Video game technology. Part 1 of 3: New isn’t always better.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

There is something special about bringing home the latest gaming system. The shiny box, the pristine plastic. Everything looks and even smells new. You start connecting the system and can’t stop but think about how awesome it is going to be. How clear the images are going to look, how fluid the animation is going to be, how natural the controls are going to feel. And all of this because you are convinced that the heavy and very expensive piece of hardware you hold in your hands is actually going to provide that. Better graphics, sounds and controls, right? Well, with each new console released the improvements have become a little less obvious. The video games of the last generation specially, while they look great, don’t give the impression a giant leap into the future. But how much does new technologies tend to improve gameplay? Do more recent games provide a more immersive, intense and fun experience? Is new always better?

One way to test the effect of technological advances is to see if more recent games and systems provoke higher physiological responses. In a 2007 study, a group of university students playing a Zombie shooter or a first-person “breakout” type of game from either the mid-90’s or the early 2000’s showed no significant differences on their skin conductance (an indicator of arousal) (Ivory & Kalyanaraman, 2007). In another study, participants playing a different baseball or Mortal Kombat game on a Super Nintendo, a Nintendo 64 or a Playstation 2 showed no significant differences on their heart-rates (an indicator of emotional arousal) (Barlett, Rodeheffer, Baldassaro, Hinkin & Harris, 2008). The same result was obtained when the systems compared were a Nintendo 64, a Playstation 2 and a Nintendo Wii (Bartlett, et al., 2008).

Games only a couple of years more recent weren’t able to affect the player’s arousal.

The results could suggest that technological improvements didn’t affect the experience of playing enough to provoke a change in the user’s physiology. However, there might by other explanations. The term “technological improvements” can make reference to different variables like graphics, sound and controls; each one with a very particular effect on gameplay. For example, graphical improvements may increase the user’s visual attention, while more responsive controls might promote the feeling of being connected to the avatar. Additionally, better technology doesn’t always translate into better games. Super Nintendo titles, for example, tend to show much better graphics than the Nintendo 64 games, even though this console was so powerful it could handle 3D animation. Also, individuals could respond differently to technological improvements. Some players might be fascinated by the detailed 2D graphics of The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, while others might admire the way Ocarina of Time recreated the fantasy world of Hyrule in 3D. So, maybe different variables had opposed but significant effects on arousal, giving the appearance that it remained unaffected. For example: Graphical improvements could have increased skin conductance and heart-rates significantly, but the bad implementation of the new audio technology could have end up reducing physiological arousal in the same proportion, cancelling each other’s effects out. And even if the arousal levels would have shown important changes, this could might as well have been a sign frustration, not enjoyment.

More powerful hardware means better games? Tell that to Superman.

Even when the impact of technology wasn’t (apparently) strong enough to provoke a significant change in the physiology of players, it still managed to affect some aspects of their experience. Playing a computer game from the early 2000’s, for example, provoked significantly higher levels of self-reported excitement than playing one from the mid-90´s (Ivory & Kalyanaraman, 2007). It also increased the feeling that the game was real (presence) and how much the players paid attention and worried about the game (involvement) (Ivory & Kalyanaraman, 2007). Maybe the better quality of graphics and sounds increased how much attention the player paid to the game and reduced the importance given to external stimuli, promoting involvement and presence. In the second experiment comparing consoles, playing with a Nintendo 64 was perceived as significantly more difficult, and the Nintendo Wii as more fun (Barlett, et al., 2008). One explanation could be that the Nintendo 64 controller, while looking similar to the current generation of gamepads, responded much poorly in comparison. And while the Playstation 2 controller worked fine, the Wiimote took advantage of player’s previous experience, making it easier to use and more enjoyable.

Another limitation of these studies is that they weren’t able to properly isolate technology as a dependent variable. In other words, in order to attribute any changes in users to technology, this had to be the only difference between the groups studied. However, participants didn’t played different versions of the same game across time periods or consoles. Instead, they played different games of the same genre or series. This means that any of the observed changes could also be attributed to differences between the titles. Maybe the more modern Zombie shooter game had a better story or more jump-scares, making the users more scared without the use of better technology.

