Immersion and Virtual Reality

While at Old Trafford (Home of the mighty Red Devils) maybe a few weeks ago, myself and my Father were standing behind a rather devoted fan. Yelling, screaming, cursing. He reacted to every shot like he kicked the ball himself. Having noticed his behaviour my Father turned to me and his comment inspired this post;

“He is just so immersed in this game.” 

Immersion. Gamers, the industry and community alike, speak about immersion with the same giddy pride they might do with the achievements of a son or a daughter and so they should. Video gaming, a fundamentally interactive medium, requiring active participation from the user has the potential to be far more immersive than other mediums.

But it was my Father’s comments that made me stop and think. Sure, I am a Gamer and, sure, when someone asks me about why I love video games (Narrative especially) I almost always refer to ‘Immersion’ in some capacity as a contributing factor to my love for the medium.

My Fathers comments, however, reminded me that although we treat the word with some exclusivity, immersion isn’t something reserved for the gamers and their medium. Furthermore, how although I use the term immersion like a buzzword, I don’t actually have a clear definition for it.

What is Immersion? 

“Deep mental involvement in something.”

– Oxford English Dictionary

Immersion, or being immersed, is, as the definition above states, deep mental involvement. The definition makes it all sound very simple, but that isn’t the case. Indeed, some literary critics would argue that immersion is simply a state of mind, you either are or you aren’t. So, is immersion something that just happens? Or can you be more immersed?

Gaming would argue the latter.

The Battle of Borodino is a 150ft panoramic painting celebrating the Russian victory over Napoleon, standing in the centre of the Borodino Battle Museum Panorama, provides

The Battle of Borodino Panorama

an illusion of presence – an experience of immersion. The battle of Borodino is viewed as a twist on a memorial – a fresh approach to exhibition, but a far cry from fully rendered worlds provided by video games. Regardless, the point here is that immersion can come in many forms. Hell, you can even be immersed in a crossword puzzle. What video games do, however, is go some way as to blur the barriers between reality and fiction. With that in mind, immersion suddenly becomes worth discussion.

Many literary critics have had difficulty accepting immersion. Ryan outlines the main objection to immersion in her book Narrative as Virtual Reality 2:

‘The main objection against immersion is the alleged incompatibility of the experience with the exercise of critical faculties’

My reading of Ryan here is that the main criticism lodged at immersion is that our physical and mental capacities are incompatible with a fully immersive experience. Indeed, when we jump into a game with all the power it grants us, we are still largely aware of our own capacity as human beings outside the game world. This innate dissonance will always be a roadblock for full immersion.

Perhaps instead, immersion should be viewed as a ‘mimetic’ (The idea that art can mimic reality.) relationship to a world. For game-fiction this takes a diagonal step, a step towards populated worlds that are independent and based on ‘computational rules’ in which the user is connected as a character. This would be routed deeply in mimetic teachings, as Ryan continues:

‘This fundamentally ‘mimetic’ concept of immersion remains faithful to the VR experience, since the purpose of VR is to connect the user to simulated reality.’

Regardless, video games provide worlds that react to the reader, that change with the readers presence, that live, that breathe and with the introduction of Virtual Reality, it wont be long before a fully immersive world is attained. With it, however, comes problems.

Virtual Reality and Game Narrative.

Like mentioned in previous chapters – the main attraction of Video Games is their interactivity. With this considered a question will be raised; What type of story is best suited to VR and it’s potential for immersion?

Aylett and Louchart have their say on the matter in Towards a narrative theory of virtual reality;

‘A plot centred approach conflicts with the freedom VR potentially offers to the user and can therefore be very restrictive. In order to reconcile interactivity and narrative while still providing the user with a satisfactory level of freedom within a 3D environment, Aylett as well as Nath [18, 19], argue for the consideration of a character based narrative form. This presents the double advantage for the user of, on the one hand, taking part in a unique experience, and on the other, acting freely without the constraints imposed by a plot centred approach.

Here in lies the problem. Currently, Games (Especially AAA releases) are obsessed with simulating experiences, and often feature heavily plot based story-lines with plenty of thrill and not much emotional identification.

Indeed, games that feature a grandiose narrative often feel contrived when it is us at the centre of the action. Then, game mechanics like conserving ammo, or food can often not be representative of the situation the player finds themselves in; a position of empowerment.

It’s the same problem that many modern MMORPG’s have. They place you in a position of empowerment, only to ask you to gather 20 boar tusks. This dissonance between the narrative projection of the player, and the gameplay will deny any immersion.

The World and it’s vices are often attempted to be conceptualised in video game narrative, elements of it are exposed but they often forget the relationship it’s inhabitants have to it, that of insignificance. Perhaps a game that reflects an indifferent world would be an immersive one. A world that would appear to exist without the players intervention, but still one reactive enough for the end point to become obscure. Unfortunately, the points described are largely at odds with core concepts of game design.

The nature of the video games as a participatory medium demands that the story accommodate the gameplay. This can lead to the stories often feeling very artificial with each obstacle and plot point needing to be powerful enough to warrant action and interference from the user – and thus fulfilling it’s ‘ludic’ requirement. As Aylett and Louchart state above, heavy plot based narratives can restrict the freedom that VR offers. Now that the user is in the fiction itself, traditional backbone of storytelling is tested. As in non-interactive and non-immersive mediums; rising stakes, be it horrific or dramatic tension, or heavy action are effective through dramatic catharsis (The purging of emotion through art). The readers, or viewers, pleasure is one that the user of VR will not have, they will not be able to cathartically release their emotions like the viewer in a cinema might.

VR risks resorting back to the critics response: Being the action hero will quickly feel like taking a dip in the proverbial ‘Jacuzzi’. Being the subject of a haunting in a horror game may well result in true terror and thus, a complete shut down of interactivity through fear, throwing the VR helmet off because the player is the victim, not the avatar.

Presently, immersion and narrative interactivity with current VR technology may well be better suited to gameplay forms that are sensational, and narrative forms that are non-sensational. Unfortunately, basic game principles (especially where narrative is concerned) have proven that there is no cohabitation between the two. For now, history will repeat itself, narrative will take a back seat to gameplay while the technology is expanded.

Image: CrucibleNinjas


Aylett, R. and Louchart, S. (2003). ‘Towards a narrative theory of virtual reality’, Virtual Reality, 7(1), pp. 2-9.

Marie-Laure Ryan (2015). Narrative as Virtual Reality 2. Baltimore, Maryland, John Hopkins University Press.


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