In the Game – In the Flow: Presence in Public


In the Game – In the Flow: Presence in Public
In the Game – In the Flow: Presence in Public
Computer Gaming
Jo Bryce
Dept of Psychology, University of Central Lancashire &
Jason Rutter
Centre for Research on Innovation & Competition (CRIC), University of Manchester
Poster presented at "Computer Games & Digital Textualities"
IT University of Copenhagen, March 2001
It is estimated that almost three quarters of people under thirty have played a computer game,
and the leisure software industry is estimated to be worth more than $6 billion in Europe
making it a more lucrative market than either the USA or Japan. In the USA, sales of games
now outnumber sales of books and in the UK games are worth 80% more than video
rentals. In the UK – which makes up more than half the European market – gaming software
is not just significant in terms of consumption, as it also has an impressive development an
export profile massively outperforming film and television. (ELSPA, 1999)Despite this, there
remains a lack of understanding of computer gaming as a serious leisure activity or within an
interactive context. This paper investigates the emergence of public forms of gaming such as
national competitions and LAN parties. This is done through exploring notions of presence at
these events and three interlinking places of presence are explored:
The physical presence that games and their machine inhabit at the events
The virtual presence gamers have in the games through their characters or agents
The psychological presence gamers inhabit while competing
Physical Presence
If public gaming events were only about gaming then it would seem plausible that increases
in online and networked facilities would lead to a diminishment of events rather than the
increase that we are witnessing – but this is not the case. There must be reasons, beyond
the joys of lag-free play, why gamers choose to bring themselves and their computers to the
same point at the same time. LAN parties especially take planning, investment and
negotiation to set up and attend to assure that everyone turns up at the same time and same
place with PCs, network cards, sleeping bag, food and are met by a functioning and reliable
What competitions and LAN parties offer is a rare chance for gamers to compete face-to-face
with members of the larger gaming community outside their immediate circle of
friends. They offer opportunity for conspicuous display and the challenge of skills developed
through domestic gaming and practice to be applied to a public field of competition. Part of
the attraction of public gaming events is not just to be challenged and compete but to
be seen to do so and make eye contact with other members of the gaming communities. It
is not unusual for gamers to search out the “real person” behind the gaming personas they
have played against.
Physical presence means that gaming events become social events. From the nervous
talk that takes place while cueing to register at a console championship to the swapping of
warez and pornography in the middle of the night at a LAN party, talking and making contact
is central to the interactions that go on at public gaming events as gamers stops being
onscreen nicks and become people. Face-to-face interaction is the feature that turns gaming
into an event. It constucts “liveness” (Rutter, 1997) and gives a sense of the event being
unique and open to change and happenstance.
Virtual Presence
Since the early days of Pong computer and video games have offered players the chance of
being part of a game which takes place on the inside of a cathode ray tube or LCD display. The
player is at the same time both viewer of the game and a participant in it. In Pong, movement
of the control paddle moved the onscreen bat in order to hit the onscreen ball. In Quake 3
Arena or Unreal Tournament - the lingua franca of LAN parties – keyboard, mouse or gamepad
movement correspond to character actions. The product is more complex but the principle is
the same.
Of course, there is no real bat in Pong any more than there is a real Duke Nukem or Taki but
these simulations can often be hyperreal. (Baudrillard, 1988) A state in which “images
desperately try to produce an effect of the real” (Baldwin et al., 1999) but where the images
become the only real thing. In the hyperreal world of gaming players interact with the code
which produces a game but do so in an emotional and committed way.
In interview gamers often mention the experience of playing Doom and the sounds that were
part of the game. Not the electronic bleeps and booms of Defender or Asteroids but a thematic
soundtrack. The sounds were part of the atmosphere, they heightened the players’ awareness
as the division between the gamers’ unfeeling avatar on screen and the emotional player
blurred to complement each other.
This is often the case for the public gamer. The world of the first person shoot-‘em-up is a
strangely close up one in which gamers only have a field of vision of about 55° which compares
with natural vision of up to 140°) as they and their avatar share the same world
perspective. Especially at LAN parties where headphones are compulsory the gamers
become part of what happen in the game rather than, as Turkle would have it on the
screen (1996).The customisation of on screen characters, through choice, naming, and skins
increasing the personalisation of the game for the gamer.
Psychological Presence
Psychological presence in public gaming arenas is investigated by the use of the optimal
experience or the flow framework (e.g., Csikszentmihalyi, 1975). The concepts of optimal
experience and flow have been used to investigate positive experiences in a variety of settings
such as work, school, leisure and sports. This theoretical framework suggests that the
psychological experience of various leisure pursuits e.g., rock-climbing, art, chess, sailing etc.
have several common dimensions. These aspects of the flow experience are intense
involvement, clarity of goals and feedback, lack of self-consciousness, a balance
between the challenge of the situation and the skills required to meet them, and a
feeling of total control over the activity.
More recent research has investigated the flow experience in relation to physical sports such
as athletics and football (e.g., Jackson, 1995; Kimiecki and Stein, 1995) and also to computer
use (Ghani, 1991; Ghani and Deshpande, 1995). The use of this framework allows an
investigation of the experience of leisure-related computer use, and more importantly, the
comparison of computer-based leisure activities with other leisure activities. More detailed
discussion of the application of the flow framework to computer use more generally can be
found in Bryce and Higgins (2000).
Preliminary research suggests that the psychological experience of gaming is consistent with
the dimensions of the flow experience as outlined by Csikszentmihalyi. This is evidenced by
the authors’ quantitative research which demonstrates a high level of comparability of the
psychological dimensions of public competitive gaming, with that of other competitive and
public sports (e.g., athletics). Ethnographic observations of public gaming events and analysis
of the online forums that develop around such competitions have reinforced this. Gamers
typically described ‘being in the zone’ or ‘in the flow’ of the game. The psychological
experience of flow during competitive or non-competitive gaming form the basis of the
psychological presence of gamers within the game and provides a useful framework
investigating differences of the experience of gaming between different game genres and
context of play.
The research suggests that the notion of presence in public computer gaming has a number
of dimensions encompassing the physical, virtual and psychological. The importance of the
social contexts of public and competitive computer gaming is demonstrated by the continuing
popularity of LAN parties and the role of gaming in existing social networks at a more casual
level. Teamwork, shared presence, community and the cultural capital associated with gaming
at these events illustrate the need to move beyond disciplinary-specific approaches to the
examination of computer gaming and the importance and appeal of public and competitive
gaming. The changing social context of computer gaming also demonstrates the need to
examine issues such as the creation of, and presence within, new leisure spaces and the
blurring of boundaries between home-based and public leisure spaces