I’m in the Zone

or zones, as we will divide them. This will be a short but substantial post describing, which ultimately includes simplifying and abstracting, the three types of immersions experienced during game play.

I would like to say that immersion is that familiar experience that occurs whenever players pick up a controller and dedicate some time to play, but immersion is a tricky topic because it does not occur in every game play session or for every player. There can be a number of reasons for this failure to immerse, but the most poignant example that comes to mind is that of the inexperienced non-gamer.

When someone who doesn’t play video games picks up a 360 controller and tries to navigate the world of Gears of War, for example, the results can be hilarious for someone watching and frustrating for the noob. Running into walls, looking at the floor or ceiling, throwing a grenade when they meant to shoot, all of these faux-pas(s) prevent immersion.

But immersion is indeed experienced by the majority, if not all, of people who consider themselves gamers. Our eyes become fixed on the screen, and the reality displayed thereon becomes momentarily more important than our surroundings. We can dissect this experience of immersion into three distinct types or causes.

Sensory immersion is usually the first one gamers are confronted with, and this has probably been the case since the days of Mario. Sensory immersion is basically the audio- visual components of the game, but its effect is not so basic. Playing through a level of Super Mario or Sonic the Hedgehog, one can quickly notice the bright, sunny colors, the playful music, and the stylistically animated characters and objects, all of which work in conjunction to create an atmosphere that can envelop the player and illicit deep responses.

Personally, I loved playing through the sunnier Mario levels. Smiling hills and clouds, shades of green and blue, playful music and cute turtles to step on. Just the sensory immersion of this game can make me feel happy. Conversely, the sensory immersion achieved by a game like Dead Space affects me just as strongly, but in a completely different way. Shadows, creepy sounds, jarring music, realistically frightening surroundings, objects, and foes, all work together to make you want to hide under the covers.

(Never mind about this post being short.)

One would be hard pressed to argue that people play(ed)games like Tetris or Pong for the sensory immersion, but players of these games definitely experience immersion, and this is due to the challenge-based elements of the game. Challenge-based immersion can actually cover many types of game play. Puzzle, shooters, RTS, platformers: all of these provide challenges or problems the player must overcome, and just the process of mastering the tools provided by the game in order to overcome challenges is extremely engaging. By tools, I’m referring to basic things, such as the ability to rotate falling bricks in the air for the purpose of making them fit together flawlessly, or the ability to jump on a koopa-troopa’s head,  or the ability to mine for gold so that one can upgrade the technology available to the civilization one is guiding through simulated history, or the ability to circle-strafe, wave-dash, smash attack, noob tube, and limit break your way through a battle. These tools, and the process of using and mastering them, allows the player to overcome challenges, and one can be immersed in the act of overcoming, or failing to overcome, for hours on end. Just ask anyone who’s played Super Meat Boy, a game that is probably the best example of challenge based immersion the game industry has seen in years.

(I like talking about this stuff.)

The last type of immersion is my favorite. Imaginative immersion is actually the same type of immersion experience whilst reading a gripping novel, or when one watches a movie and becomes attached to the characters or the outcome of the film. This type of immersion can work in conjunction with technology but does not rely on it. What it does rely on is story elements that capture the player’s attention and allow the player to invest themselves emotionally into the game.

Imaginative immersion can build off of challenge-based and sensory immersion in the sense that the player interprets these aspects of the game alongside the story elements in order to create a game world. Not a landscape, or setting, or the virtual dimensions and locations of a game that are usually described as a “game world,” but a world in which the characters of a game live, a world that looks a certain, and in which certain things happen; a world whose future matters to the player, a world that is based on the digital, in-game representation, but which largely exists in the players head. The player takes what is presented  in the game and then uses their imagination to build a world. Compared to the other types of immersion, imaginative immersion is much more player-centric.

Probably, one would not expect things that appear and occur in the world of Halo to happen in the world of Kirby’s Dream Land, and this is because these worlds a very much designed to illicit certain responses. However, a player has the freedom to interpret the game and imagine the game world in their own unique way. I would argue that this is where imaginative immersion gains its power to compel and involve a player in a more personally “meaningful” sense.

Another example of imaginative immersion can be seen in games that lack or suffer from particularly weak sensory and challenge-based immersion. Sometimes players will plow through hours of awful game play just to see what happens next because the game world matters to them. Personally, it was nearly impossible for me to finish Halo 3. The sensory immersion had grown stale, and the challenges could no longer hold my attention. By the end of the game, blowing through swarms of the Flood was more chore than play, but I kept going because I wanted to see what would happen next. I was immersed and invested in the game world and characters.

Once again, this post has gone on for too long, but I would like to state that these immersions have different levels of importance to different players. My love for imaginative immersion is even looked down upon by players who take a “gamist” approach to play. These players love challenge-based immersion, and they tend to regard other types of gamers as homosexuals. Personally, I think that anyone who says that sensory immersion is the most important should just go watch a movie (j/k), but definitely, sensory immersion would also matter in a different way to different players. For example, I’m crazy about video game music, but I’m not wowed by over-the-top visuals.

Finally, I would like to say that these types of immersion can be taken apart for the purpose of analysis, but they work hand in hand during game play, and that’s something we should always remember, as “in this intensity, this absorption, this power of maddening, lies the every essence, the primordial quality of play” (Johan Huizinga).

Shout out once again to Frans Mayra and his awesome book ” An Introduction to Game Studies: Games in Culture.”


About Alphabet1

always already is
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4 Responses to I’m in the Zone

  1. Worcester Uni Student says:

    Great Post. My last experience of Imaginative Immersion was with FF7. Those were the days…

    Do you have an opinion on Interactivity .v. Immersion? Do you think one prevents the other or perhaps they spur each other on?

    For instance, do you think that using a controller to manipulate a character within a game, adds or detracts from the level of immersion you encounter? Or is it simply down to the three states you described?

    All the Best

  2. Alphabet1 says:

    I think they spur each other on, and this kind of interactivity and immersion can actually be seen in our interaction with pretty mundane objects. Martin Heidegger used the example of a skilled craftsman using a hammer. When he’s in the zone, the hammer becomes an extension of the craftsman; it becomes part of his body, but if the hammer were to break, then it is very obvious that it is a piece of wood with a metal knob on the end. Another good example of this is driving. When you’ve been driving the same car for a while, you can “feel” how the car will act in certain situations, and when you’re backing up, you can “feel” when you’re about to hit something. The car becomes an extension of your body, unless you suck at driving lol.

    This relates to games in several ways. For example, when controls are intuitive and easy to manipulate, the actions of the character become and extension of your actions. The character becomes an extension of your body. This can be seen really well with games like smash brothers or super meat boy. But if the controls suck, if they are broken (like the hammer) we have a hard time becoming immersed, and the fact that we are playing a game is never overlooked because we are not immersed. The same thing can be said about glitches or crappy cameras. Any aspect of the game that draws attention to the fact that it is a game hinders immersion, but a truly interactive and well designed game becomes an extension of reality as we become immersed in it.

  3. HoptimusPr1me says:

    When a game has great controls it is very easy to become immersed in something. Have you ever studied in psychology the use of cognitive mapping? When an activity like driving a car or controlling a character becomes so second nature the brain interprets it as an extension of your body. I see you mentioned it above but just think about it. You have never set foot inside of a halo map but If you asked me to count my steps to reach a certain place in a level my answer will probably be extremely close to someone else having the same experience. On a more humorous note were you ever one of those people that stand or jeer side to side with a game? My roommate looks like he has epilepsy when playing a game.

  4. Pingback: Playing The Cutscene in Mass Effect | Gamer Babylon

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