Games, for the most part, have a theme. Many games are designed entirely around involving players in their theme. RPGs form the lion’s share of these, and the remainder form a category that is commonly referred to as Ameritrash (this isn’t a derogatory term in most circles, despite the sound of it).
This concept of gamers becoming involved in the world that the game presets is called Immersion. Immersion is brought out by a number of factors in a game, which I’ll briefly take a look at here.
What is Immersion?
Immersion can have a lot of definitions. Mine is by no means the end-all or right one, but it is a functional definition that covers the concept well.
“Immersion occurs when the gamer’s point of view is shifted to be within the game world.”
The meaning of this definition may not be completely obvious, so I will give an example. When you read a novel, say, Harry Potter, your eyes scan the text, and subliminally translate the words into ideas. The ideas then play themselves out in your mind’s eye. Once you become involved in the story, you are no longer simply reading–you are watching the events play out as though in a movie created by your mind’s eye. Now, when Harry is flying through the air on his broomstick chasing winged golden snitches, it makes perfect sense how this works and why it is important. Thinking about the scenario later, in the context of our own world, it seems ridiculous. Immersion occurs when the reader is thinking about things from the point of view of someone in Harry’s world, instead of his own. That is Immersion.
Unless the player is immersed in the world that the game presents, the characters, challenges, dangers, and conventions of that world will all be empty and meaningless. The game will not make an impact on that player, and he will not enjoy his time experiencing it. There are other factors besides immersion that make a game fun–the thrill of winning, of social interaction, or of cooperating towards a common goal. However, I often feel that immersion is the least discussed factor that contributes to a game’s enjoyment, despite it being one of the most important.
How to create Immersion?
There are many techniques that designers use to create immersion in games. Here is a brief overview of the most important ones:
Art & Design
The design of the game immediately draws players into its world. Players who are entering the world that your game presents will need a way to connect to that world. For players who read novels extensively, text and a few design elements are typically enough. However, with the proliferation of video games, television, and comic books, most gamers require some visual stimulus in order to really connect with the world you are building, and to formulate that world in their own mind. The easier it is for players to see the world in their mind’s eye, the easier it is to relate to the emotions of the characters and the challenges they face.
Suspension of Disbelief
People live in a certain world. The real world. The real world has conventions, like gravity, time, life, death, hunger, taxes, sex, poverty, culture, education, government, and so on. When a game presents a new world for a player to enter, the player must ignore the conventions of his real world, and accept the conventions of the world he is entering. This process, which is absolutely vital for Immersion, is called the Suspension of Disbelief. This one concept is the subject of whole books. Suffice it to say that the more the game world resembles the real world, the easier it is for players to suspend their disbelief.
Breaking the Fourth Wall
Most games that focus consciously on immersion are trying to pull the player into their world. A few games, however, create immersion by stepping into the player’s world. Consider the interactive movie, ‘Last Call,’ where the character in the movie actually calls viewers and asks them for help to escape a killer. At the movie’s end, the killer picks up the phone and speaks directly to the audience member who has been helping his victim. “I’ve got your number now,” he says. You can bet that person won’t be sleeping easily tonight!
Breaking the fourth wall successfully is difficult to do, but if the effect can be achieved, Suspension of Disbelief and Immersion are automatic–the player is already in the same world as the game, because the game has stepped into his world.
Environmental controls can also be used to create this effect. If the gamers must dress up, act out, or enter a location that vaguely resembles the game world they are entering, the immersion of the game occurs much more easily. Many players shy away from LARP, or Live Action Role-Playing, but among those that I’ve talked to, there is a unanimous agreement that it is far more immersive than ordinary table-top roleplaying.
When a world takes root in the gamer’s mind, as in the example of Harry Potter, the mind’s eye subconsciously fills in the details, and creates a complete picture from the fragmented world the book or game presents. No two people experience the same world of Harry Potter, though certain details are shared among many or all of these worlds. When the mind is automatically creating and expanding the world like this, it naturally becomes immersed in the world, so as to facilitate the process.
Designers (especially RPG designers) use this knowledge to create immersion by encouraging the player to become subtly involved in creating the game world. Presenting text that provides fragmented descriptions of places or people, conflicting political opinions, or puzzles without explicit solutions will force the player to fill in the gaps himself and form opinions and impressions of the world. In order to do this, the mind becomes immersed in the world automatically, just as when reading a novel.
