Digital Immersion: Is it what you thought it is?

by Charlie Simmons

Immersion is used outside of digital space as a term to measure the degree of involvement in a specific activity. Digital immersion is now a ubiquitous phenomenon that can be observed in all human activities starting with consumption of services and products as well as professional tasks.

Overall academic literature, in particular business and management literature, lacks understanding of digital immersion (DI) and as a result “immersion” is used interchangeably with “engagement” (Takatalo et al. 2010, p.27; Boyle et al. 2012; Bouvier et al. 2014; Parvinen et al. 2015). This project aims to examine what stimulates DI and how it causes behavioural changes in its users that keep them habitually absorbed.

The context of ‘streaming’ and e-sports presents opportunities to understand the DI in practice, enabling other digitally enabled businesses to borrow best practice techniques as well as create awareness of issues surrounding DI. Hence, e-sport, in particular Twitch.tv social community is chosen as a contextual setting to achieve the research aim.

Discussing Immersion

Immersion is used outside of digital space as a term to measure the degree of involvement in a specific activity (Denisova 2016). Brown and Cairns (2004 Cited in Denisova 2016) described immersion as a deeper state of engrossment, eventually leading to total immersion. This second definition highlights that immersion is more than a feeling, but a state of mind. In light of this Schettino (2015) explored 5 areas of immersion; embodiment/sensory immersion, emotional involvement, sense of presence, challenge/Interactivity and flow (deep focus).

DI and digital addiction are closely related. Ali (2016) described digital addiction as the “obsessive and excessive use of digital media which could be associated with negative life experiences such as distraction, anxiety and preoccupation”. Ali (2016) also highlighted the evolution of digital space starting to merge with physical space. Addiction itself is associated with a negative persona, could it be that technology and digital space are simply becoming an extension of our natural reality? It is becoming easier to lose awareness of our physical surroundings and become preoccupied with digital space (Gregoire 2015). As a result, psychologists are pushing for warning labels on smartphones to warn users of overuse. Moreover, persuasion is used interchangeably with the DI term (Denisova 2016). However, two terms are interlinked but still distinct concepts. Persuasion is about changing behaviour and attitudes (De la Hera Conde-Pumpido 2017). Immersion is a step and a collection of effects that all together can lead to persuasion. This essentially highlights that persuasion could be the outcome of immersion.

Immersion is an experience, it is a valued factor that players are subject to when interacting with games. This factor essentially provides the cognitive sense of “being in the game”, which results in the deep engrossment of players that leads them to direct all their thought and attention into the game, as opposed to their real-world surroundings (Brown and Cairns 2004 cited in Denisova 2016). Whilst in this state of total immersion, players lose track of time and forget about everyday concerns (Denisova 2016).

The following sections will look to explore the five areas of immersion proposed by Schettino (2015) in relation to streaming to determine if the platform is indeed immersive, not simply interactive.

Embodiment and Sensory

Krishna and Schwarz (2014) explored sensory marketing and embodiment, they defined this focus as “marketing that engages consumers senses and affects their perception, judgement and behaviour.” Kenderdine (2007 cited in Schettino 2015, p409) defined embodiment as “the experience of the world in all senses of the body”. It is also argued that tools, such as computers facilitate the means to perform actions that would otherwise not be possible. In doing that computers are therefore an extension of one’s body (O’Connor 2016).This is further elaborated to suggest that the mind is not limited by the restrictions of our biology, it is intrinsically rooted within our interaction with the world (O’Connor 2016).

Virtual gaming requires the use of mental and physical attributes, and with increased accessibility to technology the distance between virtual playing and real-world activity is becoming negligible (Sentuna and Kanbur 2016). The increased interaction with players provides a sense of acceptance in the digital environment and also stimulates further popularity (Sentuna and Kanbur 2016).

Embodiment is stimulation of the senses, however applying this theme in the digital context has led to the premise of “user defined reality”. To elaborate, the (digital) world in which the game takes place and the characters (in-game characters and avatars) are considered extensions of the biological self.

Emotional Involvement

Schettino (2015) viewed emotions as the feelings described by the participants of the study and their levels of enjoyment. One participant in particular expressed that “She felt the pleasure of being “immersed” in the soundscape” (Schettino 2015). This statement captures the link between emotion and immersion. Emotions can be viewed as concepts created by language in order for people to communicate moods and explain behaviours, this allows people to label and share their ‘emotional’ experiences (Latinjak et al. 2015).

