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Suspension of disbelief in game-based experiences

Image by Stefan Keller from Pixabay 

author: @aestranger

Reading time: 11 minutes

Suspension of disbelief in game-based experiences

Ever watched a movie, played a game or been part of a game-like experience and totally believed everything about it, no matter how fantastical it was? That’s the suspension of disbelief, buying into something so fully that anything small that doesn’t make immediate sense is simply pushed to the side and ignored.

For a while now I’ve been working on and developing concepts for game-based learning experiences that incorporate narratives that can be best described as adventure scenarios. I’ve seen others deliver similar concepts and my fear has always been the fine line between being able to suspend disbelief and harsh reality crashing into the experience. For example, there are such training scenario’s which bring players in with the adventure hook of being explorers in a jungle, like Indiana Jones or Dr Livingstone. And their goal is to find the hidden treasures of this mysterious jungle. As the players go through the experience, they start getting questions about what the right behaviour is expected of them at work, or what their rights as an employee are. Slowly the fantasy is broken and the final treasure, as if the prior questions didn’t already allude to it, is in fact, a big book of that companies HR policies.

This type of fake experience with faux excitement for an adventure simply doesn’t work. If people are forced through it, they may learn it and have a mildly more memorable experience, but they won’t have enjoyed it. The suspension of disbelief was destroyed from the outset without care for the player’s immersion and possible state of mind to learn more effectively.

Creating a narrative experience that has the right kind of suspension of disbelief however is far from simple, let me just say that now. You should not be under the illusion that it is a walk in the park to create perfect immersion. To create something that totally absorbs your players into a fictional world requires a fair amount of development, playtesting and iterating to achieve something that can even work a little bit. With experience and knowledge, it naturally gets little bit better and easier. And thus I would like to share with you some aspects I’ve learned:

  • Requirements for the suspension of disbelief
  • When the suspension of disbelief is broken
  • Enabling the suspension of disbelief
  • Final thoughts

The requirement for the suspension of disbelief

It is my belief that narratives in any game or gamified experience always require a level of voluntary suspension of disbelief for the player to be able to buy into the world that is presented to them. In essence, immersion is a requirement for the experience to be effective in what it is trying to achieve, be that learning, training or entertainment. The suspension of disbelief is what allows the experience to be fun, the deliberate choice of placing one foot into the world of the fantastical.

However, to achieve this and for it to be effective, the world of the fantastical does need to be grounded in reality to some extent, especially if you are going for a broad target audience. You cannot expect that the majority of people will willingly step into a fantasy if there is nothing that they can relate to.

At a basic level, the fictional world that the narrative creates must be grounded in and adhere to rules and limitations that everyone can understand and connect to. Such as gravity will always be present, resources are required to continue or survive. A great example of this is in the film adaptation of The Martian with Matt Damon. As a species we haven’t travelled to Mars (yet), however, the story, the style and all the technology are all things that we can still recognise as being something from the present that we live in. There are no holo-decks on the spaceship or warp drives, he still needs to plant food and grow it to be able to survive and the harsh environment of an alien world will still kill you if you’re not careful. Very little of the story ever breaks the suspension of disbelief on the macro level. Some of you may say that there are some minor aspects but we’ll deal with that a little bit later.

What the example is meant to illustrate is that certain aspects of the world presented to you, or the players should be taken on faith and to a certain extent on face value. At least if you are presenting to or are part of a fairly broad audience. Yes some of the technology in The Martian may not work exactly like that, but for a great many people this is irrelevant to the experience. Some features of the narrative may simply be too complex to get across to everyone in the time allotted to the experience. To demonstrate with another example, building an experience around digital espionage and hacking can be far more accessible for a larger audience if the ‘hacking’ aspect is based on and represent though pattern recognition and some modified cryptography. But won’t be very accessible if it’s based on understanding what the weaknesses of a UNIX-based system are, this then becomes too niche and specialised and breaks the suspension for people.

When the suspension of disbelief is broken

Maintaining the suspension of disbelief can be fairly difficult, you will need to straddle a fine line between just enough reality and just enough fantasy to make it believable and immersive. And at times you may not manage that balance fully, where the actual reality cuts too much into the fictional reality. To bring back the example from the start with the jungle and the HR policies; your players mind will eventually end up in a Mexican Stand-off, where the reality of the goal of the experience, the fictional reality of the narrative setting, the actual reality (of HR policies) and the forces trying to maintain (and break) the suspension of disbelief are all battling against each other. In the end, they all loose and the illusion of the fantasy is broken and the player will likely feel alienated, and probably think the overall experience was silly and dumb.

