Watch me play! How it affects performance and enjoyment (Bowman et al., 2013)

Back in my childhood days, there was only one computer and my big brother played it the most and so me and my little brother silently watched him play Doom, Warcraft, Fallout (listening along with The Verve’s Bitter Symphony) among other early 1990’s games.

It turns out to enhance my brother’s gaming abilities according to research by Nicholas Bowman (West Virginia University), Rene Weber (University of California – Santa Barbara), Ron Tamborini & John Sherry (Michigan State University). This article published in Media Psychology conducted a study in the vein of an established social psychological phenomenon called social facilitation, proposed by Robert Zajonc in the 1960’s.


The current study implements the drive theory of social facilitation to explain the influence of audience presence in video game play. This integration is an important one for research aiming to understand the experience of video game play, as the social aspect of video game play is a relevant dimension of the technology often ignored in research on gaming experiences. The study finds a significant positive association between non-gaming cognitive abilities (such as hand?eye coordination and mental rotation ability) and performance at a first-person shooter. Data also support the social facilitation hypothesis: Game play in the presence of a physical audience significantly predicts increased game performance. Social facilitation effects are only found for low-challenge games where the drive-inducing capacity of task challenge is minimized. Resultant influences on game enjoyment are less clear.

The International Communication Association’s conference has started at London, but I was not invited. If I was, I would have been live blogging the events.

The drive theory of social facilitation, developed by Robert Zajonc, explains how people perform better under the presence of an audience. At minimum, the mere presence of others is sufficient to influence performance. I mean influence and not enhance as performance is dependent upon one’s dominant habits or skills. If such person is adept in one task, their drive, by the presence of others, increases their skills. Conversely, if a person is not adept in one task, their performance worsens as their drive increases and then the audience calls them a noob.

The authors noted older studies that investigate social facilitation in a gaming context, but noted two qualifiers in these studies’ results. The first qualifier is dominant skills in a video game context. Drive increases one’s dominant skills and if these skills are related to the game’s performance, then they are likely to succeed. One old study found that the audience worsen player’s performance in Pong, this was attributed to evaluation apprehension, the anxiety of being evaluated by their peers, but they failed to measure player skills, the authors reasoned that certain cognitive skills may impact player performance. The authors specifically identified several cognitive abilities, such as targeting ability, mental rotation, hand-eye coordination and fine motor skills.

The second qualifier is task challenge in a video game context. The challenge of a task alone would have the same effect on increasing drive as it would with the presence of an audience. One old study of flight simulators found that changing the size of the audience did not have an effect on performance, but they found that challenge was significant predictor of performance. However, the authors argued that this could result from a drive ceiling effect, the task is so challenging that participants have achieved maximum drive that the presence or absence of an audience would not budge their drive beyond its limits and therefore their skills. Hence, the authors examined the difficulty differences (very easy vs. ultra hard) and how it would affect performance along with the audience.

The authors have discussed game performance and they reasoned that enjoyment in game would be affected as well by one’s performance. This is achieved through the flow experience, the experience when your skills and the game’s level of challenge are at an optimal level. This would result in feelings of greater enjoyment, distorted time perception, having clear goals in playing, among other things.


Participants: 62 undergraduate students somewhere in Michigan, mostly likely communication students. The average age is 21.1 (SD = 1.81), 39 males and 23 females.


Cognitive abilities test: Participants undergo six cognitive tests, with the briefest details, on the following:

Fixed and moving targeting ability: Participants throw a tennis ball, underhanded, at a target that is immobile or moving. They throw the ball seven times for both fixed and moving target.

Two-dimensional mental rotation ability: The Card Rotations Test S-1 was used, consisting of 20-items of judging objects and rotated objects. Participants undergo two 3-minutes sessions with 10 items per session.

Three-dimensional mental rotation ability: The computerized version of the Mental Rotations Tests, consisting of 24-items of 3D objects and rotated objects. Participant took that test in one 7-minute session.

Hand-eye Coordination: Participants need to catch a yardstick that is dropped from the ceiling. Participants had seven chances on catching the yardstick with their hands, of course.

Fine motor skills: Participants need to fill a wooden triangle, that has 15 holes, with multi-colored golf balls in the shortest time possible. They are given three attempts.

Note: If you wondered why they’d bothered with all these tests and not simply asked about their videogame experience, you might find some participants with crappy cognitive abilities who play videogames on easy mode most of the time. That is a possibility to consider and videogame experience is quite a subjective definition.

