Perspectives in Immersion and Reality

‘Derived from the latin immergere, meaning to plunge or dip into, immersion in digital culture refers to the sensory experience/perception of being submerged (being present) in an electronically mediated environment. The history of immersive theatre can be traced back to avant-garde experiments like expanded cinema (Youngblood, 1970) and, in performing arts, to Artaud’s ‘total’ theatre and Richard Schechner’s environmental theatre. Distinct from the two-dimensional linear perspective of the viewer looking at an image in drawing, painting and photography, the immersive perspective enables to see from within the image.’ Bay-Cheng, S  et al.(2010). Mapping Intermediality in Performance. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press. 47.

It could be interpreted that a key element that is explained in this interpretation of immersion, is that of the incorporation of the audience in the fabric of the world created itself, expands the experience of being past that of ‘two-dimensional’ as used to describe other mediums. It could be argued that this offers an important insight to the application of immersion as a concept to mixed reality or game-based performance. ‘The immersive perspective enables to see from within the image’ is a comparison that can be made to gaming as a medium. Gaming places a player in an environment which offers some level of interaction, dependent on the explicit setting and subsequent coding of the individual work. Through offering a created, mediated environment, and the player being able to engage with this environment, if we consider the above explanation of immersion, gaming as a format has the potential to be a potentially highly immersive experience. Bay-Cheng continues to explain;

‘Later developments in digital technologies enabled intermedial productions to put the spectator at the centre of the dramatic events as, for example, in Sharir and Gromala’s Dancing with the Virual Dervish: Virtual Bodies (1994), which created an advanced sense of fully embodied immersion (cf. Dixon 2007).’Bay-Cheng, S et al.(2010). Mapping Intermediality in Performance. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press. 47.

This sense of placing a spectator at the centre of dramatic events could be considered to be an approach used in video games. Further explanation is offered:

‘The experiencer (TERM), or immersant (Davies, 1994), embodies the narrative environment by controlling both an individual viewing position in relation to the image and the dimensions of the image itself.’ Bay-Cheng, S et al.(2010). Mapping Intermediality in Performance. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press. 47.

This understanding of control of a viewing angle, could be compared to the control of movement, viewing angles and freedom offered within game design:

‘Outside of presence theory, immersion finds its most frequent use in the context of digital games. The application of the term, however, varies considerably: It is used to refer to experiential states as diverse as general engagement, perception of realism, addiction, suspension of disbelief, identification with game characters, and more. This plethora of meanings is understandable when it comes to industrial or popular uses of the term; but it is also common with academic game studies. Given that the phenomenon that immersion and presence have been employed to refer to is increasingly important in shaping the experience of digital games, we require a more precise approach.’ Calleja, G (2011). In-Game. London, England: The MIT Press. 25.

The important difference of note between the theory within intermediality and that of game design explored above, is that it is not exclusively interpreted in a particular way. Calleja’s explanation that immersion as a term has been applied differently by different game developers in order to market games, and in game theory, poses important questions about how it is approached in hybrid, mixed reality performances. It is not implicit that immersion is used as a marketing tool, but it could be argued that theoretically at least, it is a consideration that is of great importance when developing work, in order to understand where elements of it may exist, or where it is not continually necessary.

‘As the representational power of computer graphics and audio increases, game companies have adopted immersive as a promotional adjective to market their games. This strategy was initially employed to promote photorealistic graphics, but now is also used to market other features, such as the scope of the game world, the artificial intelligence, or an engaging narrative’ Calleja, G (2011). In-Game. London, England: The MIT Press. 25.

This implies that immersion can be used to comment on singular elements of a piece of work, rather than a blanket term for the entire work. This is something that can be applied during the creative process, considering where immersion is a key part of, for example sound design, if it specifically developed with a level of immersion at its core.

‘The underlying assertion in these and other examples is that immersion is a positive experiential quality of games that is desirable for the consumer. At times immersion seems to be seen as something of a holy grail within the game industry because of its connection with an engagement that draws players so deeply into the game world that they feel as if they are a part of it. There are echoes of cyberpunk romanticism here and perhaps an unstated ideal desire to delve, Neo-like (Wachowski and Wachowski, 1999), into a virtual world that replaces the realm of physical existence.’ Calleja, G (2011). In-Game. London, England: The MIT Press. 25.

