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Fundamental Components of the Gameplay Experience: Analysing Immersion

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Author: Ermi, Laura
The field of digital games research can roughly be divided into three main areas, those of games research, player research and the applied research of games, which includes research into the design and development of games, as well as several other lines of inquiry like games' policy issues or application of games into learning or multiplicity of other purposes. All of these three sub-fields are essential for understanding what games have been, what they currently are and mean for their players, what is in the games' future, and why games are played in the first place. Neither are these perspectives mutually exclusive, but rather supportive, as they can complement each other in various ways. This paper is focused on the second of these three areas. There has been a relative bloom of games research that has focused on the definition and ontology of games, but its complementary part, that of research into the gameplay experience has not been adopted by academics in similar manner. Partly this is because of the disciplinary tilt among the current generation of ludologists: the background in either art, literary or media studies, or in the applied field of game design naturally leads into research where game, rather than player, is the focus of attention. Yet, the essence of a game is rooted in its interactive nature, and there is no game without a player. The act of playing game is where the rules embedded into game’s structure start operating, and its program code starts having an effect on cultural and social, as well as artistic and commercial realities. If we want to understand what a game is, we need to understand what happens in the act of playing, and we need to understand the player and the experience of gameplay. Gameplay is one of the more elusive concepts among games research, and also one of the most central ones. Looking at discourses of current digital game cultures, 'gameplay' is used to describe the essential but elusive quality that defines the character of game as a game, the quality of its 'gameness'. In their book on game design, Andrew Rollings and Ernest Adams decline to define the concept, because, according to them, gameplay is "the result of a large number of contributing elements" (Rollings & Adams 2003, 199). Yet, everyone who plays games long enough will form their own conception of bad or good gameplay, on the basis of their experience. This experience is informed by multiple significant game elements, which can be very different in games from different genres, as well as by their own abilities and preferences. This starting point can further be illustrated by a quote from Chris Crawford: I suggest that this elusive trait [game play] is derived from the combination of pace and cognitive effort required by the game. Games like TEMPEST have a demonic pace while games like BATTLEZONE have far more deliberate pace. Despite this difference, both games have good game play, for the pace is appropriate to the cognitive demands of the game. (Crawford 1982/1997, 21.) This definition actually translates 'gameplay' into a particular, balanced relation between the level of challenge and the abilities of the player. Challenge consists of two main dimensions, the challenge of speed or 'pace', and 'cognitive challenges' on the other hand. The quality of gameplay is good when these various challenges are 'appropriate' and in balance with regard to each other. On the other hand, one of the most influential theories of fun and creative action, the flow theory by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1991), identifies the 'flow state' as that particular successful balance of the perceived level of challenge and the skills of the person. In this highly intensive state one is fully absorbed within the activity, often loses one's sense of time and gains powerful gratification. Based on literature and our observations, gameplay experiences can reach this "optimal experience", but this kind of action-intensive flow is not necessarily a component of all satisfying game-playing experiences. The starting point of our research was the twofold perspective we gained in 2003 while interviewing children who actively played digital games alongside with their parents, who mostly did not play such games themselves (Ermi, Heliö & Mäyrä 2004). Comparing notes, it became obvious that these young game players and their outside observers perceived the quality of gameplay experience differently. Parents expressed concern because they thought that their children became emotionally too intensely immersed, or too involved with the game fiction while playing. On the contrary, the interviewed children themselves thought that the emotional immersion and involvement in fiction was typically stronger for them while reading a good book or in watching a movie. But they admitted becoming often immersed in games, but in different ways as compared to immersion into literature or cinema, where emotional identification or engrossment was more common for them than in games. Curious about these different ways of perceiving game "immersion", we studied the responses further and analysed children's accounts of playing games and the different holding powers they had recognized in games in order to shed some light on the structure of the experience. The elements of game-related pleasures were first identified, and then organised into larger constellations; see Figure 1. Figure 1. Elements of game-related pleasures that emerged from the interviews of the children. In our full paper we will give a more detailed account on how the research was carried out in its different phases, as well as on how the derived model relates to other research traditions, such as the study of presence, as well as different forms of fun and pleasure in games and elsewhere. (Cf. e.g. Reeves & Nass 1996; Lombard & Ditton 1997; Douglas & Hargadon 2000, McMahan 2003, Hunicke, LeBlanc & Zubek 2004; Lazzaro 2004.) In this abstract we will just summarize some of the most central aspects of our approach. In our gameplay experience model (see Figure 2), gameplay is interaction between particular kind of game features and particular kind of game players. In order for this relationship to be successful, both sides of the equation must be mutually compatible. A relational interpretation of the fundamental nature of gameplay as this one has consequences on how games can be conceptualised; it makes no sense to declare a particular game good or bad in itself. This kind of qualitative claims must be contextualised by stating what kind of game player is used as a reference in the evaluation. In phenomenological terms, gameplay can be perceived in a temporal experience, which has three main aspects: the psycho-physiological responses, emotions and feelings, and finally the interpretation where player typically takes into account also other information, such as peer influence, game reviews and other frames of socio-cultural reference. Figure 2. Gameplay experience as interaction between the player, the game and the social context. The model identifies three fundamental components in the gameplay experience. These are sensory immersion, action-based immersion and mental immersion. In our paper, we will define each and provide examples on how these components are differently present while playing different kind of games. The social context and its effects on the interpretation of gameplay experience will also be discussed, as well as the application of the model into a tool for game evaluation and analysis. REFERENCES Crawford, Chris (1982/1997) The Art of Computer Game Design. Berkeley, CA: Osborne/McGraw-Hill. Available also: , 30.11.2004. Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly (1991) Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper Perennial. Ermi, Laura; Heliö, Satu & Mäyrä, Frans (2004) Pelien voima ja pelaamisen hallinta - Lapset ja nuoret pelikulttuurien toimijoina. [Power and Control of Games - Children as the Actors of Game Cultures]. Hypermedia Laboratory Net Series 6. Available: , 30.11.2004. Douglas, Yellowlees & Hargadon, Andrew (2000) The Pleasure Principle: Immersion, Engagement, Flow. In Proceedings of the Eleventh ACM Conference on Hypertext and Hypermedia, 153-160. Hunicke, Robin; LeBlanc, Marc & Zubek, Robert (2004) MDA: A Formal Approach to Game Design and Game Research. Available:, 30.11.2004. Lazzaro, Nicole (2004) Why We Play Games: Four Keys to More Emotion in Player Experiences. GDC 2004. Abstract available:, 30.11.2004. Lombard, Matthew & Ditton, Theresa (1997) At the Heart of It All: The Concept of Presence. Journal of Computer Mediated Communication 3(2). Available:, 30.11.2004. McMahan, Alison (2003) Immersion, Engagement, and Presence: A Method for Analyzing 3-D Video Games. In Mark J.P. Wolf & Bernard Perron (eds.) The Video Game Theory Reader, 67-86. New York: Routledge. Reeves, Byron & Nass, Clifford (1996) The Media Equation – How People Treat Computers, Television, and New Media Like Real People and Places. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Rollings, Andrew & Adams, Ernest (2003) Andrew Rollings and Ernest Adams on Game Design. Indianapolis: New Riders
Contact: Laura Ermi, Hypermedia Laboratory, University of Tampere,
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