Immersion in video games – How does it work?

August 28, 2018 — by Manish "Trigger-Happy" Rajesh0



Immersion in video games – How does it work?

August 28, 2018 — by Manish "Trigger-Happy" Rajesh0

When describing games we often use the term “immersive” to describe them. We toss that term around a lot actually. But what exactly does the term mean? We all seem to have a general idea of the term, but if we were to go into the specifics, it seems like the term immersion has different meanings for different people.

Dragon Age: Origins is a fantastic example of rich storytelling and amazing world building. Also a game one would
describe as “immersive”.

Okay, so us common folk can’t quite put a pin on the term. What about the pros? We’re not talking about pro players, we mean researchers and psychologists. Well, turns out, they have put a pin on it. And they don’t even call it immersion, they call it “presence”. “Spatial presence” to be exact. That’s pretty lame actually. We’ve gone from “immersion” to “presence”, really?

What is Immersion or Spatial Presence?

So according to the pros, Spatial Presence happens when contents of the media are perceived as real. The users of the media get the feeling of actually being located in the mediated environment. Spatially present in that environment. Get it?

Simply put, a game creates spatial presence when the player feels like he’s in the game.

Researchers have also added that there are factors that are taken into consideration, both in the game and by the players that affects how players experience the immersion. Furthermore, players immersed in the game tend to enjoy it more. Duh. We already knew that one “pros”.

Okay, so we know what it’s officially called, and we kind of have an idea of what it does. How does it work? There’s been quite a few ideas around that and even one particular theory that has attempted to explain the workings of “presence”.

Theory of Spatial Presence

Well, there have been multiple theories about this actually. We’re just going to touch on one. That would be Werner Wirth’s theory (Werner Wirth, really? Sounds like a Marvel character). His theory sort of took everything they had so far on “immersion” and they (Werner Wirth and his team) came up with a unified megatheory if you will.

The world of the Witcher provides us with plenty of cues and lore to build a mental world.

Most of the theory was too complicated for us to comprehend, BUT, we do have the gist of it, at least the parts that are relevant to us.

According to the megatheory, spatial presence or “immersion” happens in three steps.

  1. Players form a representation of the world a game represents within their mind.
  2. Next, they use that representation in their minds as a point of reference for where they themselves “are”. In psychological terms, this is called their “primary ego reference frame”.
  3. The third part isn’t even a step, it’s just a “voila!”, you’ve successfully experienced immersion. Conditions apply. *ahem* IF you successfully went through the first two steps, that is.

What does this mean? Let’s look into each step.

The first step is where you create the game world in your head. This happens when you simply look around in the game world, cues presented by the game itself, like images, sounds, standout stuff really.

Once you’ve somewhat recreated this game world in your head, you, as the player, either consciously or subconsciously, decide whether you’re in that world or the real world. This is the weird part really, because according to the pros, immersion doesn’t really have to be a conscious decision all the time. It could be, but it could just as much happen accidentally, or sneakily, or just ease you into it, or whateverwhichway.

How exactly our minds actually perform these steps is something researchers are constantly studying, but it’s honestly not in our realm of understanding. So we’ll just leave it to the pros. We’re sure they’ll dumb it down for us when they figure it out.

So we’ve *kind of* looked at how immersion supposedly happens. What about the factors that influence it?

Factors that lead to Spatial Presence

Game characteristics

We’re talking about immersion in games, so obviously, the game itself plays an important role in how we perceive it. There are two groups or categories that come into play with games, the first is the elements in the game that help the player create a rich model of the game in their head. You know, like we talked about in the previous section, step 1. The second category or group deals with connecting the dots, or consistency in things you see/experience in the environment.


The “richness” of a game can be contributed to by several factors. This can include the number of senses through which you can experience the game. In most cases it’s just seeing and hearing, which is why VR is supposedly more immersive, thanks to you being able to experience the game with more senses. Many games have tried different methods in the past to help increase the effectiveness of a single sense, such as 3D glasses for vision, or 3D surround for sound (which actually works and is actively used in games like PUBG) to indulge our senses even more in-game.

