In Their Own Words: The Immersion Component

Over the past 5 years, I have asked MMORPG players hundreds of different questions. The one that inevitably provides the most interesting responses is this one - "Why do you play?". The following narratives show how multi-faceted every player is and how motivations intersect and influence each other. Together, these narratives provide the foundation to any other discourse about MMORPGs. After all, if we don't understand why players are in these online worlds to begin with, then we can never truly appreciate the more complex phenomena that emerge from these environments.

Oftentimes, we project our motivations onto others and we fail to appreciate what "fun" is to someone else. The following narratives show how relative fun can be and the sheer diversity of ways of deriving satisfaction from the same construct. "Fun" means something different to different people.

The narratives are framed by the 3 main components, thereby illustrating how the different subcomponents can combine, but more importantly, shedding light on where more work still needs to be done. The presentation below extracts parts of long responses submitted by players and might create the illusion that players are more single-dimensional than they really are. This was done to make it easier to understand the spectrum of motivations. Most players in fact described their preferences along several motivations so make sure you browse through the profile tool to get a sense of how multi-faceted players really are.

At a Glance:

- My Story
- The Story of the World
- Quests
- Role-Playing
- Identity Exploration
- Exploring the World
- Secret Locations
- Discovery
- My Story
- Knowledge
- Fantasy
- Escapism


My Story

A prevalent theme among players who enjoy being immersed in a game centers on developing a back-story or history for their characters. For them, it is crucial that their character makes sense and is rooted in the lore and mythos of the world.

Each one of my characters has a story, each one of them have different motivations. I've played everything from a fratricidal zealot to an elf who trades in human slaves to machiavellian manipulators. I always enjoy creating characters, because coming up with something different is such an enjoyable challenge. [DAoC, F, 23]

My tauren druid, Jionania, is quite a complex character as the main idea of her story is that she was born into a tribe of druids, but is fascinated by engineering to the point where engineering is more like her class now than druid is. The important details to the following event are that Odelisque is a Undead girl who was my character's best friend and that Toorsk is the tauren she planned on marrying. Since Toorsk wasn't a druid, Jio needed to take him to Moonglade to meet her tribe. Since we were nowhere near strong enough to make the journey, Toorsk went out into the wilderness to train, while Jio continued her studies in engineering. A week passed and Jio began to worry, constantly sending letters to him. All she got in the mail was a letter from Odelisque saying that she was feeling the call of the scourge and that Jio best stay away from her since she had no idea what would become of her. Needless to say Jio broke down. Toorsk still hadn't written (it seems he just stopped playing the game) and it wasn't long before she went out to search for him and ending up dieing alot. It eventually an orc named Morkris calmed her down, and she is beginning to get over Toorsk and is falling for a guy who she just found up is already married. This is also making her worry that she is just addicted to attention and will fall for whatever Tauren is giving her attention at the moment. She has a lot of issues she needs to work out so she's a bit messed up emotionally. [WoW, M, 17]

I'm not a hard-core role-player or on a role-playing server, but the two characters I play now have very distinct personalities. It's important for me to have backstories for my characters before I really enjoy playing them. For example, I know that Trigger, my dwarven rogue, is the younger sister of my husband's character's (Hawthorne) best friend. Thus when Trigger plays, it's with a great deal of enthusiasm and not necessarily a great deal of sense. When Trig and Hawthorne group together, there's a great deal of friendly bickering and /bonk going on. I think it's a replacement for the acting I did in school, which is so hard to fit into my life as an adult. [WoW, F, 36]

When we first started, I voted for an RP server, but was outvoted by the rest of my friends, who didn't want to have to deal with the RP snob types, and were willing to put up with more b-net kiddies not to. At the earliest opportunity, however, I started an alt on one of the RP servers to play when my main server was down or I just wanted to get away from the dumbasses. This has been a lot of fun; I've been playing as a Night Elf Druid who's older than dirt, but has been hibernating for milennia. It's been fun to play out her first encounters with humans, gnomes, and orcs, none of whom existed when she went to sleep. I've been playing her as the type that's incredibly wise, formerly very powerful, but somewhat confused about the modern world. Combined with some friends of mine, playing VERY different characters (an innocent, childlike priest and a bloodthirsty, sarcastic rogue), it's been a blast, and made me wish we'd rolled on one from the start; I know my holy undead priest would be a lot of fun to RP. [WoW, M, 23]


The Story of the World

It is also important to them to learn the story of why the state of the world is the way it is. They go out of their ways to read up on the histories of different key characters or races / tribes in order to learn the story of their world. A world that has a solid, sustained story is what allows them to do what they enjoy - creating characters that fit into and become part of the larger story.

