On Immersion

Yesterday somebody triggered me on one of my most/least favorite hobby horse discussions, that of immersion.  Sometimes I think I have grown enough over the years to not get wrapped up in online arguments about such things, but apparently immersion is not on that list yet.

This time the immersion argument brewed up as one of the objections to CCP’s pop-up advertisement in EVE Online that comes when you lose a ship, encouraging the player to buy some PLEX so they can purchase a replacement ship.  This has led some anger… erm, some additional anger, because there is always anger… in the community.

Use your credit card to finance your revenge!

This led to any number of reactions, including the dead idea of returning to a subscription model, as well as any number or arguments about why this pop-up pushes the line in way that past monetization of the game has not.  Immersion features in some of those arguments as the pop-up comes during combat when you lose a ship, which puts it in a new category for some.

Sending players to the out of game website cash shop to spend real world money crosses an immersion line for some.

Enter Pollyanna, done explaining that the PCU drop is normal and nothing to worry about, who followed up to argue that immersion is a strictly definable thing, the same for everybody, and that this pop-up does not break immersion because PLEX exists, pop-ups exist, and links that take you out of game exist.

And there you have me triggered and engaging in a fruitless online argument.  I mean, they’re almost all fruitless, but I live in hope as 1 in 100 or so actually end up with some mutual understanding.  Not this time.

It probably took me a bit too long to figure out that Pollyanna didn’t give two fetid dingoes kidneys about immersion, that they were just there to defend CCP with religious fervor.  So I packed that up, muted the whole thread… thank you for that feature Twitter… and decided to write again about immersion.

The main problem is defining what immersion is, or if it is even a thing at all.  I add that last bit because I have had people argue that immersion is literally impossible, though those arguments often seem to assign an unrealistic definition to it.

So let me dispense with the “there is no immersion” side of the argument by saying that it isn’t an absolute belief that the game is real and you’re a part of it.  If that is the definition to which you are wedded, then there is no immersion.  But I am going to say that I both believe immersion is a thing and that I have never once literally believed I was in New Eden or Azeroth or Norrath or any other video game location.

Immersion is more like a release of the real world, the entering of something like a hypnotic focus on the game and its mechanics, becoming briefly one with the game, reacting at some level like the game is real even if you simultaneously know at a more logical part of your brain that you are simply playing a game.

Examples of this from my own personal experience include the rush of elation on defeating a difficult boss, the sudden boost in heart rate when you jump through a gate and find a camp on the other side, or the real knot in your stomach as you reach a cliff and see how high up you are.  These are all physiological reactions that indicate that some part of your brain believes what your doing in a video game is real.  That is immersion.

And, seriously, if you say you have never experienced anything like that I am going to have to ask why you even play video games.  That is the runner’s high, the payoff, the rare moment that makes the effort worth it.

Sometimes immersion is more subtle.  There can be what I have heard called a “competence high,” where you’re just doing very well at something like a simple match 3 game, where the moves are all coming to you and the game is totally going your way that qualifies to my mind.  Inventory management can even be like that.

The thing is that immersion isn’t a constant or reliable.  Sometimes you go through a gate and there is a camp on the other side and it is just another thing in the game.  Not every high place makes you feel a bit of acrophobia.  Not every boss fight, even difficult ones, give you a rush.

I have, in the past, likened being immersed to falling asleep.  I cannot explain how either happens.  There is just generally a point in time where sleep or immersion is not a thing, and then it is.

And things that break immersion can be as capricious as things that wake you up from sleep.  Some things are always going to do it.  The alarm clock is always going to wake you up, the game client crashing is going to break immersion.  Generally speaking, things that take you out of the moment are going to break immersion, and that pop-up could very well be such a thing for some people.

Now, you can certainly ask whether the people who are making the immersion argument really mean it or are just throwing that out there.  It is fair to question them.  Have they even seen the pop up?  (I haven’t) Were they in a state of immersion when the it came up?  Has immersion even been something they have mentioned as important in the past?

