What is the immersive fallacy?
How can video games be confused for reality when its players view them as escapism and freedom from reality? In their book Rules of Play, scholars Katie Salen Tekinbaş and Eric Zimmerman argue that there are significant flaws in our understanding of video games and what exactly constitutes immersion.
The idea video game players can reach a state where they forget they are playing a game is a common misconception. Salen and Zimmerman call this the “immersive fallacy.” That is, the idea that players believe their gaming “reality is so complete…that the player truly believes that he or she is part of an imaginary world” is false.
Instead Salen and Zimmerman say players are “well-aware of the artificiality of the play situation.” In fact, this artificiality is one of the things that makes games so entertaining.
Let’s take an example.
In this scene from Battlefield 1 (2016), a first-person shooter is set during the First World War and player action and interaction shifts between several roles. Players start by driving a tank and firing at enemies, but when the tank gets stuck in mud an enemy attack at close quarters quickly follows.
Ominous, indistinct music begins as the player is trapped in the tank, but the sounds of gunshots overwhelm the action. Soon, however, the character is deafened by a gunshot. Ambient noise of weapon fire is silenced to reveal underlying music featuring trumpet and trombone flares, giving it a militaristic feel.
The player releases a messenger pigeon, and a shift of character occurs. Keenly aware of this shift because the style of gameplay completely changes, the player’s role is now to fly the pigeon to its destination, seeing the world literally from a bird’s-eye view.
The style of the music also shifts significantly, morphing from a claustrophobic, dark atmosphere (in the tank) with percussive gun hammering and low-register brass and strings to a calm, serene piano melody for the bird flight.
The bird is oblivious to anything but its destination. The clear, simple harmonies of the music during flight suggest it is revelling in its freedom. Once again, the atmosphere is in stark contrast to the men trapped below. When the bird lands, the music returns to its previous ominous brass swells and more chaotic rhythm.
Battlefield 1 is often called an immersive game by its players, but an understanding of immersion that relies on players believing that the game is reality would imply that players identify as First World War-era soldiers. In such a situation, the shift to a bird’s eye view would be jarring and would break the gamer’s sense of immersion.
My students observed the dramatic shift of music immediately upon becoming the bird, an observation also made by players online. This musical contrast — the softer, more tonal music and the shift to a brighter sky — heightens the sense of peace during flight. The contrast with the dark tank environment further reinforces the sense of otherness that being the bird entails.
Salen and Zimmerman explain that “players always know that they are playing,” and are therefore free to move among the different roles. Players embrace this flexibility and can come in and out “of moments of immersion, breaking the player and character frames.”
In other words, players are completely aware that they’re playing within a fictional world, and that this fiction can provide experiences and viewpoints not possible in real life. The shift of viewpoint and complete unexpectedness of playing as a bird in the middle of a wargame is a flexibility that makes the pigeon scene extremely effective, creating the dramatic contrasts that boost our emotional response to this part of the game.
Players know their games are not reality
It’s not surprising the general public is confused about immersion. Even gamers don’t really have a consistent understanding of what “immersion” means, partly because they use the word in two different ways.
Anecdotally, gamers often use the term to refer to the depth and level of detail of the game world, but colloquially it’s also used to refer to how addicting a game is. This ambiguity is also brought up in a 2008 study in the International Journal of Human-Computer Studies that examines how exactly to measure immersion.
Players might describe how they were “totally immersed” in a rousing game of Tetris, but this hardly means they believe they exist in a universe where four-unit blocks might crush them at any point while accompanied by a Russian folk song, for example.
Gamers talk about Skyrim as having an immersive game world, with its own politics, religions and even literature (reading the books you find in Skyrim is surprisingly entertaining). But part of the appeal of Skyrim are the unique features of that game world: The ability to cast spells, treasure hunt and play as non-human races.
The players’ questing is made easier by the text menus that they regularly access to complete most actions in the game. The constant visual presence of the menus on the screen is a clear and regular reminder that this definitely isn’t reality.
As my students and I have been exploring the interaction of game plot, visuals and music over the last few weeks, I’ve become increasingly convinced that it’s actually the escape from reality that creates effective gameplay. And as Salen and Zimmerman argue: “The many-layered state of mind that occurs during play is something to be celebrated, not repressed….”
Much like a good book or movie provides the framework for a world to give the audience a unique viewpoint, games provide a frame for the imagination, while still remaining firmly fictional.