Marshall McLuhan and Suspension of Disbelief

Marshall McLuhan

Marshall McLuhan... disbelieving?

There’s a number of things that have lead to this particular topic today. I have a slew of games I’d like to discuss, but I haven’t had a chance to give any of them the in-depth look they need (this includes a hilarious gem from Jim McGinley that I promise I’ll get to soon).

However, recently I found myself explaining to a friend one of the most abstract quotes from Marshall McLuhan, one of the greatest minds on media. Simultaneously, elsewhere on the web, I’ve been explaining to someone the major issues with nonsensical mechanics in RPGs. And more recently, I was speaking to a class about how the art elements and mechanic elements of games are separate in design, yet inseparable in experience.

The McLuhan quote in specific was, “A tactile medium in the context of a visual notion of causality“, which is a very complicated way of saying “The experience of physical things is distinctly different than the experience of a record of physical things”. His more famous, and more digestible, statement of this idea was “The medium is the message“.

New Media, New Problems
Now, as a quick primer for those of you unfamiliar with the study of New Media; Marshall McLuhan tuned us in to the idea that the format we transmit our ideas on impacts the message of the ideas. We can compare the experience of seeing a play and watching a film of a play and reading the script of a play, and reading a comic of the play, and playing a game of the play — they have the same core idea. But each format is going to be different; and in that sense the core idea is colored by the format that it is presented in.

Whoomph. That’s a lot of heavy thoughts. But this is exactly why the same experience that is fun to play is boring to watch, or why some stories are better told in books than in film, or in comics than in text — and that’s easy to understand because most people have FELT this at some point, when something has been converted from one media to another. Now of course, KNOWING this doesn’t translate in to understanding it. And that much is clear, because digital media, the newest forms of media, are still not getting the message.

Now, I hadn’t given this an awful lot of consideration since school — at least, not consciously. I always dug Marshal McLuhan’s writings, but I could never quite understand what we were expected to do with it. Just in the past few days, though that’s accumulated in to a clear understanding of how it applies to games, and that comes back to literature.

The Suspension of Disbelief
There’s a concept in literature that all writers of fiction get hammered in to their heads, “The Suspension of Disbelief”. This is the basic premise that in fiction, unrealistic things are going to happen — either extraordinary or fantastic — and these things let us know that the fiction is unreal. EXCEPT we have an incredible ability to just ignore logical inconsistencies, in order to appreciate the logic as presented to us by the fiction. We CHOOSE not to disbelieve.

However, there are limits. Think of it like a hypothetical situation (and I appreciate the absurdity of that statement) — we can accept alterations to the rules of reality as a ‘just suppose’ scenario. We can maintain our suspension of disbelief more easily if the fiction at hand remains consistent with it’s alterations. When it contradicts itself, or when there’s too many strange changes to track, it gets harder and harder to continue to accept the reality posited by the fiction; we begin to disbelieve. And the tolerance for this varies from person to person, fiction to fiction.

Now, how does this apply to games, and what does Marshall McLuhan have to do with any of this?

Complexity of Experience in Interactive Media
Simply put, in non-interactive media, we need only consider the narrative with regards to the suspension of disbelief. However, with interactive media, like games, this is complicated. The message of the medium is the experience, not the narrative — the narrative is only part of the experience. The other component at hand is the actual interaction.

This means that if game mechanics are too abstract, inconsistent or dissonant with themselves or with the narrative, then we start to jeopardize the player’s suspension of disbelief. We are reminding them that they are playing a game, and the realization will destroy the intended message of the experience.

This is exactly what is happening when you play a game and a character dies in a cutscene and revive items won’t bring them back later. This is what is happening when you want your character to shoot the villain during their long speech, but they don’t. This is what is happening when you just can’t hop over that little fence or bash in that creaky door or blow up that wall to explore further, despite you physical prowess and capability in game.

So what can we do about this? There’s two things we can try.

First: Maintain Internal Consistency. If something unreal happens, it should happen consistently. Things should be predictable. Now games are pretty good at this in general, unless we allow things to happen in the narrative that can’t happen in the mechanics. When we violate our internal consistency, it’s glaring and people notice.

