Click to return to Homepage

Immersion in Games

Immersion is a process by which your senses and actions get redirected along pathways that extend you It’s a balance of dynamic, audio-visual and pace-changing elements all intended to achieve a kind of engagement. All have common reasons for why they work, and it’s to do with the balance of imagination with mechanism, action with reward, exploration with mastery.” Tadhg Kelly

Last year was an exceptional year for gaming. We saw some of the biggest games ever released in a single year. Long waited AAA sequels like Portal, Battlefield, Dragon Age and Deus Ex finally found their way onto our screens. The long wait was over.

As I played title after title my excitement started to fade, as I realized that I struggled to immerse myself in some of the games. I needed more from a game than improved physics and graphics. I wanted the game to connect with me and challenge me. I wanted it to captivate my attention entirely by touching me deeply on many levels.

This started a chain reaction of thoughts relating to aspects that create immersion in a game. I realize that different elements make different people enjoy their gaming experience, but please indulge me as I share with you the aspects that give depth to mine.

Depth to me speaks about the ability a game has to draw me in and immerse me in the unfolding story. Immersion in a figurative sense indicates the act of overwhelming, the state of being deeply engaged and absorbed. In other words, how well the game succeeds in drawing you in.

Now join me as I discuss ten levels of engagement which gives depth to my gaming experience.

1. The whole issue of death – at the heart of gaming

Death produces focus and causes change. Without death (whether symbolically or actually) a game has no purpose, no reason to pick up the gun and no sense of motion. Without death there are no wins. There is only activity.” Tadhg Kelly

Death is the one element that features in almost all games. It's the frame around which the whole game is wrapped around. Without the consequence of death, there would be no purpose in a game. It stimulates creative thinking and focuses the gamer on the task at hand. I have not played many games where death wasn't the consequence of failure. In real life (IRL) the impact of death causes a change in focus, and this is simulated in games. It forces the player to change strategy – whether it is deciding which troopers to deploy where, which approach would minimize the risk of death, choosing which non player character (NPC) to let live, or which platform to step on. In some games the consequence of death draws the player into moral and ethical contemplation.

Death can therefore provide depth to the gaming experience because it is the one element that always forces engagement from the player. Personally I prefer games where the cost of death is highlighted, for example, having checkpoints rather than immediate on the spot respawns. The safety net of infinite lives and reloads defies the immersive quality that the possibility of death brings to a game. I can just respawn at the same place where I died as opposed to taking the time to plan carefully and strategize my approach. The higher the price I have to pay for defeat/dying, the more I invest in the gameplay.

2. The player as an agent of change – shaping the world

Depth in games apparently has something to do with the complexity of decision making.” Lewis Pulsipher

Games provide a platform, a playground where different and unique skill sets can be tested and developed. It engages us on an intellectual, physical and emotional level. It is about a story that passes through us, and comes alive to us as a result of the choices we make. It's a dance between expression (developer) and interaction (player), and the rhythm is set by how the player responds to the world created.

We immerse ourselves in these foreign worlds and experiences, facing challenges that we would never face in real life. Action and consequence develop the flow of the story. However, more opportunity for action/decision making does not imply greater depth. Depth is created by the level of interaction that the decision requires from the player. An action that requires deeper contemplation from the player about the resulting consequence provides greater depth of choice.

The illusion of choice (as opposed to actual change) in a game's outcome is something few game developers master. The screenshot comes from Dragon Age: Origins, and describes the dilemma Steve “Wonderer' Withford experienced. He shared this on his facebook wall, and it caused quite the discussion.

Games that overload the player with just more choices (quest after quest) versus choices that will impact and shape the world around the player's will dilute the experience and don't cause more depth. On the other hand, a game that compels me to consider and re-evaluate my actions more carefully is a game that has succeeded in providing depth.

3. Social interactionbonding around the e-campfire

Soul within the source code.” Charles D. Ulrich

There's a lot to be said about World of Warcraft (WoW), but the social interaction that this game provides was one of its most outstanding features for me. In this screenshot, I was chilling with my guild master and dear friend Lumminate. We would sit on this old shipwreck fishing in the Twilight Highlands, sometimes having meaningful conversations, but mostly just enjoying spending time together. I've since stopped playing WoW, but the close relationships I've formed are still a part of my life.

