Sensory immersion and VR technology

A somewhat different take on immersion is provided by Frans Mayra, who brings the choice of visual perspective into the game as an additional factor. Strong sensory immersion is provided, especially by the first-person view in games played on screen, and even more so with VR headsets. Freedom of moving around and instantaneous feedback from the game environment give rise to immersion in actions of play, which can be called a “challenge-based form of immersion into games” (2008, 107-108.) This approximately resembles McMahan’s engagement, but also comes close to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s (Csikszentmihalyi & Csikszentmihalyi 1975) concept of flow. Mayra also recognizes immersion in the game world, describing it as absorption: “[...] another kind of immersion involved, as the player becomes emotionally as well as intellectually absorbed in the game world. [...] we can call it imaginative immersion” (ibid., 109). If we compare McMahan and Mayra with each other, the models are quite compatible, with the exception that sensory immersion is of a different conceptual level than presence. Sensor)' immersion is clearly one way of creating a sense of presence, but not the only one available; we can find immersion and engagement, for example, in interactive fiction (text-based adventure games).

When looking at VR immersion specifically, there are certain aspects of the presented world which contribute to immersion, in addition to the sensory apparatus. The first-person perspective fosters immersion, but what Newman (2004) has called “first-hand participation” may be an even more significant factor, meaning active agency in the game world. First-hand participation is not reliant upon first- person perspective, but may appear independently and can “engender a degree of interactive connection with the gameworld that goes far beyond the abstracted ‘use’ of a system or vicarious identification with and manipulation of an iconic character or world” (2004,142). It is important here that first-hand participation is conceptually separated from the game character (avatar), as they are usually strongly limited in gestural affordances when compared to degrees of freedom when using one’s own body.

The oft-cited early example of building VR immersion is Hunger in Los Angeles (2012), a VR experiment recreating a crisis in a food bank line in Los Angeles. The experiment, which combined a 3D-modeled environment with an audio recording of the actual incident, aimed at recreating the feeling of “being there”, according to the head developer Nonny de la Pena. While the technolog)' of the time consisted of prototypes, there was a clear intention by the designers to recreate reality as faithfully as possible. The characters, the world, and especially the audio track point to a “real” reality which is experienced via a first-person perspective. However, there is little real first-hand participation, due to the fact that the player is represented by a bodiless floating “ghost”, and the event will play out the same way regardless of their actions.

Similarly, in CNN’s An ordinary day in North Korea, the camera is placed so high as to break the illusion of human viewpoint. In other typical cases, such as the BBC’s story on weapons-training in Polish schools, the focus of the story is on a specific person, who presents a focal point, but here again the reader finds themselves in the role of a faceless observer without any other agency than to turn around.This might be an intentional design choice: by limiting the user’s agency, CNN and the BBC have tighter editorial control on what their VR experiences convey to their users. Most likely it also speaks of the technical limitations of the camera setups used to construct most VR journalistic pieces: after all, the procedure of recording VR footage often includes using static camera (s) and trying to make sure the camera crew are not visible in the captured footage.

Whatever the reasons may be, it is clear that most contemporary examples of VR journalism have emphasized audiovisual fidelity or sensory immersion. From a game studies point of view this appears problematic. In a somewhat polemical fashion, Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman (2004) call the over-emphasis of sensory immersion “the immersive fallacy”:

[...] the idea that the pleasure of a media experience lies in its ability to sensually transport the participant into an illusory, simulated reality. [...] Although the immersive fallacy has taken hold in many fields, it is particularly prevalent in the digital game industry.

Salen & Zimmerman 2004, 450-451

The mistake behind immersive fallacy is to focus solely on the representational aspect and neglect the interface issues and play activity itself. As Marie-Laure Ryan has noted, in many fields over the past decades immersion has become less important and self-referentiality rendering the medium visible has gained more ground (Ryan 2001, 349).Thanks to this cultural movement, other media are largely avoiding the immersive fallacy, whereas, according to Salen and Zimmerman, “within the digital game industry, belief in the immersive fallacy remains alive and well” (2004, 451). The immersive fallacy does not mean that there would not be immersion related to games and other media at all, but rather that immersion usually appears as an element within a complex process of mediation. It is prudent to ask whether there is a distinct risk that the field of journalism, in the pursuit of exploring emerging technologies’ affordances, is also in danger of falling into the trap of immersive fallacy by considering immersion in too narrow a way?

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