The Immersive Fallacy

by Darius Kazemi on April 18, 2005

in Uncategorized

In Rules of Play, Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman’s excellent primer on games theory, they cover an important topic that has been a sticking point for me for a long time. That sticking point is immersion, the idea that a player should forget they’re playing a game and instead believe that they are inside the reality of the game itself. But Salen/Zimmerman make the point far better than I can; so I give you an excerpt from their book, titled The Immersive Fallacy. Read it. Know it. Love it. Save it to your hard drive. Forward it to your friends. And then buy Rules of Play if you haven’t already.

Immersion is much hairier than we like to make it out to be. For instance, while horror games certainly benefit from immersion, a game like Eternal Darkness breaks all the “classic” rules of immersive play by utterly destroying the fourth wall at critical junctures in play (thanks to Jeremiah for pointing this out to me). In the case of ED, you have a sanity meter. As you encounter more unspeakable horrors, your sanity level goes down. As the sanity level goes down, reality begins to fall apart. At first, you hear crying children. Then the walls start to bleed. Then you hallucinate rooms that aren’t there; battles that didn’t happen. Finally the game breaks the fourth wall: the screen will turn blue and say “VIDEO” in the upper right corner for 5 seconds before plunging you back into the game. Or the screen compresses to a white dot and goes black, and for a few tense moments, you wonder if the power went out. This is creepy creepy creepy and while it breaks immersive rules, it is simultaneously immersive in that the game is about reality falling apart. If the game’s reality begins to encroach on the player’s reality–well I’ll be damned if that doesn’t meet the standards of “immersion” while totally shirking the classical rules by embracing the “gameness” of the game.


Craig Perko April 18, 2005 at 9:20 pm

As you know, I’m huge on immersion. But that isn’t to say that I believe the player should “forget he’s playing a game” or any other trite crap like that. That NEVER HAPPENS. Players may ‘zone out’ entirely and stop considering the outside world, but at no point does the game actually BECOME reality to them.

This, however, does not lessen the importance or power of immersion. It simply means that immersion draws the player into the game such that they want to keep playing, keep exploring this world. It does not mean the player believes he is a cyborg trying to defeat an alien armada.

Although it may have memetic side effects. ;)

Side note: I notice you’ve put a highly useful gaming feed on the left side of your page. Thanks!

Evan Storer April 18, 2005 at 9:37 pm

But what about games that actively disrupt immersion, like Earthbound? Signs that say “I can sense…that…you have a controller…in your…hands…”, among other stimuli, remind the player that they’re playing a game, and nothing more. I think there’s something to be said for that kind of experience. It introduces a certain novelty to video games that is rarely seen.

Darius Kazemi April 18, 2005 at 10:15 pm

Evan, Earthbound is one of my favorite games of all time. In fact, I was just playing Katamari Damacy and realizing that the two games are stylistically very similar (especially in the music).

The self-aware stuff is what Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin call a “hypermediated” piece of software, which actively calls attention to the fact that it is software. As game developers, we spend so much time seeking immersion that we sometimes forget that a hypermediated product can be awesome, too. But we risk screwing up when we aren’t careful about balancing the two styles of media in our work. Sometimes, like in Earthbound or in Eternal Darkness, hypermediacy can be excellent. Other times, it can be a pain in the butt, and truly ruin the experience by breaking the fourth wall.

These rules of thumb that I criticize are still mostly valid, we just have to be more intelligent about their application.

Darren Torpey April 19, 2005 at 12:22 pm


It seems that the key is to recognize that we’re never actually intersted in completely re-writing player’s perceptions of reality. (In fact, as Craig said, this may not even be possible. At any rate it certainly ruins the idea of games-as-a-safe-place-for-experimentation.)

Rather, we wish for players to change the rules by which they make decisions and get ahold of their emotions.

The first part of that leads me to a discussion I’ll leave for my own blog, which will probably include a rebuttal of sorts to Craig’s sentiments on quick-saving.

As for the second… well, that’s the real reason we seek out immersion, right? I mean, the point is that players are willingly opening their emotions to those the game inspires, as we do when we watch movies or read books.

The trick is, then, to not give the player a chance to let the ultimate triviality of the excercise get in the way of their enjoyment. For a time, at least, we want them to feel like they are a soldier in World War 2 so that they can play around with the experience (and possibly so that we can predict their emotional responses to some extent).

Jeremiah Chaplin April 19, 2005 at 10:50 pm

Craig has it right on the nose, so to speak , in that immersion is simply one of many tools that a game designer can use to keep the player entertained and interested. I have come to believe that engagement is one of the fundemental goal of the game designer; if a game is engaging then people will keep playing. In some sense it is the first goal that a designer needs to achieve. Without an engaging game whatever other meanings or lessons you included are never conveyed because you’ve lost your player.

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