Let’s start with this: I don’t think there is anything special called “Immersive Entertainment”. This is the most blatant kind of industry self-aggrandizing jargon. With all appropriate respect to my friends who actually have celiac disease, “Immersive Entertainment” is the equivalent of the jar of Bubbie’s Kosher Dill Pickles in my fridge (excellent pickles by the way) that say “Gluten Free” on the label. Of course they’re gluten free. THEY’RE PICKLES. It would be like an airline setting itself apart by saying they weren’t a lowly company operating flying busses but instead a “vertically integrated conveyance provider”. Now, before you go out and find an ingredient list online for some pickle brand that has some flour in it and send it, here’s my thesis-ALL entertainment is immersive. It’s a tautology. In order for it to be entertainment, it has to immerse the audience. Yes, there is BAD entertainment. You know why it’s bad? Mainly because it FAILS to immerse the audience.
This happened because when Walt Disney and his team invented the theme-park in 1955, and people started calling it a theme-park, they didn’t grab the term and brand it. Ever since then, the “industry”-the makers of this kind of entertainment-needed a way to differentiate themselves from other kinds of entertainment practitioners like people who write novels, produce theater, make motion pictures and television programs, produce concerts, make recorded music (can’t say “records” anymore cause 50% of the human population has no idea of that term’s referent), stages bullfights and football games, hosts rodeos and puts on whatever the hell “burning man” is.
The Prime Premise is that to be considered viable, all of the above had better immerse the audience. Fine as far as it goes but immerse them in what exactly? Poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge coined the term “suspension of disbelief” in 1817. He nailed it. Immersion happens when the human mind “intentionally avoids critical thinking or logic in examining something surreal, such as a work of speculative fiction, in order to believe it for the sake of enjoyment”. This is also the definition of the willing suspension of disbelief. There is a ride and show system that is the most sophisticated ever discovered for delivering immersive entertainment. It weighs about three pounds, everyone in the world has one and it can be found a few millimeters behind your eyeballs. That is the key to what lies beyond what we call immersive entertainment.
The key to immersion is figuring out again and again how to step over the ever-rising threshold for getting folks attention then, keeping it when you get it. There is an engagement factor-the perceptual hook that pulls the audience’s attention in. There is a fidelity factor-how well the externally presented story encourages the audience to exclude all other sensory input. There is the cognitive imperative-providing enough cues so that the audience has a metastory within which the engagement is taking place. There is the story itself-the emotional heart that beats in synch with the audience. This blend is not a pat formula but needs subtle adjustment as the audience and the world changes.
My opinion on what comes next is no better than anyone else’s. Worse, it’s based on what I like, but here goes. I’m excited about multi-layered, choose-your-own-adventure experiences that destroy the 4th wall. Meow Wolf in Santa Fe is pretty close. I could go 50 times and still be both “immersed” and quite happy. I want to play with how we blend games and location-based experiences. I love the idea of leveling up to a point where I get an engraved invitation, IRL, to show up at a specific place and time ready to battle-and find an ACTUAL dragon waiting. Environmental, interactor driven theater that never even admits there is a 4th wall can be brilliant if it can cross the creepy barrier and not make the audience feel like they’re being “played”. Elaborate multi-channel simulations that span a deep narrative built around a participant’s personal passion could last for weeks. Any system that can do a better, higher fidelity job of taking us somewhere we, by definition, CAN’T go any other way is going to have its moment in the sun. Oh, and books. Well-written books may still be the immersive entertainment gold-standard. They have the broadest latitude and best ratio of production cost to story of any other form and they make the highest use of that 3 pounder in our craniums.
Actors on the classical Greek stage didn’t speak until Thespis jumped on the back of a prop and recited poetry as if he WAS the character he was portraying. I’m sure the ancient Athenian version of Hollywood Reporter predicted the doom of the theater. But it’s still with us. Radio didn’t kill live performance, talkies didn’t kill radio, TV didn’t kill anything and neither did theme parks and their derivatives if you allow for the migration of culture. Humans will seek novelty, escape, relief and magic. We always do. The next new forms will still have to deliver that, whatever we call it.