The Psychology of Immersion in Video Games

Along with “OMGDUDESOAWESOME” one of the words that gamers like to toss around when describing their favorite titles is “immersive.”1 But what exactly does that mean? And what makes a game immersive? Ask 5 people and you’ll probably get 10 opinions, but psychologists have been studying immersion in various kinds of media for decades so they could probably shed some light on those questions.

Except they don’t call it “immersion.” Instead, they call it “presence,” which, admittedly, isn’t as cool. Regardless, researchers have identified several kinds of presence in regards to how we perceive media but it’s spatial presence that I think comes closest to what gamers think of as “immersion.”

Hey, I've got an entire chapter about how we get immersed in game worlds in my book, Getting Gamers: The Psychology of Video Games and Their Impact On Those Who Play Them. Click above for more info.

Hey, I’ve got an entire chapter about how we get immersed in game worlds in my book, Getting Gamers: The Psychology of Video Games and Their Impact On Those Who Play Them. Click above for more info.

Briefly, spatial presence is often defined as existing when “media contents are perceived as ‘real’ in the sense that media users experience a sensation of being spatially located in the mediated environment.”2 The idea is just that a game (or any other media from books to movies) creates spatial presence when the user starts to feel like he is “there” in the world that the game creates. People who experience immersion tend to only consider choices that make sense in the context of the imaginary world. Someone immersed in Red Dead Redemption, for example, might be more likely to use travel methods that make sense within the game, like stagecoaches, instead of methods that don’t, like fast traveling from a menu screen. People immersed in media also tend to enjoy it more.

A Theory of Spatial Presence (aka, Immersion)
But how does this happen? What about a game and what about the player makes her feel like she’s leaving the real world behind? Theories abound, but a few years ago Werner Wirth and a team of other researchers sat down to consolidate the research and come up with one unified theory.3 Here it is:

Figure 1: It's just that simple...

Woah, woah, woah. Sorry. Let’s just back up and take a simplified look at the parts most relevant to us gamers.

Basically, Wirth et al.’s theory says that spatial presence happens in three steps:

  1. Players form a representation in their minds of the space or world with which the game is presenting them.
  2. Players begin to favor the media-based space (I.e., the game world) as their point of reference for where they “are” (or to put it in psychological gobblety-gook, their “primary ego reference frame”)
  3. Profit!

So, basically, the process starts with players forming a mental model of the game’s make-believe space by looking at various cues (images, movement, sounds, and so forth) as well as assumptions about the world that they may bring to the table. Once that mental model of the game world is created, the player must decide, either consciously or unconsciously, whether she feels like she’s in that imagined world or in the real one. Of course, it’s worth noting that this isn’t necessary a conscious decision with the prefrontal cortex’s stamp of approval on it. It can be a subconscious, on the sly, slipped into sideways and entered and exited constantly.

Researchers have extensively studied how these two steps happen, but I think it’s more interesting for our purposes here to skip to the bit about what qualities of the media (i.e., game) and person (i.e., player) that they’ve found facilitate both of these steps and create immersion. So let’s do that.

Game Characteristics Leading to Spatial Presence
Characteristics of games that facilitate immersion can be grouped into two general categories: those that create a rich mental model of the game environment and those that create consistency between the things in that environment.

Let’s take the concept of richness, first. This isn’t an exhaustive list, but richness relates to:

  • Multiple channels of sensory information
  • Completeness of sensory information
  • Cognitively demanding environments
  • A strong and interesting narrative, plot, or story

Multiple channels of sensory information means simply that the more senses you assault and the more those senses work in tandem, the better. A bird flying overhead is good. Hearing it screech as it does so is better. 3D may also play a role here, and we can all agree that smell-o-vision will herald in a new era of spatial presence.4

Red Dead Redemption is immersive in part because so many things work in tandem and it doesn't leave many gaps to be filled in by the player's imagination.

Completeness of sensory information means that the fewer blanks about the mental model of the game world that the player has to fill in, the better. Abstractions and contrivances (there are no people in this town because of, uh, a plague! Yeah!) are the enemy of immersion. Assassin’s Creed 2 was immersive because its towns were filled with people who looked like they were doing …people stuff. Dealing in a familiar environment also allows the player to comfortably make assumptions about those blank spaces without being pulled out of the world to think about it. Knowing what the wild West is supposed to look like and having Red Dead Redemption conform to those stereotypes goes a long way towards creating spatial presence.

