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Two Sides of the Same Immersion

Eugene Y. Kukshinov
Independent Researcher


This paper describes the process of experiencing immersive interaction with simulated environments and divides it by means of two basic traditions in immersion research: the theory of presence in virtual reality and the theory of narrative transportation. The primary theoretical approach to this analysis is based upon the possibilistic model of consciousness (O’Connor & Aardema, 2005b). This model relies on a quantum view of consciousness where imagination and perception dualistically determine what is possible and what is not. According to this approach, the main differences between two types of immersion are based on a mutual understanding of the environment with which we interact and our consequent experience. In other words, a virtual environment is meant to be perceived and a narrative is meant to be imagined.  The main focus of this paper is to extend and unify a theoretical framework for future research.

  • Citation
  • Author Bio
Kukshinov, E.. (2016). Two Sides of the Same Immersion. Media Psychology Review. [Online] Vol 10(1). Retrieved from http://mprcenter.org/review/two-sides-of-the-same-immersion

Eugene Y. Kukshinov
 is an independent researcher, National Research University Higher School of Economics, Moscow, Russia.  He can be reached at e.kukshinov@gmail.com.


Each immersive interaction within a simulated environment is based on an experiential process of experiencing different types of simulations. Informed by Sherman & Craig, (2003), I categorize them as mental immersion within narratives and sensory immersion within virtual environments. Within immersion research, sensory immersion is frequently characterized as “presence” in virtual reality (Cummings, Bailenson, & Fidler, 2012; Lee, 2004; Lombard & Ditton, 1997), while mental immersion is frequently characterized as “transportation” into narratives (Dal Cin, Zanna, & Fong, 2004; Green & Donahue, 2012; Greenwood & Long, 2009). Other concepts do not fully fit the proposed explanatory model.

Theorists within the current fields of study related to simulated environments do not agree on the distinction between the constructs of presence and transportation. Transportation theorists, such as Carpenter and Green (2012), associate both processes together, claiming that presence could exert the same persuasive influence as transportation, but this notion still fails to fully explain impact. Researchers examining presence suggest that narrative media use may also result in the experience of immersion associated with presence, sometimes referring to it as “theatrical” presence (Skalski & Bracken, 2010), or self-presence (Lee, 2004). Applying text-based experience of transportation to interactive media and virtual environments raises questions of the definitional consistency when comparing the psychological experience of presence from reading text to experiencing simulated environments.

The variations among the types of media under examination creates a non-systematic approach which hinders the ability to generalize findings and further develop the field. I argue that the reason for this is a lack of understanding of the immersion effect mechanism. In order to clarify conceptual contradictions, I present an approach that looks at presence and transportation as two separate events, but both based on the same process of simulating experience.

The possibilistic model of consciousness (O’Connor & Aardema, 2005b) divides the process of cognition into perception and imagination.  Based on this model, I explain how each mode of immersion evades the integral process of cognition to achieve the simulation goals. I focus on the distinction between presence defined by perceiving a virtual environment and narrative transportation achieved by imagining its content.

Degree or intensity of immersion is determined by either stimulating perception to achieve presence or stimulating imagination to experience transportation.  According to O’Connor and Aardema (2005b), immersion is implemented through manipulation with possibility as “a key defining psychological characteristic of consciousness” (p. 242).  From this perspective, the more perceptually complete the virtual environment, the greater the sense of presence.  Similarly, the less complete the narrative, the more a person must generate through imagination and the more intense the sense of transportation.  The following will highlight the differences that occur in each type of experience simulation.

Possibilistic Model of Consciousness

The possibilistic model of consciousness, developed by O’Connor and Aardema (2005b), provides a quantum view of consciousness where reality is “constituted through shifting distributions of possibilities” (2012, p. 223). Reality, according to them, is more accurately conceived as the point of maximal possibility among a distribution of possible worlds. Based on that, perception and imagination should be understood as “dual modes of consciousness operating together” (2005b, p. 243) as they define the sense of reality jointly according to what is possible and what is not.

