There’s more joy playing online video games with a human than a computer (Weibel et al., 2008)

This article caught my attention in the recently published issue of Computers in Human Behavior. Weibel and colleagues conducted a study that examined the effects on how the perceived presence of another person in a gaming world can affect our enjoyment and subjective experience in an online game.

Abstract

The purpose of this study was to examine whether playing online games against other users leads to different experiences in comparison with playing against computer-controlled opponents. Thereby, a one-factorial multivariate design was used (computer-controlled vs. human-controlled opponent). Dependent variables were the participants’ feelings of presence and flow. Additionally, the amount of enjoyment was measured. The findings indicate that the type of opponent influences playing experiences: participants who played against a human-controlled opponent reported more experiences of presence, flow, and enjoyment, whereby the strongest effect refers to the experience of presence. Furthermore, strong relations between presence, flow, and enjoyment were observed. Further analyzes suggest that flow mediates the relationship between presence and enjoyment.

The authors explained two theoretical mechanisms of why players get the joy of playing online video games. The first is called presence, in which it basically means that one’s feeling of being in a virtual space. This is quite important when multiple players are involved within the same virtual space, contributing a player’s experience of presence in an online video game. The second is called flow experience, a concept advanced by someone with a complicated and hard to pronounce name. A flow experience is felt when one is completely immersed in an activity, say gold mining, and when someone is experiencing flow, it is an enjoyable experience that one would involve themselves intensely to keep the experience as long as possible. Check out its wikipedia article for more details.

The authors noted that, in regards to video games and interactive media, presence and flow experience are quite similar amongst many characteristics, in particular in that they both posited immersion and involvement. Interestingly, they noted that they prescribed different pathways of immersion and involvement; presence is focused on the characteristics of the virtual environment whereas flow focused on the characteristics of an activity. So, it would be worthwhile to see game characteristics that affect both presence and flow.

The authors reasoned that the perceived presence of other players within the same gaming space could affect a player’s presence and flow experiences. Playing with another player affects one’s social presence (a sub-component of presence), the feeling of being with another real person within the virtual environment. They referred studies that found that people prefer playing with human-controlled characters rather than with computer-controlled characters, citing that social interaction is a basic need for humans. This makes sense since most games involve two or more players and integrating social interaction in a game makes it more enjoyable. In addition, they noted “social competition” as a reason to play with other players, as playing against a human can be more enjoyable than a computer. It’s quite reasonable that playing against a computer is a different experience from a playing against a human, I’m sure many gamers can attest to that, including me. For example, players would eventually learn the behavioural patterns of the computer and beat it repeatedly with the same strategy, whereas different strategies are adopted because human players can learn mistakes and adapt different strategies to win.

Therefore, they hypothesized that the perceived presence of a human-controlled character in an online video game would result in higher feelings of presence, flow and enjoyment than a computer-controlled character. They also hypothesized that these three factors are interrelated.

Method

Participants: 83 participants with a final sample size of 70 due to experimental corrections (i.e. participants are excluded if they did not perceived their online partner to be a human-controlled player or vice versa). They’re psychology undergraduates, average age of 24 years and with an equal gender distribution. They haven’t mentioned it, but I inferred that the participants are from Switzerland and mostly homogeneous in ethnicity.

Measures: Presence and flow are measured by asking participants to rate items on a number scale (e.g. rate from 1 to 5 on “I’m immersed in this game”). Several items were used to measure presence and flow, but only one item was used to measure enjoyment (“Did you enjoy the game?” on a 5-point scale). I’m a bit iffy about using one item for a one variable.

Game used: a modded version of Neverwinter Nights. I’m glad to see more studies having more experimental control over video games to see specific effects. Of course, there is the question of external validity versus internal validity. However, I prefer research should start from specific effects that would eventually aggregate to see various gaming features interact or add with each other to whatever effects we’re looking for, say aggression or depression.

The authors made the game so that it is easy to play with minimal practice, each participant go through the same experience as similar as possible, and with minimal variability as possible (i.e. participants get instructions from a game character rather than the experimenter; their opponent is a computer-controlled character in the experiment; participants and their characters have matching genders).

