Four categories for meaningful discussion
of immersion in video games
Mata Haggis-Burridge, PhD
Professor of Creative and Entertainment Games
Breda University of Applied Sciences (BUas), The Netherlands
The term ‘immersion’ is used frequently by professional video game developers
(in both the entertainment and serious/applied industries), academics,
journalists, and players. However, this word can refer to a range of different
modes of engagement for players and standardisation would improve discussion
of the topic. This paper suggests and explains four categories:
• Systems immersion can be used to describe when players are deeply
engaged with the mechanics, challenges, and rules of a game, and is
similar to a state of ‘flow’
• Spatial immersion is the sense of a player being present in, or
transported to, the virtual world, and is linked to the concept of
• Empathic/social immersion describes the connection that a player may
develop towards the characters (AI or human) and the social context of a
• Narrative/sequential immersion can be used to describe a player’s
compulsion to see how a sequence of events continues, typically in a
narrative, but this is related to any progression, such as exploring new
spaces or evolving gameplay mechanics.
A high level of
the systems and
processes in the
game, related to
A sense of
‘presence’ in a
feeling of being
in that place, or
the characters or
social context of a
A deep and compelling
investment in the
progression of events,
abilities. The focus here
will typically be ‘what
All types are likely to be non-discreet, with close relationships and overlaps of game-
elements that contribute to (or subtract from) multiple forms of immersion.
TABLE 1: THE FOUR CATEGORIES OF IMMERSION.
Immersion, video games, gameplay, entertainment, serious games, applied games,
commercial, systems, spatial, empathic, social, narrative, sequential, addiction, violence,
VR, AR, research, open access, flow, presence, embodiment, community.
NOTE: This paper is Open Access, and has features that are intended to improve the
readability. It includes bibliographic or complementary web-links to articles to make it
easier for readers to continue exploring the topics and references. Footnotes are used to
allow the reader to see sources without excessive scrolling, as well as a standard
bibliography at the end. Paragraphs are broken more often than is typical in academic
papers and it uses the Verdana font to make it easier to read from a screen. It is written
for online distribution with the goal of easing dissemination and increasing the rapidity of
academic discussion. It uses semi-formal writing to keep the content accessible to many
levels of academia and broadly across society.
This paper builds on work previously presented at the following conferences:
Interactive Pasts 2 http://interactivepasts.com/the-interactive-pasts-conference-2/
The ability to stimulate ‘immersion’ is one of the most noted characteristics of
video games, but there are many definitions of this term. Toby Gard, one of the
creators of the Tomb Raider franchise, argues that ‘the power to immerse the
player […] is the common attribute of the greatest and most successful games.’1
Gard believes that the narrative consistency of the virtual world is the primary
influence on how immersive a game is, e.g. if a virtual temple has no space for
worshippers it would make the game less immersive because it does not meet
players’ intuitive expectations of places for worship.
In academic studies, assumptions about immersion can be linked to the type of
game, the player’s perspective, or the interactivity of the world. Weger and
other researchers report that ‘[participants played] an immersive game in which
they played through the eyes of a virtual character (an avatar), by travelling
through a landscape and manipulating the environment at their discretion.’2
Here, unlike for Gard, the sense of immersion does not come from contextual-
narrative consistency, but instead the writers argue it is heightened by
controlling an avatar using a first-person perspective.
Other studies list immersion in a game’s virtual space as a component of many
other factors that make games compelling. Steinkuehler and fellow researchers
argue that ‘individuals play MMOs for a sense of achievement, a sense of
immersion in another world, in order to socialize, in order to escape, to feel part
of a group, because they like analyzing the game mechanics, and because they
enjoy the competition’3 (based on previous work by Nick Yee4). In this use of
1 Gard, T. (2010, May 7). Action Adventure Level Design: Kung Fu Zombie Killer. Retrieved April 15, 2020, from
2 Weger, U. W., Loughnan, S., Sharma, D., & Gonidis, L. (2015). Virtually compliant: Immersive video gaming
increases conformity to false computer judgments. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 22(4), 1111–1116.
3 Steinkuehler C. A., Williams, D., Where Everybody Knows Your (Screen) Name: Online Games as “Third
Places”, Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, Volume 11, Issue 4, 1 July 2006, Pages 885–909,
4 Yee, N. (2006). The Daedalus Project. Retrieved 15 April 2020 from
immersion, there is greater emphasis on the sense of presence in the virtual
world, regardless of perspective.
