An Academic's Sojourn Through Communication
In September of 2008, with the ink on my doctorate barely dry, I jumped a plane and landed in Denmark. I had accepted a post-doctorate research fellowship at Roskilde University with the Virtual Worlds Research Project. My main research project with the group would turn out to be a qualitative experiment to understand how people make sense of virtual worlds as entertainment sources compared to other types of media technologies. An overview of the idea behind my research can still be found on the project’s blog. A more detailed discussion of the research design and the analysis approach.
This video shows what it was like to be in the Nintendo Wii part of the study, and is an indication of what’s to come in this post.
There is a lot of analyze, as I discuss below, but I hope to spend more time on that endeavor this summer, and I will share my thoughts as they come to me. Until then, here is an overview of what was done, what was learned, and what I think can be the usefulness of this study and virtual worlds in general.
The Research Project
My primary interest in my virtual worlds entertainment study was the extent to which there are similarities or differences in how people make sense of virtual worlds as sources of entertainment. Thus the primary practices that I considered were the sense-making strategies people would use as they engaged with virtual worlds, and how these strategies would compare to those situations when they engaged with other entertainment media products. My conceptualization of sense-making strategies is largely informed by the work of Brenda Dervin in her construction of the Sense-Making Methodology. Thus, sense-making strategies are those cognitive and/or affective actions/reactions undertaken as a person determines what is happening in a situation and what the person should and could be doing in the situation.
I have been interested in the role of the media product’s technology, or interface, for determining how a person experiences the media product’s content. With digital technologies, there has been a rise of interfaces that require increasing physical interactivity to access and even progress the content. I wanted to know if the interface for accessing and progressing the content impacts how one experiences the content, which could impact how much they are entertained by it. Thus I wanted to see how people would respond to a range of interfaces to access the same or similar content, which experience they might find the most entertaining, and what about the interface would help or hinder that sense of being entertained.
However, the overarching research aim was to understand what were the similarities and differences in how people engaged with these different technologies by focusing on their interpretive interactions, as measured by their sense-making strategies. My idea was that these interpretive interactions could help us understand what leads a person to describe the content, or more specifically the engagement with the content, as being entertaining.
My main research questions were:a) are there differences and/or similarities in how people perceive virtual worlds as entertaining when compared to other types of media technologies, and b) what accounts for any differences and/or similarities? In order to test these questions, I devised an experimental study using one factor to create four situations. The factor focused on was the interface, and specifically the extent to which the person was given physical control over the progression of the media product’s content by the interface. I choose four types of media technologies to reflect an increase in providing the person with control over the interaction: DVD, video game, gaming virtual world, and social virtual world. These four technologies were chosen because, as you move from left to right on the list, the extent to which the person has more control over the progression of the content increases.
The two virtual worlds were chosen because they represent two different ways of thinking about what a virtual world can be, and thus they have different approaches to permitting the person to have such control. A gaming virtual world is any of a variety of MMOs that are by far the most used type of virtual world; such gaming worlds are similar to other digital gaming technologies in that they are games, with quests designed prior to the person engaging with it, and with which the person engages to progress through the content. A social virtual world is any of a number of worlds that are not designed with any requirements for what to do, but are designed primarily to be virtual spaces in which people can create places of gathering, activity, and creativity. Such social virtual worlds require the person to have more control over any content experienced in the world, because if it were not for the people of the world having such control, then there would be no content to experience.
For this experiment, people were required to experience content in all four of the technologies; the content was kept as similar as possible by utilizing media products feature the superhero genre. A library of superhero films was gathered from which participants could choose. A superhero game was chosen for the Nintendo Wii console system. The only superhero MMO available at the time was used, City of Heroes. For the social virtual world, an island was created in Second Life to represent common superhero genre conventions.
This video shows what it was like to be in the City of Heroes part of the study.
This video shows what it was like to be in the Second Life part of the study.
