What even is Immersion?

What even is Immersion?

In my #INDIEGAMEaDAY2016  post today and elseweb, I got thinking about this immersion thing again. It’s extra fraught! But I want to talk about it, hopefully in a way that isn’t about staking out territory or denigrating others’ experience. So if that happens, I’m shutting that down. Just saying. Read charitably, think before you react.

Given the limits of a single-reply survey, consider which of the following is the most true for you. I’ll have followups. Immersion is…

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0 thoughts on “What even is Immersion?”

  1. For me those all fit to different degrees and times. But I feel all of them key on feeling invested in the game. When everything is flowing along smoothly people are on the edge of their seats and everyone is interested on the situation and not just waiting for their turn.

  2. I went with rules fluency so play flows unbroken, because that’s how I experience it, but also because that’s how I’ve noticed other people experiencing it. In my experience, when people say that rules get in the way of play, it’s usually* because it’s a rule they’re not familiar with enough. That said, you could definitely design rules that are so clunky and so take you out of the fiction for such a long time that it’s harder to achieve that flow state.

    * I have no idea of the proportion; this is anecdata

  3. For me, immersion is feeling the emotions and thoughts of the character as closely as they were my own and I were them. But then I have and emotionally driven primary character socket and so my immersion will manifest differently from someone who has a setting, system or aesthetic socket, or who engages with games more at arm’s length.

    FWIW, I think investment is necessary for immersion but not the same thing at all. I’d also call what Chris Groff is describing flow and Christopher Weeks I would say that bleed can be a by product of immersion, but is not actually a component of it.

  4. My answer is similar.  For me emotionality is key, and yields a much stronger feeling of immersion than merely seeing things in the mind’s eye.  Ideally they reinforce each other, but they can also counterpoint each other, just as in any good piece of narrative art.  I’d say: Without the mind’s eye, the game is an abstract emotional pastiche.  Without emotionality, the game is like a working plastic model.

  5. I chose investment because it feels like the closest to immersion I’ve personally gotten in games. I’ve never experienced a game suppress my ego so I become this other individual but then again I’ve never cried at a movie because a narrative had truly convinced me I was spiderman. So investment feels like the closest terminology for the kind of experience when the game transforms from light play to emotionally intimate play.

  6. I’m with Mo Jave as well. I would describe it as I feel most immersed when I feel most connected to my character. That connection is usually emotional, but it can also be physical (as in a LARP) or maybe what could be called sensual (as in I have a strong feeling of what the character is sensing, e.g. a particularly vivid description of a piece of setting by the GM).

    I don’t seek this feeling out, but I enjoy it a lot when it happens.

  7. I want this definition in the mix, because I’ve observed it, while acknowledging all the others listed above and elaborated in the thread:

    Immersion as alibi for selfish behavior is a negative aspect or use that can be overlaid atop these other definitions. I set it out as a competing definition but it isn’t really.

  8. Jason Morningstar I think that might be bad faith for purposes of discussion? Equating definition with misuse is likely to be unproductive to getting to clarity or happy conversation.

  9. Other:

    Feeling the emotions of the character (intensely.

    I can be deeply invested in games in other ways without feeling my characters feelings.

    But I always remember that I am playing a game, otherwise that could result in some dangerous situations in a larp. Jumping from the second floor would be logical for a character whoms life is threatened, but would dangerous for me.

  10. I chose “deeply invested”, but tbh I have never really understood this term. The image you’ve chosen of a Trek holodeck seems like what I assume people are getting at, but I can’t see how it’s even remotely possible in a tabletop game.

  11. Back in the Forge days, several self-declared immersionists told me that they actually create a separate mind space for a character and, when they switch over to it, they therefore actually become someone else for the duration of play.

  12. I chose deep investment. Rules fluency/flow helps facilitate that. Weirdly, my peak moment of immersion involved lots of dice rolling. Angry, depressed Angel after a big battle, lots of wounded, no Stock. It got very quiet as I picked up the dice and just dropped them on the table over and over as I worked my way through the list of critically wounded. “Dead. Dead. Still alive. Alive.”

  13. Personally, and only in my experience (I can’t talk about what other people feel ), the “feeling what my character feel” experience was always very tied to the specific emotion.
    I mean: I have been often enraged when my character was enraged, sad when he was sad, etc, but I didn’t ever felt his hunger, or when he was sleep-deprived, or his actual fear of the unknown, his nostalgia for his old home, etc.

    Often it’s the other way around: to be able to play a character feeling an emotion i don’t share, I remember when I felt that emotion and try to act like at that time: it’s the character in that case that is showing MY old emotions.

    Looking at these experiences, I noticed that in both cases, the game procedures (or even the fiction created by the players using these procedures) made me able to act in accordance to these emotions, using these procedures. The times I had to feel these emotions bottling them up, and doing nothing (some nordic larp from the late 90s) they didn’t stay. The exercise felt so empty that I could not maintain these emotions for long, or even evoke them in the first place in some cases.