Videogame used: Quake 3: Arena. Participants play it on the easiest and the hardest difficulty in a random order. I just hope there were no railguns and rockets in that level because these are one-shot kill weapons. Instant kills after respawning is not funny at all. If I read this right, participants played it on a 54-inch screen.

Game performance: They had a research assistant counting kills through a one-way mirror. I gathered that there was no recording or having a second screen with duplicating the images. What about the game’s killscore? You know… holding the tab key?

Game enjoyment: 4 items from one of John Sherry’s 2004 study. Furthermore, 12 items assessing for flow, again from one of John Sherry’s 2006 study.


The experiment is divided into two sessions. The first session is sort of pre-test where participants undergo the six cognitive tests. They return a second time to play some Quake 3 and some other videogame. Participants are randomly assigned to play in the presence of two confederates who do not interact with the participant, “waiting” their turn to play the game or they play alone. Participants first play Quake 3 for 10 minutes either on easiest or hardest, afterwards they play some “war simulator” game, then they come back to play another 10 minutes of Quake 3 on a difficulty setting different from their first playthrough. Afterwards, they play another version of that “war simulator” game.


The authors found that the 2D and 3D rotation and hand-eye targeting abilities have positive correlations with videogame performance. This is true for both performances on easiest and hardest difficulty.

The presence of an audience was a significant predictor of videogame performance, but only on easiest and whilst controlling for participants’ cognitive abilities.

There was no interaction effects found between the presence of an audience and participants’ cognitive skills in either the easiest and hardest difficulty playthrough.

A mediation analysis was conducted and found that enjoyment is indirectly determined by rotation abilities, which is mediated by game score. In effect, your rotation abilities affect your performance which in turn affect how much you enjoy the videogame. They also found the same type of relationship with hand-eye targeting abilities.

The presence of an audience was not a significant predictor of videogame enjoyment, even controlling for cognitive skills. The authors suggested that it might even worsen enjoyment, but then again the statistical significance is null, so it could be just a random value.



The take home message is that a silent pair of an audience watching you play videogame can influence your performance depending on how good your cognitive abilities are. In turn, your performance in the videogame influence your enjoyment of the videogame.

The authors argued in length that their study supports prior studies regarding the relationship between cognitive skills, such as mental rotation abilities, and videogames. Their study demonstrated that one’s cognitive skills significantly determines one’s videogame performance, cognitive studies on videogame often looked how videogames improve cognitive skills. Hence, this is a pretty interesting finding.

The authors considered alternative explanations about the lack of an interaction between participants’ cognitive skills and audience presence. The small sample size of 62 participants might be at fault, although they refuted it. It is possible that the effect size might be different as videogames are more mental activities as opposed to more physical activities that traditional social facilitation studies have used. Finally, the presence of just two confederates might not be strong enough to elicit a social facilitation effect, it could even worsen enjoyment since they were silent and impersonal. The authors argued that such impersonal audience might create a negative expectancy violation (i.e. the audience is not behaving normally).

The authors listed some limitations. The first is the ecological validity of the audience since they were silently watching the participant play. At least, it’s one combination cleared out of so many. The number of factors to consider in an social facilitation experiment is astounding and anyone taking this line of research is set for their entire life. The authors considered an audience of friends. Why not family members, teachers, acquintances, frat brothers, internet friends, or significant others. The size of the audience from 2 to millions, if we consider broadcast championships. Another factor is the social interactions of the audience: mostly positive, mixed, mostly negative. Again, studying the sheer number of combinations can take some time and a lot of papers. Second, they only studied one genre of videogames, First-person shooters, I am quite aware that real-time strategy games require a different set of skills (see Adachi & Willoughby, 2013 for example), that’s another combination to consider. Third, they addressed their small sample by referencing to Chris Ferguson’s 2009 paper about effect sizes. A fourth limitation I’d like to add is the skill challenge of other players, the highly variable challenge from a single versus a group can determine your performance in the videogame, this is what I learned from my playthroughs in League of Legends. One player starts to perform badly, my whole team’s overall performance suffers as well.

Bowman, N. D., Weber, R., Tamborini, R., & Sherry, J. (2013). Facilitating game play: How others affect performance at and enjoyment of video games. Media Psychology, 16 (1), 39-64. DOI: 10.1080/15213269.2012.742360

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