Studies have been found to suggest that emotion plays an important role in ensuring that people engage with digital content and communities (Cohen 2014). Content that triggers emotional responses can lead to social sharing, this is the forging of connections in order to share emotional experience (Harber and Cohen 2005 cited in Cohen 2014). Games (digital or traditional) can trigger positive emotions such a happiness, in turn this contributes to the players (Streamer) or spectators (Viewers) overall enjoyment (Cohen 2014). Wang, Shen and Ritterfeld (2009) found that the most defining factor of enjoyment in gaming, is whether that game is considered fun or not. Games that are popular to play are therefore more likely to have a popular spectator activity (Jia et al. 2016).

Lee and Schoenstedt (2011) found that, similar to traditional sport, spectators are emotionally involved in the eSport and their favourite players. Viewers follow their favourite teams and are stimulated by their victories and losses. As for the players (or Streamers) the competitive nature is a vital emotive factor, it is important to demonstrate their skills over others and win (Lee and Schoenstedt 2011).

Sense of Presence

Schettino (2015) found a pattern that participants felt as though they had physically travelled to the destination of the soundscape, even though in reality it was an illusion created by the sounds in the study. In another study, Brown and Cairns (2004) identified three levels of immersion: Engagement, the first level of immersion. This captured the need for the gamer to invest time, effort and attention into the gaming experience: Engrossment, the second level of immersion. In this the controls become natural and the gamers emotions were intertwined with the unfolding of the game; Total Immersion, the final stage of immersion. In this the gamers described a sense of presence, reality faded away and the game was the only thing that existed. Brown and Cairns (2004) described this notion as “When you stop thinking about the fact that you’re playing a computer game and your just in a computer.” These arguments demonstrate an interesting element whereby an immersive experience transcends the boundaries of what the mind knows to be possible, and instead defines its own reality.

Challenge and Interactivity

The challenge element is a crucial part of the gaming experience and is one of the more appreciated factors of players, it keeps them interested and returning (Denisova 2016). eSports adds a new dimension to gaming, as it puts players against each other in a competitive environment whereby their “skills” and “talent” are determinants for their success. The challenge element is altered by ranking systems that are put in place to ensure that the challenge remains fair and provides a sense of achievement for each individual player (Hamari and Sjoblom 2016).

In this point, Streamers are immersed in the challenge and compete to demonstrate their skills to an audience. Viewers are demonstrating interaction with this competitive play similar to how traditional sport appeals to “psychological and social drives such as excitement, social interaction, competition, achievement, diversion/escape, knowledge application, identification with sport and fantasy” (Lee and Schoenstedt 2011). The nature of Twitch.TV’s chat application satisfies the need for social bonding and encourages viewers to chat and interact with each other and the Streamer.

Flow

Schettino (2015) primarily focused on the level of focus that the participants exhibited, in the sense that they were engaged and exploring the different elements of the room in the study as if it was real and the only thing that mattered. The participants lost track of time and had to be asked to move on because they were so ‘focused’ or immersed in the experience. Similarly, Csikszentmihalyi (1975) described flow as the process of optimal experience. People become so absorbed in their activities that elements outside of this focus become screened out and irrelevant. Csikszentmihalyi (1990 cited in Jennett et al. 2008) went on to present eight elements of flow: Clear goals; high degree of concentration; a loss of the feeling of self-consciousness; distorted sense of time; direct and immediate feedback; balance between ability level and challenge; sense of personal control; intrinsically rewarding.

Brown and Cairns (2004) recognised that ‘Flow’ and ‘Immersion’ are closely related and that they both progress through degrees of engagement. Flow can be viewed as a measurement for the level of immersion that is being experienced. In other words, it describes the level of deep focus being felt by the individual as a result of the 4 other constructs: Embodiment and sensory; Emotional involvement; Sense of presence; and Challenge and interactivity.

Contextual Focus: Twitch.TV

Twitch.TV was founded in 2005 under the name “Justin.TV” (Cook 2014). It has since grown to become one of the leaders in peak internet traffic, accounting for 1.8% which is just behind Google and Netflix (Cook 2014). Twitch describes itself as

“… a community where millions of people and thousands of interests collide in a beautiful explosion of video games, pop culture and conversation. With chat built into every stream, you don’t just watch on Twitch, you’re part of the show… If you can imagine it, it’s probably live on Twitch right now” (Twitch.TV 2018).

Twitch.TV is a hub for ‘user generated content’. This is essentially anything that is produced and developed by its members. It also hosts eSports tournaments and provide coverage to eSporting events. The gaming focus is still a key element and core identity of Twitch.TV (Alexander 2018).

