Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Skyrim // The Psychology of Spatial Immersion

There has been a long history of people being drawn into games as a pastime in modern society one might call this a lifestyle. People who participate in this lifestyle are usually given the title gamer. Playing video games is very common these days, almost everyone I know plays them. It is no longer an obscure hobby that is seen to be what it was twenty years ago.

This medium is at its apex in terms of norms or social acceptance. One might ask why it's so popular or why gaming is such an tedious hobby that it could be described as a lifestyle on its own. It's simple: video games are designed for pleasure and with pleasure one can certainly lose track of time with it. In my experiences I usually blame this loss of time on something about the game that draws me in: immersion.

  • What exactly is Immersion?

Feelings of immersion can be present in almost every medium, but what exactly makes something 'immersive'? What does it mean to be immersive?

In essence immersion is the state of being deeply engagedinvolved, or absorbed. That definition being established it's safe to assume that there are various ways one can be engaged (etcetera) through the concept of immersion, especially with a popular medium such as video games.

Psychologists and researchers have identified and categorized the types of immersion as well as how immersion is experienced within books, cinema and even video-games for decades

Earnest W. Adams (2004), author and consultant on game design, separates and outlines immersion into three categories: strategic, tactical, and narrative.

Strategic Immersion: Strategic immersion is associated with mental challenge. Players of Chess experience this type of immersion when choosing a correct solution among a vast array of possibilities.

Dude this game is so immersive

Tactical Immersion: Tactical immersion is experienced when faced with tactile operations that involve and require skill. This type of immersion is very physical and immediate, survivability is more valued than strategy. Usually rhythm games utelize this type of immersion. Tactical immersion should not include any strategy and should be fast paced to get players "in the zone".

Yay Joy Division!

Narrative Immersion: Narrative immersion is experienced when a player is invested in the story aspect. It's similar to what is experienced while reading a book or watching a film. It's also generally common that a player ignore game play flaws if they are invested into the story.

Your dark-side is showing James.

These three types of immersion are very prevalent in video games. Similar to Adam's outlining, Staffan Björk and Jussi Holopainen (2004) in Patterns In Game Design also categorized immersion in similar ways except they referred to the three categories above as as sensory-motoric immersion (tactical),cognitive immersion (strategic) and emotional immersion (narrative).  In addition to these they add another category that they identify is also a type of immersion within video games: Spatial Immersion
  • Spatial Immersion

The theory of "spatial presence" commonly referred to by psychologists like Dr. Wissmath happens when “media contents are perceived as ‘real’ in the sense that media users experience a sensation of being spatially located in the mediated environment.” (Wissmath et. al, 2009, pg. 116).

Based on Wissmath's definition it's safe to assume that spatial immersion (or rather 'Spatial Presence' as some psychologists would say) in video games is experienced when a player feels that the virtual world presented is so stimulating and almost photo realistic that it's perceptually convincing
This type immersion would brings feelings that he or she is really "there" and that a simulated world looks and feels "real". 

Does it feel real? I think.
  • Skyrim and Spatial Immersion
Skyrim is a game I found to have prevalent qualities that facilitate spatial immersion. Although it's common for me to be hunched over for hours playing games Skyrim has an allure that makes me seem to really forget the time. I find myself (and many others) so easily consumed by this title.

Having this said let's have a look at what characteristic and elements Skyrim boasts to facilitate spatial presence: 

A cognitively demanding environment:  Whenever playing Skyrim you're faced with so many different things to perceive and attend to. You're scanning for threats, looking for treasure, and sometimes the correct pathway. 
A whoooole new worrrld.

On a personal note I feel that when wearing fancy headphones during a Skyrim session actually improves this cognitive demand. While I was wearing them I was so sensitive to the sound that I could hear the footsteps of a sabre cat stalking me. This made me be wary of not just my visual processes but also the auditory aspect of this 

and speaking of sound with visuals

Coordinated sources of sensory information: The soundtrack, the environment ambient, the intrinsic sound of a blade or an arrow as it juts through the soft carelessly exposed flesh of my enemy. Maybe even the visuals of a fire spell and the sound it makes as it scorches the skin of anything it comes in contact with. This is just with the battle system-- don't even get me started on the actual environment. Needless to say Skyrim's audio aspect is very coordinated and beautifully done. I feel that this would be a major factor when it comes to spatial immersion because when I hear and see these things part of me really feels like I'm there.
Did I just hear bones cracking? How enchanting

