What is “immersion”?

I should warn everyone that this post may seem like one long rant but, well, I just have to get it out of my system.


Immersion as The Divine Reason To Play WoW gained traction as the insipid argument of choice over the question of flying in Draenor. In the face of a pretty long list of reasons flying should be allowed (not going to enumerate them here, read any of the hundreds of forum posts if you are interested), the no-fly enforcers can only shrilly scream “Immersion!” And then go on to explain — you can almost see the little bits of spittle foam flecking their mouths — exactly why they and they alone can define it not only for themselves but for everyone else.

Well. Let’s take a look at this.

“I can’t believe that!” said Alice.
“Can’t you?” the Queen said in a pitying tone. “Try again: draw a long breath, and shut your eyes.”
Alice laughed. “There’s no use trying,” she said: “one can’t believe impossible things.”
“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

First, let’s stipulate that everyone who plays MMOs is already receptive to suspending reality for awhile. If you are such a hard-headed realist that you cannot enjoy any experience that delves into fantasy, then you are not going to be playing any kind of MMO. The question becomes, how far are you willing to go and what set of fantasy rules do you devise in order to judge what is permissible in the fantasy world. Herein, of course, lies a problem. If you do not know what external factors drive game rules, or if you perceive that the internal game rules must adhere to a certain fantasy logic, you feel cheated if one or both of those elements is missing from game changes.

Fantasy games have a basic set of rules for how the fake world operates. In WoW, while lore plays a part in defining these rules, most of them are unwritten but expressed through the graphics and code (movement mechanics, art transformations as a character gets “closer” to the horizon, item attributes, etc.) Sometimes the rules are tied to technology or business policies but explained through lore or just accepted story line. The game is a closed system, so relevant factors outside the system need to be explained from within it. This can make for some awkwardness if you are placing yourself inside the closed system in order to understand some new rule, but it makes perfect sense if you step back into the real world for a bit. Usually you will eventually accept some internal awkwardness if you understand the external reason for it.

For example, in the real world, Blizzard did not want to create an entire new continent for the most recent expansion, so they did major revisions of Outland, an existing area. Within the closed game system, they “explained” this new-old continent as a portal exploiting a tear in the space-time continuum, an alternate universe kind of thing. Some players found this internal explanation not in keeping with their understanding of the system environment, and there was a lot of criticism of what was undeniably a very awkward solution for fitting an external business decision into a closed system. But eventually most of the criticism stopped, because people wanted the new expansion, and there seemed to be no good alternative to the internal explanation Blizz offered.

Similar thing with flying. For a long time the external technology did not permit the mechanics of flying mounts, except via strictly controlled predetermined taxi routes. Then technology and customer demand evolved, and so within the system players could get “flying licenses” and mounts with the flying attribute. A known external development was explained using internal rules that most players accepted.

When Warlords came out there was some unexplained external development that resulted in no flying in Draenor, and on top of that there has been no real attempt to provide an internal explanation. Like your mom using the “Because I said so, that’s why” explanation. It just doesn’t work. So you have  both an unknown external reason for no flying and a total lack of a satisfactory internal explanation. This is a recipe for discontent.

The only word we hear over and over again from Blizz devs as well as some very vocal players is the “I” word. As if everyone is agreed on what that means and accepts it as the driving reason for playing the game.

“When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master— that’s all.”

Really. What exactly is so immersive about players being almost the only creatures in Draenor that don’t fly? NPCs fly, followers fly, taxis fly, big giant behemoth rylaks fly, birds and flying insects are everywhere. To me, it is decidedly NOT “immersive” to not fly in a world where almost every other creature can fly. To me, immersion would be flying. This would be my definition of immersion.

We do not hear massive outcries from the Immersers about the fact that their characters are unaffected by weather. Since the closed system has actual weather, it would be much more immersive if when it rained you had to slow down all movement, your battle performance decreased, your spells had more limited range, and after a certain period of time you either had to change all your gear or go inside somewhere for a period of time to let it dry out. Now THAT would be a real immersive experience.

How about all that different terrain in Draenor? To be truly immersive, you should have to slow down when going uphill, or through jungle or deep snow. In arid areas, you should have to stop and drink frequently or suffer significant performance decrements and eventual death. Very immersive.

What about food and rest? The internal rules provide for food items to exist, and for rest to be a factor. So why not require all characters to take in a certain amount of food every day and to rest a minimum of 6-8 hours every 24? I personally would feel much more immersed if that were the case.

What? You say I am free to impose these requirements on myself if I feel they are integral to my game enjoyment? No, no, no, you don’t understand. I can only truly enjoy the game if I can make everyone play the way I do. Can’t you see that if other players can ignore sleep requirements, or the effects of terrain or weather, then I am forced to ignore them also? The injustice of it all!

OK, look, I know this whole post this is a little heavy-handed, but the point is, immersion is whatever you want it to be. My immersive experience — and enjoyment thereof — is almost certainly not the same as yours. That is as it should be. It is a feature of a good game. And I do not accept that some number of small-minded self-appointed screaming evangelists can impose their definition on everyone else in the game. I do not know what the numbers are for Immersers versus fliers — and I am betting Blizz does not know either, their bogus “polls” notwithstanding — and I really do not care. I know there are significant numbers of each. There was room for both to play their game the way they wanted before Draenor, and there should be a way for it post Draenor.

And for the record, “immersion” as someone else insists on defining it is not the only reason I play this game.

About Fiannor
I have a day job but escape by playing WoW. I love playing a hunter, and my Lake Wobegonian goal is to become "above average" at it.

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