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.”