Against Immersion

Do you want the video games you play to be "immersive"? Just like The Matrix someday? Writer Oliver Hargrave pens his objection to the concept in an article we're proud to republish here.

"See, the hypothetical ultimate model of gaming is total immersion. The whole Matrix thing. Plugging your brain into a virtual world that you see with your own eyes, feel beneath your own feet, and commit genocide upon its inhabitants with a napalm launcher in your own hands. […]I'm talking about a direct neural interface here, something that plugs into your spinal cord and diverts the signals from your brain to the computer avatar, so your own body doesn't move, but the one in the game does."

- Yahtzee Croshaw

The concept of immersion is unquestioned in video game discourse. It is applied to all types of video games and all video games must live up to its allusive goal.

The idea is that to get the full experience from video games one's consciousness must be completely "immersed" in the video game – to the point where one cannot tell the difference between the game and reality. Video games that supposedly achieve this extraordinary feat are considered the pinnacle of gaming software. But this is a very self-effacing goal. It's almost as if the only way video games can be any good is if we pretend they don't exist. If the idea is that technology and game design will be refined to a glorious point where you don't know you're playing a game then one has to wonder; what's so bad about video games that we need to forget them?

But what is immersion? It seems based on a false premise – the assumption that anyone ever forgets that they are playing a video game while they are playing one. This is negligible.

The idea that video games have to create this immersion actively encourages creative conformity and stagnation. If the player is ever to "forget" that she is playing a video game, she must be very familiar with every aspect of the software. From control to graphics to sound to story (and so on), everything has to conform to what has come before in order for the player to turn her brain off and "forget". Anything new or unexpected would require the player to think, to snap out of her stupor, and the spell would be broken.

But this is not usually the way we talk about art works. On the contrary, when engaging with art, people are always aware that what they are playing is a video game or what they are watching is a film. That we can have emotional or even physical reactions to such stimuli does not change this fact. We say that x is a "great game" or that y is a "brilliant movie". We do not feel the same about wandering a video game forest as we would a real forest. To truly confuse the two would be pathological.

The player only entertains the idea that she is inside the game. She extends her mind into the video game world, in a lesser but similar way that she extends her mind throughout her body. But unlike the body, she is just visiting the video game. The player both entertains the idea that she is inside the game and is aware that she is not. This awareness never goes away. A video game does not impair our senses to the point that we are ever truly "immersed".

If we were talking about dancing, then it would be entirely appropriate to talk about the conscious mind fading into the background while the dancer loses her self in music and movement. But more often than not, the video games that are spoken of as "immersive" are played with the body in repose. If there are really any "immersive" video games then they are body movement-based games like Wii Fit. Video games that are played with the mind are played with the consciousness – we cannot turn off the consciousness and play the video game at the same time.

Wii Fit may seem like a drab use of body movement, but Microsoft's new Kinect technology – which senses body movement as player input without a controller – is a step towards the selfless play of dancing. The promotional hype says that Kinect offers a body-as-controller interface. Yahtzee Croshaw and others are looking forward instead to a mind-as-controller interface, as they believe this will be the best way to play video games. The best way is to be "immersed" in the video game world as if immersed in water.

Yahtzee points to The Matrix as the model for this artistic future of video games, but in the movie the Matrix was a form of control. The heroes struggle against the illusion of the Matrix by exploiting it and they can only exploit it once they have realised that none of it is real, that "there is no spoon". Before he "wakes up", Neo has a mundane office job that he hates. He is so totally immersed in the Matrix that he, like most everyone else, has no idea that the world he inhabits is virtual.

He has no idea that he is essentially playing a video game.

Rather than pretending that the video game doesn't exist, the way to get the best out of the medium is to exploit it. By ignoring it or making it self-effacing and bland, we run the risk of missing everything that makes videogaming worthwhile.

Ultimately, "immersion" is a marketing term – like "attitude" in the '90s – a word that people understand to be good without knowing or questioning what it means. We can all agree that immersion is important in video games. This is because immersion doesn't mean anything at all, except maybe shorthand for the feeling one gets when playing a video game that one enjoys.

The use of immersion as a prescriptive term however, can have other negative side effects. If video games ever highlight their artificiality or require concentration or the learning of new rules, then these video games will be undervalued for not fitting in with the immersion concept. Also because all that immersion really means is that the player liked the video game, critics can lazily justify video games that they like just because they liked them without having to explain themselves. All they have to do is claim that the video game exhibits this mystical quality and that's that.

Calling for immersion in video games is an unnecessary restriction. Unnecessary because video games quite easily involve the player without having to trick her into thinking that she isn't playing a game. Video game worlds are fascinating and full of potential precisely because they are not real.

