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Ritual Immersion in Rock Band; A Dionysian moment in a digital rhythm

Posted by Adam
Playing Rock Band at Wednesday Symposia

Playing Rock Band at Wednesday Symposia

So I conjectured that ekstasos as it appears in The Birth of Tragedy might map onto immersion as we notionally think about it. A couple of months and nineteen pages later, I think that ekstasos as a human quality maps well onto the immersion found in games. What I found most interesting was that not only did VR not usefully lead to immersion, but that narrative also wasn’t necessary. I am not saying that narrative and compelling images don’t assist in approaching immersive states. But I am saying that they are ancillary to ritual which leads to the state of ‘standing outside oneself’.

The relationship of narrative to ritual is complex and I am still grappling with the previous scholarship. In The Birth of Tragedy the ritual becomes the counterpart of a narrative- the death and rebirth of the god Dionysus. Scott Scullion’s discussion of the ritual roots of attic tragedy- that these were concurrent cultural entities, not one an off shoot of the other- only strengthens my sense that the ritual plot, the sequence of events in a ritual, precedes the narrative plot.

What did survive the winnowing process was ritual. The fruits of my intellectual labour were that there were at least two kinds of immersion; Ritual immersion and narrative immersion. That Rock Band partakes of some of the ritual elements also found in Dionysiac theatre, I believe these were the most important elements leading to immersion. Nietzsche’s rejection of socratic i.e theoretical man(his term) lends itself this conclusion. Some of the qualities that other authors(Qin, et al, Jennet et al) have attributed to immersion include; Lack of awareness of time; Loss of awareness of the real world; Involvement and a sense of being in the task environment(Jennet, et al p.642). Curiosity: Arousal of senses and cognition and attraction to explore game narrative; Concentration: Ability to concentrate long-term on the game narrative; Challenge and skills: Some relative difficulty in the game narrative for players and corresponding players’ skills; Control: Ability to exercise a sense of control over game narrative; Comprehension: Understanding the structure and content of the storyline; Empathy: Mentally entering into the imaginary game world while playing the game; Familiarity: Being familiar with the game story(Qin, et al p.127-128). For Nietzsche, qualities that appealed to analysis- comprehension, being an example, ran counter to the group dynamic of ekstasos, or even the Apollonian qualities of individuation and creativity that was a counterpoint to the Dionysian ‘standing outside oneself’ that is the translation of the word ekstasos. Qin, Rau and Savendy’s discussion of immersion suffers I think because it assumes that the comprehension of the narrative underlies all the the other qualities they present as elements of immersion.

There is another issue, that reflects back on the discussion, in that some qualities of the game may lead to the internal qualities that comprise immersion. This may lead to conflate causes and effects- for example, to be surrounded by images as discussed by Oliver Grau, is not to be immersed. Jennet, and the other authors of her essay argue that the sense of disconnection from linear time is the essential quality of immersion. My argument now, is that games achieve this by ritualistic elements, rather than narrative or VR.

Part of the problem surrounding concepts of immersion is that it is a metaphor, and not particularly accurate. To be immersed has the sense of being surrounded, as in to be immersed in a pool. However, game immersion works nicely with a screen. It doesn’t require a 360 degree surround. Music, and movement, features of so much effective ritual, are present in both Dionysiac theatre, with participants, spect-actors(who may join directly in the play) and a symbolic avatar of the source of ritual( a screen, or in early plays, an actor portraying the god, Dionysus). The movement follows a time-line, a rhythm, but the temporality, the sense of time of the participants becomes what Heidegger calls ecstatic temporality- the time when one feels outside of one-self.

This sense of being outside oneself, and fractured from clock time, perhaps contradicts the spacial metaphor of immersion. You are outside of yourself, when you are immersed in a game. But the experience of ‘immersion’ or ekstasos is internal to the gamer or the member of the Dionysiac chorus. You are not surrounded- you have stepped outside your non-ecstatic normal self, by means of various elements, especially movement and rhythm.

And the rhythm may not be just to the music in the game, but the pacing of the performance, itself(Dixon 2009). So whether waving a Wii-mote or mashing buttons on a conventional controller, there lies an underlying rhythm presented by the game itself. That rhythm and the possibility of improvising around it are where the ekstasos arises.

The avatars behind the tablature almost disappear

The avatars behind the tablature almost disappear


Dixon, Dan “Nietzsche contra Caillois: Beyond Play and Games” presented at PGC2009. Text courtesy of the authorVersion:1.0

Grau, Oliver Virtual Art : from Illusion to Immersion. Cambridge, Mass. MIT Press, 2003

Jennett, Charlene, Anna L. Cox, Paul Cairns, Samira Dhoparee, Andrew Epps, Tim Tijs, Alison Walton “Measuring and defining the experience of immersion in games” in Int. J. Human-Computer Studies 66 (2008) 641–661.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. “The Birth of Tragedy” in The Birth of Tragedy and Other Writings. Raymond Geuss & Ronald Speirs, eds. Ronald Speirs, trans. Cambridge University Press. 1999

Qin, Hua, Patrick Rau, Pei-Luen and Salvendy, Gavriel(2009)’Measuring Player Immersion in the Computer Game Narrative’,International Journal of Human-Computer Interaction,25:2,107 — 133

Scullion, Steve ‘Nothing to Do with Dionysus’: Tragedy Misconceived as Ritual in The Classical Quarterly, New Series, Vol. 52, No. 1 (2002), pp. 102-137