Cognitively demanding environments where players have to focus on what’s going on and getting by in the game will tie up mental resources. This is good for immersion, because if brain power is allocated to understanding or navigating the world, it’s not free to notice all its problems or shortcomings that would otherwise remind them that they’re playing a game.

Finally, a strong and interesting narrative, plot, or story will suck you in every time. In fact, it’s pretty much the only thing in a book’s toolbox for creating immersion, and it works in games too. Good stories attract attention to the game and make the world seem more believable. They also tie up those mental resources.

Turning to game traits related to consistency, we have:

  • Lack of incongruous visual cues in the game world
  • Consistent behavior from things in the game world
  • An unbroken presentation of the game world
  • Interactivity with items in the game world

Lack of incongruous visual cues in the game world is one of the more interesting precursors to spatial presence. If we were discussing the same concept in movies, I’d cite the example of seeing a boom mic drop into an otherwise believable scene. It’s anything that reminds you that “Yo, this is A VIDEO GAME.” Examples might include heads up displays, tutorial messages, damage numbers appearing over enemies’ heads, achievement notifications, friends list notifications, and the like. It’s also the reason why in-game advertising wrecks immersion so much –seeing twenty five instances of ads for the new Adam Sandlar movie while trying to rescue hostages kind of pulls you out of the experience.

Seriously, who would use one of these things to keep an audio diary?

Believable behavior from things in the game world means that characters, objects, and other creatures in the game world behave like you’d expect them to. It’s also worth noting that the cues need to make sense and be constant throughout the experience. This is one reason that I think Bioshocks’s audio logs kind of hurt the game’s otherwise substantial immersion: Who the heck records an audio diary, breaks it up into 20-second chunks, puts them on their own dedicated tape players, and then wedges those players into the various corners of a public place? It doesn’t make any sense.

An unbroken presentation of the game world means that the spatial cues about the imaginary world your game has created should not just up and vanish. Which is exactly what happens every time you get a loading screen, a tutorial, or a game menu. When that happens, the game world literally disappears for a few minutes, and we can’t feel immersed in something that isn’t there.

Interactivity with items in the game world could probably fit under the “richness” list above, but I include it with consistency because it’s another way of giving the player feedback on actions and a sense of consistency between various parts of the environment. Operating machines, talking to NPCs, and fiddling with physics makes it seem like the various pieces of the world fit together consistently.

Games like Oblivion and Fallout 3 are immersive because they let you interact with almost everything.

Player Characteristics Leading to Spatial Presence

Of course, players have some say in how immersed they get in a game. Some people just have more spatial ability and can build those mental models of game worlds more readily and make them more vibrant. And researchers have found that people have an “absorption trait” which means that they’re quicker to get fascinated by something and drawn into it –something I like to think of this as “the fanboy gene.”

Other times the player takes a more active role. Some players simply want to believe in the illusion, and will induce their own bias towards accepting the “I am there” hypothesis. In this state, they’ll require less confirmatory information to accept that hypothesis and less disconfirming information to reject it. This is also similar to the idea of “suspension of disbelief” where players wilfully ignore stuff that doesn’t make sense (like thunderous explosions in space or the fact that enemy soldiers can soak up a dozen of gunshots without going down) in order to just have a good time.

Other researchers have also pointed to a concept they call “involvement” which is a media user’s desire to act in the make-believe world, to draw parallels between it and his life, and to effect changes in it according to their own design. To me, this seems like an overly fancy way of saying “some people like to role-play” which leads directly to greater immersion.

So there you have it. Everybody can cite examples of things that yank them out of the game experience, and it turns out that psychologists have examined, classified, and isolated a lot of them. This isn’t to say, though, that ALL games should strive to BE immersive. I think games are kind of unique in all media in that this is so. A game can still be a good game without being immersive, and maybe some types of games are better if they AREN’T immersive. But that’s the great thing: game designers have a lot of paths that they can take to good art.

What about you? Do you have any great examples of games or features of games that either create or undermine immersion? What’s the most immersive game you’ve ever played? I’d like to hear about it in the comments section.


1. Which my spellchecker says isn’t actually a word, but you know what? It IS.
2. Wissmath, B, Weibel, D., & Groner, R. (2009). Dubbing or Subtitling? Effects on Spatial Presence, Transportation, Flow, and Enjoyment. Journal of Media Psychology 21 (3), 114-125.
3. Wirth, W., hartmann, T., Bocking, S., Vorderer, P., Klimmt, C., Holger, S., Saari, T., Laarni, J., Ravaja, N., Gouveia, F., Biocca, F., Sacau, A. Jancke, L., Baumgartner, T., & Jancke, P. (2007). A Process Model for the Formation of Spatial Presence Experiences. Media Psychology, 9, 493-525.
4. Tangentially, I don’t think research in this area has really caught up with the whole motion control and how having your movements match the in-game action leads to immersion. Somebody get on that.

