Against Immersion

“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 videogame discourse. It is applied to all types of videogames and all videogames must live up to its allusive goal.
The idea is that to get the full experience from videogames one’s consciousness must be completely “immersed” in the videogame – to the point where one cannot tell the difference between the game and reality. Videogames 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 videogames 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 videogames 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 videogame while they are playing one. This is negligible.

The idea that videogames have to create this immersion actively encourages creative conformity and stagnation. If the player is ever to “forget” that she is playing a videogame, 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 videogame 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 videogame 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 videogame world, in a lesser but similar way that she extends her mind throughout her body. But unlike the body, she is just visiting the videogame. 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 videogame 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 videogames that are spoken of as “immersive” are played with the body in repose. If there are really any “immersive” videogames then they are body movement-based games like Wii Fit. Videogames that are played with the mind are played with the consciousness – we cannot turn off the consciousness and play the videogame at the same time.
Wii Fit may seem like a drab use of body movement, but Sony’s 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 videogames. The best way is to be “immersed” in the videogame world as if immersed in water.
Yahtzee points to The Matrix as the model for this artistic future of videogames, 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 videogame.

Rather than pretending that the videogame 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 videogames. This is because immersion doesn’t mean anything at all, except maybe shorthand for the feeling one gets when playing a videogame that one enjoys.
The use of immersion as a prescriptive term however, can have other negative side effects. If videogames ever highlight their artificiality or require concentration or the learning of new rules, then these videogames will be undervalued for not fitting in with the immersion concept. Also because all that immersion really means is that the player liked the videogame, critics can lazily justify videogames that they like just because they liked them without having to explain themselves. All they have to do is claim that the videogame exhibits this mystical quality and that’s that.
Calling for immersion in videogames is an unnecessary restriction. Unnecessary because videogames quite easily involve the player without having to trick her into thinking that she isn’t playing a game. Videogame 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 videogame” 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 videogame means that one is able to stop and/or to look at the videogame from a distance. This distance makes videogames, 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 videogames 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.

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59 thoughts on “Against Immersion

  1. Nice post. There’s another, more thoroughly-theorized analogue for immersion than the Matrix: Plato’s Cave. In my opinion, it’s more rewarding especially for thinking through the upsides and downsides of immerision because 1) Plato has Socrates connect the cave to the mimetic representations the Athenians enjoyed most–homeric epic and Athenian tragedy, and 2) Plato’s irony in writing about mimesis that way in the fundamentally mimetic form of the dialogue gives some traction over the same need you outline here, for awareness of the mimeseis we play as we play them.

    • You’re right about the Matrix being like Plato’s Cave. Also it supports my position (of immersion being impossible and undesirable) because the cave dwellers have to be restricted so as to never see reality. Only with that restriction is immersion (to forget one is playing a game) possible. And in neither the Cave nor the Matrix is it a good thing.

      And re #2: good point.

      • Thanks for the kind words!

        As to the restraints on the prisoners, this is where the paradox of immersion really takes hold–yes, they’re restrained, but they have no desire to get up: when the philosopher returns and tries to persuade them to get up, they kill him.

        I guess I think you’re putting too strong an emphasis on the downside; but I agree completely that we tend to put too strong an emphasis on the upside, and thus your argument is an important corrective.

      • Well, I’m not against becoming involved in videogame worlds and narratives. Suspension of disbelief is fine. What I object to is the idea that this has nothing to do with the player, that if the player doesn’t feel “immersed” then it’s some game design fault. It all ties in to the sense of entitlement that a lot of players have when it comes to videogames. Like the way people describe a game as “broken” if they don’t like it. The prescriptive nature of the immersion concept is a big problem as well, I think.

        But back to the Cave, players are never restricted in the way that the prisoners are, not even close. So they’ll never confuse a videogame for reality. Even it was possible, it’s a ridiculous goal.
        I think “immersion” started as a shorthand for the feeling one gets when one is concentrating on a game – being “in the zone” – but the meaning and importance of the concept has just got out of control. So yes, ideally my arguement would be a corrective. Hopefully I don’t get killed for telling the prisoners that they’re in a cave!

  2. I have to say I think you may have taken the idea of immersion to it’s straw man extreme. The point Yahtzee is making in his post is not an advent of the Matrix type interface, but the minimization of lower thought processes, ie what button do I push to do x, to higher though processes, ie what x do I do here. He is noting that the small action of the controller is a better interface choice than the large controller for this reason. There are others, but I’ll stick with this one.

