The word ‘immersion’ is often used in reference to a video game’s graphics and world size. If you were to search for the “most immersive games”, you’d find list articles of games with advanced graphical technology and large, open-world gameplay. Some games that immediately come to mind would be Skyrim, Fallout, FarCry, and other games where players can generally freely roam the game world.
But is immersion really only about great graphics and getting lost in huge open worlds? If we take ‘immerse’ at its literal definition – to involve oneself deeply in a particular activity or interest – then immersion is really when a player feels like they’re in “the zone”, a colloquial term for being in a psychological flow state, sometimes also known as hyperfocus.
Incredible graphics alone don’t generally put gamers into a flow state, but rather, it’s a combination of multiple sensory stimuli, as well as a player’s peak skill level in relation to a challenge being presented by the game.
Think of it this way – when a player enters the flow state during a racing game, do you think they’re really noticing the ultra-detailed scenery they’re flying past at 200MPH? Pausing to notice those tiny graphical details would, in fact, distract a gamer from the flow state! This is because being mindful is the psychological opposite of immersion.
Here is what generally happens to somebody experiencing a flow state during a gaming session, in phases:
- The first is the struggle phase. You are operating at or near your peak capabilities, where the challenge is pretty much equal to your skill, and this releases stress hormones. Your heart rate increases and your blood pressure rises.
- Next is the release state, aka flow, where you overcome the struggle and regain control of the situation. This reduces your stress levels which causes your heart rate to drop compared to where it was in the struggle phase. It doesn’t go much below what would be considered “normal” for your activity, and that would be very different if you’re playing a piano instead of throwing a football while several very large people chase you around.
- The final part is the recovery phase, where your body realizes what’s happened, that your skill was equal to the challenge, and so you get a flood of good chemicals which re-energize you. This increases your heart rate again, higher than flow state but lower than it was during the struggle phase.
So where does background music and sound effects come into all this? Well, as I said earlier, flow state is not induced by gorgeous graphics, but by a combination of multiple sensory stimuli. This means that a game’s background music, and remember that music is scientifically proven to have an effect on our mood state, is equally if not more important to a gamer’s flow state than the actual graphics of the game. In fact, there have been several studies that find strong correlation between music and psychological flow state.
To use racing games as an example again, the gamer in a flow state is not necessarily paying attention to the amount of graphical detail around their vehicle, but becomes immersed in tunnel-vision for awareness of when to steer the vehicle. The speed at which objects pass clue the gamer how fast they’re going and when to properly time their maneuvers, but so does the pitch of the car’s engine noise. A car’s engine under load plays a range of frequencies, but its root note—the pitch its musical chord is built on—is defined by its so-called dominant frequency.
You could even enter a flow state playing a game of online poker on Casumo casino. The graphics would hardly matter, as the player becomes hyper focused on interpreting hand probabilities, proper betting strategy, and audio cues such as chips being placed and that satisfying “fththththwop” of a deck being shuffled.
So now that we know the correlation between music, sound effects, and flow state, we can apply this to other video game genres beyond racing games. A player in Call of Duty becomes immersed not in the graphics alone, but in everything happening on the battlefield, leading to a sort of calm hyper-awareness (remember that the second phase of flow state = a lowered heartbeat rate).
Explosions in the distance, footsteps behind the player, nearby teammates shouting “I need a medic!”, and of course, a gamer’s favourite soundtrack of choice – all of these audio cues serve to put the player even deeper into the gameplay, beyond what graphics are capable of.
So while games with incredible graphics and large worlds for players to freely roam are often described as being “immersive”, a gamer would probably find those same games far less immersive playing them with the volume muted.