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Immersion, engagement, and presence: A method for analyzing 3-D video games

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C H A P T E R 3
Immersion, Engagement, and Presence
A Method for Analyzing 3-D Video Games
A L I S O N M c M A H A N
. . . Video games allow the viewers to engage actively in the scenarios pre-
sented. . . . [Adolescents] are temporarily transported from life’s problems by
their playing, they experience a sense of personal involvement in the action
when they work the controls, and they perceive the video games as not only a
source of companionship, but possibly as a substitute for it.1
Hotshot digital cinematography doesn’t make a digital story immersive. What
makes it immersive is a world where no territory is off-limits, anything you see
is fair game, and all your actions have consequences.2
A recent shift in computer game design involves a move away from 2-D
level design, in games like Prince of Persia (1992), or from isometric design
in games like Warcraft, to 3-D design and a first-person point of view. This
shift increases the sense of immersion by replicating the aesthetic approaches
of first-person shooter games in other types of games, such as adventure
games, role-playing games, and even strategy games, which previously used
2-D levels or isometric views. The shift in design is indicative of an overall
trend to make desktop video games feel more likev irtual reality. My approach
here is to reexamine our concept of immersion in video games and suggest
that immersion has become an excessively vague, all-inclusive concept. It
is necessary to break down the concept of immersion into its more specific
meanings and develop a more specific terminology. In this essay, I take the
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68 .Alison McMahan
concept of presence,as it is used in technical literature on virtual reality
for scientic applications, as the basis for developing of a set of aesthetic
criteria for analyzing 3-D video game design.
Immersion
As we can see in the quotations at the beginning of this essay, immersion
means the player is caught up in the world of the games story (the diegetic
level), but it also refers to the players love of the game and the strategy
that goes into it (the nondiegetic level). It seems clear that if we are talking
about immersion in video games at the diegetic level and immersion at
the nondiegetic level, then we are talking about two different things, with
possibly conicting sets of aesthetic conventions. No specic terminology
has yet been proposed to clarify those issues. In addition, humanities scholars
have started to pick up, from scientic literature on virtual reality, the term
presence, dened loosely as the feeling of being there.The terms immersion
and presence are seen together more and more often, although both have
been so loosely dened as to be interchangeablewhich they often are.
The rst step is to dene each term carefully. The most accepted denition
of immersion is Janet Murrays:
A stirring narrative in any medium can be experienced as a virtual reality be-
cause our brains are programmed to tune into stories with an intensity that
can obliterate the world around us. . . . The experience of being transported to
an elaborately simulated place is pleasurable in itself, regardless of the fantasy
content. We refer to this experience as immersion. Immersion is a metaphorical
term derived from the physical experience of being submerged in water. We seek
the same feeling from a psychologically immersive experience that we do from
a plunge in the ocean or swimming pool: the sensation of being surrounded by
a completely other reality, as different as water is from air, that takes over all
of our attention, our whole perceptual apparatus . . . in a participatory medium,
immersion implies learning to swim, to do the things that the new environment
makes possible . . . the enjoyment of immersion as a participatory activit y.3
Most scholars and scientists seem to agree that total photo- and audio-
realism is not necessary for a virtual reality environment to produce in
the viewer a sense of immersion, a sense that the world they are in is real
and complete, although this awareness has not stopped VR producers from
aiming for photo- and audio-realism. Also taken for granted is that the
more surrounding the VR exhibition technology is (the bigger the screen,
the better the surround-sound) the more immersive it will be. However, it is
quite possible to become very immersed in a desktop VR, for immersion is
not totally dependent on the physical dimensions of the technology. Three
conditions create a sense of immersion in a virtual reality or 3-D computer
game: (1) the users expectationsof the game or environment must match the
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Immersion, Engagement, and Presence .69
environments conventions fairly closely; (2) the users actions must have a
non-trivial impact on the environment; and (3) the conventions of the world
must be consistent, even if they dont match those of meatspace.4Narrative
and narrative genres are often used as a way of dening the conventions of
a world and to help the user align their expectations with the logic of the
world. It is no accident that role-playing and adventure games, the video
game genres that have the most in common with more linear time-based
narrative forms such as the cinema, were among the rst to go 3-D.