    As for your rally against immersion, I’m not on board. I want to be immersed with a game like I am immersed with a movie or a book. None of them can project life, they represent it. What they do it make the edges of the real world vanish as our concentration is set firmly on the artistic work. The words see to fade away from our conscience vision even as we are reading them and our imagination provides the image and the action. With a movie the curtains around the screen in the theater fade from view and we ignore how much popcorn we are stuffing into our face as we look through a window to somewhere else. The idea is not to remove the fact we are playing a game, ever, just to have it shoved to the back of our mind as we are sucked into the experience.

    The goal is not to confuse a video game with real life, but to have it represented in such a way it is our sole focus while we are playing.

    • I agree with Yahtzee about uncomplicated control interfaces, but he does call for a Martrix-type interface to be the desired end goal of videogame control – and he does so pretty explicitly.

      Not sure if one person counts as a rally… I’m not arguing against videogames (or anything else) being “our sole focus while we are playing”. I’m arguing against the idea that videogames have to hide themselves in order to be good. How can something be our sole focus and also cause us to forget that we’re focusing on it? The talk about “immersion” seems to be calling for dreams rather than videogames. I already have dreams when I sleep, I don’t need synthetic ones. What I object to is the move towards videogames being like Plato’s Cave (as Roger brought up above). Instead I would prefer a more complex relationship between player and game. I see art as a form of communication – not hallucination – and the medium is part of the message.

      • I agree that you’re arguing against a strawman form of immersion here. And you can hardly take the comments of one game reviewer famed for his hyperbole and broad brushstrokes as a rallying cry for this strawman. Just because Yahtzee says everyone wants games to be like The Matrix, doesn’t mean that’s actually the case.

        But I also think you’re making a meaningless distinction between communication the ‘hallucination’ that you’re characterising immersion as. The medium, as you say, is part of the message – and I assume the McLuhan reference is made with full understanding.

      • What would be the non-strawman version of immersion then? I may have painted it negatively to suit my argument, but am I wrong in saying that immersion is forgetting that one is playing a game? If immersion just means concentration, then why not say “involved”? Remember that this is in the context of hardware innovations that are seen as worthwhile because they supposedly enable the player to forget she’s a player.
        I used the quote from Yahtzee because it was illustrative. I put it to you that many people share this view or a version of it, a view that I summarise as “The idea is that to get the full experience from videogames one’s consciousness must be completely “immersed” in the videogame – to the point where one cannot tell the difference between the game and reality.” It doesn’t matter that Yahtzee said it. Anyone could have.

        As we both “fully understand” McLuhan I’m sure you’ll appreciate my attempt to redress the balance of a widely held, lopsided concept by accentuating the other side of it.

      • First, I’d say that arguing against a popular conception or misconception of a concept is not the same as arguing against the concept itself. If I argue that postmodernism is dumb because it’s just born of resentment for the promises of modernism, this is not an argument against postmodernism, no matter how popular that conception of postmodernism is. I think it’s as much of a mistake to buy into a popular misconception by arguing against it on its own terms.

        In that sense, I think the issue I have with your argument is that you’re characterising it as arguing against immersion, when what you really seem to be arguing for is a re-examination and re-definition of immersion as popularly understood.

      • But to answer your question more directly, I think the non-strawman form of immersion would be pretty close to what you actually seem to be arguing that it is: “a shorthand for the feeling one gets when one is concentrating on a game – being “in the zone””

        You’re arguing that this has gotten out of control, but I think it’s a mistake to position this as an argument against the concept itself. You’re throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

      • Yes, you’re first point may be close to the mark. But I don’t see it as a problem to argue with a concept on its own terms. Perhaps my post should be titled “Against the popular conception of what is called “immersion””, but that would be cumbersome.

        “You’re throwing out the baby with the bathwater”
        My point is that I don’t see that the baby of being “in the zone” is in the bathwater of immersion. Immersion is always talked about as forgetting, but engaging with a videogame as a videogame is closer to how we approach videogames, I think. As I said below, “I see the idea of obscuring the player (or obscuring the game from the player) jumping on the back of a different idea – the idea that we become involved, intellectually or emotionally – in videogames.”

      • To be honest, I think we’re dealing with a language issue here. I think you’re right in that immersion is used as a shorthand for ‘being in the zone’ and becoming involved with a game. But what else do you call it? Immersion is the term for that sensation that’s become popular in discourse around video games. It may not be accurate to a more traditional definition of ‘immersion’, and it may be obscured by some usages that conflate it with the more traditional definition, but I still think it’s useful. And to me, useful trumps accurate or faithful in terms of validity.

