Presence and Games – An interview with Paul Skalski, Ph.D.

Back in October I gave a talk at the 2012 conference for the International Society for Presence Researchers.  While there I sat in on a number of fascinating presentations, including several by Dr. Paul Skalski, professor and researcher in the School of Communication at Cleveland State University.  Amongst other topics, Paul discussed the potential relationship between gameplay motivation and a player “need for presence.”  I recently followed up with him to hear more about his research, as well as his thoughts on presence as part of the player experience and how developers might better design for presence.

Jim Cummings (JC):  Can you tell us a little about your background as a researcher and player of games?

Paul Skalski (PS):  I grew up with video games, in more ways than one.  Not only have I played them my whole life, but I've lived through the complete history of video games as a consumer technology.  Some of my earliest memories are playing Pong and the Atari 2600 as a very young child, when they were brand new, and from there I grew up as the technology did.  Interestingly, when I started to become interested in Communication research as a graduate student in the late 1990s, there wasn’t much research in the field on video games, at least compared to now. It didn't seem to be a very accepted area of Communication study.  But when I began my Ph.D. work at Michigan State University in 2000, my advisor asked if I wanted to work on video game research, and I was like "Really?! Sure!"  We did a study on virtual reality video game research and hostile thoughts that was published in 2004, and I've been conducting video game studies ever since.

One more thing: When I was growing up, I played a LOT of video games, and my mother and others told me I was wasting my time, I would never do anything with that, etc.  Well, I'm happy to report that they were wrong!  Video games are now a big part of my job.  And I think being a lifelong player has really helped me in my research, as it has a lot of younger video game scholars.

JC:  I think many people, particularly gamers, have a loose idea of what is meant by "presence".  But obviously the concept extends well beyond games and means something (or some things..) very specific to researchers.  Can you tell us a little bit about the history and scope of presence as a concept?

PS:  The concept of presence gained attention in the field of Communication in the 1990s, as a result of VR and other technological advancements that were making media seem more "real" or "natural."  In THE seminal work on presence, published in 1997, Matthew Lombard and Theresa Ditton defined it as "the perceptual illusion of non-mediation."  It's the psychological sensation of "being there" in a media environment or "being with" mediated others, to some extent.  As a result of 15 or so years of research on causes and effects of presence, we now know that it's quite common and can be experienced while using any form of media.

That brings to mind a few misconceptions about presence.  First, presence is not a property of media technology, it's a property of users.  Playing on a large high definition screen is likely to make gamers feel more present than playing on a small low resolution screen, but not always.  It depends in part on individual differences.  Second, if you experience presence, that doesn't mean you become completely oblivious to the real world and think you are in a virtual world like in The Matrix.  Rather, presence is something that fluctuates during the course of a media experience and may vary from low to high at any given time.  So if you're playing Black Ops 2 in a darkened room with no one else there and really get involved and immersed, you may be on the high end of the presence continuum, but you can be taken down to a lower level of presence if the lights come on or somebody comes in and distracts you.

That said, most presence research to date has focused on aspects of technology that encourage a sense of presence, and that's where my research comes in.

JC: Are there certain aspects of presence that your research focuses on?

PS:  Most of my research on presence and video games has examined how recent advances in gaming technology impact presence and game enjoyment.  It builds on the first presence and video games study I did, on virtual reality video game effects, while I was a Ph.D. student at Michigan State.  Since that was published in 2004, VR has not taken off as a consumer technology, but a lot of other things about games has changed, and those are the things I've studied, including the effects of HD graphics, surround sound, and naturally mapped or motion controlled interfaces.  I would argue that a major goal of the game industry in introducing those technologies is to give players a greater sense of presence, and my research suggests that they've succeeded, to an extent.  In a study I did published last year, for example, my team found that naturally mapped interfaces like steering wheels and the Wiimote tend to be perceived as more natural, and this perceived naturalness affects both spatial presence (the sense of being "in" a game) along with enjoyment.  However, the key to the effect is perceived naturalness, not the technology itself, and interestingly, a standard controller is perceived as very natural for some gamers now. Conversely. some motion controllers may not seem very natural, like if they have poor responsiveness, and this can have a negative effect on game enjoyment.  So, this research highlights the importance of considering aspects of gamer psychology like spatial presence and perceived naturalness before assuming a direct effect of game technology on liking of a game or other gratifications of game play.

JC: You mentioned “spatial presence” in particular just now.  Do you believe certain types of presence are more central to gaming than are others?

PS:  The three major types of presence researchers now focus on are spatial presence, the sense of being there in a media environment, social presence, the sense of being with mediated others, and self presence, the sense that some aspect of one's self is reflected in a media environment.  I think of all three major types of presence as very important in gaming!  As my research and that of others has shown, the realistic graphics, sounds, and control schemes of games can make players feel more in the game world, or spatial presence.  Online gaming with others is obviously huge now, and doing things like communicating with other players through headsets makes players feel more socially present.  Finally, when players create avatars like Miis and feel that it represents them, or feel a sense of connection to their avatar, that's self presence, essentially.  As far as popular media goes, video games are probably the ultimate presence inducting technology we currently have, given their increasing realism and interactivity.

