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Analysis: The Psychology of Immersion in Video Games
Analysis: The Psychology of Immersion in Video Games
August 25, 2010 | By Jamie Madigan

August 25, 2010 | By Jamie Madigan
More: Console/PC, Design

[Game discussion often revolves around "immersion," but what exactly does that mean? Psychologist and gamer Jamie Madigan takes a look for Gamasutra at the complex psychological concepts behind immersion with regard to video games.]

Along with "OMGDUDESOAWESOME," one of the words that gamers like to toss around when describing their favorite titles is "immersive."

But what exactly does that mean? And what makes a game immersive? Ask five people and you'll probably get 10 opinions, but psychologists have been studying immersion in various kinds of media for decades, including video games, 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."

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."

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, like stagecoaches, that make sense within the game, 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 Here it is:


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:

- Players form a representation in their mind of the space or world with which the game is presenting them.
- 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 gobbledy-gook, their "primary ego reference frame")
- 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 necessarily a conscious decision with the prefrontal cortex's stamp of approval on it. It can be 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.


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 Sandler movie while trying to rescue hostages kind of pulls you out of the experience.

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 BioShock'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.


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 willfully 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.


- 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.
- 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. A Process Model for the Formation of Spatial Presence Experiences. Media Psychology, 9, 493-525.

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Maurice Tan
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Very interesting read, especially as I am working on a similar method to study these effects. What I found though was that spatial presence is much more tied to elements that allow the player to feel they are inside the virtual environment/the game world. While immersion can also be seen as something that is tied to how this world is created and things such as how narrative adds to how believable the world is.

I can still be immersed in Mass Effect 2's universe while not feeling very present as I am unable to jump over a ledge. But having realistic interaction with my environment in Heavy Rain adds a feeling to be present there, while the story and world don't make me feel that immersed. Perhaps for design purposes, a separate focus on both presence and immersion is better served? Although they of course interact in forming a general feeling of "being in the world" which can make it hard to distill exactly which part is presence and which part is what is called immersion in the literature.

I'd say things like sensory modality, degree of control, immediacy of control (i.e., no lag between input and on-screen result) such as Dillon et al. discuss in their article The Psychophysiology of Presence (2000) are more related to the feeling of presence as a playable character than what is generally seen as immersion. And for example, being able to identify with your character or NPCs in an RPG for instance, is probably more tied to being immersed in the world than to feelings of spacial presence.


Jasper W
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Good point. Journals of advertisement have been studying these topics for a while now as well. For example, Carrie Heeter (2000) goes more into detail on what you call pressence. In her conclusion she mentions four factors that determine this experience: Embodiment, duration of the interactivity loops, affordances (set of possible actions) and embodiment of others.

Andrew Glisinski
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I'd like to first comment on your idea of a HUD or in-game text-Dialogue breaking up the immersion factor. I agree with this factor with games that require little to no communication. However, I think it's wise to say that a consistent HUD and dialogue can make itself as much of the experience as not having one. We readily accept an RPG or RTS to have consistent bordering screen with the "game world" in the interior. I believe if you keep a consistent rule of how you want your players to interact with your world, then it can be just as immersive.

The one element I think bothers me, is HUD of friends coming on/off line, messages being sent etc. I do not enjoy these "features", as they consistently pull me away from what I am concentrating on. These rules, even though they can be set to be viewed at various intervals and a consistent screen location, they do not have anything to do with the game. A novel idea would be to insert a character or item within the game world, that would act out these frivolous notifications. Would this add to the immersion factor?

I think Maurice Tan makes an interesting point, that various games have motives for their players to become immersed in the universe. Imposing physical limitations is not a bad thing. However, the building of expectations from all these elements - presence and immersion is what is key. The relating factor these NPCs give us, show us the physical realm in which we - for hours - exist. We learn obviously through example, and through this we build our expectations of the "universe" be as vast or little it might be at that time.

