The Psychology of Video Game Interaction and Immersion

BioShock Infinite Bathroom

If you see a toilet in a game, it must be flushable.

Rarely does an in-game toilet have any bearing whatsoever on gameplay, but if there’s a toilet in a game, you better believe I will try to flush it. Portal begins with an attempt to flush the radio. In Gone Home, I made sure every one of those toilets got flushed. Even in Fallout, proper post-apocalyptic flushing practices must be observed.

Of course, it’s not really about flushing toilets. It’s about interaction. If you put an everyday object in a game, we want to use it, if only to know that we can. Unflushable toilets, much like mirrors without reflections or doors that can’t be opened, raise questions for players and draw attention to the falseness of their in-game surroundings. A toilet that doesn’t work is a distraction, but a lever and a flush animation help us suspend our disbelief.

The reasoning behind video game interaction is simple—players want to touch and play with objects in their virtual spaces. But not all interactions are created equal. Flushing a toilet doesn’t carry the same weight as talking to an NPC, but talking to an NPC may not be as important as picking up a lost relic. It’s not what these interactions are, but how they’re used that’s important. Even the smallest object can heighten immersion by playing into psychology.

Video Game Interactions and Psychology

There’s a theory that connects spatial presence—a more psychological term for immersion—with a player’s ability to form a mental model of a game. That doesn’t mean they have to know every inch of a map or they won’t feel immersed; it has more to do with constructing an image of a game’s world based both on what the player sees and their own ideas of what a game will be like. If you go into Portal expecting Guitar Hero, for instance, you’re not going to feel immersed until you reconcile those unfulfilled expectations with what’s actually presented.

Loading Human is a prime example of what VR games have to offer
Interacting with everyday objects in Loading Human enhances player immersion.

And even when a world does manage to create a vision that aligns with your expectations, that doesn’t mean you’ll feel immersed in it. Werner Wirth’s theory of spatial presence also cites the importance of deciding whether or not a game world feels real to you as a player. It’s important to note that the decision does not have to be a conscious one—rarely will a player think to themselves, “Yes, now I am immersed”—but a small interaction with an object can be the trigger for a player to start thinking about a game world as if it is real.

This brings us back around to toilets and other small, even pointless interactions. When I flush a toilet in a game, I’m not actually concerned with my character’s ability to use the restroom unless that’s a necessary part of the game. What I want to know when I press the handle is whether or not the world is ready to respond to my input. If something so simple and unimportant doesn’t function, why bother including it? It causes players to question the world they’re temporarily inhabiting, effectively breaking the spell of immersion.

The Interaction and Immersion Connection

Good, abundant interactions, on the other hand, heighten immersion. That doesn’t mean players should be able to pick up and play with every single object in a game—that quickly becomes overwhelming—but rather that items that look like you can interact with them should be available for interaction.

Loading Human Inspirational VR game
Interaction drives Loading Human‘s narrative.

Loading Human, because it’s a virtual reality game, is a great example of this. VR is naturally immersive because it blocks out the outside world in a way that playing with a screen and controller simply can’t provide. But that, in itself, doesn’t automatically guarantee player immersion—if the world of Loading Human isn’t interesting or doesn’t feel real, players will have a hard time pushing past their own awareness that “it’s just a game.” To combat this, the game includes numerous objects to interact with, and each of those interactions is meaningful. A record might cause the protagonist to share a valued memory, for example, telling you more about him as a character.

The ability to pick up and interact with these objects is valuable, but it’s even more vital that these objects have some measure of meaning, whether it’s because the function does something that’s crucial to progressing the plot or solving a puzzle, or because it provides an important clue about the environment. You can flush toilets for hours in Fallout and never glean anything significant from that action if you don’t do anything else—it’s the context that makes that interaction meaningful, not the interaction itself.

Consider classic adventure games. Point-and-click adventures revolve around interaction; you’re in a two-dimensional space, so clicking is generally the only thing you can do. If an object that looks like you should be able to interact with it doesn’t respond to your clicks, it incites frustration. On the other hand, the ability to drink from a water fountain in a demo of Thimbleweed Park feels realistic. Though the action was unnecessary in terms of making progress, it made that 8-bit world seem that much more believable.

Even if the interactions themselves aren’t inherently meaningful, their presence in a game is still valuable for immersion purposes. The various interactions available in Loading Human’ serve to provide additional context and background information for those who seek it, as well as reinforcing the integrity of the environment. While a water fountain or a record may not be an essential part of gameplay, they still serve a purpose by creating a sense that these fictional worlds function and exist even when you’re not around, just as the real world does.

Interactivity Drives Psychological Immersion

Interactivity is what separates games from other media. We become immersed, in part, because we’re able to manipulate the virtual worlds we inhabit.

Video game interactions are not all created equal, however. Minor details, like a functioning water fountain, merely add a certain something extra to a game, while more significant objects like those found in Loading Human can help solidify the plot and introduce memories, associations, and relationships just by being present and available for interaction. These environmental details, though seemingly trivial, play a vital role in helping us fully submerge ourselves in a game and experience true presence in fictional worlds. The smallest things can make the biggest difference—even if they’re something as simple and inconsequential as pressing the lever on a toilet.

Loading Human combines the classic fun of adventure titles with the incredible immersion capability of modern virtual reality. Order your copy of the first chapter today!


Lead Image Source: Joshua Livingston via Flickr


Michelle Peniche

Pokemon catcher, coffee lover, part time road tripper.

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