I love the stories around the new Everquest. I went from zone to zone talking to people trying to figure out how we arrived where we are in the story - 500 years later and the moon of Luclin now gone. Where are those frogloks? I am anxious about getting through certain zones because I want to see/do more. You can 'mark' items in the game that lets people know you were there, so I'm always deeply envious when someone beats me to the punch. I've yet to get my name on an item whereas my boyfriend has. I think I'll trip him next time he's racing off to mark something. [EQ, F, 37]

I'll almost always shy away from classes without some sort of improved method of travel because I love to travel, explore, and learn the story, not necessarily so that I can be a part of it, but so that I have a grip on the story and where it's going. This area ties in greatly with roleplaying if you choose to explore for story rather than explore for superiority. I guess I focus on mechanics over roleplaying, but I do explore more for roleplaying reasons than I do for achievement. [WoW, M, 20]

Of the reasons you give, this best fits why I enjoy playing....but not exactly. I do enjoy exploring, but what I enjoy even more is the creation and participation in a story. Exploring the world is a large part of that. I'm a big reader....fantasy, sci-fi, and interesting biography. When I'm having my 'best times' in game is when I'm pursuing a quest or participating in some grand adventure. Grinding, as a whole, doesn't interest me one bit. And I don't need to be the central figure in the storyline, like you are in Single Player RPG's. [EQ2, M, 30]



Quests are an important way in which the story of the character can weave into the story of the world. This is because players find themselves invited to become a part of the history.

I love to role play. Not so much in a group (as good roleplay groups are hard to come by) but when I play solo I love to put myself in the game. I really immerse myself into the quest that I am doing. Listening/reading the text and story line and really feel like I am doing something for the world or someone in game. It's a great way to tune out the real world and de-stress. To simply play the game and let a story come out of the actions I am doing, is the best way of playing in my experience. [EQ2, F, 22]

I absolutely love exploring the world. I'm playing World of Warcraft and will often complete quests in which I'll get no experience simply because I enjoy the story. [WoW, M, 27]



A related motivation is social role-playing - sharing the story of your character with the stories of others in a structured way.

A web of friends and friends of friends, we often come up with a concept and build a small team of coordinated characters and costumes and play together in character. Often this will last only a week or two, but usually at least one player becomes enamored of a particular concept and keeps playing, even as the group will move on. This is in addition to playing our mains. All my cross gender characters come from this setup. I do have character concept for every character, and they do act differently, according to their nature. I generally have a set of characteristics I decide at character generation. In COH it involves which Hero to initially visit, which travel power to take, whether the character dances or not, rp social style, etc. [CoH, M, 50]

We created a clan named 'The Party', and we roleplayed this silly mix of communist/totalitarian/fascist regime, we talked about how we must do 'Father's' bidding, and it was quite fun. We killed members of our own faction who were not part of 'The Party' citing them as unloyal and guilty of putting The Party in jeopardy. It was a laugh and we ended up getting fairly organized and powerful. Before the coming of The Party, the faction was full of in-fighting anyway. [WoW, M, 19]

If I didn't roleplay, I probably wouldn't still be playing UO. RP has been the chief source of enjoyment for the last two years. My main character isn't really too much different from me, but the world is very different, and RP really sucks you in. It's very seductive. I know a lot of RPers who have had problems during their lives - physical illness, depression, family troubles - and in-depth roleplay is very good way of not dealing with the real world for a while. It's as dangerous and addictive as any drug, in all honesty. But I enjoy it, so I will continue to do it. [UO, F, 37]


Identity Exploration

Oftentimes, identity exploration and role-playing are seen as the same thing, but they are in fact different phenomena with some overlap. Role-players are focused on stories and becoming a part of the world. Players who use the game as a tool for identity exploration are less concerned with stories and more interested in trying out different personality traits as a means of introspection.

