Can Board Games be Immersive? The Psychology of Board Game Immersion

When people talk about video games, one of the biggest buzz words seems to be “immersive.” Webster defines it as “the sensation of being surrounded by a completely other reality.”

everyone knows that video games are unrivaled in their ability to create immersive worlds, and their ability to engulf a player in that world. Video game worlds are far bigger and more complex than in any other media, and it often pays off in their ability to transport players.

But what about board games? Can board games be immersive?

There are certainly attempts to create worlds in some board games. Games like Gloomhaven or descent have elaborate dungeon setups, and some players have taken it on themselves to make them even more elaborate. Everdell even goes as far as to create a 3d model of the game world’s Evertree, serving little purpose but to presumably creation immersion.

But these games ultimately do very little to create a sense that you in a dungeon or a forrest. A player will never think they are physically present, or react emotionally to the perceived dangers. Even the most elaborate bits of world building in board games aren’t going to transport you.

Board games just don’t have the same tools as video games. Video games can show you an elaborate world, with all the lived-in details you expect from the real world, built like an elaborate movie set. Every object, person and place has a story, told through implication.

But in board games, the art is static, the worlds we deal with are simple, and zoomed out far enough that we can’t see any of the details that might make these worlds feel real. At the end of the day, board games are just too abstract to create a sense of place.

On top of that, board games are a multiplayer medium, and the only place we typically see immersion discussed are all mediums where you typically consume it individually. So perhaps board games simply can’t be immersive.

So I began to do some research, and I came across an idea called procedural representation.

Procedural Representation, simply put, is how games simulate one thing with another. For example, a game might represent building by moving a card from your hand to a table, or simulate combat with dice rolls. Real combat has nothing to do with dice, or even random outcomes, but the game simply asks you to associate one with another. The link is purely abstract and exists only in the game’s narrative, but we are capable of making that link simply by telling ourselves it exists. In video games, they get to choose how and when they use procedural representation, because the only thing limiting their games’ interfaces is time and money. When a game represents hand-to-hand combat, it doesn’t need to use procedural representation, because it can show a person punching: there is no abstract narrative attaching a person punching to combat, that just is what combat is. Likewise, a game could represent a backpack realistically, as a 3d space, with controls to unzip it, and riffle your hand through it. But it could show you a list of items that represent abstractly what’s in your character’s backpack, and that’d be simpler to make and more usable.

But in board games, typically every action you take is separated from the theme by at least one level of procedural representation. And that is not necessarily a bad thing. People learn to associate their action with its meaning. People don’t struggle to make these abstract connections if they’re designed well. And after learning about this idea, I realized, the less procedural representation a game has, the more immersive it feels to me.

And I can think of one board game that has so little procedural representation, it’s honestly remarkable. That game is Sherlock Holmes, Consulting Detective. For those of you who aren’t familiar, it is a mystery game, where you read passages, follow clues, and ultimately try to solve a mystery before Sherlock Holmes does.

In order to solve these mysteries, the game arms you with a map, a phone book, and the day’s newspaper. Playing the game involves reading narrative descriptions of your interactions with people, using the phone book, and the map to find the location of the next person you want to interview, reading their passage and continuing on that way until you’ve solved the mystery.

The game largely takes place in your head, by forcing you to think like a detective. There are no clue mechanics. There are no hint mechanics. There are no props to remind you what you already know. You, and any other players are simply discussing the crime, taking notes on whatever seems relevant to you, and debating where you ought to go next.

It’s remarkable because all the actions you take in the game are things that actual detectives do, and all the props are more or less simplified versions of real things. None of it needs to be abstracted away with procedural representation because sitting at a table covered in papers in a perfectly normal thing for a detective to do. Taking notes about which locations you’ve been to, and which people you’ve met is something real detectives do. Looking people up in a phone book is something real detectives do.

Because Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective minimizes the procedural representation, it allows you think like a detective thinks. It allows you to truly take on the role of a detective. And you’re no longer interacting with the mechanics of the game, you’re interacting wholly with the narrative of the game. If someone were reading my thoughts while I was puzzling out one of the game’s cases, my thoughts would be nearly indistinguishable from the thoughts of a real detective. I’m not thinking about game mechancis, I’m thinking about people, their motives, their windows of opportunity, and so on.