Engagement
However, narrative is not a key component of most video games. Instead,
many users appreciate games at a nondiegetic levelat the level of gaining
points, devising a winning (or at least a spectacular) strategy, and showing
off their prowess to other players during the game and afterward, dur-
ing replay. To be so engaged with a game that a player reaches a level of
near-obsessiveness is sometimes referred to as deep play. The term originated
with Jeremy Bentham, in his The Theory of Legislation (1931). Bentham was
referring to a state of mind in which users would enter into games almost
irrationally, even though the stakes were so high it was pointless for them
to engage in them at all. The example given was: a man whose fortune is a
thousand pounds; if he wagers ve hundred of it on an even bet, the marginal
utility of the pound he stands to win is clearly less than the marginal disutil-
ity of the one he stands to lose. Having come together in search of pleasure
[both participants] have entered into a relationship which will bring the
participants, considered collectively, net pain rather than net pleasures.5
The anthropologist Clifford Geertz extended the meaning of the term
to the kind of substantial emotional investment humans make in violent
rituals such as Balinese cock ghting. Geertz found the deepest investment
of human meaning in matches where the odds are more or less even and the
stakes irrationallyhigh. His deep playrequires a parity of force.
According to Diane Carr, the term deep play, as used in gaming maga-
zines, refers to a player accessing/accumulating layers of meaning that have
strategic value . . . like deep playin a Dungeons and Dragons [board game]
context would mean knowing all the monsters and the different schools of
magic, for example, whereas shallowplay would mean more up and run-
ning hack and slashstyle of play.6The term deep play, when referring to
video games, then, is a measure of a players level of engagement.
Presence
The shift to 3-D design in games has already led to the adoption of the term
presence, usually applied to virtual reality environments (VREs), to be used
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70 .Alison McMahan
when discussing certain types of video games. However, the term presence is
often used synonymously with immersion, which simply adds to the confu-
sion. By specically applying the criteria for presence developed for virtual
reality design to 3-D video games we can develop a set of design criteria that
will enable us to judge a games degree of immersiveness, engagement, and
the degree of presence possible. The development of such a tool takes on a
certain urgency in a legal environment in which games are routinely labeled
as addictive, as inductive of hallucinatory trances, and blamed as the source
for crimes such as the Columbine shootings.
The Trend Toward 3-D Design
As Mark J. P. Wolf has pointed out, most 3-D games represent their navigable
space using the conventions of Classical Hollywood Cinema, at least to a
degree. The difference, of course, is that these spaces are navigable; rst-
person shooters and virtual reality games, for example, provide players
with an unbroken exploration of space, allowing them to pan, tilt, track,
and dolly through the space, which is usually presented in a rst-person
perspective view and is navigable in real time.7
Game historians generally agree that Battlezone, a 1980 Atari arcade game
described as a hyperrealistic tank combat simulator8was probably the rst
game depicted from a rst-person perspective9as seen through a periscope
that simulated the interior of a tank. Battlezone was drawn in vector graphics,
that is, straight lines that connect any two points on the screen. Games
like Lunar Lander (1979) and Battlezone pioneered the vector look. The
mountains and other landscape elements were depicted in luminous green
polygonal shapes but were realistic enough for the Army to ask Atari to
design a training simulator for them (its not clear if this simulator was ever
built).10
Wireframeis the term used for objects that are outlined, but without
the planes lled in.11 Wireframe is still an acceptable way of depicting virtual
reality, and is used in lms such as The Thirteenth Floor (1998). The rst
game to use polygon-based 3-D graphics was I, Robot, designed by Dave
Theurer, and released in 1983.12
In 1982, isometric (i.e., constant measurements) perspective was in-
troduced in a Sega game called Zaxxon. The term isometric comes from
the architectural practice of isometric drawings, in which all horizontal
lines are drawn at an angle of thirty degrees to the horizontal plane of
projection.13 The result is no vanishing points and equal emphasis given
to all three planes. As Poole writes: In video game terms, this means
that an illusion of solidity is created while preserving an external view-
point. You could see three sides of an object rather than just one; and now,
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Immersion, Engagement, and Presence .71
crucially, the game screen was not just a neutral arena; it had become an
environment.14
Isometric perspective had its heyday and is now still used for games like
SimCity, Civilization, and Command and Conquer, all games in which the
player controls numerous units (people, tanks, factories, etc.) within a vast
playing area and with an omniscient overview.