179 thoughts on “The Psychology of Immersion in Video Games

  1. One interesting thing I’ve observed about immersion is that it definitely depends on how willing someone is to be immersed. When I operated Meridian 59, a lot of people were turned off by its less than impressive graphics. The funny thing is, once you get into the game and get immersed, the graphics really don’t matter. But, you have to be willing to engage the game to get to that point. It seems that a lot of the fans that already had happy experiences with the game were often much more eager to become immersed.

    Given that I’m an MMO developer, I also wonder how multiplayer works into the equation. I suspect it’s easier to get immersed if you’re around people who are already immersed themselves. Likewise, if you have people who aren’t immersed, it seems reasonable that you’d have a harder time yourself.

    Anyway, interesting stuff as always. 🙂

  2. From the top of my head and my experience as a player, I’d say motion controls can easily backfire in terms of presence.

    As long as everything is working beautifully, the player has no reason to think about the gameness of her actions. It might even benefit her feeling of incorporating the avatar (which is a point where definitions of presence differ a bit).

    On the other hand, as soon as the movements get tedious or the game doesn’t react as expected, the immersion aspect is out of the window more quickly than you can say ProjectNatal. And we all know this happens more than it needs to.

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  4. @Martin I’d say that kind of breakdown, where unresponsive or frustrating controls pull you out of the game, is more related to flow than immersion. Flow is the state in which the interface between you and the game disappears, where you’re not thinking about thte glare on the screen, or which button is the command for ‘reload’, or how much you need to piss. It’s the film and cinema term for ‘being ‘in the zone’, in other words.

    Flow is one of those things a game can use to hook you without being particularly immersive; arcade games rely on it almost exclusively. I wouldn’t say that I find Soul Caliber or DDR particularly immersive, but I can _certainly_ still get ‘sucked in’ to them. From a design standpoint flow can be a double-edged sword, as people _really_ don’t like being pulled out of a flow state. It’s mentally jarring; try interrupting a hardcore arcade gamer sometime!

    Personally, I can still feel immersed in a game with terrible controls (looking at you, X-COM) but I can’t get into a flow state. Its certainly possible to do both, though.

  5. Yeah, in my research for this article I often saw flow studied at the same time as spatial presence. It’s a separate construct, but related in that both it and presence have a lot of the same requirements and outcomes.

  6. Lack of incongruous visual cues in the game world…

    A great example of an old game that pulled this off brilliantly was Dungeon Siege (action RPG) on the PC. Once you loaded your save game you never saw a loading screen until you quit. The world streamed in seamlessly as you travelled through the landscape, with beautiful graded transitions between areas say as a woodland gave way to swamp, or as you climb from a mine into a snowy forest.

    To help get around there were devices that let you fast travel to and from town, but unlike the “town portal” model where a loading screen or animation covers the transition, these devices were in game objects, part of the landscape, and part of the story too. They took the form of platforms which, when stood on, climbed high into the sky, landing in a central hub/nexus. Here were platforms which led in a similar way to various parts of the world . You simply stepped onto the platform of choice and were taken back down to your destination. The effect was to reinforce the sense of a continuous world by removing any sudden, abrupt transitions which would pull out of the game.

    Another interesting example is even older, an RPG called Darkstone. This had loading screen when you entered / left a dungeon etc. but to make it a little less abrupt, the screen had an animation of your character descending / climbing a spiral staircase into the dungeon which played while hte load happened. When finished, it played out the final turn of the stairs, ending with the door to the level.

  7. Edit: We take this kind of thing for granted now in some genres. WoW does very similar things brilliantly with the flying routes etc.

  8. @ Brian ‘Psychochild’ Green

    Pulling chapter 16 from this book, another facet of presence is social presence. Sharing space with other interacting players or characters. NPCs work within social presence as Jamie pointed as long as they conform to believable and consistent behaviours and responsive to the player’s presence and actions. So, I often get turned off in Mass Effect when I shoot around in Citadel Station with not a single responsive NPC.

  9. Interesting write-up on immersion, but I would like to point to some potential problems:

    1) Immersion is generally used to mean two very different things: spatial presence as you describe, and “preoccupation” which is completely orthogonal to spatial presence. When people talk about being immersed, it is rarely clear whether they are referring to one or the other, so your analysis is not necessarily about the experience that players report as “immersion”.

