Along with "OMGDUDESOAWESOME" one of the words that gamers like to toss around when describing their favorite titles is "immersive." (Which my spellchecker says isn't actually a word, but you know what? It is now.) But what exactly does that mean? And what makes a game immersive? Ask 5 people and you’ll probably get 10 opinions, but psychologists have been studying immersion in various kinds of media for decades, so they could probably shed some light on those questions.
Except they don’t call it "immersion." Instead, they call it "presence," which, admittedly, isn’t as cool. Regardless, researchers have identified several kinds of presence in regards to how we perceive media; but it’s spatial presence that I think comes closest to what gamers think of as "immersion."
Briefly, spatial presence is often defined as existing when "media contents are perceived as 'real' in the sense that media users experience a sensation of being spatially located in the mediated environment." (Wissmath, Weibel, & Groner, 2009). The idea is just that a game (or any other media from books to movies) creates spatial presence when the user starts to feel like he is "there" in the world that the game creates. People who experience immersion tend to only consider choices that make sense in the context of the imaginary world. Someone immersed in Red Dead Redemption, for example, might be more likely to use travel methods that make sense within the game, like stagecoaches, instead of methods that don't, like fast traveling from a menu screen.
But how does this happen? What about a game and what about the player makes her feel like she’s leaving the real world behind? Theories abound, but a few years ago Werner Wirth (2007) and a team of other researchers sat down to consolidate the research and come up with one unified theory.
Characteristics of games that facilitate immersion can be grouped into two general categories: those that create a rich mental model of the game environment and those that create consistency between the things in that environment.
First let’s look at the concept of richness which relates to:
Multiple channels of sensory information means simply that the more senses you assault and the more those senses work in tandem, the better. A bird flying overhead is good. Hearing it screech as it does so is better. 3D and move controllers may also play a role here, and we can all agree that smell-o-vision will herald in a new era of spatial presence.
Completeness of sensory information means that the fewer blanks about the mental model of the game world that the player has to fill in, the better. Abstractions and contrivances (there are no people in this town because of, uh, a plague! Yeah!) are the enemy of immersion. Assassin's Creed 2 was immersive because its towns were filled with people who looked like they were doing ...people stuff. Dealing in a familiar environment also allows the player to comfortably make assumptions about those blank spaces without being pulled out of the world to think about it. Knowing what the wild West is supposed to look like and having Red Dead Redemption conform to those stereotypes goes a long way towards creating spatial presence.
Cognitively demanding environments where players have to focus on what’s going on and getting by in the game will tie up mental resources. This is good for immersion, because if brain power is allocated to understanding or navigating the world, it's not free to notice all its problems or shortcomings that would otherwise remind them that they’re playing a game.
Finally, a strong and interesting narrative, plot, or story will suck you in every time. In fact, it’s pretty much the only thing in a book’s toolbox for creating immersion, and it works in games too. Good stories attract attention to the game and make the world seem more believable. They also tie up those mental resources.
Turning to game traits related to consistency, we have:
Lack of incongruous visual cues in the game world is one of the more interesting precursors to spatial presence. If we were discussing the same concept in movies, I’d cite the example of seeing a boom mic drop into an otherwise believable scene. It’s anything that reminds you that "Yo, this is A VIDEO GAME." Examples might include heads up displays, tutorial messages, damage numbers appearing over enemies’ heads, achievement notifications, friends list notifications, and the like. It’s also the reason why in-game advertising wrecks immersion so much --seeing twenty five instances of ads for the new Adam Sandlar movie while trying to rescue hostages kind of pulls you out of the experience.
Believable behavior from things in the game world means that characters, objects, and other creatures in the game world behave like you’d expect them to. It’s also worth noting that the cues need to make sense and be constant throughout the experience. This is one reason that I think Bioshock's audio logs kind of hurt the game’s otherwise substantial immersion: Who the heck records an audio diary, breaks it up into 20-second chunks, puts them on their own dedicated tape players, and then wedges those players into the various corners of a public place? It doesn’t make any sense.
An unbroken presentation of the game world means that the spatial cues about the imaginary world your game has created should not just up and vanish. Which is exactly what happens every time you get a loading screen, a tutorial, or a game menu. When that happens, the game world literally disappears for a few minutes, and we can't feel immersed in something that isn't there.
Interactivity with items in the game world could probably fit under the "richness" list above, but I include it with consistency because it’s another way of giving the player feedback on actions and a sense of consistency between various parts of the environment. Operating machines, talking to NPCs, and fiddling with physics makes it seem like the various pieces of the world fit together consistently.
So there you have it: a recipe for immersion, if that's what you're aiming for.
Wirth, W., hartmann, T., Bocking, S., Vorderer, P., Klimmt, C., Holger, S., Saari, T., Laarni, J., Ravaja, N., Gouveia, F., Biocca, F., Sacau, A. Jancke, L., Baumgartner, T., & Jancke, P. (2007). A Process Model for the Formation of Spatial Presence Experiences. Media Psychology, 9, 493-525.
Wissmath, B, Weibel, D., & Groner, R. (2009). Dubbing or Subtitling? Effects on Spatial Presence, Transportation, Flow, and Enjoyment. Journal of Media Psychology 21 (3), 114-125.