Saturday, February 6, 2010

Meaning, not Immersion

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.


scrusi said...

For the first part of the post I agreed with you completely - or with what I thought you meant. Now I'm not so sure. Lately, I've. Found myself immersed in worlds that were believable. Not real, but sufficiently responsive to my actions and sufficiently believable to allow for a willing suspension of disbelief.
If I play something like league of legends, it feels as if my actions have meaning, but I'm not feeling immersed. Vice versa, some actions in dragon age have no deeper meaning at all, yet add greatly to immersion.

Meaningful actions are an integral part of gaming, while immersion is not. Yet immersion can be very enjoyable on it's own. Avatar (the movie) had pretty much no meaning at all and allowed for zero interaction. It was still a brilliant experience.

Real immersion in mmos is hard to achieve, granted. But many of the issues you mention can well be handled by good ol suspension of disbelief if the rest of the game is crafted well enough. Adding more squirrels won't do the trick though ;)

Logan said...

completely agree.

i'd be perfectly fine with a game where i can rip off my own arm and throw it at an enemy to turn them into a peacock... as long as there was a reason why this action was possible in the game world... as long as it's sufficiently understood that this type of behavior is plausible and effective in the game world, i'm totally fine with it.

as long as it's reasonable within the game world, no matter how far fetched, then you can do pretty much anything and it'll still feel immersive...

but if you do something that doesn't make sense within the laws of the game world, then that is immersion breaking, even if it makes sense in the real world, if it doesn't make sense in the game world, then it breaks immersion.

Brian 'Psychochild' Green said...

"Immersion" is one of those fuzzy words like "realism" that people don't necessarily have a good definition for, but they're pretty sure that's what should be in a good game. Wolfshead seems to be leaning toward the "immersed in 3D" type of definition when he mentions the graphical quality at the beginning. I think this is one of the things that did appeal to people when they first played the game: all the pretty artwork and attention to detail drew people in. But, this eventually becomes old hat and the old-timers start focusing more on the gameplay aspects.

As I said in a comment on Wolfshead's site, I think the focus changes over time. To put it in terms of what you say here: when people start playing the game, their meaning comes from being part of a wonderous world. Once they've established their place, meaning shifts to becoming more capable and mastering the game aspects.

Nils said...

Immersion, credibility, consistency, realism.

What I mean when i say these things is that the game should differ from real world mechanics only where it is necessary.

NPCs in MMOs respawn. That necessary, so it's ok.

All NPCs call me a hero. That's not necessary, and quite obviously wromg. Every player character can hardly be a hero.

Tesh said...

What if immersion *is* the main reason for calling something "fun"? Wolfshead has a history of calling for less "game" in MMOs, and more "immersive" elements, or "virtual world" design. Perhaps he's an outlier, but immersion and fun are not necessarily antithetical, or even different things that exist in an either/or balance.

Wolfshead said...

Immersion is something that you as a player should not recognize as being conspicuous. Rather it's a mindset and philosophy toward making the totality of the experience real and believable for the player in a MMO or virtual world.

It's the job of the MMO developers to convince us with a wide array of art, mechanics, features and rules, etc. that their world is real enough for players to *care* about.

It's not just a matter of putting in small details and critters -- that was just one example. It's also about giving the player a sense of purpose and helping them to feel like a part of that world.

Well written books and well crafted films also have the capability to immerse us as well but the difference is we are spectators rather then participants.

To those that think that immersion is not that important I ask you this: don't you want to be immersed? if not, what brought you to Azeroth, Middle-earth, Sosaria, Norrath et al?

I think there is a definite proportional relationship between the ability of art/film/literature/virtual world to immerse you and the amount of pleasure/entertainment/fun that the user derives from it. The opposite is true as well.

Wanting MMOs and virtual worlds to be more immersive is a noble and good thing.