I'm a casual role-player but enjoy trying out new roles with my characters, especially exploring aspects of my personality that are not dominant in real life. I tend to be more out-going and adventurous than I generally am in real life. At the same time, I'm not really interested in escaping from the real world. [WoW, F, 25]

I don't use MMORPG's to try out 'new' identities, but to indulge the parts of my identity that I want to spend more time with. Largely this is an exploration of my desire to be useful, to be helpful, and above all, to be competent at what I do. As an EQ enchanter, this equated not to getting uber drops, but to being the person who understood mezzing and aggro well enough to save the group when things got bad. [CoH, F, 35]

I also tend to play MMORPGs simply to be someone else. Whether it's an athletic warrior (which I'm not in RL), studious wizard (I have been called 'smart' but never 'studious'), or even going so far as to try playing a female character, each one gives me different perspective on how the virtual world and our own operate. [WoW, M, 29]



Many players derive satisfaction from exploring the world for the sake of exploring it. They enjoy adventuring in order to see the world.

I read a lot about the games i play, love to go to sites and places no one visits. I enjoy playing alone while i am exploring new horizons. Its great to feel the atmosphere the game builders put into a game when there is no rush on my character. [EQ, M, 51]

Just walking in a direction and seeing where it will lead and what is around is something I have done in nearly every MMORPG. Even when traveling between two points I have been to often, I sometimes walk instead of using whatever instant travel option there is. It's not the destination, but the journey that makes things interesting. Many game designers have put little 'gems' in the environment, sometimes just pretty locations begging for a screenshot but often you can also find little inside jokes or homage to other games or things from television or even history. [UO, F, 30]

I detest games that limit where I can go. Don't make an island that I can see on my screen but that my char can't get to. Well, if it is a level restriction, that is different. But I am talking scenery. And I want to be able to go where ever I want. If it is too hard for my char and my char dies, well, then it is a learning experience. I won't play games that will not allow me to explore every nook and cranny. [AC1, F, 54]


Others commented that it wasn't exploring in and of itself that was fun, but instead what was rewarding was finding out-of-the-way caves, dungeons or secret locations.

I have always loved exploring the world around me. I love to search through everything just to see what's out there. I wish that I could just run off and explore as easilly as it is done in EverQuest or anything else like it. I just like the feeling of finding the small cave entrance or narrow corridor that you never noticed before, what's in it? where does it go? The sense of adventure truly lies in exploration. [EQ, M, 26]

I have walked off of hundreds or thousands of cliffs looking for hidden ledges. [WoW, M, 35]



We see the same notion of exploration and discovery in other players but focused on non-geographical elements of the game. For example, centered on quests, NPCs or obscure knowledge.

I like to search every corner and stairwell. I greet every NPC that I can. I read the text for the quest givers. I try to start and finish every quest available to me at a given level. I voraciously gather knowledge, tips, facts, and seek to unlock that which no one has found to date. I take my time when others rush through. I like to cover as much of an area as possible. My inquisitive nature has earned me several deaths, but you can never know what lurks around the corner! I have spent up to an hour just running around, looking, observing, noticing, collecting, harvesting. A bit neurotic? I wholeheartedly agree. [EQ2, F, 25]

I enjoy finding the 'easter eggs' in a game. Recently on WoW I was in Booty Bay and was checking out the rings one of the vendors was selling, I had to replace my keyboard because I sprayed coke all over the damn thing when I read the descriptions. For instance one was for a cubic zirconia gem, and it said 'Trust us, she'll know'. The other was for a 'tiny diamond ring' and the write up said something like, 'Hey, at least it's a diamond'. [WoW, M, 26]



What becomes clear is that for some players, the accumulation of knowledge is in and of itself deeply rewarding.

I take pride in knowing places and things, having a good knowledge of what level mobs in this area where, what they where weak against, strong against, good dropps that could come off of them. In fact i was even promoted to officer in a guild i was in simply because i was always telling people where they should solo or where their party should go to. This sort of thing requires alot of work and play, people who just go to the highest levle miss alot of the game. Only people who take several characters through can really understand the entire game world. [WoW, M, 20]

I am honestly a knowledge seeker. I love reading the in-game letters, books, manuals and other written materials and listening to NPCs go on about their lives. The more I know about the world, the better the picture I get of it and it's inhabitants' motivations. Exploring is, for me, much like gathering other knowlege and also is important when seeking it. Exploring the world around my character is also practical -- if there is an attack on the area, or someone needs help, I would know where to find them and the best route to get there. [WoW, M, 22]

Oftentimes, this knowledge acquisition is rewarding because it can be shared with others. It's now about knowing something as much as being able to share that knowledge with others.

