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Immersion in videogames, or, of Ahab and the Whale

Where we try to extract the philosophical bloat out of discussions pertaining to player immersion.

Over the years while observing producers, as well as consumers, of video games discussing certain reoccurring topics within the medium I have often found myself very puzzled by some, to me, bizarre statements that continue to grow out of those fertile soils.

Two of these bizarre specimens follow a similar theme, relating to the topic of immersion. In one case in regard to a player projecting himself into the character that they control, and in the other in regard to the player projecting themselves into the game world in general.

To give an example, it never ceases to puzzles me whenever a designer of a game talks about their motivation behind the aim to remove all HUD elements from the game screen. One reason often cited whenever I have been witness to the phenomenon has been to help with player immersion.

Such claims never cease to cause an equal number of brow furrowing, or raising, from yours truly as I make my best “O RLY” impression. Now, the motivation behind this discombobulated reaction of mine to such voicing of a designer's thought process is multifold.

The first of these folds stems from the fact that the inner workings of every person’s mind differs from each other in strange and wonderful ways, and this goes doubly for the so called creative types. You know the ones, the crazy bastards. Alas, strange and wonderful as they may be one still only ever has full and unrestricted direct access to one’s own mind, so the only perspective one can fully comprehend is one’s own, which may or may not differ greatly from another’s.

The second fold at work here is directly related to the above, as since everyone’s mind works differently, whenever I am exposed to the inner workings of another person’s mind a niggling feeling sets in, the niggling feeling of doubt, of me doubting that a person can truly have a mind that works in a way so alien to that of my own.

This is where, as my brow remains furrowed, or raised, and I begin to rub my chin, I then proceed to ask the aether. Is that so captain? Either you are forgetting your own true sentiments, or we simply have very different definitions of what that word, immersion, means and relates to in the medium of video games.


“Sir, you forget yourself”

My own perspective, of course, is that something like a permanent piece of graphic partially obscuring ones view into the rendered game world certainly does not break immersion, and removing said item certainly does not help with immersion in any meaningful way. Don’t get me wrong though, such a gesture certainly is nice as none vital visual clutter is just that, clutter, and being rid of it gives one a somewhat miniscule sense of satisfaction, but only one that will last a few seconds before other, more vital observations take priority during one’s gameplay session.

So are we just aiming to have a checkmark ticked by removing said clutter, or are we seriously thinking this will help sell your game by enhancing immersion?

I ask this because I've often witnessed developers going to absurd ends in service of fanatical crusades against such heretical immersion breaking elements, to the point that some sacrifices made in said pursuit have had negative impact on the overall gameplay experience. So when designer Ahab is consumed with his relentless pursuit of that white whale, immersion, I find myself wondering what he is doing running around on land all this time. Did Moby sprout legs while I wasn’t watching or is Ahab one confused whaler?

"Oh, boy" 

Of course it could also just be that the land that I see Ahab running around on is actually the salty waters of the 7 in his eyes and from his perspective I am the confused landlubber, spouting my trademark land dwelling nonsense while he is doing honest work. I would really like to find out which.

Immersion, a one sided analysis:

So, let me define what Ahab is attempting to bill immersion as, then after a humorous aside I’ll discuss my own personal perspective on the matter. Seeing as how Ahab thinks that the removal of HUD elements and other pursuits of that nature help with deeper immersion he seems to think that these obstructions upon the game world window will, upon view, destroy what movie folk would call suspension of disbelief. In short these would break the player out of an otherwise immersive experience by shattering said illusion and remind them that, yes, they are indeed just playing a video game, which once again makes me want to go, 

Well, gentlemen, I cannot fathom that at all because either I, the unique snowflake that mammy assured me that I am, work very differently from you during gameplay, or I am going to have to call shenanigans on this fantastical interpretation of videogame immersion.

You see, for the sake of argument I've actually, and for the longest time, tried to pay close attention to myself during the process of playing a game and come to the startling discovery that I never actually experience immersion in such a manner, I never think that I am inside the game, or forget that I am playing one. I doubt I ever could short of resorting to jacking into the matrix by jamming a technological spike of sorts into the back of my head, because the way that Ahab is describing gameplay experience I get the feeling that he thinks we are to enter the matrix whenever prompted to push past that start screen.

“Playing games, an artist’s rendition. Not pictured, how it actually works”


I don’t know about you fine folk, but I just feel like I am casting a comatose stare upon a screen while pushing sticks and buttons to make pretty things happen while at all times being fully aware that this is all that I am doing. The absence of HUD elements is nice and all but not having them around wont have me trip and dive head first into the game world, all immersive like. Nope, not even when considering how memorable a story it might make for around the old water cooler as to what shenanigans I got around to upon finding myself inside the world of GalGun. Don’t google it!

