Perceived realism in media & gaming

Research at the turn of the century indicated that people can make judgements about the reality of a media experience on a moment-to-moment basis and that this judgement depends highly on the typicality of the experience (Shapiro, 2003). If it is typical of what is known and expected we are more likely to perceive it as real. Any media experience is compared to personal experience, and the experiences of the people that one is familiar with (Eikelenboom, 2006). “Beyond one’s own direct experiences of the world, humans rely on communication to form impressions about the rest of reality” (Kosciki, 2008). The observed behaviour is assessed, personal risk is also assessed and an interpretation of the media is made. Then a judgement is made on the realism of the media experience. The more typical we judge story elements of the media experience, the more likely we are to judge the whole thing as real.

Perception might also be viewed as categorization. As Shrum states “…people are always ready to perceive (categorize), and they may do so by choosing among a number of categorization possibilities” (Shrum, 2006, p. 57). Combined with Shapiro’s research (2003) this means that people place what they perceive in categories they are familiar with. To make reality-judgements on situations that go beyond actual knowledge, like a dragon filled-fantasy world, imagination is needed (Valkenburg & Peter, 2006). People imagine what the situation would be like IF it were to happen and then judge the realness of the media content based on their expectations (Shapiro, Pena-Herborn, & Hancock, 2006).
Zillmann (2006) questioned whether we need to suspend reality in order to experience the emotion or if we could just believe in the fiction. Research among ARG players reveals that although players believe in the game reality, this is a choice that they are aware of; they play the believe in the game reality (McGonical, 2003). “Simply put, when a person is immersed in pleasurable game play, the mind has no motivation whatsoever to disbelieve any of the information it is receiving” (Castronova, 2007).

The perceived realism of video games depends heavily on the inferential and imaginative elements that the game incorporates as well as the sensory information (Shapiro, 2006). Current video game design focuses on making it look real instead of making the player think it is real. More effort is focussed on the sensory stimulation to enhance realness then to the more abstract and conceptual elements. These conceptual elements are typicality, character type, character judgement and emotion. There are two types of characters in video games; avatars, controlled by humans, and Non Playing Characters (NPC) or bots, controlled by the game system. The interaction with the avatar gives greater meaning and a higher sense of realism then the interaction with a NPC. Although dialogue-protocols are very advanced, an experienced player can easily tell the difference between an avatar and a NPC. Emotions in the game enhance perceived realism if the emotions shown are in line with the expectations of the player (Shapiro, 2006). An avatar is inherently better at showing the correct expected emotion than a NPC, creating a heightened sense of realism.

In several studies of video games (e.g. Anderson and Dill, 2000; Ballard and West, 1996: Calvert and Tan, 1994; Dill and Dill, 1998) evidence is found that the level of perceived reality determines the psychological effects of the game play. The more real it is perceived, the stronger the effects are.

Castronova, E. (2007). Exodus to the Virtual World: How Online Fun Is Changing Reality: St Martins Press.
Eikelenboom, T. (2006). VR en AR. Confrontaties met de nieuwe realiteiten. small paper orientation new media. [VR and AR. Confrontations with new realities.] Universiteit van Amsterdam.
Kosicki, G. (2008). Perceived reality as a communication process. In W. Donsbach (Ed.), The international encyclopaedia of communication (pp. 3550-3552): Blackwell Publishing, 2008.
McGonical, J. (2003). A real little game: The performance of belief in pervasive play. Paper presented at the Digital Games Research Associaton (DiGRA) “Level Up”, Utrecht.
Shapiro, M. A., & Makana Chock, T. (2003). Psychological processes in perceiving reality. Media psychology, 5(2), 163-198.
Shapiro, M. A., Pena-Herborn, J., & Hancock, J. T. (2006). Realism, imagination and narrative video games. In P. Vorderer & J. Bryant (Eds.), Playing video games; Motives, responses and consequences (pp. 275-290). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.
Shrum, L. J. (2006). Perception. In J. Bryant & P. Vorderer (Eds.), Psychology of Entertainment (pp. 36-55). Mahway, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associated.
Valkenburg, P., & Peter, J. (2006). Fantasy and imagination. In P. Vorderer & J. Bryant (Eds.), Psychology of Entertainment (pp. 105-118). Mahway, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associated.
Zillmann, D. (2006). Dramaturgy for emotions from fictional characters. In J. Bryant & P. Vorderer (Eds.), Psychology of entertainment (pp. 151-182). Nahwah NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

- this is an excerpt from my MSc-thesis How Alternate Reality Gaming changes reality

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