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Understanding Presence in Virtual Worlds

2011 May 31

ResearchBlogging.orgIn a recent issue of the Journal of Virtual Worlds Research, Beck et al.[1] examine the role of the psychological construct “presence” in the context of virtual enviornments (VE).  They do this by exploring the study of presence across several disciplines of study.  I’ll summarize them here:

  • Mass Communication: This is a discipline studying how mass media can be used to communicate to large groups.  Researchers in this field discuss presence in terms of “being there” as a part of the virtual environment, a concept called “sentient presence” (SP).
  • Human-Computer Interaction: HCI is a discipline combining elements of both human factors engineering and human factors psychology, with a focus on how humans experience computers.  In HCI, discussion surrounds a “sense of being there,” called “non-sentient presence” (NSP).  This line explains it fairly clearly: “People are considered present in a VE when they report a sensation of being inside the virtual world.”   SP is still a part of HCI, but focuses on multi-user VEs (MUVEs).  HCI also quanties NSP in terms of four dimensions of immersion: inclusiveness, extensiveness, surrounding, and vividness.
  • Education: Definitions of presence is derived from mass communication and HCI, although it has been studied as a function of both media and participants in media.  An interesting dimension within this field is the study of SP as the ability of the VE resident to project a realistic persona into the VE.  One education researcher even found that increased SP was related to increased learning in online courses.
  • Psychology: In my field, presence is also discussed in terms of “being there.”  Greater presence in a VE is indicated by the perception of virtual objects and experiences as “real.”  NSP is examined from three perspectives: focus of attention, locus of attention, and sensus of attention.

Probably the most basic problem I see with this article is that even after reading it, I am not totally clear on what SP and NSP refer to. The researchers attempt to synthesize these perspectives into definitions of both SP and NSP, but do this by listing one sentence from each field, creating two paragraph-long definitions.  Which doesn’t really accomplish anything useful, as far as definitions go.

My best guess at this is that NSP refers to immersive presence, i.e. feeling like you are a part of the simulation/VE, while SP refers to an awareness of a living, breathing virtual world around your avatar.  One would need SP in order to achieve NSP, by this defintion.  But I am not quite convinced that these are both best conceptualized as “presence.”

SP seems similar to the old media construct of suspension of disbelief – that feeling you get when you are really engrossed in a good movie or book and forget/fail to notice that some things aren’t quite realistic.  When we watch Star Wars, for example, we don’t stop to question “that doesn’t make sense!” because we have been drawn into the narrative.  The same principle seems to apply to virtual worlds, and at least one study in psychology explores this by examining the extent to which VE participants try to interact with computer-controlled characters and constructs as if they were real.  This certainly makes sense to me – people high in suspension of disbelief (i.e. SP) are willing to forget that the virtual world is a computer program, and instead think of it as a real virtual world that they can explore.

My personal definition of presence, then, is closer to NSP – when a person loses track of the fact that they are playing a game/participating in a simulation, becoming wholly drawn into the virtual world.  The same experience that an actor might have when fully immersed in a role – a total and complete willingness to participate in the narrative.  When you have this sense of presence, you feel disoriented and surprised to be pulled out of that world.  Is it this level of engagement that virtual worlds enables – and it looks we’re getting pretty close to creating such experiences with the VEs currently available.

Now we just need some scales to measure it!

  1. Beck, D., Fishwick, P., Kamhawi, R., Coffey, A. J., & Henderson, J. (2011). Synthesizing presence: A multidisciplinary review of the literature. Journal of Virtual Worlds Research, 3 (3) []
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