Symbolic Play

The old text based pc adventure games: They would tell you the basics, what you see in a room, but you’d have to interrogate the game to find out a key was hidden beneath the lamp. There was no ‘roll a perception check.’ That kind of play requires more effort, but it also more evocative and imagination-filling.

I feel the same thing about early video games. When the graphics were super basic (atari 2600, 8 bit nintendo), your imagination filled it all in, expanded on it, exploring what could be. I don’t believe this to be a nostalgic illusion, or the effect of being a kid. Poor graphics don’t look real, they are more like symbols, iconographics. Symbols are…umm…symbolic of something, something which you call up in your mind. Symbols are deeply rooted in our species and our cultures, and they evoke mystery and the unknown.

When we play a ttrpg, we can try to make everything look real. Detailed VTT battlemaps, special fx, sound effects. The impetus for these things is to create immersion. Perhaps it is an indiviual difference, but for me it does the opposite. Immersion for me, is transporting my mind to a different place, to forget myself. I suspect (but have no empirical evidence at hand) that theater of mind play is so effective at creating real immersion because it is really capitalizing on symbolic, icongraphic thought, evoking within us a sense of mystery and of unknown and terrifyingpowers… just like our ancestors did around the campfires, fearing and praying to the monsters and spirits out *there*.





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