I spend a lot of hours gaming and being able to share this passion with interesting, like-minded people add tremendous depth to my gaming experience. My hubby and I are the only gamers in my IRL circle of friends. This often leads to uncomfortable discussions about time being wasted on meaningless gaming related activities. The social aspect of gaming has, however, had a real impact on my life - be it on expanding my knowledge about social media, learning the dynamics of team work, and even forming healthy online relationships. It adds depth to my development as a person as well as to my gaming experience.

4. Challenges – the feeling of accomplishment

Games mimic the feelings of accomplishment we get when we do fulfilling work.” Jane McGonigal

The satisfaction that comes from successfully completing a really difficult manoeuvre, or finally downing that boss, or figuring out a complex puzzle is one of the main reasons that make us play games.

We are constantly confronted with the fear and consequences of failure in our lives, but gaming provides a platform where we can experience the thrill of success over and over again.

In 2011, we started to see this element of gaming having a profound impact on current, global problems. The future for gamers in this regard looks truly exciting. Fox news reported the following:

“Researchers at the University of Washington turned to Foldit, a program created by the university a few years ago that transforms problems of science into competitive computer games, and challenged players to use their three-dimensional problem-solving skills to build accurate models of the protein. In just three weeks, online gamers deciphered the structure of a retrovirus protein that has stumped scientists for over a decade, and a study out Sunday says their breakthrough opens doors for a new AIDS drug design.”

The Portal series is one of my all-time favourite games. The feeling of accomplishment as you solve puzzle after puzzle is very satisfying. The more daunting the challenge was the more I found myself to be drawn into the game.

5. Digital landscaping and music scorethe art of gaming

Video games use images, actions and player participation to tell stories and engage their audiences. In the same way as film, animation and performance, they can be considered a compelling and influential form of narrative art.” Smithsonian American Art Museum

I am a great lover of art, be it the fine or performing arts. Games provide a sketchbook and a stage like no other, where all art forms can be displayed within a single experience.

During the December holidays, I played Bastion, and the art and music in this game captivated me. I would just sit and stare at my screen, marveling at the sheer beauty of the imagery while listening to the most enchanting music. I can write essays about the art that goes into gaming and the depth of experience it provides. It has the ability to touch us deeply because it is able to capture and express what we sometimes are unable to.

Last year I discovered a game called To the Moon, this game had such an impact on me that I wrote an opinion piece about it. Here is an extract about just the music of this game.

“Let me try to explain what I felt as I listened. There's a place deep inside me that rarely gets touched, moved. Too much of life is filled with the ordinary and mundane, we are surrounded by it, we choke on it. The moment I heard those first few simple notes I was swept to that place. The music has the ability to make the world stop for that brief moment when you listen to it. The soundtrack is all inclusive, all immersive and utterly captivating. It demands all of your attention, it gently compels you to feel, to share at that moment in the game the feelings that the characters go through... it is truly magical.”

Personally, beautiful artwork and music in a game can captivate me like no other element, because it appeals to my sense of beauty and wonder.

6. Tactical depth – the thrill of competing

The mastery of what you call tactical depth strategy are required to control the other opponents. It's not about out-thinking the opponent or anticipate his moves or being smarter. It's about controlling your opponent.” Christian P. Guay

Mastering the specific strategies and skills of the game you are playing and using that as a tool to control other players is another element that can create immersion.

We only have to look at South Korea to see how Starcraft became a national obsession because of this component in gaming. No other element in gaming keeps gamers glued to their screens as much as the drive to be better than an opponent. The most challenging scenario is the one that will give greater depth to the experience. Man's love for competition and play can be seen throughout the ages. It has evolved from bloody gladiator-type sports to digital e-Sports. It is a primal drive of humanity and a huge incentive in gaming.

7. Personal connectionemotional engagement

Playing a really immersive game can feel like a private conversation with oneself. And nothing delights me more than when that conversation pushes my comfort zone, whether that's with what I ponder about myself or about us as players.“ Leigh Alexander

For the past few decades, my genre of choice has always been the first person shooter. I recently played a game that touched me so deeply that it changed my preference. The game in question is To the Moon, and it showed me that games can serve as a catalyst through which introspection, and reflection can take place. It's not the games graphics or gameplay that gives depth to the experience, but rather the ability of the story to engage the player on a personal level.