“Not pictured, what I got up to inside the GalGun matrix”


Suspension of disbelief:

So, with the comically exaggerated illustration of Ahab’s supposed perspective on the issue away with we are left with my own lingering definition. While Ahab bills immersion as the sensation of forgetting that you are playing a game what I experience as gameplay immersion while actually playing a game can best be explained by drawing on an experience that is similar in almost every way, which is to say movie immersion.

So, let us get back to the suspension of disbelief phenomenon, and the breaking thereof because I see that the same forces are at work here. Suspension of disbelief in a cinematic sense works in such a way that if a movie in question has your full attention then your thought process is almost exclusively zoned in on the movie itself. It is not a question of you thinking that you are inside the movie world being depicted, or forgetting that you are watching a movie. No, you are still sitting there feeding your face crisps and being given a cinematic presentation, only you are so concentrated that you are not really thinking about much of anything else other than in the most superficial of ways processing what you are seeing, just enough to follow the plot.

This leads us to my understanding of video games immersion which really is quite simple, it just translates to my concentration level during the gameplay process. You know how when you are watching a so-bad-its-good movie with your buddies, and you are all laughing and tearing the movie several new ones and generally having a loud old good time. You are watching the movie then, but you are not really giving it your full attention, because on its own it is not really interesting or worth your time, but it is a damn fine butt of many good quips. If you had to be all serious about watching a bad movie it would not only be a painful experience, but it would also feel like an eternity, because you are not being entertained by what is there so your mind cannot focus on it and starts to wander, thus you begin trying to pass time by paying attention to other things.

Now, such an experiences stands in stark contrast to how one behaves when watching an engrossing movie, then the presentation has one’s full and undivided attention, to the point that time seems to just fly. This is movie immersion, and would you know it, it behaves exactly in the same way as other forms of immersions such as, say, reading a good book, listening to a swinging tune or just being completely engrossed by any particular activity, such as gaming for an example.

This is video game immersion, the game demands a lion’s share of my attention, but I never forget myself because no portion of allocated attention could ever make me oblivious to the fact that I am sitting there and playing a game.

In that sense no number of HUD elements can break my immersion, in fact the only time a particularly intrusive of the sort can advertise its presence to me is if I am bored by a section in the game and as my hands carry out the mechanical task at hand I will start to muse over the design of the game, and then perhaps I will look at the HUD and think, that doesn't need to be there all the time and shrug my shoulder. Its omission wouldn’t make the game any more enjoyable, it would then just become sleeker, a sleeker yet remaining boring experience.

You see, I only start to notice small niggles when Ahab has failed as a captain and the game has become too unengaging to hold my full attention, only when ennui sets in does one begin to pick at seams. In contrast Shadow of Colossus could damn well have plastered all but a postage stamp sized portion of its screen full of HUD elements and it'd still be on the receiving end of an equal portion of my attention as I sent Wander jumping off of Argo in full gallop to try and grab a hold of the hairy hide of that flying monstrosity, rising majestically out of the barren desert sand. In that instance I don't even see the so called intrusive HUD because I am fully concentrated on the task at hand as it is an exquisitely crafted of the sort.

“I wasn't thinking of work then, that is for damn sure”


See, that there, that is my definition of immerse, which is to say a game reaching into my mind and claiming for itself a lion's share of the attention contained within, and holding it proudly in the air as Wander would in search of his next noble victim.
The true bane of immersion: 

Now, Ahab, let us leave alone Moby to frolic in the seas and let us talk about what can actually, and always has shattered this definition of immersion, and it will be plain to see that these are equally worthy of giving chase to, because they are just as visible as a big fat albino sperm whale.

As mentioned earlier the most common enemy of immersion is ennui borne of lack of concentration, which is to say whenever the game enters a phase where I feel that I am no less playing a game than I am just doing busy work like some sort of gopher. Almost every game has a stretch where not much of anything engaging is going on, if we are talking JRPG's then this would be whenever I am slowly walking around a town and hitting OK in front of any NPC that has no worthwhile wall of text to spring at me.

I am not sure why I am compelled to do this with every single NPC in those damn towns, but I am obsessive like that, I just don't find it to be particularly exciting. Okay, that is a bad example perhaps, as most NPC conversations are optional, but then if they add so little and take away so much why are they even there?