Human vs. computer condition: The name of the participants’ opponent was used to differentiate human and computer-controlled characters. Participants were asked to type their name for their character, if the opponent character has a regular name then it would be easy for participants to assume another human participant is also playing, whereas a fantasy name would make participants think that it came from the game’s name generator and is a computer-controlled player.

On a related note, 13 participants were excluded from the analysis because they did not believe they were playing with their assigned condition: Six did not believe they were with a computer-controlled character and seven did not believe they were with a human-controlled character.

Procedure

Participants were randomly assigned to the experimental condition (human opponent) or the control condition (computer opponent). In order to make participants in the experimental condition believe they are playing with another human player, the experimenters pretended that they are waiting and welcoming another participant, but out of participants’ sight.

Every experiment participants go through two parts of the experiment: the first is where participants were asked to collect as many rubies as possible as it increases their characters’ powers. Fighting monsters occurred only two occasions and the players always win. The authors argued that the first part of the game provided practice and a simulation of the typical start of a game. After exactly 15 minutes, they are teleported to another chamber facing another character whose name is displayed either a regular name (experimental condition) or a fantasy (control condition). In the second part, both characters duelled with each other over 5 rounds; every participant would narrowly lose the match. Again, this is to maintain minimal variability in the experiment. Afterwards, they completed the questionnaires and were debriefed.

Results

Their results found support for their hypotheses in that the perceived presence of another human-controlled led to higher feelings of presence, flow and enjoyment. They also found that there is a positive relationship between flow, presence and enjoyment. Further analysis found that flow mediated the relationship between presence and enjoyment. Meaning that presence does not affect enjoyment directly, but through our feelings of flow. They checked for demographic effects, such as age and gaming experience and found no significance.

Discussion

It’s surprising how the mere knowledge that someone is playing with you can lead to a more enjoyable experience than with a computer. Although, there are some reservations in that the setting is artificial, and that other factors might have a stronger effect on flow and presence than the presence of another human player. Still, I got to give credit in confirming that video games, among other things and despite appearances, are not solitary activities. And to the authors’, this explains the popularity of MMORPGs, although in part IMO, since people have many motives, like achievements, power or curiosity of the game world and mechanics.

The authors had some interesting ideas they liked to explore. They wanted to examine “social competition” in the online environment and see how attractive it is in relation to a real world environment. They also wanted to see how more experienced players would react to game success and failure, since defeat in an online game is a serious matter, but I believe that defeat or death is much less serious today than it is several years ago. Lastly, they wanted to explore differences between genres and, in particular, in my case whether aggression might have a part in our feelings of enjoyment, flow and presence.

I was perplexed on the following quote:

“there might be […] some alternative explanation for our findings besides social competition […] as it might be more awkward or uncomfortable to lose against another human that against a computer.”

Are they saying humans feel more awkward to lose against another human? I thought of it the other way, thinking that losing to a computer would be awkward. This is perhaps to beliefs that computers are not as smart and adaptive as humans can be, so there’s no or little reason to feel uncomfortable against humans.

I’m interested to see data from the excluded participants who failed to perceive their opponent’s condition (i.e. human-controlled vs. computer-controlled characters). I was curious what could have tipped them off and whether the effects of higher presence, flow and enjoyment would still be there. I e-mailed them and I haven’t heard from them yet.

This leads to a question in mind is whether we would perceive computer-controlled characters as humans despite knowing they are an artificial intelligence. But I guess we are not at this stage yet, since we still discriminate between human and artificial intelligence. Another question is whether increasing social interactivity, such as allowing Teamspeak, character emote commands, and message boards increase players’ experience of presence, flow and enjoyment. Finally, from the ecological systems perspective, what if the complexity from a character specific system, say class-specific stats, to institutional systems, say guilds or economy, in MMORPGs is also related to flow, presence and enjoyment?

Weibel, D., Wissmath, B., Habegger, S., Steiner, Y., & Groner, R. (2008). Playing online games against computer- vs. human-controlled opponents: Effects on presence, flow, and enjoyment. Computers in Human Behavior, 24(5), 2274-2291.

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