Immersion is a phenomenon in many kinds of media, though it is particularly relevant in virtual environments and video games. Immersion is a concept largely used to describe the player's status relative to the medium. However, there is more than one approach to how we define immersion.
Here, I discuss the utility of immersion and the capability of the environment to create it. Other works have identified possible barriers to immersion, and their effectiveness is debated here. I also look at several theories about maintaining immersion, such as the rule of consistency.
Immersion: Le Mot Juste
Being engaged in a video game, movie, virtual reality, or book is described as experiencing deep emotion linked to the medium. Usually this state is called immersion, but it's not always clear what is meant by immersion and if the meaning is used consistently.
"Suspension of disbelief," "flow," and "presence" are terms I use to signify different aspects of immersion, and although they possibly overlap in meaning, they are useful in reaching a more complete definition.
Suspension of disbelief. Samuel T. Coleridge nearly 200 years ago defined drama as "that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith." It is a suspension of the critical intellectual faculties and a consequent distorted sense of time toward a better enjoyment.
Flow. A hundred years later, the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi defined "flow" as the state in which "individuals are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter." In this case, concentration is important for strong cognitive engagement by the player.
Presence. Presence, defined by Lombard and Ditton, is more related to technology than the human experience. It's the sense of being there, in a mediated environment that fulfils the stimuli to be perceived. When the perception of mediation vanishes or fails, the presence arises: a physic sense of location, engagement, and participation, characterized by naturalness and realism. "Presence" suggests the relation between a player and her environment through an interface.
Related to presence, immersion does not guarantee the illusion of non-mediation, but it helps. Per se, immersion suggests the need to eliminate external cues, though that alone is not enough to guarantee the illusion.
For the sake of clarity, immersion is meant here as a concept that incorporates all three of the concepts stated.
Factors of Immersion
I have identified the player's status in a particular moment with respect to the medium, physically and psychologically. However, none of these constructs suggests a measurement for how the player is immersed.
Four factors determine whether one reaches total immersion: attention, concentration, atmosphere, and empathy. A game player's level of immersion is a reference to the number of obstacles that hinder any or all of those four factors, so it is implicit that at intermediate levels, the player is not able to be fully immersed. In games, however, this is not always the case (which I will discuss more thoroughly later).
There are at least three types of immersion in games: short-term, long-term, and narrative.
Short-term immersion. Short-term immersion is physic and immediate. It arises when the challenge is simple and only a few seconds are needed to make a choice. A very intuitive and reliant interface is needed to support short-term immersion because clumsy controls and chaotic gauges are the main obstacles, as well as sudden changes in gameplay, such as a single stealth mission in an action-oriented FPS.
Long-term immersion. Long-term immersion is more cerebral and related to path recognition, an innate ability in humans. The player searches for paths to victory and assesses their efficiency, just as a chess player foresees a series of moves ahead of time, not just the next move. Being so immersed becomes a moment of watchful observation and deduction. The main obstacles here are illogical or aleatoric (chance, random) behavior -- things that prevent the player from formulating a long-term strategy.
Narrative immersion. Narrative immersion is more closely related to the kind of immersion found in literature and film because it is involves attachment to characters, actions, and plot. Unconvincing dialogue, unrealistic characters, and incomprehensible plots are the main deterrents.
The Purpose of Immersion
What is the point of immersion and its role in virtual environments and video games? Games are closed, formal systems that represent another world, according to Chris Crawford (1982), who also calls games "a subset of reality." They are simulations based on a limited set of rules, possibly different from reality. For example, as shown in the image, human flight may be possible without explanation.
These closed formal systems create a simplified representation of emotional reality, says Crawford.
Games are an interactive medium experienced with the body, which is our main interface to the reality of game. The stimuli in the simulation are what we use to judge the quality of the experience.
Realism arises in part from the player controlling a character or other on-screen representation of himself. If his actions render the expected result in the game, the player feels in control and perceives the game as real.