But the foreshortening of scientic perspective had certain advantages:
it implied a subjective, individual viewpoint, and it promised a degree of
immersiveness that the Gods-eye-view of isometric perspective could never
deliver.15 Scientic perspective made a comeback with the rst truly im-
mersive3-D game, Wolfenstein 3-D (1992).16 Wolfenstein put the player into
rooms, separated by doors, with walls receding realistically into the distance
and populated with bots that took the form of Nazi soldiers for the player to
destroy. There was no texture on the walls or ceilings so only the walls moved
with forward movement, and the bots looked 2-D as they were drawn with
bit-mapped sprites whose pixels enlarged as they got closer. Wolfenstein made
another innovation, which was adopted by the genre, which was to include
a representation of hands (the players hands) clutching a gun at the bottom
of the screen. The gun is not used for aiming, but it does make the player feel
more like they are incorporated into the space. These conventions were con-
tinued and developed in other rst-person shooters, such as Doom (1993),
Hexen (1994), Quake (1996), and Unreal (1998). Technicalliterature on pres-
ence in VR often make reference to the conventions of rst-person shooters
as the standards for a sense of presence and a transparent interface, especially
Doom, Quake, and Unreal. For example, Randy Pausch et al. say that Doom
. . . get[s] users tothepoint where the interfacebecomestransparentand the
user focuses on task performance.17 In another example, Michael Lewis and
Jeffrey Jacobson assert that: The most sophisticated rendering pipelines are
now found not on specialized scientic machines but on PC video cards
costing less than $500. The most sophisticated, responsive interactive sim-
ulations are now found in the engines built to power games.18 And nally,
John Laird, comparing the possibilities for articial intelligence research
in robotics and rst-person shooters, prefers the latter: Simulated virtual
environments make it possible to bypass many of these problems, while
preserving the need for intelligent real-time decision-making and interac-
tion . . . computer games provide us with a source of cheap,reliable,and ex-
ible technology for developing our own virtual environments for research.19
As we can see from the above quotations, rst-person shooter games
and game editors are used in virtual reality research because they promise a
high degree of immersiveness, engagement, and presence in an affordable,
manageable format. But when researchers ascribe a high degree of presence
to rst-person shooter games, what exactly are they referring to?
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Origins of the Term
Presence
Steuer gives a useful outline of the provenance of the term presence:
Presence is closely related to the phenomenon of distal attribution or external-
ization, which refer to the referencing of our perceptions to an external space
beyond the limits of the sensory organs themselves. In unmediated percep-
tion, presence is taken for granted-what could one experience other than ones
immediate physical surroundings? However, when perception is mediated by
a communication technology, one is forced to perceive two separate environ-
ments simultaneously: the physical environment in which one is actually present,
and the environment presented via the medium. . . . Telepresence is the extent
to which one feels present in the mediated environment, rather than in the
immediate physical environment. . . . Telepresence is dened as the experience
of presence in an environment by means of a communication medium. . . . In
other words, presencerefers to the natural perception of an environment, and
telepresencerefers to the mediated perception of an environment. This envi-
ronment can be either a temporally or spatially distant realenvironment (for
instance, a distant space viewed through a video camera), or an animated but
non-existent virtual world synthesized by a computer (for instance, the animated
worldcreated in a video game).20
Steuers denition, which dates from 1992, is useful because it shows us
how the current usage of the term presencewhich Marie-Laure Ryan has
dened as we experience what is made of information as being material”—
is derived from telepresence, which, as Steuer wrote in 1993, originally meant
a successful experience of presence in a teleoperation environment, such as
scientists on Earth using devices to work on satellites in space, which gave
them the feeling of being astronauts. As Ryan noted, the word presence is
currently used to indicate a successful feeling being therein a synthetic en-
vironment, while telepresence has been reserved for teleoperation situations
such as surgery, research in space, and so on.21 I will explore further changes
in the meaning of the the word telepresence later in this essay. For more detail
on what is meant by presence, Ryan refers to the work of Sheridan,22 but a
more detailed and more referenced series of studies are those by Lombard
and Ditton.23
Matthew Lombard and Theresa Ditton dene presence as the arti-
cial sense that a user has in a virtual environment that the environment
