Expanding the concept of immersion
The way Murray (1997) conceptualizes immersion emphasizes fictional content in the process. When applied to games and play, this is problematic in two obvious ways: 1) there are games, also highly popular ones, without fictional world or narrative content, and 2) games and game play involve other aspects than the fictional game world, also in those cases where such a world exists. A player of Tetris, for example, may be clearly “immersed” in the game action, even if there is not an apparent fictional world to speak of. It is necessary to distinguish the two levels of videogame play: the represented world or diegetic level (which may be a narrative-based fictional world, or an abstract world) and the real-life player action, non-diegetic level, in which the player operates the game controller and devises her strategies. Alison McMahan (2003) has noted how immersion may take place in regards to both of these levels. For McMahan, immersion refers both to how the player may be “caught up in the world of the game’s story”, but also to her “love of the game and the strategy that goes into it” (2003,68).
According to McMahan (2003), the use of immersion in game studies has suffered from serious confusion, partly caused by the borrowing of terms from the fields of virtual reality and interface design. She proposes presence as a more general, and in many cases more accurate, term than immersion. McMahan defines presence as “the artificial sense that a user has in a virtual environment that the environment is unmediated”. Sense of presence is a complex phenomenon involving a set of dimensions: quality of social interaction, realism in the environment, the effect of “transportation”, immersiveness generated by the interface, the user’s ability to accomplish significant actions within the environment, and users responding to the computer as an intelligent, social agent. The environments and experiences vary greatly depending on the presence or absence of, and interplay between, these dimensions, but all of the six dimensions share the perceptual illusion of nonmediation (McMahan 72-73, referring to Lombard & Ditton).
Immersion and engagement are both aspects of presence in McMahan’s framework. Immersion relates to presence on a diegetic level, whereas engagement relates to presence on a non-diegetic level, including such actions as gaining points and devising a winning strategy, etc. (McMahan 2003, 69, 79). In this framework, immersion is just one dimension of presence, and much of immersion talk actually relates to presence instead.
For example, in the game 1979 Revolution: Black Friday (iNK Stories 2016) the player adopts the role of Reza Shirazi, a photojournalist present in the 1979 Iranian revolution. One of the central ways of interacting with the game is taking pictures of the events happening around Reza. The photos taken by the player are then contrasted with historical pictures taken by Michel Setboun, showing what the events looked like outside of the game. This necessarily reminds the player of events beyond the game, lessening the player’s immersion - but the reminder that the events they are witnessing are based on historical events may also enhance their sense of engagement with the game. From a journalistic point of view, the inclusion of authentic photos is easier to defend than using only inraginary examples. Therefore, at least in this case, pursuing immersion alone would not lead to the optimal outcome.
Salen and Zimmerman’s (2004) interpretation of the possibility of shifting frames is especially valuable in that it is able to explain how frequent shifts between immersion in the game world and engagement in the game play may take place so smoothly, by their both being encapsulated within the magic circle (ibid., 455).The presence in the magic circle does not break, despite movement between the states of immersion and engagement. It is, for example, quite common for the person involved in the game play to momentarily acknowledge also the space outside the magic circle, be it one’s own living room, an eSports arena, or a public transportation vehicle, so that the periods of deep immersion and engagement may be relatively short, but also returning to the magic circle may happen quickly again. Of course, in the case of virtual reality specifically, it may be that the technology- related issues such as physical visors and earphones, or long loading times for software, prohibit such behavior, and push users towards spending a longer time within theVR experience.
Finally, game theorists have tried to adopt the concept of immersion to better suit interactive media. Calleja (2011, 1) argues that the concepts of presence and immersion both assume that the relation between a user and a system is unidirectional, from a physical reality into a virtual one, or a “dive of human subjectivity into a containing vessel”. This metaphor does not work in media where the user can affect their surroundings, because it does not sufficiently take into account the medium’s role. Fie suggests that, instead, a better metaphor would be incorporation, the absorption of a virtual environment into consciousness, yielding a sense of habitation, which is supported by the systemically upheld embodiment of the player in a single location represented by the avatar.
This goes beyond immersion, since it includes how the system acknowledges the player’s existence. This does not automatically mean that incorporation is a better concept for understanding immersive experiences, but it is a useful reminder that virtual realities can have varying amounts of interactivity with the users.