“In the possibilistic model, consciousness only ever presents the world in different degrees of possibility never as certainty, consequently, perception and imagination must at all times work together to form any kind of awareness” (2005b, p. 237). Possibility is a “key defining psychological characteristics of consciousness and that to be aware is to be aware of possibility” (p. 242). Thus the possible is conceived through imagination. “Perception operates outwards, and deals with what is there, while imagination is inward-looking and deals with what is not there” (2005a, p. 69). Therefore we imagine possibilities, not images or words (Morton, 2014).

Thus this model will help us to explain the different types and intensity of immersions, which are examined in the current paper.


In order to define the concept of immersion, I will begin with classifying media by the purpose of usage, based around the intentional scheme of Lunenfeld’s classification (as cited in Lister, 2009).  Lunenfeld suggests two kinds of media interaction: an extractive form aimed at gaining information, and an immersive form which occurs when “we move from seeking to gain access to data and information to navigating representations of space or simulated 3D worlds” (p. 22). Immersive interaction with media is defined as one which is not aimed at gaining information, but in the sense described by Mar, Oatley, Djikic, and Mullin (2010), “when one reads a piece of non-fiction one wants to be informed, but when one reads a novel, short story, or poem, one wants to be moved” (p. 822).  Since it is quite difficult today to use media purely extractively, all media could provide immersion (Blascovich & Bailenson, 2011; Greenwood & Long, 2009; Neys & Jansz, 2010; Riva, Anguera, Wiederhold, & Mantovani, 2006; Schubert & Crusius, 2002). The more important issue is the way media is intended to be used.

Generally, immersion is understood as the “psychological experience of losing oneself in the digital (artificial) environment and shutting out cues from the physical world” (as cited in Fox, Arena, & Bailenson, 2009, p. 96) or sometimes it is described as a “blurring of actual- and virtual-world identities and experiences” (Snodrgrass, Dengah II, Lacy, & Fagan, 2013, p. 235-236). The experience we obtain through immersive interaction with environments seems to be real, but it is actually not. Each way of being immersed is based on a specific environment, which is simulated to create the sense of reality. In the real world there is an “ability to shift [emphasis added] between imagination and perception in the same stimulus context” (O’Connor & Aardema, 2005b, p. 239) to determine what is possible, and what is not. Immersion evades this process by trying to achieve the simulation goals.

There are two kinds of immersions – mental and sensory (Sherman & Craig, 2003). Sensory immersion is the result of perceiving a virtual environment (chat rooms, 3D simulated worlds, etc.) and mental immersion is the result of imagining the narrative (books, movies, etc.). According to the current approach, perception is a primary cognitive process under sensory immersion; the more aspects of social reality that can be perceived in a virtual environment, the deeper immersion we feel (Cummings, Bailenson, & Fidler, 2012). Virtual reality is an actual set of possibilities determined by technology. So when we are immersed in virtual reality, we are not supposed to imagine anything beyond what is supplied by the environment because that creates awareness of the mediated process and the immersion would fail. When we are immersed in narrative, our sense of immersion is mental, based on imagination.  The more possibilities with a narrative, the more aspects that can be mentally simulated and the greater the experience of immersion as a result.  Within a narrative, our perceptual focus must be maintained within our imagination or the sense of immersion fails.

There are other differences noted in the literature between sensory and mental immersions. For example, sensory immersion in a virtual environment supposes losing awareness of one’s surroundings in the real world, but the mental one supposes the “loss of awareness of oneself” (Busselle & Bilandzic, 2009, p. 325). Immersion in narrative is characterized by a reduction of self-focused attention (Green & Donahue, 2012) or “losing self” inside the narrative (Gerrig, 1993). Our awareness is blurred with imagination, where our self-concept as mental representation of “associatively linked features of us” (DeSteno & Salovey, 1997, p. 352) exists in the frames of narrative possibilities. Typical constraints upon self-definition and self-presentation, such as age, race, gender, and body shape, do not apply in the virtual world (Knutzen & Kennedy, 2012). Thus the virtual environment could provide any self we wish to construct technologically, but the narratives create or modify our sense of self according to the characters and world presented (Green & Jenkins, 2014).

