Immersed in a fantasy world:

GISHWHES

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Elise Vist is a PhD Candidate at the University of Waterloo where she studies how we immerse ourselves in stories that we love.
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What does it mean to be immersed in something?

This is a question I’ve been asking myself for the last year or so. As a member of the Games Institute, which is part of the IMMERSe network, this question is one that pretty much pervades my 9-5 existence. It’s not always at the forefront, but it’s always there.

We have an “immersion room” and our network is called IMMERSe, so it’s hard to ignore the question. It’s also hard to answer it, though. I mean, sure, I can give a definition that generally works whether you’re talking about games, books, movies, whatever: it means being so engaged in something that the physical world disappears, however briefly. But it’s hard for a definition like that to adequately address how it feels to be immersed, because it’s essentially a tautology: being immersed occurs when you are immersed in something.

Although we now find ourselves in a technological time where we can create digital worlds and interact in real-time with other real people in virtual spaces, we don’t actually need those things to be immersed. What you really need—what is absolutely necessary—is the desire to be immersed. Janet Murray told us this in Hamlet on the Holodeck when she recounts the story of Captain Janeway’s holonovel kiss, which happens in an episode that also sees the crew of the Voyager become manipulated and mind-controlled by an alien who imposes hallucinations on them. Despite the fact that both experiences feel real—and you could certainly argue that the hallucination feels more real than the holodeck, since Janeway isn’t even aware it’s fictional at first—one is immersive, and the other is not, because Janeway chooses one and not the other.

Marie Laure-Ryan engages with the idea of choosing immersion when she takes a look at the concept of suspension of disbelief. She argues that to suspend disbelief implies naivete, a willingness to believe whatever is brought to you, and an acceptance that whatever that is is true. Immersion, on the other hand, is more complex: it is a choice to believe something because it’s more fun to pretend that it is true than not. That choosing to engage in the pleasures, joys, and feels of the fictional world is more enjoyable than focusing on the truth of the thing. It may not be real, but it is true. And that distinction—that reality and truth are distinct experiences—is at the heart of immersion.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about vulnerability and intimacy as (essentially) indistinguishable from immersion. These aren’t words I often hear people use when they’re talking about immersion, though. Usually it’s words like human-computer interface, or virtual reality, or realism. Sure, people talk about characters, world-building, and dialog systems as it relates to the immersion of the player in a game, but it’s generally in the service of realism: how can we code the dialog system so that the player feels as though her actions have consequences on the characters around her? How can we make the world feel real? And these are important, interesting questions, but they’re all also from the perspective of the designer: what can the designer do to make the player immersed? But surely the player is participating (you might even say interacting) in the creation of the immersive state—and I think that’s a lot more interesting, particularly as I find myself immersed in worlds that are neither virtual nor entirely fictional, and definitely aren’t games.

This year, I participated in GISHWHES (the Greatest International Scavenger Hunt the World Has Ever Seen). It’s is a sort-of-scavenger hunt that takes place over a week in August, and it’s run by Supernatural actor Misha Collins, through his charity Random Acts. There are a lot of contradictions to GISHWHES, but at its heart it’s about having fun, and turning the world into a playground where everyone is kind and giving:

We try to create a list that is challenging, thrilling and absurd. We like to see items that make us tear-up and laugh out loud. We like to have participants break out of their comfort zones, re-awaken their inner artist, and do a bit of good in the world.”

It’s a sort-of-scavenger hunt, because you’re not actually finding items, you’re doing things and recording the doing of the things.

It’s a sort-of-game because there are points, there are teams, there are winners, and there is competition, but there aren’t any losers (even though there are people who don’t win).

It’s a sort-of-alternate-reality because for a week, you pretend that being completely ridiculous is totally normal.

It’s not really associated with Supernatural, but a lot of its players are fans of the show, and a lot of the items have to do with other actors and characters.

It’s part-marathon, part-sprint.

It’s free and anyone can do it, but it’s expensive and difficult to win.

It’s an incredibly social activity, but it’s also incredibly isolating.

What I am sure of, though, is that it’s immersive. GISHWHES is part of the reason why I’ve been seeking a different understanding of immersion, because it’s not fictional — it’s not a virtual reality, and it’s not a narrative fiction. It’s not easy to compare GISHWHES to something like Dragon Age: Inquisition or Star Trek’s holodeck, but there’s something about all those experiences (well, ok so I’ve never been in a holodeck, but I did use the Oculus Rift once and successfully did not get nauseous) that feels similar.

I struggled with how I felt about GISHWHES for a while, and now that I’ve officially not-won, I can start to put my feelings in order. First off, it was an amazing experience. I felt a bit like I was a part of a cult, but at least that cult was devoted to making people smile and to celebrate being something other than normal (Collins calls this combination of not-normal and awesome “abnosome”).

But people who win take the game very seriously. They build their team strategically, and hold auditions (if you want to join 2014’s winning Team Impala, you can send in an application form; 2015’s winning team, Widdermacker, is already formed) to ensure they have the best scavengers possible. They spend time preparing for the week, and they spend money. They have skills, jobs, assets, connections that most people just…don’t have. And that doesn’t mean they don’t deserve the win, just that it does actually take skill and effort and money and time and privilege that is not available to everyone, which isn’t something that GISHWHES advertises.