Sometimes a clever use of the existing hardware is all you need to create innovative and fun games.

Future studies should try to isolate specific sub-components of the “technological advances” variable. Researchers could compare how players respond to the same game in different resolutions. They could also analyze how different generations of the same controller impact the gameplay of a specific title. By studying each individual part independently, experts could obtain much more reliable information about the effect of technology on the gaming experience. It would also make results much easier to apply for developers. Instead of just trying to use the most recent technology, they could focus their resources on specific attributes, like frames per second or button sensitivity, and their proven effects on the user.

Technological advances can help developers create better gaming experiences. It expands the limits of what designers and programmers can do with graphics, sound and interfaces. It also allows them to try new techniques to improve enjoyment, like using more realistic facial movements to make the characters more relatable or recording binaural audio to make some sounds feel like they are coming from somewhere inside the player’s house. However, specific aspects of video game technology have to be identified in order to do discover its particular effects as well as to take advantage of them. An approach that, unsurprisingly, is being used more frequently in recent studies.

Thanks for reading! Please, visit us in two weeks when The Hero Archetype studies the effect of high resolution images on gameplay.

References:

Barlett, C., Rodeheffer, C. D., Baldassaro, R., Hinkin, M. P., & Harris R. J. (2008). The effect of advances in video game technology and content on aggressive cognitions, hostility, and heart rate. Media Psychology, 11(4), 540-565. doi: 10.1080/15213260802492018

Ivory, J. D. & Kalyanaraman, S. (2007). The effects of technological advancement and violent content in video games on player’s feelings of presence, involvement, physiological arousal, and aggression. Journal of Communication, 57(3), 532-555. doi: 10.1111/j.1460-2466.2007.00356.x

Are realistic controls better than gamepads?

Before we start, answer me this question: What do you look for in a controller? Does it has to be pretty or just comfortable? Does it has to be easy to use or you don’t mind spending some time until you master it? It has to behave as you expected it, right? That’s obvious. But, what else? Does it has to make you feel like your experiencing something real? Does it has to look like the object the game is trying to simulate (like a steering wheel or a gun)? Many players feel video game controls should feel right, be easy to use, behave as expected and make the player feel like they are in control; a series of attributes that have come to be known as controller naturalness.

Do you need your controller to look like a rifle in order to fully enjoy a First Person Shooter?

Companies have tried different ways to make their controllers feel natural. They have made sure there’s a correspondence between the controller’s directions and in-game actions (pressing the left arrow key should make the character move or look left, not up). They have developed cameras capable of recognizing precise body movements (like Microsfot’s Kinect). They have built motion sensitive controllers that can replicate real world actions (like swinging it to make a virtual bat hit a ball). And they have also designed realistic representations of real world devices, like steering wheels or sniper rifles (Skalski, Tamborini, Shelton, Buncher & Lindmark, 2011).

But do they work? According to some experiments, when playing sports games that involve swinging a long object (like golf or baseball), motion controllers tend to feel more natural than gamepads (Skalski, et al., 2011; McGloin, Farrar & Krcmar, 2011). Also, playing a racing game with a steering wheel is perceived as more natural than playing with a keyboard, a joystick (Skalski, et al., 2011) or a gamepad (Skalski, et al., 2011; Schmierbach, Limperos & Woolley, 2012). Overall, it seems that controllers that facilitate the execution of movements that resembled real world actions (like moving a steering wheel to make a car turn) tend to feel more natural. An attribute that could also allow the use of previously acquired knowledge or skill on the subject (Tamborini & Skalski, 2006). Players could have learned about baseball by watching a match on TV or actually playing the game, and then apply this information to improve their performance.

Motion controllers allow the execution of movements that resemble the actions portrayed in the game.

While these studies suggest that realistic controls elicit a more natural feeling, this might not always be the case. Many variables can affect control naturalness. A new controller will always feel a bit awkward at first, a sensation that will disappear with repeated use. Some may just prefer a specific type of interface, depending on the game. For example, some players may love to play sports games with motion controllers, but prefer the good old mouse and keyboard in the case of first person shooters. Also, real world experience might not always benefit video game performance. Experienced drivers might find some driving games overly simplistic, even if they include realistic steering wheels, gear stick and a set of pedals.

