531: Social Presence and Immersive Environments

January 24, 2011 Justin Miscellaneous

Virtual worlds are considered immersive environments, and as such, it’s not unexpected that the element of social presence plays a rather important role. Virtual worlds have an advantage over traditional forms of distance learning in this area, since the avatar is represented by many of the familiar visual and social cues humans are used to. In Aragon (2003), social presence is defined as the “degree of salience of the other person in the interaction and the consequent salience of the interpersonal relationships” (p. 59). Immediacy, or the “measure of psychological distance that a communicator puts between himself or herself and the object of his/her communication,” can be conveyed by physical proximity formality of dress, physical proximity, facial expressions, and other nonverbal cues, as well as verbal (p. 59). This can apply directly to virtual worlds, since players are given control of all these social conveyances, and it is important because it lends to the immersion of the game.

What’s interesting, however, is that some research suggests the human interface control is not as relevant as one might think. A study in Aymerich-Franch (2010) revealed that participants who played a game by using their whole body did not experience any significant difference in presence or emotions than participants who played with a joystick. This implies that body-dependent systems such as the Wii and Kinect may not necessarily be more “immersive” to players, if we define immersion as a combination of social presence and emotions, and that we should look to other attributes when determining what makes one game more immersive than another. I would suggest that we should look more at the content of the virtual environment itself, than the human interface used to connect to it.

In another article by Lin (2010), an exploration of gender differences on game enjoyment is examined, as well as personal identification with the character. I feel this article misses the point, particularly when it claims that players are more likely to enjoy a game when the character they are playing is “morally justified” in the story or plot. In other words, a hero fighting for some sort of moral good. This seems logical, until one realizes that some of the top selling games like Grand Theft Auto don’t fit this mold, though one could argue that much of the villainous violence in these games follow a storyline causing the player to sympathize with the character. The genius of games like World of Warcraft is that both sides have sympathetic characters and heroes, and reasons for engaging the rival. The article sidesteps this issue by admitting that yes, some players are the opposite — even a significant number — and attempts to explain why. It seems self-contradictory.

I’ve been sporadically on Second Life since 2005, though only started taking it seriously since 2010, taking time to identify important locations, learn some scripting, and so on. I figured this was all worthy of a “rebirth” so I ditched my old character and created a new one. I think Second Life profiles are an important, yet perhaps underused element of social presence in a virtual world. They can serve to tie the avatar to a real user behind the screen.

People are a lot more prone to do things in Second Life they wouldn’t normally do in person. This is really nothing new, and applies to virtually all communication on the Internet. I think there is a degree of accountability that comes into play and prevents some severely offensive behavior when avatars are specifically identified with real people, but when there is full anonymity, it is rather chaotic and anarchic.

References

Aragon, S. R. (2003). Creating social presence in online environments. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, 2003(100), 57-68.

Aymerich-Franch, L. (2010). Presence and emotions in playing a group game in a virtual environment: The influence of body participation. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 13(6), 649-654.

Lin, S. (2010). Gender differences and the effect of contextual features on game enjoyment and responses. Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking, 13(5), 533-537.

edtech531, Grand Theft Auto, Second Life, Virtual world, virtual worlds,

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