Part of the logic of immersion comes from denial. It's a short step from "I am not playing a video game" to "therefore I am not wasting my life". But being hooked up to the Matrix is not just a way to waste one's life – in the movie the Matrix exists to keep humans in permanent suspended animation. It exists to keep humans from realising that their life is being drained away from them to power machines. Knowing that one is playing a video game means that one is able to stop and/or to look at the video game from a distance. This distance makes video games, film, literature, music (etc) so symbolically powerful. From this distance we can see things happen and grasp their meaning at the same time.

Pretending that video games are real is a way to avoid living. One of the definitions of the verb "to immerse" is "to embed; bury". Immersion is nothing less than a death wish.

Republished with permission.

Oliver Hargrave writes about video games and so on at http://voorface.wordpress.com


Comments

    I think your confused about the idea of immersion. It's not about making you forget your playing a game - it's to make you forget that your sitting on your couch, pressing buttons. It's about how you interact with the game world, not how you experience it.

      Yeah, I don't think the author really understands what people mean when they talk about immersion in video games.

      Exactly. It's not about not knowing you are playing a game. It's the same as film, an immersive film is one that makes it easy for us to feel what a character is feeling and think like a character is thinking. It's not brain surgery (see what I did there?)

      I don't see the distinction you're trying to make.

      As the author notes, the word "immersion" is much abused in games discourse. It's used interchangeably to mean anything from "I felt really involved" to "I lost track of time" to "This game was fun".

        exactly! Hargrave may get a bit melodramatic at one point, but he does first say that the term is used in a bunch of different ways, and then goes on to explore what the dangers are of ONE of the ways in which the term is used.

      It all depends on the context.

      I could "immerse" myself in warcraft but that might mean
      -reading all the novels and role playing and hving posters on my wall.

      or it might mean

      - playing the game 8 hours everyday and being really hardcore about the stats and numbers and knowing all the modifiers.

      both times the player is "immersed" but in totally different ways.

    Not a single mention of Red Dwarf. Very disappointed.
    Better Than Life would have been a perfect example to use.

    Interesting piece.

    I agree that immersion is more of a marketing term than a description or goal.

    Sometimes thou i think a lot of this type of analysis of video games is very restricted.

    Games are many things to many people and they will play for all different reasons. Some to get away from life, others for the competitive thrills. With that in mind games are different for different reasons. Thats why the whole reviewing system is flawed.

    It comes down to I liked game W for reasons X,Y and Z.

    If someone wants a game like the matrix then they will play it. if someone wants an artsy indie game then they will look for that.

    in the end its all about your personal experience with the media. Thats why I think games are art.

    I think there's the distinction between 'immersion' and simply being 'immersive,' that is to say a number of games can be accurately described as carrying certain immersive qualities without attaining the full immersion that lies at the end of the scale.

    You'll always know you're playing a game, but being immersive is making you feel that the virtual world you're interacting with has a life and laws all of its own, breaking free for instance from the conscious awareness that a certain obstacle was placed by a designer for a certain reason, or simply that the game feels 'whole' without gameplay contrivances like HUDs filtering the experience.

    I suppose you could similarly compare the concept to the more recent Inception also.

    I think one thing the author has failed to take into account is that games don’t need to be realistic to be immersive. This whole idea of games needing to be like the matrix to be immersive is stupid. Immersion is what anyone decides to take out of a game. If I enjoy the story, character, music, gameplay, art style and have a lot of fun am I not immersed in the game? Alternatively my video game character can be a %100 representation of me, but if I don’t like the game, then I’m not immersed.

    The author is doing exactly what he is criticizing; he assumes gamers can only be immersed as long as the game is about absolute realism. That it doesn’t take any break from trying to fool you. Immersion may be a marketing term. But that doesn’t mean it’s being used in an incorrect way.

      This is exactly spot on. I don't mind the idea of plugging in to the matrix but not if I am immersed in an office entering data for 8 hours then going home to watch TV and go to bed. But If i plug in and can dodge bullets and leap tall buildings with a single bound then I might be interested. Immersion does not exactly have to be realism and if someone could jack in and be completely immersed whist still having a horse body to fun through fields or angel wings and be able to fly it would be an awesome path to go down.
      You could be completely immersed but still be original and artistic!

      Actually I think that you are illustrating the authors other main point which is that immersive is just a word used to represent any ambiguous quality that anyone decides to apply it to. So if you think for instance that a character makes a game immersive...than if I describe my game as "immersive" than you might associate that as having good characters.

        I guess what this article teaches me is that immersion is something that no one can really market. It’s something that has to be experienced. The actual term immersion to me means that a game has been deeply enjoyed. Immersion doesn’t mean that I have to forget I’m playing a game. Most games I would describe as immersive have only become that way because I was able to talk about it with other gamers and continue to enjoy the game outside of the virtual world.

