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The Personality of Immersion in Video Games and Virtual Worlds

2010 June 29

ResearchBlogging.orgA recent study by Weibel, Wissmath and Mast (2010)[1] examines the Big Five personality correlates of immersion in virtual environments, finding that high Openness to Experience, Neuroticism, and Extraversion are positively related to the tendency to be immersed.

Immersion is not very clearly defined in the article, so we’ll have to assume they’re using the layman’s definition – that feeling you get where the outside world fades away and your entire attention is on the game/virtual environment.  This seems related to the concepts of engagement in business research and flow in psychology, although this paper makes no attempt to pull in either.

The results here are somewhat atheoretical, as there was no a priori attempt to link personality traits to specific characteristics related to immersion.  There’s certainly nothing wrong with a brute force empirical approach, but it does change the sorts of conclusions that can be made.  This work found that all three personality traits were related to emotional involvement (one dimension of immersion) while only Openness was related to absorption (the other dimension).  Neuroticsm was also the most strongly related to emotional involvement of the three.  But the specific reasons for these variables to correlate in this way (i.e. Why are neurotic people more likely to be immersed?”) are unclear.

There are certainly limitations.  The research was conducted entirely via survey with a 21% response rate.  Immersion is studied here as immersive tendency, a personality trait with items like, “How frequently do you find yourself closely identifying with the characters in a story line?”  While the authors make a claim that this is related to immersion in “mediated environments,” it’s not clear if such general immersive tendencies would translate into actual differences in behavior, and furthermore if  immersive tendencies in technology-mediated environments could be measured with items like the example given above.  The low response rate also raises some concern about missingness, although the severity of this problem depends on why people were missing.

Still, the implications are interesting.  If these three personality traits are related to tendencies toward immersion, and if this generalized to immersion in virtual environments, it opens up the possibility we can predict engagement level in technology-mediated training programs from personality, which would potentially affect how much trainees learned from those environments, holding all other features constant.  For example, I might hypothesize from this that people high in Openness would be more engaged in a training program held in Second Life rather than in person, and would as a result experience better learning outcomes from the Second Life training program.

Footnotes:
  1. Weibel, D., Wissmath, B., & Mast, F. W. (2010). Immersion in mediated environments: The role of personality traits. Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking, 13, 251-256 : 10.1089/cyber.2009.0171 []
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  1. June 29, 2010

    So, is this study trying to say that most people who love virtual worlds are just angry at reality in general? This study feels a little suspicious if you ask me, but at the same time, certain types of people are more competent in a virtual world than the real world. Who did the researchers pick in the first place?

  2. Couldbe permalink
    June 30, 2010

    As a second life entity I had to think about this for a bit – particularly your hypothesis that people with high openness may be optimised for learning if SL was used as a tool.

    As someone who (I hope) predominantly falls into the openness category I think that currently it may be that virtual worlds are useful as a team building environment (everyone struggling together to get the hang of the virtual world thing) but is too distracting and difficult to use to be an effective learning tool. Certainly some of the educator blogs I’ve read seem to give an indication of enjoyment by students of sl as a learning tool, although they don’t discuss if they’ve seen any improvement in results.

    However fast forward to a future where virtual worlds are more widely experienced and usability is improved (particularly for SL) and I think your hypothesis would be correct. Certainly if I had to go into a (new to me) virtual world for training I’d be more engaged from the outset than normal but (interestingly for me anyway) I detest those outdoor activity/bonding fests that some companies seem to value.

    Thank you for the thought provoking article.

  3. July 1, 2010

    Good stuff! I am a skeptic as well as a MMORPG player, so this is of particular interest to me. Virtual world psychology is a budding psychology and I am looking forward to seeing how it all unfolds.

    Of specific interest to me regarding psychology and RPG online games is to see how people treat each other when they are anonymous and “who they want to be.” The RPG world is different than just offering anonymity that posting on a random forum; one creates a whole other “self” equipped with weapons, skills and outfits; I want to know which people tend towards creating an ideal self, an opposite self and creating characters similar to oneself. There’s just way too much good stuff to be studied from this particular gaming world. Anyway, you’ve made some great points. Thank you for this!

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