On Immersion, Imagination, and Escapism

The Observation:

I’ve always had a problem with “pretending” in play, even when I was a little kid and we’d build forts in the back yard. It’s as if my imagination is broken in that regard. I could never let go enough to actually get in to the make believe of it all. It never made sense to me.

I recall as a kid being taken into the school shrink’s office (or whatever the near approximation of that was) with a couple of the “bad kids” and being told to write a story…about anything. Just anything. I just sat there and hyperventilated at the blank page while the other kids blasted out a couple paragraphs of whatever and left. I was eventually let off the hook. I remember the guy noting that I was gripping my pencil white-knuckled.

“Mike, you don’t have to hold the pencil that hard.”

I don’t understand how people do it. The idea of immersing yourself in something so that you can really suspend disbelief and play in a setting is just bizarre to me, so much so that I’ve occasionally had the creeping sensation that it’s just a weird hyperbolic use of language and that it doesn’t really happen. Of course I used to think that about “blacking out” from drinking as well. Never happened to me therefore I thought it never happened to other people. So much for that.

It strikes me that whatever the source of that is is directly related to the trouble I have with writing fiction. It’s just an awful process, love it when I get going though I do.

BUT…I’m damn near (if not ‘down right’) addicted to mental state immersion. It’s one of those things I assume is just a core of the human experience until I start asking people about it and they react with “N…no. Hell no. No are you nuts?”

But it may be that I’m just framing the question or the explanation wrong.

One of the things I get from the type of video games I particularly enjoy, those open-world AAA epics like Fallout, Skyrim, Cyberpunk 2077, Mass Effect and such, is the environmental immersion.

But I get the impression that people seem to misinterpret that as fantasy escapism. I don’t, and never have, really wanted to “be in” those games. Not even, now that I think about it, back when I was obsessed with D&D.

These things, in exactly the same way music does by the way, open particular doors in my brain.

Immersion in the imagery (because imagery is the least bad term I’ve got for it) gives me things to hang on to that my mind can run with.

It’s so damned hard to explain, which is one of the reasons it’s so much fun to try. I’m butting against the limits of what I’ve codified in language here, so it gets a little weird. “Gimme some rope” as I’m fond of saying.

The two best proximate examples I’ve got are Skyrim and Cyberpunk 2077.

Both of them, when I’m playing, put me in the head of their setting.

If I’m playing Skyrim (which I’ve been a bit overly prone to for a couple hours in the evening lately) it fills my head with the ideas of the setting. I think about the physical setting, the furniture and physical assets and how neat it’d be to make some of those things, For instance the Dwemer art-deco furniture and art. Are you kidding me? That’d be awesome! If you have no idea what I’m talking about (and seriously, why the fuck would you, nerd) I suggest you search for “Dwemer Architecture” and scroll through some images. It’s just SO DAMNED COOL.

And yes, I’m working out how to make a couple things. I want to build one of those big treasure chests that are ubiquitous in Skyrim, to make the little brass and copper box that the Stones of Barenziah come in, and so much more. I enjoy the pattern that is playing Skyrim but more and more what I’m really doing is listening to the soundtrack, watching the setting and taking screen shots of different angles of all the cool stuff they designed for the world.

In Cyberpunk 2077 it’s almost exactly the same kind of thing, but with enough difference that it bears separate treatment. I get story ideas, my imagination triggering by the background noise or carrier wave of settings and characters. What’s interesting about the immersion of the cyberpunk genre, whether it’s through 2077, Gibson’s Sprawl Trilogy (which I’ve listened to 3 times in a row recently), the soundtrack songs from 2077, or Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age (which only barely qualifies, being a thing largely unto itself) is that the setting itself is the interesting bit.

I wonder about the alien nature of an AI’s cognition. What ARE Wintermute, Neuromancer, The Drummers, and Alt Cunningham? I fantasize about high levels of automation and wonder about the question of how much the augmentation of humanity is a dilution of it. And yes, I take screen shots of all the cool shit in the world. The neat guns, little radios that are oddly ubiquitous (probably as an immersive conveyance of the spectacular soundtrack.)

