Book Review: Immersion by Paul J. Zak

When I was 12, I was invited to spend the night with one of the older boys in my scout troop. We were going to play a game I had only heard of and experienced as a Saturday morning cartoon. Dungeons & Dragons. My mom dropped me off and I was led down to the basement. It was the farthest we could possibly get from his younger sisters up stairs. Even so, Josh’s mom had to come shoo them up stairs a few times before bed.

I rolled up my first Advanced Dungeons & Dragons character. 4D6 drop the lowest and arrange to taste. I rolled the ability scores to play a ranger. That suited me down to the ground because one of my favorite characters from Lord of the Rings was Aragorn. Josh had a paperback book of baby names that I used to pick out the name Anastasius. A Greek name. I decided he worshiped Poseidon because I was into the The Odyssey and Greek myth. We played through a homebrewed adventure. I remember only the biggest moments.

We started in Lankhmar, on the Street of the Gods. We were transported to a pyramid that had four obelisks that shot lightning to its peak. We were heroes summoned to a different world. Tiamat had come into their world and their magic was no match for her power. We fought her, were nearly killed but were victorious.

It was amazing. I was Immersed in the game and playing my character.

Immersion is a term that appears frequently in tabletop role-playing game writing. It has been somewhat controversial. There are some who say that there is no such thing as immersion. Others have been quite convinced that there is such a thing as immersion and that it is potent emotional experience. It has always been difficult to define what we meant by “immersion.”

I am in the school that says the best moments in tabletop RPGs produce immersion. I was never sure about how to articulate what that meant. It was a feeling. It was a reoccuring desire to play more. To play as often as possible. To play as long as possible.

When I saw the title of this book Immersion: The Science of the Extraordinary and the Source of Happiness (affiliate link) I immediately bought a copy and read through it in a few days.

Who is it for?

Immersion is a worthwhile read for anyone who is trying to create meaningful moments for other people. Sticking with the primary audience of this blog, I think all of you should read the book. There is relevant information for anyone who tells stories in any form, plays music, runs a retail store, trains or leads employees, educates children, or plans events.

That may seem like a broad audience but all of those things have something in common.

People.

People have biological commonalities. One of those commonalities are neurological response to our experiences. Extraordinary experiences produce Immersion. More on that below.

What’s it for?

Immersion was written to help readers learn how to apply the lessons Dr. Zak learned through his research. The principles he outlines in the book not only improve the experiences we chose to have or create. They can be used to improve our relationships with friends, family, our kids, or co-workers.

Zak’s research shows that it is easiest to produce Immersion with experiences that have a narrative.

The focus of this blog has always been games and stories so the applications there are obvious. Most of you are interested in telling stories or using narratives of some sort as part of your gaming experiences.

Understanding what creates Immersion and the effects that has also has some explanatory power for those of us wrapped up in game design theory and thinking. The descriptions of what makes an experience Immersive, I found myself reflecting on my favorite, most memorable game and story experiences. I will be using these ideas in future games and stories.

What is Immersion?

Immersion, as defined by Paul Zak, is a “neurological state in which one is attentive to an experience and it resonates emotionally.” Dr. Zak runs a neuroscience lab that studies social behaviors. Using a large suite of tests including blood draws, heart monitors, and measuring the electrical activity of the brain to measure the responses people had to different experiences. Over many years of study and experimentation he was able to develop an understanding of what happens in the brain when some is having an Immersive experience. Eventually, his lab was able to create software that ditched the invasive testing and use a smartwatch to measure Immersion.

For the purposes of this review I’m going to skip the sciencey details. He gives a good explanation off all that in the book.

A thing that reinforces confidence a scientific finding is its predictive power. If your claim can’t reliably predict a measurable outcome, thats weak evidence. One thing that they showed in their research is that highly Immersive experiences cause people to be more persuadable and much more likely to respond to a call to action in advertisements, stores and training events.

Powerful, and perhaps dangerous.

What I took away.

If you want to teach, persuade, inform, educate, train, or develop a relationship; Tell a story.

There are ways you can create more Immersion in your stories and games. Here are a few suggestions.

Novelty grabs attention and increases Immersion but it must be balanced with familiar context. You can do something weird but it is will be more effective if it exists within a setting that is familiar to your audience.

If you are running a single shot or convention game; grab player attention as fast as you can with combat or something unusual in your first encounter. Immersion starts with attention. The most effective way to grab attention is to put characters in a little danger.

Keep encounters of all types to less than 20 minutes. Resolve the encounter and move on so you have peaks and troughs of engagement. Nobody can sustain high levels of immersion for long periods of time. It’s exhausting.

Emotions create memory. If you want players to remember something about your campaign setting or an NPC, create an emotionally charged encounter to go with it.

I could create a whole listicle blog post of recommendations pulled from the book but the best recommendation is to read it for yourself.

Dr Zak spoke about the book on the Future of Storytelling podcast. It’s a good episode of a great podcast.

About my affiliate link.

I need to find some income to pay for the hosting costs of this blog and to expand what I offer here. If you buy books, I encourage you to use the affiliate links I’ll be dropping into my book reviews. I have joined the affiliate program at Bookshop.org a certified B-Corp that gives 80% of its profit to independent bookstores.

If you buy a book from Bookshop.org from my affiliate link above or from my affiliate book shop part of your purchase price goes to me and to independent booksellers at no extra cost to you. It is more expensive than Amazon but I think it’s a worth paying a little extra. Book stores have always been one of my happy places and I’m willing to pay to see them survive and thrive.

It is a great way to support independent book stores while shopping without your pants on!

One thought on “Book Review: Immersion by Paul J. Zak

  1. Daniel

    I’d actually really appreciate a sequence of posts about how to enhance immersion at the various points of a game (RP, world building/discovery, combat, character progression, starting a campaign, starting a session, etc…). Maybe with examples of times things worked really well, and when they didn’t.

    For me, realising that 20min is probably the max time people can maintain concentration explains why some of my epic, giant (long) combats fell flat. They were still interesting and dynamic but people got washed out real quick. Moving forward I think I will try to break epic combats into 20min ‘scenes’ with a small RP break in between. Not enough for a rest so it’s all the same encounter technically, but enough time for people to reset and reengage.

    Liked by 1 person

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