Having played for fun, I now see the places where I could metagame, where I could min/max. If I really wanted to win, I’d limit the number of people in the same city, and I’d want them all to take time off of work or school for the week of the hunt. I’d make sure that I had a range of skills and talents across the 15 team-members, so if I had two or three skilled visual artists, I wouldn’t want to pick up another one. I would take time to make sure that people were doing the highest-impact challenges and I would set up rules within the group about what was perceived as time-wasting. I would unabashedly harass people on Twitter despite the no-harassment rules in the GISHWHES rulebook.

That’s how I’d give my team the best chance to win, but it hardly feels like it’s the best way to have fun or “walk away with a heightened perspective on [your] capabilities”. Surely the best way to do that is to have people doing things they aren’t already skilled at—to have people trying things that will probably fail, and know that producing something unpolished is still okay. To have a large group of people in the same(ish) location so that they can work together (instead of alone but with a facebook support group) and get to know each other there.

I believed (and still do, to some extent) that GISHWHES is a game that anyone can play, for only the cost of registration (and sometimes not even that, as they offer participants the opportunity to pay for someone who can’t afford the fee), and that I, a fairly normal, average person, had the chance to win. After all, “all you need is a camera (a mobile phone will do), access to the internet, and the desire to be a part of an amazing global community” in order to participate. But GISHWHES doesn’t tell you how to win or that you will need more than a camera, the internet, and the desire to be a part of a community in order to do so. Even in the description of the big prize, there’s no mention of “winning,” just a team “that scavenges the most items with the highest quality of submissions” who gets to  “join Misha Collins on an all-expenses paid trip to an exotic locale,” whereas “all the other teams walk away with a heightened perspective on their capabilities, and memories of an amazing week.”

So yes, technically I won because I achieved the goal of the game. But, more accurately, I did not get the amount of points needed to get a prize—a prize I really, really wanted. And I don’t think I could have.

So—what does it mean to have a game where if you play it “right” you probably won’t win, but if you play it “wrong” (that is, you’re not playing in the spirit of the game) you have a better chance? My team wanted to win, and although we didn’t end up in the top ten, I have a hard time saying that we didn’t do everything we could to play the game.  

I did such amazing things that I would never have done on my own—even if I’d really wanted to:

I sat at a desk on a stand-up-paddleboard.

stand-up-paddleboard

I held a photoshoot with a stormtrooper.

Photoshoot with Stormtrooper

I tore apart a computer and turned it into a stop-motion film.

Image of a women and computer parts

 

I wrote and recorded a song and made a music video for it.

I made a hipster trap, of which I am very proud.

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I dressed my cat up in armor and pretended he was infiltrating the dog army.

A cat wearing a pretend battle costume

I celebrated the awesome art my friends from California, England, and Australia made: a dress made out of flowers, a portrait of Tony Stark made out of salt and pepper, a papercraft bouquet, a bread-based landmark, and so much more.

origami flowers: flowers made out of paper

Bread covered with read powder

Flower Dress and Origami Flowers by Sarah Du Plessis

A lady with a dress made out of flowers and vines

I spoke to more people and asked more friends for favours that week than I had all the month before.

I didn’t win, and I know this because I’m not traveling to the Dominican Republic with Misha Collins this summer, which is what I’d be doing if I had won. I’m not bitter.

But I also kind of won because I had a really fun week-long-vacation from the mundane, and I got to play with friends who live on the other side of the planet.

I also cried a lot, though. It was stressful, nerve-wracking, exhausting. I felt weird about asking so many people for things that weren’t “important”. I spent money on things like spray paint and craft supplies and fast food and coffee and thank-you-beer. I was sad when it was over and I hadn’t won. I struggled with feeling alone, because most of my teammates lived in other countries (though I did have the awesome Nerd Charlotte on my side in K/W). I found myself thinking things like “well if they’re not willing to spend all their time on this, they aren’t a real fan,” before snapping out of it and remembering that it’s all supposed to be fun, and I chose to take a week off from my responsibilities and that makes me a very fortunate person.

Is this, perhaps, an argument that GISHWHES is making? That most people can’t possibly win, but that they can still make the world a better, happier, sillier place, if only for a week? The point, after all, isn’t to win, it’s to play. The registration fee goes to a charity, and many (though not all) of the tasks you’re asked to complete involve charitable work, volunteering, raising awareness, and other things along the “kindness” theme. You can win, but most people won’t, so most people play a very different game than the few teams who have a chance of winning.