is unmediated.24 They surveyed the literature on presence and found that
other researchers had conceptualized presence as the result of a combina-
tion of one or all of six different factors. Their summary indicated that an
increased sense of presence can result from a combination of all or some of
the following factors: quality of social interaction, realism in the environ-
ment (graphics, sound, etc.), from the effect of transportation,from the
degree of immersiveness generated by the interface, from the users ability to
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accomplish signicant actions within the environment and the social impact
of what occurs in the environment, and from users responding to the com-
puter itself as an intelligent, social agent. Lombard and Dittons elements of
presence are reminiscent of Michael Heims initial denition and categoriza-
tion, in his essay, The Essence of VR.25 Heim denes VR as an event or en-
tity that is real in effect butnot infact. . . . The publicknowsVR asa synthetic
technology combining 3-D video, audio and other sensory components to
achieve a sense of immersion in an interactive, computer-generated envi-
ronment.According to Heim, there are seven elements of VR: Simulation,
Interaction, Articiality, Immersion, Telepresence, Full-Body Immersion,
and Networked Communications.26 For scientists, especially cognitive sci-
entists and therapists using VR as a treatment tool, Lombard and Dittons
denitions make up the standard, and I shall follow that approach here.
Lombard and Ditton agree that each of these six dimensions of presence
are very different from each other but, rather, than focus on the differences,
they focus on what each dimension has in common: the perceptual illusion
of nonmediation.Clearly, some of these elements work against others; for
example, the learning curve required to act effectively can conict with the
sense of immersiveness.27 It is worthwhile to look at each of these aspects of
presence in turn.
Quality of Social Interaction
The rst element of presence is the quality of the social interaction available
within the VRE, that is, if it was perceived as sociable, warm, sensitive, per-
sonal or intimate when it is used to interact with other people.28 Lombard
and Ditton surveyed studies which measured how different communication
media could (a) overcome the various communication constraints of time,
location, permanence, distribution, and distance, (b) transmit the social,
symbolic, and nonverbal cues of human communication; and (c) convey
equivocal information.Key concerns were how intimacy and immediacy
were achieved in the medium in question, especially how language choices
helped reach those goals.29
Durlach and Slater30 assert that the sense of being with someone, or the
sense of togetherness, contributes to a heightened sense of presence; this
denition includes the ability for all the participants in the VRE to interact
with the space as well as with each other.
The goal of their research is to improve virtual systems such as telecom-
munications by increasing the sense of presence by adding the sense of
togetherness.They assume that the criteria for establishing a common
environment are essentially the same as the criteria for dening a com-
mon environment in the real world, and the same problems will appear: for
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74 .Alison McMahan
example, the different backgrounds, viewpoints, and sensitivities of the par-
ticipants can complicate social interaction.
The key to a sense of presence derived from social interaction is that
alterations of the environment caused by the actions of one participant
are clearly perceived by the other participants, and interactions with the
environment in which the environmental changes are not only perceived by
many or all of the participants but also are the result of collaborative work
on the environment by the participants (an example given is moving heavy
furniture together).
In writings about 3-D environments (as well as in text-based MUDs
and 2-D MUDs), discussions of social realism often focus on the use of
avatars (textual or graphic representations of users that include a character
designed to t into the ctional environment in question, complete with a
set of personality traits, skills, and health status) and the methods players
have for communicating with each other. How the avatars are designed is
a key concern here; in particular, how each participant relates to his or her
avatar. How is the sense of presence in the common environment and the
sense of togetherness inuenced by the choice of viewpoints?
Participants can choose an egocentric viewpoint, see the environment
through the eyes of the avatar, and see ones own avatar in the same manner
as one sees ones own body in the real world. Alternatively, participants
can assume an exocentric viewpoint and view ones own avatar in much
the same manner as one views the avatar of the other participants. A goal
of Durlach and Slaters research is to discover in what ways such choices
inuence the sense of presence in the common environment and the sense
of togetherness.