        The author has used immersion as a replacement for the world realism. Regardless of what game you are playing, fantasy, realistic. It must not break character at all. I don’t think that must be the case for a game to be immersive. But then again, what the hell do I know?

        Regardless, I’m sure the original author would rather have people question his work that just agree with it.

    to further quote yahtzee:
    "Shoot that guy," think you, and lo is that guy shot. Thought → action. That's what technology should be working towards"

    He is not prescribing the author's model of immersion = being unaware of the difference between life and game.

    I think the bloke that wrote the article really ran away with an idea that wasnt there in the first place.

    further to that "It takes a little while to get used to it, and figure out what buttons apply to what actions, but hey, it took a while for you to learn how to read, too."

    Which suggests yahtzees vision of immersion is not a reality replacing one, but perhaps just a change in physicality.

    There is no suggestion in yahtzees review that to be immersed is to be unaware, the author created his own definition of immersion based on a false pretence and then picked it apart. Shoddy.

      I read Yahtzee's piece, I think what the author here is saying is that if every game is aiming for matrix like "immersion" then they are all going to end up being quite similar.

      I think FPS are the main culprits of this because the view point is supposed to make it feel like you are in the action, and a lot of them are quite similar to each other.

      I think the point he was making was that everyone makes up their own definition of immersion and therefore it doesn't actually mean anything.

      Like if everyone thought "shoddy" meant something different.

    Playing a video game is just another part of life. But then again, life is no more realistic than a life-like virtual reality game.

    I'd prefer if the developers focused on immersion rather than the technology for example a good black and white film can be more immersive than a 3D one, and I was more immersed in Commander Keen than Halo...

    And recommending a good book to someone that they can 'get lost in' is tantamount to murder! ;)

    I disagree with the initial argument that immersion implies a complete forgetting that one is involved in a game. I don't think that's what critics and the like mean when they talk about a game being immersive, or wanting games to be more immersive. Being unable to tell the gameworld apart from reality is not the same as *not knowing* that one is in a game. It's possible that such a thing could one day be created - where the player is caused to forget that they have even started to play a game - but that's not what people are asking for. Obviously such a device could entail some negative consequences, from addiction to nightmarish scenarios where the tech is misused, but I think that's jumping the gun a bit ;)

    Using our imagination, it's easy to come up with games that would be tremendous fun if they seemed and felt as real as reality does; from real world activities but without the danger they might entail, to things impossible in our real world. Obviously some games will be that way eventually.

    That doesn't mean that *all* games will be, or should be. I don't think anyone is insisting that all styles of game would benefit from being as real as possible. People will probably always still play 2-D platformers or what have you, but one can imagine how such 'immersion' into a realistic game-world might make first-person shooters etc more thrilling.

    So, yeah, I agree that 'immersion' shouldn't be the end goal of every type of game, nor should it be the sole criteria by which games are judged. But I think 'immersion' is a valid goal for some types of game.

    It might be worth noting also that, to come back to my joke at the start of this comment, often the most 'immersive' of art and entertainment are the ones that rely heavily on the user's imagination, rather than those which try to present everything to the user. I'd argue this goes for games as well, because I certainly feel more involved in the side-scrolling DS Castlevania games than I sometimes do with a first-person home console game on my big-screen tv. I'd argue that part of that is because of the 'uncanny valley' effect, which to my thinking occurs not only with graphics, but also gameplay; when I'm playing Castlevania, it never bothers me - never even occurs to me - that when I'm standing right behind an enemy and it doesn't notice me or whatever, I don't go "man the AI in this sucks" like I do if I'm playing some supposedly realistic FPS or whatever and the AI does something stupid. The greater the attempt at immersion, the more noticeable the tiny flaws are. That's a pretty significant issue I think and definitely an argument for 'simpler' games that let your imagination do more of the work

    Oh god not Yahtzeem I knew straight away I would disagree with him and after reading his article I did just that...

    To make this quick he essentially claims Immersion is an easy way out of game design, as the player no longer needs to engage with the game or "feel in the gaps" therefore breaking imagination and innovation.

    WRONG

    I like to see Immersion as a synonym for Natural. Think about it how can you be immersed in a game if it has shoddy controls or story telling or even unbelievable (remember unbelievable is not the same as unrealistic). Which gets to my point Immersion is one of the hardest points of a game to ever achieve, you have to design a game so natural that the player intuitively moves to point A and then to point B.

    Think L4D, although not perfect the fact that they painted particular objects red or had lit up lights in certain areas natural drew you towards similarly like a reflex. Why else do we get lost in badly made custom maps, because they haven't been designed with natural human proportions and logic.