    2) There is something fundamentally wrong with the idea that “incongruous visual cues” break spatial presence – in many cases spatial presence _requires_ incongruous visual cues:

    You mention the example of the boom mic drop in cinema or HUDs in video games – these are good examples, but consider the fact that mainstream cinema is completely packed with incongruous visual cues that scream “this is a movie”: titles, credits, cuts, dissolves, non-diegetic music, the strange presence of the camera, the recognition of famous actors, and so on. None of these seem to reduce spatial presence. A movie without these would come across as experimental and hard-to-comprehend.

    I think it is rather the case that art forms such as cinema or video games continuously signal that they are designed experiences (“this is a film”, “this is a game”), and by doing so in a way that matches the viewer’s expectations, they _thus_ create spatial presence.

    The incongruity you refer to comes not from the presence of visual or other incongruities, but from disappointing the viewer’s understanding of the art form’s conventions – this a completely different matter.

    When you are playing a video game, the same things goes: you feel spatial presence because you understand what is happening, regardless of how whether it is signaled “realistically” or through overlays; because you understand that it is a game that promises a well-known structure, an accessible world and a good chance of success.

    A few years ago, the game The Getaway famously tried to do away with overlays, but players reported that it decreased their immersion because they did not know what was happening…

    • Now this is some insightful commentary. You are clearly an expert in the field and I would like to connect at some point.

    • Great points, I especially agree that incongruous visual cues are central to immersion.. they serve as a definitive framework surrounding a game or film.

      In separating spatial presence from preoccupation, what do you mean by preoccupation? The player’s personal/subjective ability to become immersed in the game world?

  10. Great article Jamie, thanks.

    Your phrasing of “mental resources” clicked into something that can prevent me from becoming immersed: Hype. If I’m tying up mental resources looking forward to something I’ve seen in a trailer or someone talked about that can actually disrupt my enjoyment, odd as that sounds.

    I’m the same with movies, and it’s one of the reasons I’m huge on not being spoiled.

  11. Interesting that you mention in-game advertising. There are many instances where I think advertising actually adds to immersion, such as racing games and sports games, where such advertising commonly exists in the real world.

    But the flip side of that is … just as we have visually tuned out advertising in the real world, we are probably likely to tune out similarly placed advertising in a video game. Driving down the Laguna Seca track in Forza 3 makes me think, “This looks just like Laguna Seca.”

    I’m not thinking, “This looks just like Laguna Seca and I suddenly really, really want to have a Pepsi.”

  12. Immersion is also used quite literally in some computer science domains to refer to how many of your senses are informed by the virtual environment (immersion was a very popular term in the heyday of virtual reality in the 90’s). So, playing a game with a headset on is more immersive than in front of a screen and in turn less immersive than a headseat with positional audio and haptic feedback.

    So watching a movie in Smell-O-Vision ( is more immersive. And if your seat shakes as well, you’re golden. Regardless of what the movie is like. 🙂

  13. Great article Jamie.

    I found Jesper’s comment really interesting as I’d been thinking the same thing with regard to the incongruous cues breaking spatial presence. The key is in “cognitively demanding environments”. If you’re busy piecing together the nonlinear narrative of BioShock while fighting off hoards of enemies, I feel that the thought “Why did these people record their thoughts?” would NEVER enter the mind of an active player. This is the exact kind of thought that we as humans will manufacture after the fact. It’s super easy to point out the various incongruous elements of ANY media, but as long as we’re not forced to do it DURING the participation in media it’s not immersion breaking.

    Message boards that we may be on are a perfect example of this post-hoc identification of immersion breaking elements. Analytical people who care about games will be able to identify tons of these, but any evidence based on recollection of broken immersion is INHERENTLY flawed as you are largely unaware of your own immersion when it is working. We’d have to do some studies on players, watch them for breaks in immersion, and then immediately ask them why it was before there consciousness has too much time to manufacture a post-hoc explanation.

    I do think there are certain types of cues that ARE immersion-breaking in the same way as a boom mic, but none are about displaying needed information. Repetitive visual artifacts such as obviously aliased textures or moire patterns will drop me out, as will low framerate. Weirdly low quality or placeholder art will do the same, a well known pitfall of testing any game in early development.

