"C'mere, stay": Immersion as Immergence, Pervasion, and Abeyance

Curator's Note

When I was first invited to curate an In Media Res theme week, "immersion" seemed like a reasonable focalizer--deep engagement is something media of all kinds are capable of producing, and certainly something the week's contributors play with in unique and diverse ways in their respective critical and creative work. I figured the term was not only broad enough to encompass collaborative learning networks (Bryan Carter), computer-based pedagogies (Ryan Moeller), digital performance art (Marcel O'Gorman), and computer games (Ken McAllister), but also serve as a genus of sorts for the various instruments media scholars typically use to describe how people connect intimately and complexly with expressive agents (e.g., flow, suture, identification,interpellation, articulation, interactivity, and so on).

The problem with "immersion," though--and one that perhaps works against what I'd initially hoped the term would do for this week--is that it signifies what seem like contradictory (or at least contiguous) states. On the one hand, immersion denotes the idea of envelopment, of being completely and inescapably surrounded. That's certainly what the opening sequence of Bioshock (depicted in the clip) works hard to do: attend to the player's sensorium by appearing everywhere, aurally as well as visually (and kinaesthetically too in the game itself). On the other hand, immersion can also be expressly agential, sometimes violently so, involving thrusting something into something else as in hot metal into cold water or cold hands into a hot bath. Bioshock does this too (as the clip shows), unceremoniously submerging the player under water and into the game world. So, "immersion" conjures both the ubiquity of being surrounded and the act of achieving that state--arguably two very different phenomena in the kinds of meanings they produce and enable.

More contradictory still is the fact that immersion is both voluntary and forced, the thrill that can also become terror. It's thus always agential, however an experience only truly becomes immersive when the participant's agency is partly taken away. This is the beauty of a roller coaster--agency all the way to the point when the brakes release and the chain lift engages. It's also the beauty of the media this week's contributors study and make, media that demonstrate the many ways immersion is invoked but also kept at bay by menus, HUDs, load screens, notifications, cinematics, and other sights, sounds, stories, and technologies that both facilitate and intercede in the mediumic experience.


Interesting clip...when we think of immersion as being immersed into an environment vs. being immersed into a person or both, we come up with sometimes contradictory ideas...immersion into an environment, into a somewhat believable situation plays with our persona to the point where often shocking, violent scenes need to take place to elicit our fear response to save the "Alt" that we have become...but it's still in a sense a "game"...an unbelievable situation that manifests itself through the environment itself...

When we take fear out of the equation, immersion is lessened...in a "game"... A virtual world, however is different, because many of our "real-life" colleagues are there, represented in various forms but believable on a totally different level...is fear present...no...can gaming exist...most certainly...within a virtual world...anything can happen and it's very close to experiencing the "real"...

Bryan Carter, Ph.D.
Associate Professor, English
University of Central Missouri
AIM: bcrx7
MSN: bc69@graffiti.net (not for email)
Yahoo: hannibal697 (not for email)
Skype: bcmini753
Second Life: Bryan Mnemonic
SkypeIn: 660-675-5027

I was struck by your comment, Judd, that immersion "signifies what seems like contradictory (or at least contiguous) states." As is often the case, the tastiest morsels come in the smallest bundles--in this case, your parenthetical remark. You're right: ordinarily, we think about immersion as a fait accompli, whether it's with roller coasters, new jobs, computer games, VR environments, or heated arguments with loved ones. But immersion isn't instantaneous. It is, as you say, contiguous.


The ultimate potency of an immersive experience is determined, I think, by the experience one has while transitioning into it. If it happens too slowly, it's easy to bring the outside world along for the ride: What should I be doing instead of this? What would my friends say if they saw me here? I should have saved that twenty bucks for gas.


If it happens too quickly, it's easy to deploy defensive mechanisms that will spare you from the more injurious aspects of the immersive experience: I hate this! This is boring! That's totally unrealistic!


