CTS -Immersion & Flow Essay

“How have the Contextual & Theoretical Studies lectures dealt with the relationship between the theory and practice of Games Design?”

 

Introduction

For this essay we have been tasked with discussing a topic that we have studied in our Contextual & Theoretical Studies lectures, whilst also researching it somewhat ourselves, providing examples and opinions on it and talking about the difference between the theoretical and practical application of the topic we have picked. I decided to pick Immersion & Flow from one of our early CTS lessons as I found it quite interesting and it’s something I often wonder about when I play games and think about how games are designed.

What is “Immersion” in videogames?

Immersion in videogames is much the same as in movies or book, immersion in a good book or movie you may forget your surroundings and be along for the adventure or swept up in the language used in a book. In a videogame context “Immersion” generally means to forget that you are having to press a button to make something happen, you become immersed through the gameplay, or the worlds you are playing in are convincing to the point where your mind doesn’t really have to fill in any blanks. Personally I would say Immersion can work on multiple levels.

For instance there are plenty of games that Person A may find Immersive while Person B will not and so on, so I’m not sure there is an exact science. However I would say that one of the barriers between a player being immersed and a player not being immersed is the accessibility. By accessibility I primarily mean the controls of a game and the time and investment that a player may have to undertake in order to be fluent in the controls of a game.

If someone finds a game difficult to control I think it is only natural to become frustrated with a game and NOT become immersed. While some games are just designed poorly, some games do require the player to actually put time into a game to understand how the rules are played. A good example of this sort of barrier would be in board games, as someone may become frustrated while trying to understand the rules while another player may pick them up quickly. The frustrated player may give up, but if a player perseveres they will probably enjoy it and have many hours of enjoyment.

If there is a testament to this then it is the enduring popularity of board games like Monopoly and Scrabble, or Cluedo. However this is not entirely applicable to games as the rules of a board game are typically the only barrier someone may face in trying to understand it and be able to enjoy it, but in videogames apart from actions corresponding to buttons pressed by the player, they also have a range of input devices which can mean that there are potentially more hurdles in videogames than there are in other mediums.

If a player is able to invest time and effort to understand the controls to a game then their enjoyment would naturally increase, along with their level of immersion, because they would no longer have to think about what they are doing to make something happen. The game mechanics then need to work together sufficiently that you don’t have a problem with the player understanding how the game works. There is a difference between how do you control a game (If I press the Up Arrow on a keyboard, the player moves up etc.) and how the mechanics of a game operate (If I want to reload my Gun I have to press X etc.).

If the mechanics don’t “flow” together naturally or intuitively it can become cumbersome to the player. The larger the game the more mechanics are involved and the more complicated things can be, but the wider range of activities typically mean that the potential for immersion is greater than smaller games, but the barrier (or cost of entry, if you will) is much higher. If the player has no obstacles to overcome to interact with the game the only thing left is subjective, their enjoyment, but if the game fulfils this for the player then they will have a lack of awareness in what is going on around them and feel more like they are an avatar within the game world they are playing.

“A Zen-like state where your hands just seem to know what to do, and your mind just seems to carry on with the story” (Brown & Cairns, 2004)

So it is relatively easy to define “What is Immersion” but it is quite hard to define why something can be immersive to many people and not so to others. However I think the common link between what you and I find Immersive is that if something is fun, itself something quite hard to define on a personal level, we tend to find ourselves more drawn in and immersed into the film or game we play.

The deeper level of Immersion however is something that can be defined as in video games you primarily explore virtual worlds. As technology has advanced in games we are able to create more and more complex 3D worlds and the “set dressing” becomes increasingly important in making people immersed. Toby Gard, a designer responsible for creating Lara Croft of Tomb Raider fame wrote that:

Everyone stores simplified constructions of reality in their mind; schemata that at codify the critical features of the world around us. We use our schemata to recognize and interpret everything we experience” (Gard, 2010)

I think what he means by this is that we all have our perceptions and ideas of what an experience will be, so if I play a game and I enter some lone forgotten temple and I do not see any shrine for worship I will be pulled out of the game as it won’t sync up with my expectations. If I am exploring an environment in a game and it doesn’t make logical sense to me, like if I enter a small building only to find that the interior is far bigger than the exterior would allow, I will be pulled out of the experience. The artistry and cleverness in this aspect of immersing the player is also in the level design as you must create a convincing space within your game world but also make it fun to explore and suit whatever gameplay scenarios will unfold. Gard goes on to mention:

“When a player enters a temple that has no space for worship, or a tomb with no burial chamber nor rhyme nor reason behinds its layout, he or she will not be convinced that they are exploring a real place” (Gard, 2010)

However Gard’s words are not exact gospel as ultimately a game must remain fun to make the player immersed as a pure simulation experience would not be enjoyable to a lot of players. A poor way for a game to begin would be to have a series of disconnected areas the player must move through with each area being designed to introduce a new mechanic they must understand. Ultimately players are smarter than that and will probably be drawn out of the experience because if they enter an area and see waist-high cover in a First Person Shooter (FPS) game or the like they will immediately know what to expect.

