About this Article
Written by: Steve Woyach
Written on: May 2nd, 2003
Tags: entertainment, lifestyle
Thumbnail by: Davepape/Wikimedia Commons
About the Author
At the time of writing, Steve was a junior majoring in Computer Science at the University of Southern California.
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Volume V Issue IV > Immersion Through Video Games
Immersion is the process by which a media element entices a person to suspend their disbelief and accept what they are viewing on a screen or page as actual reality. Through non-linear dramatic elements and interaction between the player and the computer, a video game achieves a level of reality that demands very little suspension of disbelief and is therefore a more compelling experience. Further advances in artificial intelligence and new ways of modeling interactive environments serve to make the environment more immersive, until suspension of disbelief is no longer necessary. It is only a matter of time before the dream of a perfectly immersive environment is a reality.

Introduction: Art Imitating Life?

The past decade has witnessed amazing improvements in the field of video game production. Graphics processors can produce effects that mimic real life to an unprecedented level of detail, sound systems can enhance three-dimensional effects with startling accuracy, and modern physical interaction models are leaps and bounds beyond the scampering of the original Mario Bros. With realistic digital movies and real-time technology quickly approaching the fabled "lifelike" quality, a person's acceptance of a virtual object as real becomes an easier, if not automatic, response. Emboldened by the ability to immerse a player in a virtual environment (see Fig. 1), game developers are turning back to the first questions that were asked at the conception of virtual reality: if the player reaches a significant level of immersion, is the environment real?

What is Immersion?

Davepape/Wikimedia Commons
Figure 1: Cave Automatic Virtual Environment, an example of immersive virtual reality.
Suspension of disbelief is the literary term for a reader's decision to accept what is presented in a story as a real event. It is the first step in the formation of people's emotional attachment to fictional characters in novels, movies, and video games. Immersion is a technique of lowering a person's need to suspend their disbelief by removing the text, the seat, or the keyboard, placing a person into the scene itself. Immersion is the removal of the barriers between people and their entertainment, until it is as real to us as everyday life.
Star Trek: The Next Generation made history in its very first episode when it introduced what has become a beautiful dream of the entertainment industry: the Holodeck. The Holodeck is a computer simulation of any situation that a person can imagine. With only a bit of programming, a world can be generated that resembles any thing or place, and mimics anyone, all in an empty 30-foot cube. Although the Holodeck, an invention that creates a perfect sense of immersion, was made through narration and film, many people could not help but think that its creation would someday be inevitable. Indeed, one of Star Trek's most compelling characteristics is that it made an unreal world seem nearly within reach. And so an entire generation of video game designers and engineers came of age with the desire to create a perfectly immersive environment-- one in which a person would not be able to distinguish virtual reality from reality. Luckily, the crucial yardstick to test the success of such a venture has existed for almost 50 years. This metric is called the Turing Test.
Bilby/Wikimedia Commons
Figure 2: In Turing's Test, Player C has to determine which of the other two players is the computer and which is a human.
Invented in 1950 by the British mathematician and computer scientist Alan Turing, Turing's Test is a challenge. As shown in Figure 2, the test involves a person sitting at a computer and asking questions of two individuals sitting at computers in different rooms: one is another person, the other is a computer. If at the end of a period of time, say five minutes, the investigator can not determine which respondent is human and which is machine, then the computer can be said to be intelligent [1]. This test applies to more than just automated chat programs, however. Any medium's ability to immerse the player through intelligent reactions, visuals, or sound is subjected to the same standards. How real is it? How immersive?