Space Sims: Scale, Immersion & Autoethnography

Note: Originally published on https://dystopianthunderdome.wordpress.com/

Introduction

As part of my role as a producer for upcoming space sim game Plutonians, I craft digital media in the form of tweets through the official game Twitter account. These tweets are informed by my understanding of my target audience: fans of the genre of video games called space sims (short for simulations). Such games have a long history, dating back to the 1960s, and were also some of the first games to feature an ‘open world’ level layout, a ubiquitous feature in the modern gaming landscape.

In order to understand these fans more deeply and therefore reach them more effectively, I have, over the past several months, been analysing this genre of games at large. My critical analysis consisted of a triangulated framework focused around three distinct concepts: immersion, scale, and autoethnography. Using this trifecta approach has revealed key insights that have informed and shaped my Twitter activity as I iterated upon my media throughout the months. You can read more about my framework here.

Note: Originally, I had chosen ‘freedom’ as one of my three analytical frameworks for exploring the genre. Feedback from my tutor led me to replace this with ‘scale’. While these two concepts are related – the unparalleled sense of freedom unique to space sims is only felt due to their colossal scale, after all – the exponential scale of space sims level design when compared to other game genres is a much more defining feature, and more useful for the purposes of analysis.

You can check out my project pitch here.

Autoethnography

Ellis, Adams & Bochner (2011) describe autoethnography as “an approach to research and writing that seeks to describe and systematically analyze personal experience in order to understand cultural experience.” An autoethnographic researcher catalogues their personal experiences as a member of a culture, recording key epiphanies gleaned in the process. In addition to this, a culture is observed through construction of a field site, and a researcher reflexively compares and contrasts any cultural observations to their own personal experiences. This allows an autoethnographer to establish a relationship between themselves and the observed culture (Merriam & Tisdell 2016, pg.137).

My chosen culture was “space sim fans”, and I myself have been a part of this culture since personally experiencing many entries in the genre throughout my childhood. Below is the field network I constructed and used to make my observations and isolate key epiphanous moments.

My field network.

My research, which is documented here, involved observing space sim fans digitally, through Reddit comments, YouTube videos, Twitch.tv streams, Discord communities, and more, through the utilization of the above map. I recorded recurring themes and opinions I called sentiments and compared them to my own experiences as a space sim gamer. The study resulted in seven key epiphanies, which helped tremendously in understanding what space sim gamers were looking for, thus shaping my media. These were:

  1. Space sim fans are looking for a sense of freedom; a drive to explore and marvel.
  2. They want to be immersed in a vibrant, living universe; to feel like a small part of it.
  3. Space sim fans are looking for an engrossing, rich story, not just a sandbox experience.
  4. A key debate is Newtonian physics systems versus non-Newtonian physics systems. Most space sim fans can enjoy both, but tend to prefer non-realistic, arcade-like physics. This suggests they are looking for an engaging experience rather than a particularly challenging one.
  5. There is a strong dislike of “grinding”: or the repetition of unappealing tasks to save up currency in order to afford something desirable
  6. They are looking to fulfil a fantasy; a genre play.
  7. They are looking for satisfaction of efficiency; to enter a “flow state” by continuously becoming better at performing tasks.
An example of a forum comment expressing a recurring sentiment (in this case epiphany no. 6).

Having completed this research, my tweets were newly fuelled by these core insights, and I began to see greater organic engagement on my platform of choice. Epiphanies 1, 2 and 6 were the most useful to my content, and I frequently employed a degree of worldbuilding, fantasy & freedom as thematic slants to my media. While I did not receive much direct feedback, the increased levels of engagement served as an indirect method of receiving feedback from my target audience, which allowed me to more successfully iterate my tweets.

An example of a tweet shaped by epiphany number 6: that space sim gamers are seeking a genre play or to fulfil a fantasy.

Interestingly, the epiphanies I had observed directly correlated with the other two conceptual frameworks I had pitched: immersion & scale.

Immersion

Immersion is a term that is commonly used in gaming and is colloquially understood by the public as an emotive feeling of being “transported” into a game world. Cairns (2010) found that those more prone to “fantasising and daydreaming” were more easily able to immerse themselves in this fashion.

Jennett et al (2008) describe immersion as involving “a lack of awareness of time, a loss of awareness of the real world, involvement and a sense of being in the task environment”. Entering an immersive condition is entering a flow state; a video game player is entirely captivated and unaware of their physical surroundings – they are wholly engrossed in media. Weibel and Wissmath (2011) describe two distinct concepts: spatial presence and flow: “whereas flow can be defined as immersion or involvement in an activity (i.e., the gaming action), presence rather refers to a sense of spatial immersion in a mediated environment.” Interestingly, flow was one of the recurring sentiments I uncovered during my autoethnographic research, where many space sim fans sought out a Euro Truck Simulator-esque flow state experience of delivering cargo and commodities through increasingly efficient and profitable trade routes.

I began to incorporate more worldbuilding and lore elements to my media, to suggest that Plutonians represented a game world that would be easy to be ‘transported’ to.

