One of my favorite games from 2018 was Marvel’s Spider-Man on the PS4. One of the many things it nailed was the act of swinging through an impeccably crafted New York City. The transitions from swinging and springing along rooftops to running around city streets was seamless and I often felt that I experienced what psychologists call “spatial presence.” I felt like I was THERE in the game world.
I was lucky enough this year to go to the gaming megaconvention PAX West and be on one of their panels. This time I got up on stage in the Sasquatch Theater with some of my other psychology and games colleagues and talk about video games based on Marvel properties. My segment was on how Marvel games can be particularly good at creating immersion –or, as psychologists typically call it, “spatial presence.” I thought it would be fun to share my thoughts here in case you weren’t in the audience at the time.
Spatial presence is basically forgetting that there is technology in between you and a fictional world. It’s feeling transported to another place and having the sensation that you’re there. It’s not “gol-durn aliens dun abducted me!” levels of delusion. Nobody ACTUALLY believes that they were transported into the game world like Jeff Bridges in Tron. Not usually.
Presence is generally a good tihng and something sought after by both designers and players. Games that elicit presence are more engaging, people tend to enjoy them more, and they tend to play them for longer. So yay!
There are several ways that game content, themes, and mechanics can also drive spatial presence, and Marvel frequently makes use of them in its games.
Specifically, games featuring Marvel super heroes frequently elicity what psychologists studying spatial presence call “involvement.” This is active, intense mental processing of what the player is experiencing and it’s one of the key levers by which developers can move players to that other world.
One of the main reasons that involvement in Marvel games is often high is that people bring information about the game world with them to the experience. They know the characters, the worlds, and the general rules by which superheroes and supervillains work. This helps them fill in the corners of their mental map of that world without the game’s explicit help. Which leads to a richer and more complete model of that world and the player’s place in it.
Another thing that Marvel games do particularly well to increase involvement is to give players a chance to role play a character that they’re familiar with and and role model that character. Research1 shows that this kind of activity increases involvement, relative to a “roll your own hero” kind of approach that Marvel typically avoids.
Finally, nostalgia and other emotional states are often elicited by Marvel characters, stories, and genre conventions that many of us remember from our youth. This, along with intense focus on narrative, has also been shown to help players get involved with and intensely focus on a game world.