Alluqu`
ere Roseanne Stone31 describes presence as the result of the unique
persona within the physical body being transported to a mediated world,
rather than the transformation of persona or instances of multiple persona
within the same physical body. Stone is distinguishing presence from what
the users aim for in MUD and MOO environments which Jay Bolter and
Richard Grusin have described as . . . the freedom to be oneself is the free-
dom to become someone (or something) else.32 MUDs and MOOs offer
users a variety of subject positions to choose from, from creating multi-
ple avatars, to networking with others to jointly make up the psyche of a
single avatar, to riding invisibly on the back of someone elses avatar, to
encountering an AI form who has an agentless subject position.33
The effectiveness of avatars as a way of facilitating social interaction has
not received much in the way of academic attention. How players relate to
their own avatars in a single-player environment,however, andof course
how well an avatar works for a player in a multiplayer environment depends
on how the player engages with the avatar to begin with. Some avatars
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Immersion, Engagement, and Presence .75
have inspired enough devotion to achieve an independent cult status. For
example, the gure of Lara Croft from the Tomb Raider series was one of
the humanoid avatars34 who achieved stardom (twenty-six million copies
sold35 between 1996 and 2001 and her own Hollywood lm). Lara appeals
to players across genders, ages, and social classes and has generated a fairly
large body of criticism.36
The quality of a games social interaction also depends on its networks.
Many games are designed as stand-alone, but playing the stand-alone game
is often seen as a prelude to playing the networked version. These can range
from six to eight person games, such as those possible with Warcraft III
and similar games, to massive multiplayer online role-playing games such
as Lineage, EverQuest, Ultima Online, Asheron’s Call, and The Sims Online.37
Realism
A sense of realism is also an important factor, that is, how accurately does the
virtual environment represent objects, events and people. Realism is subdi-
vided into social realism (the extent to which the social interactions in the
VRE matched interactions in the real world), and perceptual realism (how
closely do the objects, environments, and events depicted match those that
actually exist).
Social realism is the extent to which a media portrayal is plausible or true
to lifein that it reects events that do or could occur in the nonmediated
world.38 Perceptual realism is what is usually vaguely meant by realism
or photorealism”—how well the environment looks and sounds like the
real world. An animated cartoon, for example, could have a low degree
of perceptual realism but a high degree of social realism. Social realism is
achieved by designing the world to match the real one, with streets and
stores and homes and parks, as well as organizing rituals and ceremonies
that enable players to identify their social place in the world. In most MUDs,
for example, ceremonies such as beheadings,funerals, and MUD weddings
are common practices.
Clive Fencott39 believes that as presence is based on perception, it is the
content of the virtual environment, and how that content is designed, that
is most important; in close agreement are Prothero et al.40 who believe that
presence is enhanced by how the user perceives the space, specically, an
increased sense of presence results from a wide eld of view and a sense of
foreground and background, which enables the user to orient themselves in
space and understand the orientation of virtual objects in the same space.
Clive Fencotts research focuses on the perceptual realism necessary to gen-
erate a feeling of presence in a virtual environment, or VRE. According to
Fencott, presence is a mental state, it is therefore a direct result of perception
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76 .Alison McMahan
rather than sensation. In other words, the mental constructions that people
build from stimuli are more important than the stimuli themselves.The
aim of Fencotts research is to discover how content affects perception. To aid
him in this goal he has come up with the model of Perceptual Opportunities:
The art of V[R]E design is surely to provide users with carefully structured
opportunities to allow them to explore, strategise, and generally feel some
sense of control over what they are doing.Perceptual opportunities include
Sureties, Shocks, and Surprises.
Suretiesare mundane details that are attractive because they are highly
predictable. Examples of sureties include: Architectural details such as lamp-
posts, street furniture, and marks to indicate distance; indicators to tell us
where to go such as railings, paths, doorways; and background sound that
reassures us (cars in distance, etc.).
Shocks are poor design elements that jar the user out of the sense of
realityof the VRE, such as the end of the worldshockthe user can see
where the environment ends; “film set shock”—buildings are incomplete;
polygon leaksseeing through cracks; and latency and motion sickness
caused by poor design or overlong use of the hardware.
