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  • Four Better Ways To Talk About Immersion

    [06.23.20]
    - Mata Haggis Burridge

  • Empathic/social immersion

    Empathic/social immersion is the player's connection with the personal and social context of the game. Stuart, while discussing immersion, argues ‘the best games help us to build immersive emotional reactions through subtle human clues'.[9] These bonds may be formed with a non-player character (‘NPC') or with other players that participate in the game. This can be triggered live, i.e. while both or all players are in the game together, but also asynchronously, i.e. after one or more of the players have left but reminders of their former presence exist in the game.

    Image 3: World of Warcraft's guild system stimulates empathic/social immersion and creating a powerful sense of community for its players.
    Image 3: World of Warcraft's guild system stimulates empathic/social immersion and creating a powerful sense of community for its players.

    Personal feelings of connection to the game's NPCs, human characters, and general society may be stimulated by events that are in-character for the game, such as a character that dies after fighting alongside the player for many quests, but they can also be stimulated by a sense of social connection that is facilitated by the game, such as a guild of players in a fantasy game that regularly meet in the virtual space and bond based their physical-world personalities and lives rather than engaging with the game's fictional setting. These in-game connections with personalities and social systems can build a sense of community that stimulates either empathic immersion, social immersion, or both. This sense of friendship and community can be a powerful driving force that compels players to continue playing a game, and can have both positive and negative physical life outcomes.

    Narrative/sequential immersion

    Narrative/sequential immersion comes from a player's desire to see the next step in a sequence. Typically, this will be driven by traditional story-based events revolving around physical and/or emotional conflicts, but this can also be applied to seeing progressive ability upgrades for a character, or travelling through a region of a game and wishing to find the next area to explore.

    In the latter case, there is a sense that the narrative is built through the ordering of events as they are perceived by the player, rather than necessarily through explicit pre-scripting by game developers, but the impact on the player can still be an identical compulsion and level of engagement. Although it is easiest to observe in narrative-driven games, this category of immersion is a factor in the success of most video game genres, from action-adventure through to football simulations and farming games.

    Image 4: Alongside traditional narratives in games, in FIFA20, the risks involved in progression through an important match, or league results, provide many players with a compelling sense of narrative/sequential immersion.
    Image 4: Alongside traditional narratives in games, in FIFA20, the risks involved in progression through an important match, or league results, provide many players with a compelling sense of narrative/sequential immersion.

    The four forms of immersion are closely linked

    It should be highlighted that all of these forms of engagement will overlap, but there is not a set ratio between them: a player could complete exploration of a game's world and still feel spatial immersion without the need for exploration-derived sequential immersion; a game could have a blank-slate protagonist but still have very high sense of systems immersion, such as may be seen in classic first-person shooter games like Doom[10]; or a virtual space that has a convincing and consistent sense of the people who live there, such as in the game Gone Home,[11]  will provide both a sense of empathic/social immersion and a strong sense of spatial immersion. In this last example, empathic immersion is felt even without other characters ever physically manifesting in the game because the emotional bond forms through a player's reading of social cues, but these US-centric cues may make its appeal vary globally.

    It is hard to imagine a game, particularly if it has been successful, having only one type of immersion as a part of its appeal. It is likely that the majority of successful games and individual gameplay mechanics address different types of immersion at different times, and that they balance their types of immersion to create a pleasing overall effect for a large number of players.

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