To take a better example I also find nothing loses a large portion of my attention than when presenting me with a mandatory obstacle entirely devoid of any challenge; almost like the game feels compelled to have an obstacle there, but cannot think up anything memorable so it just phones it in. In JRPG's this would be one of those many, many, many, many filler "press fight to win" battles that intersperse the ones that require your full attention. In the Yakuza series this is whenever a side quest is being set up and it takes a few too many lines of text, complete with no voice acting and canned animations, to allow me go beat up yet another group of guys to complete said side quest. The beating up part is rather fun and engaging because Yakuza has a fun and well presented fighting system complete with a constant chance to cause over the top violence, but the lackluster setting up of the fights are immersion breaking.

"Exciting, why don't we talk a little longer?..." 

"Or I could just let my fists do the talking?"

In short, bad pacing ruins game immersion, because when the game is not engaging you then you cannot concentrate on it and your attention is invited to start wandering. This has a negative impact on your overall experience, especially when you call it to remembrance, and especially if such moments were comprised a significant portion of your gameplay experience, because then the game feels like it lasted an eternity, and not in a good way.

This dynamic works in the exact same when, in a game, you suddenly exhaust all of your options and find yourself being stuck, not knowing what you are supposed to do next. Then frustration and boredom begins to set in as you aimlessly wander, trying different things in order to figure out what you are missing.

This also happens when a previously robust gameplay of a title presents you with a situation that works in a clumsy, inelegant perhaps even broken manner. There you stop focusing all of your attention on playing a game and instead start reflecting on how terrible this sections is, and why the design seemingly takes a nose dive exactly at this point. Hard crashes, overly long and rapid loading screens, control mechanisms that should be simple to execute but are unreliable etc. all break immersion by slapping the player out of their concentration with sloppiness or just general disregard.

I’ve heard a long list of things be cited as immersion breaking over the years, one of these is player death or failure. This is true in a limited sense as death can lead to having to repeat a slow and effortless stretch of the game in order to get to the point where the challenge was. But games that keep up their momentum even when allowing for death and failure by throwing the player back into the action with as little lead time as possible do not break immersion. This is because the game immediately demands your full attention back for the task at hand. This is how games with an arcade design, featuring hundreds of player deaths per level nevertheless manage to maintain immersion throughout each player death, because the player is constantly being challenged and needs to pay close attention.

In contrast, take an RPG last boss which, as per some tradition, has to be beaten three times in succession before it is truly vanquished, and as per some RPG design law this boss’s two first forms are pushovers. So when the final form of the boss summons its ultimate attack at an most inopportune time and gets lucky an hour into the battle, and you realize that it is going to take you 45 minutes to get back to this part again, yeah, those extra 45 minutes are immersion breaking. The reason I keep bringing up RPG’s is because by virtue of their average length they are full of immersion breaking moments where you find yourself paying attention to anything but the task at hand because it is effortless or just devoid of excitement.

Other than challenge there is one other factor that helps to maintain interest and focus, which is the factor of atmosphere. Atmosphere is an intangible quality that works differently for each person, but taking the aggregate sum of opinions there seems to be general agreement in place as to which games are more atmospheric, and which are not. But the foremost ingredient of atmosphere is the environment that the game is played in. Anyone knows what a difference it can make to play a horror game in bright daylight with the volume down low as opposed to alone, at night with headphones on.

To take a few examples of good atmosphere we first have to mention Silent Hill 2 which is best in class in terms of establishing and maintaining atmosphere. Thus, even with its rather effortless battles and difficult puzzles that can get you stuck, SH2 manages to maintain player attention. As for RPG’s, I can only mention a handful that have any sort of consistently maintained atmosphere through them, in fact the only two that come to mind are Vagrant Story and Demon’s Souls. Demon’s Souls is interesting here because it features a lot of frustrating deaths and a lot of repeated attempts of the same levels. But it manages to maintain player attention by both being very challenging, and atmospheric to boot.

Character immersion:

Another issue of immersion that I often find myself puzzled by, and which seemingly is even more damaging if approached in the mostly philosophical manner that it is often discussed, is protagonist immersion.

Sometimes, when I read critical or discussion pieces regarding protagonists in games I am honestly puzzled by the way that the authors approach the subject. Whenever someone speaks of themselves in the role of the protagonist I ask myself if they actually did project themselves into the game character that they were controlling. Having paid attention I see that I certainly never think about a game in such a schizophrenic manner. The fact that so many seem to do so and subsequently get so worked up over the issue of protagonist design philosophies really puzzles me.