When I’ve consumed a bunch of cyberpunk…anything my brain embeds in software projects, straight up wacko levels of technophilia. It’s a blast. I’ll pull up my techno background playlist, grab a diet dew and hit my tools and toys to whip up (or work on) something really interesting. Or I’ll go to my boxes of electronic components and try to put something together (I’m REALLY bad at that, so I don’t usually get very far.)

(Even now, writing the last few paragraphs, I can feel the pull of the code, begging me to add some features to my latest couple projects instead of writing.)

It’s fun.

It’s insane.


That’s not to say “I fantasize myself being in Skyrim as a sneaky archer wizard just killing people at near random” with a “wouldn’t it be cool if I could just ‘save game’ in life to avoid consequences.” Or that I think of myself as a victim of a heist gone bad, racing against time to get to the mystery of what’s actually going on in my head and curing it before my time is up. Well…okay that one is a little on the nose maybe, but that’s life, not 2077.

It’s not like that. It’s not at all like that. I’ve NEVER done that.

That’s one of the reasons I’ve never really enjoyed playing D&D but have always loved the stuff. The books of lore and rules, character and world development. There’s just so much there to chew on. Hell I still buy D&D books but would never consider joining a role-playing session.

Let’s pretend I’m shifting gears.

Music to me does almost precisely the same thing in style but not in kind. The thing about the immersion in music is that the evoked mental state isn’t so easily codified in concrete ideas, much less in language. Well that’s most of the point I suppose, and probably serves to illustrate the above point in a more relatable way.

I can listen to the same track on repeat for hours. It’s not a genre thing. Nor is it a function of musical appreciation, in the strictest sense. By which I mean that it can be some low-effort marketing-team produced bubblegum and I’ll find it just as absorbing, though across a different dimension, as a virtuoso guitar performance.

It helps my mood, but doesn’t really produce ideas in the same way as more literary forms of immersion do.

But here’s the other side of this whole train of thought:

It seems as though I HAVE to immerse myself in some kind of external artistic stimulus in order for my mind to have ANY direction at all. It’s as though (and this is something close to hyperbole to make the point) my head is simply doesn’t have the capacity to self-reinforce with any particular bit of interest or idea.

The Question:

The Question that emerges, having thought this through as a result of typing it (again there’s a poetic recursive nature to this that really appeals to my sense of order and the ridiculous: Immersion in ideas through their telling) is this:

Am I succumbing willfully to an addiction to outside stimuli as a proxy for the creative drive, rather than actually sitting with my own thoughts and allowing the creative impulse to come from within, instead of from without?

I don’t yet have an answer for this, so it’s really an intellectual experiment for now. But have I been cheating myself all these years by doing what really DOES, when all is said and done, amount to a kind of escapism, though across a different set of dimensions than is usually meant by such things?

Or maybe it’s not. Maybe it really IS the same kind of base-level escapism that people actually indulge in when they immerse themselves in “fabricated” stories?

Because The Fear is that I actually have no imagination that isn’t the result of a one-off from external sources of inspiration. It’s just not so ridiculous a notion based on my observations of myself. My imagination feels like a mere combinatoric trick more than any truly creative faculty, which would be a horrible thing to have to face. BUT I’m on the hook for figuring it out, one way or another.

The Experiment:

I’m not sure. Of course the question does suggest an experiment. A diet from those things. It’s a really terrifying notion, so much so that I almost didn’t type the sentence.

Okay. Let’s say I’m going to do the experiment. It’s frightening enough that I’m kind of honor-bound to do it.

What would that look like?

  • No games (easy enough.)
  • No music? (Wow. Maybe.)
  • Probably a lot of meditation and staring at a blank piece of paper.

The trick would be to stop myself from whipsawing into other distractions like internet addiction, eating, drinking and smoking, etc.

It sounds like torture. But…if the theory is accurate then breaking myself of these immersive distractions would necessarily seem like torture. On the other hand I can hear the question my friend Ken asks me rather frequently “Dude, why would you do this to yourself?”

But the answer to that is easy:

To see what’s on the other side.

P.S. It’s been about 15 minutes since I hit publish on this and, true to form, it’s clear to me that it’s not complete. This is no doubt going to be 1 of X.