Immersion gets talked about a lot in gaming but without being talked about well. There are a great deal of nuances in the kinds of emotional experiences we can get from games (and, of course, from stories) but in a drive to simplify the language we’ve squished them all into one.
I’m the guy who cries in movies. All the time. And not always for the same reason. For example, in Les Mis I cried for Fantine in I Dreamed A Dream because her plight moved me to tears, but I cried for Marius in Empty Chairs at Empty Tables because it recalled the survivor guilt I felt myself. The difference in many cases may be too subtle to be teased out, or to matter, but they are different, and if we head further apart we can certainly conceptualize the two extremes. On one hand, there is the sense of deep emotional connection to a fiction, on the other, the reminiscence or even reliving of a real experience.
It is important to note that the former is nothing silly or foolish: to share the joy and sadness of an emotional experience to an intensity equal to or beyond that of real life experiences despite (or, as always, perhaps because of) the fictional nature of the characters and the situation is not something everyone can do but is something widely and deeply human, and part of why we engage with stories as a species. It is also important to stress that at no point does the fiction become real. We are never confused about the line between fiction and reality, yet our emotions are as strong as and even perhaps identical to real emotions, despite whatever knowledge we simultaneously maintain about the fictional nature of the information. When we use the phrase “the sensations become so real to us” we’re not talking about mental illness (hello, idiots on the internet) but rather the joy of mutual frames of reference. I can at once be sitting in my seat in a theatre seeing paid actors in costumes on a wooden stage and AT THE VERY SAME TIME be on the streets of Paris feeling an army coming towards me, and watching my friends die around me, with no trace of mental illness in play (indeed, mental illness often impedes this process).
And the conversion can be so strong we take on the physical sensations of being there – jump with fear, ache with love, thrash with rage. But it’s still not the same thing as an instinctual reaction that comes from what I’ll call submersion, which is the sense of actual being there, and being caught up not so much in a character but in oneself. This is the immersion of dreams, where things are indistinct from reality, and it can, indeed, happen in fiction but is most common in acting, and in roleplaying (in both senses), where we become so invested in the fictional reality we take on its forms unconsciously and think and act as if they were real. Again, this implies no mental illness or actual confusion, as it were, but a crossing of wires, a sense of what I believe is called cognitive dissonance, as what we know and what we believe swap places.
What’s important is that submersion is commonly talked about for actors and for Live Action roleplayers, whereas immersion is commonly talked about among an audience. What makes roleplaying so interesting is it is an experience that simultaneously bestrides the fourth wall, allowing the player to be at once both audience and actor, and thus become the participant in two different ways, through immersion and submersion.
And this is also true of all games with a story. We engage with such things on at least two levels, with the primal idea of meeting the game’s goals, which causes submersion, and with feeling connected to the story with immersion. When I play the Firefly board game and I see my income running low and my ship running out of fuel tokens I have an instinctual gamer reaction to the in-game difficulty of being stranded low on fuel and cash, which connects me submersively to the same emotion in Mal Reynolds in the same position, while the art and pieces help conjure in my head what such a moment would look like for my crew, and immerse me in that moment in my head.
As I say though, we kind of miss the difference between the two and that they work very differently, and that causes problems. A scene of rape or torture, for example, can be done realistically with the goal of immersing the audience in the horror of the experience, yet for some be too realistic and become submersive. I don’t watch horror because I inevitably get submersed far too far, particularly with the insistence on point of view shots and communicating horror through playing on the watcher’s visceral reactions, as opposed to imagined shared sensation. It’s a kind of synesthesia, in fact: I can’t watch an injury without feeling it in my body….unless, that is, I’m very immersed in the story so I feel it only through the character.
And that’s the important distinction. Many roleplayers argue that anything that distances oneself from the immediacy of the experience inherently blocks immersion and prevents people from connecting emotionally but that’s like saying the need to turn pages and convert words into images in our heads stops us weeping at Wuthering Heights. But immediacy DOES tend to be a big part of submersion, and when people say that LARPs and what are being called “connected mechanics” bring them into that world, that’s what they’re talking about. But they don’t realize that narrative, “disconnected” mechanics can, by heightening a sense of story, create a great sense of immersion which has its own wonderful power and connection.
And I think too often we try to get submersion with game stories, particularly in computer games. Things like Going Home and the Walking Dead and the Last of Us even though they give you a character, use first person views to heighten immediacy. But for me, this makes the sensation so realistic I instantly withdraw, from the experience and the story. The very fact that it asks me to be in the situation is what tells me it is false. Whereas I have wept for (and cheered and laughed with) Guybrush Threepwood, because his character touches my heart and is a mirror for myself. Without a trace of character generation or being forced, as a player, to make moral choices.
We are at a point in history where literally thousands of game designers have realized that games have this incredible power to share experiences with people through submersion but I don’t want to play any of them because I’d much, much rather be moved through immersion. And I think games can do immersion in beautiful and powerful and important ways, ways that can move hearts and change lives. And we forget that at our peril.