The Perks and Pitfalls of Video Game Immersion


How awesome would it be if you could tread massive landscapes, battle dragons with magic and axes, or explore a post-apocalyptic wasteland through the eyes of a survivor?

This is all possible with video games like Minecraft, Fallout, and Skyrim. Now with Virtual Reality just around the corner, the potential for immersion is about to be pushed to the limits. 

Losing yourself in a virtual world sounds all well and good, but is a continual escape into an alternate reality healthy for us?

How VG Immersion Happens

In order to truly immerse into a game world, several things first need to happen, and the current models of video game immersion follow two paths: richness and consistency.


Richness is characterized by a strong, captivating story combined with complete channels of sensory information.

In effect, the world looks like it's supposed to, and it's not missing key pieces, like townspeople in a town or the wheels on a car.


Consistency means the world behaves as expected, and it's relevant, too.

If the game takes place in a historically accurate depiction of 1950's Los Angeles, there shouldn't be hovercars. The cars wouldn't be hovering because of a coding glitch, either.

A game that's missing some of these pieces will leave the player with a lukewarm experience, something like standing halfway in a warm bath.
As time passes, it becomes increasingly more unclear whether they're actually taking a bath or rinsing their feet.
Video games that are intended to be immersive can't only dampen toes - they need to soak the player in those virtual waters.


The Upsides of VG Immersion

Society is pretty fickle when it comes to video games and their players.

One day, games could be praised for ingenuity and creative expression, like in the case of Minecraft, which is now showing up as a learning tool in elementary classrooms. The next day, gamers might be unfairly stereotyped as typical basement-dwelling escapists.  


As Ethan Gilsdorf of Geek Pride puts it, "society still considers gamers to be as introverted, inarticulate, and emotionless as their armored avatars. But negative stereotyping of online gaming isn't fair. And if you delve into these games, you soon realize that MMOs and other computer games can offer something more powerful than escapism. They even change lives." 

Video games do, indeed, have promising benefits.

A recent review of research published in American Psychologist provided evidence that video games can strengthen cognitive skills, spatial navigation, reasoning, memory, and perception.  

Another 2013 study showed that adolescent creativity was enhanced when kids played games, but not when they used other forms of technology, like a computer or a phone.More importantly, the games had relaxation and anti-anxiety effects. 

It's possible, if not highly likely, that the immersive qualities of video games are what make them such great tools of relaxation.

  • Most, if not all humans thrive with an occasional escape from life.

 Time alone is important. It allows critical contemplation to occur, something people tend to do less and less of these days. 

Where some escape with music, or a walk through the park, others turn to their Xbox or Playstation.In Fallout 4, players spend hours exploring a virtual rendering of post-apocalyptic Boston. In World of Warcraft, certain quests require plenty of time to complete. The mind, in solitude, wanders, and solitude such as this can incite self-discovery, inspire deeper thinking, and - interestingly enough - help enhance interpersonal relationships.

  • Video games also help our brains to experience the world vicariously through an avatar.

Unless you're a demolitions specialist, blowing up buildings is generally frowned upon.
However, this is a key part of the city-building simulator SimCity.
And, someone whose always wanted to take part in the Black Dahlia murder investigation can do so with LA Noir. 

Daydreaming mentally prepares us for various situations, such as when we - in our heads - prepare for an upcoming interview or test.
Even moreso, it enhances our creativity and imagination. So too can gaming. 

The Downsides of VG Immersion


There's always a catch, and the immersive nature of video games isn't without its downsides. In extraordinary cases, it can be dangerous.

  • A junior high school student from Tianjin jumped from the top of a 24-story building in 2004, claiming he wanted to join the heroes of his favorite game: World of Warcraft. The investigation concluded he had "excessively indulged in unhealthy games and was addicted to the Internet."
  • The Guardian, in a 2011 piece, followed the story of another World of Warcraft addict. "Playing WoW makes me feel godlike," said Ryan Van Cleave. "I have ultimate control and can do what I want with few real repercussions. The real world makes me feel impotent … a computer malfunction, a sobbing child, a suddenly dead cellphone battery – the littlest hitch in daily living feels profoundly disempowering."

As a gamer myself, I've experienced the positive benefits of an escape into Skyrim, and the relaxation from hours of Minecraft.

Yet, I've suffered the negatives of video game addiction as well (something I explained in my Video Game Addiction article and joked about in My Time in the World of Warcraft). 

I think these examples prove that people whose minds are already susceptible to aberrant or addictive behavior can be consumed by video games. I also wonder whether in the absence of games, these people would find a fix from somewhere else - perhaps drugs or television.

My thoughts are supported by Professor Jackson Toby, a sociologist at Rutgers University, who states:

"I do not believe that the concept of addiction [to Video Games] is useful. It only describes strong temptations; it does not explain strong temptations. I don't believe that someone can be addicted to video games."

We really don't know all the details about video games, though, not yet, and there's still too much uncertainty to say anything with confidence.

Wrapping Up

While it's no secret that too many video games can have consequences, they can also be instruments of relaxation, mind expansion, and self-introspection. They're an escape.

Here's the big question: isn't every form of digital entertainment designed as an escape? Movies and television or a football game, whether on ESPN or EA's Madden 2018?


Of course, now we have the internet to run to as well. 

"...With the Internet and social media,” claims Dr. Elias Aboujaoude, a Stanford psychiatrist, "we can have a ‘full life’ [online] that can be quite removed from our own.”

New York Times writer David Carr also agrees. "I understand why people bury themselves in their phones on elevator rides, on subways and in the queue for coffee, but it has gotten to the point where even our distractions require distractions. No media viewing experience seems complete without a second screen, where we can yammer with our friends on social media or in instant messages about what we are watching."

At the end of the day, we're all escape artists. It all just depends on our personal preferences. 
Perhaps immersive video games are a destructive force, but perhaps they're only one of many evils.

Regardless, I'm gonna keep crafting those pistons and pickaxes anyway.