Beyond The Graphics: Realism Vs. Immersion In Video Games

The Game Theory Podcast
Episode “Science of Immersion in Video Games”

[audio|titles=The Game Theory Podcast – Science of Immersion in Video Games|loop=yes|animation=no|initialvolume=80] [audio|titles=The Game Theory Podcast – Violence in Video Games with Dr. Chris Ferguson|loop=yes|animation=no|initialvolume=80]

I’ve been meaning to dive deep into the topics of realism, immersion, and video game violence for a while now.  The folks at The Game Theory Podcast dissect these issues very well in these two episodes.    You, the awesome geeks and gamers in our community, have also really started to talk about game mechanics and the psychology of gaming so it’s time to really talk about it.  I’m stoked about the response because this is the heart of what makes the world turn – game mechanics!

Recently we talked about realism in shooters (FPS games) and the surge in realism units.   Obi touched upon the main facet of immersion and realism: graphics.  Your typical gamer will first judge a game by theme and presentation, but I would argue that these alone do not create immersion and realism.

We will continue through the key points here with this in mind:

HD graphics do not guarantee immersion or fun, though they do improve realism.

To me, graphics only serve the purpose of providing an initial hook, much like theme, effective marketing, or good buzz/word of mouth could accomplish.  I am a firm believer that graphics won’t see much innovation within the next decade or so.  Even more importantly, graphics should be judged more on the art style, cohesion in presentation (and storytelling), and overall tone of the experience, not in terms of frame rates and resolution.

The questions we need to ask ourselves should revolve more around replay value, community, and support.  Innovation and fresh new ideas are important as well but, as we’ve seen with indie games, new is not always good.  The next few sections will give provide a game mechanics crash course but, if you are already familiar with game design and the psychology behind it, feel free to skip ahead!

Game Zen or "The Flow Zone"

Basics Of Game Mechanics: Immersion, Realism, And Stickyness


Realism is what we’ve mainly been talking about so let’s tackle that first.  Realism can be defined as a state of simulating or copying real life.  When the world as we know it is translated into a believable digital form, it can be considered realistic but not necessarily immersive.  The more important thing to consider here is that a story-driven video game, much like a good book or movie, should allow us to suspend our disbelief and get lost in a new world (while likely losing track of time).  Thus, good graphics are a significant part but not the major or only factor to consider here.

Immersion is what I think we really think about when we talk about realism.  Immersion is the experience of feeling fully-indulged and perhaps committed.  Simply put, it’s getting lost in an experience. The most immersive video games have dynamic elements such as customization, branching storylines, and personalization.  Immersion can be impersonal or personal; for the latter, think of role-playing games.

Stickyness is similar to immersion but it focuses more on the aspects of game design that keep people coming back.  It’s more about the commitment and lifestyle changes than the actual experience and indulgence itself.  Today, stickyness is usually forced through terrible game mechanics like those we saw in Farmville or Tiny Tower, where game developers act as if you are dedicated to their game only and can set your schedule around it.

We’ll proceed with this discussion with the understanding that we are determining what really matters in what we consider “good games”.  In doing so, we’ll further distinguish immersion from realism and why the foremost is far more important.


Personal & Impersonal Immersion: What About Role-Playing?

One of the easiest ways to design an immersive video game is to make it more personal.  Personalization allows players to see themselves as their digital avatar and feel more fully-vested in the virtual world.   Personal immersion usually involves the main character and his abilities, decisions, and so fort but it can also incorporate story, supporting characters, environments, and so much more.  Traditional Dungeons & Dragons can be considered the most personally immersive experience.

Of course, all the aforementioned does not mean that we as the players cannot identify with a character if we are not pretending to be them.  Impersonal immersion places us in pre-set roles but the immersion comes in the form of the things that remain dynamic.   Even “on-rail” or linear games can be immersive provided the experience sucks us deep into their worlds.

Role-playing games tend to favor personal immersion and the beauty of this approach is that every experience will be unique to each individual player.  On the flip side, we have games like Dragon Age and Mass Effect, where the characters have been chosen for us yet we can easily be immersed in the experience if we enjoy it.  The common thread here is that the details tend to create more realistic and immersive worlds.

What’s interesting is that even fantasy worlds with magic, dragons, and other craziness can be both realistic and immersive.  The trick to creating realism is keeping your facts in check and establishing a believable premise.  In doing so, storytellers and game designers alike can have players see their creation as real, maybe moreso than the real world we live in (just ask the LARPers). Great storytellers know how to keep people hooked long enough to instill a sense of commitment, total “surrender”, or loyalty.


The Fun Quotient: What Does Gabe Zichermann Think?

Gabe is considered to be one of the forefront authorities on game mechanics and what he calls “gameification by design”.  One of his most well-known theories is the fun quotient, which simply states that theme and realism do not matter, games just have to be fun. I agree with this design philosophy but I do feel theme is a much bigger factor than Gabe thinks.

