The Immersion FactorTarek Raimo
During Fanfest my colleague Jacob Anedalle did a great job covering the events around the Kyonoke Inquest which CCP staged in the form of a lightweight LARP (Live Action Role Play). I want to expand a bit on his analysis and particularly try to address such questions as why the event was much more popular than most people expected and why it wasn’t disrupted by trolls who traditionally smirk at the nerdy pursuits of roleplayers. Buckle up capsuleer, this is going to be a mindbender.
Self-Identification In Gaming
EVE is a game of complex mechanics that facilitate tactical and strategic gameplay, economy simulation, exploration and a limited form of adventure-game quests among other things. In doing so it unifies the concepts of many other games under one umbrella and this alone presents a player with a multitude of options and learning curves. To learn how to play can already challenge a player to quite some extent. Adding to all of this is a vast repository of backstory and lore about New Eden and its spacefaring nations. One could ask the question why this added material is necessary, and my proposed answer is: because immersion is a key factor in gaming.
If we take a look at other games, we see a recurring theme: the majority create a backdrop in front of which the actual gameplay takes place. Warhammer, Battletech and Warhammer 40K – for example – have existed as tabletop battle simulators years before RPG spinoffs have been developed, but still they had a corresponding body of lore associated with them from the beginning. Even the venerable Dungeons & Dragons started as a tabletop wargame with some lore attached. Computer strategy games like Homeworld, Warcraft and Starcraft have done the same. Even a cerebral and traditional game like chess assigns roles to the individual pieces which can provide anchor-points for a player’s identification. My grandfather collected chess sets and I could see how different cultures have their own roles for the pieces which align with their historical background. The only major exception to this rule are abstract strategy games like Go, reversi or checkers which contain no identifying features other than colour-coding.
The reason why most games include a backstory is that we humans like to create narratives. In fact the very popular recent presentations and work of CCP Ghost stands in recognition of that. We retell our own life as narratives whenever we speak of our experiences to others. We invent and tell each-other stories for entertainment, to teach life-lessons, transport moral codes or try to explain the world around us through allegories. Correspondingly, we like to place our actions in a context and measure their success by how well they fit within that larger framework. This is what player identification is all about.
A Warhammer 40K player can enjoy the pure game-mechanical success of a battle won but it is so much more meaningful if that victory plays out as Imperial Marines winning against the heretical Chaos Marines. We want to be able to identify with the protagonist of a game’s narrative just as much as we want to create our own narratives which define ourselves. Several studies have been conducted about the importance of narrative in computer games specifically.
One that has been quoted widely was conducted by Hefner, Klimmt and Vorderer (Hannover University of Music and Drama; 2007) In the conclusion of their study they write:
“[T]he findings support the importance of narrative elements for successful computer games. A major part of the fun of playing comes out of identification processes that root back in the narrative framework of the game. If only a rudimentary background plot is available, the character or role that players could identify with may remain underdeveloped, which would result in lowered game enjoyment.”
In this context we encounter the dichotomy between monadic and dyadic identification. Monadic identification is the classical RPG (Role Playing Game) approach where we identify personally with the character because that is our only reference point. When we play as Lara Croft, Jason Brody or The Lone Wanderer, we “merge” with the in-game identity. Dyadic identification is a more passive reception where we are the audience of a protagonist’s narrative and see ourselves in relation to it. Someone who watches Game of Thrones might root for Jon Snow or Daenarys Targaryan, maybe even feel morbidly fascinated by Ramsey Snow’s cunning sadism, but in all cases they would think of themselves in relation to those characters rather than as them.
In EVE we can see both happening at the same time on different levels. We become each other’s objects of dyadic identification and we create a monadic object which we identify with in the context of our personal narrative. More on that later.
The dyadic identification is strongest when we observe processes we are not directly involved in. A major war or the Alliance Tournament might not involve us personally, but we want the side to win that we identify with most. On the other hand, when we choose a character and spend any significant time on sculpting our avatar, maybe even invent a backstory, then we create our own monadic identification object. Some may even have done so prior to character creation and already decided on a persona they want to be in this game.
The latter is something I have observed with most new players I have interacted with. The majority of them embed themselves to some degree in the backstory narrative of New Eden. Particularly when a player’s personal narrative is least developed – at the beginning of their career – they seek a narrative which they can adopt. As they become more involved with the game mechanics and the pragmatism those enforce on us, they become more abstract in their approach. Race and background begin to matter less, but at the same time they develop their own narrative and the monadic identification object becomes more prominent. This is where EVE offers a unique opportunity to go beyond the standard RPG approach.
Players and Environment
In EVE there is an added complexity. Not only are we both monadic and dyadic in our identifications, we also have the choice to create entirely separate narratives of our own. This duality of identification trajectories creates a unique challenge for CCP when they want to ensure their players are sufficiently immersed into a game narrative.
Among EVE players there is a wide spectrum between independent and lore-driven narratives. On one hand we have such groups as the entirely self-referential Imperium of Goonswarm who apply methods of realpolitik, on the other hand there are fully lore-congruent organisations like CVA who will set any Gallente or Minmatar Faction Warfare player as “shoot on sight” no matter whether they have ever wronged them personally or not. Even fully pragmatic and abstract approaches have their place. Many of the “elite PvP” corporations and alliances choose their strategies and tactics purely on the basis of game mechanics.
Still no player can fully escape the pull of the narrative.
Even pure PvPers have their favorite ships and, if the game is balanced well, they will have a certain degree of freedom in their choices. If their motivation for playing would be entirely abstract like playing Go or Reversi, they would not care if certain ships become “oppressive” and the choice of viable doctrines becomes too limited, but we see that especially the pragmatic PvPers like their choices to be as broad as possible so they can express their personal style.
