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Dear Dr. Mark.

I have never really been a hard-core gamer but I used to play video games several hours a day. I would nerd stuff like Crash Team Racing and the Dragonball games to extreme degrees.

This was me around 10-14 years-old. I have recently turned 17. While I still often game these days, I have tripped down a lot. Homework is getting really heavy and there are many other real-world things I need to attend to.

However, I got to wondering the other day exactly what happened? I was playing Bayonetta, and while I was getting to understand the combat combos, I found myself kind of bored and not really hypnotized by the game.

At age 12, I would have been a drooling zombie before the screen, but at 17, I wasn’t amazed by the surprises the game has to offer, even though, thinking back on it, they are actually really good. I simply can’t immerse myself in the gaming experience as well as I used to. This isn’t exactly a bad thing, because it means I have more time to do things I actually need to do. I am just wondering why it is happening.

Is it just because I am growing up, and I’m harder to impress, or do I now need the game to point out how awesome I am in some new way, rather than just enjoying the thrill of playing?

A big part of why some of us game so intensively has to do with the experience which you call immersion. What does it mean to become immersed in a game? While this may seem a simple question to The Escapist‘s readers, many non-gamers find it quite puzzling.

Immersion seems to involve a deep absorption in a game and engrossment with the dynamics of play. The game world may seem more vivid and interesting than real life, and the experiences one has while playing feel more dramatic and intense. Despite excitement, anxiety and frustration, there is a kind of relaxation and soothing that comes from being transported to an enchanting place, a beautiful world with many fascinating possibilities.

While some gamers talk about the thrill of novelty in their game play, there is also a kind of comfort in the reliability and predictability of the gaming world. While there may be plenty of new surprises and challenges, the more skilled you become at a game, the greater your sense that you can handle these. There is also the feeling that this world is available whenever you want to go there, another kind of reliability that can provide a sense of control when the rest of life can feel out of control.

Another quality of immersion is the way you can journey to a game world in your mind even while you aren’t playing. This may be a kind of obsessive preoccupation, but it can also be a way of reuniting with a fantastical and thrilling universe where wondrous things can happen, a way of extending and revisiting feelings of pleasure and soothing using the brain’s capacity for representation and imagery, which plays a significant role in generating immersion in the first place.

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Today’s video games may create a stronger sense of immersion than other media and previous sources of imaginary transportation. When I read a particularly engrossing book, I may think about it a great deal and imagine things that happen in that world. No matter how vividly the world is described, or even portrayed on film, it doesn’t amount to actually being there. Gaming allows us to feel many sensations, emotions, and experiences of actually being in another world even though we know we aren’t “actually” there. Our neurophysiology is acting, in least in part, as if we are.

Your question has to do with losing this feeling, and while you keep reassuring yourself that it is possibly “for the best” because you have lots of other things that need to get done, I sense there is a kind of wistfulness here. You wonder what happened to the immersion because it was so enjoyable, and understandably, you miss that pleasure and wonder where it went, and why it seems to be gone.

It’s not unreasonable that the things that captivated you at twelve are less captivating at seventeen. As we mature, especially through adolescence, our brains and bodies develop new capabilities. We find different things intriguing: many of them fall into the broad categories of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. You might find that satisfying feeling of immersion in a relationship, or you might find it in an activity with other teenagers, or in meeting the challenges of school or work.

Of course it’s also possible that nothing can provide this feeling better than a game for you and you may need to seek out different kinds of games that tap into the needs and fantasies of young adults.

Is it bad that games have the potential to provide a kind of immersion that gamers may crave and not be able to find anyplace else? Parents and professionals spend lots of time worrying about this, as they see young people transported into alternate universes where they can be hard to reach. For some, attunement to the immersion of gaming becomes part of a withdrawal from reality, and serious problems can result.

There is also the possibility that our capacity for immersion in gaming could be mobilized to assist in learning or creative problem solving, as described in a recent New York Times article.

Technological revolutions provide novel tools for some of us to be productive and solve problems in new ways. Just because a technology begins as a kind of play doesn’t mean that it won’t ultimately become a useful innovation that mobilizes a different potential within us. Immersion seems to be a powerful reaction to the wonders and thrills of video gaming and it is clearly a huge force in the lives of today’s young people.

Dr. Mark Kline figured out how to stream Netlix movies through his family’s Wii. This will certainly interfere with MarioKart and WiiFit. Have a question for Dr. Mark? Send it to [email protected]. Your identity will remain confidential.

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