Games like this are a very rare find - a treasure that stays with you long after the final credits rolled. It has the ability to act as a mirror of the heart by reflecting back to the player inner struggles he/she has been wrestling with. Being able to make an emotional connection to a game adds tremendous depth and value to it.

8. Fantasy – a platform for escapism

Video games are a form of modern day entertainment. Without them, we lose something very vital to everybody’s existence: a gateway outside of ourselves.” flufflogic

The best games are those where you can lose yourself in another world - a place that so completely captivates you that time has no meaning and where character immersion dominates your imagination. Games can provide an escape from the harsh realities we face, or from the ordinary hum drum of life. It can fill us with excitement and endless possibilities to be explored.

Games can provide a platform for people - to express the parts they hide, or to live out character traits they admire or wish to be. We can experience life through a medium with no real life consequences. Judgement of the choices the player makes takes place as a private matter between the player and storyline. In my opinion by playing games built up tension can also be released.

Through video games, developers are able to articulate any form of social behavior and create any world the imagination can dream up. Star Wars the Old Republic (SWTOR) gives players the opportunity to explore this element to its fullest. I have a Jedi (Galactic Republic) as well as a pure blood Sith (Sith Empire). This game provides various avenues for exploring character development. On the Republic side, you have the opportunity to impact your world in a positive way, this side appeals to the inner hero concept and playing it comes naturally for me. Playing as a Sith, however, proved to be very tricky. You can explore torture, murder, slavery, exploitations of the darkest nature such as the emotional and physical abuse of your companion. You can also choose to play on both these sides as neither fully good nor entirely corrupt. The option of playing as, for example, a light Jedi, but secretly belonging to the dark Sith Empire is also available. It all depends on the morality of the choices the player makes. Through interaction with this fantasy world self-expression is enabled, which brings depth to the experience.

9. A digital philosopher – a platform for global consciousness

"I love to talk about real life through the lens of fantasy. A parable is much more powerful than a pamphlet." Guillermo del Toro

More than perhaps any other platform, games can provide a global springboard where all the hard questions can be asked. Games can explore themes that can resonate in the collective gamer consciousness. Let's take a look at the Deus Ex series as an example.

This series tackles some weighty topics: Transhumanism, (what defines being human), the Illuminati (controlling humanity), Digital Rights Management (creator responsibility vs. consumer freedom) and Wealth Imbalance (technology brings advance and the more those unable to purchase it suffer). Another main theme that is explored in the series is the need to place limitations on power, and to act responsibly with power.

Games offer a type of critique on various topics, be it morality, technology or sociology. The way these topics are integrated into the gameplay can create interesting avenues for contemplation and debate.

10. Entertainment at its best – just a whole lot of fun

Tell me, Bats. What are you really scared of? Not finding the Commissioner in time? Failing to save this cesspool of a city? Me, in a thong? The Joker Arkham Asylum

Kicking ass, blowing up stuff, being the hero. What's not to like?

The Batman series gave me hours of entertainment, beating up a bunch of thugs, flying around rooftops, and the quirky remarks between the characters were just too much fun.

After all these thought provoking elements that games can provide, all it sometimes boils down to is that we just want to have some fun. A game that fails to provide this element fails in its purpose. This was the reason I stopped playing WoW; it started feeling more like work than play.

What is it that draws you to gaming? What keeps you glued to your screen for hours on end? What is it that you personally look for in a game to experience that feeling of complete immersion?

Whisp's picture
Joined: 08/17/2009
Re: Immersion in Games

Really nice article!

Lola's picture
Joined: 09/21/2010
Re: Immersion in Games

tyvm Whisp :)

Turkish was once again a great inspiration for this, debating with me for hours about points he didnt agree with, or didn't like how I presented it.

Turkish's picture
Joined: 03/14/2009
Re: Immersion in Games

A very well thought out and constructed article. Some of your points really describe my reasons for gaming.

Would have loved to see you elaborating on each of the 10 points. You could probably have written a seperate piece for each of the one.


Just one thing I heavily disagree with and thats the concept of death being at the heart of gaming. Its not death, but failure and success. At the core of every single game is some sort of mechanic that needs to be beaten. Death within the game world is merely a result of failure (or in some games a result of you success). For example, most sports and racing games dont even factor in death - but the core concept of success and failure is ever present.

Lola's picture
Joined: 09/21/2010
Re: Immersion in Games

ty Turkish, and yes good point that

User login

Game Servers