Why Immersion Matters

One day we'll be able to experience true immersion in our living rooms just by sacrificing our sense of style and dignity

One day we'll be able to experience true immersion in our living rooms just by sacrificing our dignity and sense of style

I know I harp on a lot about immersion in MMOs and how I want to feel my character (figuratively speaking) and escape from my every day worries when I play but I don’t think I’ve ever stopped to talk about exactly why it’s important. Truth be told, I’m not sure I could’ve given you a very eloquent explanation and probably would’ve just mumbled something about roleplay before distracting you with a photo of a cute dog trying to hump a chair leg and then made a run for the nearest exit. That was until today when Dàchéng (blogger of The Dàchéng Diaries) made a very poignant and powerful comment on the subject in my post moaning about Real ID:

“…It is your sense of immersion in the game world that lets you believe that you’re killing things…That suspension of disbelief is what immersion brings, and when it ceases, you are just clicking buttons in a dark room while the sun shines outside.”

Perfectly said.

When we (i.e. me) talk about the subject of immersion we’re looking at more than just roleplaying and wandering around an online game world saying “hail, good sir” and taking every opportunity to talk about heaving bosoms (any fantasy reader worth his or her salt will know exactly what I’m talking about here *cough* Robert Jordan *cough*). It’s not just about other people buying into the character that we play but, even more importantly, it’s about ourselves believing in the actions we do. Without immersion we wouldn’t believe in what we’re doing and we wouldn’t be able to make that connection in our brains between merely interacting with our PCs and existing in an online world.

Immersion is extremely important to the core principles behind gameplay, behind having fun, and behind forming a connection with the game world. The latter is a big deal in any game but especially in MMOs more than any other genre because our characters are often persistent virtual creations that we need to bond with for months, if not years.

It’s perhaps with these factors in mind that I give some MMORPGs such a hard time when they skimp on roleplaying features or take actions or introduce new features which might jeopardize the immersion of the game. Believing in what we do and the actions that we take in any MMO is the most crucial element of all of the gameplay components and it should be preserved as much as possible. After all without it, as Dàchéng so appropriately summarised, we wouldn’t be slaying dragons or embarking on grand quests with our comrades, we’d simply just be sitting in our rooms tapping on keyboards and clicking mice. Don’t forget, it’s called fantasy for a reason.


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  1. Klepsacovic says:

    Immersion is for noobs. Elite players know that it’s not about playing some dumb fantasy, it’s about clicking buttons way better than everyone else.

  2. scrusi says:

    I’m a big fan of immersion, but I don’t buy that it is a necessity for good games. I’ve never felt immersed in Civilization, World of Goo, or Leisure Suit Larry (the first one, not the point and click dross we got later) yet all of them were enjoyable games.
    Interesting game concepts don’t necessarily need to make any attempts at immersion at all to be good. I actually have to wonder: are games that require immersion to be good actually bad games, mechanic-wise?

    • Gordon says:

      Thing is, I would argue that even though you aren’t truly believing that you’re living in the game world, you are absorbed in it, hence you are immersed. It’s like if you don’t notice the time passing when you a play a game then that’s because you were too immersed to acknowledge real life.

      • scrusi says:

        Sure I’m immersed in the game in so far as I’m focusing on it – just as I might be immersed in writing a blog post or reading a scientific paper. Those don’t require suspension of disbelief though. I’ve been “immersed” in a game of Civ for hours and hours at a time (just another turn…) just as I have been in other things that I find interesting. Yet I never for a moment felt like I was actually controlling the development of a civilization and the usual immersion breaks (looking behind the curtain at the mechanics of the game, looking stuff up on the internet, watching a movie on the other screen) didn’t influence my “immersion” in the game at all.

        If I take Mass Effect on the other hand, the immersion was of quite a different kind – the one we usually talk about. I started to feel with the characters, considered my options among moral standards instead of gaming logic, and felt quite annoyed whenever I found something that felt to game-y to me or let me understand the mechanics behind the story. I love this kind of immersion, but I’ve played many a good game that had none of it.

  3. I have to agree with the commenter above me on how immersion isn’t required to make a game fun, though it’s still very nice to have. I’m with you in that I want to feel my character, or at the very least feel like the world around me makes sense in the context of the game. For example, I’m okay with references to real life when they’re not blatant, like WoW holiday events and such. It’s a whole other thing when an NPC in game asks my character how I like the Ghostbuster movies when I’m supposed to be in this fantasy world (someone told me this happened to him in Aika). Moments that make me go “wait, that doesn’t belong” or “WTF?” kill immersion for me.

  4. Bronte says:

    Alan Wake: highly immersive and atmospheric.

    Until you are running from a supernatural enemy, flashlight bobbing, partially lighting your uncertain path, and in the middle of the treacherous, miles from civilization, you come across a thermos, which you need to collect 100 of as an in-game achievement. And BAM! All that immersion has gone down the drain.

    Immersion isn’t just about emotional investment and stimulating the sense, it is also refraining from stupid shit that could utterly ruin what you set out to create in the first place.

    Oh and I don’t agree with the two posters above, with all due respect, immersion is the single most important factor for me in gaming That and lore. I feel those two are foundations, and if you can’t get them right, you have already lost half the battle.

    • Gordon says:

      Agreed – things within the game need to make sense to the confines of it’s world. It’s like the comedy in WoW that MMOGamerChick pointed out. Seeing a reference to a movie when adventuring in a fantasy game definitely breaks immersion.

  5. I don’t think I’ve ever felt immersed in an mmo… atleast not in comparison to other single player games. In an MMO I have fun playing with other people, raiding, and just challenging myself. But there is no immersion when I’m in the middle of a boss fight yelling at my raiders on vent and watching countless timers tick down…. I don’t feel like a warrior fighting in the heat of battle shouting commands to my allies. But I don’t need to either to enjoy the challenge of beating the mechanics behind the fights.

    Now it is true that when I get immersed in the game I’m much more likely to explore and adventure as opposed to just completing the current “objectives” in the game… but in an MMO it is just hard to achieve this. These things I’m killing are just going to respawn in 5 mins and that player behind me is going to do the same quest and turn it in for the same reward that I so valiantly fought for 5 mins before him. And the quest giver will be just as thankful to him from rescuing him from the bandits as he was to me. This type of world just simply can’t be immersive.

    When I get sucked into a game world it is usually due to the sense of some exploration, wonder… or clear and present danger. Playing bioshock for the first time was an amazing experience. I was totally immersed in that world from start to finish. The second time? Well I still found some interesting things… but wasn’t as good as the first time… I never finished my third play through and haven’t touched it since… why? Repetition. I’m not as scared or curious as I was my first time through. I’d done it and there was nothing new.

    For an MMO to really truely be immersive… they would have to cut out the repetitiveness that makes the genre. Otherwise you are really only immersed your first time through. But it would take an insane amount of programming to create a game that will keep you playing for months or years in a world where every day is different and unique from the one before. But short of that… I won’t ever feel immersed in an MMO outside of the starting zone.

  6. [...] drop of immersion left in World of Warcraft.” That post and the follow-up entitled “Why Immersion Matters” got me thinking about what we mean when we talk about immersion in gaming–and [...]

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