In my last post, I discussed how violent videogames like Postal were the societal scape goat for the rising number of mass shootings in the nineties and early two thousands. I argued that because Postal was a simulation game, it could possibly be “training” psychologically at risk players how to commit mass murder. I discussed how the line between reality and game world was blurred in Postal and how perhaps the game could seem a bit too realistic; perhaps even a bit too immersive. After our class discussions about immersion, I have changed my mind. I now argue that Postal is not as immersive as one may think and that blaming the game for causing psychological harm is a result of not understanding how gamers game.
In his article, The Psychology of Immersion in Video Games, Madigan outlines two categories of immersion, “those that create a rich mental model of the game environment and those that create consistency between the things in that environment.” (Madigan) Within those categories are individual aspects of immersion. I want to focus on where Postal falls short in terms of immersion. I found two problems in terms of creating a rich mental model; completeness of sensory information and a strong and interesting narrative (or rather the incompleteness of sensory information and the lack of a strong and interesting narrative).
Incompleteness of Sensory Information
While playing Postal, you will realize that something is wrong with the civilians and the cops you are tasked to shoot; they seem oblivious to the actual situation. Civilians are just standing around waiting for you to shoot them and they only decide to run away when you begin to charge or shoot at them them. They do not fight back or really care that you are committing mass murder; they run around like chickens with their heads cut off (slowly at that!) The cops (the actual challenge in the game) do not act like real cops. Yes they shoot at you and sometimes charge you, but for the most part, they wait around for you to make the first move and do not effectively try and take out the threat. There is a lack of A.I. in the programming that makes the civilians and cops seem unrealistic.
Lack of a Strong Narrative
Postal is not known for its deep and engaging narrative. You are simply thrown into the world and tasked to take out hostiles. Interestingly, Postal includes short diary entries between levels to supplement the lack of backstory. These diary entries offer a look inside Postal Dude’s mind. We can see that he does not have have psychological stability and that his thoughts are quite twisted, but there is no evidence of exposition, or plot for that matter. You could argue that this style of storytelling is similar to another game we played for class, Dear Esther, but in that case, the diary entries provided backstory and exposition to accompany the gameplay. Postal‘s lack of a strong, progressive narrative makes it hard for players to create a narrative thread between the different levels, thus making it hard to become fully immersed.
Besides creating a rich mental model, for a game to be immersive, Madigan says that a game should be consistent. I found two problems in terms of creating consistency; a lack of incongruous visual cues in the game world and an unbroken presentation of the game world (or rather a lack of congruous visual cues and a broken presentation of the game world).
Lack of Congruous Visual Cues
Postal features a rather large HUD that displays important details to the gameplay such as health, number of hostiles to kill, and your inventory. Unfortunately, the use of a HUD is a blaring reminder that Postal is only a game. This makes immersion difficult for the player since they are taken out of the game world and sat behind a barrier (the computer screen). In addition to the HUD, when you finish a level, there is bouncing exit sign that points you in the direction you need to go in to progress. This also takes away from the total immersion of the game. These non diegetic aspects of the game hinder the possibility for full immersion. Madigan also cites in game achievements as a hinderance to immersion. Playing Postal requires Steam in order to be played digitally. Steam features an achievement popup in the bottom right corner of your screen whenever you get a specific achievement. While a neat feature, it takes away form the immersion of the game because it again reminds the player that Postal is just a game.
Broken Presentation of the Game World
As I described before, between each level is a loading screen that features a diary entry. Madigan argues that the mere existence of these loading screens prohibit immersion since for a few seconds, you literally stop playing the game. An opponent may argue that the diary entries maintain that immersion while loading the next area, but to that I say that because there is no gameplay happening and because I argued that the diary entries are not immersive in themselves, immersion is broken while loading the new levels. For a game to be immersive, it should not force the player to leave the digital space they are playing in for any reason; loading screens act strictly against that principle.
Postal is clearly not as immersive as I once thought. It lacks many details that immersive games are founded upon. So then how could Postal be blamed for being too realistic and too provocative? I believe that opponents of violent games are misdirecting concern towards the actual game and not the gamers who play said game. As I mentioned in my last post, mature games should have a space in the industry. And instead of blaming the games for inciting real world violence, we need to look at who plays said games. Psychologically unstable people will be more affected by the mature content of violent video games such as Postal, so maybe there needs to be stricter guidelines on who can purchase these mature videogames. People who are mentally stable should be able to make the distinction between real world and game world, and to Postal‘s credit, it makes that line more distinct than I originally had thought (even if it was unintentional).
Madigan, Jamie. “The Psychology of Immersion in Video Games.”The Psychology of Video Games, July 28, 2010.
Youtube video was taken from user SweepersTonyAndNox in order to crop footage. It is a complete walkthrough of Postal, but gameplay will vary person to person.