Twitch users are free to view streams (Viewers) or create their own (Streamers). This accessibility and freedom has provided the foundations for Streamers to express their love for games, demonstrate their skills and make a living from doing something they enjoy (Gerber 2017). This accessibility also creates a dynamic that blurs the definition of a consumer and producer of content, a viewer can aspire, learn and become a streamer if they so choose (Jenny et al. 2017). Furthermore, it is argued that having such a platform has only led to more followers and buzz around eSports and the commercialisation of gaming competitively (Casselman 2015).

Streaming Interactive Culture and Nature

Traditionally, mass communication models followed a unidirectional approach to the dissemination of information. Whereby the senders of information are separate to the receivers of information, who are passive and rely on the sender (Chung and Nah 2009). The ‘streaming’ environment does not fit that example and audiences are encouraged to be engaged and active.

Two-way communication theory captures the ability for a brand to have multidirectional communication with the public, stimulating true dialogue (Archer and Harrigan 2016). Streamers take the role of the brand and interact directly with their viewers to create an immersive environment that viewers are a part of. The common interest between the viewers of that particular ‘stream’ is the ‘Streamer’ and the content they provide. However, there is little research that can determine what elements of streaming cause or amplify DI.

This two-way communication between Streamers and Viewers creates an interactive culture. Interactivity is described as having two distinct dimensions: medium interactivity and human interactivity. Medium interactivity is referring to the communication between users and technology; human interactivity refers to interpersonal engagement between two or more users of technology that includes a communication channel (Chung and Nah 2009). Twitch.tv provides a platform that enables both medium and human interactivity through empowering users to contribute to content and connect with each other.

Streamer-Viewer Relationship

Opinion Leaders can be thought of as individuals that are in a position whereby they can influence the thoughts, attitudes and behaviours of other people within their scope (Nunes et al. 2018). Streamers can be thought of as digital opinion leaders as they use their platform to engage with an audience.

Two-Step Flow Theory

The Two-Step Flow Theory (Katz and Lazarsfeld cited in (Uzunoglu and Kip 2014) describes how people recognised as opinion leaders interpret information they receive through media channels and pass it on to others, and as a result, increase its influence. Bloggers are considered to be online opinion leaders (Uzunoglu and Kip 2014), and similar to bloggers, streamers have the knowledge, expertise and concealed influential power that keep their audiences engaged in their content.

The ease of creating content, publishing and sharing it with individuals with similar interests has become easier, and studies have proven that personal communication is more powerful at affecting attitudes of individuals compared to mass media (Uzunoglu and Kip 2014). Katz (1957) identified common characteristics and behaviours of opinion leaders and used them to define three dimensions: Personification of certain values (who one is); competence (what one knows); and strategic social location (whom one knows). The first dimension relates to the values and traits of opinion leaders. Competence captures the opinion leaders’ knowledge and expertise of the subject. Finally, social location refers to the size of their network, with particular emphasis on the number of individuals that value their leadership in the subject (Uzunoglu and Kip 2014). Twitch allows a ‘two-way communication’ between ‘Opinion Leaders’ and ‘Individuals’. The three dimensions proposed by Katz (1957) can be looked at further to identify several constructs that can be tested to identify to what extent, if at all, individuals feel contribute to their DI; SC; accessibility; entertainment.

Source Credibility

SC refers to the extent an individual is perceived to be a reliable, knowledgeable and trustworthy source for information (Weirzl et al. 2016). This is a key attribute of opinion leaders as shown in the Two-Step Flow Theory (Katz 1957) and also considered a fundamental predictor of consumer acceptance with regards to product attitude (Filieri et al. 2018). It would be acceptable to apply the same characteristics of SC that one would apply to a professional athlete. The level of skill, ranking, professionalism demonstrated by streamers on their streams would prove their credibility to their audience.

Zha et al (2018) studied SC within the context of social media. The definition of SC in this context replicated similar themes along the perceived trustworthiness, knowledge and believability of the individual publishing content. There was also a suggested link to reputation, whereby if a user was to perceive the information being given was from a perceived credible source, they would also consider them to be reputable and would consider the information being provided to be of a better fit to the intended need Zha et al (2018). Zha et al’s (2018) study refers to “focused immersion” or “focused attention” as interchangeable definitions for the same described user behaviour. That focused immersion (or focused attention) is likely to lead to increased effort and better understanding, heightened enjoyment, curiosity and control. This research suggests that SC has an impact on focused immersion, hence the following hypothesis is proposed:

