57: Immersion Unexplained

"Game designers and reviewers universally recognize immersion as a signal virtue of games, perhaps the central virtue. Nonetheless, they seldom analyze the idea. Possibly, recognizing the elusiveness of immersion, they fear (in Alexander Pope's phrase) breaking a butterfly upon a wheel." Allen varney explains why the academic debate over immersion may be more harmful than helpful in "Immersion Explained."

Immersion Unexplained

It's hard to read all this airy palaver, this buffleheaded pedantry, without shouting, "Get a job." Can these detached structuralist and post-structuralist critics help us understand immersion? Could they ever, ever admit becoming immersed themselves, in anything?

Ah, but can't you see? They're immersed in the argument. They're immersed in their own argument. It's a game in and of its own right. And while you're correct that for the most part this argument has not resulted in "a testable, falsifiable hypothesis," for immersion, I suspect that there is no such thing, or at least where

Immersion(x) = ...

You're right to question why all of this publishing and discussion hasn't resulted in something which game designers can grab onto. It's a reasonable question, and you locate the problematic concept where "ludologists" and "narrativists" have attempted to pave immersion into (and this is probably a poor characterization of both sides, but useful to press them into a new position):

Immersion = Narrative;
Immersion = Rules/Structure;

Neither of these is really a structuralist or post-structuralist standpoint. What might be useful is to think of immersion as an emergent category, the result of an interaction between numerous things, of which narrative, rules, structure, are all a component. There are other aspects as well. The reason as you say, "working game designers must still struggle to make their games immersive the old-fashioned way: by playing them," is because this is how they know the product of this complex interrelation.

Game designers have not yet been able to develop tools and concepts (which could be greatly assisted by Game Studies scholars interested in playing that "open-ended puzzle") to make this possible. Think of immersion as an experimental system rather than just a single experiment. If you want a single hypothesis and a single answer, you're selling immersion short. Immersion is bigger than that. It's like culture, expecting a functionalist answer neglects that it's a moving target. This is why academics have a hard time talking.

"No one group can define what is appropriate for the study of games. Game studies, like any organized pursuit of knowledge, is not a zero-sum team contest, but a multi-dimensional, open-ended puzzle that we all are engaged in cooperatively solving."

Unfortunately this debate has already been had, between Science Studies scholars and scientists. It seems that each new (inter)discipline feels compelled to duke it out over again on their own. That "open-ended puzzle" has already been described as a "cat's cradle" by one professor in a History of Consciousness program. Science and Technology Studies (STS) is the (inter)discipline that I come from, one which has not for the most part been accepted as part of the game of Game Studies. We (STS) has already decided that strategic interventions and interaction with those you research is important (though some STILL disagree). I'm a big believer that you'll never really understand it until you get down in the trenches.

So hopefully your article prompts two things:
1.) More interaction/collaboration between Game Studies scholars and Game Developers. The sneering happens from both directions. Both need to learn to speak to one another.
2.) How can we think about immersion in a way that is both productive for game developers, but open to new kinds/methods/... of immersion?

I agree more with the ludologists as I don't tend to remember game plots beyond an overall objective (Which is why HL1 worked so well, and why I can't remember Max Payne 1 or 2's plots, the cool shooting took over my memories...). I like games where you build your own plot.
Also exploring a level is a key part of gaming for me.
So for example in Thief although I appreciate the overall narrative, and the mini-narrative running through the levels, what kept me coming back to the Fan Missions was creating my story of exploring and defeating a space, and appreciating the architecture.

Plots should be basic, an overall objective kept the same throughout the game (As PC Gamer UK said once, e.g. Boiling Point, find daughter; most of HL1, the best bit of HL1, escape Black Mesa) and then the focus should be on ludic stuff.

However mini-narratives inside levels are good, as they keep you occupied in that gamespace. The narrative however is cut and its impact lessened if it is broken by a change in location.

Interestingly enough in France their word in magazines for gameplay as an adjective (I can't quite think of how it translates in English, except the obvious "ludic") is "ludique". Highbrow stuff there.

I guess the immersion depends also on the type of player. I get repeatedly caught by the games that are simply open-ended sandboxes that give me the opportunity to create my own story. I spent sleepless nights over monochrome laptop playing the very first PC version of Sid Meier's Pirates!, intrigued by the possibilites to create my own rules (I will not engage merchants, only military ships; I will not run away from other pirates etc.). I find even bigger appeal in historical strategy games by Paradox Interactive, such as Europa Universalis II or Hearts of Iron II. Yet quite often I am giving up my freedom of choice for tightly narrated game and enjoy it immensely. Games like Beyond Good and Evil, Final Fantasy X or Knights of the Old Republic recently made me stay up for nights again (15 years after love affairs with Pirates! or X-COM: UFO Defense) thanks to their gripping story. Yet I know of people who dismiss either the first category of games (for being too "goalless") or the second one (for being too linear or story-driven).

Simply said, I don't quite subscribe to narratology/ludology dichotomy, I guess it's all about personal preferences. In the first type of games, the immersion comes from the thrill of imagining your story and setting your own goals and then fulfilling them, in the second type you enjoy unfolding the story made up by someone else. Both things can be equally enjoyable in their own way.

