The Importance of Immersion
“Fundamentally, immersion is the sense that a player has of being in a virtual world. The more immersive a virtual world, the greater its ability to immerse it’s players.” (Bartle, 2004)
Immersion is an important factor in video games, and is arguably closely related to creating emotional experiences. Immersion can be defined as a state in which the reality of the virtual world becomes so that it outweighs the reality of the real world. By creating a sense of immersion in games and visual media, players will create an emotional connection with the realism of that game world and so become more concerned – or emotionally involved – with the situations occurring and the characters within that world.
Studies have shown that immersion and emotion – or “affective content” – do in fact have an impact on the “sense of presence”, which could be used to evaluate the interactive role of those forms of media. The results of these studies confirm the hypothesis, but also show that immersion is much more important in non-emotional environments in order to create an engaging experience (R.M. Banos, C. Botella, Ph.D., BA, B. Guerrero, & B. Rey, 2004). It is therefore possible to infer that emotion and immersion are both important individually, but overall a balance of both is advantageous.
Immersion is also strongly related to the level of “interactivity” – and recent studies have shown what key factors relating to how the player interacts with the game world are necessary to create immersion:
Role Engagement – Captivated and enclosed into the role provided by the storyline and narrative.
Attention – Time distortion, focus on the game world instead of the real world.
Interest – Interesting, exciting, as well as lively.
Importance – Meaning, relevant as well as close, personal and sensitive.
Co-Presence – Feeling of sharing a place with others and being active there.
Interaction – Speed, range, mapping, exploration, predictability of own actions.
Arousal – Active & stimulated vs. Passive & unaroused.
Physical Presence – Feeling of being transported into a real, live and vivid place.
(Hakkinen, et al., 2008) via (Crawford, 2007).
Levels of Immersion
Immersion can be measured in terms of “levels” – a series of states that the player must progress through in order to achieve total immersion. These levels represent the many degrees of immersion, or “conceptual or emotional barriers along the way that players must pass if they are to proceed further” (Bartle, 2004).
Player – This state refers to the situation in which the player is completely aware that they are a “player” interacting with a game environment. The player controls an object within the virtual world that is associated with them. This controlled object is known as the avatar.
Avatar – Once the player’s immersion level has progressed, they will begin to create a connection between themselves and their avatar. Although they may still refer to their avatar in third person, they will often view their avatar’s actions as their own. In this sense the avatar is seen as a puppet, through which players interact with the game world.
Character – The “Character” stage of immersion is a stage in which the player stops considering the avatar as something that they control, but rather something that represents them. Although the player may have many characters, each character may have a different personality and name.
Persona – A persona is “a player, in a world”. There is no longer any distinction between the player and the character – the player is no longer assuming an identity – they are that identity. This is the highest level of immersion, where the player will feel that all interaction through the character is happening to them directly. “If you’re killed in a fight, you don’t feel that your character has died, you feel that you have died.” (Bartle, 2004).
Player Interaction with Narrative
One major way in which to create a deeper level of immersion within video game narratives is to create an interactive experience for the player. In this context, interaction can be described as how the player affects the narrative, and how the player is themselves affected by the narrative. The ability for players to create their own story is an important one – leading to the question of whether or not players should be able to directly create their own content. This is an issue which is illustrated in the MMORPG genre of video games specifically, as it exhibits examples of both implicit and emergent narrative in successful video games. One example is EVE Online (CCP, 2003), which allows players to directly affect the narrative by suggesting their own story arcs, with the contrasting example of Tabula Rasa (NCSoft, 2007) which relies on a set, unchangeable narrative. This leads to the question:
“How much power do players have to affect narrative in video games; and how much power should they have?”
It is important for game developers to maintain a balance between how much power the player has to affect the narrative, and their own control over the spine narrative of the game. Techniques have been developed in order to maintain this balance – such as “Directed Gameplay” (Kaplan, Kaplan @ GDC09 – Directed Gameplay Panel, 2009) which states how “the design of World of Warcraft was [used] to improve immersion within the context of an open-world design”. Utilising methods such as this when designing quests and achievements helps the designers to maintain control over the fabula and the narrative experience the player has. Having a set spine narrative increases the emotional connection to the game – and this in turn increases immersion. This added emotional effect also helps to build up the lore around the game world, and encourage a loyal player base to develop. (PopularVirtualWorlds, Popular Virtual Worlds, 2010)