But if your counter to the immersion argument is that we all know what PLEX is in our logical brain, that the game has a pop up when log in, or that something like EVE Academy has a link that takes you outside of the game, so this pop up could not possible break your immersion, then I am going to suggest that you don’t know what immersion is or that you are arguing in bad faith because defending CCP is more important that whatever may or may not be immersion breaking to other people.  You certainly don’t get to arbitrarily define what immersion is and dictate what does and does not break it.

Anyway, thank you for listening to my TED Talk and/or my thousand word sub-tweet!


15 thoughts on “On Immersion

  1. bhagpuss

    There’s another expression in common use outside of gaming that seems as expressive but less open to misinterpretation than “immersion” and that’s being “in the zone”. It’s that sensation you describe, when everything is going so smoothly it feels completely natural and intuitive. I get that relatively frequently when I’m doing all sorts of things in games, from (yes) inventory management to running with a zerg in WvW.

    I’m not absolutely certain that’s exactly the same thing as “immersion” although I’m not sure it isn’t, either. When I’m in the zone (which is subtly different from being in the groove, but let’s not complicate things even further) I’m not only aware I’m playing a game, part of the intensity of the sensation is the feeling that I’m playing the game well.

    Immersion, on the other hand, does have something of the sense of being inside the game, somehow, not so much playing it as living it. It’s by no means unique to video games, either. Working as I do in a bookshop, I’ve had to listen to many a customer (and colleague) eulogizing about becoming “lost” in a book, which is very much the same thing. It also happens (rerlatively easily, I’d say) with movies and other visual media. I’ve heard several people in the art world describe the sensation in almost identical terms when talking about looking at a single painting.

    The thing about immersion is that it’s robust by definition. Outside distractions short of that ringing alarm clock or someone tapping you on the shoulder simply don’t register. If you’re immersed your brain tunes those things out. On that basis all kinds of things can happen inside the game and out that don’t directly contribute to immersion without immersion breaking, including pop-ups and advertisements.

    The thing about the EVE pop-up, though, is that it appears at precisely the moment immersion would (I’m presuming, based on analogous situations in games I’ve played) be likely to occur anyway. A death or in this case the loss of a ship marks the end of a process. It’s a natural stepping-out point. It certainly doesn’t guarantee immersion would break – I can remain fully immersed through a number of deaths in, for example, GW2’s WvW without being taken out of the moment. One the other hand, when I do step back and lose focus it usually happens either when we win or we lose or when my character is no longer able to continue. If a pop-up notice appeared when I died and suggested I go buy something in the cash shop to fix it (as does indeed happen in plenty of other mmorpgs I’ve played) it might well jolt me back to normality.

    In the end, as you say, it comes down to individual personality. I wouldn’t even rule out the possibility of some players being drawn further into the game by such a suggestion. I can actually think of a few occaions where I died in a game and got an in-game hint or tip about using some means of revival and being very glad for the suggestion, which I took, because it kept me immersed in the action (usually a boss kill of some kind). I think I’d draw the line at believing anyone who said they remained immersed throughout an entire trip outside the game to buy something on a website, pay for it and have it delivered, though.

    (Sorry- that probably should have been a blog post in response not a comment. And it may yet become one!)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @bhagpuss – The phrase ” in the zone” is so on point I am surprised I did not use it.

    I was considering adding a bit about your ship blowing up not necessarily being the end of the fight in EVE Online, and now I pay the price for having omitted that. When your ship blows up, and you get that pop up, you are still where you were in your pod. You can still hang around the battle and see what is happening or, if you have implants, you may be furiously trying to get away from the fight to preserve those as they die with your pod. You are not at all done yet, back safe in your station figuring out if you have a replacement ship to hand.

    So there have been times for me at least when immersion is heightened at the destruction of my ship as there are still things to be done. A pop-up like that when trying to warp out an expensive pod wouldn’t just be immersion breaking, but very annoying.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. XyzzySqrl

    There is a point in every Pixar movie where I go from “Nice animation! Good shaders! Sharply rendered!” to … not noticing consciously that it’s animated, anymore. Obviously it is. But I don’t think of it as “I am watching animation” but “This is a story and I am into it.”. This, to me, is immersion. It can happen with books, games, movies… I occasionally wonder if that’s a thing other people feel.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Ben Cochrane

    I guess it depends on where you think the edge of the game is.

