Conference Notes Gaming Technology

Supernova '05: Byron Reeves on MMORPGs…

It’s difficult to articulate how busy I’ve been since Supernova – what with servers falling over and jet-lag and work and general calamities. All of which probably explains why I’m still writing up Supernova notes almost two weeks after the events themselves. And I’m afraid, having lost an extremely detailed draft of several sessions yesterday because of a problem with my lovely Powerbook, I’m going to have to start being a little more concise about the whole thing.

Which is a shame because the presentation I want to talk about now – by Bryon Reeves on MMORPGs and the nature of ‘fun’ – was one of the two or three major highlights of the conference for me. In my last draft of this piece (unfortunately lost) I wrote in quite a lot of detail about the experience of attending conferences and how little time it takes to become (over-) familiar with the major issues of the day. But occasionally, you can get something really special and unexpected emerging – when you can gain greater insight from someone from a parallel discipline applying their techniques to your problems.

So Reeves stands up and details an experiment. Two groups of people are individually placed into some kind of brain/CAT-scan kind of device that measures electrical activity in different parts of the brain. They are presented with a game with no win-state – two circles on a screen, one of which is controlled by our subject. One group of subjects are told that the other circle is controlled by another individual, the other group are told that it’s automatic – computer-controlled. In fact, the circle will move in exactly the same way for both groups of people.

But the mental activity is completely different. The group that believes the circle on the other side to be a distinct social actor have considerable activity in the parts of their brains that handle social interaction. What does this demonstrate? Reeves says that it proves that MMORPGs are not places which can be understood merely via human/computer interaction, but require approaches that understand that the computer is mediating between social actors.

Now this blew me away, I’m afraid. It blew me away because – although it proved something that should have been obvious – it also got me thinking in all kinds of new directions around solipsism and artificial intelligence and stuff. Like for example, the significance of what you believe is going on in how you interpret (which makes me curious about how well we’ll interact with apparently sentient actors that we still know are computer-generated), and it made me think about how you might conjure up an alternative version of the Turing test to assess exactly how unlike human beings an artificial intelligence is. (In a nutshell – one implication of that particular experiment is that human beings couldn’t tell the difference between human and computer agency when their interactions were so heavily truncated. So maybe you could create a whole set of environments where the ability of other human agents to interact was heavily restricted and run them against bots interacting in the same space. By quantifying the levels of interaction you could – presumably – create some form of multi-axial scale for the assessment of intelligences…)

The specifics aside, the reason I was blown away by this talk was that it made me think not only about massively multi-player games and ways of employing interesting interfaces – it employed the study of MMORPGs in a way that gives you more perspective on people themselves. And – quite personally – it coincidentally managed to touch on a lot of the subjects I was really interested in during my incomplete doctoral work in a completely different area – tracing patterns of pleasure and identification in ancient and modern drama…

Reeve’s next point: People who were able to choose their own avatar in first or third-person games experienced more arousal / fun than those who had them randomly assigned. Which triggers all kinds of questions for me – how are the people using these avatars? Are they fantasy figures? Do they tend to resemble the person who chooses them? Do they resemble their real-life heroes? Are they idealised versions of a person’s self-image or aspirations? Are they vehicles for the expressions of different paths or parts or attitudes of an individual? What does it mean to play an evil character? And what about playing cross-gendered or animalistic characters?

And this in turn makes me think about role-playing, cosplay, sexual game-playing, furries, transvesticism and a whole variety of other areas where an individual’s identity is up for examination or articulation or expression. Which in turn leads you into other areas that are harder to study – reactions to novels, and characters in novels (for example). Is there a function of books that makes it easier to ‘choose your own avatar’ than a film? What kind of brain reactions do people get when they’re watching a film or reading a book and relating to characters than they do when they’re playing a game? In this space, the game could be an easily mutable and adaptable key for unlocking a whole range of experiences around identification, fantasy and role-playing. Awesome stuff.

