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The Nature of Immersion

A look into the concept of defining types of immersion in games to better portray the game to its players

Jonathan Michalik, Blogger

September 1, 2013

15 Min Read

I have a programmer friend that I work with, both full-time and as game-development greenhorns.  We often get into really interesting debates that revolve around the design of video games, and it often turns into a round table discussion between two people very quickly; an open forum for thoughts and observations about the games we play and games we ultimately wish to make.  As far as memory serves, they’ve never actually been at a round table, but usually a coffee table.  A relaxed setting of back-and-forth conceptualizing and de-serialization of the phenomena that we experience in the field we admire most: video games.  I’m bringing the conversations to this community, so please use this blog to share your own thoughts on the topics I set up (Because my thoughts are definitely far from end-all-be-all!).

When You Use a Word Too Much…

This week, I noticed myself being torn by the sheer amount of times I hear the word “immersion” come up when describing video games.  It could be that Spring and Summer are wrought with game conventions and conferences, and “immersion” has been a keyword when describing a good game for generations now.  Everywhere I turn, I hear people spouting the word, toting it around, as it has become a requirement for your game to have this word associated with it in some way, shape, or form.  And why wouldn’t you?  Everyone knows the word.  We all consider it a baseline for a quality gaming experience.  When students are learning about the industry, it’s the first “I” word they learn.  To make a good game you have to make your player feel like they’re an integral part of it.  And not just pushing buttons and making things happen, but actually believing they are a defining factor in the events that go on within your game world.

What tears me, though, is not the word itself, but rather the lack of definition that the word needs to make its point clear.  Yes, the player will be a part of this game; but how?  What is your game doing to immerse the player?  It’s easy to say the person playing this game will be a part of the game, but what is the mode, what is the type, what is the genre of immersion that you are offering to the player?  There is a lot of room to further describe the player’s potential influence on and within the game world.  This level of descriptiveness, I believe, is easily overlooked.

But Why Do It to Begin With?

Now, I suppose one of the major questions (before I delve into specific types of immersion) would be, “Well, what’s the point of describing it?  The player will be playing the game and they’ll figure it out for themselves, right?”  This has a lot of truth to it, but when you advertise and pitch your game to other people and you limit yourself to simply noting the high-level genre while throwing the general term, “immersion,” out there, your game really isn’t being done justice.  Unless that’s all you thought about when you conceptualized your game, then I guess that’s all you need; but I’m going to take a leap of faith here and guess that most designers have a hook, something that makes your game different than everything else.  Using this hook is a great way of describing the type of immersion your game specializes in.  It further defines your game and gives the people listening to your pitch/advertisement something to remember; something to relate the game to.  When using it in tandem with the base term “immersion,” you’re not only selling a feature of the game, but letting your players know exactly the feeling you’re trying to have them realize while in the game world.

A Couple Examples…

This may be an oversight in the mobile market, but games that use your finger as a control to slash things have a surprisingly deep type of immersion related to them.  The feature is so simple, too.  A touch screen requires your finger to come into contact with it in order to manipulate the device’s interface.  When you go into a game that utilizes this functionality, you’re not just looking at something to feel a part of it; you, yourself, are actually an extension of the game.  Your finger has become the blade that cuts the objects.  It’s not just pressing a button to get a reaction, you are doing it yourself in much the same manner you would do that in reality.  The simplicity of these types of games gives the player the cut-and-dry of how they’d actually perform the task in reality, no strings attached (unless the game has you slashing strings, I guess!).  The control type is the primary feature, but it doesn’t quite tell you why it’s so immersive.  This technique is something I call “Extensional Immersion.”  So it’s not simply a Mobile game; it’s a Mobile super-genre that utilizes an Extensional Immersion sub-genre.

That type of immersion is very different from the immersion I personally grew up with playing loads of RPGs.  The RPG genre is a fairly robust one to start with.  You’ll see it pop up alongside other, more specific, genres (Action RPG, Puzzle RPG, MMORPG, etc.).  Once you get to the granular super-genre, how else do you describe it to your players?  Let’s take the approach we just took with the Mobile genre.  You’re making an MMORPG and it takes place in a very large, lush environment.  Let’s also say that your world also has some lore behind it, and your target players happen to be familiar with this world.  You design the game with that in mind and reflect the environment to line up very well with how the lore portrays it.  The feeling, the immersion that you want your players to feel is one of existence in the world they know.  When they get into the game world (after the learning curve stage that most games have initially), your players know exactly where they are in the world at almost all times.  They hardly need the map you provide after a while because the world is already so familiar to them.  You’ve successfully brought the world your players were expecting, as they came into the game, to life.  I like to call this sensation “Spatial Immersion.”  The feeling you get when you navigate through a game world at the level that you know how to navigate through the city you live in.  This delivers the MMORPG super-genre with a Spatial Immersion sub-genre to it.

The How-and-Feel Formula

Now, this solves two issues that I often think about:  the overuse of the general term of “immersion,” and (something I haven’t expressed yet) the market saturation of known game genres.  By utilizing your hook, your unique design factor, as a type of immersion, you actively tell your audience what the game is and how they will be involved in the game world.  It’s a simple formula that you’ve probably caught onto with the examples above, but you just take the high-level game genre as a “how you’ll play the game” and take the immersive hook as the “how you will feel when you play the game.”  Granted, this formula can be hard to apply to all games, and it involves really getting into your design and making a point to get your players to not only play a certain way, but feel a certain way.  This breaks up the monotony of people saying, “My game is immersive,” forcing them to think of how it is immersing the player.  It’s a pretty good test to see if you’re succeeding on delivering to your players the experience you actually set out to deliver to them, as well.

Ultimately, this doesn’t necessarily make “new” genres of games, but it presents a way to branch out from those known genres and break in some more granular play-styles.  Maybe our current platforms are peaking at the “how do we play games” level, but there are certainly plenty of ways that games can introduce new genres of “how does this make you feel” to our game environments.

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