      • In a way it’s a language issue, but the language allows two different concepts to come across together. Feeling engaged with a piece of work is one, and forgetting that it isn’t real is another. Yes, this is about language, but when language becomes prescriptive it can have negative effects. My point is that if videogames have to become invisible to the player, then they cannot tax her mind and must limit themselves to the familiar. I can feel “in the zone” when reading a nonfiction book with no characters or plot – and I never think it isn’t real. This is what is wrong with immersion; it slams the door shut on the potential of videogames.

      • Immersion only means “videogames have to become invisible to the player” when the common video game sense of the word – “being in the zone” – is conflated with the more traditional meaning of immersion. I’m not sure I entirely agree that the game disappearing is detrimental to the potential of video games, but what I’m getting at is that ‘immersion’ doesn’t necessarily mean that anyway. It only means that sometimes, and generally only when the person using the term has conflated the two senses of the word.

      • In other words, while “Against the popular conception of what is called “immersion” might be a clumsy title, it does seem to be what you’re actually arguing. And by conflating the two senses of immersion, and arguing against immersion as a whole, you’re condemning the sensation of “being in the zone” at the same time. It doesn’t seem like you have a problem with the concept of “being in the zone”, but sometimes immersion means just that, or means that as well.

      • Yes, but the way they have been conflated is that the hidden-game immersion is dominant. It has become prescriptive.
        The title “Against Immersion” is appropriate because as in “Against Interpretation” Susan Sontag didn’t deny that interpretations occured. Sontag: “Of course, I don’t mean interpretation in the broadest sense, the sense in which Nietzsche (rightly) says, “There are no facts, only interpretations.” By interpretation, I mean here a conscious act of the mind which illustrates a certain code, certain “rules” of interpretation.” So here I mean “a conscious act of the mind which illustrates a certain code, certain “rules”” of immersion.

  3. Nice post.

    I recently wrote a paper for university where I used a Matrix analogy, and I argued that video games should have the aim of being like The Matrix, of convincing the player that they are not playing at all. However, I also find myself agreeing with many of your points.

    Ultimately, I guess it depends on how you define ‘immersion’ in the first place as to whether or not it is a good or a bad thing. Though, defining ‘immersion’ at all instead of just assuming it is a universally good thing that all games should aspire to is indeed important.

    Perhaps ‘immersion’ in the sense of hiding the fact it is a game is not what we want, but ‘immersion’ in the sense of empathy is. We want to feel for fictional characters and places as if they matter–if not to us, at least to the character we are controlling. Personally, I feel the important thing is not so much for events in the game-world to matter to the player, but for the events to matter to the character and then for the player to be able to feel empathy for that character. I think it is empathy that is able to render our actions within the game-world meaningful, not the ability to forget we are playing a game at all.

    • “I guess it depends on how you define ‘immersion’ in the first place”

      Agreed. I am giving it a negative slant, but that is because I see the idea of obscuring the player (or obscuring the game from the player) jumping on the back of a different idea – the idea that we become involved, intellectually or emotionally – in videogames. It’s similar to when people say that film is better because it’s more “real”, when one can feel just as involved or even more so in a book.

  4. Pingback: Immersion and the self « v∞rface

  5. Thanks for the thought-provoking post, and thanks to Adrian for spurning an exchange of ideas that made the initial ones even clearer.
    Can’t add much myself; I do agree with your point, framed more accurately as taking position against a certain kind of immersion. And I think it’s completely valid, since you are probably right pointing out that the problem is not that it is the only valid conception of immersion, but the dominant one right now.

    What I wanted to add, though, is something we discussed lately at university: Another shorthand for the kind of immersion you are talking about, and maybe even a more accurate one than the Matrix, would be the Holodeck.
    It’s interesting that in the last decade, the Holodeck was very prominent in talking not only about video games, but about a possible future of narrative, or even art and media in general. (Think of Janet Murray’s seminal “Hamlet On The Holodeck”.) Our professor even went as far as calling the Holodeck one of the important cultural paradigms of our time.

    I can’t help thinking that what got lost in the Holodeck-analogy (or got lost once it was replaced by the Matrix) is that there, too, the “players” usually are aware of the fact that they are part of a simulation; if I remember correctly, in Star Trek TNG, it usually is used as a recreational tool – not something people try to get completely lost in. It is a much more appropriate vision for the future of video games, IMHO, than the Matrix, since “players” in the Matrix have not willingly chosen to be part of it, are not aware of the fact they are, and are thus unable to step out of the simulation at will. (In other words: It’s not about suspension of disbelieve, while the Holodeck is.) Framing it like that, the interpretation of immersion as something you can completely get lost in runs dangerously close of all the sensational news telling of pathological cases where people died of dehydration or attacked people in real life with medieval weaponry or something because they couldn’t differentiate between games and reality… because, you know, that’s what videogames do to you.

