Immersion is Fake and a Menace!

Yes systems mastery is what’s really important, but don’t you agree stuff like immersion can change how systems mastery feels?

Are you a new reader?

I don’t think immersion is its own distinct thing in the first place. I think it’s a bunch of more specific things wrapped up under one heading that doesn’t really encompass those more specific things well. Like, all the things people positively associate with immersion are real, just I don’t think there is a particular phenomenon that can be called immersion, it’s just people mistaking all these other appealing things for immersion when everyone is actually experiencing totally different things from everyone else.

Beyond that, I think that the whole ideology of immersion is a menace to making more entertaining games with better gameplay. I think we should ignore or embrace dissonance with the story or setting and not worry about suspension of disbelief. If there’s things that “break your immersion” just accept it, and don’t go looking for an immersive experience in the first place. Enjoy the game for what it is.

“Systems mastery” is the game. If you want to change how it feels, change the system. I think saying “fiction” here rather than immersion might make more sense, but I still wouldn’t agree with you. I’m a hardline advocate for agnosticism as to theme, characters, aesthetics, etc. Skin it however you want, if it’s a fun game, I’ll play it. If it’s not, I won’t. The choice of setting, story, and visuals are going to do very little to change my mind. I like games with bad stories (like infamous, mirror’s edge), I dislike games with good stories (legacy of kain, planescape torment). I like games with bad art directions (like new unreal tournament and reflex before they both reskinned, also quake 3), I dislike games with good art directions (too many to name).

I think that immersion and all the things bundled up in it should be beneath our attention. I think they should be secondary, or tertiary, or non-concerns. They’re at best a pleasant bonus, and at worst a system of ideas that actively works to make videogames worse by removing helpful abstractions when they don’t fit the setting.

If immersion isn’t a thing, what would you call the feeling of being enveloped in a virtual world? It’s not just a vague feeling when developers create their games with the intent of player immersion in mind. Removing game-y aspects or streamlining the experience to remove interruptions, etc.

To refer to the specific sensations coupled with VR, that is referred to as “Presence” by psychological researchers. Presence (far as I understand it) is essentially fooling of the senses to a very complete degree.

For games in general, that would be Flow, or Engagement. Hypnotherapists believe this may even be connected to a state of trance (I used to read a lot on hypnotherapy).

The thing is, these sensations are not exclusive to games, we just think they are because we don’t identify them as readily in our daily lives. The world can seem to fall away while reading a non-fictional essay on microassemblers, while driving, while playing a sport, while watching abstract shapes move around. We go into states of intense focus all the time.

The feeling is real, it’s just not immersion. It’s a generic state of focus that people experience while playing a game and say, “oh, I must be in that immersion state everyone always talks about.”

Also, the state isn’t connected or disconnected from game-y aspects. It has no relationship to them. Those things are stop signs that people invested in the “immersion” belief create for themselves. They seek those things out because the belief in a thing called immersion, not merely focus or attention, flow or engagement, causes them to be miserable; creates new opportunities for them to make themselves miserable when they could simply enjoy regardless.

I have a larger article written on this that I am not currently publishing.

Everything that fits under the immersion umbrella exists independently of it. Different people have different (frequently contradictory) experiences with immersion. Immersion in of itself is not a thing. A lot of people take other experiences and call those things immersion even though they mean a lot of different things.

To draw a parallel, some hypnotherapists don’t think that trance is an actual state that people go into. The case made by them is that hypnosis is just suggesting things to patients extremely effectively, so the hypnotic trance state is something that is suggested to patients as a tool to aid further suggestions. It becomes apparently real because the patient thinks it’s real. The patient cooperates in creating an imaginary trance state that effectively works the same as a real trance state would. Whether this is correct or not for hypnosis is still a matter of debate I believe. For the case of immersion, I think I can demonstrate that there is no specific “state of being enveloped in a virtual world,” rather a large group of disparate mundane phenomena.

I think belief in the concept of immersion is harmful to enjoying games. I think it’s also harmful to the critical discussion of games, actively blocking understanding of important concepts. I’ve seen many people remark on how being QA testers ruined their ability to enjoy games, or remark that speedrunning/high-level competition strips the enjoyment of games via understanding their systems instead of seeing the illusion. This is bad.

You’re confuing immersion and engagement. Getting engrossed in reading a book about sharks isn’t the same thing as becoming ‘immersed’ in GTAV because it’s ‘realistic’ (and the devs designed it this way). Here’s an essay on it (read the first part only about the meaning of the term only, it becomes bullshit very quickly): http://kotaku.com/5903800/why-holodeck-level-immersion-is-the-future-of-gaming I don’t actually play games for immersion, but I do think the concept is real. It definitely shouldn’t be a development focus, nor is it DA FUTURE or whatever.

I’m already familiar with the origins of the term. Getting “immersed” in a book is a term that predates video games. I recognize that there is a difference between engagement/engrossment and states where the rest of the world seems to fall away.

