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Making-Sense of Moving in 3D

The title of this post points out the curious occurrence I had today while in the midst of conducting my study on sense-making in virtual worlds.

The facts are these — highly abridged:

In the study, people of various experiences levels with various types of virtual worlds are being asked to engage in four situations with four media — two of which require the use of a keyboard to navigate a three-dimensional virtual environment: an MMORPG and Second Life. A third requires them to use the Nintendo Wii interface, which combines joystick with buttons.

What is interesting is how much easier the people with the least amount of experience with these types of virtual worlds have an easier time manipulating the Wii remote than they do the keyboard in order to move around in a 3D world.

In the computer games, the individuals moved in zig-zags, using most commonly the keys to move up, down, left, right — rarely using the keys to spin around so as to orient themselves to a particular point on the horizon and move straight towards it. Instead, the would run forward, have to stop and move either left or right before continuing forward, and oftentimes instead of turning around they would move backwards.

For comparison, in the Wii game, they would move haltingly, but they would not zig-zag quite so much. They would circle around when needed to take on opponents and would turn to face the direction they need to go.

The first thing to note from this observation is the difference in manipulating the movement of the avatar. The joystick of the Wii remote requires the use of one thumb, and the joystick is built to promote fluid movement — besides just the standard four directions, the joystick can be rotated rapidly by the thumb in 360 degrees. A little experimentation with this and the maneuvering can be learned because the design of the joystick promotes it.

On the other hand, to accomplish the same movement in the computer games (MMORPG and Second Life), several keyboard buttons are required. For the MMORPG, 6 buttons and the mouse. The individuals have indicated confusion about learning how to operate the keyboard’s controls to generate a more realistic movement. They have discussed that the tactile memory is not strong — they are not used to manipulating movement this way, of interacting with a keyboard this way, and it requires far more experimentation and experience with the controls for their fingers to become learned enough to accomplish more realistic movements without their having to overly cognate about it.

This observation has led me to think about what we mean when we say sense-making. Typically the conceptualization applies to meaning-making or thinking or cognating, and sometimes brings in the idea of emoting and understanding affect as part of the meaning-making process. But what these issues about controls and tactile memory demonstrate is the need to consider the body as part of the sense-making process.

How does the actions of the body, both intentional and unintentional, figure into how we make sense of something — especially something that requires such a physical interaction as these games do. The idea of actions being embodied is something Bourdieu and others have discussed, but just how does such embodiment happen? How does a person make sense of what they need their body to do in order to perform some action? How does a body’s action become embodied?

I thought this was curious today because after these sessions, I found myself walking around cleaning up – and instead of turning, I would just walk backwards, like I had just seen their avatars do.

So I wonder, is it just too much to be asking to believe that people with no experience can become learned enough on how to move in a virtual world within 30 minutes? We don’t expect babies to be able to do that in physical world. Of course, movement in the physical world is governed by evolution and physical laws, such as gravity. Movement in a virtual world is arbitrary, and here governed by the controls determined by the games’ designers.

All of this leads to the question: how does this process of embodying relate to the person’s overall reception of a media product like a virtual world?

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2 Responses

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  1. Sisse Siggaard Jensen says

    that’s a good point; recently, i was reminded of how difficult it is to navigate in virtual worlds without one’s body’s knowledge; usually, I use a touch pad but, lately, for a while i had to use the mouse. It makes me feel helpless and awkward; difficult to remember the most basic combinations of keys when you e.g. create and design; it’s all in the fingers and in the body ;-) it is tacit and bodily knowledge.

  2. Carrie says

    I’m watching footage of a person playing the Wii from one of the sessions, where we get close up images of the hand controllers. It is so weird to watch myself operating the controls. I know exactly what was going on by watching the buttons be pressed, and yet I do not think I could accurately describe for you exactly what buttons I had to press in the midst of action. It is rather automatic once you get the feel for the controls. And there is that interesting word, ‘feel’. That tactile sense-making…

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