If you concentrate and look at things romantically (and maybe squint a little), games are the penultimate form of illusion. We fight imaginary battles for fictional points, and spend arduous hours on accomplisments and puzzles just to receive rewards that are intangible at best. A good game is a puzzle wrapped in a spectacle, and I've sometimes jokingly thought that a game designer must be equal parts rockstar, magician and businessman in order to cover all the bases.
Poetic liberty and corny metaphor aside, all ludic entertainment is based on some kind of illusionary challenge, and the audience's willingness to accept said challenge as a form of reality. Of course we can assign meaning to the contest by allotting the victors tangible rewards such as money, thus lending meaning to the game itself, but at heart the struggle is still fictional rather than visceral.
The close relationship between games and illusion has long fascinated me. I think my interest in the topic was sparked back when I was actively gamemastering a tabletop-RPG for my friends. After managing the task for a while I realised that the illusion of danger was more meaningful to the game than danger itself. The player characters didn't actually need to be in constant mortal danger for the game to be interesting, but rather the players had to think that their characters were under such threat. As the players had no way of knowing exactly what I had planned for them (granted, neither did I most of the time, as I ran that thing by the seat of my pants), all I had to do was make them think they knew what they were up against. This was around the same time as I came to the conclusion that character death is rarely conducive to a cohesive storyline experience. These two concepts merged to form a game experience of increased danger, and many near-death experiences, which seemed to work better than the high fatality adventures of my earlier GM career.
The illusion of threat is rather hard to translate directly to other types of games. We can however conclude that in fact nearly all threat in games is illusory: most of the time failure results in an punishment inside the diegetic framework of the game, but you yourself are unaffected by your failure (i.e. your character dies, you don't). Another interesting form of illusion I discovered through my forays into gamemastering was the illusion of control, which is pointedly present in most RPGs, but translates rather well into other games as well.
In an RPG, the gamemaster usually has the last say on whatever the players attempt and is charged with managing the internal logic of the gameworld. Thus any feeling of control the players have over the course of the game is in fact illusory. This contradicts interestingly with the ”point” of the game, which is often described to be experiencing a fictional world and acting in it through the choices and actions of your character. While the player decides what the character attempts, often it is the gamemaster who decides whether the character can succeed.
This dynamic can result in frustration on both sides, as ”invisible walls” begin to pop up, which segues nicely into the world of digital gaming. No matter how open the world of any given digital romp, you can only do things that the game is programmed you to be able to. Granted, open worlds can be pretty open nowadays, but nevertheless the system is designed to provide you with an illusion of control, rather than actual control (which raises an interesting question of how the growth of modding options for games in recent years relates to the traditional auteur-created illusion of freedom in gaming). And on a very general level the concept of the illusion of control can be simply said to form the clause ”you can do anything in this game, as long as you follow the rules”.
The third type of illusion present in games is the illusion of accomplishment: those fictional points we so eagerly strive for. High scores, achievements, virtual gold, and in fact most obvious rewards in games are diegetic, and thus fictional. Playing games is an entertainment and a self-indulgent passtime, and the intangibility of its rewards is part and parcel of its nature. But the illusion of accomplishment is more profound that the flippant discrediting of virtual success would merit. For example, a large factor in the addictivity of gambling games is that the brain interprets losing in these games as a learning experience. Thus the fact we just lost makes us think we're more likely to win next time, since we've learned from our mistakes and gotten better at the game, which in fact is entirely dictated by chance and stacked against us. The illusion of accomplishment really brings to mind my time with World of Warcraft. There must have been a reason for grinding out those 100 manticore spleens, but I just can't bring it back to mind now...
In the end, all this sleight of mind is fueled by our own suspension of disbelief: if we don't buy into the diegetic system created by the game and its rules, we are immune to its illusions. Chances are we won't want to play either, because what's the point in playing a game you're not interested in? This article has been an attempt to formulate some long standing ideas into a cohesive form. I am fairly certain that I will revisit most of these thoughts more extensively later. Until then, I urge you to keep on dreaming the dream.