Why should companies worry about developing more natural controls? For starters, it seems to have some positive effects on the gameplay experience. In some of the mentioned studies, for example, controller naturalness increased how real graphics and sounds were perceived (McGloin, et al., 2011), as well as the feeling of being inside the game (Skalski, et al. 2011; McGloin, et al., 2011 & Schmierbach, et al., 2012). Some authors believe this happens because the use of information from the outside world makes the player feel like he’s participating in a real event (McGloin, et al., 2011). Others think it’s related with how natural controls make the player feel like their physical actions and selves are connected with the virtual environment (Schmierbach, et al., 2012), giving the impression that the in-game events are actually happening to him or her. Another possibility is that, as they provide a faster and better learning of the controls, natural interfaces reduce the time it takes for the controller to become less noticeable (Skalski, et al., 2011). Something necessary for the player to experience immersion.

Are those my hands or the avatar’s on the steering wheel?

Perceived control naturalness has also been found to increase enjoyment (Skalski, et al., 2011; McGloin, et al., 2011). This isn’t unexpected as natural controllers have been shown to increase the balance between challenge and skill (Schmierbach, et al., 2012), which tends to make games more fun. Maybe being able to use their previous experiences allowed the players to learn the game controls faster and better, improving their performance. Control naturalness also had a positive effect on transportation, an indicator of increased affective, cognitive and mental imagery involvement (Schmierbach, et al., 2012). It’s possible that a better sense of control made the players think and worry more about the in-game events, making the experience more entertaining.

Natural controls can improve the experience of playing a game that simulates real world events. But what about games that represent fantastic actions, like flying or throwing energy beams? Some authors think natural controls can’t be applied to fantastic activities (e. g., Poole, 2000). With no real world counterparts, how would developers know what to replicate? Also, different players might have a very different idea of how each movement has to be executed. Even if designers manage to overcome this obstacle, would it feel real? Maybe controller naturalness in fantasy games depends on how closely the animation follows the player’s particular idea of how the movement should be executed. Moving your hand forward to shoot a Hadouken in Street Fighter probably won’t feel as good as having to put our hands together, placing them next to your waist, opening them, waiting for the attack to charge and then slowly moving them forward until they face your enemy.

The way natural interfaces interact with knowledge and skill could also be used to improve training programs. Some devices have already been developed for future surgeons to practice complex operations in virtual environments without any risk. The idea could also be applied to less serious scenarios, like sports. Golf and baseball players might benefit from the development of controls and games specially designed for professional training. However, the capacity of this type of systems to improve learning might decrease in the case of experts, as they would be able to notice even the slightest of the differences between the simulation and the real world procedure.

Simulators with natural interfaces are being tested as a new way to train future surgeons.

Natural interfaces can benefit gameplay. However, this doesn’t mean that more realistic controllers would necessarily feel more natural. The level in which a player has adapted to a particular type of interface or its compatibility with a specific video game genre also influences the perceived naturalness. Either way, the capacity of controllers to enhance gameplay depends more on the user experience and preference than on any particular feature of the device. Before choosing your next controller just think about this: Which one feels more comfortable and makes you feel in control? Which one just feels right?

References:

McGloin, R., Farrar, K. M., & Krcmar, M. (2011). The impact of controller naturalness on spatial presence, gamer enjoyment, and perceived realism in a tennis simulation video game. Presence: Teleoperators and Virtual Environments, 20 (4), 309-324. doi: 10.1162/PRES_a_00053

Poole, S. (2000). Trigger Happy. New York: Arcade Publishing.

Skalski, R., Tamborini, R., Shelton, A. Buncher, M. & Lindmark, P. (2011). Mapping the road to fun: Natural video game controllers, presence, and game enjoyment. New Media & Society, 13 (2), 224-242. doi: 10.1177/1461444810370949

Schmierbach, M., Limperos, A. M., & Woolley, J. K. (2012). Feeling the need for (personalized) speed: How natural controls and customization contribute to enjoyment of a racing game through enhanced immersion. Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking, 15 (7), 364-369. doi: 10.1089/cyber.2012.0025

Tamborini, R., & Skalski, P. (2006). The role of presence in the experience of electronic games. In P., Vorderer, & J., Bryant, (eds). Playing video games: Motives, responses, and consequences (pp. 225-240). Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Are Multiplayer Games More Immersive?

