The Two Ways You Become Immersed In Video Games

The Two Ways You Become Immersed In Video Games

Editor’s Note: Back in July, the folks at the wonderfully named science-minded consulting group Thwacke were telling us about what StarCraft and Mass Effect get right about astronomy.

Today, one of the neuroscience experts, Ian Mahar, is here to talk immersion — what happens to you when you play a video game, and what game developers can do with that.

You are in a sunlit meadow, surrounded by pastoral green hills in an expansive vacant valley.

You are reading text on a computer screen. You are now aware of the fact that you are aware of the fact that you are reading text on a computer screen.

You are suddenly aware of the position of your tongue within your mouth. You are now aware of your own breathing.

Text, as a means of conveying information, has a powerful ability to alter the reader’s cognition to the extent that they (willingly or unwillingly) place themselves within a scene, and even self-identify as a character within that scene . What I’m referring to is the concept of immersion. Text on its own is obviously sufficient to provoke a sense of immersion (see, for example, every piece of immersive literature ever produced). However, in a multi-modal medium such as video games, combining visual input (including text) with a rich soundscape and (possibly the most important ingredient) the ability to interact with the game’s story, characters and environments, the potential for immersion is much greater. This also creates a higher incentive for video game developers to do as much as possible to facilitate immersion in their games, a responsibility which is only rising higher as technology and the standards of users increase.


It’s like I’m actually there, man…

Now, there are some special considerations when discussing immersion in video games as opposed to other media, and I’d like to make them explicit before going any further. The first is immersion necessity, and the second is immersion type.

Immersion Necessity

To pre-emptively counter the position that video game developers don’t need to prioritise immersion because not all games require it, I’ll admit right off the bat that immersion is not a quality inherent to every game. Nobody has ever felt a sense of immersion playing Tetris, and if you have, seek professional help immediately.


“That’s me in the corner…”

Puzzle games as a whole, in fact, often lack any substrate for immersion. However, just because it’s possible to create a game lacking an obligation for immersion doesn’t mean that a game won’t benefit from one. In support of this, look at the general trend in puzzle games since their inception; often story, character and environment elements are introduced that are completely extraneous to the puzzle mechanics, and which exist only to foster immersion and an emotional connection to whatever story element is ostensibly tied to the puzzle mechanics. Look at the incredibly successful Puzzle Quest series, which is basically just Bejeweled over and over with aliens and spells.


Hmm, needs more side quests.

The moral is that more (or better) story means greater immersion. It’s also true that the more open-ended the story, the deeper the immersion, with more opportunity to experience the game however the player would like.

Immersion Type

Putting aside non-immersive puzzle games, there are two types of immersion that exist in video games. I would argue that one of them in fact can only exist in video games.

With ‘impersonal immersion’, you’re identifying with a particular existing character in a game (or novel, TV show, etc), a character with a cohesive personality, context and appearance differing from that of the observer. You’re Mario, or Kratos, or whoever. You’re observing their story-related behaviour in cutscenes, and possibly you’re reacting to events as they do, but the appearance and behaviour of the characters is more or less hard-wired and you’re there for the vicariously immersive ride.


Unless you really believe this is you.

With ‘personal immersion’, you’re literally putting yourself into the game; i.e. your thoughts, appearance (however you’d like to project it as in-game), emotional and behavioural responses to story events, etc, all within a fictional context. This can apply to avatar characters, by the way, in which the player-character doesn’t resemble the player themselves but rather a character the player chooses to identify with, and also makes up most of the appeal of the entire Sims franchise. The important feature is that the character responds exactly how you feel like responding to any situation, even though the character may not look like you (your avatar could be an orc) or be in a recognisable context (your avatar could live in Azeroth). Instead of merely sympathising with or understanding a character’s behaviour, you determine it. This requires open-ended story telling and dialogue options, and ideally a multiplayer (or MMO) role-playing environment; personal immersion is actually a requirement for (the vastly popular) roleplaying servers in MMOs. Giving the player the opportunity to choose reactions to events makes the character’s reactions and behaviour more in line with the player’s themselves, and the more details the player feels like they’re putting into the game, as opposed to the game putting into the character, the greater the sense of personal immersion. Personal immersion is possibly the most ‘complete’ type of immersion, and one that can only exist in video games due to the requirement of player agency in fully dictating story events.

