In Too Deep

Immersion Unexplained


“My freshman college roommate bought Civilization when it came out in ’91,” my friend Rob recalls. “We brought it back to his dad’s place. His dad had just moved some stuff, so there was only one chair in front of a desk with the computer. Mike installed Civ and started playing. Another friend and I stood behind him, watching and kibitzing. I asked what time it was; my friend said 8:30 p.m. Next thing we knew, Mike’s dad woke up and asked us what the hell we were doing, standing around a desk at 5:30 in the morning.”

Immersion: intense focus, loss of self, distorted time sense, effortless action.

Game designers and reviewers universally recognize immersion as a signal virtue of games, perhaps the central virtue. Nonetheless, they seldom analyze the idea. Possibly, recognizing the elusiveness of immersion, they fear (in Alexander Pope’s phrase) breaking a butterfly upon a wheel.

The ones who write a lot about immersion are tenure-track academics in the humanities, the new breed of “videogame theorists.” They break butterflies for a living. Yet, you’d look hard to find anyone less likely to explain immersion. Why? Let the analysis draw you in … come, drift free of your body …

This is Your Brain on Immersion
For starters, academic game theorists argue endlessly the importance of “narrative.”

Many gamers can name a favorite story presented in a computer or videogame, whether the Zelda or Fighting Fantasy series, roleplaying games from BioWare or Origin, a classic adventure like Grim Fandango or The Longest Journey, or even the old Sierra Quest series or Infocom text adventures. These games use a storyline to assign meaning to your actions. Playing your own favorite game, did you feel caught up in a compelling narrative, the way you’d be mesmerized by a terrific book or movie? It felt like that, didn’t it?

Except it didn’t, really. When the game ended and you returned to reality, you felt spent, maybe exhausted, as if after a workout. In contrast, when the novel or movie ended, you probably felt like you’d awakened from a powerful dream. (The exceptions are horror and action stories, which can wring you just as dry as a game.) In both cases, you felt stiff, but the game immersion left you shaky for hours. Some kinds of games might have influenced your behavior long afterward. How many Quake or Unreal players, immediately after they finish a marathon deathmatch, head to the kitchen for a snack – and peer carefully around the door jamb, scouting for enemies? Are you nodding? Uh-huh. Bet that didn’t happen after you watched Return of the King.

Think how you feel when, after a long struggle through a shooter level, you reach some non-player character and suddenly the game shifts to a cut scene that advances the narrative. Maybe you’re interested, maybe relieved or annoyed; regardless, you sit back, draw breath and feel different. Your mode of thinking has abruptly changed. You’re no longer immersed.

This happens even in non-shooters, and even when the game’s story is good. The narrative may inform your actions – for instance, it may present you with a choice of allies or victims – but obviously you aren’t sitting back and giving yourself over to the storyteller, as you do when reading a good novel.

Narratives and games inspire contrasting kinds of immersion; different brain-states. Caught up in a story, you are cooperative, yielding, in a state akin to hypnosis. In a game you are ceaselessly active, in a state of flow. Proposed in the 1990 book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Hungarian-born psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced, he says, “chicks send me high“), flow is the zone, the groove – an enjoyable feeling of oneness with the activity.

Designers would love to comprehend the exact causes of immersion. In a more practical world, this task would fall to those who theorize about games for a living. Oh well.

Theorists vs. Theorists
For most of the young history of videogame theory, humanities scholars have taken game immersion to be the same as the story-based variety. Publish-or-perish lecturers have written lots of journal papers that turn everything imaginable into “narrative,” and so have stretched the idea beyond any possible use. You could say they’re playing games of their own design.

One prominent position, known in videogame theory as “narrativism” or “narratology,” asserts in its most extreme form that every game – every single one – implies a narrative. Immersion is a function of “agency” in, or interactivity with, that narrative. The 688-page textbook Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals, by designers Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman, finds narratives in such games as poker and Breakout. Because this approach treats games as texts, critics can cast them in structuralist terms, and thereby increase their credibility rating with peer reviewers and conference organizers.

The main alternative approach is “ludology,” which discusses immersion in terms of gameplay: Rules, interface and actions. Ludological theorists say, though games have elements in common with narratives, they are fundamentally different. Using this strategy, ludologists get cited by narrativists who try to repudiate them, and citations earn credibility points with journal referees and tenure committees.