    So, in other words, when thinking about immersion, we should ditch the Wachowksys and go back to Roddenberry. 😉
    (And sorry for all the nerdy references, which were not brought up by me, just referenced…)

    • Oh, yes, that’s perfect. I think the holodeck is a much better model, and probably more accurately represents what people are talking about when they discuss immersion in games. Even when they say ‘Matrix’, as Yahtzee does, the context suggests they’re thinking of something closer to the holodeck.

      The distinction I think is important there is that a holodeck model requires the *willing* suspension of disbelief, whereas in a Matrix model that’s not a factor.

      • “the “players” usually are aware of the fact that they are part of a simulation”

        “The distinction I think is important there is that a holodeck model requires the *willing* suspension of disbelief”

        I agree, this would be the other side of the coin for the immersion concept.
        But after thinking about what a Holodeck videogame would really be about, it made me feel like I perhaps stressed the Matrix-analogy too hard as the VR quality might not be the part I object to most.
        (To avoid TL;DR I’m just thinking out-loud) My thoughts are that a Holodeck simulation would be something so revolutionary that it wouldn’t be appropriate to call them videogames any more. It’s like the invention of perspective – it totally changes the nature of the work. In a way it is the invention of perspective.
        But what a Holodeck would not resemble would be a videogame (or a painting or a movie). If there were game elements it would probably resemble something like paintball. If exploration was the modus operandi then it would resemble tourism. Tourism with a script.
        So while I objected to Matrix-immersion because the Matrix is a prison, I object to Holodeck-immersion because it is not a videogame (and neither really is the Matrix). When I say “object to” I mean object to the metaphor being used to describe videogames. It’s like calling games “cinematic”. It’s just not approapriate.

        Thanks for your comments, they have clarified some things for me.

      • The problem with saying “a holodeck wouldn’t be a videogame” is you’re getting yourself into a tautology. What exactly is it that defines a video game? What are the characteristics that distinguish a holodeck from a videogame?

      • Yes, true. There is no strict definition of a videogame. But I think it’s fair to say that a Holodeck would be so revolutionary that it would be something new. So, to use an analogy from painting, oil paints had been used many years before the invention of perspective, but after this innovation the genre of oil painting begins. So with an innovation like that of the Holodeck we would have to say that everything has changed and we’d be dealing with something new. Abandoning the term videogame might be approapriate at such a time.

        But to answer your question – “What are the characteristics that distinguish a holodeck from a videogame?” – a videogame is not a total visual illusion of reality.

      • But that’s the tautology. You’re basically using the definition of a holodeck as your definition of what a video game is not. “A holodeck is not a video game, because a video game is not a holodeck”.

        It seems like you’re saying the difference is that a video game requires a ‘game’ element, right? But that’s not necessarily the most important characteristic of a video game. When people talk about immersion in games, they’re talking about the game delivering an experience, and that’s not necessarily tied to a ludic element.

      • It is not a tautology. And nor do I think that there must be a game element. With a videogame one looks at it. With the Holodeck one looks from within it. A not insignificant difference. If I’m being vague about the differences it is because the Holodeck doesn’t exist and this is all hypothetical. “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

      • I’m not sure that’s a meaningful distinction. So if you use a VR headset it’s no longer a videogame? If the graphics are photorealistic it’s no longer a videogame? At what point in the transition between videogame and holodeck does the thing cease to be a videogame?

      • By that logic I could ask why isn’t a videogame a movie? What’s the difference between an animation and a videogame? Just because the player controls a tiny portion of the action?

        Small differences, but significant differences.

      • That’s easy. The difference between a movie and a video game is interactivity. I’m not sure what you mean by the player controlling a small portion of the action.

      • I’m not sure what you mean by the player controlling a small portion of the action.
        A small portion of what happens on screen is controlled by the player.

        If it were all about interactivity then a DVD menu would be a videogame. Microsoft Word would be a videogame.
        If you can use such a loose definition of videogames as “interactivity”, then you should be able to see that a Holodeck would be a completely different medium. Something with such a different way of seeing would have to be considered separate.
        There are overlapping elements in most visual media. My point in mentioning the difference between cinema and videogames was to illustrate this. Cinema is different to theatre (for example) because of the presence/lack of real humans in front of you and the completely different way of seeing that comes from the camera-eye. And so a Holodeck simulation would not be a videogame.