When people discuss the issue of character, protagonist or otherwise, in a literary sense, which extends to cinema as well, the discussions are usually concentrated on the quality of their writing. But often when game protagonists are discussed the wagon of discussions quickly gets derailed by the issue of character immersion being placed upon the tracks, because, I must assume, games being interactive where you can push sticks to control the character, and occasionally decide which path the character gets walk, so it is natural to call the process role playing as someone else. Thus game are often not approached in the sense that their choice mechanics are just that, game mechanics, but in terms of them being honest to god deep dilemmas that the role playing character is confronted with.

When reading a book or watching a movie I might sometimes be sympathetic to a character's cause and get vested in their story, but only as an outside observer and because the story is well written. Whenever in a rare occasion that I do feel the same sort of engagement for game characters, like as I did in ICO, I do so in a similar removed manner, even when I am controlling one of them. This does not change even if the developers do that strange video game designer trick of making the protagonist be mute, so as to better be a cipher, a puppet for the player so they can pretend it is them there, in the game.


Sounds familiar does not? But hold on there captain, are we really sure that people actually feel connected with mute game characters in this exact manner? Or do they actually connect with game characters, protagonist or otherwise, in the same way that they connect to the characters of a well written movie or book. Are we sure that they occasionally, perhaps, make an conscious decision to just pretend, you know like when we pretend for cops and robbers, just for play, to be playing as a character, and subsequently forget what they were actually feeling at that moment when later they are having a philosophical discussion on the issue of main protagonists in games and how they relate to player immersion? Maybe, just a tiniest bit perhaps?

“Philosopher A: I really found it to be immersion breaking when the character of Link is created to be a cipher for me, but then NPC’s keep addressing him as if he were an already established character."

“Philosopher B: Hmmm… ditto on Gordon Freeman."

“Philosopher me: O RLY?”

I continue to hear a lot of discussions whose basis is founded on the existence of that direct sort of connection but every time I find myself wondering if people are not just over thinking things and viewing said relationship in a purely theoretical sense in hindsight while forgetting to remember what was actually going through their minds as they were playing the game.

In fact I feel the same prevalence of wild gooses being chased en masse when discussions pertaining to game design take a nose dive below the clouds of philosophical or theoretical conjecture as such discussions are want to do. Hear me, oh, Ahab, I knit my brows at these philosophical soliloquies, as they seem to be damaging game design by continually being placed at the core of certain titles.

Yet the discussions claiming that when so and so was playing the role of such and such, they really found this and that behavior to be inconsistent, which then broke immersion for them. So, let me get this right, if I were to, at that exact moment where the game is going to present you with a set of choices, open up a tiny little door at the back of your head and just jump in there, Being John Malkovich style, I’d be witness to you having immersed yourself fully into the role of that character, in that world, musing over those actions, in short I’d be witness to the best method acting performance that you, good sir, can possibly muster?

I would be seriously impressed if that were the case, if game players at large were so capable of losing themselves in the moment, and step fully into the shoes of a virtual person, in a virtual world and see things from their perspective, as of it were all as real as the seating arrangements that they were resting upon at that crucial moment. Indeed, such an occurrence would blow the proverbial mind of this author, and I would then dare say that Hollywood will not be in want of any accomplished actors in the near future.

"Face of the average gamer?" 

This is particularly impressive to me because to my mind such a thing is an almost impossibility. If ever I were to even come close to emulating such an occurrence I would then have to force it by turning the process of playing a game and making decisions into its own little meta game. This meta game would involve I trying to imagine a personality for the mute puppet that I control through pushing sticks and buttons and try to, instead of contemplating a set of options on their the individual merits in accordance to how the mechanics of the game works, instead pretend to be pondering them in terms of their ramifications if it were all real.

I would then not be content to by default choose the option that I think will give me the most streamlined, enjoyable and efficient trek through the game and instead actually weigh the karmic ramifications of the old “kick the baby” versus “save the baby” dilemma, yes, that old chestnut, and carefully choose the outcome based on wither I chose to cast that cipher puppet in my control in the role of the Charles Mason archetype, or the Jesus one.

Perhaps I will even go as far as cast my self into the role, my real life self, if I were to, by some bizarre conspiracy of fate, stumble into the mechanical world of a game, and weight said decisions as they were presented to me right now, as I sit here by this desk. All this instead of doing my usual routine of picking the minute by minute in-game behavior based on what will net me the most fun, because I am fully aware that I am just playing a video game, not acting in the play of life.

So, sirs, and madams, which is it, are you truly method acting, or are we just forgetting ourselves and our actual moment to moment thought process in hindsight?

So, let us ask ourselves a few questions shall we:

Oh, you dastardly fiend, all these dead civilians lying lifeless in a pool of their cartoony blood upon the sidewalk, did you happen to be the one committing mass murder upon these innocent masses?

