Immersion in Digital Fiction

What did we do?

We looked at the ways in which readers refer to themselves being immersed in a digital fiction experience. Previous research suggests that immersion is a complex, multidimensional experience. It doesn’t just come and go, as if you were jumping into and out of a pool of water. Immersion has a lot to do with how we direct our attention to certain parts of an artwork, or a game, and what causes us to do so. We wanted to know

  • how exactly our participants were going to talk about their feelings of being immersed in a digital fiction,
  • what particular elements of immersion they experienced and in what ways,
  • how our findings might help us develop and innovate the theory of immersion.

Why is this important?

A lot of research has gone into immersion in readers of fiction and players of videogames, but we still know very little about how exactly feelings of immersion develop and change while readers interact with digital-born, literary games, or how these feelings break down into elements of immersion relating to space and time, to story and character, to gameplay and kinetic interaction, and even aspects of where, when and with whom the reader-player is experiencing the narrative. In digital fictions, users commonly have to combine gameplay, 3D navigation, interaction with objects, and reading, and they are exposed to a wide range of audiovisual stimuli that draw their attention to different elements of the storyworld at different times during the experience.

Rather than measuring levels of immersion quantitatively, we were interested in the language used by readers to describe qualitative aspects of their experience, and how a discussion in a reading group can contribute to readers’ understanding of what they have experienced.

How did we do it?

We studied reading groups in the Sheffield area, whose members had interacted with a 3D immersive fiction installation on display in Sheffield’s Bank Street Arts Gallery in November 2015. The work is called WALLPAPER, by artists Judi Alston and Andy Campbell, and it is set in and around a spooky, deserted house in the North Yorkshire moors.


We worked with four reading groups, of which three were established and one was set up specifically for this project. In total, we had 14 participants discussing their experiences of interacting with WALLPAPER, and we asked them specifically to think about how the text made them feel immersed or indeed alienated them in various ways. We audio-recorded the discussions and subsequently transcribed and coded them for references to specific types of immersion. In this process, we learned that previously documented types of immersion would not be sufficient to analyze our reader data exhaustively.

What did we find?

Our research showed that, because immersion is stimulated by multiple immersive features which interact with each other, it is a far less totalising experience than generally assumed. Readers in our study reported feelings of being pushed into and out of the fictional world at various times during their encounter with the text. We could also see that participants’ attention diverged to particular parts or aspects of the storyworld, but also to aspects of the exhibition space surrounding them in Bank Street Arts. From this we concluded that reading an immersive digital fiction involves different types of immersive experiences with different levels of intensity. To conceptualize this idea, we introduced an idea called “the switchboard metaphor” in which different types of immersion come in and/or out at particular points in the experience.

Our findings suggested that being in a 3D immersive digital fiction makes reader-players feel more permanently immersed in the space and time of the storyworld than in other aspects of the experience, such as gameplay and character empathy. We also saw a striking relationship between the perception of noises in the environment surrounding the reader-player physically and heightened perceptions of spookiness, for example. The interaction with or presence of observers and co-players in the gallery space also shaped feelings of immersion, either positively or negatively. Finally, we introduced a yet undocumented type of immersion relating to reading literary text in the storyworld, which we refer to as literary immersion and which can relate to aesthetic effects of how text is arranged (e.g. floating text circles) or more cognitive-heuristic elements of trying to piece together the story from text fragments and written documents that the reader-player has to interact with. Future work will be needed to verify whether these conclusions are generalizable in other digital fictions and in other media.

Another, more theoretical aspect of this research applied so-called cognitive poetic principles to the multimedia, interactive game environment offered by an immersive digital fiction like WALLPAPER. Previous research on cognitive poetics has looked almost exclusively at print media, and our research has taken the area of cognitive deixis (subject- and context-specific references to space, time, and person) in particular onto a medium-specific level that also suggests that immersion in simulative 3D digital fiction is more similar to face-to-face communication as an embodied experience than the reading of print fiction.

Where have we published the research?

We have presented our research at several conferences and published it in the International Journal of Literary Linguistics (2018).

Since its first iteration, WALLPAPER has now been developed into a VR application and exhibited in various places around the world.