      • I’m just not sure what the material difference is between ‘an interactive electronic entertainment’ and a video game. Is Dragon Quest not a videogame because the player only controls a small part of what happens on screen? Spacewar and World of Warcraft and Wii Sports are all vastly different in terms of graphics, complexity of interactivity, interfaces, etc. Are they not all video games?

        What is a video game if not ‘an interactive electronic entertainment’?

        And if that’s what a video game is, how is a holodeck not a video game?

      • This is going nowhere.

        The point that I’ve been trying to make is that a Holodeck would be different enough from a videogame to be something new. When I illustrate that point with examples of how seemingly small differences between media totally change the way we apporach them, you then take them in the opposite direction. So, I mention a small difference that makes a big diffrence between cinema and videogames (player control of some on-screen elements) and you then ask “Is Dragon Quest not a videogame because the player only controls a small part of what happens on screen?” as if I was saying a too-limited amount of control would stop something being a videogame!

        And videogames are not just “interactive electronic entertainment” because if that was all they were then mp3s would be videogames too. So would all software, in fact.

      • No, that’s silly. An MP3 is not interactive. Non-entertainment software is not entertainment. If I define a brown cow as “a cow that is brown”, that doesn’t mean a black horse is a brown cow, because a) it’s not brown and b) it isn’t a cow.

      • Yes, mp3s are interactive. Play, pause, stop. What are those actions if not interactive? You have defined a brown cow as any animal with four legs.

      • That’s not an MP3 you’re describing, that’s an MP3 player. The MP3 player software or hardware is interactive, but the entertainment (the MP3) is not. As distinct from the MP3, the player is not entertainment. As distinct from the player, the MP3 is not interactive.

        Look, we started down this definitional route because you were trying to fit your argument around holodecks by saying they weren’t video games. But you refuse to come to any definition of what a video game *is*. How do you expect any meaningful discussion to occur with a definition of terms?

      • *without* a definition of terms, that should be.

      • The MP3 player software or hardware is interactive, but the entertainment (the MP3) is not.

        The entertainment is separate? What is it, a soul?

        I wasn’t trying to fit the Holodeck into my arguement – Oozo mentioned it and I was “just thinking out-loud”, as I said in my comment. If you can’t see that (the still hypothetical, i should add) Holodeck would be different to videogames then fine.

  6. Oh, sorry for kicking off that lively a debate and then staying far…
    Your discussion is interesting, though I guess it’s at a difficult point now because your debating the definition of the “video game” – which is, needless to say, a bloody big question that can’t be answered once and for all, I’m afraid. I also wonder if we’re not wandering off a bit far of the original topic, but let’s give it a try:

    First, what I wanted to say with my initial post was that the holodeck metaphor might be a little more appropriate than the one of the matrix – not for the current state of video games, but for a future some people like to see for the medium. The ones who think that total immersion would be the telos for games, so to speak – which leads to the interesting question of what “total immersion” would mean: Just a total not only visual, but synaesthical illusion of a game world (which means that the users/player are aware of the fact that it is a “game world” and not an “alternative reality”)? Or would a total immersion even mean that the users are not aware of its fictional state any more?

    My point was just that, IMHO, knowing about being inside the “magic circle” and knowing you are experiencing a fiction is mandatory for something that can still be considered a heir to the video game as we know it now – that’s why I prefer the holodeck over the Matrix.

    That said, I do agree with Voorface’s idea that a holodeck would be sufficiently different from video games as we know them today to consider them a new genre of fiction, narration or a new medium – after all, the term “video game” implies that you are, first and foremost, looking at a screen.

    If you ignore this, the distinctions and definitions get even more difficult. I mean, if you’re not taking the hardware into consideration, what would be the difference between a board game and a video game?

    Question is where you put the emphasis: There are some scholars – the Zimmerman/Salen school – who have a pretty narrow definition of a “game”: Necessary parts of it are rules, and a quantifiable outcome. Seen like that, the comparison of a holodeck experience with virtual tourism would be more appropriate than calling it a game.

    Of course, while interactivity alone will never be enough to define a game, you can stress other aspects of “play” or even “games”, so that you can, for example, include stuff like (improvisational) theatre… if you look at it this way, you won’t have much problems with calling everything going on in a holodeck some sort of “play” (if not necessary a “game”) – as long as the participants are aware of their state as being inside a fiction or the magic circle, whose limits are penetrable, but still have to be a least semi-conscious to the players), you could consider all their actions some sort of action.

