March 26, 2012 by justingroot
Immersion is one of the most interesting topics we’ve discussed in class this semester. Indeed, the fact that video games can make the player feel present in another world is perhaps their greatest selling point. “First-Person Shooters: Immersion and Attention,” a paper by Mark Grimshaw, John P. Charlton and Richard Jagger in the Eludamos Journal for Computer Game Culture, explores the causes and effects of immersion in the FPS genre. While I agree with many of their assertions, I don’t think these kinds of immersion are unique to FPS games.
In The Video Game Theory Reader, Alison McMahan outlined three basic requirements for immersion: the game environment must match the player’s expectations of that environment, the player “must have a non-trivial impact on the environment,” and the conventions of the world must maintain consistency (McMahan 68-69). “First-Person Shooters: Immersion and Attention” actually references McMahan’s definition directly, although it also explores a variety of other definitions as well. According to the article, immersion is a complex topic that does not lend itself to any particular exact definition.
However, the authors of the paper do believe that immersion, whatever its slippery definitions, is something FPS games do particularly well. “Aiding the illusion of being present within the gameworld displayed on the screen,” note the authors, “the FPS game typically posits the player with a first-person perspective in which an arm clutching a weapon recedes from the player into the perspective of the game world” (Grimshaw 32). They seem to believe that a 3D, first-person perspective is implicitly immersive. While I agree with this assertion, I would also argue that less realistic games, for instance those that utilize an isometric perspective (like Starcraft II), can still be incredibly immersive.
The article also notes at least one way in which FPS games tend to meet the “conventions must match player expectations” requirement of immersion: “the most outlandish weapons which are impossible to manufacture in the real world conform to visual expectations in having a ‘business’ end and a means of engagement such as a haft or hilt with which to thrust or a trigger to pull” (32).
The article then turns to analyzing the role of attention and “process allocation” in immersion. According to the article, an important component of immersion in a video game is that it fully involves the player’s concentration. As the player gets better, “routines that are well learned eventually become relatively automatic, requiring little attentional control,” which frees the player up to focus on higher and higher planes of in-game thinking (34). This is consistent with my own experience playing FPS games at a competitive level — the actual controls necessary to move my character around the map become, as the article notes, “invisible,” and all my attention becomes focused on the diegetic components of the game rather than the controls (38). It is also consistent with my feelings on the immersiveness of games like Starcraft II, which immerse the player by demanding their full concentration and “attentional control.”
This “invisibility” of controls is central to “engrossment,” the second of three tiers of immersion described in the article:
“…here the player becomes more immersed in the gameworld because they no longer need to pay much attention to the paraphernalia of the game that exists in the non-virtual environment. This enables the player to become emotionally involved with the game and the controls become ‘invisible’. That is, the player does not need to pay attention to the controls because their use has become automated; this leaves a player free to concentrate on events in the gameworld and how they should respond to them… In the gaming situation the gamer could be thought of as actively selecting appropriate schemata to complete previously learned or familiar tasks and override inappropriate ones. For example, the sight of a particular character may trigger a schema for evasive action, while some other perceptual input, for example a particular sound, may trigger a search and rescue schema” (38).
This is contrasted with “engagement,” the first level of immersion, which occurs when players are still trying to learn how to play the game and master the controls, and total immersion, in which “one becomes so immersed that one is mentally transported from one’s present physical surroundings into the gameworld” (38). The article cites research that implies that this type of immersion is rare and does not last for very long.
Here I am inclined to disagree with the article. I do not think total immersion in competitive video games is necessarily fleeting. From my experience playing Starcraft II, for instance, I know that I lose track of everything that is going on outside the game when I am playing. People enter and leave the room, loud noises occur in my apartment, my phone vibrates, and yet I tune out all these distractions in order to focus my full attention on the diegetic world. Once I was streaming (broadcasting my Starcraft games over the internet for others to watch and listen to my commentary), usually a fairly active process in which I try to voice my thoughts on what is happening in the game, and I got involved in such an incredibly tense in-game scenario that I went completely silent and literally forgot I was streaming at all. Thus for twenty full minutes I lost all awareness of everything except what was going on inside the game. For professional players participating in tournaments with money on the line, I imagine it is like this all the time.
Therefore, while I agree with much of what the article says about immersion, and I agree that FPS games and other games in which players compete against one another are immersive in large part because they demand so much attention and concentration from the player, I disagree with the assertion that this kind of total immersion is implicitly short-lived.