    For me as an old dinosaur of an mmo player, these new-fangled micro payment things are still kind of jarring. But to a younger player for whom this is just a different facet of the game, I can see how this doesn’t really break immersion… it’s more like a reminder of a different tactic that can be used.

    For me micro transactions will always be an outside influence on the game, and I’m extremely sceptical of any game which has them as a core feature. However, I can certainly see someone who has grown up with buying loot boxes as being just what you do to get rare items not seeing this as obtrusive.

    And for as something as complex as Eve, it may well be that the outside and 3rd party websites are as integral to the game as the client itself. I know I spend more time browsing the GW2 wiki than in the actual game due to my work and family commitments. Sometimes I might be more immersed in GW2 by reading a plot synopsis n the wiki than actually experiencing the un-skippable dialogue of the game.

    I don’t think the pop-up is defensible though, even with that logic.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    As an aside/addition, in thinking about immersion when writing this, there also seems to be at least a strong correlation between how immersive I found a game and how long I played it or the level or nostalgia I have for it. I have said on a number of occasions that Runes of Magic of Guild Wars 2 are fine games but never really clicked with me, but they are also games where I never really felt any sense of immersion. I was always just playing the game, never in the zone for either.

    Meanwhile, I still play WoW and EVE Online, would got back and play LOTRO, and always think I’ll go back and play EQ, EQII, or even TorilMUD, because those all managed high levels of immersion, usually very early in my time with those games. Of those, WoW is probably the lowest on the immersion scale, but still gets there.

    There might be a post in exploring this idea.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. PCRedbeard

    Last night, in Mana Tombs, our tank was ‘in the zone’. She was just cruising along (or trundling along, because she’s a Bear), doing pulls, markups and we were killing with high efficiency. I’d not call that immersion, that’s just a mental state where you are at a high level of effiiciency that everything just flows from you so smoothly.

    But I appreciate both immersion and being in the zone, but for two different reasons.

    So let me dispense with the “there is no immersion” side of the argument by saying that it isn’t an absolute belief that the game is real and you’re a part of it. If that is the definition to which you are wedded, then there is no immersion.

    If people really think this, they’re being obtuse. Or even if they’re just using it for argument’s sake, they’re still being obtuse. Just willfully so.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @PCRedbeard – Given enough comments, somebody will eventually claim that there is no immersion. I can find examples of it in the past here on the blog. I think readership here, and interest in MMORPGs in general, is just down to the point that I no longer cross that threshold automatically.

    But it popped up in the Twitter thread that prompted this post, though not by the person claiming to be the goal keeper of what is and is not immersive, but a passer by who I have actually met in person at a few of the EVE Vegas event. So we have somebody so into the game they go to an event like that, but then says there is no immersion. I think that just confirms the diagnosis of being obtuse which you offer, and with which I agree.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Tremayne

    I think your definition of immersion is pretty much spot on. It’s what’s called “the willing suspension of disbelief” – that you’re able to accept what’s presented to you as real enough to care about it. It’s the absolute requirement for fiction to work, without it you can’t enjoy a book or a movie because something in it is making your brain go “this is bollocks” – a glaring plot hole, or characters acting out of character, or a stupid historical inaccuracy you just can’t get over for example. Not all games need to provide that fictional immersion, they can engage with pure gameplay, but if the story presents a fiction (like just about any MMO) then you really want the fiction to work.
    The main problem with “immersion” in MMO circles is that it is used by passive-aggressive roleplayers who complain that other people “are breaking their immersion” to shut down any player behaviour they personally don’t like. Talking about the England-Germany game in general chat? You’re breaking my immersion. Got a Latin-sounding character name on an Argonian? You’re breaking my immersion. Written a character backstory that doesn’t comply with my personal headcanon for the game? You’re breaking my immersion. It’s one of those thoughtcrimes against which there is no defence because the offence is entirely in the eye of the beholder. I’d say just be reasonable about it but this is the Internet. Reasonable is never an option.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Naithin

    Aren’t the subtleties of language, grand?