Immersion is also not unambiguously positive. While it does benefit the player’s
experience of the game, it has also been associated with negative social
outcomes: ‘a couple who were immersed in an on-line game ignored their 30
month old daughter to the point where she starved to death.’5 This tragic event
is arguably due to ‘addiction’ rather than ‘immersion’, but immersion can be a
factor in addiction to video games. The writers chose to frame immersion as the
source of the behaviour rather than, for example, social conditions such as
poverty, inequality, education, drug use, access to health and social care, or
other elements that may have been involved and that are known to contribute to
addiction and the resulting neglect.
For multiple reasons, ‘immersion’ has become a problematically ambiguous term
when used without further context. When attempting to discuss this subject with
professional game developers, academics, journalists, and players, I have found
four categories of immersion allow a more meaningful discussion to take place.
The four categories are systems immersion, spatial immersion, empathic/social
immersion, and narrative/sequential immersion.
Systems immersion is when a player is highly engaged with the decision-making
activities and rules of the game. For example, a Pac-Man6 player is unlikely to
feel like they are a dot-eating-disc in a haunted maze, but their mind and body
may nonetheless react strongly to the systemic progression of play. While this
example focuses of fast-paced gameplay, slower and strategic games can be
equally involving for some players, as the balance of rules wholly occupies their
thoughts. This form of immersion is closely analogous to Mihaly
5 Bavelier, D., Green, C. S., Han, D. H., Renshaw, P. F., Merzenich, M. M., & Gentile, D. A. (2011). Brains on
video games. Nature reviews. Neuroscience, 12(12), 763–768. https://doi.org/10.1038/nrn3135
6 Namco. (1980). Pac-Man. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pac-Man
Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of ‘flow’,7 where happiness is achieved from a
pleasing progression of in-game challenge versus player-mastery.
Spatial immersion refers to a player’s sense of presence in a virtual space. If a
player feels like they are in a location, or have experienced being there, then
they are discussing spatial immersion. The visual quality of a game is likely to be
important at stimulating this form of immersion, but it will not be the only
factor: a player may gain a huge sense of spatial immersion from a 2D maze
game, and many players experienced a real stomach-churning feeling from early
3D spaces such as Stunt Car Racer8 that only used basic lines or blocks of colour
to show the racetrack, but 3D spaces with a high sense of realism or cinematic
visuals are likely to stimulate a sense of transportation to the virtual space for
more players than less visually impressive virtual worlds. This taste for visual
excellence is likely to increase over time as players come to expect higher-
fidelity graphics as standard, resulting in less-detailed and lower-framerate
worlds consequently appearing more artificial.
Virtual Reality (VR) benefits greatly from its intuitive head-mounted interface
because this can give an almost effortless sense of spatial immersion, unlike
standard 2D displays (i.e. television screens, monitors, smartphones, etc.)
where the player is likely to need a higher degree of familiarity with the interface
to experience a sense of spatial immersion in the virtual world.
When a player feels strong spatial immersion, they will often lose or lower their
awareness of their physical surroundings and/or body. This is a common aspect
of all forms of immersion, but it appears likely that it will be stronger for spatial
immersion, although further research is needed.
Lowering a player’s physical spatial awareness may have beneficial properties
relating to relaxation, recontextualization of traumatic events, virtual holidays,
pain/stress relief, etc. There are also potential negative consequences of
7 Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2002). Flow: the classic work on how to achieve happiness. London: Rider.
8 Crammond, G. (1989). Stunt Car Racer. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stunt_Car_Racer
lowering physical awareness, particularly while moving and/or in public spaces.
These risks will in particular be greater for players from groups where existing
social problems can be amplified by reduced awareness of their physical
environment, such as for women and/or marginalised communities.
Spatial immersion also is most likely to stimulate a sense of embodiment in the
virtual world, because the player feels like they are transported to that space,
but embodiment could also be linked to efficacy in the world, i.e. the player’s
ability to influence the game’s systems to get the result that they desire, which
would be more closely related to systems immersion. Research into stimulating a
sense of embodiment will likely reveal multiple entwined factors that influence
how much a player feels like they are inside a game’s virtual world/system and
which categories of immersion are most useful for discussing embodiment.
