Kinæsthesia: Immersion from a Third Person Perspective2021/11/24
Kinæsthesia is the perception of one's own movement. Along with an internal awareness of our body arrangement, such as the orientation of our limbs, it helps form a robust sense of our own position in space and our relation to the world around us. While the majority of us may think of sight as the primary sense that grounds us in our environment (and I apologise to anyone visually impaired for my experiential bias), it's this often subconscious and unexamined sixth-sense that is vital to our connection to the physical world.
Videogames are, by their nature, a visual medium. Aural too, although the "video" and not "audio" prepended to the "game" of their title makes clear where the emphasis usually lies - indeed many more games are playable without sound than those playable without visuals (and playing games muted is something I am no stranger to). Although some efforts have been made otherwise, most notably in the haptic feedback offered by rumbling controllers, these two senses are the usual extent of a game's sensory channels (if you are wondering, I am deliberately ignoring virtual reality in this examination, something I have little experience with).
When it comes to immersing a player in a game this presents a challenge. Immersion requires a singular focus, a foreshortening of the physical gap between player and screen. Headphones can shut out the outside world, to give one example, although I note 3D audio is seemingly only just beginning to get the attention it deserves in that space. The visual separation of the game screen is more difficult to eliminate. On one level this arises from the partial window that a screen presents (as an aside, a VR headset is perhaps analogous to headphones in removing sensory input from the outside world). Another consideration is the perspective of the game itself, primarily with a distinction between first and third person perspectives.
It is often argued, and comes as received wisdom, that first person is the more immersive of the perspectives. It's a logical position from a purely visual consideration, to see through the eyes of the player character, but it's a position I have never agreed with - for some time for reasons I could not articulate. I think this derives from a need to be immersed by more than just the visual, which brings me back to that sixth-sense of kinæsthesia.
A third person camera gives focus to the peripheral. In the absence of proprioception, a camera set back from a player character to include them in the frame can provide a visual translation of that sense of self-position. The player character and by extension the player is grounded in the game world, immersed within the environment, standing upon its topography and not floating bodiless through the tunnel vision of a windowed screen. While I cannot sense subconsciously the position of my character's legs, or feel the acceleration and impact of the ground as I run, I can substitute those senses with visual information provided by the third person perspective.
It's an unusual argument, I admit, to claim a literal representation of presence through a first person viewpoint is less effective in being immersive than a view through a detached third person camera. As unnatural as it sounds, I don't think it without natural explanations.
The first is an argument from empathy. Empathy is something humans are very good at. As impressively social animals we can empathise strongly with others - the same mirror neurons in our brains fire both when we perform an action and when we see another person performing the same action. We can model the mind-state of other people and put ourselves in their shoes - which is exactly what is required to become immersed in a videogame and the role of a videogame protagonist. It is perfectly natural to look at another from a third person perspective and empathise with their (quite literal) position.
The second explanation is the third person model of our own sense of self. I'm not sure how unusual I am in this, but for the most part my memories play out in third person. If I recall an event I almost invariably see it from an out-of-body perspective, watching myself physically in the scene I am remembering. The same happens for my dreams, which while I believe I experience at the time in first person (and my experience of lucid dreaming would back this up), when remembering them come morning I picture them as one might a movie, myself as the main character. It would seem my own sense of self is from the third person perspective, and so it is perfectly natural - and immersive - for me to play a videogame in the same way. Walking a character down a road, camera panning around them, is not that different to how I will remember myself doing the same thing in the real world.
That is to say nothing of the visual cues from the animation of a character model that can translate such varying experiences as the temperature, tiredness or even fear they are experiencing. These flavourful traits can be often seen as separating the player from the protagonist and lessening immersion by making the player character more of a character as of themselves and less of a transparent player insert. While this can be true to an extent I would argue it can just as effectively do the opposite; like a visual translation of body position these cues also translate optically other sensory channels that are otherwise lost. It is difficult, albeit not impossible, for a first person game to make me feel cold. On the other hand, if I can see my player character shivering, then I can empathise with them - and in doing so, I'm all that more immersed.
As a parting thought I draw on the example of the Bethesda franchises The Elder Scrolls and Fallout. Primarily designed as first person games, and unarguably mechanically better in that perspective, I invariably find myself playing them in the alternate third person view, camera drawn in if I can to be placed over the shoulder by a short distance. Why I do this is now no surprise - as role playing games, this is the way I can best immerse myself in their sandboxes. Pulling back the camera is what pulls me into the game. Surely I am not alone in this experience?