    Yahtzee is simply talking about making input a more natural and organic process in order to reduce the barriers to immersion, to allow for the player to become quickly swept up in the game world. I think everyone here understands that immersion in the context of video games does not refer to some kind of slave like state where the player is not aware that she is within a virtual world, and the article spends too much time harping on about this as if it were the desired end result of Yahtzee's article.
    Immersion in video games is about the suspension of disbelief, a concept that essentially suggests the player will 'buy in to' the narrative or game world despite its fantastical elements. It is not about becoming so lost in a game world that it becomes a person's reality. The power of video games is that they give sensations that are unique and exciting when juxtaposed to our physical reality; without an awareness of our own reality the game is not fantastical at all, but rather mundane.
    Finally for games to work they need to have boundaries and rules, and for narratives to work they need the player to believe in the context. These two concepts can be manipulated and stretched to produce all kinds of crazy worlds and stories. They are not what holds video games back; rather they are the glue that holds them together

    I'd imagine it to be more like Inception not the Matrix. I actually expected an essay on existentialism in video games, as this is generally what I see as the immersive atmosphere and its quite clear that everyone has defined it for themselves.

    I agree that the author is overstating "Immersion." He's also commiting the fallacy of the Extended Analogy; i.e. he's assuming that Yahtzee's comparison to The Matrix must automatically mean that every single aspect of The Matrix (including its enforced nature) is meant to be part of the ideal video game experience.

    Immersion simply means that the player's awareness becomes more and more focussed on the game to the point that the awareness of "you're sitting on your couch" lessens itself. It is basically akin to "being engrossed."

    Video games offer the interactivity element, which allows them to offer a potentially much more engrossing fantasy to the audience.

    All Yahtzee is saying is that the ideal for video games is something like Nozick's "Experience Machine" (that you can enter and exit at will); to provide a way to live out one's fantasies. He isn't saying that video games require everyone being coercively plugged into The Matrix.

    I should note, I have my disagreements with Yahtzee, but that doesn't change the fact that Hargrave's article is fundamentally based on the fallacy of the Extended Analogy.

    I should add, immersion is not necessarily good. It depends on the work and what the work is trying to achieve. Certain games only really get their effect from actively being non-immersive. Metal Gear Solid 2 is an example; the game criticized players who thought the original MGS1 was a power fantasy and thought Snake was "oh so perfect and awesome and the best action hero ever" (in reality, the point of MGS1 was that Snake was a total basket case). This required exploring the relationship between the game and the player, and in many instances mocking the player for wishing they were Snake.

    But again, it depends on the point of the game. If a game wants to provide players an opportunity to live out an experience, then immersion is a good thing!

    Again, I'm not saying "immersion is always good." For some games, immersion can be counterproductive. But on the other hand, the article itself is pretty much based entirely on a ridiculous exaggeration (based on an extended analogy) of what "immersion" requires.

    If an RTS had a comprehensive neural interface the game would be won entirely on strategy instead of on clicking speed and shortcut familiarity.

    Similarly, an FPS would be won solely on tactics instead of Mouse/Key or thumbstick control.

    We have many different input methods - most games measure our control over these as much as they do our in-game intentions. I can't think of a genre that couldn't adapt to neural control in some way.

    It isn't about immersion alone, it's about immersive control. I tend to think that Yahtzee is referencing control. Whilst Oliver makes some good points, he seems to miss the type of immersion that Yahtzee is gunning for.

    wow, i get the impression that this guy has never experienced true immersion within a game or even movie for that matter. yikes.

    His po-faced stance that one is always aware that they are playing a video game is unfortunate on him...

    I dunno, im pretty sure i was suffering from full immersion when my daughter dragged her pooee ass all over the carpet

    Ug I raise issue with the final paragraph. Immersion in no way "stems" from denial. Any form of escapsim occuring merely increases the tolerances a person has to stress, causing immersion states to be less likely to break.

    Lets face it immersion is not the either/or state that people (and marketing) seem to be putting forth, there are scales of partial to the matrixesque "full" immersion. The simplest form of immersion I can present you (to prove the concept) is one of translation of motion. Once you've stopped thinking about manipulating the controler, and instead start thinking of moving your character, you've partially imersed yourself.

    The entire point of aiming for an immersive game is to simply make the player more receptive and to ease thier play. Have a message or experience to deliver, then the more immersed in that exprience the better. If you're after competition or raw gaming fun, then you may be aiming for a lower state of immersion one where balance and finely tuned controls are all you're after.

    Sometimes I wish people who used the word immersion had to go do background reading as a prerequisite.

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