    But, you see, it’s the old question of whether “Second Life” is a video game or not…

    What I think is important for the discussion of “immersion” that started off all this debate, is pointing out that, in fact, it might be wrong to think that the aim for video games – and their rightful heirs – will be to make their players forgot their playing a game. This is, IMHO, a misleading notion of immersion, because once you’re not aware you’re playing a game, it’s not a game anymore…

    Hope I’m not sounding too random. 😉

    • This is, IMHO, a misleading notion of immersion, because once you’re not aware you’re playing a game, it’s not a game anymore…

      Yes, but it needn’t just be about games. One could also say “once you’re not aware you’re watching a movie, it’s not a movie anymore…”.

      • Just did what I should have done before posting: re-read your initial article. And understood that we have wandered off very far of the points you where making, without actually arriving anywhere (my last reply was almost re-phrasing what you already had written… we were going in circles!)

        That said, I’ll try to give an impulse which might or might not be a little more fruitful (even though I take it that this debate has already gone on for much longer than something in the internet usually has a right to exist).

        So, yes, you are right – what I had written was not only characteristic for games, but for all forms of fiction (and let’s not go into a debate on whether or not games are fiction…)

        And I have just realized that the idea of “immersion” as the ultimate goal is not restricted to the video game discourse, either – I take it that “losing yourself in the movie” is one of the marketing ideas behind the whole cinema 3D-hype.

        Which would ultimately lead to the question of whether you couldn’t reframe your initial thoughts in one (or both) of two different ways:

        The first one would be asking if the – let’s call it that – ideology of total immersion is not something that can be found in the discussion of all forms of entertainment (at least those where escapism is inherently desired by either the consumer or producer). Which then would mean that what we have here is another bastard child of the old problem that games are considered to be entertainment, and entertainment alone. In other words: not art, where some sort of critical distance is usually aimed for. (See also: “A video game has to be fun to play!”)

        Alternatively, you could go the history-route – I guess somebody who’s smarter than me and has a way more profound understanding of the matter could tell you that your concerns are not that far off of what Heidegger wrote in the first half of the last century; that losing yourself to technology is a danger mankind risks to fall prey to, and not something to be cherished.

        Which would mean that it would be interesting to ask if dreaming of the Matrix as the ultimate video game is not just the newest iteration of a centuries old (and naive) dream. And it could be also interesting to ask how much of the fact that games are currently chosen as the “messias” for those dreams is due to some of their qualities as a medium, and how much is due to the fact that they are merely the latest medium (or genre or whatever you wanna call) to emerge.

      • First reframe: Yes, I do think this is right. Which is why I think being critical of immersion is important. We can see the potential of other (older) media solidifying as limits on what is allowed become consensus. The novel goes from being “novel” to being standardised. For videogames, lots of things are acceptable as videogames right now, but there are still a lot of FPSs around. And like you said, this idea that “A video game has to be fun to play!” is very common and stifling.

        Second reframe: I wish I was better read in this area as well. From my uneducated perspective, I would want to move away from Heidegger’s pastoralism and have more of a cyborg approach. That is, one that embraces technology for humans and humans for technology. One that discards humanism but avoid misanthropy. A difficult balance and not one that I’ve managed to strike so far, I don’t think.

      • I think you’re both taking the statements of others about these things at face value to much. How do you expect to be critical of immersion if you accept statements about it uncritically?

        When people say “a video game has to be fun to play” what they generally mean is actually “a video game has to be engaging to play”. “Fun” is a simplistic way of putting it.

        Similarly, when people talk about “immersion” they’re not necessarily talking about the sort of abandonment of self that you’re presuming. Generally they’re talking about a simple willing suspension of disbelief.

      • Generally they might be talking about those things, but they’re also talking about other things, which is what we’re talking about.

      • You’re making an argument that this particular discourse of immersion as an abandonment of self is too dominant. I’m saying it’s only dominant if you take these statements at face value, as meaning the more traditional meanings, rather than the meanings they’ve assumed in the context of discussing video games. You’re being disingenuous by ignoring that context.

      • But as I said above, I am accentuating the negative side of this term (and the concept of it) because it is rarely discussed and also in order to show what is wrong with it. The concept of immersion is growing into an extreme, over-literal realism. In my view this does not benefit videogames.

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  8. I presume that war is exciting, but I don’t want to go to war, since I don’t want to risk being killed. But I enjoy a game which lets me feel like I’m in WWII or something.

    Immersive games have the ability to make us live an experience we can’t live in our real lives. I don’t see anything wrong with it.

