Gaming Immersion

So pretty much my background the past ten years, apart from playing DOS games for the nostalgia factor, was mostly turn-based or real time strategy, but for the past few years all I have really played is World of Warcraft and The Sims. Due to the loss of story progression and the open world systems, I turned away from The Sims, and my raiding team died in Warcraft, so I’m back out in the bigbad world and playing *gasp* other things! I was curious about Dragon Age: Origins due to an article I read about how the player can establish romantic relationships with NPC’s.  The article in question referred to how players begun to experience “bleed”, where the gamer to some extent feels what their character does. Being that I love reading romance anyway, I was all for this! So let’s see, this character creation screen.

cc screen

Firstly, I always play a female character. Gender does not change the mechanics of most games, only socially in MMORPGs. I always find humans the boring option, and dwarves aren’t much better (even more so than humans and elves, I find dwarves to be exactly the same Tolkienesque style and temperament in every single game). The class I was a bit stumped on. I was going to choose a warrior, but the choices for their background story was … unappealing, to say the least. In this game, elves are still the naturalistic and beautiful folk you see most elsewhere, however, they were the underclass in this game having been used by humans as slaves for a good millennia or so. From the opening storyline, I knew mages were not well liked (having brought demons/the darkspawn into the world through their greed for power) so I chose that and got a completely different background story option.


I’m a little magey, short and elvish!

Thus, here is Neria, a elf given to the Circle for mage training at a very young age, and always watched over by the cautious Templars of the Chandry.


Why games are different

I find some scholars a little awkward when it comes to defining what it is about games that make it a unique art form. I do not stand for the idea that reading is “passive” and gaming “active”, although it seems so from mere observation. Espen Aarseth refers to cybertexts as ergodic – meaning it takes non-trivial effort to traverse the text. Also, the game itself can actually stop you from continuing. Below, Dara describes it more beautifully than any academic I’ve read so far – and more hilariously (but NSFW). I love Dara!

Janet Murray in Hamlet on the Holodeck is all level of awesome. Despite writing almost 20 years ago, her theory of digital narratives is still relevant today (how is THAT for awesome?!). In this extraordinary work you should totes get, she is more specific about the important aspects of gaming:

  • Interactive Properties
    1. Digital environments are procedural
    2. Digital environments are participatory
  •  Immersive Properties
    1. Digital environments are spatial
    2. Digital environments are encyclopedic

That is, digital games can execute rules, they are responsive to input, they represent navigable space and can represent enormous quantities of information.


So much scope for the imagination, as Anne Shirley would say. Just ask Reg.



Murray is also a go-to for an explanation of immersion, which is metaphorically derived from going under water – you are surrounded, it takes over you. Just think about the phrase of getting “lost” in a book. You are transported. It is not that you suspend disbelief, but create belief.

Now being an RPG, it’s hardly surprising that I’m in it for the story and characters. But that’s just one level of gaming, according to some. For Emri and Mayra, there are three different components to immersion in gaming: imaginative (story and characters. Also the type of immersion you find for books), sensory (audiovisual execution. You’ll get this and imaginative immersion in movies) and challenge (motor or mental, and unique to games compared to traditional media forms).

The different levels of immersion can coincide and cross over in various ways. I kept coming across two main terms in my search: telepresence, being present at a distance/a sense of being there in the space, and proprioception, projecting yourself into the game through the avatar. The best way I can think of to try to define the two is when I play Need4Speed (Rivals at the moment, on Xbox 360). I don’t feel embodied in the car, but while driving, I sometimes crash into barriers because I’m not paying as much attention as I could, I instinctively yell out “Ouch!” when the cutscene of the crash happens on screen (telepresence). Whereas in World of Warcraft, I always refer to the avatar as myself. I am undead. I am a warlock. I am rotting. I am a blood elf. I am a mage. I am fannntassstiiccccc in my new transmog. I live as that life (proprioception).

fantastic (2)

On a mechanical level, it is said that gaming has more immersion because of the physicality of the activity. The interactions with the controllers, being able to influence the world by the power in their fingertips. Or failing because they aren’t moving fast enough. Murphy has an interesting argument about the feedback vibrations of some console games. Also, the ability to change into first person or third person mode – but whether first person is more immersive or third person is, is a matter of some debate. Personally, I can’t stand first person view, I need to be able to see around me, especially for fights. There are also user interfaces, which it’s sort of assumed that the less interface there is, the more immersion there is, but I’ll go into this in another post.

And one of the things I hold most dear, the narrative and capacity for agency. The level of agency and ability to influence the narrative is hugely varying. The obvious nature of the narrative is varying. In Dragon Age, while there is ability to change NPC’s perception of you and choice in where to go, you still have a main storyline to follow. In World of Warcraft, you can pretty much do whatever the hell you want, go kill boars for this NPC, or go kill gnomes in battlegrounds, or collect flowers to level up. In The Sims, there really is no storyline. Some families have a starting blurb and relationships, but from game start, you select the action and the narrative from there really exists only in your head. The standard go-to, it seems, is that the more story and the more agency, the more immersive it is, but I’m not so sure. Quite a few articles mention Myst as being high in story and agency, but lacking immersion as in most of the games, the zones are completely void of people, or that interaction with people is rare and unable to be affected by the player. The Wolf Among Us is all about interactive narrative, but it lacks an open world and it doesn’t (for me) feel particularly punishing for failure, you simply reappear at the last choice you made that went bad or last scene of action.


As you can see, this area is huge in games, and bounces between theater theory to narrative theory to interviews to psychological experiments testing how much someone sweats while playing, to figure out their level of engagement/immersion/identification/presence. Speaking entirely from personal experience (I know, anecdata :P), immersion is more about me than it is about what the game has to offer. It’s about what I like (roleplaying and fantasy), and the stories or motivations I create for my specific characters that don’t always have to do with what the game actually offers. This is pretty much why I’m studying what I do!

So back to my mage. Although it wasn’t said anywhere, I decided to choose responses for her that are honest, but naive – sort of lawful neutral. She’s not above killing anyone if she deems them a threat. In my mind, she has been kept in a tower for most of her life, not to mention despised for being a minority (elf) and her abilities as a mage. After playing for a few hours, I decided that Alistair was the best choice for my character and most appropriate for her to romance. They seemed the most compatible match, and he responded…. well… you see *70’s porn music*.



Reading Recommendations:

  • Murray, Janet, H. Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1997: Print.
  • Waggoner, Z. My Avatar, My Self: Identity in Video Role-Playing Games. Jefferson, McFarland, 2009. Book.
  • Ermi, Laura and Frans Mayra. “Fundamental components of the Gameplay Experience: Analysing Immersion”. DiGRA 2005 Conference: Changing Views – Worlds in Play.
  • Waern, Annika. “‘ I’m in Love with Someone That Doesn’t Exist !’ Bleed in the Context of a Computer Game.” Journal of Gaming and Virtual Worlds 3.3 (2011): 239–257.

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