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