I personally divide spatial presence into two further categories of immersion, which I am calling experiential presence & empathic presence. Empathic presence – the feeling of spatial presence felt when immersed in a third-person game such as The Witcher 3 or Elden Ring – is related to the feeling of being immersed in a good novel or film, where the immersed person is not experiencing the media as themselves but is instead immersed via a fantasy of character: of being Geralt of Rivia. This is what Jennings (2019) calls “narrative agency.” Experiential presence, on the other hand, is more akin to dreaming, and is linked most strongly to VR experiences (but also occasionally achieved through first-person gaming media such as The Elder Scrolls or Minecraft). With experiential presence, the immersed person has succeeded in convincing their nervous system that they are living the media experience. While they may be aware that they are not really a Nord living in Skyrim VR, their brain is receiving an overload of data to the contrary, and thus the immersive state is exponentially more powerful and gripping. Third-person VR experiences, I argue, do not convey the same level of presence.

All forms of immersion are closely linked to McLuhan’s (1964, pp. 51-58) concept of “autoamputation”, wherein the central nervous system, overstimulated by an increased sensory intake as a result of technology, numbs itself from the “stress of acceleration of pace and increase of load” brought on by the experience. My concept of experiential immersion, I think, might have been McLuhan’s worst nightmare.

Another example of a lore-focused tweet.

Space sim games are, today, predominantly first-person experiences (and often VR experiences to boot). My autoethnographic research shone light on what space sim fans are seeking: to be immersed in a vibrant, living universe. The comments I observed on space sim forums made it clear that another major factor in entering an immersive state was playing a game with strong worldbuilding and believable systems. Thus, I began to craft tweets focused less on gameplay, and more on lore. I also began to utilise more of a “game voice”, rather than speaking in the third-person.

Scale

A clip I recorded with the intention of capturing and communicating a sense of scale and speed.

The most digressional feature of space sim games compared to almost any other genre of video game is the sheer sense of scale endemic to the genre. Elite Dangerous is a 1:1 simulation of our own Milky Way, with four hundred billion visitable star systems. No Man’s Sky contains a similarly staggering number of game levels. While procedural generation techniques and algorithmic programming make this possible today, even early open-world space sims featured a huge number of hand-crafted levels. Freelancer features 48 visitable systems, each of which is gigantic in size compared to even modern open-world games.

When you’re out there in colonia, there’s this true sense of scale, this feeling that all your contacts and quests and ships are all far far away, there’s this sense of isolation and a feeling of perseverance like you actually completed a long tiring journey. It’s a truly unique experience that I wish more games could emulate.

Anonymous Redditor, describing Elite Dangerous’ scale and how that translates to a unique epiphany.

The increased scale of the space sim compared to other open-world games would seem to be closely related to recurring sentiments I uncovered during my autoethnographic research: namely that the sense of freedom and immersion, as well as a drive to explore a game world, are typically increased by large scale game worlds. Calleja (2011) notes that a well-designed game should support and feed this sense of player agency through the construction of engaging game mechanics.

A hint at a method of “fast travel”, necessitated by the game’s large scale.

Of course, a necessity of the genre is piloting various vessels which can operate at the speeds required to traverse these colossal levels. “Fast travel”, too, is necessary, whether in the form of jump gates, hyperspace drives or some other method. Computer games, Aarseth (2001) writes, “are essentially concerned with spatial representation and negotiation.” All games represent virtual spaces and “rely on their deviation from reality in order to make the illusion playable.” Extreme travel speeds and “fast-travel” methods are such deviations, and allow space sims as a genre to exist by enabled a player to navigate their huge environments.

Conveying the scale of the game I am producing is difficult, given that at this early stage of development I do not wish to give too much about the setting and game world away. The method I developed was primarily in-engine clips designed to convey a sense of speed and distance, as well as hints of fast-travel mechanisms scattered throughout the various levels. The implication: that the necessity of these mechanisms implied a large-scale game world.

Results

Example of Twitter analytics.

Throughout the course of my research and the iteration of my Twitter presence, I have utilised Twitter analytics and organic engagement rates to measure the reach of my media. I have found that Twitter ‘impressions’ are steadily increasing, with occasional tweets doing 2-3x better than the average, since incorporating elements of my research into my posts. More telling are the ‘engagements’ – which represent the “total number of times a user has interacted with a Tweet”, which have been increasing at a much faster rate over the months, indicating, I think, that I am on the right track. I will continue to iterate based on the success of my tweets.

References

Aarseth E 2001, ‘Allegories of space: The question of spatiality in computer games’.

Calleja G 2011, ‘In-Game: From Immersion to Incorporation’, The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts; London, England.

Cairns https://www.theguardian.com/technology/gamesblog/2010/aug/10/games-science-of-immersion

Ellis, C, Adams, TE & Bochner, AP 2010, ‘Autoethnography: An Overview’, Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung / Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 12(1), Art. 10, < http://nbn-resolving.de/urn:nbn:de:0114-fqs1101108 >.

Jennett C, Cox AL, Cairns P, Dhoparee S, Epps A, Tijs T & Walton A 2008, ‘Measuring and defining the experience of immersion in games’, International Journal of Human-Computer Studies, Volume 66, Issue 9, pp. 641-661, ISSN 1071-581.

McLuhan M 1964, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, McGraw-Hill: Canada, pp. 51-58.

Stuart K 2010, ‘What do we mean when we call a game ‘immersive’?’, The Guardian, 11 August, viewed September 28 2022, < https://www.theguardian.com/technology/gamesblog/2010/aug/10/games-science-of-immersion >.

Weibel, D & Wissmath, B 2011, ‘Immersion in computer games: The role of spatial presence and flow’, International Journal of Computer Games Technology vol. 2011, viewed 20/09/2022, DOI: 10.1155/2011/282345.

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