But if the lead-in is well executed--that is, if the contiguos components of the immersive experience are thoughtfully arranged--the immersion can be pure, total, and voluntary. This works just as well for joy as fear, comedy as for tragedy. And this isn't just a case of the sizzle selling the steak. Rather, with good immersion the sizzle is the steak--or at least an integral part of it. Moreover, it's not just the experiences that lead up to the actual immersion, but also the ones that follow from it; indeed, these are the ones that help make a memorable experience actually rememberable.


So, yeah--contiguity is right on. It's the queueing up. It's the getting seated. It's the ride manager's safety lecture. It's the ride. It's disembarkation. And it's the purchase of the picture of yourself hanging upside and your billfold falling past your face.


The contiguous states that comprise such dramas have everything to do with how the core experience--the one that everyone talks about while forgetting all the peripheral work--is ultimately recollected.



i wish that i had read this comment before putting my curator's note together for tomorrow's post, because it captures the intense, yet ephemeral characteristics of immersion:

The contiguous states that comprise such dramas have everything to do with how the core experience--the one that everyone talks about while forgetting all the peripheral work--is ultimately recollected.

rethinking immersion as a series of dramatic events accounts for much more than what might have held my attention while riding the roller coaster or playing the game. such a view calls into question the players' experiences, the designers' intentions, the manufacturer's product, and the advertiser's pitch. all this labor is often recollected as a singular experience, but it is much more accurately recollected as a series of dramas.

Thanks for the excellent discussion topic and clip, Judd. I’d like to pick up on Ken’s point about the staged moments of transition into a game environment.


I agree that an effectively affective introduction of/into a ludic space whets our appetite(s) for gameplay (priming us to want to act in particular ways), and ought to be considered an integral component of broader immersion strategies.  Additionally, some games also use these introductory moments to rationalize and justify future gamer actions. One powerful example that leaps to mind is the opening cut scene from Call of Duty: World at War (2008) [see: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1FjiBIvr1Mc]. Here, the player is first treated to a slick presentation that mixes color and B&W WWII archival footage with stylistic graphics.  Next, the player is positioned in the bound, digital body of Private Miller, who is a captured and soon-to-be tortured American GI. And, finally, once Sgt. Roebuck (voiced by 24’s Kiefer Sutherland – who we all know knows something about torture) saves Miller from certain death, the player is handed a helmet and gun, as the Japanese camp erupts into a firefight. These three moments of immersion – the nouveau-newsreel, the introduction to the gamer’s first avatar, and the specific FPS gameplay conventions and mechanics (e.g., HUD, guns) – move the player from the general to the specific. The newsreel provides the player with impersonal, historical reasons for picking up arms, while the grisly torture/murder scene gives the player personal motivation.  (BTW, I’m also struck by the final word of Ken’s response – “recollected” – as it seems especially apt for games like Call of Duty or Bioshock whose immersion strategies are integrally linked to their historical fictions or fictional histories.)  To extend Ken’s (tasty) steak metaphor, then, the “sizzle” of immergence whets our appetites for the forthcoming gameplay, and signals that particular generic expectations will be met.  Additionally, however, affective game introduction sizzle can also make the case vis-à-vis these tiered moments of immersion that the forthcoming action is an ethical, noble, and even pleasurable practice. 


-- Matt


Matthew Thomas Payne
PhD Candidate / Asst. Instructor
1 University Station A0800
Austin, TX 78712-0108

mattpayne [at] mail.utexas.edu


i think that this is a great discussion, too. interestingly, i was struck by one of your parenthetical statements, matt, about kiefer sutherland knowing something about torture. i was struck by this comment because of recent publicity surrounding a united nations panel on human rights hosted by whoopi goldberg and featuring the executive producers and cast members from battlestar gallactica. it is interesting to note how similar this is to the actor who sells medication in a commercial because she plays a doctor on t-v.


immersion is powerful, and when it is instructive (or even historically fictive, as you say), it is also ethical.

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