And not only that, but it creates a social environment, where everyone at the table is thinking that way. No one talks in terms of game mechanics, but in terms of who murdered who. It creates a magic circle where the rules of the game go unquestioned, and the theme becomes real.

This doesn’t fit our definition of immersion at all, but I can’t see how this isn’t immersion.

So I looked outside the world of video game studies, and I found a paper by Kwan Min Lee. He theorized that there are three different types of immersion. Physical presence, Social presence and Self presense.

Physical presence is the first definition of immersion that I presented. The feeling of being surrounded by another reality. And while video games really knock physical presence out of the park in a way board games can’t, board games might be able to do the other types of immersion, right?

Well, it turns out, what I was describing about inhabiting the mind of a detective? That’s called self-presence. And the social environment I was describing, where everyone inhabits the thematic world? Kwan called it social presence.

Board games are uniquely positioned to take advantage of these two types of immersion in ways that even video games aren’t.

Firstly, a shared social context over an online video game is rare, and nearly impossible to curate. Online players often do things to take you out of the world. Online games are more likely to be filled with trolls than role players. Between the anonymity and the toxic masculinity rampant in gaming communities, players often end up acting in the most outrageous ways possible.

Even self-presence is more difficult to manage in video games. Video games have often a guess-and-check mentality to them, while board gamers must understand the rules and systems of a game before they can start playing. Video games also have video game logic, that rewards players for looking for edge cases, exploring for how edge cases intersect and in general,  for doing non-immersive behaviors. That’s partly because video games are so big, and have so many systems, and partly because video gamers are trained to expect certain nonsensical things, like getting stronger in combat for cooking 1000 meals.

But board games are by necessity an exercise in limited systems. And if those systems are tight, they can do so much for immersion.

So, can board games be immersive? Absolutely.

But let’s talk about another example.

Terraforming Mars. In this game, you are the CEO of a corporation competing to make the most progress terraforming Mars. Players build up engines that produce metals, money, plants and power every turn, while drafting projects that utilize those resources to make the planet more inhabitable.

The premise makes sense, and the cards line up with real science. In fact, it was designed to follow the science as closely as it could. You’ll be deciding between projects like throwing asteroids at the planet to raise its temperature, or building a space elevator. The game even succeeds in putting you in the mindset of a CEO: even though you probably not considering the actual science, you’re doing what a CEO does: you’re looking at the costs and the benefits. You’re planning ahead, and trying to get the edge on the competition. You’ve hired scientists and workers to do the implementation, this game focuses mostly on the financial and strategic aspect of your projects.

The game nails for the formula for self-presense: it puts you into the mindspace of a CEO, it gives you a realistic set of considerations to mull over, and it gives you relatively few reasons to break that mind space.  But despite that, I’m not convinced it’s a successfully immersive game.

See, almost every strategy board game asks you to deal with a currency and to optimize choices based on resources. Even though that fits this game’s theme, it does little to differentiate it from any other game. Every game has the player asking themself “can I afford this?” But in order for that question to evoke a theme and be immersive, you need more than that to cling to. And Terraforming Mars doesn’t really have that unless you’re really looking for it.

Even though there is a board filled with forests, cities, and oceans, players are usually not even typically super interested in it, since the focus on the game is on your player board and tableau. The fun part of the game, and the evocative part of the game don’t really interact, so the game fails to be immersive.

Lots of games fit into this pattern. Since so many games just ask you to optimize resource spending, even games that do so while minimizing procedural representation way might fail to be immersive.

But so far, I’ve talked about how board games narrative impacts immersion, but narrative isn’t the only part of a game that can create immersion.

Next, I want to talk about Wingspan.