The people who participated in the study were all Danish students or professionals who had little to no experience with the specific virtual worlds studied. Novices were chosen in order to generate situations of engaging that would require them to do more interpretive work; the novelty of the situations would help to ensure that there would be sense-making strategies utilized by the participants that we could later talk about in interviews. Fourteen people participated in the study, with a balance of gender and a range of ages. All but three people had never been in a virtual world; only one had been in City of Heroes years before, and only one had been in Second Life years before. All participants were instructed to choose a movie they had not seen to watch. A few people had played Nintendo Wii, but none had played the game chosen. I’ve written elsewhere on this blog about the stories of their experiences, especially with Second Life.
The Early Findings
The analysis of the results is ongoing. This ongoing status is partly due to the size of the data corpus generated by the experiment: there are survey and in-situ interview results from each engaging, and there are transcribed interviews that were conducted after the person had completed all four engagings. Thus far, the analysis has focused on those final interviews. The interviews were designed using Dervin’s Sense-Making Methodology, and they were constructed to have the people reflect on all four engagings, by comparing them to one another, and by going in-depth into the sense-making strategies that happened in those situations. Because of my interest in comparing these situations to one another, the interviews have been the focal point.
Thus far, my main analysis has been on the questions and metaphors people had when engaging with the virtual worlds. I have not yet conducted a systematic analysis across the four situations, and I have not yet explored the sense-making strategies in relationship to the experience of being entertained. I plan to start more systematic work on that analysis this summer. However, the analysis of the questions and the metaphors has yielded some interesting comparisons between the gaming virtual world and the social virtual world.
For the questions, when comparing the two worlds, as exampled below, the participants overlapped in what we could consider general confusions about orienting oneself to the virtual world through one’s actions and making sense of what the media product is. The participants diverged in having more confusion about controls and capabilities when playing the gaming world, and more confusion about the world and others in it when engaging with the social world. These overlaps and divergences could be explained by the participants’ experience levels and expectations as well as the design structures of the virtual worlds.
For the metaphors, it would appear that the metaphors were useful to the participants to make sense of what is a virtual space/place, how to engage with a virtual space/place, and how to communicate about the virtual spaces/places. The thematic analysis indicated how common comparisons from the virtual world to the physical world were, involving aspects designed and not designed into virtual spaces/places, such as, among others, shopping, dressing dolls, travelling to foreign lands, space ships, and Wurlitzer keyboards. These metaphors seemed to act as a bridge, helping people to make sense of these new experiences with a new media product by seeing connections to something familiar. This bridging can indicate the strengths and weaknesses of virtual space/places to digitally replicate specific aspects of the physical world.
I specifically choose novice users of virtual worlds because I wanted to know what were all the possible helps and obvious hindrances they saw in their experiences with these worlds. I wanted them to be able to speak about everything they experienced without too much bias from other experiences with the same or similar technologies. Additionally, novice users represent the larger population of people who are not yet typical users of virtual worlds: thus they represent the potential market virtual worlds seek to tap. Understanding how they experienced virtual worlds could give us some idea as to how virtual worlds could or should respond in order to tap into that market.
Overall, they had a mixed response to both the gaming and social virtual worlds, with more of a negative reaction to Second Life than City of Heroes. Part of this was due to the nature of the two worlds, and specifically the more loose, user-driven nature of Second Life being confusing to people who had more experience with pre-designed, and thus more structured, media products, such as digital games. Additionally, their specific experiences with these two worlds were deemed less entertaining on average than watching the film or playing the video game. The more concrete the structure of the media product — where either they did not have to interact much or had more guidance in the interaction — the more they enjoyed the experience of engaging with it.
However, while there may not have been as much preference for the actuals of engaging with the virtual worlds – and by actuals, I mean the cognitive and physical actions, reactions, and thus interactions specifically required to engage with the content – there was discussion about the potentials of such places. A number of the participants discussed how either virtual world could be better – had the potential for being more engaging – if some aspect of the interface design or purpose of the world had been changed. Other people thought there was more potential if they had been given more guidance, especially in Second Life, by users that had more experience than they did. Several people discussed having high curiosity for the worlds – and again especially for Second Life – because they saw the potential for being part of the creative process that builds the worlds.