Empathic/social immersion is the player’s connection with the personal and
social context of the game. Stuart, while discussing immersion, argues ‘the best
games help us to build immersive emotional reactions through subtle human
clues’.9 These bonds may be formed with a non-player character (‘NPC’) or with
other players that participate in the game. This can be triggered live, i.e. while
both or all players are in the game together, but also asynchronously, i.e. after
one or more of the players have left but reminders of their former presence exist
in the game.
Personal feelings of connection to the game’s NPCs, human characters, and
general society may be stimulated by events that are in-character for the game,
such as a character that dies after fighting alongside the player for many quests,
but they can also be stimulated by a sense of social connection that is facilitated
by the game, such as a guild of players in a fantasy game that regularly meet in
the virtual space and bond based their physical-world personalities and lives
rather than engaging with the game’s fictional setting. These in-game
connections with personalities and social systems can build a sense of
9 Stuart, K. (2010, August 11). What do we mean when we call a game 'immersive'? Retrieved April 15, 2020,
community that stimulates either empathic immersion, social immersion, or
both. This sense of friendship and community can be a powerful driving force
that compels players to continue playing a game, and can have both positive
and negative physical life outcomes.
Narrative/sequential immersion comes from a player’s desire to see the next
step in a sequence. Typically, this will be driven by traditional story-based
events revolving around physical and/or emotional conflicts, but this can also be
applied to seeing progressive ability upgrades for a character, or travelling
through a region of a game and wishing to find the next area to explore.
In the latter case, there is a sense that the narrative is built through the
ordering of events as they are perceived by the player, rather than necessarily
through explicit pre-scripting by game developers, but the impact on the player
can still be an identical compulsion and level of engagement. Although it is
easiest to observe in narrative-driven games, this category of immersion is a
factor in the success of most video game genres, from action-adventure through
to football simulations and farming games.
It should be highlighted that all of these forms of engagement will overlap, but
there is not a set ratio between them: a player could complete exploration of a
game’s world and still feel spatial immersion without the need for exploration-
derived sequential immersion; a game could have a blank-slate protagonist but
still have very high sense of systems immersion, such as may be seen in classic
first-person shooter games like Doom10; or a virtual space that has a convincing
and consistent sense of the people who live there, such as in the game Gone
Home,11 will provide both a sense of empathic/social immersion and a strong
sense of spatial immersion. In this last example, empathic immersion is felt even
without other characters ever physically manifesting in the game because the
10 id Software. (1993, December 10), Doom. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doom_(1993_video_game)
11 Fullbright Company, The. (2013, August 15), Gone Home. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gone_Home
emotional bond forms through a player’s reading of social cues, but these US-
centric cues may make its appeal vary globally.
It is hard to imagine a game, particularly if it has been successful, having only
one type of immersion as a part of its appeal. It is likely that the majority of
successful games and individual gameplay mechanics address different types of
immersion at different times, and that they balance their types of immersion to
create a pleasing overall effect for a large number of players.
When game developers create a game, they must balance factors such as visual
fidelity, intuitiveness of interactions, cost efficiency, and more. Each choice will
impact on the different categories of immersion, and it may be beneficial for
developers to consider how they maintain a balance between the categories, or
indeed if they wish to. For example, some developers may choose to entirely
ignore deliberate stimulation of empathic/social immersion (such as by making a
wholly or largely abstract game) and prioritise the systems immersion. Players
may still find their own empathic/social link to the game, but this will likely be
more individual per player than for a game where the development team made
significant efforts to stimulate empathic/social immersion.
In 2016, the game development company ‘Sassybot’ and I released a game
called Fragments of Him.12 While making this, we focused entirely on maximising
the empathic/social and narrative/sequential immersion of the game. Due to
this, we deliberately chose to minimise gameplay mechanics that would block or
distract the player, so we removed many of the systems that would typically
feature in games such as puzzles, combat, high scores, timers, or fail-states.13
This resulted in a game that, for some players, was highly immersive in the
desired categories and as a result also very impactful regarding the narrative’s
topic of coping with grief.14
Although developers can prioritise specific categories of immersion, different
players can experience different forms of immersion from the same content.
