On immersion_ Part 1

The words "sensational", "impressive", which we commonly use today, are of those words that paint a time. We cannot stand duration. We cannot fertilize boredom. “

Paul Valéry, Le Bilan de l'Intelligence

The term immersion is nowadays so overused that its conceptual strength got tarnished. According to current marketing trends, everything is an immersive experience, as to emphasize how spectacular a product/concert/game can be. This idea is seducing, in our hedonist western society, where we tend to seek more and more sensations. After all, conquering adrenaline in consumerist spaces might be the safest way to feel as though we are gaining power over our environment and our condition.

Immersion, however, isn’t a synonym of sensational.

According to the European Dictionary of Etymology, immersion comes from the late Latin term referring to “the action of immersing” or “the state of being immersed”.

In Virtual Art: From Illusion to Immersion (2003), Oliver Grau connects it to the history of illusionism, and reminds us of the original meaning of virtual reality; the creation of an illusionary space where we immerse a subject, as an object in a different medium.

An immersive experience would be, literally, an experience that puts us in a different medium.

If we were to push the metaphor further, since illusionism plays on our understanding of the world, a perfectly immersive experience would leave us with no critical distance and its artificiality would be so imperceptible that, just like a fluid, it would cover our whole body of perception.

We would be involved in this experience, as we are involved in reality: arguably with all our senses and just as much doubt as a sceptic mind would oppose to reality. Whether a fully immersive illusion is a new full-fledged reality, transforms reality, is a possible world, etc, is a long debate that won’t be addressed in this article.

A great wealth of articles and resources have been published on the topic of artistic immersion, and cover various fields such as literature, experimental art, expography, ethnology, everything audiovisual and everything involving roleplaying, etc.

Although I’ll be referring to what has been called immersion frames, I believe that a more accurate way to describe them would be mechanisms* of involvement and of illusionism.

*More precisely, in French, we would use the term dispositif, as defined by Foucault.

Cognition and its subjective interpretation are thorny topics to generalize, therefore it is possible that the perception of such mechanisms should differ greatly from one person to another.
This being stated, many scholars have analyzed those 
mechanisms of involvement and of illusionism and I’ll be proposing my own categorization in relation to theirs, as to further define a synpeira.

Some frames

As to progressively get more precise, a good entry point would be Raymon Montpetit’s work on museography. In Une logique d’exposition populaire : Les images de la muséographie analogique (1996), he defines the concept of endogenous and exogenous exhibitions.

Exogenous refers to experiences that require previous knowledge and understanding; that involve their audience by playing on those references and expectations.

For instance, the audience enters a room with “eat me” biscuits on the table. They do not need to be explained what is a table, a biscuit or an exhibition to face the very involving dilemma of whether they should eat a biscuit out of an exhibition or not.

Endogenous refers to the involvement through spatial, temporal and cultural communication during the exhibition. It is only through inside clues that the audience can grasp the coherence and rules of the experience, in other words, the cognitive implication of learning a new system creates a strong sense of involvement.

This meta-involvement and immediate-involvement echoes with Gordon Calleja frame of immersion applied to digital experiences and games.

In Digital Game Involvement: A Conceptual Model (2007)Calleja pertinently explains that the concept of immersion can only be grasped through a bottom-up approach that starts with attention and involvement.

He follows on what Erving Goffman calls worlds of meaning (Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organization of Experience (1974)) and turns them into an analysis of immersion, made of six frames, which are structured according to two temporal phases:

  • macro-involvement, that he also calls absorption, which is a passive form of involvement that could occur in most works of fiction

  • micro-involvement, which is defined as ergodic, and relates to forms of interactions as part of a process of immersion. (Affective involvement, Narrative involvement, Tactical involvement, Spatial involvement, Performative involvement, Shared involvement)

Although this frame is crucial as to understand different sensations of immersion, and although its taxonomy of micro-involvements covers many game experiences, it can only partially enlighten us, as it does not fully cover the questions of involvement through embodiment and through interpretation (see What is a synpeira, in the menu).

To get even closer to our topic of interest, another frame to consider comes from LARP theory.

Sarah Lynne Bowman, who has greatly contributed to LARP theory, identifies 6 levels of immersion, which take into consideration physical expression: Activity, Game, Environment, Narrative, Character, and Community.

Of course, in the case of an art-research project as opposed to game/art theory, my framing could be much more personal. However, as I’m still investigating what’s immersion and what mechanisms of involvement should be at the core of a synpeira, I’ll take a step back from artistic subjectivity to propose a categorization in continuation with Calleja and Bowman.

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