Transportation and presence are more common constructs found in the literature to describe the differences among immersive experience.  The metaphor of “transportation,” first proposed by R. Gerrig (1993), implies taking a journey. The sensory immersion, described by the construct of presence, implies a sense of ‘being there.’ These are the most accurate alternatives to the possibilistic model and have significant differences.


According to Lombard and Ditton (1997), presence is a “psychological state or a subjective perception in which the participant, although working with an instrument, fails to understand the role of technology in his[/her] experience,” or “perceptual illusion of non-mediation” (p. 9). Also, according to Lee (2004), presence is “the psychological state in which the virtuality of experiences is unnoticed” (p. 32). In both cases our belief of the environment’s solidity is not deterred (O’Connor & Aardema, 2005b) and as a result we could feel a sense of “being there” (Cummings et al., 2012).

“There” or a virtual environment is commonly understood as artificial or synthetic; “it is created by human agency as opposed to natural events” (Aguilera, 2012, p. 256). The purpose of such creation is to make possible a sensorimotor and cognitive activity for a person (or persons) in a digitally created artificial world, which can be symbolic or a simulation of certain aspects of the real world (Fuchs, Moreau, & Guitton, 2011). Being artificial, a virtual environment separately simulates social being, distinguishing physical and social aspects.  This makes it possible to determine “action” and “interaction” as two major goals of virtual environment usage. So the two kinds of presence can be separated into these elements.  The spatial or physical  is realized in the “physical space” of mediated environment (geometry metrics, spatial configuration, the relative location of the objects) The social is realized in “human place,” with affective, socio-cultural aspects of environment that involve perceptions of social interactions (Reno, 2005). The concept of “spatial presence” is widespread in the literature, Ijsselsteijn, Ridder, Freeman, & Avons, (2000) argue that the term “physical” is preferred.

Kilteni, Groten, and Slater (2012) provide the “sense of embodiment” construct to explain the mechanism behind “being” in a virtual environment. While they use it to describe the feeling of physical presence, it can be applied to the general concept of presence.  Presence can, therefore, be broken into three components: sense of self-location, sense of agency, and sense of body-ownership. These describe the perception of where and how we are located, how we are able to act to change the environment, and how the environment reacts.  This approach can also be applied to social presence.

Social presence. Social presence is a type of sensory immersion in mediated environments that simulate social interaction or communication. The sense of interaction in these environments happens when “part or all of a person’s perception fails to acknowledge accurately the role of technology that makes it appear that he or she is communicating with one or more people” (Horvath & Lombard, 2010, p. 89). For example, “speaking to someone on the telephone is so natural, that we can almost forget about the intervening medium” (Meyrowitz, 1985, p. 109). Social presence can be evoked through text (e.g., letter, chatting, etc.), sound (Riva et al., 2006), video (skype, video-conference, etc.) and other content. Increased simulation of socialization leads to increased perception which, in turn, increase social presence. Each simulated social situation should be integral to prevent the imagining of possibilities.

The social “there” of a virtual environment supposes the “feeling of contact obtained” (Lowenthal, 2009, p. 120) or simply the other. This environment is either symbolically represented (like in chat) or provides an actual representation of reality (video or audio translation). According to the offered structure of presence (Kilteni et al., 2012), the further feeling of “interacting there” will be determined by the sense of social embodiment. The sense of self-location is similar to the perception of environment, we are transmitted in a realistic way through video/audio or symbolically represented (avatar, data). The latter concept is widely used in social media, which is usually described as a form of virtual reality in cyberspace where users can enact identities for their friends, acquaintances, and a larger passing public (Noor Al-Deen & Hendricks, 2011). Importantly, virtual reality does not provide any ordinary circumstances of self-concept, making identities easily “tried on” (the only limit being techonology), which may provide the “decrease of self-concept unity” (Knutzen & Kennedy, 2012, p. 272). Furthermore, the sense of agency is based on our ability to send messages. And finally, the sense of (social) body-ownership is perceived through the response, considering the speed and quality of transmission, because we do not “own” our body from the social point of view, since we have not been reacted to.