GISHWHES is, to some extent, an alternate reality game. There are no fancy HUDs or complicated narratives to follow, but players are invited to step into a different world for the week, to treat everyone as though they are a part of this weird, abnosome world where it’s completely normal to be loudly and disruptively kind to people. It says something about Collins’s personality that he’s able to get thousands of people to immerse themselves in this weirder-and-kinder-than-normal world—that we’re willing to follow him into this fantasy, whether we do it in order to have a shot at spending a vacation with him (or, at least, to have the opportunity to imagine the possibility of spending a vacation with him), or because we think it’s fun, or we want to be the kind of people that Misha Collins likes…

But there’s something about this fantasy world that I found myself struggling with. Not that it wasn’t a beautiful fantasy: everyone is weird and nice and celebrates each others’ weirdness and kindness. But even in this fantasy world, certain bodies and classes are privileged, because this fantasy world exists in the exact same spaces as the real world. One of the items on the scavenger hunt made this complication clear to me:

“You know those people that stand around with signs offering to give away “free hugs?” Add balance to the universe (and bolster capitalism) by asking for something in exchange: hold up a sign on a busy sidewalk that reads, “Hugs $5” (or whatever you think you should charge). Donate anything you make to your favorite charity. Don’t pocket it. Bad karma will be rained down on your butter knife.”

People flocked to street corners with glittery signs and high hopes (one lucky fan managed to catch none other than Collins himself, to the envy of everyone else), but my immediate response was anxiety and fear. I mean, I’m not a hugger in any situation, so the thought of hugging strangers is already icky. But my fear was more that this fell a little closer to the sex-worker line than I was comfortable with. I thought of the areas in my city where I could do this and was struck with images of police officers asking me to stop, and creepy people taking advantage of the situation. I probably over-reacted, but when my teammates attempted to complete this item, they were stopped by a security guard who didn’t think what they were doing was safe. There are some bodies who would be able to get away with selling hugs for $5, some spaces where that would be seen as the playful experiment that it was, rather than an invitation to more—but not everyone playing GISHWHES and not everywhere they are playing it.

It’s at this point in the game that I started looking at the items, at the game, differently. I started rethinking the fiction that we were really being asked to take on. I thought we were asked to pretend that the world was a weirder place than it was, but underneath that was the fiction that everyone who participated in GISHWHES could play the whole game. I looked at the huge number of points open only to people who could make their way to Times Square. I saw the items that required a network of friends and family that included people who work at NASA. I saw quests that required that people ask massive favours of family, friends, strangers—that would require an immense amount of trust that is not available to everyone.

And, yes, the point of GISHWHES is to ask its players to do ridiculous and impossible things just to see how they get those things done, but as the game becomes bigger and the players organize themselves better, the gulf between people who play to win and the people who can’t becomes wider. As these impossible quests become possible for some people and remain impossible for others, it becomes clear that there are two different games being played. This is acknowledged, partly, by the fact that there is the possibility of two winning teams: if your team has a member who has a follower count greater than 1M (known as the Shatner Clause, after Misha-fan and all around famous guy William Shatner), then another winning team will be picked (so as not to prioritize teams with a celebrity on it). But 1M is a pretty arbitrary number. For example, Orlando Jones, celebrity-fan who is well-loved by Sleepy Hollow and Supernatural fans alike, as well as a participant in GISHWHES, has 135.5K followers. Nowhere near the 1 million mark, but still a substantial following to reach out to. It’s no guarantee of winning, of course, but it’s still a weight to throw around.

Even with my paltry 276 Twitter followers (a massive 0.0003% of the followers needed to hit the Shatner Clause) and 212 Facebook friends (0.0002%), I have a larger and more diverse network of people to reach out to by virtue of my position as a graduate student in the fairly wealthy tech-and-student town known as Silicon Valley North. It was a matter of almost nothing to find guys who dressed as stormtroopers, or friends with computers I could destroy, and stand-up-paddleboards and hammocks I could get at a moment’s notice (and still, almost 6 months later, have not returned…sorry, Will).

After GISHWHES, I watched pictures roll across my social media of other people’s GISHing and found myself smug that my team “did better”—we had higher quality cameras, access to more spaces, the money and time to take a week off. This was, obviously, not a good reaction, but it’s hard to avoid feeling better than people when you do better than people. Of course, “better” is dependent on the criteria you’re using to judge the thing, but the judging criteria of GISHWHES is intentionally vague and opaque. Probably to avoid people calculating their own points and contesting the judging—to stop people from metagaming and min/maxing—but it also means that there’s no clear pronouncement from on high about what counts as good. Not that the winning teams don’t deserve to win—they worked hard and went all in—just that this is not a game where everyone has an equal chance of winning, given similar skill levels. It is not a fair game.

And that’s ok. Not all games are fair. Not all games reward skill as much as they reward strategy or luck. But it seems odd to me that a game whose central premise is the fantasy that the world is a weird, kind place would replicate the basic unfairness of capitalism. I understand, of course, that this is kind of unfair of me: I’m asking a worldwide scavenger hunt that takes place in the world to avoid capitalism. No biggie, right?

And if I stopped caring about winning, then the unfairness disappears. If I think of GISHWHES simply as a playground, as a world to immerse myself in once a year, then there’s no unfairness — I do the things I want to and can do, and I marvel at the things that other people want to and can do.

References

Murray, Janet Horowitz. Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1998. Print.

Ryan, Marie-Laure. Narrative as Virtual Reality: Immersion and Interactivity in Literature and Electronic Media. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001. Print. Parallax.

Elise Vist