In a final thought, I'd like to say that building an "immersive" experience is through choice. Allowing the player to choose X,Y,Z and time, in any given location with a built-up expectation can lead to immersion. As related to your initial point about Red Dead Redemption, stating the rule of the travelling be by wagon or horse, and then sticking to that. Stating that by helping so-so, you will do this, or hurting so-so, you will do that. Keeping these rules consistent is important, but keeping them "obvious" is not. Same with keeping a HUD in plain sight that makes sense is important, ie. the map or radar in a Rockstar-game.

Which ever way you look at it, I still fully agree that you take these elements and mix them with a good story. One that is motivated, impactful and creates an engaging experience. This is definitely the secret to a good story-driven game.

Daniel Tremblay
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Rethinking the HUDs with immersion in mind would probably be better.

Removing the HUD from an RTS would probably make it a mess to figure out. Making it simpler and using the game world to give the information needed by the player would probably work.

Dead space used the protagonist's armor suit to inform players of their health and amo.

Splinter cell conviction's wall Cinematic projections was also a great way to inform the player without breaking the game flow.

scott stevens
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One way a HUD can work well is in a science fiction game, where the HUD is presented as the Heads-Up-Display for your power suit or whatever. In that context, the HUD becomes part and parcel to the immersion experience.

Larry Rosenthal
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immersion begins and ends with an interface when dealing with any mediated experience.

video games are such a niche idea, and its a shame to continually see immersion trapped by the industries dogmatic limits as to value.

Theo Tanaka
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Very interesting. I will try to give you my experience of immersion in Red Dead Redemption (spoilers ahead):

At first, I wasn't that immersed in the Red Dead virtual world. I was just trying to have fun, making myself believe in this world, which was modelled according to all the stereotypes of the western film genre (despite the dialogue. In the beginning I felt as if they talked too much for a western setting, but now I'm more used to it).

At a moment that I was thinking to myself "wait a minute, why am I the lone ranger trying to tie things up in this region? Why any of the good guys ever catch the bandits? They are always so slow, I always have to step in! And John always makes a joke about doing their job". Obviously, I was feeling a little out of place, but a moment in the story made all my suspension of disbelief grow back: the mission where I had to rescue Bonnie.

At first, I was facing it as any other mission. But when we advanced in the enemy territory, and I saw Bonnie hanging, at first I ran to save her so I didn't fail the mission. But as I was running, I was surrounded by enemies, unable to go into cover. I couldn't do anything else but to shoot the bastards, one by one, and I felt like I was a wild animal, taking the shots and returning the favour. I can't remember the last time I felt like a badass in a game, a badass with a purpose. My character was desperate to rescue his friend, and wasn't thinking straight. He didn't have the time for a strategy, he just had to endure the pain, and be stronger than his enemies.

This is an immersion that requires a good story, creating a situation where the player can't think outside the game, he has to do whatever it is at his hands to succeed. In this situation, the player end up becoming the main character, also very valuable for immersion.

Bart Stewart
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These are a great series of articles. Keep 'em coming!

I'd agree that spatial presence is crucial for many gamers to achieve immersion in a gameworld. But I wonder if nearly equal attention needs to be given to logical and emotional presence as well.

Logical presence would be the sense that the systems of the gameworld make sense individually and as a whole supersystem. These would include things like physics/magic, animal/ecosystem behaviors, technologies, and so on. The rules of the gameworld may be different from real-world rules, but that's OK as long as those rules make sense for that world and are implemented consistently.

Emotional presence is about the behavior of people. If their reactions to emotional stimuli don't make sense, that will tend to pop gamers out of the world.

All of these modes, I suspect, are subject to the Uncanny Valley effect. Spatial or logical or emotional expressions that are close to expectations but just slightly off could be more jarring than things that obviously aren't meant to be high-fidelity. That said, different people are likely to be more or less sensitive to variations in the different modes of presence.

Finally, there's this question: "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?"

Answer: workers on a space station, like those on Citadel Station from System Shock, that's who.

The audio log mechanic was a great way to tell a story without the cost of implementing believable NPCs. But NPC rigging and AI have come a long way since 1994 -- maybe it's time to drop the audio log approach to storytelling in System Shock's spiritual successors as no longer immersive enough.

