Immersion: when you stop paying attention

It is with significant trepidation that I lay out what I think may be a comprehensive, if terribly general, definition of ‘immersion’. In all honesty I am willing to be convinced that I am wrong, so if you have comments please don’t hesitate to speak up. That said, as Emily Care Boss so rightly said, the topic is something of a tar baby. Let’s try to keep the discussion as civil as possible.

Let’s start things off with a definition, which I hope makes sense on its own, but which I plan to explain with the balance of the article:

A participant is immersed in an activity when his or her participation is not consciously mediated or filtered.

Utilizing this definition means that one can immerse in all sorts of experiences. I admit that this definition is, perhaps, dangerously broad as it permits one to immerse not only in things like books and films, but also to immerse in things like chess and basketball. Still, I do believe that this definition is accurate, and despite its generality, useful.

First, I think it may be necessary to demonstrate that the immersion that many people enjoy in roleplaying is fundamentally the same immersion that people experience with more passive forms of media such as film.

I believe that most of us are familiar with being so drawn into some passive media (like a book or television show) that we sort of lose track of time and our surroundings. We sit back and simply absorb whatever it is. I believe that one of the things that this sort of unfiltered engagement entails is that we, well, do not filter it. At least not actively.

I believe that this is relatively common in films viewed at the theater. There is social pressure to be silent, and this often results in a disengagement of the critical faculties. This is by no means a long-term disengagement. It has been my experience that post-viewing discussions are extremely common. You know the ones, where you stand (or sit) around and critically examine what you have just seen.

While this sort of experience seems to be rather common in passive media, roleplaying adds a twist. It is an active form of entertainment. It is not enough to simply sit back and absorb the media, one must be able to provide input. Immersion in these circumstances is a bit more difficult because it requires that the participant be able to provide input without engaging conscious mental filters.

This is not to say that participants must provide input that is unfiltered, but rather that the filters are not conscious. The question of, ‘How would the character react?’ or ‘What is the best direction to take the story?’ are never voiced, even within the participant’s head.

But the filtiers exist, and the questions are answered. It is simply done at the level of the subconscious, at some sort of intuitive level. I believe that in many ways immersive techniques act as muscle memory does for physical activities. You do not have to think ‘left foot, right foot’ in order to walk, you just do.

And this is where the divergence occurs. Since, for the most part, people do not consciously or actively train in immersive techniques, they are generally limited to those that they are already disposed toward based on previous experience.

It is worth noting that this would also explain a number of things that people bring up when they discuss immersion: The ability to immerse in different aspects of play is there. Some people have an intuitive grasp of character, and thus are easily able to immerse in it; some people have an intuitive grasp of plot or story, and thus immerse there. It also explains why people immerse better using mechanics that are familiar (whether due to the fact that they are used to the system, or the system is similar to one they are used to). People have had time to internalize the mechanics that they have been using, and thus do not have to think about the decisions involved.

One of the most interesting implications of all this is that one can learn to immerse better. One can learn to immerse in unfamiliar systems, or in aspects of play that they have not immersed in before. We should be able to develop methods of teaching immersion, and doing so systematically. And that makes me pretty excited.

Next week: are mechanics anti-immersive?


18 Responses to “Immersion: when you stop paying attention”

  1. Mo says:

    Immersion is a lot of things to a lot of people. I think there’s a lot in the bag and it’s not all even related to each other. The above is *nothing like* what I am saying when I use the term. That may mean that in the end, I don’t get to own the term, I don’t know, but I thought that I would put my hand up to say this does not resonate with me.

    My participation is consciously mediated and filtered, and is in no way like the way I interact with other media.

  2. Nicolas Crost says:

    To me, this definition sounds a lot like psychological “flow” (the wikipedia article is quite all right: Which would mean, that, when people talk about immersion in roleplaying, they are simply saying that they are experiencing flow doing roleplaying.

    Don’t get me wrong: I think this makes for a great definition, since it means, that we can use the flow model and try to apply it to roleplaying. It would also explain, why immersion means very different things to different people, since immersion in character, story (and basketball) would be possible (as you have already noted).

    Thomas, what do you think of this? Would you describe immersion as a slightly altered state of mind (with focussed attention, reduced sense of conscious self…)?

    Greetings from Germany

  3. Vaxalon says:

    Wow, this is surprising.

    I look forward to your future posts on Immersion, Mo… after reading this comment and “Intro to Immersion 101″ I look forward to your future posts on the topic, so that I can understand what you mean by Immersion better.

  4. Vaxalon says:

    I don’t know if Thomas agrees with it, but it sounds good to me.

  5. Thomas Robertson says:


    Interesting… I’m not going to ask you to expand much, since I’m sure this’ll come up in our interview, but just to clarify: You’re saying that thinking at a meta level (or acting at such a level) is unrelated to your ability to immerse, right? Or at least that while they may often be linked, they are not linked necessarily. That is, not only does handling OOC stuff not prevent you from immersing, it doesn’t reduce your level of immersion either?