In this game, the narrative elements are tough to make any sense of. The game isn’t clear about what role you’re taking on: the rulebook suggests you might be a researcher, bird watcher, ornithologist, or a collector, but each one would have different relationships to the birds so even from the start, it’s impossible to sort it into a narrative. The actions in the game don’t even make sense as any one of those roles either: if you’re a bird watcher, drawing cards might be spotting birds, but if you’re a collector, it might mean capturing them or buying them. Does the food action mean you’re buying food and that you’re scatting it in your wildlife preserve? And what does buying food have to do with the forest? How do you control when birds lay eggs? Am I supposed to believe just any kind of bird is hatching from these eggs I’m spending to get more birds?

On top of that, none of the strategic considerations match up to the theme, and it’s hard to even imagine what you might even be doing with these mechanics. When I play wingspan, I think of the game sole in terms of mechanics: I don’t have enough cards in hand yet, I need more tokens before I can afford that, this card’s power isn’t very strong for how many tokens it costs, I refer to my wildlife preserve as my tableau, etc.

The difference between what the game tells me that I’m doing and what I am actually doing is the simulation gap. Wingspan has quite a large simulation gap, and Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective has quite a small one.

And while I don’t find the game the least bit thematic, lots of people praise the game for its strong theme.

Ultimately, I think it’s the opposite of what’s going on in Terraforming Mars. While that game should create immersion for matching it’s theme while minimizing procedural representation, it fails to because of how pervasive budgeting games are in board gaming, Wingspan creates immersion despite it’s super weak thematic elements because of how uncommon it’s thematic ask is.

See, players over look how budgeting might be thematic in a game, but when told to, uh, “make birds”, players are forced to engage with what that might mean. The more interesting a question the game asks, the more some players will engage with it. And ultimately, it results in self-presence for some players and not others, because of how some players want to engage with the theme.

And that’s not to undersell it. The game has a massive amount of ornithological data for players who want to crunch on that. And at the end of the day, being presented with ornithological data, and being told you’re a bird enthusiast, well, that isn’t immersion created through the game’s narrative, but it is a way to create immersion with the theme. But since that immersion isn’t built off the gameplay, only some players, those who want to be engaging with the bird facts on the cards, will feel the game’s immersive qualities.

Immersion is a fascinating part of games, but let’s keep in mind, immersion is just one tool that can make a game good. Video games often overvalue it, board games undervalue it, but surely there is a middle ground.

What’s important is that the board game design community learns to use it or exclude it more intentionally, so our games can keep getting better.

  1. When we talk about Wingspan’s theme, we’re specifically referring to how each bird card is a theme-first design. Elizabeth selects a bird, researches it, and then designs mechanisms specific to that exact bird. The same applies to Terraforming Mars–the cards in that game are designed with mechanisms matching the theme of each individual card.

  2. I think the idea of these categories of immersion is really interesting, and your explanation of Wingspan’s “immersion” coming from the originality in theme compelling players to engage with it is intriguing. I think your assessment of Terraforming Mars has some issues, however.

    I get your point with resource management/budgeting being perhaps less engaging (and thus less thematic) because players so exposed to it, but this seems to imply that any commonly used mechanics will prevent immersion outright ,which I’m sure you yourself could disprove with multiple examples. On top of that, I think your very description of being the CEO of a Mars terraforming company and how that’s connected to your actions in the game shows just how original this game’s theme actually is, even compared to Wingspan. How many games are solely focused on Mars, let along with a real world scientific focus, let alone with a terraforming specific focus, let along from a CEO perspective. Not only that, but the money management in the game, forcing you to split your focus between pure money generation from projects, up front money generation from loans and shady dealings, and grant money from raising your terraforming rating (and thus your score) is an incredibly thematic tie-in between mechanics and theme which, as I think we’d see this as a reduction in at least the magnitude of Procedural Representation, only serve to improve immersion. In short, I think between the elements that affect and effect immersion that you describe and the elements of Terraforming Mars (some of which you don’t take note of), it seems to run counter to the point you’re making overall, or at the very least runs counter to the comparison you’re making with Wingspan.

    This isn’t meant to be a fanboyish defense of Terraforming Mars, just an appreciation for some of the concepts you’ve brought up, and an appeal to dig a little deeper and bring some more games into your analysis. I’d love to see this expanded on.

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