Imagine you are at home and decide to play a video game. Let’s say you choose a first person shooter or a survival horror. You grab a gamepad, sit comfortably in front of the TV and launch the game. At the beginning it’s hard to focus. You are still thinking about friends and work. But, after a couple of minutes, things starts to change. You start paying more attention to the game details. Each movement and sound coming from the TV become more important than anything happening in the real world. And while at first you were struggling to remember the controls, now you hardly even notice the gamepad in your hands. Gradually, the objectives of the game become more important, the dangers more scary, the victories more rewarding. Your heart beat increases and your hands start to sweat. The outside world is virtually non-existent. For a moment, it’s like you are inside the game. You are immersed, and it’s awesome!

Amensia: The Dark Descent provides one of the most immersive experiences available.

The experience of immersion is among the most valued by both players and developers. Over the years, it has motivated a considerable amount of studies. As a result, there are now several theories that try to explain why it happens. Some think it’s because the increased focus on the virtual stimuli makes the technology providing the experience less noticeable. In other words, the player become less aware that the images are coming from the TV or that he is using a gamepad to control the avatar. Others believe it has something to do with how the constant stream of data allows the player to build representation of the virtual world so complex, that it starts being confused with the real world.

Research has also allowed experts to distinguish from different types of immersive experiences: Flow (in which the user’s cognitive resources are highly concentrated in the virtual task), emotional involvement (when the game events manage to elicit intense affective reactions), character involvement (a high level of attachment developed towards the characters) and spatial presence (the feeling of being inside the game).

Games like Kaboom! and Resident Evil 2 tend to provoke different types of immersion.

Spatial presence is probably the most known type of immersive experiences. Thanks to scientists, now we know a lot about how graphics, sound and controllers affect it. However, the effect of social variables have been frequently excluded from these studies. There is little information about how the presence of another human affects spatial immersion in either cooperative or competitive matches. This even though millions of dollars are spent every year to further improve the quality of modern multiplayer games.

Apparently, the nature of the opponent can significantly affect how we see and experience a game. Playing against a human instead of a computer, for example, made players expect a game to be more challenging (Ravaja, et al. 2006), as well as experience more positive and intense emotions (Ravaja, et al. 2006; Ravaja, 2009). This might have had something to do with how the introduction of a human opponent made what happened in the game more socially relevant. Victories and defeats could now be seen as signs of being better or worse than the opponent. This would have made the game more important (as it had a bigger effect on self-esteem), exciting (as the player was more afraid of losing or missing the opportunity to win) and (if the challenge wasn´t overwhelming) rewarding. This is congruent with a recent neurological study in which thinking the opponent was human apparently made victories more rewarding (Kätsyri, Hari, Ravaja & Nummenmaa, 2012).

The importance of human opponents resides in their capacity to make the game socially relevant.

Playing against a human opponent also increased the level of attention and the feeling of being inside the game (Ravaja, et al. 2006; Ravaja, 2009). Maybe the additional importance given to the game made the players pay more attention to it, reducing the relevance of any real world stimuli. This would have gradually made them less aware of the mediating technology (the hardware and software providing the experience), giving the impression that the game was real.

Another explanation could be that increased emotional arousal on its own caused the effect. As we know, video games try to elicit feelings that are congruent with the depicted scenario. Players are supposed to be afraid of their avatar’s getting shot and experience relief after successfully overcoming a difficult jump. It’s possible then that the experience of more intense emotions strongly related to the situation portrayed (whether it was a football match or a futuristic battlefield) made the game feel more realistic.

The level in which the player knew the opponent had a similar effect. Playing against a friend, for example, elicited more positive and intense emotions than playing against a stranger (Ravaja, et al. 2006; Ravaja, 2009). It was also accompanied by an increased level of engagement (Ravaja, et al. 2006; Ravaja, 2009). One possible explanation is that comparisons with a friend had a higher impact on self-esteem. This would have made the game more important for the players, forcing them to pay more attention.

