Take me to the river

Here’s another slippery concept: immersion.

It’s frequently flung around as both an excuse (“this will add immersion!”) and an insult (“it’s ruining my immersion!”) but as far as I can tell this is, for the most part, another subjective issue. One man’s immersion is another man’s bucket of cold water — take, for instance, the travel we were discussing the other day. I remember this was a raging debate on the Vanguard beta forums, where one side claimed slow travel was essential to immersion and the other side claimed that slow travel destroyed their immersion, because getting bored means you get disengaged from the game. You can’t get less immersed than not logged in.

You, dear reader, aren’t the usual forum fodder so I probably don’t need to specify this, but I will anyway: immersion does not equal suspension of disbelief (or sub-creation, depending which theory you want to use*). It’s pretty much understood by most games, online or otherwise, that you need an internally coherent environment just as you do in fiction; if you build a medieval-themed world and stick giant advertising billboards along the dirt roads, that’s not merely immersion-breaking, it’s not internally coherent. I’m also not going to deal with the common forum-troll argument that you can’t have coherence or immersion in a game because you’re doing stuff that isn’t possible in real life. That’s fallacious.

There’s still plenty to debate, regardless. To me, names floating above PC and NPC heads in game are immersion-breaking, in the sense that they make me more aware that I’m just playing a game, not travelling around in a world. At a basic level I find them visually distracting, possibly because I started playing MMOs in a game that didn’t have them (Asheron’s Call), whereas most of the people I know who started playing in EQ, for instance, aren’t bothered by that at all; in fact, some of them are far more bothered by not seeing names where they expect them. Some people are irked every time a rabbit drops a 6-foot sword as loot, but at worst it just amuses me a little, because to me it’s just one of those things you have to accept if you’re playing a loot-driven game; something, after all, has to drop that phat stuff you’re expecting to get. (Tabletop games weren’t all that different, it’s just far more obvious in online games. Anyway, this isn’t a loot post.)

Is the concept of immersion itself perhaps increasingly obsolete? Or is it just our communal definition of it, which has to be so loose now to fit all our different views that it may not really fit anything at all anymore? When we say “immersion” now, are we simply talking about “pleasure”? A beautiful landscape is immersive, certainly, but to me it’s primarily aesthetic — I found the LOTRO and EVE land/space-scapes stunning but the games themselves didn’t hold me for various other reasons.

I think this is what bothers me about “immersion” being used as an argument. It gets flung around to justify one point of view (or its opposite), but when it comes to the crunch, how essential is it to MMOs? Very? A little? Not at all? And if our definitions are so varied as to occasionally be diametrically opposed, how can “immersion” be used as any kind of argument? If it’s elastic enough to fit both sides of a debate, what’s it adding to that debate?

Yes, I’m being — or trying to be — thought-provoking: these aren’t necessarily all my own views. I believe immersion is essential, even if it’s subjective and fluid, because it affects our enjoyment of a game and thus ultimately probably affects a game’s bottom line. But if it’s so hard to pin down, how can game designers possibly take it into account other than to do what they find immersive and hope others will experience the same?

Immersion enhances a game but can’t make a game, especially not an online game. In tabletop games the environment is far more closely-controlled and the human actors are far less numerous, so consensus-immersion is much easier to achieve and maintain. In an online game, especially in these days where players aren’t just ex-tabletop geeks anymore but also grannies, kids, and everyone in between, you can’t control your experience as finely. Which almost inevitably implies that something or someone, somewhere, is going to break your immersion.

I have a suspicion that if a given person’s immersion is broken too often, that person will stop playing whatever game it is. But what constitutes a break and how many times it has to happen before someone is driven away is so individual, it has to be almost impossible to design for. It’s also not something you hear very often when people stop playing a game — “I stopped because I didn’t feel immersed anymore” — but that doesn’t mean it might not, in aggregate, be quite an important reason.

Hrmph. I was trying to get to a point, but I’m not sure I have one. Immersion is a subject that fascinates me because it deals with how people approach games, and I’m interested in that kind of thing; but the more I write, the more I meander and the less I’m sure there is a definitive point to me made. We can, maybe, define immersion by what it isn’t, in the sense that it might well be easier to reach a consensus on that than on what constitutes positive immersion. Beyond that though, the more I think about it, the more it seems to me that if you ask 5 gamers about immersion you’ll get 6 different answers. So what’s your take?

Lastly — I stayed away from the wiki page on immersion but here it is, for completeness. Interestingly enough, it’s not particularly definite on the subject either.

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* Very tangential, even for me, hence the *. In the light of the recent Wikipedia/Threshold/MUD conflagration, I find myself twitching a little every time I give a wikipedia reference link. Seems like every page I hit has a shrill little box somewhere in the article demanding more citations, more references, more something-or-other, and I find myself wondering — are they trying to be a real reference source, or is this just more jockeying in the background from petty people who are using what should be a great starting research resource as their own personal power-trip? It disturbs me that what should be a collaborative project with genuine usefulness should be thus tainted. But then, I’ve always been idealistic and somewhat naive. Bah humbug.