Immersion is physical. As we dig deeper into the phenomenon, I suspect we'll discover several different types or modes of immersion. Just as intelligence varies in type (semantic, episodic, kinesthetic, etc.), so too will the physical experience of immersion vary, depending on which type of intelligence is involved. Narrative immersion, which happens as we read a book or watch a movie, is more an engagement of episodic intelligence (though plot elements have semantic involvement too). FPS immersion is not drawing on sequential, story-based episodic intelligence so much as it is involving our kinesthetic and semantic intelligence as we think of our position and how to dodge, jump and shoot, and what the interations (rules/semantics) are within the game ("I just heard him grab the powerup, so he should appear around the corner right about...NOW!"). The disengagement one feels as an in-game cinematic element is triggered demonstrates how an abrupt transition from using kinesthetic/semantic intelligence in favor of episodic intelligence breaks immersion.

This article I found very well written, but a little scarce of the naming of names....

"For most of the young history of videogame theory, humanities scholars have taken game immersion to be the same as the story-based variety."

Really? Maybe if you go back to Brenda Laurel's work in the 1980s, but that book was pretty careful about the need to describe styles of immersion. I'm one of the humanities academics doing all this muddling.. the best thing ever said to me about the immersion debates was by a game designer friend in an email; "I hope designers and academics never talk to each other, get as far apart as film theorists and directors are. That way, when people do find ways to bridge the gap, the results will be more spectacular. Rhetoric is great. It legitimates ideas and while designers can't use anything concrete, they love to argue and read even the most fanciful of theories about games."

I think its an assumption to say academics even want to talk to designers or influence the way games are made. It is great when it happens, though.

The whole problem of immediacy (without mediation) can be useful, but its a property as vague as 'virtual' or 'real'. The people that do write about immediacy and immersion in interesting smart ways (Tanya Kryswinska, David Surman, etc) often point the way out to broader issues like style, trust, the place of the body.

Still, good to see the big questions still being asked.

This article put me back on the game research track, one I had lost a while ago - since my Phd on Half-Life 2 was finished last year. Cheers for that!

Depressing to see they're still more occupied with a tedious semantic debate on _how_ to do research on games, instead of actually _doing_ some research.

For my Phd, I looked at Half-Life 2 both from the perspective of narratology and ludology, although maybe a bit superficial by their account. But I actually _did_ some research, instead of losing myself in hopeless semantics.

Get those feet back on the ground, people.

I'm a master student in Game Design & development currently researching 'the secret of games' which might as well be called immersion. I recognised an overlap between motivation in ordinary life and motivation in games. To stimulate immersion, people need to be engaged in the Progression Process, a term I use to describe a kind of cycle of advancement where people transform uncertainties (like challenges) into certainties (winning the challenge) to overcome bigger uncertainties (for instance new challenges) etc. The facilitation of the right uncertainties and the means to transform these into certainties which form a stepping stone to repeat the process on a more advanced level is in my opinion the way to facilitate immersion. In my opinion immersion can not be designed, but only be facilitated, because in the end it is the player which creates the experience. What's nice about my position is that I am also educated as a game designer, so I created a game with the research I did to see if it could help the game designer with the creation of a game. The game is now nearing completion and it has proven to be very addictive and fun. At least it seems worth researching the Progression Process further and it's role within games and game design. Maybe we can find the answer after all?...

Here's a reaction to, and debate about, what I consider several misunderstandings about academia in this article.

The article seems to be premised on the assumption that we who study videogames want to make them. While sure, if I got offered a job as a game designer I would have to think about it, but that isn't my primary goal. The author himself writes, "These being humanities professors, no one has yet offered a testable, falsifiable hypothesis. Only a few scholars, such as Salen and Zimmerman in Rules of Play, seem interested in improving immersive game design" The reason is that with the exception of people like Salen and Zimmerman, we aren't game deigners. Rather than wanting to make games, I at least, am interested in studying the games that already exist. Moreover, I am interested in the people that play the games and the games are, in some ways, beside the point.

Realistically, the author is also tapping into a debate that, hopefully, has already died. I'm past the narratology and ludology debate and I think most people are as well -- at least the people I talked to at said DiGRA conference in Vancouver last year were. Murray's keynote was practically the only paper that mentioned the "N" and "L" words.

Yes, narratology and ludology don't contribute to making better games, but they aren't meant to and yes narratology and ludology are pointless meandering debates, which is why they have largely died down.

This is really minor, but in response to the part about immersion changing when you reach a cutscene, isn't that mostly due to the change in the interactivity? With a sandbox game like Steambot Chronicles, the difference between the gameplay and the narrative scenes is less because the narrative scenes are interactive (there are many dialog options). But they're still narrative scenes, and still more linear than the other elements of gameplay, so there is still some change in immersion.

I once read an article by Ernest Adams about the three types of immersion. If I remember correctly, the types were tactical immersion (which is when you are immersed in quick decision making), strategic immersion (when you are immersed in strategic decision making), and narrative immersion (when you are immersed in the story). Different types of games will lean toward different types of immersion. Compare Tetris, Disgaea, and Final Fantasy 10 to see examples of games with those types of immersion.

This should be the link, but I'm not sure, because I'm not logged in and can't view the article: http://www.gamasutra.com/features/20040709/adams_01.shtml

Anyway, to comment on the article more directly, I agree with the previous poster that the naratology/ludology debate seems to have come and gone already.


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