One of the most immersive technologies in the sphere of business (according to the sense of social presence) is the video conference “round table” system, which provides a proportional and symmetric view of signal transmission on both sides. Such technology supports a formal business situation, which simulates all the possible social aspects of that kind of interaction. The result is a fully immersive environment, which is integral to these possibilities. Nevertheless, deep sensory immersion is implemented in a less realistic area, such as chatting, where emoticons and smileys were created to increase overt social-emotional expressions, which “compensate for the missing communication channel and nonverbal cues in written form” (Gunawardena, 1995, p. 155).

Physical presence. Physical presence is a type of sensory immersion into a virtual environment, which is based on the ability “to do there” (Havranek, Langer, Cheetham, & Jäncke, 2012). It is a result of transferring physical actions into the virtual domain (Balakrishnan & Sundar, 2011). The simulated physical environment of “there” can be implemented by way of separate parts of any world or pretending to be integral (as in videogames); the environment is also constructed in the real way (via pictures or video translation) or symbolically, ranging from simple signs to concrete modeling (Dilworth, 2010).

The further exploration of physical presence structure is based entirely on the aforementioned approach (Kilteni et al., 2012), which revolves around the sense of embodiment and three included elements. The sense of self-location determines the point in space where one feels he/she is located, which is specified by obtaining an avatar and/or perspective of view. Physical avatar construction is applicable here to exercise possible identity experiments (Knutzen & Kennedy, 2012). The sense of agency is understood as feeling oneself to be the agent of actions. And finally, the sense of body ownership amounts to the feeling of the environment’s reaction, which current technology is not yet able to fully produce. Although, there is a great example of such an invention, which is rather vital to actual simulation during distanced surgery, is a remote perceptual facility, which provides the reception of feedback from real organs (Dilworth, 2010).

The most advanced immersive technologies, stimulating physical presence, are encouraged by the game industry. It is currently possible to gather an immersive set of virtual technology devices: VR headset (OculusRift), costume (PriorVR), and table (Omni). In combination, these devices are able to transfer the most basic combination of physical actions into the virtual domain without any additional mediator, although it does not cover the sense of body-ownership. Game developers will likely bridge this gap. Using simulation of recoil in shooter games, or compression of joint areas in costumes to represent the injuries of avatars. However, this phenomenon is not addressed solely in view of virtual production, since videogames should be perceived as a combination of narratives (Wimmer, 2012), which are represented in a virtual environment.  As a result, immersion into videogames should be discovered both in the context of presence in the virtual environment, and in the context of transportation to the narratives. However, not all combinations of these senses have been formulated.

Narrative Transportation

Narratives. Mental immersion is defined as transportation into narrative. Since the concept of “narrative” is quite controversial according to different studies, it should be described more clearly. “Narro” in Latin means “to tell” and, as R. Kearney (2002) explained, every story shares the common function of “someone telling something to someone about something (p. 5). In this way, the narrow definition of “narrative” is introduced: haplè diégésis, an exposition of facts by a narrator who verbally signifies the facts (in written or oral form) (Speidel, 2013). Like a story in a book, narrative is able to provide the sense of being immersed in a “fictional world, being largely the product of our own mental, cognitive, abilities to create that fictive world from the symbolic representations – the text, whether purely linguistic or multi-modal, digital or print – displayed by means of any technological platform” (Mangen, 2008, p. 408). Nevertheless, scholars concur that it is possible to transmit a story through different media channels (Speidel, 2013): music through sound, movies in audio-visual form, video-games by virtual simulations and the like, are media narratives. Movies and videogames, as well as pictures (2013) or any visual art, even music without words (Juslin, 2009) can provide a form of a narrative which effectively transport.

