The immersive world: a declaration of faith

There is a central conflict that defines us — it is the conflict between our selves and our ideas; between the physical and conceptual; the tangible and the ephemeral; the virtual and the real. T.S. Eliot once wrote that human beings cannot take much reality. Our ability to conceive and understand the abstract, the intellectual, the unperceivable is both a source of joy and suffering for us. We can imagine ourselves on any plane and in any place at any time; but that we cannot appear there instantaneously or make these simple imaginings materialize at a whim provides the foundation for a certain kind of melancholy: that we can imagine new and better worlds but cannot simply put ourselves there.

This conflict was best revealed by William Blake in his poem The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.

He writes:

 All Bibles or sacred codes have been the causes of the following Errors.

  1. That Man has two real existing principles Viz: a Body & a Soul.
    2. That Energy, call’d Evil, is alone from the Body, & that Reason, call’d Good, is alone from the Soul.
    3. That God will torment Man in Eternity for following his Energies.

But the following Contraries to these are True

  1. Man has no Body distinct from his Soul for that call’d Body is a portion of Soul discern’d by the five Senses, the chief inlets of Soul in this age
  2.  Energy is the only life and is from the Body and Reason is the bound or outward circumference of Energy.
  3.  Energy is Eternal Delight

William Blake still remains one of the best archaeologists of the human imagination. He understood that “Imagination Is Not A State; It Is Human Existence Itself.” The above passage covers the inner conflict between the individual and the idea, and how the imaginative itself is often denigrated and placed below all other things, either by us or by those who refuse to value it. Blake believed that art and all associated works of the imagination could alter our perceptions enough that we could experience the world as it truly is. “If the doors of perception were cleansed, every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite.”

To that end, I believe that the stories we tell affect who we are. I also believe that the worlds woven by others through their words, ideas, or pictures have a considerable affect on how we tell our own stories. I firmly believe that one of the most powerful vehicles for telling our stories and for experiencing the stories of others is to do so through play. Play offers us one of the most accessible and safest ways to mediate the conflict between our selves and our ideas. Play especially through games, provide a fun way to order and give meaning to the internal self. Games and other forms of play are not only systems of rules, but platforms for powerful stories. One of the powerful forms of media providing us with this combination of play and story-telling is digital games.

Ray Bradbury wrote, in defense of fantastic literature, that we should not call it escape literature, but instead return literature. We go somewhere else for however long it takes to experience the story, inhabiting a sovereign universe and then return: perhaps happier, maybe made more insightful, and hopefully better than before. This may seem a bit idealistic, but I believe this to be the case. Play provides us with a very important world, an immersive world. I believe some of the most inventive, interactive, and immersive worlds can be found in digital games.

I cannot tell you the precise moment I became aware of the importance of the combination of digitality and play, and how I felt it was necessary (even if it was just in blog form) to explicate the connection between the two. This connection is something I’ve thought about for many years, but have only recently been able to articulate. It may have come about while I was reading Harold Goldberg’s amusingly titled All Your Base Are Belong To Us, which chronicles the rise of video games as both a business and a story-telling medium through the stories of specific designers at specific moments of video game history.

It was while reading about the struggles of specific designers like Roberta Williams or Ken Levine to bring about the worlds they wanted to play in, or how one of the first interactive games with graphical display, Tennis For Two, was created on a whim by William Higinbotham— a scientist who was also part of the team that created the atomic bomb — that I realized something important: the digital game is an accidental medium, something that by all rights should not even exist. This isn’t to denigrate games, but to say that it is quite incredible that they are even here in the first place, and that they’ve been used as much for personal expression as entertainment. It also made me realize how much game designers sacrifice to create something that is too often dismissed as merely being a children’s toy.

This also made me realize how precarious a position digital games are in from the standpoint of both history and criticism. Games have gone through considerable changes since the invention of Tennis For Two in 1958 and the idea of writing about or even preserving the history of digital games is something relatively new. I began to think of the nightmare that future historians of the digital game may have to reckon with due to the fact that that gamers do not have the longest memories or the greatest dedication to games history. There is an important conversation about games that is currently happening and I want to be part of it in some way.

I believe in the immersive worlds created through digital games, and as you shall see through the writings in this blog, immersion cannot and should not simply be restricted to those places that offer the best 3D graphics or even the ability to interface with digital worlds via VR headsets like the Oculus Rift — immersive worlds take on many forms and many means of expression. As William Blake writes above “Energy is eternal delight” and I want to reveal what I think is the delightful and challenging energy offered in the still evolving medium of video games.

Edgar Allan Poe once wrote “I have never had a thought that I could not set down in words.” This has not always been the case for myself, but I hope to do better through the words set down here, beginning with this one piece of writing, something that is finally truthful about myself and what I believe in: this simple declaration of faith.

Tennis for Two, the first game with a graphical display, was developed by William Higinbotham in 1958.