Let me try to answer this question using paradigms. Games, then, are the paradigm opposed to videogames. This paradigmatic opposition can be expressed in the form: [ videogames : games ]. The apparent difference between videogames and games is “video”. On the level of the medium that a game uses, this analogy is true, yet, peel away superficial visual component and the distinction begins to blur together.
Is Scene It? a videogame because it uses videos? No, it isn’t, since this confuses the idea of a video, as in moving pictures, and interactive video. Scene It? relies on the player to operate the physical game-board and question cards, to which videos are only a whiz-bang addendum. When people play Scene It? they’re not actually playing with the videos, so the game is still a board-game. How about WordSquared or Words With Friends? These games took Scrabble and turned it into a social-media mobile-computer Frankengame. Both games still have game-boards similar to their source-game, but the application now oversees the rules and score. What about You Don’t Know Jack, then? This game goes even further: no game-board, and the game operates the questions for the players.
A better name for what we usually call videogames would be “computer games” or “computed games”. More precisely: “games in which a computer fully automates the entire system in which you participate”, but this is somewhat flatulent as a name.
Saying that these games are videogames in the same way that Modern Warfare 3 is a videogame feels wrong. The former could be played without videos—simply as quiz games—whereas playing MW3 without a computer or console would transform the game into something which it is not.
A different analogy provides a better understanding: [ apparent rules : hidden rules ]. In traditional games, the rules are immediately and necessarily apparent to the players, since they must act as arbiters. In videogames, the rules may be hidden from the player, since the computer acts as arbiter; the player may simply play the game without reading the rules.
Thus, quiz games can never be videogames because in order to play them you must know the rules. In a videogame, however, there are no rules. By starting Minecraft and putting a character in a world, you are already playing the game, regardless of whether or not you decide todo anything thereafter.
Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) uses an “alignment” system to describe the moral characteristics of any player character, which you may or may not know, depending on your nerd quotient. The basic alignment system opposes good and evil, lawful and chaotic, and includes intermediary “neutral” alignments such that alignments fall on a 3x3 grid as such:
In recent editions of D&D rules, this grid has been simplified into a more linear structure: lawful good, good, unaligned, evil, and chaotic evil:
By utilizing a linear system, lawful good and chaotic evil become very good very evil, and the alignment system collapses into a simple opposition between Good and Evil.
New system or old system, I’m interested in the middle category: neutral/unaligned.
Dr. Strangelove, dir. Stanley Kubrick
Is neutrality ever neutral when it is inserted into the Good and Evil paradigm? First of all, Good and Evil aren’t directly opposed; the paradigm should be Good and Bad. When someone is evil, they do bad acts for the sake of doing bad acts. Thus, evil villains always laugh maniacally when they do something bad because they find pleasure in the act, not in whatever they may gain from it. For example, the villain who wants to destroy the planet does so not because he will gain something from the annihilation, such as some peace and quiet, but because he wants to destroy. A bad person, meanwhile, would destroy the planet for personal gain, all the while acknowledging that doing so is not a Good act. (An Evil thief steals money and burns it; a Bad thief steals money and uses it to buy an Xbox.)
Neutral, in the D&D alignment system, is more Bad than Neutral.
Additionally, Neutral is not one alignment, but two, despite the alignment’s placement in a single box on the grid. From the semiotic standpoint, everything functions as an analogy, and an analogy cannot have three terms, only two. The analogy [Good:Evil] is valid, although [Good:Bad] is more proper. The analogy [Good:Neutral:Evil], however, is nonsensical. Neutral must appear twice: [Good:Neutral] and [Neutral:Evil]. Thus, the Neutral character must always describe himself as “Neutral as opposed to Good, and Neutral as opposed to Evil.” And Neutral isn’t neutral, it’s really Bad.
Immersion only makes sense as an analogy in the form of [ immersion : X ], that is to say, immersion must be opposed to something which it is not. When we say that someone is immersed in an MMORPG, our statement implies that the player is not immersed in something else, i.e. their real life; we also imply that they are not merely paying attention to the game, but also becoming part of the game. This kind of analogical (or paradigmatic, or bifurcated, or antithetical) understanding rips open the language that we use to talk about games.
For example, arguments about reality break down into an argument about the distinction between what is real and what is virtual. The two paradigms of real and virtual can be expressed as [ real : virtual ]. We understand virtual as that which is not real; we understand real as that which we determine is not virtual. The degree of difference between real and virtual—the ratio—becomes the most expressive element of the analogy. Thus, what makes stories about gamers immersing themselves in a game intriguing is exactly that the ratio between real and virtual has collapsed.
Immersion, then, is neither complete absorption in the game-world nor ignorance of reality, but an experience that straddles these two extremes.