Does motion control help us feel like we’re “in” a game’s world?
A few weeks ago I published an article on presence and video games, discussing a model of what puts us in the curious psychological state of feeling like we’re in a game world. When we experience presence we ignore the technology between us and that world, and we’re more likely to enjoy the game and more quickly able to learn its rules. I hypothesized at the time that motion controls that more closely mimic real movements are more likely to create presence, but that the research still had some ground to cover. I continued to read about the topic and given the recent release of Playstation Move and the imminent release of Kinect for the Xbox 360 I thought it would be a good time to revisit the relationship between motion control and presence. Topical!
Besides the fact that absent or extremely simplified controls give us a lot less technology to forget about on our way to presence in the first place, the other reason to think that motion controlled games can create more presence has to do with mental models. In the context of video games, mental models are the representations we build of a game world –how the space is arranged, what its characteristics are, what the hell that thing is, what’s the deal with all the screaming when I press this lever, and so forth. One could hypothesize that more natural game controls help players more easily build and access those mental models by allowing us to take information from the real world (“I’m swinging a bat!”) and immediately understand what that action means for things in the game (“My little dude is swinging a bat in the same way!”). This creates consistency between things ((“Things” is a technical term you can never over use. Go on, just try to over use it. You can’t!)) in game and what we know about their real life counterparts –and that’s just the kind of thing that has been shown to create presence.
Paul Skalski at Cleveland State University and several collaborators decided to put idea this to a test and published their results earlier this year in the journal New Media & Society. ((Skalski, P., Tamborini, R., Shelton, A., Buncher, M. & Lindmark, P. (2010). Mapping the road to fun: natural video game controllers, presence, and game enjoyment. New Media & Society.)) They were interested in how “naturally” a controller was used to play a game and what effect that had on presence and enjoyment. To kick things off, they proposed an interesting typology of natural control mapping. ((Big thanks, by the way, to Paul Skalski for talking to me about his research and forwarding me this paper.))
Directional natural mappings are the least natural, represenging simple up/down/left/right mappings and maybe some buttons. Think Street Fighter 4: up to jump, left/right to move, down to crouch, and buttons to punch or kick.
Kinesic natural mappings are those that involve gross body movements ((Pun intended? Yes, pun intended.)) to control the game without holding a controller. This is pretty much every Kinect game, plus some of Sony’s EyeToy games.
Incomplete tangible natural mapping gives players something that feels like an in-game object. Wii Sports, for example, uses this kind of mapping when it asks you to use the wiimote like a tennis racket or golf club. A lot of Playstation Move controls are going to fit in here, too, like the ping pong game or the archery game in Sports Champions.
Realistic tangible natural mapping, though, is the most realistic kind of controller. This gives you a thing that is a thing and behaves like the thing in the game …thing. ((I’m telling you, can’t be over used!)) Steering wheels for racing games fall into this category, as do drum sets for Rock Band or Guitar Hero –not to mention that nutso stringed guitar controller that Mad Catz wants you to buy for Rock Band 3.
(As a side note, I actually think this typology is deficient because it lacks a place for motion-tracked controllers that are used in ways that are not asking you to mimic holding something specific. Wiggling the wiimote to make Mario spin in Super Mario Galaxy or aiming it at the TV to make Samus fire rockets in Metroid: Other M doesn’t fit in anywhere here, but those kind of controls certainly exist.)
Skalski et al. were interested in whether more natural mapping of controls would lead to greater self-reports of presence while playing games, so they ran two experiments. In the first, they had one group play Tiger Woods PGA Tour 07 on the Nintendo Wii using the wiimote like, appropriately enough, a golf club. Another group played the Playstation 2 version of that same game using the dual shock controller. The results were that the wiimote did indeed feel more natural, as measured by questions like “The actions used to interact with the game environment were similar to the actions that would be used to do the same thing in the real world.” No surprise there, but they also found that use of such controls did correlate with spatial presence (“To what extent did you experience a sense of ‘being there’ inside the environment?”) and people who played the game on the Wii were more likely to report experiencing presence than those who played with the PS2 controller.
The researchers then decided to kick it up a notch and compare several different types of controllers on the same game. They had participants play the racing game Need for Speed Underground 2 using a keyboard, a joystick, a gamepad, or a steering wheel. Same results: the steering wheel, which represented a “realistic tangible natural mapping” according tot he taxonomy above, was perceived as the most natural and players in that group were the most likely to report feeling like they were “in the game.”
This all suggests that if the goal of your game is to make players feel like they’re part of a game world, motion controllers are better than traditional game pads or keyboards. ((Though I should note that Skalski et al. never tested a “kinesic natural mapping” a la Microsoft’s Kinect or a pure EyeToy game. Someone should do that.)) Of course, not all games have presence as a design goal, not all games can be controlled with motion, (imagine trying to play Starcraft II with just motion control) and there are probably other characteristics of motion control (like exhausting or uncomfortable movements) that could detract from the overall enjoyment of a game. Again, this is an area rife with possibilities for research …things.
Anyway, has anyone played around with the Playstation Move yet? Does it make you more likely to forget that the game you’re playing is mediated by technology?