Second: Avoid Unneccessary Elements of Unrealism. If you can avoid making something unreal, than avoid it! Letting someone carry thousands of pounds when many people are uncomfortable carrying more than a few dozen pounds isn’t going to help. These are easy to dismiss as a designer, because we make game decision based on our mechanics; this is where ridiculous measure of health, like HP comes from, and why we don’t sweat infinite inventories. It’s also easy to dismiss as a player, but they add up. RPGs are incredibly bad for this, because they chain unreal elements on top of each other, and hesitate to change anything for fear that they’ll have to undo their whole chain of efforts.

Ultimately, we might imagine that our game mechanics are separate from our game’s flavor, and in a sense they are. But they do combine to reflect on a greater message of the game, and the game designer is ultimately responsible for respecting and supporting that message. Those wise words ring true again, “the medium is the message”.


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11 Responses to “Marshall McLuhan and Suspension of Disbelief”

  1. Steve Says:

    Nice work. I’m working on an Instructional Systems Design model in graduate school now, where the focus of the model is to account for the “detachment” aspects you describe. I like the use of suspension of disbelief as a method for describing the “gap” in human perception vs. experience. I also like to compare the overt attempts in online pornography to close this same gap (vs. “real” sex) in comparison to the flaws (in my opinion) of the instructional design of distance learning. DL offerings in higher education purport, by implication, that DL and face-to-face learning is somehow equal, but, like pornography, it isn’t. Perhaps achieving the same “end”, but simply not the same. I will re-read your work again. Thx

    • Greg Says:

      Hey, awesome stuff. I’d be very interested to see how a model like this might pan out; I can’t say I know how you’d go about it, though!

      I know the game industry at large would also be very interested in this material to illustrate the differences between violence and simulated violence — something which is constantly equated by critics of mainstream games, but without much supporting evidence. Much like the difference between the observation of sexual material and the actual act of sex, it’d be fascinating to better understand the relation between simulated action and physical action.

      I also feel that pursuing this line of inquiry won’t just unveil solutions to the weaknesses in distance education, but also allow us deeper understanding of how to teach complex topics in interactive media — something we definitely haven’t figured out yet.

  2. Steve Says:

    Have you watched the Frontline/PBS documentary “Digital Nation?” – a must watch, in this regard (gaming: sim vs. ‘real’). I think the pursuit of “resolution” in pornography (how close to ‘real’) is predicated a lot on the theoretical proposition of McLuhan’s description of technology as extensions (which is obvious), though what is often disregarded is the implication of that re-drawn boundary (thus, the message in the medium). an example might be the implicit difference between a break-up message sent by handwritten letter vs. a tweet – same content, different “message”. Being a champion Centipede/Robotron 2084 player, I “get it” with respect to the belief in the value of technology. The argument about what constitutes “better” message resolution *through* technology (or gaming) should be shifted away from efficiency/engagement advocacy positions (there are no arguments there), to one of managing the sensitivity of the needs of *information* (not the sender or receiver) as they pass through all these gateways. No one talks about that. If we refer to information as sentient (just for laffs), and say that it has a “love interest” in being expressed appropriately to the receiver, then we might be more sensitive to how it is launched through the transactional distance. It’s as if we are trying to “pass a note in class” to a cute girl and want to be sure nothing in the message is misunderstood. What communication strategy would employ to ensure that the nuance of your intent is clear? Email? No way – too weak in connotative context (thus, emoticons). I hope to apply this same sensitivity to information in the distance learning environment with the use of my model.

    • Greg Says:

      I have not seen it; I’ll look it up.

      You’re reminding me of an issue that I’m interested in seeing resolved, and that’s the loss of context in text based communication. One of the systems I’d most like to see is more intelligent text-to-speech algorithms for games. We can sample a voice and create some very robotic sounds, but because of the lack of tonal information in text, we always end up with something very flat and useless. Even Portal, which features a robotic sounding character, GLaDOS, takes recorded audio and processes it to make it sound that way, in order to keep the tonality of it deliberate to their initial vision.

      I’d love to see a meta-text format that includes that lost tonal information. It’s important, because if we can regain tonality, then we get that much closer to computers realistically speaking generated text — combine that with an AI that can generate text and a system which can process tonal and textual information, and you have a computer which can converse. And admittedly, once we have a computer which can intelligently parse human speech, we’ll have a computer which can operate as an intelligent agent in games.

