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  • Four Better Ways To Talk About Immersion

    [06.23.20]
    - Mata Haggis Burridge
  • We aspire to create ‘immersive' games, but this word is used to mean several different things. If we are more specific, we can be clearer in what we are trying to achieve, and help our teams work towards a common goal.

    In my work with clients and small teams, I've found four categories of immersion allow us to really focus on what they're trying to achieve:

    • Systems immersion can be used to describe when players are deeply engaged with the mechanics, challenges, and rules of a game, and is similar to a state of ‘flow'
    • Spatial immersion is the sense of a player being present in, or transported to, the virtual world, and is linked to the concept of embodiment
    • Empathic/social immersion describes the connection that a player may develop towards the characters (AI or human) and the social context of a game
    • Narrative/sequential immersion can be used to describe a player's compulsion to see how a sequence of events continues, typically in a narrative, but this is related to any progression, such as exploring new spaces or evolving gameplay mechanics.

    SYSTEMS IMMERSION

    SPATIAL IMMERSION

    EMPATHIC/SOCIAL IMMERSION

    NARRATIVE/SEQUENTIAL IMMERSION

    A high level of engagement with the systems and decision-making processes in the game, related to ‘flow'.

    A sense of ‘presence' in a location. The feeling of being in that place, or of having travelled there.

    An emotional connection with the characters or social context of a game.

    A deep and compelling investment in the progression of events, locations, and/or abilities. The focus here will typically be ‘what happens next?'

    All types are likely to be non-discreet, with close relationships and overlaps of game-elements that contribute to (or subtract from) multiple forms of immersion.

    Table 1: the four categories of immersion.

    If you're a conference goer, you may have heard me present some of these ideas at Develop:Brighton (https://www.developconference.com), Interactive Pasts 2 (https://interactivepasts.com/the-interactive-pasts-conference-2/), or at the academic conference GAME-ON®'2019 (https://www.eurosis.org/conf/gameon/2019/).

    Is there disagreement about the meaning of ‘immersion'?:

    Toby Gard, one of the creators of the Tomb Raider franchise, argues that ‘the power to immerse the player [...] is the common attribute of the greatest and most successful games.'[1] He believes that the narrative consistency of the virtual world is the main influence on how immersive a game is, e.g. if a virtual temple has no space for worshippers it would make the game less immersive because it does not meet players' intuitive expectations of places for worship.

    In academic studies, we see researchers report that ‘an immersive game [is] played through the eyes of a virtual character (an avatar), by travelling through a landscape and manipulating the environment at their discretion.'[2] For this team of researchers, the sense of immersion does not come from contextual-narrative consistency, but instead it is heightened by controlling an avatar using a first-person perspective.

    Other studies list immersion in a game's virtual space as a component of many other factors that make games compelling, arguing that ‘individuals play MMOs for a sense of achievement, a sense of immersion in another world, in order to socialize, in order to escape, to feel part of a group, because they like analyzing the game mechanics, and because they enjoy the competition'[3] (based on previous work by Nick Yee[4]). In this use of ‘immersion', there is greater emphasis on the sense of presence in the virtual world, regardless of the player's perspective.

    Immersion is also not unambiguously positive. While it does benefit the player's experience of the game, it has also been associated with negative social outcomes: ‘a couple who were immersed in an on-line game ignored their 30 month old daughter to the point where she starved to death.'[5] This tragic event is arguably due to ‘addiction' rather than ‘immersion', but immersion can be a factor in addiction to video games. The writers chose to frame immersion as the source of the behaviour rather than, for example, social conditions such as poverty, inequality, education, drug use, access to health and social care, or other elements that may have been involved and that are known to contribute to addiction and the resulting neglect.

    ‘Immersion' has become an ambiguous term when used without further context. When attempting to discuss this subject with professional game developers, academics, journalists, and players, I have found four categories of immersion allow a more meaningful discussion to take place. The four categories are systems immersion, spatial immersion, empathic/social immersion, and narrative/sequential immersion.

    Systems immersion

    Systems immersion is when a player is highly engaged with the decision-making activities and rules of the game. For example, a Pac-Man[6] player is unlikely to feel like they are a dot-eating-disc in a haunted maze, but their mind and body may nonetheless react strongly to the systemic progression of play. While this example focuses of fast-paced gameplay, slower and strategic games can be equally involving for some players, as the balance of rules wholly occupies their thoughts. This form of immersion is closely analogous to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's concept of ‘flow',[7] where happiness is achieved from a pleasing progression of in-game challenge versus player-mastery.

    Image 1: Pac-Man triggers systems immersion.
    Image 1: Pac-Man triggers systems immersion.

    Spatial immersion

    Spatial immersion refers to a player's sense of presence in a virtual space. If a player feels like they are in a location, or have experienced being there, then they are discussing spatial immersion. The visual quality of a game is likely to be important at stimulating this form of immersion, but it will not be the only factor: a player may gain a huge sense of spatial immersion from a 2D maze game, and many players experienced a real stomach-churning feeling from early 3D games such as Stunt Car Racer[8] that only used basic lines or blocks of colour to show the racetrack, but 3D spaces with a high sense of realism or cinematic visuals are likely to stimulate a sense of transportation to the virtual space for more players than less visually impressive virtual worlds. This taste for visual excellence is likely to increase over time as players come to expect higher-fidelity graphics as standard, resulting in less-detailed and lower-framerate worlds consequently appearing more artificial.

    Image 2: Stunt Car Racer - visual fidelity will typically strengthen spatial immersion, but it is not essential.
    Image 2: Stunt Car Racer - visual fidelity will typically strengthen spatial immersion, but it is not essential.

    Virtual Reality (VR) benefits greatly from its intuitive head-mounted interface because this can give an almost effortless sense of spatial immersion, unlike standard 2D displays (i.e. television screens, monitors, smartphones, etc.) where the player is likely to need a higher degree of familiarity with the interface to experience a sense of spatial immersion in the virtual world.

    When a player feels strong spatial immersion, they will often lose or lower their awareness of their physical surroundings and/or body. This is a common aspect of all forms of immersion, but it appears likely that it will be stronger for spatial immersion, although further research is needed.

    Lowering a player's physical spatial awareness may have beneficial properties relating to relaxation, recontextualization of traumatic events, virtual holidays, pain/stress relief, etc. There are also potential negative consequences of lowering physical awareness, particularly while moving and/or in public spaces. These risks will in particular be greater for players from groups where existing social problems can be amplified by reduced awareness of their physical environment, such as for women and/or marginalised communities.

    Spatial immersion also is most likely to stimulate a sense of embodiment in the virtual world, because the player feels like they are transported to that space, but embodiment could also be linked to efficacy in the world, i.e. the player's ability to influence the game's systems to get the result that they desire, which would be more closely related to systems immersion. Research into stimulating a sense of embodiment will likely reveal multiple entwined factors that influence how much a player feels like they are inside a game's virtual world/system and which categories of immersion are most useful for discussing embodiment.

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