"C'mere, stay": Immersion as Immergence, Pervasion, and Abeyance
by Judd Ruggill — Arizona State University
April 13, 2009 – 00:39
When I was first invited to curate an In Media Res theme week, "immersion" seemed like a reasonable focalizer—deep engagement is something media of all kinds are capable of producing, and certainly something the week’s contributors play with in unique and diverse ways in their respective critical and creative work. I figured the term was not only broad enough to encompass collaborative learning networks (Bryan Carter), computer-based pedagogies (Ryan Moeller), digital performance art (Marcel O’Gorman), and computer games (Ken McAllister), but also serve as a genus of sorts for the various instruments media scholars typically use to describe how people connect intimately and complexly with expressive agents (e.g., flow, suture, identification,interpellation, articulation, interactivity, and so on).
The problem with "immersion," though—and one that perhaps works against what I’d initially hoped the term would do for this week—is that it signifies what seem like contradictory (or at least contiguous) states. On the one hand, immersion denotes the idea of envelopment, of being completely and inescapably surrounded. That’s certainly what the opening sequence of Bioshock (depicted in the clip) works hard to do: attend to the player’s sensorium by appearing everywhere, aurally as well as visually (and kinaesthetically too in the game itself). On the other hand, immersion can also be expressly agential, sometimes violently so, involving thrusting something into something else as in hot metal into cold water or cold hands into a hot bath. Bioshock does this too (as the clip shows), unceremoniously submerging the player under water and into the game world. So, "immersion" conjures both the ubiquity of being surrounded and the act of achieving that state—arguably two very different phenomena in the kinds of meanings they produce and enable.
More contradictory still is the fact that immersion is both voluntary and forced, the thrill that can also become terror. It’s thus always agential, however an experience only truly becomes immersive when the participant’s agency is partly taken away. This is the beauty of a roller coaster—agency all the way to the point when the brakes release and the chain lift engages. It’s also the beauty of the media this week’s contributors study and make, media that demonstrate the many ways immersion is invoked but also kept at bay by menus, HUDs, load screens, notifications, cinematics, and other sights, sounds, stories, and technologies that both facilitate and intercede in the mediumic experience.