      It’s an interest part of the study of media; understanding what information is communicated with a message implicitly beyond the explicit message, and how that impacts the content of the explicit message.

  3. Steve Says:

    What you seek are the dynamics signatures present in musical notation, the things conductors elicit of musicians in an orchestra — the “analog” to accompany the “digital” [pure symbolic representation, such as text or music notes on a page]. In typography studies, much attention is paid to the relationship between the analog [connotation] of the typographic style, font selection, spatial relationships, etc. McLuhan refers to the example of boldface text attempting to act as an extension of “bold speech”. Your inquiry is a good one. I think it is funny how the behavior of IM text behavior – particularly in pornography – attempts to imbue, or (forgive me) impregnate text with “analog”, or connotation. Just tune into any channel on to see what I mean (try a “social” channel for good examples, but any one will do)

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  5. Heresiarch Says:

    I rescued from cassette this talk that Marshall McLuhan gave at Johns Hopkins University in the mid 1970s. I have not found an audio file of this talk anywhere online. So far as I know it’s an original contribution to the archive of McLuhan audio. Enjoy. Rare McLuhan Audio

  6. Stephen Says:

    his quote difficult understand because missing verb. Calling it an “abstract quote” makes me think you’re going to miss other obvious things, and possibly invent things that aren’t there, giving credit where none should be due. sorry, you lost me.

    Nevermind, sounded too interesting so I had to go back. But I by what. [insert “stand” and “I said” where the verbs should go in the previous sentence]

    I like how you cleared up a concept that’s always been hazy in my mind, regarding the ability and – depending on the person and that person’s mood at that particular point in time – willingness to suspend disbelief and accept the logic as presented, and long as it remains consistent. Thank you!

  7. Todd Says:

    With regard to the difficulties of maintaining “suspension of disbelief” in RPG and games in general, it seems to me that the most effective way to resolve the issue is the decentralization of variables to produce a field effect in the structure/mechanics of the game. This means removing “visually-oriented” features of game design that prompt the user to calculate, analzye, and otherwise experience the game through a visual perspective (linear, logical, etc…).

    Instead of HP (as you have alluded to), damage, level requirements, dodge/”crit” chance ratios, and other systems of organization, a field approach would value structures that force the involvement of the user by “hiding,” as it were, information.

    The reason why gaming is becoming increasingly popular today, and why its status as a “geek” activity continues to wear off, is because the learning curve is the bottom-line for successful games. When video games first came out (in particular, RPGs), users had to figure out how the system worked by immersion – not by accessing an online guide, or purchasing a walkthrough magazine. It was a more frightening and precarious endeavour because the mechanics of the game were largely unknown.

    We can no more return to that state then we can flip off our electric lights and return to mechanical means. But McLuhan’s analysis of media helps us understand the nature of the “field approach” that electric media brings to the table. It puts back into balance the ratio of the human senses; currently that means the auditory space (by which McLuhan means many-centerdness, simultaneity) is coming back into prominence over against the visual space (logical, mechanical, linear, step-by-step).

    The RPG that will break the mold will not be a result of superior graphics (what game economists believe to be the proper route – higher definition), but of decentralized, immersive gameplay. One where the player is not limited by visual ways of thinking (i.e. level up to get the next best item to do more damage to kill enemies quiker),but is able to explore his/her own interests. This can only be possible if the structure or system is reworked to eliminate the urge to prioritize “progress” and “achievement” and replace it with the priority of exploration.

    The trick to sustaining “suspension of belief” is to overwhelm. This is, in part, why a game like WoW is popular. There is so much “to do.” The major flaw of WoW is that it is built on the same linear progression model, such that new expansions continually remind players that their experience running endless dungeons to be the best-geared character on the server can be blown away by the bottom-rung items of the next expansion.

    What about a game where the user’s experience of statistics, calculations, and numbers is replaced by representation of shape and colour? Additionally, instead of setting linear requirements for participating in new gear, quests, items, etc…, the character is simply ineffective unless they spend time using items? An example might be that a character cannot wield a massive two-handed sword not because they don’t have the right “level requirement” but because it is not expedient to do so: the character attacks too slow, is unsteady, and inaccurate.

    Anyway, I think applying McLuhan to game theory is a very prudent idea, considering that this is where gaming is heading. He has much to say about the issues you have raised.

    Hope this is helpful!


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