A)  How dare you sir, I never harmed an innocent soul in this world, well, except for that one individual that I accidentally ran over due to the hammy driving mechanics. But I assure you the experience left we devastated and hollow, and I still cry myself to sleep over that digital life routine which I extinguished from the console’s process memory.

B)  I had to kill them because I was method acting as a deranged mass murderer in the game. I assure you, it was all completely in the spirit of my Gacy archetype character.

C)  Yeah, I did it. Because genocide sure is fun. A fun game mechanic that is.

In another scenario, a mysterious stranger asks you to trigger a nuke and blow up an entire town to smithereens, how will you approach this karmic dilemma?

A)  How ghastly! Only the lowest and most despicable form of human life would ever dream of committing such a condemnable act as nuking an entire city of souls. I stoutly refuse on purely moral grounds.

B)   I chose not to because such an act would be inconsistent behavior for my goody two shoes character. No matter how welcoming a sight it would have been to see that fiery mushroom bloom upon the horizon I would never resort to breaking out of character momentarily for such petty reasons as having a bit of old fashioned genocidal fun.

C)   Wait a minute, if I kill every NPC in that town then what about all of the side quest that they offer? Oh, I know, let me make a quick save here and then blow it up, that way I can always go back.

Now, when confronted with questions such as these and the like I will always err on the side of the C type options, because to me the definition of world and player immersion as it is often cited is an incongruous mystery. Alas I’ve seen many, during a discussions of game topics, provide answers that fall into the other two categories.

So either these people forget themselves when recalling their experience, long blunted by the edge of time, in mostly abstract and philosophical discussions, or they really do act that way, which would be fascinating to me. But how normal would such behavior bet? In case of type A, I imagine not normal at all because then all you’d be playing is T rated games, unless of course, you are comrade Stalin? Well, comrade, are you? If not I cannot see how you would otherwise tolerate being forced to perform all those objectionable acts that mature rated, and even some T rated games task upon you. I’ll tell you how you tolerate it, by knowing that none of it is real, it is just a game after all.

“Good shot comrade, that ticks the old kill counter up to 20 million. This will put you at the top of the leaderboard for certain, bravo!”

In case B, where you, shall we say, method act, and I mean real method acting, where you, just like a really good actor, are actually able to channel thinking and behaving as another person, rather than just choosing to pretend you are just for fun and giggles. Well, I would be very surprised if there are that many who are actually able to suppress their own person and become another temporarily as if they were a spiritualist channeling the dead. I think in the case of B people are pretending more in the same way one pretends to be either cops or robbers while horsing around with one’s friends.

If this were so then it begs the question of who exactly are all of these philosophical discussions, and the efforts that they spawn benefitting, really? Not the majourity of your audience, that is for damn sure, or at least not in my case.

So next time you work yourself up discussing the immersive advantages of mute cipher characters, morality systems, the presence of choice in how players get to tackle obstacles in games then try and make an conscious effort to recall what you were actually thinking when presented with similar things in all the other titles that featured them. Did they really help immerse you into the game, let you seep into the world and make you feel like you were making a difference, or were you just taking them at face value, like me? Were you thinking that this character customization option will help you better connect to the polygon puppet that you push around with stick and buttons while you were spending hours trying to make it look like you, or were you, like me, just puzzled by the presence of a facial feature creation option when you are just going to spend the entire game looking at he back of your characters head instead, and a helmet donning one at that?

Were the presence of morality options really a crucial part of your projecting your sentiments into the game world, or were they just an obnoxious game mechanic that annoyed you because behind each choice the game would lock away half of its content, but in the end you didn’t care because Ahab was too preoccupied with the whale to make either locked portion fun and engaging?

Where the presence of differing options in how you could approach a problem a crucial part of you breathing the virtual air of that world as a real character, or where you struck with the desire to have one path that is better designed because it got all of the attention instead of having a handful and neither being any good?

There are important questions to ask, because depending on how they are truthfully answered then they will call for a different approach. Yes, if we can agree that these contrivances are at the end of the day nothing but plain old game mechanics, nothing that will sprinkle gameplay experiences with the fantastic spice of immersion. If Ahab can do that and vacate the ship for a while then we will realize that the merit by which these mechanics are measured in certain philosophical discussions are misguided. Then the true merit of these mechanics, just like any other mechanic in a game, becomes a question of how much they add to the gameplay, as in what their net worth in terms of fun and engagement is so that we can take the priorities going into the design of said mechanics up for revision accordingly.

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