Immersion is a fun little buzzword in computer roleplaying game (RPG) circles: it describes the attempt — often successful — to really lose yourself in the parts of a computer RPG that don’t involve shooting things, leveling up, and/or solving basic logic puzzles. It’s often related to crafting, but now that more and more computer games are letting you ‘mod’ (short for ‘modify’), the range of activities can be drastically expanded. And, surprisingly: quite often in a non-lascivious manner.
I’m going to speak mostly about Bethesda games here, largely because their Elder Scrolls and Fallout RPG series are extremely mod-friendly these days, and have an entire community who love the idea of creating new things for those games, then give them out to people. And immersive mods are very popular. Particularly in a game like Skyrim, which already gives you a lot of incentives to forget about the main quest that you’re supposed to be doing, and instead go be an itinerant woodcutter and hunter who wanders the countryside until you can have enough money to go build your own little shack in the woods.
There are people who play the game largely to do exactly that — and then go live in that house, because it’s soothing. Immersive, as it were — which is why some people will, say, create a new house that’s already full of interesting things, put it somewhere out of the way, and release the mods so that other people can get right to the sunbathing and the sitting by the fireplace. There might even be a rocking chair.
Or, if that doesn’t appeal? A rather more complex way to achieve immersion via mods is to add something that probably should have been in the game to begin with. Case in point, also involving Skyrim: bardic activities. The game lets you join the College of Bards, and even sends you out on limited set of quests involving the College… but in the original game your character can never actually be a bard. Non-player characters (NPCs) can sing and play musical instruments, but you can’t. So a modder sat down and created a bardic mod that allowed the player to perform in taverns, play for the jarls, use various musical instruments, and even have opportunities to rack up a little XP and money in the process. Sounds a bit odd, but when you’ve become an actual bard in-game and then find out that you can’t actually do anything bardic, finally getting able to do it is appealing.
There is one other major type of immersion-themed mods, which I don’t get into much because it doesn’t personally appeal to me: changing the environment of the game itself, typically to make things more difficult. Having to survive extreme weather conditions, the need to eat food on a regular basis, making it almost impossible to see at night… these are all popular mods, and I think appeal a lot to the folks who like having constant challenges in their games. And, of course, when it comes to basic physiological needs most game characters are completely unrealistic. In the real world, people do not go around for four weeks or more at a stretch without eating, drinking, sleeping, or using the toilet.
To many people this is admittedly a feature of RPGs and not a bug; but there are people who will happily change their game to make it more likely that their favorite character will freeze to death if he’s not careful. And that’s because that way the game just feels more real to the person playing it, then. Which is really the primary motivation that most people try for immersion, I think. It gives them a sense that they’re doing something that’s real*.
If you don’t play computer RPGs, I freely admit: it all sounds a little weird. And it is! But so are most other human activities, really — and it’s the same sort of order-generating activity that made farming simulators such a big thing a few years ago. This particular type is just… more complex, that’s all.
PS: There is one last type of mod-driven immersion, mind you: it’s where you replace parts of the game with something surreal. This is a classic example of the breed: and I’ll be honest. I don’t see how you could play an entire game of Skyrim with this mod active. But people do…
*Which, of course, they’re doing already. But we have a weird cultural attitude sometimes about people who like to play games.