JC:  What do you think is the role of presence related to player experiences?  Is it an effect?  A motivation?

PS:  The vast majority of my research to date has considered presence to be an outcome or effect of media use, and there's a ton of evidence to back that up.  Most of presence studies have considered it to be an effect.  However, there may also be a motivational component to it, which is something I've begun to explore this year.  Do people have a "need for presence" that drives their media use at times?  Do they play, at least in part, to be in and explore a fantasy world, or be with others, or put aspects of themselves into virtual worlds?  I would say yes, and presence-like concepts have already been advanced in existing player motivation models.  Nick Yee, for example, took Richard Bartle's classic player types and through empirical research reduced them to three categories, including one called "immersion."  This seems very similar to the presence concept and a few studies, including one I presented at the 2012 International Society for Presence Research conference, suggest that at least some players have a need for presence or immersion that drives their game play.  My study found that players high in what I called "need for presence" tend to play more console games, which makes sense given how immersive console games can be when played on huge screens, with motion controls, etc.

JC:  How might a “need for presence” relate to existing models of player motivation?  You just mentioned Yee’s typology, but what about others, like Bartle types, Rigby & Ryan’s PENS model, or Tamborini et al’s model of hedonic and non-hedonic needs?

PS:  The player type motivation research is very interesting to me, and I think the hedonic and non-hedonic needs researchers like my old friends at Michigan State have really boiled it down to its essence by focusing on things like autonomy and connectedness.  That's the best work being done in the area, as far as I'm concerned.  However, I still like the more classic player types because I think they make more sense to actual players.  I talk to gamers all the time in classes and through my research, and they really respond to the Bartle types and updated work in that vein.  It's intuitive and understandable to them to think about whether they're achievers or socializers.  That's why I still include those types of items.  But ultimately, I like to look at things from a presence perspective, and a lot of what I see happening in the gaming community today, whether it be hardcore or casual players, seems to be driven by a need for presence.  Hence my current interest in this.

JC:  As the research progresses, do you anticipate that presence might become a more explicit consideration for game designers?  Taking all this into account, do you think there are certain things for a developer to keep in mind if designing for presence?  Different consideration for different types of presence?

PS:  I think game designers are already subconsciously making many design decisions to give players presence.  They would really benefit from looking into the presence literature!  There are now hundreds of studies and they include research-based recommendations for what to do, and what not to do or what might not work as well, to give media users a sense of presence.  My 2010 book "Immersed in Media: Telepresence in Everyday Life" would be a good starting point for anyone new to presence, as would Lombard and Ditton's 1997 explication.  Information and resources can also be found on the International Society for Presence Research website. Presence is a fascinating area of study and I'm always happy to have the opportunity to spread the word about it!

Presence and Games – An interview with Paul Skalski, Ph.D. by Jim Cummings, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

2 Responses to “Presence and Games – An interview with Paul Skalski, Ph.D.”

  1. This is a very interesting interview, thank you for sharing!

    I often talk about "social presence" in my dissertation, but in a different (but complementary) way. I use this term to reflect a person's awareness of the presence of others in certain modes of communication -- e.g. knowing that your guild leader can see the things you type in your guild chat channel, or using private messages to communicate one-on-one with someone without any 'overhearers'. It's very interesting to see how the same terms are used in different disciplines.

    I also really like the idea of technologies that can impact presence in different ways. I've come to the idea in my work that some technologies of communication have affordances that allow for or deny presence, or have varying impact different kinds of presence. The headset to chat with your gaming friends may afford you greater social presence, but perhaps decrease spatial presence by pulling one "out" of the world when your friend starts talking about their cat or their job. The keyboard may allow you lots of options for controlling your character, but when you have to use the same device for text-based conversations, social presence may be inhibited.

    I am interested (and perhaps relieved) to hear that Dr. Skalski is researching this phenomenon and I'll definitely go look up his work to reinforce my assertions in my dissertation.

    • Jim says:

      I'm glad you found it useful, Lauren!

      Very cool ties back to your own research. And I particularly like the example of headsets having opposing influences on different types of presence. At the conference I actually discussed a project I'm working on that investigates how different immersive hardware features influence a system's capacity to induce presence in a user. In discussing this relationship with the rest of the group (much more versed in presence than myself), I got the impression that the relative immersive quality of a system's technology (e.g, stereoscopic displays, higher/more tracking levels, great sound quality) might have greater implications for spatial presence in particular, while alternate aspects of a mediated experience likely related to social presence. If interested, in addition to Paul, Frank Biocca is another communication researcher who has examined the precursors of social presence in some detail.

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