Surprises are nonpredictable details that arise logically out of the VRE
design. There are three types of Surprises: attractors, connectors, and re-
tainers.
Attactors tempt the user to go or do something. These include mystery
objects the user may want to examine, such as moving object that attract
attention (such as animation), objects needed for tasks in the VRE, objects
that cause fear, alien objects that indicate the end of a level, sensation objects
that attract attention through the nonvisual sense, awesome objects that
impress by their size, and dynamically gured objects that relocate in space
and time.
Connectors are congurations of perceptual opportunities that help the
visitor gure out how to use/explore the VRE, such as axes or direction signs,
choice points that should indicate outcome of both choices, and deectors
such as a closed door.
Retainers are the interesting things that make users linger and enjoy the
VRE such as hot spots, learning areas, puzzles, gadgets, and so on.
Perceptual Maps are designs that show how sureties, surprises, and shocks
work together.
Telepresence, Teleoperation, Teleportation
Lombard and Ditton, in their 1997 article, referred to this as transporta-
tion.(When they wrote the abstract for their study in 2000, they re-
ferred to this category as teleportationor telepresence,using the words
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Immersion, Engagement, and Presence .77
interchangeably).41 Lombard and Dittonhave identied three types of trans -
portation: (1) You are there,in which the user is transported to another
place, the oldest version of presence; (2) It is here,in which another place
and the objects within it are transported to the userthe example given
is of how television brings the objects and people from another place to
the media users environment42; and (3) We are together,in which two
or more communicators are transported to a common space, such as in
immersive video conferencing.
For the the purposes of humanities scholarship, however, especially when
it comes to the analysis of 3-D games, it seems better to abandon the rst
meaning of transportationas this is too similar to the conventional de-
nition of the word presence itself. By the same token, it seems better to retain
the term telepresencefor the second meaning Lombard and Ditton as-
cribed to transportation, that is, telepresence systems use video signals and
computer graphics to place the user at a remote or inaccessible location.43
Telepresence can also cover the we are there togethermeaning, as this is
only different from You are therein that it covers more users, whereas tele-
operation will keep its meaning of people controlling tools, such as surgical
instruments, and performing manipulations such as surgery on a patient
that is made present to them through the use of virtual reality, covering
Lombard and Dittons second meaning.
Finally, a third term needs to be added to cover something that does not,
as yet, happen in real life but is quite frequent in games: teleportation. In
Diablo, for example, players can open portals that will transport them from
the dungeons below to the village above and vice versa. Other games, such
as Titanic, have maps as interfaces; the player can click on where they want
to go on a map and they are instantly there.
Perceptual and Psychological Immersion
Presence is also the result of perceptual and psychological immersion. The
rst is accomplished by blocking as many of the senses as possible to the
outside world and making it possible for the user to perceiveonly the articial
world, by the use of goggles, headphones, gloves, and so on. The second
results from the users mental absorption in the world. Theorists such as
Schuemie et al.44 have followed Lombard and Ditton in assuming that the
ability to interact with the mediated environment is the most important
factor in the sense of presence, and that this explains why immersive virtual
reality environments have been shown to be effective in the treatment of fear
of heights, fear of ying, arachnophobia, claustrophobia, and agoraphobia,
and the fear of being in places from which escape might be difcult or
embarrassing.
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A well-known example of a VRE with a very high level of immersiveness
is Osmose, by Char Davies. Davies believes that full body immersion in a
virtual environment can lead to shifts in mental awareness. She also felt that
the technology associated with the Cartesian types of virtual reality inher-
ited from the Western-scientic-industrial complex is not neutral. Davies set
out to deliberately circumventthese conventions. Osmose . . . shuns conven-
tional hand-based modes of user interaction which tend to reduce the body
to that of disembodied eye and probing hand in favour of an embodying
interface which tracks breath and shifting balance, grounding the immersive
experience in that participants own body.45 The metaphor for Osmose is
scuba diving: the environments are slightly blurred and without horizon
lines, much like the ocean; users move from space to space by breathing
or adjusting their balance. Some users have strong emotional reactions to
Daviess environments, suggesting that the high degree of immersion, with
an interface that involves the kinesthetic sense as well as hearing and sight,
results in a high degree of presence.