If developers persist with this within a game then players might be running through an otherwise beautiful area that is convincing, see very out of place cover or wonder why an object is perfectly placed to act as cover and immediately know what is going to happen. This is a criticism that can be levelled at two games/series in particular, but for different reasons. Gears of War is a Third Person Shooter (TPS) in which the player essentially moves through the levels and takes cover behind waist-high objects which will eventually get shot to pieces before you must move on.

Being set in a ruined analogue for Earth you can expect a certain amount of debris to provide cover, it fits with the narrative presented to the player and thus doesn’t really break immersion, at least not yet. About an hour or two into the game and you’ve largely moved through industrial areas in a ruined city and while you may think certain areas have had a bit too much cover, it doesn’t take you out of the experience too much. You reach an area once fortified by the military so it is again understandable that it is littered with cover but after this part of the game it starts to fail to strike a balance between the narrative and the gameplay. Cover-sized objects appear all the time, especially in areas where they have no business being.

There is a very late-game section on board a moving train and every single object on the train is just positioned and sized up so that your hulking player character can take cover. It is a criticism that was levelled at the series and while I feel as if the developers got better as the series went on, it is ultimately a complaint that won’t go too far because to remove cover from the game would change the nature of the series completely. However the series remains very fun, so it’s an example of how Immersion has a definition but the way it is achieved varies from person to person as some people may say “Oh, that’s a piece of cover” and feel pulled out of the experience while another will just find the game fun and move on.

 

Another game that goes to the other extreme is The Order 1886, another TPS set in Victorian London. It has astounding graphics and an extreme level of attention to detail with as many aspects of the game being absolutely authentic to the look and feel of London at the time. The developers poured over scores of research, historical accounts and pictures and used technology far beyond me to accurately replicate cloth materials and the like from the time period into the game. It is, in a visual aspect, a love letter to the time period, with slavishly reproduced worlds immersing you in that experience.

However, to me at least, it is not very fun. I bought the game being interested in the time period, not so much the gameplay, and while I could enjoy and spend a few hours just wandering around the narrow environments, it is not a fun game at all. If Gears of War was guilty of gameplay over narrative believability in terms of the world design, The Order 1886 is at the other end of the scale. It has a world design that is almost impeccable in terms of feel and look, but it is no fun to play. Now someone else could play the game and disagree with me but if a game is fun I don’t mind if an aspect is overly “game-y” in the way that Gears of War has lots of cover, but if a game looks spectacular and is no fun I won’t enjoy it or be immersed.

One of the developers for The Order 1886 spoke about the immersion and I can both agree with what he said but also disagree in what the game does:

“Our game is a game that you get lost in, you get immersed in the world and the gameplay, and we’ve done so much research and devoted so much time to making every little detail meticulously refined, that nothing stands out so your brain just gets completely submersed in this whole time period and storyline and these fights. If someone could sit on their couch and get in that mode and have the ride of their life then I think we’ve done our job.” (Foster, 2015)

I can easily applaud the developers for this intent, but The Order 1886 has just not done it for me. I enjoy the world, but don’t find the game fun. I suppose that shows that for me, ultimately I can forgive lesser attention to detail if I find the game fun, but I feel that is quite understandable. If an experience is fun then it is only natural I will be immersed in it although I suspect that in video games perhaps the games that really excel have astonishing levels of attention to detail but also making the game fun and accessible so anyone could play.

Conclusion

Ultimately I feel as if this essay ends having given a definition for Immersion, albeit one of a few possible definitions, and also attempted to explain multiple ways that Immersion can be achieved in games. Not only does this differ from game to game, but person to person, which makes most of this more along the lines of personal musing and speculation than an exact science but I hope it has imparted some sort of understanding of what Immersion is, and the practical games design challenges in providing Immersion to the player.

By John Reid

Bibliography

Brown, E & Cairns, P (2004) Academic Paper, available from the link

Gard, T (2010) Gamasutra Article, available from the link

Foster, G (2015) Developer-Online Article, available from the link

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