Presence based play...

Presence, Instant Messaging, social interaction, multiplayer games

Poster presented at the Computer Games and Digital Cultures Conference, Tampere, Finland, 6th-8th June 2002. Click for a larger view in another window.

Considering 'presence' as the sense of 'being connected' or 'in touch' with other people, we realise that 'presence' information (knowing about the existence, availability, activity, and location of others) has become a key issue in the connected and wireless world. The concept has expanded from an initial online/offline description and has grown in richness.

'Presence', as communicated in Instant Messaging applications for example, can include a variety of functions, like availability, willingness to communicate, location, activity, device capability, and even more interesting concepts such as state of mind, mood or intention and identity, which have very promising potential for games or other playful applications. This research attempts to define 'presence' on a massive scale. Part of the work is to develop a framework for multiplayer game design experimentation, based on presence information.

The aim of this research is to explore the notion of 'presence' on a massive scale. What would be the effect of 'presence awareness' for large numbers of people and what playful group interactions could emerge? It seems that there is a particular feeling when being part of a crowd, but how could design enhance this sense in the online and wireless world?

Considering the player-to-player interaction design in multiplayer games, we notice that there is a limit either in the number of people that can take part in the game, or in the number of people that can interact synchronously or see each other during game play. Even in massively multiplayer games like Ultima Online, where thousands of people play simultaneously, the player's view is limited by an artificial horizon in the radar visualisation: this conveniently narrows the immediate scope of events requiring urgent attention, but restricts the 'total immersion' effect that might otherwise be possible to achieve.

This research attempts to explore the challenging, yet undefined, idea of a game where the very presence of a large number of people could not only be advantageous for the game itself, but could actually form the fundamental premise of its play. The further aim is to create playful group interactions based on the simultaneous presence of large numbers of people.

For this purpose the research also borrows some concepts from the field of social psychology. Alexander Mintz's classic 1951 psychological study of non-adaptive/self-defeating behaviour during crowd panics showed that people change their behaviour according to their expectations of the behaviour of others, as well as what actually happens in the process of a challenging situation. His experimental 'panic simulation' study in the form of a game could and possibly inspire a new genre of massively multiplayer 'crowd behaviour' games. Another interesting variable to investigate is intergroup competition and to see how groups of people might behave and organise themselves in order to win other groups. Research has proved that people change their behaviour accordingly if assigned as members of a particular group, even if the group identity is minimal, for example, based on random division ( Tajfel, 1970, Minimal Identity Theory).

The Challenge

There are several questions to be addressed:

- How can we can design enhance social interaction in a playful way for large numbers of people?

- Is a truly massively multiplayer game actually possible? What is the scale limitation for the number of participants?

- What design guidelines would be appropriate for different devices ?(online and wireless interaction)

- Presence information as a design challenge. In what ways can it be best communicated?

- How can the presence of large numbers of people affect a game experience?

- Motivation, playability, challenge. A game or a 'crowd' gathering?

A series of game concepts are currently being developed in order to map this undefined area and to get some initial feedback. Even though the concept of massive multiplayer presence is researched on a completely experimental basis, current trends in the use of new technologies are encouraging and the fact that social interaction through play has not yet been researched on a massive scale makes the challenge more fascinating.

© Yanna Vogiazou, KMi, Open University, 2002