The Use of a Social Actor in the Medium
The use of a synthetic social actor also can lead to a heightened sense of
presence. Users respond to virtual guides and virtual pets in much the same
way they respond to the direct address of newscasters on TV.
Synthetic social actors can be of different types. For example, an inter-
action with a social actor can be preprogrammed. In the text-based MUD
Angalon, users can battle with a scarecrow, a battle that plays like a cut-scene
in a graphic game: the users actions instigate the struggle, but once started it
plays out according to the MUDs programming. More interactive encoun-
ters are possible, for example, in the same MUD users also can adopt one
of the kittens that are nested in a barn, and the kitten will make its presence
felt by perching on the users shoulder or climbing up their leg. In spite of
the clearly programmed nature of these synthetic social actors, users tend
to respond to them realistically. An excellent example is The Thingin The
Thing Growing, a virtual animated character in a CAVE (Computer Auto-
mated Virtual Environment) designed by Josephine Anstey and Dave Paper.
The Thing Growing takes advantage of everything tacked VR in CAVEs has to
offer to create a situation in which the user takes a leading role and develops
an emotional relationship with the Thing. First the user follows the sound
of the Things voice and lets it out of its box; then the Thing insists on a sort
of couple relationship, expressed mainly through dancing (with the Thing
and the user alternating in leading). No matter how cooperative the user is,
however, the Thing is never emotionally satised and even takes revenge by
locking the user in a space where they can no longer interact. The user gets
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Immersion, Engagement, and Presence .79
a chance for revenge, however, only to discover that such intimacy between
virtual character and human user is forbiddenand other police-things are
on their way to judge and sentence the Thing and the user.46
Intelligent Environment
Finally, a sense of presence can result from users responding to the computer
itself as an intelligent, social agent. Humans tend to do this, even though
they consciously understand that such responses to computers are illogical.
Responses, such as treating a computer with politeness and ascribing it
with gender stereotypes are aimed at the computer itself, and not to the
programmer. Therefore, when the virtual medium itself follows basic social
cues, the user will feel a higher sense of presence. This includes most articial
intelligence (AI) programming, such as natural language programming,
which is designed to make the machine seem more human.
I am currently conducting an experiment in how the sense of presence
is altered if a 3-D CAVE environment responds to the users subconscious
cues as well as conscious ones. The name of the project is The Memesis
Project. It is an experiment in interactive narrative designed to test certain
theories of presence and immersion in the environment and transparency
or immediacy in the interface. In this version of Memesis, the environment
is designed to resemble a haunted house that collects information about the
users phobias and deep-seated psychological fears in order to provide an
ultimate, more thrilling haunted houseexperience. If the rst, single-user
version is successful, future versions of Memesis are planned to carry the
interactive narrative and engagement research even further.47 The principle
goal is to see how much and in what way a more intelligent environment
can affect the users sense of presence.
As we can see from the above, immersion and the nondiegetic level of
involvement with a game that I have labeled engagement are both aspects
of what researchers in virtual reality have labeled presence. As we have seen,
many elements, some overlapping, some fairly incompatible with each other,
go into making up a sense of presence. In summing up their six conceptu-
alizations of presence, Lombard and Ditton emphasize that: Because it is
a perceptual illusion, presence is a property of a person. However it results
from an interaction among formal and content characteristics of a medium
and characteristics of a media user, and therefore it can and does vary across
individuals and across time for the same individual.48 Individual scientists
working in virtual reality have focused on particular elements that make up
a feeling of presence. We can now take advantage of their ndings to devise
a method for the aesthetic and cultural analysis of 3-D video games. This in-
vestigation can take two forms: a quantitative, analytical one or a qualitative,
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80 .Alison McMahan
aesthetic one. My goal in this article is the articulation of a theoretical tool
for the qualitative, aesthetic analysis of 3-D video games. The important
thing to remember is that the various elements of presence should be seen
as a continuum that each game will embody differently. Once we analyze
how different elements of presence are weighted in each game, we can ask
ourselves what purpose that serves in this particular game. As an example
of application of this method, I have conducted my own analysis of of Myst:
Exile (2001).
