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  • Four Better Ways To Talk About Immersion

    [06.23.20]
    - Mata Haggis Burridge

  • Using this to improve our games

    When we make a game, we balance factors such as visual fidelity, intuitiveness of interactions, cost efficiency, and more. Each choice will impact on the different categories of immersion, and it may be useful to consider how we balance the categories, or indeed if we wish to.

    For example, we might choose to entirely ignore deliberate stimulation of empathic/social immersion and prioritise the systems immersion (such as by making a wholly or largely abstract game, or reusing generic scenarios without customisation). Players may still find their own empathic/social link to our game, but this will likely be more individual per player than for a game where the development team made significant efforts to stimulate empathic/social immersion.

    In 2016, the game development company ‘Sassybot' and I released a game called Fragments of Him.[12] While making this, we focused entirely on maximising the empathic/social and narrative/sequential immersion of the game. Due to this, we deliberately chose to minimise gameplay mechanics that would block or distract the player, so we removed many of the systems that would typically feature in games such as puzzles, combat, high scores, timers, or fail-states.[13] This resulted in a game that, for some players, was highly immersive in the desired categories and as a result also very impactful regarding the narrative's topic of coping with grief.[14]

    Image 5: During the development of Fragments of Him we consciously focused our attention on empathic/social and narrative/sequential immersion.
    Image 5: During the development of Fragments of Him we consciously focused our attention on empathic/social and narrative/sequential immersion.

    Although developers can prioritise specific categories of immersion, different players can experience different forms of immersion from the same content. Some players may find the shooting mechanics and driving in Grand Theft Auto V[15] stimulates systems immersion, others find the physical believability of the city stimulates spatial immersion most strongly for them, and others may find the storyline is highly engaging and so feel narrative/sequential immersion most strongly. Some players may either enjoy the company of the game's lead characters or find them repulsive, correspondingly raising or lowering their empathic/social immersion.

    In a high-budget game, such as Grand Theft Auto V, this broad appeal across multiple forms of immersion was almost certainly intentional, even if the developers used different terminology while making it. As a single game, it can appeal to many different types of players and has had enormous success due to this. Games with open-world settings are deliberately targeting multiple types of gameplay to keep players engaged with their world and, as a result, the spreading of activities across multiple categories of immersion is a core part of the business strategy of many large entertainment companies.

    Is ‘immersion' linked to harmful behaviours?

    For some, it is possible that ‘immersion' may result in negative life consequences, but it cannot be simply stated that ‘immersion' in video games is generically a contributor to social problems. The Grand Theft Auto series of games have been a focus of controversy regarding problematic content in video games due to their potential for showing extreme acts of virtual violence, and the categories of immersion give us a useful way to discuss how different players may experience these gameplay events.

    Many players will play Grand Theft Auto V with an approach that prioritises systems immersion. This allows them to see in-game representations of humans as components of fictional systems rather than as real people. Other players may feel a strong sense of social immersion in the game and take sadistic pleasure from the virtual violence. From an external perspective both sets of players may appear to be behaving in the same way in the game, but there is a radical and important difference in how they are engaging with the actions they are taking. For the first group of players (and likely the largest by a very significant margin), the game may be a healthy way to relax and blow off steam without harming anyone in the real world, including themselves, but for the latter group it could potentially aggravate or heighten an unhealthy sociopathy. The nuances of how the same game may be pro-social for some and anti-social for others is beyond the scope of this article, but future research may involve categorising forms of immersion as a tool for exploring and discussing the relationship between games, players, and society. As game developers, we need to support this research - for our own peace of mind, but also so that we can work ethically to improve the impact of our games on players.

    Image 6: Grand Theft Auto V works with multiple versions of immersion, and it is likely that it can have pro- and anti-social impacts on players - more research is needed to understand this complex topic.
    Image 6: Grand Theft Auto V works with multiple versions of immersion, and it is likely that it can have pro- and anti-social impacts on players - more research is needed to understand this complex topic.

    Research into this is likely to be difficult, but that does not mean it is impossible or irrelevant. Like genres of books or films, some game genres will possess more intrinsically appealing themes or gameplay styles for different players, and this will impact on their ability to feel immersed in the game. A player that enjoys systems immersion in first-person shooters may not feel engaged if the narrative setting of the game is unappealing, even if the mechanics of the game match their preference. Likewise, two games set in the same fictional universe will not result in equal narrative immersion for a player if the gameplay mechanics of the games are radically different in their level of appeal to that person. Some players will have a preference for games that prioritise one category of immersion, almost regardless of other aspects of the game. Pro- and anti-social outcomes of a genre or mechanic are likely to be linked to a complex set of personal preferences and social contexts.

    Further research is needed

    The appeal of different categories of immersion is likely to vary between individuals based on personal tastes, but there may also be gender, age, identity, responsibility, or other cultural and social conditions that underpin wider group-based preferences. Further research on how to study and understand immersion individually and in a social context would be necessary to understand these factors more clearly.

    While these four categories are individually useful for discussion, they operate together to form a network of immersive effects. This network creates what a player experiences as immersion and plays a significant role in relation to their enjoyment of the game; it could even be argued that this network of immersion is the primary source of pleasure derived from playing video games. To say something is ‘immersive' is to say that the network is operating successfully for the player, but it does not clarify how the network is achieving that result unless a more granular set of terms, such as these four categories, is used.