It’s also important that the information you’re receiving in the game is “complete”. This basically means that there shouldn’t be inconsistencies in the game which might leave blanks in the mental model of the game the player creates in their head. Basically, if you’re visiting a town, it’d definitely be more immersive if the town had people hustling and bustling in it vs an empty town with no explanation for the player as to why.

The guards are infamous for having extremely poor eyesight and being unable to swim.. among other things.

Next you’ve got the game’s environment – is it plain or does it entice the player in any way? Are there things that stand out, make the player curious etc. While traversing from point A to point B, are there moments where the player might have to use mental resources? If yes, then this is a good thing. If they’re trying to figure out how best to reach point B from point A, they’re not focusing on other inconsistencies that might exist in the game. Plus one for immersion.

Then, of course, is the plot of the game. A strong story or narrative goes a long way in helping increase the richness of a game. You can’t underestimate how powerful a rich and strong storyline is. Consider the fact that this is all a book has in order to create spatial presence for readers, and they’ve successfully managed to do so. And of course books count, spatial presence or immersion applies to pretty much all forms of media.


“Consistency” is basically what helps you maintain the whole mental world you’ve created in your head. Simply put, a lack of consistency breaks the immersion. Naturally, if you see something that shouldn’t be there, it makes the entire experience around that element less believable.

Suppose you’re playing on Steam (let’s be honest, most of us are), getting a notification pop up from a friend in the middle of the game (jk, we have no friends), that’s inconsistent. Similarly, tutorial messages, damage numbers, health bars, it’s not consistent when it comes to immersion. These aren’t things you’d ever come across in the real world. This is why games that supposedly offer the best immersion don’t have heads-up-displays or health bars or pop-up messages of any kind on them. However, if the game comes up with a way to make it believable, like, for example a HUD in a futuristic game, then we can kind of make sense of it, and consistency in the game is maintained.

A HUD (Heads-up-display) is believable in a game like Mass Effect.

Next in consistency we have behavior – how objects, characters, things, etc in the game world behave, and do they behave appropriately according to the situation? This one is a no-brainer. Odd behavior can immediately break immersion, at least for us. Interactivity in the game world, how the player uses objects within the game world, the physics in the game (this technically falls under the “Richness” category tbh) how the NPCs react to the player under different circumstances, general experimentation that players might do when put in a new world. Results here could also affect player immersion.

Consistently being present in the game world also helps. What we mean here is, if you’re going about your way and suddenly come across a loading screen, well, that’s immersion broken. As an example, quick travelling as opposed to actually travelling there yourself via transportation available in the game? Immersion breaking. However, this is an action that’s in the player’s hands. Which we’re going to tackle next. We’re sure there are more ways in which games factor into immersion, but we’re hoping we’ve covered the important stuff.

Player Characteristics

That’s right, YOU! You have a role to play in how immersed you get into a game as well. This kind of means you can affect how much you enjoy a game. As the pros put it, some people just have more spatial ability. This basically means that some people simply have a trait that helps them get immersed better. They’re able to more easily create mental worlds than others around them.


How actively you participate in a game also matters. If you, as the player, actively put yourself in the game, you are creating an “I am there” hypothesis yourself. Doing so allows players to more strongly confirm factors that affirm their presence in the game, and ignore stuff that doesn’t make sense to an extent. You know, like how you can get shot multiple times in a game and shake it off like nothing happened in a few seconds.

A player’s ability to draw parallels between the game’s world and their own life also affects how immersed they can get. Furthermore, if they can actively make changes to the world it can also result in greater immersion. This is basically implying RPGs are generally more immersive than other genres.


Now you kind of know what immersion or “spatial presence” is, and you kind of know how it works. It’s a lot of “kind ofs”, we know, but it’s good enough. You could probably impress a friend or two with this info. Anyway, we shouldn’t forget that games are a rather unique media form, and there’s so many different types and genres. Games don’t have to be immersive in order to be good. Sometimes, immersion might even be detrimental to a game. Additionally, the degree and type of immersion you experience also matters significantly on the platform you’re playing a game on – smartphones, PC, console, VR etc. But ultimately, what matters is now we know a little more than where we started off from and that’s progress.



Manish "Trigger-Happy" Rajesh

If he's not gaming, he's... no wait he's always gaming.

Leave a Reply