This isn’t some sort of mystical exercise with incense that I’m talking about. Meditation simply means contemplation, or deep thought. Creating a game that encourages players to think about the game even when not playing is a sure-fire way to create Immersion. Take the example of Magic the Gathering. I go to casual magic night with my red deck. I play a few games, check out some cards, and then someone shows me an obscure card that really speaks to me. Say it’s something ridiculous like Mindblaze.
The sheer strangeness of this card is enough to get me thinking about it. The more I think about the possibilities of the card, the more I want to build a deck around it. I consider, build a decklist, acquire cards, and assemble the deck. By the time next week has come around, I’ve spent hours thinking about, reading about, and imagining how my new deck will perform. All that thinking has drawn me further into the Magic the Gathering Universe (or Multiverse, to be specific), and increased the immersion I experience while playing the game.
Many players see games as a way to express themselves and their personalities. Games that allow players to win in the way they prefer (such as Civilization) or to customize their characters and profiles (such as Gaia Online or World of Warcraft), give players an opportunity to place themselves into the world and make a statement of identity through the game. In order to use the game as a platform for this, the player becomes immersed in it. The proliferation of Minecraft–a game with no purpose except to build structures from various blocks–and the popularity of LEGOs are proof enough that this is an extremely strong aspect of gaming for many people.
Magic the Gathering, Warhammer, and other games like these capitalize on this phenomena by letting players choose elements, factions, clans, armies, or the like in whatever flavor that fits their style. Though the price for building a powerful red deck in Magic or a strong Tomb Kings army in Warhammer can be steep, players are eager and excited to invest their time and money, because the world draws them in by letting them express themselves through the building of the deck or the assembling and painting of the miniatures. All the while they do these activities, they are meditating on the game world, which creates even more immersion.
What’s the Point?
So why do game designers care about Immersion? The important question you have to ask is what players are looking for in your game. Most gamers (especially RPG gamers) are escapists (also not a negative ideal, and one I personally subscribe to wholeheartedly), and games are a way for them to escape from everyday life and become someone else or visit some other place for a short time.
Does a game about fighting battles against the monsters of the Cthulhu mythos excite you? Then it’s probably the concept, and not the mechanics, game, or components that really get you interested. In that case, the game will be judged based upon how well it manages to immerse players in this world, and not on how exciting the actual gameplay is. This is not to say that the gameplay is irrelevant, but that the mechanics serve to facilitate immersion in the game’s world, rather than to be solid, balanced gameplay.
Mechanics vs. Immersion
When I created the first iteration of Supervillains Inc, playtesters came back and told me bluntly–this isn’t a game about supervillains, it’s a tactics game. What went wrong? The players were excited about becoming supervillains in this game world, but the mechanics of the game didn’t facilitate that immersion. They were just pushing pawns around a board instead of committing feats of supervillainy. This was a sharp lesson to me that it’s not enough to have an exciting premise and a solid mechanic–the two have to blend together seamlessly to create an Immersive experience. Supervillains is back on the drawing board for now, and hopefully a new version will be available this year.
Another story–the first iteration of BattleCON (an upcoming card game based on the premise of blending the best of 2D fighting games and card games) was a CCG, where players built their own decks, and chained cards together to create combos. The cards lined up with one another, and you could form a combo with any two cards that would sit seamlessly next to each other and form an unbroken illustration in the bottom box. However, I got too involved in the mechanics and balance of the game–creating new card types and attempting to add more conventions and flavour to a simple game that worked. We had a simple mechanic that fit the premise, and overworked it. Soon, playtesters weren’t becoming immersed in the game anymore–it was too competitive and mechanical to provide the same kind of fun that it originally had. The mechanics had become disjointed from the premise. In the end, the rules were scrapped, and a new BattleCON was created.
Neither of these stories are told to say that mechanics of the game are irrelevant or that balancing gameplay is foolish–rather, consider that the premise and the experience are what your players are looking for, and not the gameplay. If the gameplay provides immersion, then it succeeds. If the gameplay isn’t linked to the premise of the game, if it doesn’t support the immersion of the game, then it isn’t doing its job.
The Big Picture
Not all games rely on Immersion to create a game experience. Plenty are based on being good social activities or competitive challenges. However, Immersion is necessary in some degree for all games, and generally makes almost any game more enjoyable. Most games are built around the premise of putting you in some role or position. Try to think about the game through the context of what a person in that position would actually do. You may not win, but you’re very likely to have a better time than usual.
The next time you play Munchkin, Runebound, or other theme-heavy games, consider that these games are designed not around winning or losing, but to facilitate entering the world of the game and experiencing it firsthand. Getting involved with the characters and the world is the best way to experience these games as they were meant to be experienced.