Believe it or not, the ludological approach is relatively recent in videogame theory. Uruguayan game researcher Gonzalo Frasca popularized the term “ludology” in 1999, though it originated in board gaming in the early 1980s. Derived from ludus (Latin, “game”), “ludology” may be a back-formation from “ludography,” designer Sid Sackson‘s term for a bibliography of game designs.

Ludologists differ from narrativists because they admit they actually play games. Nordic theorist Espen Aarseth wrote in his 2004 article, “Genre Trouble,” “Among the many differences between games and stories, one of the most obvious is that of ambiguity. In Tetris, I do not stop to ponder what those bricks are really supposed to be made of. In DOOM, there is no moral dilemma resulting from the killing of probably innocent monsters. … Adventure games seldom, if at all, contain good stories. Even the most entertaining of these games, like Warren Spector’s Deus Ex (1999), contains a cliched storyline that would make a B-movie writer blush, and characters so wooden that they make The Flintstones look like Strindberg.”

To ludologists like Aarseth, immersion is a function of non-narrative gameplay: “What makes such games playable at all, and indeed attractive,” he wrote, “is the sequence of shifting, exotic, often fascinating settings (levels), where you explore the topography and master the virtual environment. The gameworld is its own reward, and the end, if and when it comes, does not offer dramatic satisfaction, but a feeling of limbo. There is no turning back, and no going forward. You are no longer employed by the game. Time to buy another.”

Does any of this bring us closer to an understanding of immersion? These being humanities professors, no one has yet offered a testable, falsifiable hypothesis. Only a few scholars, such as Salen and Zimmerman in Rules of Play, seem interested in improving immersive game design. The rest, in thick books from university presses, on blogs like Ludology and The Ludologist, and in conference proceedings of the Digital Games Research Association (DiGRA), squabble endlessly over semantics.

In his DiGRA LevelUp 2003 paper, “Ludologists love stories, too: Notes from a debate that never took place,” Frasca claimed there is actually no great gap between the two positions, and the controversy arose, among other reasons, from confused definitions of “narratology,” “ludology,” “narrativist” and “ludologist.” Frasca’s paper prompted a testy response from University of California Irvine professor Celia Pearce at DiGRA 2005. In “Theory Wars: An Argument Against Arguments in the So-called Ludology/Narratology Debate” (.DOC file), Pearce accused Frasca of “deepening the gap by further polarizing the alleged two sides.

“I describe in detail ways to think about the term narrative as descriptive of specific types of experience, as narrative ‘operators’ that function at different levels to support gameplay,” Pearce wrote. “Frasca asserts that I ‘claim chess is a narrative.’ In fact, I do no such thing. Rather, I use the thought exercise of comparing the ‘plots’ of chess and Macbeth to make a point about the differences in the way narrative operates in both. I specifically use the word ‘plot’ because it has particular implications, and represents a higher level of specificity. To savor this point, I thought we might wish to take a moment to meditate on the various common meanings of the word ‘plot.'”

It’s hard to read all this airy palaver, this buffleheaded pedantry, without shouting, “Get a job.” Can these detached structuralist and post-structuralist critics help us understand immersion? Could they ever, ever admit becoming immersed themselves, in anything?

The teapot-tempest debate of narrativism versus ludology may well be promoted as long as the wind blows, the sun shines and academic conferences seek papers. Yet, there was a voice of reason (or something approximately like it, depending on semantics) at DiGRA 2005.

The keynote speaker was Harvard literature and media professor Janet H. Murray, whose Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace was a seminal text in game narratology. In her speech, optimistically titled “The Last Word on Ludology v Narratology” (.PDF), Murray said, “No one has been interested in making the argument that there is no difference between games and stories or that games are merely a subset of stories. Those interested in both games and stories see game elements in stories and story elements in games: interpenetrating sibling categories, neither of which completely subsumes the other. The ludology vs. narratology argument can never be resolved because one group of people is defining both sides of it. The ‘ludologists’ are debating a phantom of their own creation.

“No one group can define what is appropriate for the study of games. Game studies, like any organized pursuit of knowledge, is not a zero-sum team contest, but a multi-dimensional, open-ended puzzle that we all are engaged in cooperatively solving.”

Well said, Dr. Murray. Of course, her address up to that point included a few snipes at the ludologists – she accused them of opposing narratology out of anxiety, so they could “reorder the academy” – so in all likelihood, the academic spat will continue. Meanwhile, working game designers must still struggle to make their games immersive the old-fashioned way: by playing them.

Allen Varney designed the PARANOIA paper-and-dice roleplaying game (2004 edition) and has contributed to computer games from Sony Online, Origin, Interplay and Looking Glass.

About the author