ARG vs. MMORPG: More real and more social.

I wanted to dive into the realm of Alternate Reality Games and find out more about how they work, why they work and what experiences they bring to the players. I expected this gaming genre to create all sorts of strong experiences since it incorporates physical reality. In order to make statements on the strength of any player experiences I needed a comparison. The most logical candidate for comparison in my mind were Massively Multi player Online Role Playing Games; MMORPG’s.

The debate on what does and what does not make up an ARG is ongoing. However, I took the six key qualities of any ARG to be cross-media, pervasive, persistent, collaborative, constructive and expressive; following McGonigal’s line of thinking in a presentation of hers in 2004.
The key qualities of any MMORPG I borrowed from a book chapter of Chan in 2006; persistence, physicality, social interaction, avatar-mediated play, vertical game play and perpetuity.
Another scholar thought that the persistent nature of a MMORPG was so unique that he dubbed these troll-scrolling virtual worlds ‘persistent worlds’. Obviously, no one had introduced him to the concept of ARG’s yet.
ARG and MMORPG alike do not need your presence to exist. Both worlds will persist without any of the individual player’s present.
Similarities between ARG and MMORPG can also be found in the importance of the social aspect. For a MMORPG it is the open social interaction that is important, for an ARG this interaction has a direction and a purpose. It is not just any old form of human-to-human contact but it is collaboration in specific. Naturally, collaboration is also possible in a MMORPG but it is not necessary.

I was very curious how these two gaming genres would compare. So after several interviews and a large number of surveys detailing player’s experiences here’s what I’ve found:

1. Perceived reality is higher for ARG-players vs. MMORPG-players
2. Social presence seems to be higher for ARG-players vs. MMORPG-players
3. There is a high amount of transferring in-game experiences into real life for both ARG and MMORPG

Perceived reality of a media or gaming environment means to what degree it is experienced as, and has the effects of, a real environment.
Several concepts determine perceived reality. For example, if persona in the gaming environment behave like you expect them to behave in the real world, and whether or not you feel you have control over objects in the environment, or if you feel your choices can influence the interaction with the environment.
That ARG-players experience more perceived reality than MMORPG-players makes sense as MMORPG-players may have a multitude of human-human interactions and influence of the environment interaction, they do not have sway over the development of the overall storyline the way ARG-players do.
Earlier research has shown that all psychological effects of a media environment are heightened if the perceived reality is heightened. Following this logic, it would mean that all effects of playing an ARG should be stronger than (the same) effects of playing a MMORPG.

Social presence has to do with how close and real you feel the presence of others within the gaming environment.
Questions as to whether or not you felt understood by other players, if you were influenced by their moods or cared at all about their well-being were asked to determine the experience of social presence. A trend towards a higher experience of social presence of ARG-players could be deduced from the answers given. Most likely, this has to do with the strong need for collaboration embedded in an ARG. This very specific, and more intense, form of interaction would create a higher sense of social presence.

For both ARG and MMORPG-players a high amount of transference was found.
To determine this I focused questions on ‘strategic knowledge’ which is knowledge on how to do something in general, regardless of context. I took strategic knowledge statements from my interviews with ARG and MMORPG players and employed them in my survey, to make sure I was asking about things that players actually experienced within their game environments.
For both player groups I found a high amount of the application of strategic knowledge in real life that was experienced in-game.
However, there was no difference in the strength or amount of this transference between ARG and MMORPG-players.

This research shows that an ARG environment is very real to its players.
Not in the sense that players ‘confuse’ make-believe with reality, but in the sense that is an important environment eliciting real emotions, real interactions and real results.
That an ARG creates stronger effects due to high perceived reality combined with several transference effects makes it a good learning environment that would be very suitable as a social learning tool.

Perhaps ARG’s can teach the world to collaborate.

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