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  • Invisible Walls

    - Luca Breda

  •  Yet immersion can take place even with poor immersive interfaces, such as keyboards and mice, thanks to other factors: emotive investment, attention, empathy, coherence, and naturalness. The semantic content of environments has been found to supplement perceptual and technological factors. A good story can cover for a lack of perceptual wealth, as is demonstrated by Mass Effect -- there are no bathrooms in any of the apartments, and it doesn't matter.

    The combination of sensory clues, embedded in the features of the environment, and well-known conventions can steer the player through a set of responses: the boundaries of play are established in terms of expectations of physics, agency, and context. This contract is needed in order to maximize the play experience and minimize processing capacity. For example, a combination of cues keeps the player aware of which objects are open to manipulation and which are not, without appearing to restrict exploration too much. The gap between virtual and real world is filled, and could be controlled the degree of freedom of action within the environment.

    A full recreation of reality is furthermore undesirable. The "rocket-jumping" in Team Fortress 2 is a clear example of altering physic to heighten gameplay. Provided there is consistency, the contract between player and game is not violated. With such departures from reality, one of the key factors is the naturalness of the interface, because unexpected outcomes to user actions may hamper immersion. The player's expectations have to be evaluated.

    Immersion and Affordance
    A player's perception is mapped to the rules of the system rather than the limitation of the interface. The environment affordances are more important than the manipulation of mouse and keyboard.

    Affordance is a technical word referring to the property of an object and the action that it seems to allow the player. A floor affords the action of walking and a door affords the actions of opening and passing through. It has been noted that the greater importance of the expected affordance, the greater the expectation of agency.

    Often in games, the worlds are completely fictional and without much logic. In reality, things that happen in games are often not possible in the real world, but the affordance is overwritten by the convention. So for example, a character can "obviously" move an enormous slab of stone (see image above).

    The player's experience as a gamer should be taken into account. Is he aware of similar actions and physical licenses in other games? Definitely games should render their own rules, because as Crawford's definition implies, players require an explanation of differences with reality.

    Immersion and Consistency
    Immersion happens thanks to the brain's willingness to forsake some knowledge of what's real and what's not. Consistency is a crucial aspect in game design. Consistency means that every element, background, key features of gameplay, artistic and technical direction, has to be coherent across a title.

    Coherence helps the relationship between the player and the system. Incongruence may harm it. Playing a game is an expensive activity in terms of cognitive work -- to learn the environment, the characters, the mechanisms, the objectives, etc. For this reason, games follow conventions and make use of tutorials, thereby reducing their average difficulty and lessening the cognitive strain.

    Inconsistencies waste the player's time and shock the player's attention, often shattering the sense of immersion. But if that were true, every usability issue would be disasterous to a game, and they're not. We have a certain threshold to account for usability. The concept of flow explains how the simple engagement allows for a cognitive, though possibly no less visceral, immersive response. During this state of immersion, minor usability flaws are no more detrimental. Further research is needed to establish the threshold at which the immersion is truly interrupted.

    Immersion and Credibility
    Consistency is not always enough to maintain immersion. I content that “credibility” is more relevant. Credibility pertains to the story as well the actions of the player. Actions must occur in a context that’s capable of tolerating a certain amount of improbability before the credibility "budget" is exhausted. Excessive use of unrealistic elements can ruin the player’s immersion; there is a limit to incredibility.

    A universal and accurate definition of immersion is difficult to determine, even considering the constructs and the exceptions seen in the cases examined. Although other studies have (correctly) indicated that certain barriers can shatter immersion, my theory proposes a different perspective that shows unexpected counter-results.

    Once achieved, immersion may help the player overcome other usability issues in video games.

    Do we need invisible walls? Likely no, but their appearance in games is not as detrimental to the player's experience as they once were believed to be.

    Luca Breda is a contract designer and developer, originally educated as a programmer at University of Udine, Italy. In his free time, he creates reproductions of Greek masterpieces in chalk and is an acrobatic aircraft pilot. You can read more about his work at DesignSingularity.

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