Few things engage the player’s attention like racing against a friend in Super Mario Kart.

It’s important to notice that the positive effect friendship had on spatial presence disappeared when the opponent was located in a different room (Ravaja, 2009). This suggests that emotional arousal and engagement influenced immersion only when the other player was physically present. It’s possible that being able to see the opponent’s reactions made the player experience emotions more related to competition, increasing it’s effect on engagement and/or immersion. Maybe watching his friend laugh at him made the player care less about the comfort of the chair and more about winning the next round.

Being in the presence of the opponent was also accompanied by significantly more positive emotions (Ravaja, 2009). The result is interesting as being able to see the opponent’s reactions would have exposed the player to both negative and positive feedback (like the enemy´s facial expressions of mockery and frustration). Maybe the increased effect the game had over self-esteem just made it more exciting. A feature considered desirable in a game.

Local multiplayer games allow, for better or worse, to see the reactions of the opponent.

There are many reasons to study how spatial immersion works in multiplayer games. It could help us better understand, for example, how important social comparison is for emotional arousal and engagement. It could also help improve the quality of multiplayer based games, whether they are online, split-screen or turn-based; competitive or cooperative. Either way, it all depends on how attractive the subject is for players and game designers, and how interesting it becomes for experts in the field of human computer interaction.

References:

Kätsyri, J., Hari, R., Ravaja, N., & Nummenmaa, L. (2012). The opponent matters: Elevated fMRI reward responses to winning against a human versus a computer opponent during interactive video game playing. Cerebral Cortex, 3(12):2829-2839. doi: 10.1093/cercor/bhs259

Ravaja, N. (2009). The psychophysiology of digital gaming: The effect of a non co-located opponent. Media Psychology, 12 (3), 268-294. doi: 10.1080/15213260903052240

Ravaja, N., Saari, T., Turpeinen, M., Laarni, J., Salminen, M., & Kivikangas, M., (2006). Spatial presence and emotions during video game playing: Does it matter with whom you play? Presence: Teleoperators and Virtual Environments, 15 (4), 381-392. doi: 10.1162/pres.15.4.381

Game Transfer Phenomena: When your brain just won’t stop playing.

Do any of these experiences sound familiar:



a)   You see a map and immediately start searching for natural resources for your army.

b)   A wooden bat reminds you of zombie killing, not baseball.

c)   You see a pickaxe on a hardware store and it surprises you how un-pixelated it is.

d)   Every oxygen tank or barrel of fuel you see prompts you to aim and shoot, expecting a huge explosion.

e)   All of the above.



These descriptions make reference to an apparent common occurrence between frequent video game players. They involve alterations of perceptions, thoughts or behavior triggered by real life stimuli that somehow resembles video game objects or situations. This is what Angelica Ortiz de Gortari (2012) describes as Game Transfer Phenomena. Although we all probably have either experienced or heard about this type of experiences, there isn’t much available information about them. This prompted Ortiz de Gortari (2011) to start collecting video game player’s reports about this type of events. Her research helped discover different types of GTP experiences and the results are quite interesting.

In the area of visual perception, players described experiencing distortions of real world elements based on video game content. These included seeing objects as if they were pixelated, with color outlines or even lagging. In this circumstances, a stimuli associated with gameplay experience seems to be what triggers the phenomena. For example: A player reported seeing the Mass Effect dialogue wheel every time someone talked to him. Sometimes the appearing elements had a fixated position in relation to real objects, like health bars floating above people’s heads (Ortiz de Gortari, & Griffiths, 2012).

This neighborhood is starting to look really “blocky”.

Interestingly enough, stimuli from one sensorial modality occasionally triggered a GTP experience from another one. For example: Seeing the letter Y in yellow (the color of the Y button in the 360 controller) or listening to music on the car only to watch the road transform into moving frets (Ortiz de Gortari, & Griffiths, 2012). This type of relationship between different sensorial modalities is similar to what happens in synesthesia, were people report perceiving a sensory stimuli together with one from another sense (like seeing colors while listening to sounds).

