GuestBloggerMania’10: What is Immersion?

Today’s guest post is brought to you by Scott McMillin, who describes himself as “a designer, artist, application developer, technologist, and amateur historian.”  We also assume he dresses up as a clown for kids’ birthdays.

What is Immersion? by Scott McMillin

What do we mean when we talk about immersion in games? With the introduction of Blizzard’s Real ID, the always thoughtful Gordon over at We Fly Spitfires dramatically responded that he thought Real ID “completely, totally and unequivocally destroys every last drop of immersion left in World of Warcraft.” That post and the follow-up entitled “Why Immersion Matters” got me thinking about what we mean when we talk about immersion in gaming–and specifically role-playing games.

My first instinct was to accept the term as defined by Dàchéng in Gordon’s second post which states that immersion triggers what Coleridge termed a willing suspension of disbelief. Doing a bit of poking around I found that this is not uncommonly held belief in the game industry. Game designer François Dominic Laramée stated in essay called “Immersion”:

All forms of entertainment strive to create suspension of disbelief, a state in which a player’s mind forgets that it is being subjected to entertainment and instead accepts what it perceive’s as reality

This seems to be reasonable maxim. After all this is what we look for in movies, books, and television. With that in mind I crafted a response that took to criticizing just how poor a job not only WoW, but all MMORPG’s, did in creating an immersive world in the areas of graphics, story, and artificial intelligence. All it took was a look of recent titles like the Call of Duty series, the Battlfields, Bioshock, Half Life, Mass Effect, Dragon Age, Red Dead Redemption for stellar examples that far outshone our beloved MMORPGs.

But something didn’t sit right with that response. I realized that I was equating certain games’ success in simulating the real world using visuals, animation, behavior and narrative with immersion. Surely players in World of Warcraft didn’t consider the world’s lack of verisimilitude something that broke immersion? And indeed when I turned to Salen and Zimmerman’s book Rules of Play they cited an example given by Elena Gorfinkel:

Immersion itself is not tied to a replication or mimesis of reality. For example one can get immersed in Tetris. Therefore, immersion into game play seems at least as important as immersion into a games’s representational space. [p. 452]

Talk about immersive. I remember trying to fall asleep after long Tetris sessions only to see falling blocks when I shut my eyes.

If gameplay– the interaction of player with the game world — is part of what we mean by immersion, then Coleridge’s suspension of disbelief doesn’t quite fit the description.

Salen and Zimmerman called this The Immersive Fallacy: the “idea that pleasure of a media experience lies in its ability to sensually transport the participant into an illusory, simulated reality.” You can see evidence of the fallacy throughout the gaming industry. It’s driven the development of countless game engines and graphics card technologies with the singular goal of achieving environments that simulate our own reality. And it makes intuitive sense. Other forms of media have gone through similar periods where achieving verisimilitude was a goal. Art, film, television. The recent film Avatar was one big technical experiment in seeing if James Cameron could “suspend disbelief” in its audience. But games are different. To quote Rules of Play again:

When we play a game, we feel engaged and engrossed, and play seems to take on its own “reality.” This is all certainly true. But the way that a game achieves these effects does not happen in the manner the immersive fallacy implies. A game player does become engrossed in the game, yes. But it is an engagement that occurs through play itself. As we know, play is a process of a metacommunication, a double-consciousness in which the player is well aware of the artificiality of the play situation. [p. 451]

Salen and Zimmerman’s “double-consciousness” with regards to character based games (like RPGs) explains the relationship between player and character. The player has an emotionally immersive relationship with their character while also realizing that it’s simply a puppet — an “artificial construct.”

Retrieving Hamlet on the Holodeck from my bookshelf, I was curious to see what Janet Murray had to say about this dual construct of player vs character. Her frame of reference of is MUDs which I thought appropriate since they are one of the progenitors to modern MMORPGs.

One key to functioning in a MUD is the ability to flip back and forth between player and character, the remove the mask in order to adjust the environment and then to put i back on again. [p. 116]

Aha, so that’s where /OOC channels came from.

Salen and Zimmerman mention a work called Shared Fantasy: Role-playing Games as Social Worlds by psychologist Gary Alan Fine, who presents an ethnographic study of tabletop role-playing communities and offers a framework that further defines the different “frames” a role-playing gamer experiences.

Because it is voluntary, fantasy gaming permits side involvement to take precedence–a point structurally different from how engrossed one can become in the game.” [p. 197]

So it seems like Fine also buys into the idea of “double-consciousness,” proposing the interruptions of modern life (phone call, pizza delivery) upon a group of roleplayers does not impinge upon how engrossed (we might say immersed) in the game itself.

