In MMO games, the concept of immersion is overplayed.
Perhaps it’s a leftover from the era when 3D graphics first arrived and people gaped at how they could be truly within, “immersed” in, a game world for the first time. This would be genuine immersion—just as a you are immersed in water when you jump into a pool, you’re immersed in a 3D world when you play Mario 64. This far immersion makes sense.
But gamers want to take the concept of immersion farther. Now immersive games have to be games where the world is more real. This doesn’t mean that the world has to be more superficially like ours (though that’s what many developers seem to want it to mean)—it means a world that has a similar level of detail to our world, at least as far as the player would naturally examine the world. Players think immersion requires that the game include small details of the real world that have no mechanical reason to be in-game. From many player’s descriptions of immersion, it seems to be no more than an artificial glomming-on of graphical assets and sounds to add detail to the game world, even if that detail has no significance in playing the game.
People who talk about immersion as being of critical importance are picking out nice details and artistic flourishes in a wall mural of a morbidly obese leper vomiting, then claiming that those details are why people enjoy looking at the grotesque mural.
Immersion is bunk because you can’t apply its concepts consistently to an MMO without becoming a gibbering maniac. Wolfshead claims that World of Warcraft is (or was) immersive, in part, because of the little critters that roam about uselessly in the game world. Seeing a cow or chicken wandering Azeroth doesn’t mean much to anyone. It’s cute, sure—but immersive? If immersion only requires a vague similarity to the real world in a superficial Potemkin Village-like way, immersion doesn’t mean much aside from a proliferation of graphics, 3D models, and sounds.
If you try to find immersion in the major mechanics of the game, you will fail. Characters grow vaguely like people do in real life, but do people suddenly become much stronger every time they’ve accumulated a certain amount of experience? Mobs in the game world respawn fully-grown and in a set pattern—this alone should make an immersion-interested gamer turn and flee. Quest-givers give everyone who stops by the same quests to do the same things; what!? This is the least immersive genre ever. Everywhere you look for immersion you’ll fail to find it—unless you’re happy with pretty lights and sounds.
The best definition I can think of for immersion in gaming: the player’s impression that the they're in a real world. This may capture an extremely superficial understanding of why games interest and addict players, but it misses the point. We don’t care about games because they resemble a real world, we care about them because they have meaning to us both derived from the gameplay or bestowed on the game by the outside world via, for instance, communities and social organizations.
Players only care that what they’re doing in the game has meaning to them, whether it comes from the game itself, other players playing the game with them, or from the player herself. Without meaning, a game will fail regardless of its immersive qualities. People don’t want an immersive game, they want a fun game. Let’s think about meaning as a positive quality in games instead of immersion, because wherever immersion fails, it is a really a failure of meaning, and wherever immersion succeeds, it is because of meaning.