The position of the camera (1st person vs. 3rd person) creates significant differents in arousal – with third person generating the greatest amounts. Reeves’ comments around this one were particularly encompassing and interesting – suggesting that being able to move our own personal ‘camera’ away from our bodies would have been a great evolutionary response (although difficult to accomplish), that in third-person perspective being able to see people around and behind your avatar generated accelerations in heart-rate. My own personal reaction was that perhaps the third-person view better resembled our own hypothesised continual sense of our environment, but I didn’t have the opportunity to ask about this.

The richness of the media – and the quality of the imagery – has significant effects on the brain, with more vibrant imagery resulting in greater ‘mirroring’ in the brain. This one interested me because – again – of the opposition to the sensations and experiences of reading books. Which things are being stimulated differently, and why, between those two media?

Narrative context has a significant effect on how much pleasure / arousal people get out of their games – it’s definitely arousing to shoot people in a game, but it’s far more arousing to be in a game where you know the background, the narrative – where you know why you’re shooting them. I tend to think this is probably a pretty universal sentiment – most human thought tends towards the narrativistic – with causality and the hypothesisation of motives and narrative arcs making it possible to impose some form of meaning onto the world.

A whole range of simple statements that between them conjure up a lot about gaming, but also lead you in all kinds of exciting directions when you’re thinking about people in general – and the nature of what it is to be human. All fascinating stuff.

The second half of Reeve’s paper looked at some conditions that made a particular thing ‘gamelike’ and how you could harness the enthusiasm that people had for games in other contexts. He cited the following qualities/attitudes in gamers which you could attempt to meet in worklike environments (his comment – “don’t underestimate fun – engagement has a demonstrable ROI”:

  • ‘Failure doesn’t hurt’
  • ‘Risk is part of the game’
  • ‘Feedback is immediate’
  • ‘I’m used to being the star’
  • ‘Trial and error is the best plan”
  • ‘There’s always an answer’
  • ‘I can figure it out’
  • ‘Competition is fun (and familiar)’
  • ‘I make bonds beyond my near-group’

I think my favourite example he cited was really near the end – and was concerned with embedding real work into games. He talked about how in Star Wars Galaxies, characters have to get jobs to earn money that they can then spend. And to get jobs they have to develop skills. So they embedded real-world work into the mechanisms that allow you to develop your skills. They placed images from cancer screens into the games – some with cancerous cells visible, and some without. To develop to another level in the game you had to start determining the difference between these scans. And it turns out, where a normal doctor is around 60% accurate in spotting cancer in one of these screens, you can get the same quality of answer – the same level of scrutiny – by simply exposing the same image to thirty normal game-players aspiring to the Doctor in-game skillset. There’s an enormous amount of possibilities there in brute-forcing a lot of work that requires human judgement but can be learned by pattern.

Fascintating stuff – and a great talk… My full notes are here: supernova_reeves.txt

2 replies on “Supernova '05: Byron Reeves on MMORPGs…”

Thanks for this write-up.
“how well we’ll interact with apparently sentient actors that we still know are computer-generated” — Have you read Reeves’ The Media Equation? Seems you just need to tell someone they’re in a team with the computer to have them start deferring to it, as if it was sentient. Good book, although misinterpreting the results seems to get you on the road to Microsoft Bob, so be careful 🙂

Well, Tom, if it makes you feel any better, the long comment I just typed got lost when I pressed “preview”. Ugh!
Where Reeves and Nass’s The Media Equation goes wrong, in my opinion, is that it doesn’t sufficiently disintinguish among anthropomorphizing, engaging learned routines and conventions, and making sense of presence of another like onself. What’s a biological module is a hugely controversial issue in neuroscience. But understanding the problem is an important step to understanding the solution. Understanding presence to be the problem provides a lot of insight into what persons actually do with communications technologies from reading to theatre to telephones. See my work Sense in Communication.

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