    There are interesting borders in video games where the discussion of immersion using these categories becomes difficult. For example, do Augmented Reality (AR) games automatically have spatial immersion because the player is experiencing a virtual overlay on their physical space? I do not think so, because the question is whether the player is immersed in the space of the game, and if the game's AR world is not compelling or does not adequately integrate with the physical world then it is unlikely to be spatially immersive. AR currently has barriers from the hardware that may lower all categories of immersion, but games such as ‘Pokémon Go'[16] show that AR can already place a pervasive layer of somewhat spatially immersive gameplay over physical environments. Future studies and games may reveal mechanics and viewing methods for AR that specifically heighten spatial immersion.

    A similar difficult topic can also be found when considering virtual games played with participants in the same room. If the player is physically in the same space, how does this impact on the empathic/social immersion with the game? Arguably the ‘magic circle'[17] of the game has extended into the physical world and a form of empathic/social immersion will be present, but this is another subject that could be debated beyond the scope of this article.

    Beyond the time spent in-game, there can be consideration of the meta-game space, i.e. the way that the player relates to the game's activities outside of core gameplay, or when its influence extends beyond the time spent playing and into other parts of a person's life, such as discussing it with friends or making fan art. Arguably this is also a form of empathic/social immersion, but this may be too large a stretch for this categorisation system and other terms will be better at describing this, such as ‘parasocial relationships'.

    Conclusion

    We know that video games have become a significant medium for entertainment, art, and education. As an example of this, the World Health Organisation has recognised their impact on society by categorising ‘gaming disorder' as a health threat during 2019 and then stating that games can also beneficial during the COVID-19 epidemic of 2020.[18] Given this importance, it is useful to agree on the meaning of common terms such as ‘immersion' to avoid confusion, both in public discussions and at the level of policy makers.

    I formulated these four categories of immersion during a decade of teaching and two decades of game development. There will likely be other useful terms for discussing immersion, but these four have provided a meaningful lens for my own professional work as a consultant, game developer, researcher, and educator. I hope they will be of use to game developers, academics, journalists, policy makers, and players who wish to discuss video games in a way that reflects the diversity of actions and experiences that games can offer.

    Author bio:

    Mata Haggis-Burridge is a consultant games writer and designer, most recently writing for ‘Resident Evil Resistance' and working in collaboration with Techland's narrative team on mission writing/design for ‘Dying Light 2'. They have have worked on AAA and indie games for 20 years, and have a PhD in cyberpunk.
    To get in touch, visit:
    https://www.CopperStoneSea.com/index.php/contact/  
    They are also the Professor of Creative and Entertainment Games at Breda University of Applied Sciences (BUas), The Netherlands:
    https://www.buas.nl
    Follow them on Twitter:
    https://twitter.com/MataHaggis

    This article is closely based on an Open Source academic article on ResearchGate. For academic referencing, please use the following link: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/340686774_Four_categories_for_meaningful_discussion_of_immersion_in_video_games


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    [2] Weger, U. W., Loughnan, S., Sharma, D., & Gonidis, L. (2015). Virtually compliant: Immersive video gaming increases conformity to false computer judgments. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 22(4), 1111-1116. https://doi.org/10.3758/s13423-014-0778-z

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    [8] Crammond, G. (1989). Stunt Car Racer. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stunt_Car_Racer

    [9] Stuart, K. (2010, August 11). What do we mean when we call a game 'immersive'? Retrieved April 15, 2020, from https://www.theguardian.com/technology/gamesblog/2010/aug/10/games-science-of-immersion

    [10] id Software. (1993, December 10), Doom. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doom_(1993_video_game)

    [11] Fullbright Company, The. (2013, August 15), Gone Home. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gone_Home

    [12] Sassybot, & Haggis-Burridge, M. (2016, May 3). Fragments of Him. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fragments_of_Him

    [13] Haggis-Burridge, M. (2016, August 16). Narrative Experience First: Interaction Design in 'Fragments of Him'. Retrieved April 17, 2020, from https://www.gdcvault.com/play/1023839/Narrative-Experience-First-Interaction-Design

    [14] Frank, A. (2016, May 5). Fragments of Him offered me catharsis after the shock of losing someone. Retrieved April 15, 2020, from https://www.polygon.com/2016/5/5/11601720/fragments-of-him-grief

    [15] Rockstar Games. (2013, September 17), Grand Theft Auto V. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grand_Theft_Auto_V

    [16] Niantic. (2016, July 6), Pokémon Go. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pok%C3%A9mon_Go

    [17] Stenros, J. (2014). In Defence of a Magic Circle: The Social, Mental and Cultural Boundaries of Play. Retrieved April 15, 2020, from https://doi.org/10.26503/todigra.v1i2.10

    [18] Moné, B. (2020, April 2). The WHO is recommending video games as an effective way to stop the spread of COVID-19, one year after adding 'gaming disorder' to its list of addictive behaviors. Retrieved April 16, 2020, from https://www.businessinsider.nl/who-video-games-coronavirus-pandemic-mental-health-disorder-2020-4?international=true&r=US

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