This article was published on: 9/9/2010
In researching this article I asked around a few developer buddies to get their thoughts on immersion. Turns out it’s a tricky beast and quite the pickle to work out. One friend, she described the experience of immersion as “a sensory thing, everything in unison”. Another described it as “not affected by distractions; forgetting yourself”. Losing yourself in the moment is all becoming worryingly like an Eminem lyric , but what did seem to emerge was a theme of getting out of yourself to get into something else. It’s an interesting concept, your internal thoughts overcome by external stimuli and an abandoning of the concept of self….pretty deep stuff.
My co-workers initial reactions to immersion were similar to my own in that we instantly knew what it was, but when probed further on how it’s achieved came undone a little. Another interesting thing was that the conditions for immersion also seemed to vary according to personal sensibilities. Artist friends spoke a lot about intensity of visuals, sound designers spoke about audio fidelity, one designer talked about “suspension of disbelief”. It seems in order to immerse oneself the highest barrier to entry is one’s own raison d’être. This stands to reason, if you are an expert in a specific field then in order to remain in an experience, and not be snapped back to reality, it must contain less flaws in that area.
To me immersion evokes a sense of being surrounded, consumed or enveloped by something. The dictionary defines it as a ‘state of being deeply engaged or involved; absorption’. It’s also not a state exclusive to video games; it’s just kind of become synonymous with it, but is something equally found in sex, films, music, food, pretty much any human activity!
When I think about immersion, it’s hard not to also make the association with ‘flow’. Flow is a concept in psychology proposed by a man named Mihály Csíkszentmihályi; the Wikipedia entry describes it as follows:
“Flow is the mental state of operation in which a person in an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity.”
We’ve all experienced flow, that feeling of being in the zone. It’s an enormously powerful and positive feeling, like the world around you has slowed down or even gone entirely. It’s a sense of being at one with the moment…now I’m sounding worryingly like the Matrix .
It’s hard not to associate immersion and flow together because they so often come together. They’re inextricably linked, like close cousins and interestingly neither are things we can consciously control. Trying to make a distinction between the two is difficult, but I believe it is important to make the differentiation. I had a breakthrough in this regard when I began to think of the analogy of riding a rollercoaster. You could describe the activity as a wilful engagement with fear, you allow yourself to be controlled and absorbed, sent on a crafted experience by the designer. Its immersion, but it’s not flow, you are the receiver of that experience on that rollercoaster. Flow requires active engagement almost as if you are the one controlling the activity. With flow you achieve control, with immersion you cede control. Could you therefore describe immersion as passive and flow as active?
Now the interesting question is; what are the requirements for immersion? Well in order to cede control I think the answer lays in receptivity, which in turn, probably means we have to feel safe. Immersion is like a blanket we are happy to fall back on to. It can also of course mean different things to different people. Immersion is the experience owning you; flow is you owning the experience. Perhaps immersion and flow has become so synonymous with video games because the medium simultaneously attempts both…