Games like Skyrim and Fallout 3 attempt to do this with appearance customisation, non-linear storylines and multiple (albeit limited) dialogue choices. for another example, see World of Warcraft, a game so addictive its users have collectively racked up more than 5.93 million years playing it… and that stat is from early 2010.


MILLIONS of years on this.

So you can see why game developers care as much or more about immersion than players: it makes Bejewled into a franchise, and it makes players invest the temporal equivalent of the duration of our species’ existence 59 times over on a game from 2004.

Finally, consider the trend in recent years to include morality-based story choices in games. Even when early games presented story options, they were more related to which scene the player wanted to experience next, and had nothing at all to do with the player’s own values. But look back to games like Fable and Infamous, and remember that one of their main selling points was the chance for the player to not only shape the story by their actions, but shape the story in the direction of (or even antithetical to) their own beliefs and morals.

A recent study has shown that people who empathised with a character found themselves internalising qualities of that character. This tells us two important things: people can identify with characters sufficiently strongly that an extremely deep immersion experience is possible, and (to whatever extent this is intuitively understood) people will seek out characters with qualities they admire. It also means that the reverse is possible; players might be driven to implant their own prized qualities onto the tabula rasa of an open-ended character.

Also, kids (and probably adults) experience more immersion when the characters are more like themselves. 10-12-year-olds report more video game immersion when the characters were of their ethnicity. I’m not advocating that game characters should unilaterally be cast as some Idiocracy-esque uniracial archetype, but if, as recently as 2008, 2 per cent of game characters are latino versus the 12.5 per cent proportion of game consumers, aren’t we unnecessarily screwing a lot of people out of maximal immersion? And if (according to the same 2008 stats, only 15 per cent of video game characters are female, might we expect less immersion (and less appeal) for female gamers? But it’s not like there’s a disproportionately low percentage of games being bought by women or anything. Oh, wait.

Take-home message: Make characters with personality qualities that players want to identify with (or allow players to demonstrate their desired qualities through a character’s actions), and make these characters at least as diverse as the players themselves, and you’ve got a shot at maximising immersion.

Ian Mahar studies adult neurogenesis at the Douglas Institute and McGill University and is a science media consultant at Thwacke! Consulting. For more, follow @ThwackeMontreal on Twitter.

Top photo from Robbie Cooper’s Alter Ego, a series of photos showing people and the avatars they inhabit in video games.


  • So people can identify as a purple-skinned, long-eared fantasy creature, but not someone merely of a different skin tone? Perhaps there should be more racial diversity in games (where appropriate), but the level of immersion isn’t foremost among the reasons why.

    (NB typo: “what Starcraft and Mass Effect get WRITE about astronomy”. Not being catty, just giving you a heads-up)

  • It’s a good article, however I would say that it is missing some of the nuanced nature of player / avatar immersible relationship – that the relationship can be completely fluid.

    I can understand the scope of this article entirely in the mindset of a Fallout or Skyrim game, which can be moded to the “interactive book with choices” more easily, but with multiplayer games (particularly something like WoW which consistently breaks the fourth wall) I think falls into a third category of immersion. One where they can jump in and out of their immersion from being completely separate to “becoming one” (a greater intensity than just identifying with the character) depending on the situation.

    A greater example of that type relationship (a gamer to an MMO game, or maybe a gamer to a FPS), I would compare to a builder and a hammer. While clearly separate in certain circumstances, they could be seen “as one” during the actual process of hammering. The hammer becomes an “extension” of the builder – if it didn’t they would would never be effective at hammering at all.

    The key here is that it’s not about moral choices or identifying with the character’s actions, motivations or appearance (as the builder never would) but responding to situations “as one”, as they see threats to the character as threats to themselves (not in a rational way, but a primal way). This is both more and less intense than the concepts written about in the article.

    A good essay written on player immersion a long time back is “Neither gaze nor glance, but glaze: relating to console game screens” ( which I think treats the variable nature of a player’s relationship to their avatar with more nuance (albeit still a bit outdated).

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