  14. Great read! These are all just as applicable to virtual worlds as video games.

    One thing I think you missed was choice and permanence. You touched upon it by mentioning Oblivion and how users can interact with almost everything. However, what truly makes Oblivion feel real is that anything done in the game has a permanent effect on the world; if you kill a guard to a town, he or she will never respawn and you will always have that crime in your past. If you topple items on a bookshelf in a house, that will make a mess. If you’ve cleared out a monster cave, people all over the kingdom will recognize your deeds. Now, story helps with some of this – you progress past quests, for instance, and they are now part of the story moving forward. But in open-world games such as Oblivion, Red Dead Redemption, Borderlands, etc – you get much more of the feeling of choice and that your experiences are shaping the world, rather than the world shaping your experience.

    Object and event consequence permanence is a key tenet to interactive, immersive virtual worlds, so perhaps that’s why I notice it.

  15. Very interesting read, thank you! I’ve been playing around with this term in my mind for a while now, as it’s quite a pet peeve of mine to hear it tossed around frequently by some simply for the sake of using it in a conversation with developers, without really knowing what they mean by using it. Your breakdown brings to light some of the core issues of the presentation side of game design, and I find your clarifications very useful.

    @ Mr. Zeigler
    I think you have a fairly strong point. I definitely remember times in games where I was so absolved in the quantity of game information my mind was occupied with that I didn’t notice unusual presence-breaking details until afterwards.

    However, even though this may be a strategy for, say, engineers faced with technical limitations, I think it is a crude and unstable solution for game design. Why? Because of the lasting impression of the player to come back the next hour, day, month, or year and continue playing. If presence-breaking details are covered by causing cognitive exhaustion, it may keep the player immersed until the end of the session, but it also causes the player’s assessment of the game to change once they stop playing and realize (consciously or not) the flaws. This strategy seems to rely more on flow than presence.

    Take the traditional RTS as an example. The first time I play, I may be too busy furiously building units and figuring out what to build next to realize that several species have, for some reason, all decided to try and populate a small island. Or that guns magically appear in a specific type of units’ hands when I research it at some laboratory building without the need to go to that building. Or even that I’m some sort of higher being watching and manipulating my own creations. After I’m done playing, I have a chance to reflect on these things and decide how I feel about them. In my example about researching guns, I personally don’t mind that I don’t have to go pick them up. To me, the suspension of disbelief surrounding magically appearing weapons is not as troublesome as having to bring all my units to a new place for the new guns.

    For this main reason I think that it’s a crude solution to cover up incongruous cues by occupying the player’s mind with a large stream of information, especially in the case of games designed to be played long-term. Some of these cues may serve the game well even after realized by players, while others can hurt their overall appreciation for the game and the likelihood of their return. As a matter of practice, the latter should be eliminated.

  16. The one thing I wish that I could have is my arms. I would probably be playing WoW right now if I could see my arms when zoomed into first person. I love that mode, but it’s really annoying not to have arms or feet and my fireballs just appear out of nowhere.

  17. Probably the game that I found most immersive was Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. I mean, I swear I knew what the stale air of Taris smelled like, how perfect the temperature and light breeze were on Dantooine, and how humid Kashyyyk was. I think the soundtrack played an important role in this–not just the music but the ambient sound effects. It’s that “multiple channels” as you mentioned; walking around on Taris, seeing the horizon and the sky and hearing the city sounds helped me imagine I was really there, and I guess I filled in the missing senses. Between the random bystanders on the street, full voice acting (save for the PC, but I could always imagine my voice for her dialogue), and the 3D graphics (good for its day), the game had sufficiently complete sensory info for me. The story was strong and interesting, and it resonated with me and sucked me in. I do tend to become absorbed in games anyway, but I really got into role-playing my character and had this made-up background imagined for her. I was so into my character that when the big plot twist bomb dropped towards the end of the game, I totally freaked out. It was kind of traumatic.

    KotOR 2 was very similar to KotOR, but I found it a lot less immersive. The one big difference that I blame this on is the way the plot is constructed so that the player only learns slowly, over the course of the game, why the PC is where she is, why she temporarily forgot how to use the Force, what her problem with the Jedi Council is… Basically, I got the impression that my character knew things that I the player didn’t know. That totally killed the role-playing, making my immersion very weak.