    This is the reason I voted “feeling very invested in the game”: that investment in the game was essential to be able to evoke these emotions, and the specific emotions depend on what you invest in the game.

  14. I agree that it happens for sure, Jason Morningstar, but I also know that some GM’s take up the role as GM to exert sadistic control over others (and have lived experience that proves that up)… but it would be a disservice, I think, to define the GM role that way.

  15. In my experience “immersion” is “all of the above in different proportions to different people, but with no clear definition established at the beginning of the conversation so everyone gets confused and angry and nothing meaningful can be communicated.”

  16. I have to go outside of gaming to get the definition for me. If I forget I’m watching a movie, listening to music, talking to a friend, looking at a painting, etc.

    I think it applies to gaming! BUT…

    I think designing for option 1 is gross and designing for option rest of them is good.

  17. I choose deeply invested in the game, but I think it is a combination of rule fluency and character investment. Need rule fluency so the rule fall into the background, (the rules are used, it’s not no touching the dice) allowing the player to focus on the drama his character is involved in (motivations, goals, action to achieve those goals) giving the character a voice through his actions.

  18. I agree strongly with Mo Jave and Jason Morningstar! I feel immersed when I am feeling things strongly in a way that isn’t just me; I never disappear and I don’t forget that I’m playing, but there’s a non-Sara component to what I’m feeling that comes from the character and the game. It’s something I really value. Closely related to bleed but separate.

    But I’ve also seen immersion used or misused as an alibi for bad behavior. “But it’s what my character would do” is a classic, and I’ve said that and regretted it sorely because it felt like bullshit and was but I said it anyway.

    For me, being immersed in a character doesn’t take away my responsibility to be a kind and generous player to others. Just as feeling something strongly doesn’t mean I can express that however I want — I have to be responsible to those around me. If I’m angry I have a choice to yell at them or not yell at them; I might fail to live up to my standards, but I still have a moral standard that involves not raising my voice in an angry or violent way in most cases. I am capable of both feeling my feelings and choosing to control my actions, and choosing to control my actions doesn’t undermine my feelings.

    Similarly, when feeling immersed in a character I can still see opportunities to be a good or bad player to others, and make steering choices accordingly. It doesn’t invalidate my immersion to steer towards good play; being immersed in my character grounds me when making those kinds of meta choices, because I know how I’d react in the different circumstances. (And the biggest problem with “it’s what my character would do” is that anyone who tells you that someone would always do the same consistent thing in reaction to a set of circumstances doesn’t know how people work.)

  19. I posted this in Mark Delsing​’s share but I was thinking mostly about this thread so here it is again, slightly edited:

    I think it’s super easy to do like Jason Morningstar​ said, and use “immersion” as an alibi for bad behavior. It’s this mystical, mythic state of grace that’s heavily prized/privileged even while undefined. A weird cultural thing, I think.

    But I also think it really is a thing, although clearly per this thread it’s a different thing for different people. I’m actually okay with it being bad shorthand for “optimal play state.”

    But then if that’s the case, you’ve got folks out there basically going “my optimal play state is so important that I’ll do whatever I need to achieve that, at any other player’s expense.”

    I think unexamined selfishness is just…basic human behavior, versus cultivated selfless behavior, which takes practice and sensitivity. So I’m not sure it’s “a problem with gamers” so much as a problem with humans.

    Just this morning I got nearly creamed on the road by a Beemer driver who was obviously pretty immersed in her driving experience (which required she ignore lanes, speed limits and physics).

    Unfortunately I think there are also probably versions of optimal play state that literally cannot accommodate other players’ needs. I’ve had that at my own tables!

  20. Most of the time the problem with “talking about immersion” is that folks aren’t talking about the same thing.

    And partly because of that, people start talking about how we “should” play. Which can even work for very specific styles, or groups, or communities.

    But, as we’re often not in any of those things with the folks we talk online about games, we generalize. And generalizations lead to moralizing. And moralizing about how other people should play is almost universally stupid. 

    Edit add: posted this in the wrong thread. This discussion is surprisingly reasonable.

  21. Totally agreed about the fact that nobody’s talking about the same thing. My point as well, and I think the (dumb, poorly constructed) poll shows that. Although interesting that “deeply invested” (also undefined!) is a heavy favorite.

    Re the moralizing: Happily I’m not seeing much of that here, other than maybe the alibi thing, which doesn’t strike me as moralizing so much as true-but-probably-unavoidable.

    I’m loving the clear delineation between “I forget I’m playing a game” and “I identify closely with my character’s emotional state.” I really super-duper wanted to include something like that but…5 choices and one of them had to be “other.” Obvs in retrospect “I never touched the dice!” could have gone away.

