlightenment era.
As we move into the modern era, suspension of disbelief becomes shorthand for implying that the burden of belief was on the reader, rather than the writer. The willingness of the audience to overlook the medium’s limitations.
Tolkien however challenges this assertion. Instead he proposes in ‘On Fairy-Stories’ that the writer’s role is to engender what he calls secondary belief. Which is why he’s the grandfather of worlds. Belief is not suspended. It instead arises from inner consistency within the presented reality.
Getting back on track, I have questions around the meanings of immersion and presence in worlds. Which returns us to my open questions that close Episode 2126 on The Hybrid / Hyper Reality of Worlds way back in 2021. We are always in two simultaneous domains: Sitting in a chair playing dnd, drinking beer, and smoking cigarettes with friends, and inside the world.
The word Presence in worlds finds its origins in Marvin Minksy’s 1980 paper Telepresence. Which found that the operation of robots remotely led to a sense of the user inhabiting the machine. See also last year’s Episode (2228) on Pinball Wizards.
The sense of Presence then flowed into Virtual Reality and Virtual Worlds research. Having a sense of presence in a MUD for example.
Immersion has more to do with an external experiential state. It is a word further muddled by the idea that someone can be ‘immersed’ in Tetris or a Crossword puzzle. When what we really mean is that one is ‘absorbed’.
If you suspend your disbelief are you immersed in a movie or absorbed in it? On the other hand you can be immersed in a book – Tolkien’s internal consistency – but I personally wouldn’t ever say I have ever felt presence in Middle Earth. That’s what D&D was invented for.
Immersion in popular culture has tended toward notions of fidelity – “this game’s graphics are great, it’s so immersive” for example. But this definition falls over quickly as D&D and Interactive Fiction have no graphics at all. Yet, in both you have a sense of presence AND are super immersive.
Gordon Calleja in his brilliant 2011 book In-Game: From Immersion to Incorporation to which this episode owes a great deal, offers us a way out. Side step the two terms entirely and introduce a third term: Incorporation. As in “United into one body; combined”. Calleja’s definition is as follows: “The absorption of a virtual environment into consciousness, yielding a sense of habitation, which is supported by the systemically upheld embodiment of the player in a single location.” It is above all a sensation.
Let’s close with some more questions: When you log into Facebook and psychographically cross into its techno-social system, are you present there or immersed? When you log into your banking app online, are you present within the world of global-techno-capital or immersed in it? Or are you incorporated into them?
Now think about entering an Airport or a Library. Upon entering you adopt a world(view) and Incorporate it into the world’s self consistent logics.