    Morrowind had a sort of half immersion for me. Wandering the countryside was immersive, especially since the continent just stretched on and on without load screens (though I don’t think load screens really bother me in terms of immersion–while I might get annoyed by long load screens because they’re a waste of time, as soon as I’m loaded I’m back in the game). The best evidence of this immersion I can give is that whenever a thunderstorm started, I was miserable and wanted to get inside; it felt cold and wet and the lightning and thunder were scary, even though my character was unaffected by rain and couldn’t get struck by lightning. Interacting with the NPCs, however, always disrupted the immersion, because while I could choose topics that I wanted NPCs to talk about, I couldn’t actually say anything myself. It was like my character was this silent being lacking any personality. I guess BioWare games have made me spoiled; I expect to have dialogue options. Without the dialogue to contribute to the role-playing, the immersion was ruined.

    Great post! Very interesting topic, and one many of us gamers find very important and personal.

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  19. Hi Jamie, you might be interested to know that – within the academic community at least – the link between presence and video game immersion has been recognised. However, there are thoughts (e.g. Jennet et al., 2008) that presence is insufficient as a holistic description of involvement with a video game as you can be to some extent, immersed but not ‘present’ (e.g. Tetris) and equally, experience presence but not immersion (e.g. completing a mundane task on Second Life).

  20. Final Fantasy 7 was the first game that completely sucked me in. Every time I do another play through it still does. Every good RPG should be able to do this. On that note, Hope single-handedly killed any kind of presence in Final Fantasy 13.

  21. A quick list of things that ruin immersion for me:

    – Physics destroying game glitches that force a reboot of some kind, such as falling through the ground into a limitless void, getting permanently stuck inside a wall, or having a quest item slide into an unretrievable place

    – Low level NPCs with no collision detection. I hate a town that looks normal until a random guy with no dialogue keeps walking into a wall or won’t move out of my way. I’m delighted when a nobody NPC unexpectedly yells at me to back off.

    – Branching dialogue that forces my character to say something that’s, well, deeply out of character. This often serves to force the plot along, so it happens at times when I’m paying heightened attention anyway. It doesn’t seem to occur with very simple dialogue trees. Games that try for expansiveness get in a trap where everything’s pliable until suddenly it isn’t.

    The way a game behaves after death also has a strong impact on immersion for me. A bad practice would be those games where the camera dramatically swirls around your red soaked avatar, forcing you to fumble through a complex menu screen to continue. A good practice is a game that automatically reboots you at the beginning of the latest fight or zone.

    Good article, thanks!

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  23. Wow, this actually happens in real life? I guess that’s why people get addicted to Warcraft or play themselves to death on Starcraft. (I don’t mean to imply that Blizzard creates death games)

    It’s not something I’ve experienced personally, which is likely a problem with me more than Mental Resistance vs Immersion.

    I’m always aware I’m playing a game and despite reading the article twice I still can’t place it.

    Looking forward to whatever is next, perhaps normality points will be gathered in the future.

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  26. Thanks for all the great comments, everybody. I’ve been traveling and working a bunch so I’m just now getting caught up.

    Yeah, Dungeon Siege was one of the earliest games that did this really well.

  27. @ Jesper Juul
    Re: #1, yeah there are different conceptualizations of immersion and presence. Spatial presence seems most interesting to me and most similar to what most gamers think of as immersion, which is why I focused on it. “Preoccupation” seems like something different to me. I don’t see how it’s much different than “attention.”

    Regarding #2, I agree. There are a lot of things in movies and games that are incongruous with reality and we don’t notice. One study I read hypothesized that having subtitles in a foreign language film would break immersion more than having dubbed dialogue. The hypothesis was not supported, presumably because people are so used to seeing subtitles that they gave them a “pass” and allowed them to fit in with their mental model of the film world. I suspect there are many things (e.g., huds, damage indicators) in games that are the same way, but nobody to my knowledge has studied this.

  28. @Frank Rogan
    Yeah, done well advertising can create immersion because it can complete the picture of what we imagine that game world should be like. Many real-life environments have advertisements. But they don’t have the SAME ad over and over and over again.

  29. Ben Zeigler : any evidence based on recollection of broken immersion is INHERENTLY flawed as you are largely unaware of your own immersion when it is working. We’d have to do some studies on players, watch them for breaks in immersion, and then immediately ask them why it was before there consciousness has too much time to manufacture a post-hoc explanation.

    This is a really interesting point, and probably one that has been addressed by the researchers. I’d have to go and look again at some of the articles I read to see how they did the measurement. You could probably look to other research on different mental states (e.g., flow) to get a clue as to how to best study this.

  30. @Michael Grattan
    Yep, I’d buy that. Many times I finish an area in a game that had frantic pacing and I can’t recall much about the environments. Something more plodding and infused with exploration and tension (e.g., Bioshock, Red Dead Redemption) leaves a greater impression on me and makes me immersed. You need a balance between the two.

