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Along with ‘OMG! Dude is so awesome!’ one of the words that gamers like to toss around when describing their favourite titles is ‘immersive”. But what exactly does that mean? And what makes a game immersive? Ask five people and you’ll probably get ten opinions, but psychologists have been studying immersion in various kinds of media for decades so they could probably shed some light on those questions.
Except they don’t call it ‘immersion’. Instead, they call it ‘presence’, which, admittedly, isn’t as cool. Regardless, researchers have identified several kinds of presence in regards to how we perceive media but it’s spatial presence that I think comes closest to what gamers think of as ‘immersion’. (By the way, I’ve got an entire chapter about how we get immersed in game worlds in my book, Getting Gamers: The Psychology of Video Games and Their Impact On Those Who Play Them. That chapter goes into a lot more detail.)
Briefly, spatial presence is often defined as existing when ‘media contents are perceived as “real” in the sense that media users experience a sensation of being spatially located in the mediated environment.’ The idea is just that a game (or any other media from books to films) creates spatial presence when the user starts to feel like he is ‘there’ in the world that the game creates. People who experience immersion tend to only consider choices that make sense in the context of the imaginary world. Someone immersed in Red Dead Redemption, for example, might be more likely to use travel methods that make sense within the game, like stagecoaches, instead of methods that don’t, like fast travelling from a menu screen. People immersed in media also tend to enjoy it more.
A theory of spatial presence (AKA, immersion)
But how does this happen? What about a game and what about the player makes her feel like she’s leaving the real world behind? Theories abound, but a few years ago Werner Wirth and a team of other researchers sat down to consolidate the research and come up with one unified theory. Basically, they said that spatial presence happens in three steps:
- Players form a representation in their minds of the space or world with which the game is presenting them.
- Players begin to favour the media-based space (the game world) as their point of reference for where they are (or to put it in psychological gobblety-gook, their ‘primary ego reference frame’)
So, basically, the process starts with players forming a mental model of the game’s make-believe space by looking at various cues (images, movement, sounds, and so forth) as well as assumptions about the world that they may bring to the table. Once that mental model of the game world is created, the player must decide, either consciously or unconsciously, whether she feels like she’s in that imagined world or in the real one. Of course, it’s worth noting that this isn’t necessarily a conscious decision with the prefrontal cortex’s stamp of approval on it. It can be a subconscious, on the sly, slipped into sideways and entered and exited constantly.
Researchers have extensively studied how these two steps happen, but I think it’s more interesting for our purposes here to skip to the bit about what qualities of the media (game) and person (player) that they’ve found to facilitate both of these steps and create immersion. So let’s do that.
Game characteristics leading to spatial presence
Characteristics of games that facilitate immersion can be grouped into two general categories: those that create a rich mental model of the game environment and those that create consistency between the things in that environment.
Let’s take the concept of richness, first. This isn’t an exhaustive list, but richness relates to:
- Multiple channels of sensory information
- Completeness of sensory information
- Cognitively demanding environments
- A strong and interesting narrative, plot, or story
Multiple channels of sensory information means simply that the more senses you assault and the more those senses work in tandem, the better. A bird flying overhead is good. Hearing it screech as it does, so is better. 3D may also play a role here, and we can all agree that smell-o-vision will herald in a new era of spatial presence.
Completeness of sensory information means that the fewer blanks about the mental model of the game world that the player has to fill in, the better. Abstractions and contrivances (there are no people in this town because of, uh, a plague! Yeah!) are the enemy of immersion. Assassin’s Creed 2 was immersive because its towns were filled with people who looked like they were doing… people stuff. Dealing in a familiar environment also allows the player to comfortably make assumptions about those blank spaces without being pulled out of the world to think about it. Knowing what the Wild West is supposed to look like and having Red Dead Redemption conform to those stereotypes goes a long way towards creating spatial presence.
Cognitively demanding environments where players have to focus on what’s going on and getting by in the game will tie up mental resources. This is good for immersion, because if brain power is allocated to understanding or navigating the world, it’s not free to notice all its problems or shortcomings that would otherwise remind them that they’re playing a game.
Finally, a strong and interesting narrative, plot, or story will suck you in every time. In fact, it’s pretty much the only thing in a book’s toolbox for creating immersion, and it works in games too. Good stories attract attention to the game and make the world seem more believable. They also tie up those mental resources.
Turning to game traits related to consistency, we have:
- Lack of incongruous visual cues in the game world
- Consistent behaviour from things in the game world
- An unbroken presentation of the game world
- Interactivity with items in the game world
Lack of incongruous visual cues in the game world is one of the more interesting precursors to spatial presence. If we were discussing the same concept in films, I’d cite the example of seeing a boom mic drop into an otherwise believable scene. It’s anything that reminds you that ‘Yo, this is A VIDEO GAME’. Examples might include heads up displays, tutorial messages, damage numbers appearing over enemies’ heads, achievement notifications, friends list notifications, and the like. It’s also the reason why in-game advertising wrecks immersion so much – seeing 25 instances of ads for the new Kevin James film while trying to rescue hostages kind of pulls you out of the experience.
Believable behaviour from things in the game world means that characters, objects, and other creatures in the game world behave like you’d expect them to. It’s also worth noting that the cues need to make sense and be constant throughout the experience. This is one reason that I think Bioshocks’s audio logs kind of hurt the game’s otherwise substantial immersion: Who the heck records an audio diary, breaks it up into 20-second chunks, puts them on their own dedicated tape players, and then wedges those players into the various corners of a public place? It doesn’t make any sense.
An unbroken presentation of the game world means that the spatial cues about the imaginary world your game has created should not just up and vanish. Which is exactly what happens every time you get a loading screen, a tutorial, or a game menu. When that happens, the game world literally disappears for a few minutes, and we can’t feel immersed in something that isn’t there.
Interactivity with items in the game world could probably fit under the ‘richness’ list above, but I include it with consistency because it’s another way of giving the player feedback on actions and a sense of consistency between various parts of the environment. Operating machines, talking to non-player characters (NPCs), and fiddling with physics makes it seem like the various pieces of the world fit together consistently.
Player characteristics leading to spatial presence
Of course, players have some say in how immersed they get in a game. Some people just have more spatial ability and can build those mental models of game worlds more readily and make them more vibrant. And researchers have found that people have an ‘absorption trait’ which means that they’re quicker to get fascinated by something and drawn into it – something I like to think of this as ‘the fanboy gene’.
Other times the player takes a more active role. Some players simply want to believe in the illusion, and will induce their own bias towards accepting the ‘I am there’ hypothesis. In this state, they’ll require less confirmatory information to accept that hypothesis and less ‘disconfirming’ information to reject it. This is also similar to the idea of ‘suspension of disbelief’ where players wilfully ignore stuff that doesn’t make sense (like thunderous explosions in space or the fact that enemy soldiers can soak up a dozen of gunshots without going down) in order to just have a good time.
Other researchers have also pointed to a concept they call ‘involvement’ which is a media user’s desire to act in the make-believe world, to draw parallels between it and his life, and to effect changes in it according to their own design. To me, this seems like an overly fancy way of saying ‘some people like to role play’ which leads directly to greater immersion.
So there you have it. Everybody can cite examples of things that yank them out of the game experience, and it turns out that psychologists have examined, classified, and isolated a lot of them. This isn’t to say, though, that all games should strive to be immersive. I think games are kind of unique in all media in that this is so. A game can still be a good game without being immersive, and maybe some types of games are better if they aren’t immersive. But that’s the great thing: game designers have a lot of paths that they can take to good art.
Dr Jamie Madigan has become an expert on the psychology of video games.
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