Some findings on immersion

[Research] (05.11.09, 9:37 am)

Immersion has been a prickly issue due to a number of points. One is the Immersion Fallacy, which I have briefly written about, as have a number of others. Immersion is an overused and overhyped term that attempts to communicate a lot of ideas. One of these ideas is a sense of presence, where one feels like the world is real and one’s actions in that world are immediate– not just in the sense of instant, but literally without a medium. That idea is closely related to media transparency, where we might interact with an interface but become so accustomed to it that it no longer feels like a surface that we interact with. Game controllers are good examples of transparent media to experienced game players. One tenet of the immersion fallacy is that interfaces obstruct immersion, and should be removed to give a greater sense of “being there”. This is false because sometimes we actually want an interface now and then…

Immersion relates to adaptation in an interesting way, though. If we think of immersion as being about presence, being in a world, and imagine that narratives are essentially about worlds, then it seems that one way for adaptation to work would be to create that sense of being there, and leave it at that. I just discovered Steve Gaynor’s blog Fullbright, which recently made an argument that an often unrecognized method of expression in games is through that sense of being in a new place. It could be argued that architecture is an art form which has that potential as well, but games are more clearly worlds than spaces. Gaynor makes the argument that playing a game can give a similar experience to taking a vacation to a far-away country, to experience something new, but then return having been changed and affected by the experience. Books too offer the capability to experience new worlds as a tourist. Many works of literature make use of this metaphor, and popular childrens’ reading campaigns make use of it as well, for better or for worse.

I think that the idea of being in a world is important, but I would have to make the argument that in both games and narratives, despite the clear use of world and setting, there is also an element of action. The vacationing tourist does not just inhabit the worlds, but takes action within them, taking part in activities and joining the culture as a participant. To recall anthropologists Clifford Geertz and Bradd Shore, culture is a living and changing document, and it must be enacted to have meaning. A reader of a book does not enact the contents of its passages, but does mentally simulate and imagine them in a mental stage. The player of a game actually participates and explores the world. For example, Ico and Shadow of the Colossus have minimal gameplay (the latter is still intense at points, but spaced out), and the activity of the player is still a very active and engaged exploration, full of movement, climbing, and navigation. Even in architecture, a space is meant to be experienced physically and bodily, but the experiencer is still in the place for a reason, partaking of an activity. The tourist is not passive, but is perpetually engaged.

I am certain that it was not Gaynor’s argument that the player is passive, but I think that a connection can be made between the immersion model of game worlds and the mechanics oriented model.

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