    I think the ‘There’s no immersion in games’ crowd are conflating immersion with the suspension of disbelief and even then, at the far end of that spectrum as being the sum total of what ‘immersion’ means.

    I also think a lot of the issue in defining immersion (or at least, landing upon an agreed definition) is in just how many factors go into it, and how personal the weighting of importance against each one is.

    I think what you said with, “Immersion is more like a release of the real world” hits upon the closest for me. Not necessarily then following down the entering the zone path — although this can certainly sometimes occur! — but more about the distancing of self from thoughts other to the game.

    Work, chores, hell- other games: They all fade from mind. At the more extreme end, the passage of time can seem different, too.

    That’s immersion to me. And simply put: Seeing a monetisation pop-up after a ship burst? Yeah… Definitely immersion breaking.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Jeromai

    I think the problem stems from the word “immersion” not having one generally agreed-upon meaning. Many people liken the state of flow, being “in the zone” to being fully immersed in a game. I think the mainstream majority of players do not ever roleplay – their avatars are extensions of themselves as people – and hence immersion is them projecting themselves as being there, within a game world, however deeply or shallow it gets for them individually. Emotions getting engaged and physiological reactions are part of this.

    Personally, I have a bit more of a roleplay angle on this. My game avatars are extensions of parts of me as characters in a story – once named, they may have different personalities and propensities than the person sitting behind the keyboard. Full immersion for me is how far I can actually “be” and act like those characters would in a game. It means that games like Skyrim and narrative games like A Wolf Among Us are far better at this immersion for me, than MMO games where the mainstream majority expects all players to act like the person behind the keyboard at least half of the time. That’s immersion-breaking for people who want to pretend to be someone else for a time.

    Once upon a MUD and Everquest time, this wasn’t quite the case – players embraced the fantasy race / tabletop roleplay angle a bit more and would at least half jokingly make references to it or pretend to be that snotty elf or drunk dwarf. That has mostly fallen by the wayside these days, except in little specialized enclaves. The real world intrudes on the pretend fantasy world a lot more, making it a digital / virtual world where we still have to represent ourselves more as idealized [realname] rather than [fantasy person]. I suppose it’s easier to get [realname] to break out a credit card.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. Павел Шарипов

    Immersion issues aside, having popup to distract you while you and your implants hanging in hostile space frantically deciding what to do next, can’t be a good or even sane design choice…
    They can do much better – make message pop only in station or send in game mail for example.

    Liked by 2 people

  12. Nogamara

    I want to stress the point bhagpuss made about how death happens in a game and what it means. Looking back to any death-matchy game with instant respawn a death is something that just happens several times per minute, it doesn’t break the immersion.

    WoW is already a bit different, having to run back to your body as a ghost is pretty immersion-breaking for me. But it’s easy to resume if it’s not too far. (Interestingly I find this a lot better in recent versions of retail. In Vanilla and TBC you could be running for minutes, I’m 100% on my 2nd screen doing something in that time).

    Now EVE is, again, different. What others said, if it’s a big battle and you might need to try to get your pod to safety, then the immersion isn’t over, you might actually more stressed after losing your ship. But on the other hand in my experience (guess mostly gatecamps and not in TiDi?) your pod is dead just as quick as your ship and the screen turns white anyway. Also I guess I’m doing it wrong, but I’m usually not in the “oh let’s reship” crowd like Wilhelm. Guess it depends on what content you do and before the war I was mostly so many jumps out back home that it was no use to try to move there again and since the war I usually can’t be assed to continue. So the immersion is gone and I mostly turn to do other things, anyway. So I wouldn’t even mind the popup once back in station, except that it’s kind of a horrible idea in the first place…

    Liked by 1 person

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  14. Shawn

    Actual thesis paper written on the topic: https://www.jenovachen.com/flowingames/Flow_in_games_final.pdf

    It’s pretty old at this point but it contains a lot of interesting concepts in the arena of immersion (mostly aimed at brining it on, rather than how to break it). Has an attached game called “Flow” that is pretty neat. No tutorial, no guide, just drops you in and lets you figure it out and is simple enough that it works. Sadly, it was a flash based game so you can’t play in a web browser any more but it appears to be available elsewhere.

    Liked by 1 person

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