I like recognition - not for being the most powerful player, not for having the most money or the best equipment, but simply for being the best at what I do. I am a research-monkey at heart and enjoy finding new things, cataloging them, and discovering the unknown. Even more than that, I like writing about the things I've found, creating guides and FAQs to help other players learn, and trying to make knowledge freely accessible. That such things bring me a measure of fame and name-recognition plays no small part in why I enjoy this work; I like being stroked as much as any other person. I'm very good at what I do, and I like being known for it. I participate in online communities where I can share information, both on a server level (our default 'world' unit) and on the universal forums for my game. I suppose I just like being well-thought-of. [FFXI, M, 25]

I like to explore. I love learning things that weren't previously known -- where an enemy spawns, where an item drops, what the actual underlying mechanics of a game effect are. I like writing guides and FAQs to help other players; exploring helps me satisfy that particular aim. I get a kick out of being weeks or months ahead of the latest published gaming guides, and a bigger kick when I'm rapidly making them dated and irrelevant. [FFXI, M, 25]



Immersion also refers to the more basic sense of "being somewhere else", of being immersed in a compelling fantasy world.

I was playing World of Warcraft and puttering around Brill (still my favorite Undead city at level 30). I glanced at the clock and it was just coming up on 8pm. I heard an odd, rhythmic clanging sound. I hadn't noticed the sound before so I did some investigating. The sound was loudest closer to the Town Hall. When it stopped, I realized that it had sounded eight times and it was Brill's clock tower chiming the hour. The quality of the sound absolutely perfect for an Undead town ; disjointed, clangy and broken. And the attention to detail! Someone made the effort to get that in to the game. I found that absolutely delighted. [WoW, F, 26]

Immersion is an important part as far as feeling like I'm really part of the game world. I don't necessarily Role-Play a lot, but feeling like I'm 'in' the game is really fun. For example, in EQ, I felt like I was just playing a random computer game. Whereas with WoW I really feel like I'm involved because there's a rich history and I know a lot of the history about it. WoW has more depth and immersion than EQ in my opinion because of this. My friend and I agree that Everquest should be renamed Elfquest because the 'plot/history' seems to revolve around being an elf, or not being an elf. [WoW, M, 18]



The flip side of fantasy immersion is escapism - a desire to leave a world behind together with its problems.

Escape is the main reason I got into these games in the first place. An argument at home or a problem with a girl or difficult school work, for me, can be easily forgotten or put aside if I can log into my character for a while and perform whatever that characters job is with finesse. It feels good to succeed, and for some people like myself it feels good to succeed in a virtual world too. [EQ2, M, 22]

I have a high-stress technical job. I've been a gamer since I was five years old (thanks to my dad being an arcade manager for awhile). Gaming has always, /always/ been a source of stress-relief for me. It was when I was young and it has continued as I've grown older. I have used gaming to avoid thinking about real-life problems before, but that's just an avoidant behavior - putting things off doesn't make a problem go away. In many ways it's the same kind of escapism that alcoholics engage in, albeit without the propensity for chemical dependancy (though perhaps a very similar addictive effect). More often than not, I will still game when I've got a lot on my mind -- at the least I can ask my social network of fellow gamers to help me work out a problem that I may not be able to handle on my own. [FFXI, M, 25]

i started playing mmorpg games (primairly FFXI) as an escape.. a way to deal with the stress i was having. I don't do drugs, i don't smoke, i don't drink... so gaming was my method of escape... i loved being immersed in the virtual world and playing a role (i was a white mage ... level 67). i loved playing the role of a magician/healer ... working together as a team and having everyone involved play the very best they could.... it was so much fun! [WoW, F, 30]


Who Needs Fantasy?

We conclude with players who feel that fantasy and immersion have no real impact on their enjoyment of a game.

I enjoy playing the game, but it is not any more of an escape than a good book or watching the Discovery channel. I don't have the time nor the energy for role-playing. [WoW, M, 27]

I never really 'immerse' myself in the game. I do not role play, and I play my character the same way I act in real life. I am not the type of person who feels comfortable with 'roles' and am best at being myself. [EQ, F, 22]

Meh. Its more a number crunching game to me. How can you roleplay when its on the internet? It pales in comparison to real roleplaying with friends. [WoW, M, 25]