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.