Though this is a problem that can be solved through playtesting and iterating an experience. Like cooking, you are adding a bit here and removing a bit there. Unfortunately though, as with any interactive medium, there will always be a minority of critics and nit-pickers who feel an obligation to analyse an experience thoroughly, beyond general and normal expectations. For these individuals the level of “true believability” in an experience is what warrants their suspension of disbelief. These are the kinds of people that question artificial gravity in Star Wars as if the rest of the film doesn’t involve weird space-magic called the force that can let you do almost anything.

You could call these kinds of people “plot-snobs”, within their reality they either have just enough or sufficient knowledge in a given area or subject and allow this knowledge to break their suspension of disbelief. On the surface this isn’t such an issue, this will always happen and you can’t do anything about it really. The issue is with the “plot-snob”, who in their ‘infinite’ wisdom choose to break the suspension of disbelief for all those around them as well by highlighting inconsistencies, plot-holes and simplified representations.

In all honesty, I have been accused of and have caught myself being a “plot-snob” on occasion, sometimes we can’t help ourselves, but it is best to keep it to yourself if you spot something that no one else has that brings a crack in the suspension of disbelief.

The only real solution to avoid individuals actively searching for inconsistencies to disprove a narrative that has been designed to be broadly accessible to both the uninitiated and the specialised is to highlight the fantastical nature from the start. Simply state that the experience is a metaphor and is an analogous representation of what the real world is. Having everyone be aware of this from the beginning will aid you and them in making their suspension of disbelief more possible.

Enabling the suspension of disbelief

As I’ve stated, for an experience to be more enjoyable you need to enable the suspension of disbelief in your players. And we’ve seen some requirements for this enablement to work effectively, such as that the majority of the experience needs to be plausible in some shape or form within the reality that we all inhabit. In broad terms, it needs to make sense in some form; scientifically, historically and technologically. This does not mean that if your experience involves dragons and wizards that you need to find some real historic reason for it, but make sure that the historic mythos around dragons and wizards is understandable to the players. This is relevant for any audience and age, dragons breath out fire, they do not breath out woodchips.

Ensuring that the believability and consistency of the world you create is maintained in relation to reality is especially important if you allow some access to the internet during your experience. As people in general are and can be far more informed than ever before. In a world where an individual’s average IQ is defined by how quickly they can google the knowledge, they need then and there; you need to bring your A-game if you do not want to break their suspension of disbelief.

To enable and continue the suspension of disbelief, therefore, is to make sure that the narrative, the game-mechanics and any additional aspects such as aesthetics, props, and so on, all remain consistent and authentic to the chosen theme. This will also aid you in avoiding the “plot-snob” from appearing as they will hopefully be too engaged in the holistic world that you’ve provided. For example, if you are playing a game about battling a viral outbreak, and you are using plastic tokens to determine the progress of research towards a cure, it is far more acceptable and believable if everything about the story’s exposition, the materials, the game-experience area and the characters all reflect and are coherent with a medical/disease-quarantine aesthetic and situational atmosphere.


Final Thoughts

At times this piece may have come across as antagonistic, but it is in part meant as a letter to invite those who view themselves as experts to try and enjoy a story rather than try to disprove it – a voluntary willingness to suspend disbelief for your own and others benefit. Despite having some degrees in film analysis, I do try to close off that part of my brain so that I can simply enjoy a good action-packed film, regardless of all gravity-defying stunts that may occur in it.

This piece is actually more directed at game-based learning experiences. Specifically, those that are focused on improving soft-skills and teambuilding through a form of role-playing, as the participants in those will likely have varying interests, skills and knowledge. And not everyone has specific knowledge or interest in a fully fictional universe. However, it probably needs to be said, that if the experience is aimed at training a very specific skillset – such as being a cybersecurity agent – then the level of realism really does need to be perfectly aligned to and accurate to real-world equivalents.

And the article is also in part aimed at educational institutions where individuals have varying degrees of interest in a particular subject matter. Many people are not fans of math in school but creating a game-based experience where the narrative is about a historical battle (history lessons) and the solution can only be achieved by using the correct placement of catapults (math lessons) then the suspension of disbelief inherent to the experience will allow a larger group of people to be interested in it, not just the math or history buffs in the class.

In essence, for suspension of disbelief to work the narrative must be holistic and incorporate a large amount of different facets, and must reflect reality enough that it is believable but still work from the perspective of a metaphor for the suspension not to break – it is like walking a tight rope between skyscrapers, it’s difficult but it’s possible.

I hope that this piece has given you some food for thought and helped improve your own methods or at least offered a different viewpoint to consider.

Please do check out the other posts on æ, and please do leave a comment or contact us if you have some ideas of your own that you wish to discuss or if you would like to see other topics discussed.

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