Editor’s Note: over the past year, Priscilla Haring conducted a series of interviews with players of alternate reality games (“ARGs”) and massively multiplayer online games (“MMORPGs”) to delve into the motivations that drive player involvement. Haring kindly agreed to share a summation of her findings, provided below. For her full thesis and other related papers, visit her site at http://www.priscillaharing.info/Academics.htm.

Several interviews and a blanket survey of gamers I conducted shows that alternate reality gaming environments are very real to its players. Not in the sense that players “confuse” the realm of make-believe with that of reality, but in the sense that is these environments constitute an important environment eliciting real emotions, real interactions and real results. ARG players experienced their game environment and the other players in them as being more real than MMORPG-players did. I found that an ARG creates stronger effects due to high perceived reality, this combined with several transference effects into “real life” makes it a good learning environment: one that would be very suitable as a social learning tool.

There are many similarities between ARGs and MMORPGs. The underlying worlds created for both ARGs and MMORPGs exist without the presence of individual players. So while players are necessary to populate the respective game worlds and drive the story forward, the worlds themselves exist independently. Similarities between ARG and MMORPG can also be found in the importance of the social aspect of gaming. For a MMORPG, the open social interaction is important, while for an ARG this interaction has a direction and a purpose. The social interactions in ARGs are not just any form of human-to-human contact but are specifically collaborative in nature. Naturally, collaboration is also possible in a MMORPG, but it is not a necessary component.

I was very curious about how these two gaming genres compare. So after several interviews and a large number of surveys detailing players’ experiences (thanks so much to all the participants) here’s what I’ve found:

  1. Perceived reality is higher for ARG-players vs. MMORPG-players
  2. Social presence seems to be higher for ARG-players vs. MMORPG-players
  3. There is a high amount of transferring in-game experiences into real life for both ARG and MMORPG

Perceived reality of a media or gaming environment refers to the degree it is experienced as, and has the effects of, a real environment. Several concepts determine perceived reality including whether persona in the gaming environment behave as they would in the real world, the degree of control over objects in the environment, and whether choices can influence the interaction that takes place within the environment. It makes sense that ARG players experience more perceived reality than MMORPG players: MMORPG players interact with other players and have influence on the environment interaction, but they do not have sway over the development of the overall storyline the way ARG players do. Earlier research has shown that all psychological effects of a media environment are heightened if the perceived reality is heightened. This includes the enjoyment of such an environment or any learning that might occur. Following this logic, it would mean that such effects should be stronger from playing an ARG compared to playing a MMORPG.

Social presence refers to the extent players experience the presence of others within the gaming environment.  A high social presence means the opinion of these others holds real value and their feelings are considered by the players; a bond is created. A trend towards a higher experience of social presence of ARG-players could be seen in players’ answers. Most likely, this has to do with the strong need for collaboration embedded in ARGs. This very specific, and more intense, form of interaction would create a higher sense of social presence.

For both ARG and MMORPG players, my research found a high degree of transference. To determine this I focused questions on ‘strategic knowledge’ which is knowledge on how to do something in general, regardless of context. I took strategic knowledge statements from my interviews with ARG and MMORPG players and employed them in my survey, to make sure I asked about things that players actually experienced within their game environments. For both player groups I found a high amount of the application of strategic knowledge in real life that was experienced in-game. However, there was no difference in the strength or amount of this transference between ARG and MMORPG-players.