Completeness of sensory information: This has to do with the mental model of the game world itself and by mental model I mean the game’s fictional virtual world and how it's perceived. By looking at various cues in the game we, usually unconsciously, create a mental model for a fictional world-- and this doesn't only stop in video games this type of thing is also very prevalent in other mediums such as film and books.
In Skyrim's case, on a subjective sense, I feel that it was based on an area likely Iceland or Norway. 
A side by side comparison of Skyrim and Norway

In this case abstractions and improvisation are ill concepts and likely enemies of spatial immersion; the fewer blanks about the mental model we have established for our virtual realm the better. In Skyrim the towns are cluttered with townsfolk. "Assassin’s Creed 2 was immersive because its towns were filled with people who looked like they were doing …people stuff." (Madigan 2010) 

Skyrim simulates its own convincing society by having npcs walk around the town, by being black smiths, shop owners, jarls, and housecarls. It feels lively and it makes sense. If towns were barren for no explanation ever-- this sort of thing will cause the player to improvise different reasons as to why this occurred, this type of thing reduces spatial immersion because instead of letting you make comfortable assumptions you're pulled out of the world wondering why that specific town was so barren.

Lack of incongruous visual cues in the game world: Usually when I play an rpg (especially mmos) it's common to be bombarded with a vast amount of numbers and words on the screen. Maps, menus, profiles of my party members to the left with their health and mana gauges all these things are fairly common.If you're constantly reminded you're playing a video game how would you feel spatial presence? Even Juul takes this into consideration when he mentions the blue arrow in GTA.

Concerning the UI you can strategically immersed in mmorpgs but likely not spatially

In contrast to the design above

Myself, my compass and the romantic northern lights of the night sky. For a moment I forgot I was playing a game.

Skyrim definitely excels at limiting incongruous elements from the screen. In combat you're shown minimal user interface such as your health, mana, and stamina bar. That's pretty much it excluding menus that aren't forcefully pasted on the screen at all times. Although this goes with its flaws, players will often find themselves walking around with diseases for days without knowing. Dovahkin is so tough that he/she doesn't even notice-- I mean you have something called bone break fever and not even a single stur. However, when you are around other NPCs they do comment about your how 'sick you look' and sort of give hints for you to check if you're diseased so you can go pray at an alter to cleanse yourself and then move on with your life.

Extensive interactivity: You can interact with almost everyone and everything in Skyrim. You can keep a collection of wooden bowls in your inventory if you liked, or put buckets over people's heads, sit on chairs, use the forge to craft weapons and armor. These interactions give feedback to the player's actions. Simply talking to npcs, using the lumber mill, chopping wood and fiddling around makes it seem like various pieces of the world fit together consistently. I feel that this aspect of the game facilitates spatial presence wonderfully.

I did this sort of thing with cabbages

One last word:
There are developers out there that take spatial immersion and incorporate it beautifully into their games. In specific I feel that Bethesda Game Studio's Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim incorporates spatial presence wonderfully into the virtual world of Skyrim. I truly got lost in this game. I pre-ordered and "no life'd" Skyrim for a few weeks, with an understanding of immersion I feel that my experiences and joy with Skyrim are more pronounced and defined


- Adams, E. (2004). Postmodernism and the Three Types of Immersion. Obtained May 18th 2012 
from: http://www.designersnotebook.com/Columns/063_Postmodernism/063_postmodernism.htm

Björk, Staffan; Jussi Holopainen (2004). Patterns In Game Design.
Charles River Media. p. 206. 

- Juul, Jesper. (2011). Half-Real: Video Games between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds.  
Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 

Madigan, J. (2010). The Psychology of Immersion in Video Games. Obtained May 18th 2012    
from: http://www.psychologyofgames.com/2010/07/the-psychology-of-immersion-in-video-games

Wissmath, B., Weibel, D., & Groner, R. (2009). Dubbing or Subtitling? Effects on Spatial            
Presence, Transportation, Flow, and Enjoyment. Journal of Media Psychology 21 (3), 114-125


  1. I love this post--very smart and interesting. And your captions always make me laugh.

    1. Thank you Dr. Rees. It means a lot to me that you liked my post! I truly appreciate your feedback. :)