Immersive gaming as journalism
Jonne Arjoranta, Raine Koskimaa, and Marko Siitonen
As a field, journalism constantly strives to connect with its audiences and find ways to utilize emerging media technologies in its operations. Sometimes this is done simply to reach audiences that have ceased to use traditional media, or to invite new audiences in, but often it is also a matter of perceived benefits related to using the affordances of certain technological solutions. One recent example is the interest surrounding the concept of immersion. For example, recent research has explored the question of whether there is a connection between the immersiveness of a technology and the users’ empathetic responses (Archer & Finger 2018; Herrera et al. 2018). While some of these explorations are done specifically within the context of journalism, there is a considerable amount of overlap between different fields of interest, warranting a broader look at how the concept of immersion has been theorized.
This chapter discusses immersion and how it may be applied to journalism. In order to do so, we start by unraveling the concept of immersion itself as a reminder that it is not only connected to virtual reality (VR) or augmented reality (AR) technologies, but rather that it is a multifaceted concept that may be understood in many ways. Here, we turn specifically to the theorizing done in the context of digital games research, where immersion and some related concepts have been explored in detail over the last decades.This theorizing helps us see how immersion can be understood and in what way the concept may be problematic. The chapter maps out some of the historical precedents for immersion, discusses alternative and related concepts (such as presence), and how this understanding may be used to inform discussions of immersive journalism.
The magic circle of immersion
Immersion is a recurring concept when discussing video games and the way that players engage with them. It is often seen as a given that players immerse themselves in the game when playing. The roots of the concept of immersion related to play can be traced back to the classic Homo Ludens (197Ц1938]) by Johan Huizinga. He never used the word “immersion”, but his concept of the “magic circle” can be seen as the precursor for most game immersion discourse. According to Huizinga, a player is transferred from the everyday reality to the realm of game for the duration of play. While within the magic circle, the rules of play replace the everyday setting, and the strong sensation of the game space characterizes play: “[...] in this intensity, this absorption, this power of maddening, lies the very essence, the primordial quality of play” (Huizinga 1971 , 2).
The concept of the magic circle has been adopted by most of the game and play theorists since Huizinga, but, as there is not a very systematic definition of the concept in Homo Ludens, it has received numerous interpretations. For many game scholars today, the concept of the magic circle actually refers primarily to Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman’s characterization, which owes to Huizinga but cannot be fully reduced to it. They use the concept as a “shorthand for the idea of a special place in time and space created by a game” and to describe “where the game takes place” (Salen & Zimmerman 2004,95).
Jaakko Stenros (2014) has gone through the history and uses of the magic circle, and found three main interpretations: 1) spatial or “arena”, 2) social contract, and 3) psychological bubble. Of these three, the psychological bubble, “the ‘protective frame’ that surrounds a person in a playful state of mind”, is most directly related to immersion. Drawing from Michael J. Apter’s (1991, 14-15) reversal theory of personality, motivation and emotion, which recognizes opposite metamotivational states of“serious” and “playful”, Stenros concludes that when a player is within the psychological bubble, “[t]here is a ‘border’ around her experience that guides her interpretation of the situation” (2014,173-174).
Another influence on conceptualizing immersion in games comes from Janet Murray’s book Hamlet in the Holodeck (1997), even though the book itself focused on issues related to virtual reality and future narrative forms. Murray has a different approach than Huizinga, who was focusing on the characteristics of play as a specific type of activity. Murray starts from the power of narration to transfer the audience to another world created by the narrative. She sees online and virtual worlds as the latest phase in the development of narrative media, and replaces such concepts as “make-believe” and “willing suspension of disbelief”, more familiar in literary studies, with the concept of immersion adopted in the then-novel field of computer-based virtual worlds:
Immersion is a metaphorical term derived from the physical experience of being submerged in water. We seek the same feeling from a psychologically immersive experience [...] the sensation of being surrounded by a completely other reality [...J that takes over all of our attention, our whole perceptual apparatus.
Murray 1997, 98
Francois Laramee, when writing on game design principles, neatly illustrates this kind of approach to immersion, and promotes it as the highest priority of all entertainment: “All forms of entertainment strive to create suspension of disbelief, a state in which the player’s mind forgets that it is being subjected to entertainment and instead accepts what is perceived as reality” (Laramee 2002, according to Salen & Zimmerman 2004, 450). It is, however, quite problematic to assume immersion requires the “forgetting of the reality”. Instead, the phenomenological concept of bracketing, temporarily setting aside the assumed objective reality, would be a more accurate expression here. Other examples of immersion-characterized video game theory can be found from James Newman, “videogames may be characterized by a sense of‘being there’” (2004,17), or from Nick Yee (2002), who identified one of the core factors for MMORPGs’ (massively multiplayer online role-playing games’) holding power as being “the immersive nature of these virtual environments” (9).