Theme is not only part of the initial draw. Theme is a big part of immersion and stickyness too. This is evident in our choices between otherwise exact games. League of Legends comes to mind for me because I prefer DotA (Defense of the Ancients) and Guardians of Middle-Earth (sometimes Smite too) yet I am constantly drawn back to LoL. The characters are a big draw for me (YAY boobies). Heck, I sometimes even read the lore and get intrigued, even though the experience is by no means story-driven. Every now and then, we strange MOBA/ARTS players find ourselves role-playing, flirting with the digital avatars, and being fully immersed in the characters, even if only for 20 to 60 minutes at a time.

Fun is paramount but I also find that community is a critical component in keeping us addicted to our games of choice. The interaction, both social and objective-driven, make for more fun and immersive experiences. We forget about the food we are cooking, block out nagging wives, and forget our worries. This is not to say that the most fun or immersive experiences have to be multiplayer-focused, but it certainly helps unless maybe you are a total hermit or introvert, which is okay too!

Prioritized Sensory Information & The Impact On Immersion

The gang at The Game Theory podcast touched upon sensory stimulation and prioritization of information. One thing they did not get into really was the way game developers can guide us through the intended experience to distract us from the aspects that may otherwise detract from it. In such a manner, sub-par graphics can be excused if everything else is impressive. A better example exists when we look at boundaries in linear and open world experiences but we will get into that in the next section.

Since we have no smell-o-vision (yet), game developers have to rely on stimulating our senses of sight, hearing, and touch (i.e. force feedback and vibration) to create immersive experiences. Let’s look at a great horror game. While great graphics may help create a more realistic and immersive experience, it’s the sounds that create more tension, despair, and fear. I would say sometimes it is better for things to be left to our imaginations as we can often conjure up far more gruesome or compelling things.

The prioritization of audio is not always the best option but it certainly bolsters immersion. After all, who doesn’t get lost in good music? Tactile response is an aspect that can be improved upon but there are good examples of it out there. Nothing beats total silence and non-events interrupted by a sudden, unexpected vibration jolt. This works great for horror so it’s no wonder we are seeing a surge in survival horror with Slender, Outlast, Day Z, etc.

As I mentioned before, the details lend a lot to immersion. When our senses are stimulated in a deliberate manner, even non-story-driven games benefit. In open world games where exploration is a major focus, lavish worlda with nooks and crannies to explore are a fantastic thing to experience as a gamer.

Quality definitely trumps quantity. I still find Shenmue’s worlds to be as good as, if not better than, anything we have seen in the Elder Scrolls games to date. Almost every detail provides deep interaction and triggers new events. Having a massive world like we see in Skyrim is nice but it can be overwhelming to the point of breaking immersion. Once again, theme helps maintain the illusion of reality and immersion alike. If you enjoy the mythos, you will dig deeper and stick with it longer.

The most interesting thing about prioritized sensory information is that the right balance can make otherwise ho-hum aspects shine.  Back to audio, the right sounds can build us up for visuals that may not otherwise have impact.  When you look at these efforts as a whole, we appreciate the creative aspects individually as well.

Willingness and pre-disposition to certain experiences help improve or detract from immersion.  This places a greater focus on the sensory information because game developers can illicit emotional and psychological responses even when other information does not immerse us enough or, worse, causes disruption.  It’s certainly easier to accept something we are already familiar with or believe in, but immersion goes beyond any individual’s framework for realism or their world views.

With traditional pen-and-paper games, veteran GMs and DMs understand that they can’t force players to do things they are unwilling to do.  The challenge is finding ways to guide players through the experience as they intended it.  They have to seduce their participants or risk having reluctant players that ruin the experience for the rest..  Or just giving up before the good parts start up.  There’s no doubt that a seductive narrative can make it easy to give up our existing realities but I must reiterate that a gripping story is not the only path to achieving deep immersion.

Think about the last memorable game you enjoyed so much you replayed it or logged hundreds of hours in it.  Chances are your memories will all tie into senses.  To this day, I still recall the music from the original Sonic The Hedgehog and I remember that being a huge factor for why I would tune out the world and get lost in the bright colors and hyper-fast action.  Sonic was never a deep game (unless maybe you consider the Adventure games on the Sega Dreamcast) so it brings up some interesting points…

Deadpool loves breaking the fourth wall!

Breaking The Fourth Wall

The term breaking the fourth wall, goes back to the early days of live television and stage performances.  Just picture a stage or TV set where there are three walls.  We are able to look in because there is no physical fourth wall.  The fourth wall is essentially us: the audience, gamers, players, readers, etc.  Video games sometimes try to get cute with tongue-in-cheek antics that bring self-awareness to the gamer within the virtual construct.  This can be entertaining but it kills immersion because we are reminded that essentially all we are doing is killing time or playing pretend, with no direct value being created in the real world (usually).

