Immersion vs distanced fantasy

You can approach a work of narrative art (movies, books, TTRPG, RPG) in many ways. You can take part of them from a certain distance, where you appreciate one aspect without feeling immersion. For example, you may enjoy an action-packed sequence in a movie while also feeling that it is just a fantasy about how action looks like. Another example is pornography. We all know that what we see is not real, but it’s ok. We are not there to understand the motives of the personae, nor are we interested about sociopolitical, psychological or normative ramifications about the scene. We are just here for the sex. Removing the complexity makes the experience more simple, direct and vivid.

However, sometimes narrative invites you to immerse yourself in a certain perspective or world. The aim here is to make a certain person or event believable, to allow you, the consumer of the narrative, to engage with the story without suspending disbelief. However, immersion comes with costs and benefits. When we are immersed in the story, and the protagonist makes something that violates our own moral norms, we react differently from when the protagonist in a non-immersive narrative does something similar. This is why stormtroopers wear helmets. To have Han Solo kill someone with a face and a personality would force us to question our feelings for him. Conversely, by dehumanizing Stormtroopers, the story allows us to be continuously immersed in the story.

Of course, a story may choose to be immersive and have a protagonist that is not a hero. Such a story can afford to show the real victims of the protagonist’s violence, and let us feel conflicted about their story. Some stories use this trick to lure us to root for someone, presenting them as a hero, and slowly showing us how the protagonist is actually no hero at all. In retrospect, we come to realize that what made us think of the protagonist as a hero were problematic aspects of common sense morality. For example, in Breaking Bad, we root for Walter White (WW). We eventually realize that he is not just an “anti-hero”, but a megalomaniac psychopath. Looking back at his behavior in the first episodes, we realize that he was a violent, resentful and toxic person to begin with, but that we somehow accepted his behavior since he was also in a very shitty situation.

The problem with some works of immersive narrative with evil protagonists is that sometimes, part of the audience does not get it, because they are assholes. We can call this “the Westworld problem”, in reference to the popular HBO tv-series. Here, the story revolves around a Western-style theme park where guests interact with highly realistic humanoid robots. The problem is that the guests in Westworld use this opportunity to indulge in an orgy of sadistic violence. The most troubling of this is that no matter how immersed the guests are, the amount of violence remains constant. In other words, the guests reveal themselves to be psychopathic monsters.

Likewise, some Breaking Bad fans feel that WW did nothing wrong, and that his wife was a “bitch standing in his way”. This is not because they think that WW was a cartoonish action-figure character, but because they share his values and agree with the justification that he invokes for his actions. In this case, the problem is not the story. The presentation makes it obviously clear that WW is a bad guy. The problem is that many people seem to believe that his behavior is acceptable.

An immersive narrative work becomes problematic when it is designed to cater to this group. For example, the Godfather asks us to understand and sympathize with a family of violent mobsters. However, they are portrayed as noble and honorable. While their violence is also shown, the story makes us root for the Godfather and his family. In doing so, the film makes us complicit in the violence and debauchery. We are being taught that violence, authoritarian patriarchal power and honor culture are good. To the extent that we reject these values, we should also approach stories like the Godfather with caution.

While movies are often enjoyed in the company of others, when our moral emotions need to conform to social expectations, video games are often played solo. This may be an explanation for why videogames so often are much more murderous than movies. This is not only true for games where the player is expected to engage from a certain distance, such as the Grand theft auto franchise. This is also true for games that intend to be immersive, that allow the player to “become” the protagonist.

These can be heroes, anti-heroes and villains. While many players prefer to be heroes, playing a villian can also be rewarding. You get the opportunity to immerse yourself in the perspectives of an evil person, and explain your acts from that vantage point. This, however, creates a challenge for the game to craft a story that reflects the fact that the player is not good guys. If the story cannot reflect this fact, then the story becomes apologia for abuse and murder.

Note that there is a considerable difference between an anti-hero and a villain. The anti-hero is a hero that lacks some conventional heroic qualities, such as idealism, courage and morality. But the anti-hero is still a hero. Han Solo may be a smuggler, liar, thief and scoundrel, but he is still a hero. The narrative puts the anti-hero on a path where his self-interested actions either align with the just cause or give him a chance for redemption.

A villain need not be one-dimensional, but is a character that when given the chance to do the right thing, opts for evil, motivated by a base preference such as greed, paranoia, hate, bloodlust or megalomania. In the Godfather, Michael has the choice to make peace with the five families after his father’s death. Instead, he chooses revenge and all-out war, a choice that is presented to us as a cathartic klimax where we are supposed to feel that just retribution has befallen on the leaders of the other families. When we are immersed in a narrative where the protagonist kills people and moves on, and the narrative does not pause and recognize that what happened was an extraordinary event, then the narrative is endorsing the wanton killing of humans. The narrative endorses the villain. The point here is that a narrative can explore evil without endorsing it, and perhaps can explore evil better when not endorsing it.

Publicerad torsdag, mars 25th, 2021 i etik, Karim Jebari.

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