Immersion – Part 1 (Definition)

One of the most interesting implications of Virtual Reality and new interface devices is the potential of providing a new dimension of immersion to games. But what exactly is immersion? What are the distinct characteristics of immersion for games? When does a player get immersed in a game? And how do you design for that to happen?
Because of the breadth of this subject, this will be a multi-part article.

In this first article, let’s find a definition of immersion for us to start with. Immersion occurs in more than just videogames; you can become immersed in a book, a movie, or a real-life role-playing game. There is a broader definition of immersion available, like “language immersion” where a person is being taught in a non-native language during classroom instruction, and “immersion journalism”, where a journalist immerses himself in a certain situation and the people involved in order to report a deeper story. But for this research project we’re going to focus on the type of immersion related to media, specifically for storytelling and entertainment purposes.

In Hamlet on a Holodeck, Janet Murray explains the term immersion from its metaphorical origin:

“Immersion is a metaphorical term derived from the physical experience of being submerged in water. We seek the same feeling from a psychologically immersive experience that we do from a plunge in the ocean or swimming pool: the sensation of being surrounded by a completely other reality, as different as water is from air, that takes over all of our attention, our whole perceptual apparatus. We enjoy the movement out of our familiar world, the feeling of alertness that comes from being in this new place, and the delight that comes from learning to move within it.” 1

Although this definition is still very abstract, it gives some very useful insights on the development of virtual reality and the new gaming input devices: we, as consumers of entertainment products and stories, are seeking to plunge into an alternate reality, something novel and different. Being able to understand, navigate and act within this new world is what provides is with enjoyment.

Alternative terms for immersions that are commonly used among game designers are engagement, incorporation, embodiment and presence. Each of these terms show different perspectives on immersion, some of which are very usable for our research, and will be explored more during the course of this project.

Another term that is being used often in immersive media is the “suspension of disbelief“, which means the willingness to participate in a make-believe world, to temporarily set aside real-life expectations when engaging with a fictional product. The term was coined in 1817 by the poet and aesthetic philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who suggested that:

If a writer could infuse a “human interest and a semblance of truth” into a fantastic tale, the reader would suspend judgement concerning the implausibility of the narrative.2

This definition gives an interesting view on what immersion and virtual reality could and should entail: that there should be a human and/or truthful element present in a product in order for us to become immersed into its fictional reality.

What does this definition mean for designing a virtual reality product for immersion? What considerations are necessary to maintain the consumer’s suspension of disbelief?

We will take a more closer look at these practical applications of immersion in the next article.

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