Characters are basic semiotic elements of narrative (Eder, Jannidis, & Schneider, 2010) since they act according to their motives and therefore change the plot. Both the character and the action are “built up” into the narrative development (Martin, 1986). A character in narratives supposes and defines action as much as an action defines and supposes a character. Objects in a narrative cannot act without becoming characters to some extent (Scholes, Phelan, & Kellogg, 2006). For example, sun shining might be recognized as narrative action (consequently as a character) when it is necessary to the narrative (Altman, 2013). Narratives are not made of characters and actions independently, but of characters acting. Additionally, McDonald (2014) notes that:

While narrative might not include people, it will inevitably include some aspects that we understand to be a part of our social world. If the narrative involves animals or even simple dots as characters, we will still ascribe motivations that are human to the characters. (p. 122).

Narratives are understood as multidimensional purposive communication from a teller to an audience (Phelan & Rabinowitz, 2012). Narrative should be perceived by the senses to unfold its possible multidimensional composition in imagination. Imagination always has a goal and “sometimes it expresses and responds to emotions” (Morton, 2014, p. 14), which allows for narrative transportation. Narrative is used to change or maintain an emotional state, which is mean to lead to enjoyment (Mar et al., 2010). In other words, the goal of intentional narrative transportation is the simulation of pleasure (Dal Cin, Zanna, & Fong, 2004; Greenwood & Long, 2009) by way of emotions.

Transportation. Transportation is the mental form of immersion, which is defined as “emotional and cognitive adsorption into a narrative” (Greenwood & Long, 2009, p. 638), consequently “turning all mental systems and capacities to become focused on events in the narrative” (Dal Cin et al., 2004, p. 181). It is a guided form of mental simulation (Green & Donahue, 2012) of narrative possibilities. The more possibilities there are, the higher the chance for immersion.

Under the process of transportation, the emotional “journey” of our mental body or self-concept- a mental representation of associatively linked features (DeSteno & Salovey, 1997; Martinez, 2014), including emotional states- shifts multidimensional composition of narrative into imagination. Interactions with these narratives are similar to interactions with environment (O’Connor & Aardema, 2005b). Self-concept is a complex mental structure of the self, which consists of two main types of interrelated modules: self-schemas and possible selves (Martinez, 2014). Self-schema is a form of cognitive generalization about the self, derived from past experience. This self-schema organizes and guides the processing of self-related information contained in individuals’ social experience. Possible selves function as incentives for future behavior, and are not confirmed by experience (2014).

As mentioned above, narrative is used to change or maintain our emotional state (Mar et al., 2010). These emotional states are the results of mental representation while being transported. Music, for example, is a form of mediated narrative. Its purpose is to influence emotions (Juslin & Västfjäll, 2008, p. 559). Transportation by way of the music is followed by emotional responses, which depend on the age of listeners, their gender, personality, musical experience and preference, and current mood (Juslin, 2009). Familiarity (2009) with music (which produces the greatest impact), is a self-selective relation to the imagined characters who act and change the plot of sound narratives.

Every change of the self-concept is determined by an actual attitude towards the characters. These attitudes include identification, sympathy, empathy (Busselle & Bilandzic, 2009), and relation of perspective (Eder, 2010), which focus on the viewing- not the sharing- of feelings. Therefore, enhancing the ability of a reader to simulate the subjective experience of a character increases the potential of the story to change the reader’s self-concept, attitudes, and behavior (Kaufman & Libby, 2012). Identification is a dominant type of the one-sided relation, only being a possible consequence of transportation (De Graaf et al., 2012).

Identification supposes merging with the character and sharing his/her knowledge about the narrated events, sharing the character’s goals (i.e., hoping that he/she succeeds) and sharing the character’s emotions (Felt, 2011). Identification is experienced in two ways: when self-schema “fits” the desirable image of character; or when the character is connected to any possible self (Martinez, 2014). Since transportation is a form of possible blurring of experiences and identities between the imagined and real worlds, possible selve could be experienced enough to impact the self-schema: a little boy jumps down from the roof with a red cape on his back and with an actual belief of his ability to fly.

Text, as with oral narrative, is more immersive than video in transportation, though not as immersive as presence in a virtual environment (Bambrick et al., 2012). Text represents verbal narratives, which are not simulated by media, including more possibilities for imagination. In comparison to written narratives, the visualized ones do not have many possibilities to be mentally simulated, an exception being social relations. In the same way, music exerts more influence than visual images (Zehnder & Lipscomb, 2006), since there are more possible interpretations of sound narratives. Consequently, oral narratives and soundtracks are usually provided by movies and videogames as means of enhancing and expanding immersion into the psychological drama of audio-visual experience (2006).

