April 26, 2017

On Immersion and examining what breaks your engagement

Immersion is a term often thrown around by gamers as one of the key things that games should endeavour to be. In many ways I agree with them; being immersed in an experience is certainly one of the things that makes video games fun to play. But often the term is used in ways that I simply can’t understand or flat out disagree with, and upon examination it seems as though this is tied into a lot of other debates in the community, so it’s something well worth addressing.

Immersion is something that’s long been studied by psychologists and media studies experts the world over, and I want to keep things as simple as possible, so let’s just say that according to science, immersion comes from a combination of overlapping, complete, and involving sensory inputs; an engaging story; and the overall willingness of the player to suspend their disbelief.

All three of these connect to some very contentious issues in the video game community, so let’s go over them one by one.

‘Sensory inputs’ basically means how the game looks, feels, and sounds. There are a thousand tricks that game developers use to make their game more immersive in this way: active day/night cycles, ambient noises, controller vibrate, how NPCs react to you, music, changeable weather – I could go on all day. However, one of the major reasons that video games are more immersive than other forms of media is their interactivity. Every genre of video game is essentially an interactive story, though on a sliding scale of both how interactive and how story based they are. Usually, however, this interactivity is maxed out to improve immersion. For example, in many games, there are far more objects to interact with than there strictly needs to be, as a form of world building. This series at FemHype does a really good job of examining these in various episodic games. Moreover, in many games interactivity can mean that the whole world responds to your actions, giving you multiple ways to achieve your in-game goals rather than just sticking to one prescriptive route. By allowing players as much choice as possible, it improves the connection that the player feels with the game, story, and characters, therefore keeping them engaged with the game overall.

However, despite these myriad ways that sensory inputs can be used to achieve immersion, nothing matters more to some gamers than graphics. To my mind, this is one of the more boring debates among the community, so I’ll just say that it’s fine to care about graphics, even to care about them beyond all other aspects of a game. And yes, oftentimes I feel like having a shiny photorealistic world to play around in can be a really nice aspect of a game. However, the rapid advances in the quality of games’ graphics makes this argument rather pointless to me, since I would never avoid older games purely because they don’t look as good. There are also many great games that don’t aim for photorealism, preferring a stylised appearance. In fact, some of these games can be the most immersive due to other factors, like interactivity and their story. For example, while Life is Strange or Ace Attorney are artistically rendered, their stories make them extremely engaging to me. Similarly, I could get lost in the N64’s The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time for hours despite its outdated visuals. Therefore, for me, and for a lot of gamers, graphics aren’t really the main thing that helps with immersion. Rather, they are merely one part of the sensory input that helps to build a believable world.

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I understand that this is not traditionally pretty, but it looks great to me. (Source)

For me, the second factor, an engaging story, is probably the most important in whether or not a game grabs my attention. What makes an engaging story is, of course, subjective. However, with many gamers of all kinds complaining about the prescriptive nature of video game stories, especially from AAA developers and those who aim to put out a sequel in a popular franchise annually, this is something that the industry could really aim to address.

Personally (and this will come as a surprise to exactly no one), I think that a fresh cast of protagonists beyond the standard grizzled white dude would be a great springboard for some new and engaging stories. Not only would it be a breath of fresh air that would allow developers to engage with new kinds of stories rather than the same repetitive plot, it would allow better immersion for women, people of colour, queer gamers, and other marginalised groups. While these groups have been playing as characters they do not see themselves reflected in for years, it’s always easier to immerse yourself in a game where you can really identify with your player character. There are any number of other issues with games’ stories (such as the trend of always ending them in tragedy, especially for marginalised characters, which I ranted about at length here, so I won’t get into that now) but I think that the inclusion of many different types of characters would both rejuvenate stale stories and allow many different types of people to be more fully immersed in their games.

And this brings us onto the third factor: the suspension of disbelief. There are any number of things that might make a player less likely to suspend their disbelief. For example, I strongly believe (as I mention way too often on my blog) that historical accuracy is both way overrated and impossible to achieve. However, when I’m playing a game that is based in some era of history that I know well, my immersed gamer sometimes steps aside for my inner history student to side-eye all the mistakes. It’s difficult not to do that after studying a topic for so many years, and for me it’s not really a deal breaker. I just remind myself that this game isn’t trying to be historically accurate and even if it was it wouldn’t matter, and carry on.

Some people really hate to have to suspend their disbelief, though. Or at least, it comes out in strange ways. Most people have no problem with a HUD on their screen, for example (though I personally enjoy it when the game gives a reason for that, such as in Borderlands). However, according to an informal study (read: internet search) I just did, visual glitches and bugs such as texture pop-in are the most commonly cited form of immersion breaking. I can understand why, since they remove the believability of the visual input, but why is it that compass markers, health bars, targeting receptacles, and/or whatever else forms the game’s HUD are exempt from this visual critique? In many ways this circles back around to the graphics argument, so lets move on so as not to be bogged down in that all over again.