It could be argued that Calleja’s interpretation of the romanticism of cyberpunk culture in game design is something important to be considered in mixed reality performances also. the idea of ‘engagement that draws players so deeply into the game world that they feel as if they are a part of it’ implies something of an abandonment of reality in order to become immersed in a game. An interesting argument might be, in defence of applying game theory to mixed reality, is that immersants utilise their physical presence and thought processes in a combination of real-world and mediated environment, thus blurring the lines between reality and fiction. It can be argued that fundamentally, the way in which an immersant develops an immersed relationship with media in a mixed media, mixed reality environment is likely to be different as immersion is achieved by their physical engagement with the real world, in addition to mediated elements.

When discussing immersion in mixed reality, it could be said that is important to consider where on the Milgram and Kishino’s Mixed Reality Continuum artistically you wish to operate.


Typically, traditionally gaming has operated in a virtual environment. Whilst there are exceptions to this, until recently the main aim of gaming is the creation of fully virtual, rendered environments in which the player operates. Augmented reality is something that has increased in popularity in game design with various application for the Nintendo 3DS utilising the camera capabilities to show real world and mediated images simultaneously on screen. A recent example of augmented reality is that of Pokemon Go (Niantic Labs, 2016) which utilises the camera function found on modern smartphones with the gameplay mechanic of tracing creatures using the GPS function. When found, the game presents a mediated creature layered on the camera image of the real world. This merging of reality and mediated character/environment poses an example of where the possibilities lie in mixed reality.

‘In his seminal essay “The Computer for the Twenty-First Century Mark Weiser talked about “embodied virtuality” as “the phenomenon by which the ‘virtuality’ of computer-readable data – all the different ways in which it can be altered, processed and analyzed – is brought into the physical world” (1991, 20). Computers, he stated, will become “invisible” and will be “inter-connected in a ubiquitous network” (20). In this context, he predicts, people will use computers “unconsciously to accomplish everyday tasks.” (21). … Ubiquity and immersion could thus be seen as two opposing forces that point to the opposite ends of the virtuality continuum. However, the mixed reality performances that we consider in this book appear to comfortably combine the two, with participants sharing or contrasting perspectives between them or moving from one to another during a temporally extended performance.’  Benford, S Giannachi, G (2011). Performing Mixed Reality. London, England: The MIT Press. 4.

This understanding enables us to understand the transformative nature of mixed reality, much like its use of push and pull narratives, it is not exclusively rooted in immersion or virtuality, but rather a combination of the entire Mixed Reality Continuum. It would seem that the individual person that is participant in mixed reality, is in fact treated as themselves. The way in which this is manifested is that, for example in Blast Theory’s Rider Spoke (2007-) an individuals personality, personal experiences and choices are key to the way in which the performance plays out. The thoughts and feelings that they share with others as well as where they choose to explore offers up this level of personal engagement, which although not immersive in a traditional virtual reality sense, offers up an immersion through a personal connection, not necessarily through that of mediated or computerised virtual interaction. Mixed reality in its nature will utilise this continuum in different ways, but when considering immersion it could be argued that creators of the work must consider the transformative nature of their work not only with regards to  both immersion, and the place of it on this continuum as it progresses.

Whilst immersion presents itself as a difficult area of debate within the chosen fields of this study, it is important to note that it is a recurrent theme. There is a sense of understanding displayed between all three areas explored here (intermediality, game design and mixed reality performance) that immersion is not wholly responsible for a successful and exciting piece of work, but rather that immersion is a running theme, and how it is used and interpreted by different artists in their chosen field on any given subject can vary broadly, depending on artistic vision. Despite the arguments surrounding immersion and its level of importance, it seems that being immersed in the work through intelligent and explorative use of mediated elements, not necessarily being dependent on a mediated environment, is an important aspect of building work that crosses these boundaries. For this reason the noun of ‘immersant(s)’ when describing those who experience the created work for this study would seem fitting, as it aptly applies to how immersion into spaces between reality and virtual reality occur throughout, intertwine and inter-relate in the work being explored.






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