H1: Source credibility has a positive impact on digital immersion

Accessibility

The term ‘accessibility’ has multiple definitions in this study. Accessibility can be defined from its dictionary definition as “the quality or characteristic of something that makes it possible to approach, enter, or use it”(Cambridge Dictionary 2018). Within the context of this study it has two definitions. It refers to the ease of obtaining the technology to view or to broadcast streams. However, it also has another meaning that was highlighted through the literature. Accessibility can also refer to the interchangeable status of a ‘Viewer’ and a ‘Streamer’. As a result, the following hypothesis has been proposed:

H2: Accessibility has a positive impact on digital immersion

Jenny et al (2017) refers to the blurred definition of a consumer and producer of content and identified that consumers can aspire, learn and become producers if they choose. This introduces the concept of learning, or self-improvement within DI. Technology has advanced to enable new forms of learning (Moore 2013). Moreover, live-streaming platforms have two key capabilities which have been found to improve learning: 1) real-time interaction between viewer and streamers (Bradley and Lomicka 2000) and 2) video-based instruction (Duffy 2008). Twitch.tv has been described as a unique platform, where gamers who want to share their experiences with the gaming community can with ease (Payne et al. 2017). Research has described it as a “virtual third place, in which informal communities emerge, socialise and participate” (Hamilton et al. 2014, p.1315). Payne et al. (2017) found that Twitch.tv can have a significant positive impact on learning performance of viewers. This introduces a moderating variable surrounding viewers motivation to learn from the streamer, whether that is streaming as a function (e.g. streaming equipment/set-up, conduct) or improving knowledge or skill within the content (e.g. eSports/game knowledge and skill. A third hypothesis is proposed:

H3a: Source credibility has more impact on digital immersion when viewers desire to learn from the stream.

H3b: Accessibility has more impact on digital immersion when viewers desire to learn from the stream.

H3c: Group Affiliation and Community has more impact on digital immersion when viewers desire to learn from the stream.

Viewer Motivations

Successful games have many common attributes, one that stands out is the ability to draw a person in. This results in the person losing themselves in the digital world of the game, a term that people often describe as immersion (Jennett et al. 2008). This section looks at motivations of spectators of sports and translates that to the context of eSports and Twitch.tv.

Jia et al (2016) found that spectators study or watch streams for entertainment, which included repeatedly watching playbacks. Many sports attract large crowds, and followings that result in commitment to season tickets or collectibles and wearables (Mehus 2005). The Sport Fan Motivation Scale (SFMS) is a tool that was designed to measure the motivations of sports fans (Wann et al. 1999). Out of the eight categories identified, the following are also shared with literature surrounding immersion and eSports: Escape; Entertainment; Group affiliation (Wann et al. 1999). Escape captures the feeling of temporary relief from the ‘real-world’ (Wann et al. 1999). Entertainment within games captivate the players attention and hold it for long periods as players attempt to master the complexities of playing and accomplish objectives (Moore 2013).. Group affiliation refers to the desire to be surrounded by other people, a mutual bond that provides a sense of belonging and shared experience (Wann et al. 1999).

H4: Group affiliation and community have a positive effect on digital immersion

H5: Viewers perceived entertainment of a stream/streamer has a positive effect on digital immersion

H6: Viewers desire to escape from reality has a positive effect on digital immersion

Conceptual Framework

Untitled

Digital Immersion conceptual model

What did we do?

We conducted survey, in particular, an internet survey distribution method has been chosen. This allows respondents easy and quick access to the survey (Sue and Ritter 2016). Twitch.tv has said they are willing to share the posts on their student social media. The popularity of this social media could be vital in the development of voluminous credible responses. NUEL (National University Esports League) will also share the link to the survey on their social media. This highlights the flexibility of the online survey method, it can be accessible through multiple destinations and audiences in a cost effective manner (Sue and Ritter 2016). Compared to email, it also offers increased levels of anonymity should the respondent desire it. It is important to recognise that this type of survey can result in respondents abandoning, being distracted and forgetting to complete. In addition, the increased anonymity through this opt-in style results in limited information about respondents (Sue and Ritter 2016). The impacts of these disadvantages will be minimised through careful planning and careful survey construction, to ensure that all questions asked are easy to understand and have purposeful with regards to the research.

Results

Firstly, it is important to note that survey population was mainly male. This is typical of the eSports environment as it is predominately occupied by males (Hamari and Sjoblom 2016; Jenny et al. 2017). However, this could be considered a limiting to the generalisability of the study as results were predominately from the male position.

eSports and Twitch.TV have grown rapidly over the last decade surpassing some traditional sports, as well as generating mainstream interest and sponsorships (Jonasson and Thiborg 2010; Casselman 2015; Hamari and Sjoblom 2016). This study proposed a definition for DI and discussed how DI could be responsible for the growth and success of eSports. DI is defined as “the use of computer technology which stimulates deep mental and emotional involvement”.

