Some Thoughts on Immersion
In the non-fiction comic book Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud talks about how a simply-drawn cartoon character may actually increase our emotional investment versus a more photorealistic character. The theory goes that an iconic representation is a partially blank slate, and we can more easily project ourselves onto them. Tintin is an example of a comic where you will find panels including both detailed background art, and a much simpler, more cartoony character, thus drawing us into the scene.
By this logic, in third-person gaming a cartoony avatar (say, a World of Warcraft character) may be easier to identify with than an avatar rendered in more detail (such as a Heavy Rain character).
It's an interesting idea. As graphics improve, and both characters and environments become more convincing, the possibilities for immersive experiences are also commonly thought to be greater. But I don't think that tells the whole story when it comes to the role of graphics in immersion.
Gaming includes scope for many different kinds of immersion, and a range of ways to define the term. I do think immersion is thrown about a lot as a concept, and is often poorly defined. See the following article for a more scientific look at defining immersion: Jennett et al. (2008) Measuring and defining the experience of immersion in games. International Journal of Human-Computer Studies 66: 641-661.
For me personally there has always been at least some personal investment in a game. Even back when I was a kid controlling a couple of pixels on a screen I remember being torn about the experience. Part of me dearly wanted to keep playing; another part was terrified of dying. I understood the "death" of my pixelated spaceship had no real world consequences, but it still affected me enough that I could even be very reluctant to play when given the opportunity. I think I've always found projecting myself into a game space a very natural and unconscious thing to do. That projection is what I call immersion.
A high level of emotional investment and involvement has been described both as a holy grail of game design, and as a cause of hyperreality and problem gaming.
There is also the potential for raised anxiety, which I have certainly experienced often enough. I find it very interesting that looking for games (and movies, television or other media) with genuine emotional impact means exposing yourself to feelings often considered negative. And yet, it remains entertainment. I actually find this a very positive thing, and think we can learn a lot from experiences in fictional spaces.