I’ve been a part of Casualities of War for almost 2 years now. There are many of us who spend our time online in Vent. Some people know and have met each other in real life. Some haven’t. How much you reveal about who you are is totally up to you. Gary Alan Fine defines three frames within which roleplaying gaming takes place. They are perfectly elucidated by my guild experience with CoW. The first frame is the Person, within which all activity is ultimately grounded. The second frame is the Player, the one whose actions are dictated by the rules of the game, the one who controls the puppet that is the character. The third, of course, is the Character itself, the player’s avatar within the simulated game world.

Fine explains that people naturally shift between frames as a consequence of what’s happening in game, but don’t necessarily suffer any loss of immersion. I witness this shifting all the time, and, unless you’re in a hardcore roleplaying guild, you probably do as well. Recently a small group of us have made our way back to Champions Online. When a team of us are doing an instance we are completely immersed in game play, but constantly switching from Character frame to Player frame. I know the same thing is happening down in the WoW channel as those guys are doing big raids. There are also times where we switch to the Person frame by discussing other games, the weather, TV shows, movies, or even relationships.

Immersion is a direct result of being engrossed in gameplay, not the suspension of disbelief caused by a simulated reality. Mihály Csíkszentmihályi’s concept of Flow is probably a better approximation of what we feel as gamers immersed in a game. Flow is “the mental state of operation in which a person in an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity.”

Setting aside privacy concerns, a topic handled adroitly by many other bloggers, does Blizzard’s Real ID destroy immersion in World of Warcraft? I think the very fact that it doesn’t impact gameplay disproves the argument. Real ID inhabits the context of the Person frame where social metacommunication happens outside of the gameplay. For 36+ years tabletop RPGers have gathered around tables face-to-face with their fellow players immersed in their own fantasy worlds. Is there a possiblity that the Person frame interacts with the Character frame in an immersion-breaking fashion? Of course. That’s why I last about 10 minutes before I disable region/general/faction/public chat channels in a new MMORPG. In the case of Real ID, if someone abuses my name in the same fashion, I made a mistake in trusting that person with my real identity. Blizzard does state “Real ID is a system designed to be used with people you know and trust in real life — friends, co-workers and family — though it’s ultimately up to you to determine who you wish to interact with in this fashion.”

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8 thoughts on “GuestBloggerMania’10: What is Immersion?

  1. Fantastic article, Scott, one I enjoyed reading a lot! I suppose I never thought about immersion being more about being engrossed rather than suspending believe.

    I suppose my question is though, how do you create something that engrosses someone so much they can tune out the outside world? What is it about those successful games (like Tetris or WoW) that manage to do it? What it is that they do that other games don’t? Lots to ponder and definitely out of my league :)

  2. Although I really don’t think RealID is going to ruin immersion ( I may end up eating these words), I do however connect with on many of the points in this very well written article. True roleplayers in MMOs (not necessarily heavy RPers) always find a way to maintain that immersion even faced with real-world distractions.

    Will it affect our enjoyment of RP and immersion? Probably not.

  3. I think “Immersion” is one of those rubbery words in the MMOsphere like “hardcore”, “casual”, and even “pvp” (is AH bidding pvp?) – it gets used a lot, with many fuzzy definitions, to no great satisfaction.

    Richard Bartle, in “Virtual Worlds: Why People Play”, says “Immersion is the sense that a player has of being in a virtual world, and is related to the sense of presence.

    The “willing suspension of disbelief” definition is close but not quite on point – you need a willing suspension of disbelief in environments that contain many potentially unbelievable elements (eg. 100′ demons riding fire-breathing dragons, cartoony graphics, peace in the middle east), but you don’t need that same willing suspension of disbelief when facing a hyper-real depiction (eg. many modern first person shooters) because, simply, if there is nothing to disbelieve you don’t need to suspend your disbelief. Both environments can succeed or fail in evoking a sense of presence though. Thus, a willing sense of disbelief is a pre-condition for immersion in some games, and a non-factor in others.

    He also btw notes a distinction between “immersed” and “engrossed”, the latter arising from a state of flow. It is possible to be immersed in a world but not in a state of flow; and similarly its possible to enter a state of flow and be engrossed in an activity without any sense of “immersion” because you are actually there (eg. when playing tennis). Thus, immersed and engrossed are two separate concepts, and not equivalent.

    In that paper Bartle goes on to describe four main levels of immersion: unimmersed, avatar, character, and persona. These are not the same though as Fine’s Person/Player/Character – one is a spectrum, the other are discontinuous states. Switching states is analogous to switching between different game views (eg. first person view, 3rd person view, map view) … it is possible to be, and remain, fully immersed as you switch around.

  4. Pingback: A New Guest Blog and Other Awesome Posts

  5. Thanks for the comments, guys. It’s certainly an interesting topic — I had fun sitting down and doing a the research. Thanks go to @WeFlySpitfires for the inspiration.

  6. Scott, your solid research and presentation here is first rate. I work in an industry that seems to have lost direction and purposes, they would be wise to listen and learn from your blog.

  7. Pingback: Pumping Irony » Immersion: It’s All in the Details

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