Possible Immersive Combinations (Videogames)

Videogames are characterized as narratives (Brookes, 2010) mediated through virtual environment, which allow gamers to get a “feeling of doing” or “sense of agency” (Hammond, Pain, & Smith, 2007; Schubert, 2009). Avatar (and perspective of view) in a videogame is a spatial location of identification or visual representation of the character-self (Snodrgrass et al., 2013). Accordingly, interactive narratives (Green & Jenkins, 2014) should also be described as a kind of a game texture, since the reader, being in a first person perspective, discovers and changes the environment, which is equitably characterized as feeling of agency. There are, however, controversial relations between the two methods of immersion. While narrative transportation in videogames contributes significantly to enjoyment, it is detrimental to spatial presence (Balakrishnan & Sundar, 2011). The same happens with interactive narratives (Green & Jenkins, 2014), where emotional relation could be interrupted by external perception. As such, “the complexity of the narrative and the role of a gamer in that narrative must be carefully considered to strike a fine balance between greater enjoyment and greater spatial presence, especially in games where spatial presence is of critical importance” (Balakrishnan & Sundar, 2011, p. 197).

A partial solution is based on the approach of Bilandzic and Busselle (as cited in Giles, 2010) who argued that there are two types of realism which influence our engagement with narratives: external realism is framed by the degree to which certain elements of a story reflect real world experiences, and narrative realism is determined by plausibility and coherence of the story itself. External realism is more likely in simulation videogames which provide sensory immersion, while the videogames of narrative realism provide immersion. For example, an arcade racing-car game could have more immersive qualities than watching the Indianapolis 500 on an IMAX screen (Tamborini & Skalski, 2006), since it is a simulation type of media product. Additionally, this approach is enhanced by the idea of perspective in the game. While first-person perspective is more immersive due to sense of presence (2006) and is relevant for the simulation type of games, the third-person perspective is more immersive due to narrative transportation, as it allows observation of every event within the world in which the immersion is taking place.

A combination of both external realism and narrative realism could exert more impact together (Horvath & Lombard, 2010), but it is more feasible to discover the possible merging senses of social presence and narrative transportation. This is apparently a result of simulating remote activity based on emotions, for example in mediated sex. Whether online or exercised through phone (Ben-Ze’ev, 2004), this kind of mediated communication supposes the transmission of stories, which should transport the object of communication through the emotional journey by his/her mental body in imagination, or simulating pleasure through emotions by identifying with one of the possible characters. It is evident that rich media communication channels prevent desirable possibilities by reaching imagination.


Immersion in general supposes simulation of experience. There are commonly two ways of achieving such feelings, which are at times incompatible. This paper is primarily aimed at providing the proper understanding and distinction of these concepts, since virtual reality is meant to be perceived and narrative is meant to be imagined. Presence, whether social or physical, supposes interaction with a virtual environment as a sensory experience, made available by the technological simulation of the social activity and the self. When trying to achieve the sense of presence, the greater the aspects of social reality simulated, the greater the change for perception, and evasion imagined possibilities. From the other side, transportation supposes an emotional experience is the result of simulating the narrative possibilities in imagination, qualifying characters to establish one-sided interaction with the self. The facilitate narrative transportation, the story should be perceived to imagine its possibilities.

The “book problem” is not the only issue according to immersion studies. This paper should stimulate research in the field of filmmaking to evaluate the increasing role of virtual technologies in the production and transmission of the content. This issue supposes immersion, excluding the transportation into the film narrative. At the same time, immersion into videogames should be discovered by both sides of the phenomenon studies, since there is a complex dual impact obtained with mutual experience from mental and sensory simulations. Focusing on the possibilistic model can lead to a better understanding of influential mechanism of immersion. This will help create more immersive environments in the future, which would provide positive consequences of the impact, or allow an understanding and prevention of negative ones.


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