In EVE lore, the power of the capsuleer stems from their bond with their ships and the complex neuro-technological functions of the burn scanner. Their ships and how they use them become the direct expression of their character and skill. Thus even accomplished PvPers often try their hardest to fly particular suboptimal ships. Their desire is to excel with them by designing fits and developing tactics which others can try to imitate and aspire to, or try to beat. On this level an EVE player creates a character for themselves which is congruent with the lore even if their primary motivation is not roleplaying.
A player who connects with the lore to a stronger degree will approach the subject differently. While an abstract-minded gamer might declare “I want to become the best solo-PvPer with the Kestrel” a similar statement from a lore-focused player could be: “I am patrolling high security space and hunting criminals exclusively in police-skinned Comets because my character is a Gallente law-enforcement officer”. Both are engaging in frigate solo-PvP, and each of them chooses a ship which represents themselves best, but the construction of their monadic self-identification object is different relative to the lore. Still both fit within its boundaries.
Similar examples can be drawn from all kinds of playstyles and engagement levels within the game. A Rorqual miner in nullsec might see their work as vital for the prosperity of their community which is staved on a fully lore-independent narrative, while a highsec ganker might come up with a lore-based justification for their actions. From my early days in the game I remember a ganker corp who based their actions on the idea that their ships have been infected by Rogue-Drone AI and are now waging war on capsuleers who they see as biological enslavers of machines.
I am sure all of you can come up with similar examples from your own history, and that illustrates my point, but what does that all have to do with the Kyonoke Inquest event at Fanfest which I opened up with?
The Monad and Dyad of the Kyonoke Inquest
Let us now apply that thought process to the events at Fanfest. Jakob Anedalle has found through interviews that the original plotline designed for the Kyonoke Inquest was supposed to be much simpler and more linear. It was through the actions of players that it became more complex and required the actor’s improvisation, but it was never broken. Everything that happened fit within the lore framework of New Eden capsuleers being who they are, although some of that was entirely serendipitous.
For example, the “Gallente Pleasure Hub” (factually a bar and some couches supplemented by two actors) was set up in the very area of Harpa which is usually squatted by Pandemic Legion as their meeting point and hangout space. Consequently, a side-plot arose which involved the conspiracy theory that Pandemic Legion had acquired vital information that was spread there and kept it from the research effort.
Pandemic Legion isn’t known for their engagement in roleplaying and lore, but they became involved in it and surprisingly didn’t do anything that would break the immersion of the game by simply trolling the roleplayers. In the dyad of identification between the dedicated roleplayers and Pandemic Legion, the latter suddenly had become the villain against which action was necessary. What PL did was exactly what a hard-boiled self-serving alliance of unbound capsuleers would do, either as powerplay or for profit. It turned out that no significant information was held back by PL members, but two groups interacted with each other across the boundary of roleplaying immersion.
At the same time members of the RP oriented Arataka Research Consortium lost a lot of time because they were convinced that a secret message was hidden inside an EVE themed arcade game that was present. Despite of this being a dead end, that theory spread around and I found entirely unrelated players who talked about a potential secret cheat for the game which the roleplayers supposedly had worked out based on their knowledge. In this case players who were not directly engaged in the roleplaying event were drawn into a dyad of identification with the Arataka roleplayers. Like a watcher of the Game of Thrones show, they were engaged with the narrative and wondered about hidden messages that might exist behind the subtext of the obvious.
Many similar transitions and interactions happened throughout the event. A security officer was bribed with drinks to give up a crucial plot item. That device was later recovered, but the RPers who had managed to do so kept the identity of the thief secret because a prior inquest resolution allowed them to do so. Vote tokens were stolen and a combination of player and RP security caught the perpetrator who just randomly took the opportunity for a theft. Even tailor-made propaganda was spread around by unknown parties which was related to the narrative.
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These examples show how we traverse the boundary between monadic and dyadic identification while being present at this Fanfest event. At the same time we are additionally confronted with each-other’s actual personality and appearance, not just an in-game character. People slide in and out of their characters since it is not a LARP where they are strictly kept to the task of just playing their role (some of the Arataka people did stick to it pretty consistently though). During this process – I propose – we become aware of this constant transition of perspective and character, either consciously or subconsciously. This is very similar to EVE itself, where we are not forced to RP, but we are invited to.
With this realisation – no matter how conscious it is – we become engaged and immersed in the world of the game while being already immersed in the experience of Fanfest. No matter which demographic we belong to, as EVE players we find ourselves drawn into the experience. We become part of a wider story which is both built on existing and self-created narratives, informed by the game’s backstory as much as the history of our player organisations and our personal experiences as players.
CCP decided to give this Fanfest a special twist – I understood that was an initiative of CCP Seagull – and it was a success on more than one level. Players were made to interact with each-other in ways which had not occurred before. We were pushed into that constant transition between the monadic and dyadic identification, crossing over between existing lore and self-created narratives. That can serve as a successful test-case of what EVE gameplay is able to achieve. It is a psychedelic experience in the sense that it reveals things about how our minds work when given new and complex scenarios to deal with, and in my opinion it proves that the co-existence of lore and self-actualised narrative within the game remains important.
I hope CCP developers don’t forget the lesson learned here. Indeed, we need the ability to create our own narratives in EVE, but the backstory of New Eden remains a powerful and important factor in doing so.
As a closing statement I want to thank everyone who spent the time to create all the hints, items, costumes, sets and acting. If this happens again I am sure you can do even more and rest assured that the popularity will grow. The next time, I dare to say, the Inquest Hall – or whatever takes its place – will have to be larger to accommodate the amount of players interested.