However unlike the article, I’m gonna say that this extreme state where the rest of the world falls away is absolutely something that can and does happen during Tetris. This state has nothing to do with fiction or realism. I don’t think you become immersed in GTAV because it’s designed with a high attention to detail and consistency between its fictional elements. I think you enter a state resembling trance with the game simply because it’s a highly engrossing activity that possibly also induces a state of Flow, same as Tetris. Also, I’m familiar with that article’s author and I think they’re full of shit on multiple counts.

Also, I’m not confusing immersion and engagement. I’m saying everyone else is. I’m saying that everyone’s definition of immersion is different from everyone else’s. I have an album of screenshots of different people talking about immersion, and you’ll notice that a ton of them contradict each other.

That state of flow where the whole world fades away and nothing exists but the game is present in GTA, Far Cry, Crysis, Ninja Gaiden, Quake 3 Arena on low graphical settings, Fighting Games, Tetris, DYAD, Dance Dance Revolution, and so on. The state where people feel this amazing connection to the narrative is present in Planescape Torment, Legacy of Kain, and reading a good book, it’s probably not really the same thing.

The way that things that break immersion is discussed so often, with such different and contradictory citations for what actually breaks immersion makes me think less that immersion is a state unto itself, and more that immersion is just what people refer to as a lack of metacognition (thinking about thinking). Things that cause them to think about the fact that they are currently playing a game upset them.

I realize that I’m speaking anecdotally here, but I’ve never felt anything resembling immersion in my life, even before I became disillusioned with story/simulation games. I don’t think other people’s experiences are fundamentally different from my own. I think people want to tell themselves a story otherwise.

The future is in realizing the simple (and complex) joys of play. Games aren’t evolving up through the muck into a new art form, games are something we’ve always had, but never examined or truly learned the rules of.

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11 thoughts on “Immersion is Fake and a Menace!

  1. DJaeger September 5, 2016 / 10:44 am

    As someone who thought immersion was kinda bullshit when I first heard of it, and then seeing you making that statement too, I was really waiting for this article. I am really interested in seeing your full article on immersion too.
    I think Snake Eater is a perfect example of how immersion advocates coyld ruin a game. Imagine Snake Eater without 4th wall breaking for gameplay reasons, without tactical reload, food tossing, fake deaths, out of time gadjets, spin vomiting, chaffs and all the little things that could be called immersion breakers, but add to the depth of the game and make it even greater. That would be awful.

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    • treeghettox September 6, 2016 / 4:47 am

      Don’t forget the hilarious joke at the beginning if you answer yes to “Have you played MGS2?”

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      • DJaeger September 6, 2016 / 9:30 am

        Care to elaborate? I have only played Snake Eater, so I didn’t answer yes.
        And tbh, what I said can apply to so many games. I think immersion, realism and narrative are among the three top things ruining games nowadays, and I just wish people didn’t ask for them so much.

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        • treeghettox September 9, 2016 / 10:36 pm

          If you say that you’ve played MGS2, Naked Snake starts the game with a Raiden mask on. People bitched to no end that MGS2 pulled a switcheroo and forced you to play a lame, effeminate nerd instead of Snake. So when you see this, you’re supposed to go “oh, not again!” Actually, you are forced to use that mask later when you impersonate Volgen’s boyfriend (he looks exactly like Raiden for some reason.)

          You really ought to play MGS2. Yes, 3 has more gameplay features and more open-ended levels, but I thought 2 had far better bosses and a tighter, more focused challenge. It also has certain gameplay elements absent from other ‘Gears such as bomb diffusal.

          Realism isn’t always bad. For example, play Rolling Thunder on NES. You always die in one hit when you get shot. As a result, the game is extremely intense and challenging. The problem is when developers ask “how can we make this more realistic?” rather than “how can we make something realistic actually fun?”

          And most people that claim to be proponents of realism conveniently backtrack once realism makes the game harder. They want it to be “realistic” in that there aren’t aliens or monsters, but they also want to be able to eat hundreds of bullets and recover by taking a five-second breather behind some crates.

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          • DJaeger September 9, 2016 / 11:13 pm

            I agree with your points on realism. And that’s what I mean, realism is bad when it detracts from focus on actual gameplay. I don’t care about not having fall damage, about double jumping being “unrealistic” and staying midair in a combo for like 10 seconds or using magic in DMC or KH2 feeling “stupid”, I just want the game to be good.
            And you are incredibly spot-on with your last remark. It happens way too often.

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            • Chris Wagar September 9, 2016 / 11:56 pm

              Realism or reality can serve as a good inspiration for game mechanics. It’s just worth always remembering their function in the broader system.

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              • DJaeger September 10, 2016 / 9:51 am

                I don’t disagree with that. Maybe I should have phrased it differently. I meant that excessive focus on realism and constant appraisal of “realistic features” or the omitment of unrealistic features, or the appraisal of games that are a boring mess, often because they are realistic (cough call of duty) and vice versa, that’s when it becomes a problem. Otherwise, it’s cool to derive mechanics from real life situations, as you said.

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  2. Listen Here Bungy February 10, 2017 / 8:52 am

    What was the term you used in regards to “narrative immersion” in regards to how it’s identical to being “immersed” in a book?

    Like

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