Immersion in a virtual learning environment (VLE) is generally associated with improved task performance (Witmer & Singer, 1998; Azuma et al. 2001; Hedley et al. 2002). Features that contribute to an immersive VLE include:
- A sense of “being there”
- The involvement of many senses (e.g., visual, aural, tactile)
- The perception that VLE elements are real and that interactions with these elements are natural
- An experience that blocks out sensory cues from the real world
The factors that optimize immersion are not completely understood. For example, it’s often assumed a first-person perspective is a critical element in creating a sense of immersion. However, a recent study by Scoresby and Shelton (2011) suggests that other factors are equally, if not more important.
Shaping an immersive experience
Scoresby and Shelton examined the effect of viewing perspective on immersion and also evaluated the impact of presence and flow on learning strategies when players played a learning game. They followed the activities of 18 volunteer students (13 males and 5 females, ranging in age from 18 to 36) as they played computer learning games teaching critical thinking skills to evaluate poetry. Students also played a “kill or be killed” game.
Students played the non-educational game first from a given perspective (e.g., first person, third person, or no perspective) and then played the educational game from a different perspective. Players were interviewed after each game to gauge their sense of presence and flow and to determine what they learned from the educational game.
The researchers identified four related factors central to creating an immersive experience in virtual game worlds.
- Content: The genre and actions in a game were critical to creating a sense of presence and flow. If content did not match personal interest, players lost the desire to play the game. However, experienced players were less influenced by content than inexperienced players (i.e., they were more willing to accept content if the genre was one they generally liked).
- Emotion: Players who felt empathy with game characters were more likely to achieve a sense of presence and flow. Emotional connections spurred continued action. (For inexperienced gamers, interest in content was critical to get to this stage.)
- Motivation: Inexperienced and experienced gamers who did not like the content or who were unable to establish an emotional connection rarely found intrinsic motivation to play the game(s).
- Engagement (the stage where players want to keep playing): Players reported engagement when they liked the content, had an emotional experience, and were motivated to play.
Presence not ensured by perspective
Interestingly, the researchers found that a sense of presence was not ensured by a first-person perspective. Players who did not like the game content and did not feel a sense of empathy towards game characters were unlikely to report a sense of presence regardless of their perspective.
Presence is not required for flow
A sense of flow is an element of immersion. It’s that state of being deeply involved in an activity to the extent that you loss awareness of time. A state of flow in a game is usually associated with a sense of balance between difficulty and mastery—although the game is challenging, you believe that success is possible (Csikszentmihalyi 1988, 1997).
Some participants reported achieving flow even when they did not achieve a sense of presence. Players who reported achieving flow also reported liking game content and experiencing a sense of emotional connectedness, motivation, and engagement. However, passing through these four stages wasn’t sufficient to ensure flow. For example, flow could be perturbed by distractions from the real world or from graphical elements that appeared to contradict a perception of reality (e.g., a missing horizon in one game). Perspective did appear to play a role in achieving flow: fewer players who played from a third person perspective or no perspective reported achieving flow.
Influences on learning performance
In this and other studies of learning games based on virtual worlds, factors associated with the learning success of players included:
- Ease in using the game interface
- Greater use of virtual tools
- More metacognitive awareness (e.g., a tendency of players to comment on their own progress)
- A more systematic approach to observing the game world and checking observations
- More physical activity while playing a game
(Winn & Windschitl, 2002; .Scoresby & Shelton, 2011)
The amount of engagement also affected the extent to which players completed learning-based activities within the game. If players did not become engaged with a game they usually did not care about what they were supposed to learn from the game. As noted, engagement is also dependent on content, emotional connections, and motivation (Scoresby & Shelton, 2011).
- Three-dimensional, rich graphics are not the be-all and end-all of creating an immersive experience in learning games.
- While perspective is a part of creating a sense of immersion, it is not the only part.
- Perceptions of the content of a game (game genre and actions) can have an important influence on a learner’s sense of presence and flow in a game and may ultimately affect the learnability of the game.
- Emotional connection, motivation, and engagement may be strongly influenced by the content of a game.
- The impact of content may have more of an effect on inexperienced players, who may never feel motivated or engaged by the game if they dislike the game’s genre and actions.
- Finally, the learnability of games is intimately tied to a learner’s sense of engagement in the game.
I think this study makes the important point that learning games can’t simply be assessments gussied up with a point system and a leaderboard. Really, that’s business as usual—it’s just a disguised report card system. Adding 3D graphics to the mix won’t help. There’s a more holistic approach that needs to be taken and that includes considering what content and actions work best in a game world to provide engagement and to create learning.
Azuma, R. T., Baillot, Y., Behringer, R., Feiner, S., Julier, S., & MacIntyre, B. (2001). Recent advances in augmented reality. IEEE Computers and Graphics, 21, 34–47.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1988). The flow experience and human psychology. In M. Csikszentmihalyi & I. S. Csikszentmihalyi (Eds.), Optimal experience (pp. 364–383). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1997). Finding flow. New York: Basic Books.
Hedley, N. R., Billinghurst, M., Postner, L., May, R., & Kato, H. (2002). Explorations in the use of augmented reality for geographic visualization. Presence: Teleoperators and Virtual Environments.
Scoresby, J., & Shelton, B. E. (2011). Visual perspectives within educational computer games: effects on presence and flow within virtual immersive learning environments. Instructional Science, 39, 227-254.
Winn, W., & Windschitl, M. (2002, April). Strategies used by university students to learn aspects of physical oceanography in a virtual environment. Paper presented at the American Educational
Research Association, New Orleans, LA.
Witmer, B. G., & Singer, M. J. (1998). Measuring presence in virtual environments: A presence questionnaire. Presence: Teleoperators and Virtual Environments, 7, 225–240.