  9. My God. Thank you. You’ve the exact feelings I’ve had better than I would’ve.

    When I read Yahtzee’s article, I couldn’t help but disagree with him completely. I may not like the idea of controller-less gaming, but I also think “suspended animation” would be ridiculous. I, too, never understood the point of pursuing “immersion” in gaming – nor did I ever wish virtual reality became the norm.

    I like to play videogames while being aware of what I’m doing – of my surroundings. Of the people around me – and I certainly don’t mind talking to people while I’m playing. “Immersion” would get rid of all those things! It’s a future I am not looking forward to.

    Just, one thing: You’ve erroneously listed the Kinect technology as Sony’s. Sony has the PlayStation Move, which uses a controller. Microsoft is the company behind Kinect. Might want to fix that 🙂

  10. Gotta love someone writing a pretentious pseudo intellectual article, but not even realizing that “videogame” is not a word.

    This article mistakenly refers to the Matrix as a “video game” that Neo is “playing” when the Matrix is clearly intended to be a very limited and tightly controlled prison for his mind.

    “Pretending that videogames 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.”

    This presupposes that the satisfaction in life that one derives from a virtual world can only ever be less than that of the real world. Achievements in a virtual world especially a shared one may be of no less meaning than in a real world. Experiences and knowledge gained within a virtual world can potentially be of more value than what is possible in the real world.

    There is an arrogant conceit here that the author knows what the most meaningful way to spend one’s life is. I do not believe that that there is a universal answer to this question, but it is not hard to think of scenarios where a life spent in a shared immersive game could easily result in a greater quality of life than that of a “real” world.

    Who’s to say that we are not currently completely immersed in a virtual world as we speak. By it’s definition we would have no way of knowing if we were. The mere theoretical possibility of this being so invalidates the entire argument against immersion. If this is a game then we are all undeniably addicted to it because we have not chosen to end the game.

    I do not view the purpose of games or other entertainment as an escape from life, but rather a way to enhance one’s life. Playing games is living it is not avoiding life. Games are life in the same way flying a plane or jumping out of one is. If I can enter a Matrix-like world and be given the identical sensation of what it would be like to fly or walk on Mars then I am not sacrificing life I am enhancing my life.

    “We do not feel the same about wandering a videogame forest as we would a real forest. To truly confuse the two would be pathological.”

    This is only true today because of today’s technological limitations. It is not hard to imagine a time where a virtual forest and a real forest are indistinguishable from one another and that there are no advantages of the real forest over the virtual. In fact it’s not hard to imagine a time when a life spent in an idealized virtual environment is far more fulfilling than it’s limited real world equivalent. When we put beautiful paintings on our walls are we escaping reality or creating a better one?

    I believe we are as unfortunate today as the human beings who had to live on Earth before planes and automobiles existed. We didn’t invent planes and rocket ships to escape our lives, we did so to take us to better places than what were previously limited to. To those who finally get to live in fully immersive virtual worlds the primitive reality that we are all stuck in will be indistinguishable from previous societies.

  11. Nice article

    I read this over at kotaku.com and could’nt help but notice the amount of confusion that was caused over there, but i think the confusion stems from the way you used the matrix as an example. In short the feeling echoed by kotaku’s commenters and myself is that this isnt the way we want to be immersed in a game. To be immersed in a game to the point where you cannot tell the difference between the game world and the real world and to be governed by the games worlds rules and restrictions is not the immersion we are seeking. This is why i think it’s caused a lot of confusion, and whilst your arguements here are aggreable, what we’re actually looking for is, for want of a better way to say it, a holodeck from star trek.

    A holodeck-esque gaming machine, where as the player we still have control of what happens (in the way that you could pause the game, or restart a certain section. Which you couldnt do in a matrix-esque game). While i understand this is not total “immersion” since we would still be aware we are playing a game, its what i feel gamers want. The matrix, being the point where the real world meets a virtual world and creating an exact replica of the real world and all its stimuli in a virtual enviroment is what i understand to be “total immersion”. A world where its so much like the real world you conifde in it and abide by its rules and restrictions.

    Immersion in the holodeck sense is something we want, but we dont want to be controlled by our games (like a matrix-esque game would control us) we still want to be able to start and stop it and save and load. To be able to go in to our immersive holodeck-esque game, and leave after a gaming session back to the real world. The fact that we still know its a game doesnt seem to matter, but a world we can step into and act within does.

    • The Holodeck v The Matrix was discussed in the comments above.