The main portion of this study focussed on measuring the level of DI being felt in accordance with constructs prevalent throughout the literature. Out of the four hypotheses that were tested, only one was rejected. However, even the rejected hypothesis is a surprising result that also will be discussed.

The results showed that “Escape” is the most positively effecting single construct to effect DI. The feeling of temporary relief from the real world and “mind travel” is widespread throughout immersion literature (Wann et al. 1999; Schettino 2015). It therefore makes sense that escape is a valued element of DI. It also further demonstrates that reality can be determined by the individual, and digital environments that allow users to define their own reality are more immersive (Brown and Cairns 2004). This highlights an interesting phenomena, and applying what Brown and Cairns (2004) explained with playing computer games to this context it leads to the concept: “When you stop thinking about the fact you’re using a computer and your just in the computer”. Interestingly, this leads to the concept that content should allow users to forget about the real world and encourage their user defined reality.

The results showed GAC as the second most positively affecting construct to DI. Schettino (2015) identified five areas of immersion, GAC can be considered to effect or provoke reactions in all five of these areas (Jia et al. 2016; O’Connor 2016; Sentuna and Kanbur 2016; Jenny et al. 2017). Specifically the work on the SFMS tool completed by Wann et al. (1999) shows links between the five areas of immersion and the and the eight categories of the SFMS. It could be argued that sharing the experience with others leads to further immersion as the inclusion of a community provides users with a feeling of acceptance and validation of their digital reality (Jenny et al. 2017). Twitch.TV allows people to engage with the Streamer and all the other viewers of that stream. This means that there are vast amounts of people with similar interests all engaging in social interaction creating a community. Regular viewers that engage with the chat systems are also very much part of the Streamer brand, recognised by the Streamer and other members of the community (Archer and Harrigan 2016).

The results showed that the introduction of Learning as a moderator variable to GAC had to strongest overall relationship with DI. Payne et al. (2017) described Twitch.TV as a virtual third place which has a significant positive effect on the learning, socialising and participation of its audience. Immersion and GAC both express the synergy of interaction with people, places and things (Hamilton et al. 2014; Schettino 2015; Jenny et al. 2017), therefore it is logical that content that stimulates and provokes self-improvement leads to deeper focus and DI. Learning was also looked at as an independent variable and the results showed that there was a significant strong relationship with DI. Due to two of the original hypotheses being determine as unreliable via Cronbach Alpha, learning was only considered with GAC. This will be further discussed in the limitations section. However, further research should explore how Learning contributes to other constructs, especially considering its proven direct relationship with DI.

Interestingly, and contradictory to literature, Entertainment (H4) was rejected. It was found to be insignificant and have no relationship with DI at all. Research surrounding sports consumption motivation (Wann et al. 1999; Jia et al. 2016) and immersion literature (Schettino 2015; Denisova 2016) expresses the requirement of “entertainment” in order to motivate or experience immersion. It could be argued that people are immersed in their everyday “physical” lives, and that day to day behaviour is not always entertaining. The assumption could be made that digital environments when viewed as an extension of the biological self (Brown and Cairns 2004; O’Connor 2016), are receptive to the same factors that influence immersion in the physical world. This would need to be researched further to clarify how closely people link their digital world with their physical world and whether there is indeed a separation at all.

The study proved the existence of DI within the environments of eSports and Twitch.TV. Figure 4.5 shows the results from the testing of DI through questions generated as a result of the literature surrounding immersion conducted by Schettino (2015) and applying that to the digital context. Majority of respondents feel they “somewhat agree” or “strongly agree” with these statements. The statements cover: embodiment/sensory immersion, emotional involvement, sense of presence, challenge/Interactivity. Future studies could look to determine the level of Focus being felt as a result of the level of agreement that users feel with each of the other constructs.

At the heart of digital immersion is community: The more that individual is experiencing community and feels part of that community, the more likely they are to be immersed in the digital environment. Contrary to existing research on online influencing we found to support to demonstrate impact streamers (aka influencers) have on digital immersion in the context of e-sports. Moreover, entertainment within content is also irrelevant to the digital immersion. Once again contrary to existing research. Finally, content that allows users to escape from reality and forget about real world problems, and learning in combination with community factors found to have strong and positive impact on digital immersion. Findings of this research have implications beyond its contextual focus, e-Sports. Businesses can utilise learning, escape and community effect to improve online presence and stimulate much more meaningful engagement with a digital content.

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