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Also, I don’t care if this is unimmersive, it’s hilarious (Source)

By far the worst offender in this category of selective application of disbelief is when gamers discuss characters. Ignorance and denial about this problem appear in pretty much every common argument about how different kinds of characters are represented (or, as is sometimes the case, not represented at all). For example, male characters can often survive several bullets and have their health gradually come back, or eat some food to regain all that blood they just lost. This rarely if ever is considered to break immersion; it’s one of the things that is so commonplace that it easily passes the suspension of disbelief test for most gamers. Female characters, on the other hand? Since they’re rarer, gamers do not automatically overlook their superhuman qualities. They believe that women can’t possibly be in this game because they’re not strong enough to swing a sword, or because they haven’t, historically, been in combat as often as men, or similar such reasons. And yet we are supposed to suspend our disbelief when bikini armour protects female characters in the same way that a full chain mail protects a man.

Things are no better when it comes to racial representation. Games based in the loosest of ways on medieval mythology are automatically excused for being entirely white because including racial diversity would have broken gamers’ immersion. This is wrong on so many levels. Firstly, these gamers can usually overlook magic, dragons, elves, dwarves…the list goes on. These are all things that add to the story, but a black person in this fantasy version of medieval Europe? That’s just unimmersive. Never mind the fact that Europe has essentially never been a white continent since the Romans. And even if it had been, historical accuracy is not an excuse for excluding racial diversity when gamers are such a diverse group of people who deserve to be able to see themselves, especially when, as I said, magic is apparently not an obstacle to immersing oneself in a “realistic” medieval setting. Selective suspension of disbelieve gets no better when it comes to later history either. People complained about Ned, the trans character in Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, because the “lack of historical accuracy” meant that they found it hard to suspend their disbelief and thus be immersed, but these same people didn’t complain that Syndicate’s portrayal of Victorian London as way too white broke their immersion in the same way.

It’s not just race or gender either. This sort of skewed ability to suspend disbelief is applied so liberally that it’s hard to find games that it isn’t applied to. In my last article, I mentioned that I’d like a protagonist in a wheelchair, and comments were made that this would take some suspension of disbelief and would therefore be avoided by most AAA companies. Certainly, I agree that AAA companies would probably think that this was true and thus I don’t think that we’re at the point where we’re going to get a new Assassin’s Creed or Call of Duty with a wheelchair bound playable character. Perhaps in some games, it would require some suspension of disbelief to be engaged by a disabled character, but we as gamers should be absolutely ready to do that, since every game asks us to suspend disbelief in some way (as I mentioned earlier, eating food does not heal bullet wounds).

However, I’m also certain that with some thought and care a good game could be made that would be particularly believable because of a disabled protagonist. In the same way that Beyond Eyes takes the main character Rae’s blindness and turns it into both story and gameplay mechanic, this could be applied to a protagonist who is unable to walk. There are many settings where this wouldn’t require any suspension of disbelief, both realistic and fantastical. As Raeyn pointed out, what about a character who is unable to walk piloting a mech? Something similar actually happens with a minor character in Fallout 4, though I won’t say too much due to spoilers.

This doesn’t mean that Fallout 4 is exempt from these kinds of arguments though. Many people said that the beginning section of Fallout 4 couldn’t possibly include a same gender marriage, because the game’s setting is based on the fifties, right? Except that it isn’t, it’s set in 2077, and there’s a lesbian couple right there in the trailer, so clearly that society does allow for this kind of relationship. And, once again, even if it did require some suspension of disbelief for a player, this is the same game that asks you to believe that this society has the tech to cryogenically freeze someone for two hundred years with no side effects.

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What could have been. (Source)

I could go on for days here, but it’s clear that suspension of disbelief is applied unevenly due to gamers’ own biases. This means that a simple solution to feeling like a game is less enjoyable because it’s unimmersive might be for the player to examine their own misconceptions. Okay, maybe that wouldn’t be so simple, since these biases run deep, but a little education could go a long way. After all, marginalised gamers have been suspending our disbelief that heroes are always straight white men for years.

So, what’s the take away from all of this? Both sides of the community can improve in making games immersive. Developers can make their games more immersive by including fun and interesting interactivity and other sensory inputs, but also by branching out and including more diverse casts and stories. And gamers who are concerned about being taken out of the game by their inability to suspend their disbelief could benefit greatly from examining their (conscious or unconscious) biases. Any good video game is a mix of fantasy and reality, and how we navigate this balance can tell us much more about games than just whether they are engaging.

Jay
About Jay 18 Articles
Writer, gamer, human, though not necessarily in that order. Both happiest and at my most critical with a controller in my hand. You can email me at jayplaysthings@gmail.com.
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