And yet all of them discussed finding something about the experience that was hindering their further engaging with it, or engaging with it to the extent that they found it less entertaining than the other media products. Such barriers, for example, came in the form of being confused about the nature or purpose of the world, having troubles engaging with the world’s technological interface, or the feeling of being alone when inworld. These were hindrances that, if fixed, would become aspects that facilitated their engaging with the world. But without them, the novice users did not see much of a reason to further their engaging with the world, either during the session or outside of the laboratory.
Thinking about Virtual Worlds
I see virtual worlds possibly being useful for innovation because they do appear to have a strong potential to satiate curiosity, fuel creativity, and provide connectivity. All of these factors are very strong human drives, and have been historically important in producing innovations to how we live, think, and interact. Virtual worlds are such unique media products, especially user-driven ones like Second Life, that even these novice users spent at least thirty minutes, and some over an hour, looking around and trying to figure out what it was all about: that is curiosity driving their action. This same need to satiate curiosity could drive them to attend musical performances, learn new knowledge, experience new cultures, and overall just find new ways to live, for themselves and others. Thus, exploration to satiate curiosity could be the first step towards innovation.
Also discussed was the nature of these worlds as part of the social media revolution of the past decade. Even when they did not interact with people inworld during their experiences, they were still cognizant of that possibility, or doing all they could to make it happen. This is the social need for connectivity driving their actions, just as it no doubt plays a role in their tweeting, Facebook friending, and texting. A number pointed out how Second Life was just Facebook but with avatars. As so much of what we create in a virtual or the physical worlds depends on our interacting with each other to share thoughts and feelings, then this part of their experiences indicates the potential for virtual worlds to provide for this aspect of the innovative process.
Lastly, while least discussed, there was some drive to fulfill a creative need of expression amongst the novices. In both virtual worlds experiences, there was a requirement for the novices to design their avatars. For some participants, this requirement became a focus point, or even favorite aspect, for their experience: some spent the most amount of time in the session on this activity than on any other, with examples inserted below. City of Heroes was said to be a better place to do so, as the interface for avatar design was more user-friendly, even if the Second Life interface was more metaphorically linked to the physical world. Few people discussed being creative beyond this step, although at least one did discuss the desire to learn this potential. As being creative, and being able to express it, are fundamental aspects of the innovation process, then virtual worlds have the potential to address this drive.
However, the barriers to all of these drives are the same as I have already discussed: specifically, confusion over the nature or purpose of the world, and how the interface works. When a person could not understand what the world’s purpose was, why it was the way it was, what they were supposed to do inworld and how they were supposed to do it, then they did not have the cognitive space to turn towards satiating their curiosity, being creative, or connecting with others. The content of a virtual world thrives on curiosity, creativity, and connectivity, but these questions produce interpretive hindrances to being able to fully engage with that content. It is akin to wanting to look into a store window to see what is on sale, but the store window is streaked with dirt and thus opaque. Questions about the nature, purpose, and interface of the world cloud the person’s interpretive gaze so that one cannot easily see the potentials of the world.
Overall, my suggestions would be for more research and design, from academics and private designers alike, that is user-centered to understand what helps and what hinders a person’s experience with a virtual world, whether that person is a novice or an expert. Such research could highlight what are the most common barriers or facilitators, and then work to overcome those first. It may be that interface is the biggest problem, and that perhaps different and upcoming types of interfaces – such as voice, touch, and augmented – may produce more naturalized engagements. It may be that people need more information about the nature or purpose of the worlds so that their expectations for the experiences are more aligned to the actuality of the worlds. It may be that people need guidance from either avatars or bots that are more active in assisting people’s adjusting to the virtual world. And it may be that for some people, they need one of these helps more than others, or that in some situations with some worlds they need one more than the others. We cannot be certain of any of these answers until the user-centered research and design has been undertaken to understand more about what helps and what hinders a person going inworld, and staying there.