  31. @Sam
    Interesting, I’ll look for that article and do some more digging. I’d like to return to the topic some day. But again, what your describing to me sounds like like simple “attention” and not immersion. But that’s the great thing about science: people get to fight about operationalization of terms and the person who shouts the loudest and publishes the most often gets to win. 😉

  32. @ Scott McMillin
    Also a good article –thanks for the link! Some of the stuff in there discussing “dual consciousnesses” sounds similar to what Wirth et al. (the main article I drew from for the OP above)talk about. They discuss how the media user develops a mental model of the mediated environment (game world) and then holds both that and the real world in his/her mind at the same time. Spatial presence happens when you shift your primary reference point for your ego to the mediated world.

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  34. For a rounded discussion of concepts and definitions of “presence” see:, click on tab labelled “about presence”, then “presence defined”.
    I think the key point about presence in artificial environments is that of “elective illusions” – perception isn’t ‘fooled’ as such, but rather goes along with the artificial environment. The other point is that of “internal causal connectedness” – of objects,agents and features (in the artificial environment)- items don’t have to be realistic in the sense of ‘just like the real world’, but do have to be realistic in the sense of ‘just as you would expect of this particular world’. So people do not object to cartoons because they are impoverished and the physics sometimes seems implausible.

  35. Well people talk about unrealistic stuff breaking immersion but it’s often a design choice where fun is preferred over realism. As someone mentioned RTS games and “instantness” of upgrades – that is a good example.

    A game where you have to do stuff like going to building to pick up a better armor or weapon would actually break the immersion for me. Games that pay too much attention seem to lack to have the right flow (at least when I play them).

  36. I’ve been always in love with Max Payne games but i couldn’t find the words to explain why. Thnx for the article: now i that i get the concept of “Spatial Presence” (i guessed it before, but i feared it may sound like total bs to others) i know why stylish movements like the ones from the Max Payne Kung-Fu mods made me choose this series over the others. TPS is really a forgotten genre nowadays with this cover system which leads the player to a single path, denying the freedom of movements.

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  40. Hey Jamie,

    loved the article, love the blog. For me the best thing that can happen in immersion heavy games like Red Dead or Bioshock is when they suprise you; ie When something you didn’t think the game could do happens.

    A clear example would be the twist at the ‘end’ of Portal. Or, a classic example would be in Half Life, where you encounter the creature that responds to noise, rather than usual ‘sight’. It’s these moments of “oh my god, i can’t believe this is happening” that pull me right into the game-world. I wondered what your thoughts were on this- is it a separate idea to immersion, or inherently connected?

    Best of luck from a British fan.

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  45. What an excellent read! I’m referencing your article in a paper I’m writing on The Last Express, a game with (to me) a high amount of spatial presence – it hits all four points you list above, from historical accuracy and strong narrative to characters realistically going about their lives and schedules to the roar of the train underfoot (you can almost feel yourself shaking as you walk along the compartment), despite a relatively low level of interactivity with the game environment and the “impersonal” immersion of playing a PC that has his own set, unalterable identity and no conversation options.

    Another game with great spatial presence is The Walking Dead. As an enthusiast of communication/relationships within games, I am engrossed when conversations and optional responses feel natural. The Walking Dead never left me doubting the importance or authenticity of my responses to conversations with characters. Also as the player, I wasn’t always in control of my surroundings or situation (or my relationships), and that lack of control made the experience feel much more real.

    In contrast, I recently played Mass Effect 3 and found myself “gaming” the game – reaching out for Renegade conversation/action choices not because I felt it was my natural reaction to say or do these things but because I wanted my Renegade level to be higher. That broke spatial presence and reminded me that I was playing a game.

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  49. I enjoyed reading the theoretical background behind immersion in video games and the article also made me think about some examples of my own. I guess it’s different from everyone, but I remember being extremely immersed in Burnout Revenge and Bastion for instance.

    Thanks again for providing a more “academic” response to a long-discussed topic.

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  51. Being able to see the world through your eyes as if you are actually present in the game and in control is I guess an important aspect for immersion too.
    Now putting up some example for this, presence may vary based on the game type like in FPS games use first person view that makes player feel like he is actually in the game on the other hand you can not have first person view in RTS games but having a top view that makes you feel like being the God and in total control of your army.
    IMHO, how the player gets to view the world is as important as having other visual aspects of the world that represent it.