12 Sassybot, & Haggis-Burridge, M. (2016, May 3). Fragments of Him.
13 Haggis-Burridge, M. (2016, August 16). Narrative Experience First: Interaction Design in 'Fragments of Him'.
Retrieved April 17, 2020, from https://www.gdcvault.com/play/1023839/Narrative-Experience-First-
14 Frank, A. (2016, May 5). Fragments of Him offered me catharsis after the shock of losing someone. Retrieved
April 15, 2020, from https://www.polygon.com/2016/5/5/11601720/fragments-of-him-grief
Some players may find the shooting mechanics and driving in Grand Theft Auto
V15 stimulates systems immersion, others find the physical believability of the
city stimulates spatial immersion most strongly for them, and others may find
the storyline is highly engaging and so feel narrative/sequential immersion most
strongly. Some players may either enjoy the company of the game’s lead
characters or find them repulsive, correspondingly raising or lowering their
In a high-budget game, such as Grand Theft Auto V, this broad appeal across
multiple forms of immersion was almost certainly intentional, even if the
developers used different terminology while making it. As a single game, it can
appeal to many different types of players and has had enormous success due to
this. Games with an open-world setting, where players are free to explore the
environment through non-linear paths, deliberately target multiple types of
gameplay to keep players engaged with their world and, as a result, the
spreading of activities across multiple categories of immersion is a core part of
the business strategy of many large entertainment companies.
The Grand Theft Auto series of games have been a focus of controversy
regarding problematic content in video games due to their potential for showing
extreme acts of virtual violence. The categories of immersion give us a
meaningful tool to discuss how different players may experience these gameplay
Many players will play Grand Theft Auto V with an approach that prioritises
systems immersion. This allows them to see in-game representations of humans
as components of fictional systems rather than as real people. Other players
may feel a strong sense of social immersion in the game and take sadistic
pleasure from the virtual violence. From an external perspective both sets of
players may appear to be behaving in the same way in the game, but there is a
radical and important difference in how they are engaging with the actions they
are taking. For the first groups of players, the game may be a healthy way to
relax and blow off steam without harming anyone in the real world, including
themselves, but for the latter group it could potentially aggravate or heighten an
15 Rockstar Games. (2013, September 17), Grand Theft Auto V.
unhealthy sociopathy. The nuances of how the same game may be pro-social for
some and anti-social for others is beyond the scope of this paper, but future
research may wish to consider categorising forms of immersion as a tool for
exploring and discussing the relationship between games, players, and society.
Like genres of books or films, some game genres will possess more intrinsically
appealing themes or gameplay styles for different players. This will impact on
their ability to feel immersed in the game. A player that enjoys systems
immersion in first-person shooters may not feel engaged if the narrative setting
of the game is unappealing, even if the mechanics of the game match their
preference. Likewise, two games set in the same fictional universe will not result
in equal narrative immersion for a player if the gameplay mechanics of the
games are radically different in their level of appeal to that person. Some
players will have a preference for games that prioritise one category of
immersion, almost regardless of other aspects of the game.
The appeal of different categories of immersion is likely to vary between
individuals based on personal tastes, but there may also be gender, age,
identity, responsibility, or other cultural and social conditions that underpin
wider demographic preferences. Further research on how to study and
understand immersion individually and in a social context would be necessary to
understand these factors more clearly.
While these four categories are individually useful for discussion, they operate
together to form a network of immersive effects. This network creates what a
player experiences as immersion and plays a significant role in relation to their
enjoyment of the game; it could even be argued that this network of immersion
is the primary source of pleasure derived from playing video games. To say
something is ‘immersive’ is to say that the network is operating successfully for
the player, but it does not clarify how the network is achieving that result unless
a more granular set of terms, such as these four categories, is used.
There are interesting borders in video games where the discussion of immersion
using these categories becomes difficult. For example, do Augmented Reality
(AR) games automatically have spatial immersion because the player is
experiencing a virtual overlay on their physical space? I do not think so, because
the question is whether the player is immersed in the space of the game, and if
the game’s AR world is not compelling or does not adequately integrate with the
physical world then it is unlikely to be spatially immersive. AR in 2020, when this
paper is written, has barriers from the hardware that may lower all categories of
immersion, but games such as ‘Pokémon Go’16 show that AR can already place a
pervasive layer of somewhat spatially immersive gameplay over physical
environments. Future studies and games may reveal mechanics and viewing
methods for AR that specifically heighten spatial immersion.