When characters in a video game are aware that they are in a video game, immersion suffers (though we can forgive Deadpool or Zelda for this) but there are better examples.  Some argue that games with no HUD (Heads-Up Display) are more immersive.   I’d say that is a fair point but it depends on the context.  I definitely feel that the visual assets are far more important than the quality of the graphics.

That may be so but the biggest immersion-breaking gaming trope that comes to mind immediately for me is the tutorial.  The best games find ways to teach you the core mechanics naturally.  Pop-ups and forced tutorials make me want to smash my head against a lawn gnome, just because such an action would probably be more worthwhile.

Another game-breaking trope are the elusive invisible walls we see in so many games.  A good game would find a way to weave the boundaries into the story or guide us through the proper paths and habits.  Game developers should not place a heavy focus on exploration if it is not obvious where you can go and can’t go, or where you should look or shouldn’t.  It’s really quite simple yet this mark is often missed.

More commonly, gamers experience bugs/glitches that are so bad that the game is no longer enjoyable, let alone immersive.  Cumbersome core mechanics are a similar shame.  Clunky controls, wonky movement, repetitive gameplay, and so many other things plague games and prevent us gamers from getting immersed.  All this tells us that anything that breaks the game thus disrupts the experience and ruins immersion.

Now for another concept in game mechanics:

The flow zone or “game zen” is when the perfect balance between challenge and reward is achieved.

Maybe I am just getting old and jaded but I feel games lack proper rewards or other hooks to keep us invested.   Sometimes games are too easy or too hard, which is augmented further by lack of rewards.  Scaling is another major game development pitfall because we as the players are not properly prepared for the shift in challenge.  These things certainly detract from immersion because it’s hard to indulge when we’re too busy huffing and puffing.

Accepting the transparency of the fourth wall further reinforces that we are willing to make certain concessions to enjoy a creative work.  Artists, writers, and game designers are all tasked with the challenge of maintaining the illusion and appealing to our senses.  This is the very essence of immersion: hooking us in and keeping us hooked.  The epitome is when the experience is so good we come back to it in our heads and in conversations..  but that’s for another discussion!

Why Is Violence So Prevalent?

It seems that you can’t talk about realism without violence coming up so let’s talk about that briefly.  The scope of this obviously goes beyond what we’re really getting at here but here’s my main thought on the topic:

While we may complain about the excessive violence in video games, there is no doubt that violence appeals to our hidden, more visceral desires.

I am of the opinion that violence has been over-done in video games yet I still find it satisfying when I am in that dark place where all I seek is blood.  The sad truth is that game developers today still see this as the easiest opportunity to create mass appeal and get gamers hooked.  As long as it works, it will continue to be prevalent.

What’s interesting is that if we had 100% realism in violent video games, it’d be a very exclusive experience.  Imagine if a headshot always resulted in a kill (unlike in Halo or CoD).  Imagine if there were no respawns.  For the average gamer, that does not sound like fun yet I go back to the days of Soldier Of Fortune II: Double Helix.  The “real damage” servers running infiltration play modes were always fun for me, even if I spent a lot of time in spectator mode.  The Ghost Recon, Rainbow Six, and Arma games have always been the most realistic but not to a degree where they sacrifice the fun quotient.

Even on Call of Duty, I prefer Search & Destroy but no one really plays that so I’m relegated to play deathmatch and other terrible modes.  I can’t lie: the violence is gratifying but the fun and immersion is introduced when you go deep with the tactics and teamwork aspects.  Shooters may be stale these days but, when you play with friends on a regular basis, it’s satisfying to know people have your back.  I am intrigued by realism units in Arma II but I worry if the realism may be TOO much…

What are your thoughts on video game violence?  Leave us a voicemail on the GANG Hotline at (206) 415-4987 and we’ll flesh out the core issues further together!


Ghost In The Shell - One of the classic VR/cyberpunk experiences in sexy anime form!

Conclusion:  Virtual Reality, Simulations, And True Immersion

With all the talks about Sony’s Project Morpheus and Facebook buying the Oculus Rift, some gamers are hoping that virtual reality will finally be here to stay.  I personally feel it would be nice to have another way to enhance and experience video games but I don’t see the need for VR to come in and improve realism.  VR comes with a strong promise behind it.  We are hoping that we will have truly immersive experiences but, as we already revealed, if the core mechanics are lacking and features feel tacked on, immersion is disrupted and inhibited.

Alongside RPGs, simulation games provide a genre that lends to deeper immersion but I would argue that not every simulator is immersive or realistic for the same aforementioned reasons.  I’d say that realism may be served in high doses but that does not guarantee deep immersion.  Ultimately, games have to be fun for us to log in the hours and consider them true escapisms or alternate realities.

Wrapping up my diatribe before HorsePLAY! LIVE starts up in a few minutes, I believe true immersion does not require realism or high-end specs.  It always boils down to the little details and core mechanics that make a game fun and allow us to surrender ourselves to the experience.  We can definitely talk about this further so, before I go off on more tangents, leave us some comments and we’ll keep the conversation going.  See you guys on the ObioneX2 Twitch Channel!