  22. I haven’t been a player as much as I’ve been a GM. Brings up the notion that immersion might be player side idea? There are times when I GM, where I’m “barfing forth apocalyptica” to such an extent, that it might be called immersion. Besides these questions I don’t have much to add other than my own actual play experiences and personal definition of immersion.

    To me immersion is a flow state of play coming from trust and understanding. Where everyone is on the same wavelength within the social strata as well as within the setting and system; so that concentration remains on the fiction.

    The closest I got to this from the player side was in a Torchbearer game. I was playing a False Prophet, who was being hunted by a medusa like demon. I had bought into the GM’s tone, had a firm grasp of who my character was, and the limits of their abilities. From that position I was able to act fully in character with confidence that I belonged in the fiction. I was scared of dying in those forgotten ruins, but saw the chance to be daring and reap the rewards. I felt immersed.

    As for GM-less games, like Fall of Magic, I think this can come up because the trust and understanding is distributed differently. That maybe you’re shooting for that GM like immersion and that can feel weird.

  23. Yea, I like the way the poll breaks down. Especially, and hilariously, the “other” being the #3 most popular atow.

    Also, interesting, how low “never touched the dice” is among the folks responding. Because I’ve been in other communities in which that would have had a much higher response rate. (And in larp communities where they would wonder what the hell dice and immersion could even possibly have to do with each other.)

  24. My “totally not any of these” is: Feeling a strong identity with my character and a strong sense of the game world and the other characters, such that they feel real. It’s not like I forget I’m playing a game, so I didn’t choose that option even though it’s the closest to what I’m talking about. But I can almost believe the game is just a window into another place, as real as this one.

  25. My “not any of these” answer: feeling deeply connected to the character, easily imagining the world through their POV, knowing how they would act and react instinctively and in-the-moment not analytically or in any way removed, etc. I’d say it’s similar to when I’m really engaged with reading a well-written novel with a first-person or third-person-limited viewpoint where I’m not paying attention to the prose style but am thoroughly engaged by the action, situation, etc. I didn’t pick the “deeply invested in the game” because I can be deeply invested but not feel immersed in any particular character, e.g. in some GMing situations. Similarly I didn’t pick the “rules fluency” one because there are situations where I’m perfectly fluent with the rules but not immersed. (Alternately, maybe I’ve never experienced immersion so I’m just assuming the cool thing that happens sometimes where I feel especially strongly connected to my character is “immersion”, even though other people mean something different). I didn’t pick the “didn’t touch the dice” or “forget I’m playing” options because they just seem wrong to me — one of my most immersive moments definitely still involved being aware I was playing a game and using the game’s mechanics.

  26. I don’t really have a definition of immersion since I’m more interested in fun than immersion (whatever that is) and there are many paths to (my, subjective) fun.

  27. Immersion, for me, happens when both the characters and the game world develop identities that are strong enough for me to believe in. There are a number of factors that contribute, I think. Internal consistency and authenticity of the game world is a big one for me. Also, players developing empathy towards their characters and their situation I think helps players make decisions for their characters that feel consistent. The culmination of which are those moments when as a GM I would make decisions about what happens, not because I’m playing a game, but because “that’s just how this world is”. Or for players making decisions for their characters, not neccessarily in their best interests, but because “thta is just what would happen to this character”. I guess, in short, when the story has a life of it’s own.

  28. Once we have developed feelings for the characters, like we would for characters on a TV show or movie, so that we can cheer or jeer at them, or found the story compelling enough that our imaginations are firing with anticipation and hope, then we’re immersed. “Losing yourself in the story” is, well, nice, but it’s really not something you can strive toward with any real expectation of achievement.

  29. Jesse Coombs I would like to see a separate thread on why designing to create a forget-you-are-playing-a-game immersion is gross. I don’t know if I’m aware of a game designed this way so I’d like to know about that too. Thank you!

  30. Scott Dunphy I’d like to see it too! The short answer that I have energy for is that you can design a game that hides that it’s a game. This means that the players don’t know what they are getting into and I think that is bait and switch and can be unethical.

    That doesn’t mean that if a game makes you forget you are playing it, it’s bad, I just think that if you design in just that direction eventually you are going to be manipulating people.

    I think other media can do this too!

  31. I’m down with Mo Jave on my optimal answer. However, I feel like I only experienced and strived to experience immersion in traditional RPGs. With story/indie games I’m striving for the rules fluency/flow and when we achieve that I feel the experience is optimal. But I’ve never considered that to be immersion. I’d call that flow or just that the game was really cohering/clicking/etc.

  32. For me immersion is the feeling of being in the World itself. I have had that feeling while reading, for example, The Lord of the Rings. I’ve also had that same feeling while playing certain RPGs with certain GMs who have the ability to bring their World so thoroughly to life that I can feel like I am, in some sense, there.

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