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Virtual Worlds Entertainment Study

My primary interest (post.doc CarrieLynn Reinhard) in my virtual worlds entertainment study was the extent to which there are similarities or differences in how people make sense of virtual worlds as sources of entertainment. Thus the primary practices that I considered were the sense-making strategies people would use as they engaged with virtual worlds, and how these strategies would compare to those situations when they engaged with other entertainment media products. My conceptualization of sense-making strategies is largely informed by the work of Brenda Dervin in her construction of the Sense-Making Methodology. Thus, sense-making strategies are those cognitive and/or affective actions/reactions undertaken as a person determines what is happening in a situation and what the person should and could be doing in the situation.

I have been interested in the role of the media product’s technology, or interface, for determining how a person experiences the media product’s content. With digital technologies, there has been a rise of interfaces that require increasing physical interactivity to access and even progress the content. I wanted to know if the interface for accessing and progressing the content impacts how one experiences the content, which could impact how much they are entertained by it. Thus I wanted to see how people would respond to a range of interfaces to access the same or similar content, which experience they might find the most entertaining, and what about the interface would help or hinder that sense of being entertained.

However, the overarching research aim was to understand what were the similarities and differences in how people engaged with these different technologies by focusing on their interpretive interactions, as measured by their sense-making strategies. My idea was that these interpretive interactions could help us understand what leads a person to describe the content, or more specifically the engagement with the content, as being entertaining.

My main research questions were: a) are there differences and/or similarities in how people perceive virtual worlds as entertaining when compared to other types of media technologies, and b) what accounts for any differences and/or similarities? In order to test these questions, I devised an experimental study using one factor to create four situations. The factor focused on was the interface, and specifically the extent to which the person was given physical control over the progression of the media product’s content by the interface. I choose four types of media technologies to reflect an increase in providing the person with control over the interaction: DVD, video game, gaming virtual world, and social virtual world. These four technologies were chosen because, as you move from left to right on the list, the extent to which the person has more control over the progression of the content increases.

The two virtual worlds were chosen because they represent two different ways of thinking about what a virtual world can be, and thus they have different approaches to permitting the person to have such control. A gaming virtual world is any of a variety of MMOs that are by far the most used type of virtual world; such gaming worlds are similar to other digital gaming technologies in that they are games, with quests designed prior to the person engaging with it, and with which the person engages to progress through the content. A social virtual world is any of a number of worlds that are not designed with any requirements for what to do, but are designed primarily to be virtual spaces in which people can create places of gathering, activity, and creativity. Such social virtual worlds require the person to have more control over any content experienced in the world, because if it were not for the people of the world having such control, then there would be no content to experience.

For this experiment, people were required to experience content in all four of the technologies; the content was kept as similar as possible by utilizing media products feature the superhero genre. A library of superhero films was gathered from which participants could choose. A superhero game was chosen for the Nintendo Wii console system. The only superhero MMO available at the time was used, City of Heroes. For the social virtual world, an island was created in Second Life to represent common superhero genre conventions.

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