A similar difficult topic can also be found when considering virtual games played
with participants in the same room. If the player is physically in the same space,
how does this impact on the empathic/social immersion with the game? Arguably
the ‘magic circle’17 of the game has extended into the physical world and a form
of empathic/social immersion will be present, but this is another subject that
could be debated beyond the scope of this paper.
Beyond the time spent in-game, there can be consideration of the meta-game
space, i.e. the way that the player relates to the game’s activities outside of core
gameplay, or when its influence extends beyond the time spent playing and into
other parts of a person’s life, such as discussing it with friends or making fan art.
Arguably this is also a form of empathic/social immersion, but this may be too
large a stretch for this categorisation system and other terms will be better at
describing this, e.g. parasocial relationships.
Video games have become a significant medium for entertainment, art, and
education. As an example of this, the World Health Organisation has recognised
their impact on society by categorising ‘gaming disorder’ as a health threat
during 2019 and then stating that games can also beneficial during the COVID-
16 Niantic. (2016, July 6), Pokémon Go. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pok%C3%A9mon_Go
17 Stenros, J. (2014). In Defence of a Magic Circle: The Social, Mental and Cultural Boundaries of Play. Retrieved
April 15, 2020, from https://doi.org/10.26503/todigra.v1i2.10
19 epidemic of 2020.18 Given this importance, it is useful to agree on the
meaning of common terms such as ‘immersion’ to avoid confusion, both in public
discussions and at the level of policy makers.
The four categories of immersion discussed in this paper were developed during
a decade of teaching and two decades of game development. There will likely be
other useful terms for discussing immersion, but these four have provided a
meaningful lens for my own professional work as a consultant, game developer,
researcher, and educator. I hope they will be of use to game developers,
academics, journalists, policy makers, and players who wish to discuss video
games in a way that reflects the diversity of actions and experiences that games
Bavelier, D., Green, C. S., Han, D. H., Renshaw, P. F., Merzenich, M. M., &
Gentile, D. A. (2011). Brains on video games. Nature reviews. Neuroscience,
12(12), 763–768. https://doi.org/10.1038/nrn3135
Crammond, G. (1989). Stunt Car Racer.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2002). Flow: the classic work on how to achieve
happiness. London: Rider.
Frank, A. (2016, May 5). Fragments of Him offered me catharsis after the shock
of losing someone. Retrieved April 15, 2020, from
Fullbright Company, The. (2013, August 15), Gone Home.
18 Moné, B. (2020, April 2). The WHO is recommending video games as an effective way to stop the spread of
COVID-19, one year after adding 'gaming disorder' to its list of addictive behaviors. Retrieved April 16, 2020,
Gard, T. (2010, May 7). Action Adventure Level Design: Kung Fu Zombie Killer.
Retrieved April 15, 2020, from
Haggis-Burridge, M. (2016, August 16). Narrative Experience First: Interaction
Design in 'Fragments of Him'. Retrieved April 17, 2020, from
id Software. (1993, December 10), Doom.
Moné, B. (2020, April 2). The WHO is recommending video games as an
effective way to stop the spread of COVID-19, one year after adding 'gaming
disorder' to its list of addictive behaviors. Retrieved April 16, 2020, from
Namco. (1980). Pac-Man. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pac-Man
Niantic. (2016, July 6), Pokémon Go.
Rockstar Games. (2013, September 17), Grand Theft Auto V.
Sassybot, & Haggis-Burridge, M. (2016, May 3). Fragments of Him.
Steinkuehler C. A., Williams, D., Where Everybody Knows Your (Screen) Name:
Online Games as “Third Places”, Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication,
Volume 11, Issue 4, 1 July 2006, Pages 885–909,
Stenros, J. (2014). In Defence of a Magic Circle: The Social, Mental and Cultural
Boundaries of Play. Retrieved April 15, 2020, from
Stuart, K. (2010, August 11). What do we mean when we call a game
'immersive'? Retrieved April 15, 2020, from
Weger, U. W., Loughnan, S., Sharma, D., & Gonidis, L. (2015). Virtually
compliant: Immersive video gaming increases conformity to false computer
judgments. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 22(4), 1111–1116.
Yee, N. (2006). The Daedalus Project. Retrieved 15 April 2020 from