      I felt that if such a technology (the Holodeck) was invented then we’d be moving to something beyond videogames, in the way that film was something beyond theatre. It is better than the Matrix, because it is voluntary. I used the Matrix as an example because Yahtzee used it, but also to look at an extreme. I’m not sure a total visual illusion would ever not be a prison.
      But the main point was I felt the use of ‘immersion’ too often was a way to obscure videogames themselves, as a medium, which I felt needed to be addressed.

      [edit] Oh, and I think the drive towards not playing a game while playing a game encourages dull realism.

  12. I read your article with great interest. It articulates much of my frustration with the current state of the video game industry.
    It is interesting that you bring up the Matrix to make your point, as I feel the deeply-held inferiority complex of the video game industry towards cinema is partially responsible. Immersion is really a term for movies – where you are fully engaged and forget about your surroundings. This is not necessarily true for games, but in an attempt to emulate cinema, it has become so. The biggest casualty of this are any games sporting turn-based systems – deemed to be “breaking the immersion”.
    It doesn’t help that to a large degree, PR for games tries to sell them as if they are movies. One of the reasons the FPS genre has taken over is because it’s easy to pitch and to market. It is much harder to sell Civilization – its brilliance is in its mechanics, not its set pieces.

  13. An interesting post. I take issue with several points, but I’ll try to limit myself.

    Primarily, your assertion that the term “immersion” is a marketing term seems weak. This argument makes it very easy for you to color the word in a negative way, as marketing in art (which is what you compare games to) has a generally negative connotation. This assessment is too simple.

    Immersion is not the singular goal as expressed by many reviewers, but a part of the whole. Total immersion is not desirable, as you state. However, an immersive quality is. To tie this to your Matrix example, the Matrix becomes “fun” for the viewer and the characters within when the participants become aware of the simulation and are still participating. So immersion is valuable in games in a similar way (which is paradoxical to a degree). When the player feels immersed, the game is creating a cohesive reality (be it mundane or fantastical) much the same way as a good book or movie does. The important difference is that the player MUST be conscious of the game in order to enjoy this immersive quality, otherwise they are a prisoner and the game would become a substitute reality like the Matrix.

    Yahtzee’s explanation puts the player into a Matrix-like apparatus, but in this example the player still knows that they entered the device, and can thus enjoy the experience instead of being imprisoned within it.

  14. There are key misunderstandings of how the industry defines ‘immersion’ I dont think any positive appraisal of a game as immersive would get that game a good review on those terms alone. Games that recreate reality; ‘dull realism’ as you put it, are weighed up in terms of how the player reacts to that recreation. And the gameplay itself needs to be measured in terms of how realistic a recreation it is. For example, in a war simulation there is no question of the player forgetting himself. On the contrary the player is highly aware of himself as he empathies and controls the simplified human he is playing onscreen.
    The sense of immersion is important as its more a measure of how involved a person is with the simulation. Either if its a convincing movie or game or otherwise.
    Maintaining a critcal distance and judging the events or outcomes in a game is no different from a movie or book.
    The real issue with games is where they create a dull realism and nothing more.
    A novel that describes a walk to the shops in great realism and immersion would be a pretty boring book. And hence I agree that realism in games should be a means not an end.

  15. Hey, everybody. My name’s Brian and I’m part of a weekly pop culture podcast called Fanboy Remix. This week we did a feature on Oliver’s article on immersion, and we’d love you all to hear it. Subscribe on iTunes or go to http://www.fanboyremix.com to get Episode 2.12: “Full Immersion or Dinner With Penises.” Thanks!

  16. “The concept of immersion is unquestioned in videogame discourse.”

    This is patently false. In fact, this concept has been debated extensively from a number of different angles for many years. I can only assume you’re unaware of these discussions, as you presumably wouldn’t have made this statement otherwise, so I just wanted to chime in to suggest a couple of things you might enjoy reading that cover similar ground to this post:

    First of all, there is a section in Rules of Play that discusses what the authors term “the immersive fallacy”, which bears some resemblance to the argument you have outlined here. Frank Lantz has also spoken about this concept at great length. Here’s a small sample: http://gamesareart.wordpress.com/2006/04/11/immersive-fallacy/

    Secondly, the book Remediation: Understanding New Media offers the terms “immediacy” and “hypermediacy” as succinct ways to describe the exact dual-state relationship to media that you discussed, where we are simultaneously suspending disbelief while still being aware that we are also participating in a fundamentally artificial experience (such as playing a game or watching a movie).

    For an alternative perspective on the value of applying a concept like immersion when thinking about games, I would refer you to Steve Gaynor’s excellent post on “The Immersion Model of Meaning”: http://fullbright.blogspot.com/2008/11/immersion-model-of-meaning.html

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