Tim Carter
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People who take a creative approach are the best for game design.

Dustin Chertoff
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I think you are misusing the term spatial presence. The way it is used in the presence literature is not the way you are describing it here. Spatial presence does not refer to how plausible you think a world is. Spatial presence refers to whether you think you are at the virtual (physical) location. Plausibility is a completely separate factor that need not be related to whether you feel you are at the space. It certainly helps to reinforce the idea of being at a location, but they are distinguishable factors.

You can have spatial presence standing in a maze under a mile of water with no oxygen tank or wet suit. If you answered yes to the question "Do you feel that you are at this virtual location?" then you would be spatially present. It doesn't matter if there a narrative, fun tasks, or any of the other things related to what gamers call immersion. Those other factors fall under the auspices of "presence," or a more general term, "holistic experience."

As Bart asks, what about logical or emotional presence (or plausibility/validity and affect, as they are referred to in the literature)? These are all components of a holistic experience. Does the world feel logical? That is, do the rules of the world operate in a way that makes sense? How do I feel when I am in this world? Have I formed any attachments to the world or characters? These are things that go way beyond thinking that I am at a location, and have been experimentally shown to lead to higher presence.

I don't mean to sound like I'm attacking this article, because asides from using the terminology in a way I disagree with, I agree with the actual content and ideas. But I spent 6 years working on a dissertation on this topic, so it's very close to my heart.

I suggest you read the following articles for more information (feel free to contact me if you can't get a hold of them yourself). Treat the user experience in any type of virtual environment as a sum of the parts of the experience. At the end of the day, it is the experience in its entirety that we care about as gamers. Whatever you want to call that experience doesn't rally matter, as long as you remember that experience is more than just a realistic looking location.

These are articles I published.

These are recent articles by Mel Slater, considered one of the experts on presence - just beware that his papers refer mostly to virtual reality, and not virtual environments in general. He's concerned with measuring presence, but I personally don't think it is possible to measure such an abstract concept. At best, we can measure things related to the concept. My 2 cents on that matter...:

M Slater, B Spanlang, D Corominas (2010) Simulating Virtual Environments within Virtual Environments as the Basis for a Psychophysics of Presence ACM Transactions on Graphics (SIGGRAPH) 29: 4. Paper 92

Mel Slater, Pankaj Khanna, Jesper Mortensen, Insu Yu (2009) Visual realism enhances realistic response in an immersive virtual environment. IEEE Comput Graph Appl 29: 3. 76-84 May/Jun

Mel Slater (2009) Place illusion and plausibility can lead to realistic behaviour in immersive virtual environments. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci 364: 1535. 3549-3557 Dec

Patrick Coan
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Thanks for the article. I looked for more information on the "absorption trait" and came across "Flow" through wikipedia. This principal was largely championed by a man Mihály Csíkszentmihályi. He provides insight to this state in a TED talk, tune in to 8:24 for some very worthwhile insight. Especially the amount of information a common person can perceive at one period of time.

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So how do we now measure the immersiveness of a game. Dustin Chertoff's second article above is a good start. However, in his study he only had participants play one game, Mirror's Edge. My lab just finished a study using a variety of games played in the lab

This study separates the immerseability of the player and the immersiveness of the game. The factors of immerseability are (a) susceptibility daydreaming, (b) media such as movies and television, (c) video games, and (d) sports. There are three factors that had to do with abilities to control immersion by (a) dual tasking, (b) focusing attention, and (c) maintaining alertness to the real world. There were four game factors that pertain to positive factors. These were visual presence, audio presence, sensory engagement and sense of control. The last two were negative factors that have to with awareness of the interface and awareness of the world around the game (other people and objects).

The study also compares males and females in terms of factors of immerseability and different games on factors of immerseness. This study only profiles the factors of immerseness of Wii Sports and Call of Duty: Modern Warefare, but the instrument that was developed can potentially profile any game.