The Building Blocks of Total Immersion

Analysing the Immersive Experience by Shahid bin Abdul Nasheer

“Research on gaming has examined the assumption of a strong relationship between immersion and gameplay experience, such that immersion is intertwined with gameplay experience- either through a conceptual overlap or a strong, positive and linear relationship” — Liljedahl

Developments in the genre of immersive theatre as a result of the current explorations in the realm of interactive gaming and technology, particularly interest me as both a young theatre-maker and an avid gamer. I feel that theatre-makers can benefit from borrowing existing knowledge from game designers, given that both mediums deal with engagement with an audience member or player.

Immersion and interactivity go hand in hand. Successful companies that churn out acclaimed immersive performances “uses interactivity to enable, and guide the audience towards immersive experience.” (Biggin 68)

Further analysis into the developing field of game design leads me to concepts like Game Rhetoric by Aki Järvinen. Who claims that “Player experience as a whole, can in fact, be seen as a communicative situation between the game system and the player(s), and there is also non-verbal communication involved, such as facial and bodily expressions.” (Järvinen 41)

Operatively, this encapsulates the idea that games can be an example of a created experience where immersion and interactivity work hand in hand with nuanced and varied forms of expression.

“The development of Virtual Reality (VR) technologies is moving into the mainstream and merging gaming with immersive theatre experiences (Wise).” Computer- aided head-mounted displays and VR have seen an extensive and diverse usage since the 1980s and 1990s (Rogers 136). However, with the release of Sony’s PlayStation VR headset in 2016, alongside the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive, this marked ‘the first time that these kinds of devices, capable of delivering immersive VR experiences, are going to make it to consumers’ living rooms’ (Roettgers 30).

The distinction between gaming and immersive performance are starting to blur as more game researchers are looking at designing immersive experiences with the human body serving as the bridge between us and the game, where the traditional handheld controller used to be. This new realm of immersive gaming shares many similarities with immersive theatre on a conceptual level; engagement of the audience in an activity, transportation of the audience to an ‘other-worldly’ world, and that the audience drives the performance, not much different from other immersive performances (Alston 17).

As the creative possibilities for this genre of theatre develop, I ask myself, how do I tell if the immersive performance I just watched was a good one? Rather than quantifying the level of immersion in an immersive performance, I wish to discuss and analyse the application of immersive concepts across different media that work in conjunction with one another to form the immersive experience. Assuming Total Immersion (TI) to be the maximum level of immersion an audience member can experience (Warren 13), I wish to discuss the intricacies and aspirations behind the concepts that I have chosen to form my scale of Total Immersion and their application in performance.

TI is not unique to Immersive Theatre. It is a concept borrowed from game theory, and it is the highest achievable level of immersive experiences. Game design terminology phrases it as complete involvement in the game (Streitz 144). However, when it comes to immersive theatre as a genre, TI, as mentioned above, is not a subset of the style, but a goal that immersive theatre makers can strive towards when creating performances that aim for “maximum” audience immersion (Warren 13).

I view TI as the final step in an immersive experience, where all employed immersive concepts work together seamlessly to produce an experience that captivates you physically, cognitively and emotionally. However, the literature of how different immersive concepts intertwine in game design is limited. “Indeed, only a few studies have truly investigated immersion’s contribution (if any) to the gameplay experience.” (Liljedahl 1) Fewer still have been done that analyse the relationship between immersion and gameplay relative to the definition of TI that I am working with: the highest achievable level of immersive experiences.

TI can be achieved by marrying sensory, challenge-based and imaginative immersion. Sensory immersion refers to the digital environment or landscape created by the game that offers realistic audio-visual representation, while at the same time being able to trigger the player to recognise their participation in the game. Challenge-based immersion is more straightforward in the sense that it deals with the challenges put forth by the game, and the player’s ability to solve them. Imaginative immersion refers to the emotional involvement or participation of the player throughout the game (Ermi 21). These immersive elements form a guideline that enables Total Immersion cognitively and emotionally.

By attention, I am explicitly referring to the audience’s willingness to concentrate, a critical immersive concept as, “It seems the demand for attention is greater in engrossing and totally immersive games compared to engaging games.” (Brown 1298) Narrative and imaginative immersion manifest as a combination of immersive elements “in such a way that the gamer’s emotions are directly affected by the experience.”

This final tier in my scale of TI is not the point at which a performance theoretically achieves TI, but rather the highest level of emotional, physical and cognitive investment required from the audience. “This investment makes people want to keep playing and can lead to people feeling emotionally drained when they stop playing. The game becomes the most important part of the gamers’ attention and their emotions are directly affected by the game.” (Brown 1299)

In many ways, this research has opened more questions than it can currently answer. For example, do the pre-existing expectations and experiences with similar immersive performances determine the immersive experience, and to what degree? How much does the situational context affect the way these performances are experienced? Furthermore, what are the exact interrelationships and relative importance of the immersive elements included in this scale of TI.

I conclude this thesis with a quote from my thesis supervisor, Dr Felipe Cervera, in one of his many enlightening lectures. “In research, when new knowledge is created, new horizons into the unknown and unexplored are opened up.”

Thank you for reading.

Article was written by Shahid bin Abdul Nasheer
as part of his Honours Dissertation submitted in part fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Bachelor of Arts (Honours) Acting.

@thesparklyman

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