While some visualizations occurred when trying to sleep, many players reported them during the day, as soon as they closed their eyes (Ortiz de Gortari, & Griffiths, 2012). This may be a sign that the lack of competing stimuli plays an important role on the generation of GTP experiences. Visualizations also occurred hours or even days after having played (Ortiz de Gortari, & Griffiths, 2012).

Auditory experiences were present too. Players reported hearing video game sounds (like the achievement sound of the Xbox), sometimes in constant repetition. They also described body sensations associated with the activities executed in the game, like feeling the movements performed in “Armored Core” while trying to sleep (Ortiz de Gortari, & Griffiths, 2012).

For some players, real world stimuli triggered intrusive thoughts. These involved interpreting the world in terms of video game experience (confusing an airplane with an UAV from Call of Duty), making illogical conclusions based on in-game situations (thinking territorial expansions were needed for real food to run out) or expecting video game related events (like waiting for the Spy from Team Fortress 2 to attack from behind). It’s also frequent to think about applying video game tools to real life, like using the gravity gun or grappling hook to reach for objects. In some cases players temporarily dissociated with reality and performed actions as if they were in the game. For example: A player described how he walked in the street towards a bike with the intention of using it, before realizing he wasn’t playing GTA anymore (Ortiz de Gortari, & Griffiths, 2012).

I want to eat something but I’m busy. I could really use a portal gun now.

One way to explain all these experiences is through classical conditioning. In this basic learning phenomena a stimuli that didn’t produce an automatic response is repeatedly presented before a stimuli that does. This will eventually allow the paired stimuli to provoke the reflex on its own. For example: If we repeatedly make a clicking sound just before blowing on someone’s eye, the click alone will soon be able to make that person blink. Video games constantly expose us to paired stimulus. More specifically, pairs of stimulus and actions: Every time we want to say something to another online player we have to press a specific key. As a result, the player learns to respond (with speed and precision) to the in-game stimuli (Ortiz de Gortari, & Griffiths, 2012). This might be why occasionally, when a player wants to say something in the real world, they reach for a non-existing keyboard.

GTP can sometimes take the form of very intrusive and upsetting experiences. A participant, for example, reported going to sleep only to see the minecraft grid as an overlay to his room. He couldn’t fall sleep until the furniture was moved into the right place. Additional research could help identify what gameplay characteristics tend to produce these negative effects, benefiting both players and developers (Ortiz de Gortari, & Griffiths, 2012).

Another negative aspect of GTP experiences is that they are easy to confuse with mental disorders. Intrusive and persistent experiences, for example, could be mistaken with obsessive symptoms. An additional source of confusion could be the unpleasant after-effects (headaches, disorientation and nausea) a group of players reported immediately after playing (Ortiz de Gortari, & Griffiths, 2012). These could be taken as signs of an abstinence syndrome, potentially increasing the belief that video games can be addictive.

GTP Adventures allow players to share their experiences using cartoons.

Further studies are required to help professionals distinguish between Game Transfer Phenomena and mental disorders. But there are more positive reasons to promote research on this field. Advances in the study of Game Transfer Phenomena could expand our knowledge about the basic mechanisms of human cognition (Ortiz de Gortari, & Griffiths, 2012). It could also help us understand why in-game learning manifests only in particular circumstances. A discovery that could have a major impact in the development of reliable video game based learning and therapeutic programs.

Note:

Angélica Ortiz de Gortari has an online blog were she further explains the different types of GTP experiences and releases news about her ongoing research. She has also started “GTP Adventures”, an online platform were you can describe your own experience by using cartoons. You can find both sites on the following links:

Game Transfer Phenomena blog

GTP Adventures

References:

Ortiz de Gortari, A. B., Aronsson, K., & Griffiths, M. (2011). Game Transfer Phenomena in Video Game Playing: A Qualitative Interview Study. In: International Journal of Cyber Behavior, Psychology and Learning. 1(3), 15-33.

Ortiz de Gortari, A. B., & Griffiths, M. D. (2012). An Introduction to Game Transfer Phenomena in Video Game Playing. In: J. I. Gackenbach (Ed.), Video Game Play and Consciousness. NY: Nova Publisher.