‘Immersion’ vs ‘Engagement’

The other day, a friend sent me a nifty article explaining the difference between immersion and engagement. It’s called, ‘The Pleasures of immersion and engagement: schemas, scripts and the fifth business’ by Douglas and Hargadon, 2001. It’s a fairly interesting read, but here’s the Cliff Notes for now.

The article explores two words we throw around all the time: immersion and engagement. Most of us use them interchangeably. You know. I might say, Totoro was really engaging. Or, Tiny Wings is really immersing. Right? Seems okay to me. Well, apparently, the academics did a bunch of research and determined that the two words do not, in fact, mean the same thing.

So, what do they mean?  Well, immersion is the process whereby you become ‘immersed’ or deeply interested in a story or particular material.  Immersion implies a passive act, rather than something you are actively engaged in. (See what I did there?) Engagement is the process where you are actively ‘engaged’ in solving a particular problem. Engagement implies action – like trying to overcome a challenge, understand some difficult material (like poetry! omg!), or solve some conundrum.

Well, that’s pretty simple. If you revisit my earlier statements, you’ll see they were backwards. Said correctly, I got really immersed watching ‘My Neighbor Totoro’.  The story captures the wonder of being a child and really drew me in. Whereas, Tiny Wings is just totally engaging. The mechanics are elegantly simple and yet deeply challenging at the same time.I still can’t seem to get to the 4th island without doing ANY swoops!!! *ggrrrrr*  (love that game!).

So, there we have it. Immersion vs engagement. In games, immersion is typically about the story whereas engagement is about the game play. Certainly, games can have both immersion and engagement. But, a game without engagement is hardly a game at all. And, sometimes, the distinction is not always so clear. For instance, you could become deeply engaged trying to unravel the complexities of a story. Sure, we were immersed in the new Battlestar Galatica, but sometimes, we were also deeply engaged, trying to understand how Starbuck gets back to Earth late in the series. WTF?!

So, now that the difference is clear (or not), I suppose it begs the question. Should we care?

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