    I ask because that’s pretty alien to the way I’ve always experienced what I’ve always called ‘immersion’. It’s always possible that we’re just talking about different things, but I like the idea that we’re talking about different aspects of the same thing and it’s just a very odd thing. Then again, I’m avowedly a bit crazy.


  6. Thomas Robertson says:


    Yes, I’m thinking something that is very much like flow here. However, I think there’s a special application with roleplaying due to a number of factors (interaction with fiction, creative endeavor, social interaction), and that it is in this unique interaction found in roleplaying that things get interesting.


  7. Mo says:

    Hi Thomas,

    It depends on what I’m being asked to handle. Reflecting about my character, about my character’s place in the world or in the story doesn’t but being asked to think about or address other things like resource management, or what we’re going to do for dinner does.

  8. Mo says:

    Heh. So do I. I’ve been meaning to get back to them for some time.

    One of the reason I stopped is because the whole “101″ thing originally meant as a little tongue in cheek. I was intending to explain to anti-immersives why “we” are not dysfunctional. I was pretty new to the blogsphere, and much of my exposure to it was third hand, through a non-immersive player (Brand). Then I got some comments, and people pointed me at old threads and I did some reading, and realized that I couldn’t teach the 101 because what I, and the people I know were doing was not necessarily the same as what other self-identified immersives in the community were doing.

  9. Keran says:

    You’ve about persuaded me to drop the term ‘immersion’ unless I’m talking to other former r.g.f.advocates: we used to mean something specific by it. A term that can mean any sort of settling in to go with the flow is so nonspecific I can’t think of anything useful I could say about it. I’m probably going to return to calling it deep IC (which is what we were calling it before Sarah Kahn proposed immersion). That at least suggests the direction I’m heading in.

  10. Thomas Robertson says:


    Thanks for dropping by. Could you expand a bit on what you’re thinking of when you use the term (either ‘immersion’ or ‘deep IC’)? Is it sort of like a flow state but exclusively in relation to character, or is it something else entirely?

    As much as anything, I want to understand what it is that other people mean by the term, especially when it’s so radically different from what I usually mean…


  11. Ian Burton-Oakes says:

    I thought ‘flow’ as soon as I read the post, but I think Mo picks up something fairly important that is also good for flow and misleadingly elided in the title ‘when you stop paying attention.’

    Flow states are all about attention and are profoundly conscious–it is just that ‘in the flow’ your consciousness gets very pointed, very attached to whatever is the object of your attention. It doesn’t have to mean ‘I am the character’ only that ‘I am all about the character (or setting, or story, whatever).’ I think getting that on the table helps us avoid what I see as the worst strawmen of this discussion.

  12. Thomas Robertson says:


    Yeah, I’m beginning to think that the subtitle is terribly misleading. I’m going to try to put a clarifying article together for tomorrow. Basically: I think that in immersion you think differently ‘less ‘meta’ So to speak. We’ll see if it makes sense tomorrow.


  13. Ian Burton-Oakes says:

    If we start getting into a robust discussion of flow in rpg’s, I think we’ll get pretty far from ‘any settling in to go with the flow’ if for no other reason than the psychological term ‘flow’ is not primarily ‘going with the flow’ but being the flow, in it and of it. It is specific and specifiable.

    I always like the athletic examples of flow–a basketball player in a flow state isn’t ‘going with the flow,’ she’s interacting with it very intensely. She’s observing it, moving into it, regulating it.

    Which is why it’s great that Thomas highlights different sorts of immersion. We can talk very well about a family of immersion experiences (rpg related), tracking both their identity with and their differentiation from each other. Where does the individual get that sort of attention going? Where do they have to leave it to get a hold of things? How do they experience that attention during immersion? What sort of value do they ascribe to it?

    What you call deep IC may be meaningfully compared to story immersion, for example, where the comparison informs our ideas of both.

  14. [...] I had a piece on mechanics and immersion and how they interact lined up, but I feel that my post last week was actively confusing. So I’m pushing the mechanics piece back to next week, and trying to clarify what I mean by ‘unfiltered’ and why it is significant. [...]

  15. Keran says:

    Well, by now you’ve heard my conversation on the subject with Mo, but for the sake of clarity — by immersion I mean a state in which I am thinking of things from the character’s perspective, and feeling what the character feels emotionally. I have internalized the character model to the point where I am not consciously deciding how the character reacts; rather, I experience how the character reacts. My determinations are made on a subconscious level; I don’t consciously make choices for the character. It is flow if you like, but flow of a particular sort, not simple absorption in the story, say.

  16. Sarah says:

    I am *really* late to this conversation, so I don’t know if Keran will ever see this, but…

    Oh my God, did I really coin the term ‘immersion?’ Really? I had no idea!

    Okay, now I feel an obscure desire to apologize to the world as a whole for creating a tar baby. Er…how does “Deep IC” sound as an alternative?

  17. Keran says:

    Hi, Sarah! Long time no see. I thought it was you, but when I looked back at the archives, it may have been Kevin Hardwick. At least I think he’s the one who floated the proposal to call it immersion instead of deep IC.

    I’m back to deep IC because at least forty people aren’t trying to redefine deep IC as a flow state not unlike being absorbed in a movie, or some such thing.

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