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  55. Most immersive game in the last months imho was The Last of Us, but mostly because I like the setting and characters, and also because it’s completely linear. I gives you almost no way out of the immersion, you cannot dwell on paths of your own.
    Good point on the article is “less immersion does not mean less fun”, as I experienced in GTA5. And sometimes extreme immersion like in Dead Space 1 and 2 is almost too much for me 😉

  56. In order for a game to be immersive it doesn’t necessarily have to be realistic. With or without suspension of disbelief players can be drawn into a game to an extent at which they’re completely oblivious to everything else and fully enveloped within it. Immersive != realistic. Immersion is just a means of pulling a player into the world while maintaining a firm grasp upon their attention. Games that are extremely fun and enjoyable but not the least bit realistic are also very immersive.

  57. Some argue that immersion is the players temporary belief that they are in another world. That would be spatial presence. and some are saying that it is simply how engrossed in the game you are. I’d say that it is a variety of different stimuli that cause Immersion. Realism, Detail, Strong story/Characters, Interactivity, And maybe the most important is player interest. Forza 3 is graphically very impressive, allows complete customization of every aspect of your car, features real locations and allows you to compete against real people. However if you dont like cars you aren’t going to be immersed no matter how real it is. however on the flip side there are other things that could draw you in. for example i have a friend that dispises games with a passion. one day a group of us was playing Mortal Kombat 3 for sega (Nostalgia) and had convinced him to join in. Turned out that all he needed was the competition of other players to become immersed. I think it’s going to be impossible to nail a singular definition of what immersion is because for each person it could be different things that cause it. Not experienced at all as far as psychology goes so if anyone has a term to put to anything im interested to hear it. :p

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  62. Immersion is the main attraction to games for me- to take a vacation from reality to worlds where I slay dragons or battle zombies.
    For me, it’s the little things that make or break. I loved that in Skyrim, the NPCs travel from their homes to their workplaces in the morning, and back home at night. On the other hand, one of the game’s biggest problems were NPCs that were immortal because they were involved in a future quest- you could whack them with a sword for an hour and almost kill them but not quite.
    I really enjoyed Gone Home, but it could have been so much better with the inclusion of some little details. I would have included the occasional sound of a car going by outside, maybe headlights sweeping across the windows. Just the kind of sights and sounds you’re used to when you’re at home in the evening.
    The one thing that really destroys immersion for me is VOIP- the sound of some other gamer’s voice in the middle of things just shouts “THIS IS A VIDEO GAME”.

    • Hmmmm, so many great games to choose from–where does one begin. I guess I’d have to glorify my immersion into the Call of Duty series by starting off with the characteristics that lead to spatial presence. The launch of a grenade comes to mind…the fact that you pull the pin, but your not visually pulling the pin to include the timing of when its launched and the hit or miss. Those facets of the game create a sense of reality for me. The layout of the maps are important characteristics as well. Some maps because of their size or functionality can inhibit my ability to immerse to my full potential. In addition, the objects within the map maybe unrealistic but does not interfer with my spatial presence. The fact that you don’t have complete control over which map you’ll play can also have an impact on the way I play, thus impacting my spatial presence.

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  99. I believe immersion cannot exist in a lot of games, aside from dodgy AI (companions getting in your way, walking off of a cliff, whatever) it’s always the conversations with me.

    Okay so you’re playing as a character, in a linear title and you’re exploring, sneaking/killing your way through the environment and all of a sudden it strips you from all control and turns into a cut scene where the guy you were playing as is no longer you and just some guy who’s motives you only vaguely know talking on your behalf. That breaks my immersion a lot depending on the title I guess, instead you’re watching an interactive movie as part of the audience waiting for the part where you get control.

    Non-linear-ish titles like Fallout allow you to feel 100% immersed. At least with fallout the cut scenes are taken from your perspective, they rarely leave your control. In conversations, you can read your lines when you select your option and even though far fetched, the environment allows you to feel like you’re there. I’d assume it’d be the same with Fallout 4 even with voice acting, but I still feel as if I’m that person more with dialogue options than I would with a character like Joel from the Last of Us.

    My friend is opposite to me, his version of immersion is linear titles where he doesn’t have to make his own choices, he wants to see the characters choice rather than his own, so he’s not really the character at all, just some passenger? I don’t understand that.

    Also bad endings (badly written) makes me lose immersion, it’s even more annoying when it’s a linear title and it only has one outcome.. so your work in getting to that part was all for nothing. (TLoU)

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