Myst III: Exile:
The Case Study
Exile is the third in the series of groundbreaking video games released by
Cyan, beginning with the original Myst in 1993, which was a breakthrough
in 3-D rendering in its day and became a bestseller across all game categories
and stayed on the bestseller list for 104 weeks. The original Myst was com-
posed on Apple computers, and consisted of still images linked together in
HyperCard. The images were of stunning beauty, a tradition kept up in the
sequels. In the original, the Miller brothers, the games creators, focused on
realistic images, especially textures. There were puzzles to be solved involv-
ing fanciful but mechanical (and therefore easily understandable) machines.
There were some short video clips in which the user was addressed by a lim-
ited number of characters, but these were rare. The user was addressed as
someone known to Atrus, who could help repair the tragic effect of the ac-
tions of Atruss sons. The sequel, Riven, (1997) continued the conventions
of Myst, although it was a much larger game, this time composed on SGI
machines using SoftImage. Riven added journeys in a variety of mechanical
contrivances, to great effect, and there were more characters. Although not
produced by the Miller Brothers, Exile builds on and continues the conven-
tion of both games. Images for Exile were modeled in Discreets 3ds max on
Mac computers.
Like its predecessors, the game is not designed for multiplayer play, so
social interaction is limited to conversing with the articial characters. As
in the earlier games, the game characters, depicted through video footage,
speak to the player but the player has no way of speaking back.
The game begins with the player nding him or herself in a sheltered
garden, overlooking a dry landscape. After a moment he or she realizes that
they are being addressed by Catherine, Atruss wife, who is holding a baby.
Cathering directs the player to go into Atruss ofce, as Atrus is expecting
them.
This rst scene sets up most of the elements relating to presence for
the entire game. The user has no avatar, other than the most basic cursors
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Immersion, Engagement, and Presence .81
(pointer for setting a direction, open hand for grasping an object, zoom
in/zoom out, and the lighting bolt for indicating a site where fast tran-
sitions to another part of the game environment is possible). The player
has a rst-person perspective at human eye-level (following the cinematic
convention, this eye-level is set roughly at the level of a six-foot-tall hu-
man) throughout the game. Players cannot see their own reection in glass
or water, or even see their own feet when they look down, but they can
take rides in elevators and zeppelins and other related contraptions, can
turn the pages of books, peer closely at objects, and pick upcertain items
as well as manipulate mechanical contraptions. As a result of these mea-
sures, the game has an extremely high degree of social realism, as the ma-
jority of the elements in this fantastical world conform quite closely to
how things would be in our world. The carefully designed, beautifully elab-
orated 3-D graphics and a soundtrack consisting of well-timed ambient
sounds as well as sound effects give the game a high degree of perceptual
realism.
Beyond the introductory scene, however, the player does not see an-
other character for very long stretches of game time. The players journey
through the Exile environment takes the form of pursuit of a character called
Saavedro, who has stolen the book of a new age Atrus had just composed,
called Releeshan. Occasionally the player gets a glimpse of Saavedro, and
sometimes Saavedro has left recorded video messages that help the player
advance through the game. But, apart from that, the world of Myst III: Exile
is as lonely and empty as its predecessors were. This makes the environment
feel less like the real world and more like a dreamscape, part of the designers
goal. Nevertheless, although the characters (when they appear) look very
realistic, the fact that their appearances are rare and do not allow the user
to talk back, lowers the sense of presence that would be provided by more
synthetic characters.
The game does have a sense of environmental intelligence built into the
puzzles. The puzzles must be solved in an exact way, but they are built into
the environment very creatively. Players familiar with the prequels will have
a sense of how to solve the puzzles, as they are a reection of Atruss way
of thinking and philosophy. So the player has a relationship with Atrus in
a removed sense, and the game is partly a treasure hunt that can be solved
by how well the player understands Atruss mind. In Exile, the Atrus layer
in the environment is there, as Atrus designed and built the environment
and puzzles, but a new layer has been added on top, Saavedros, who has
altered and reset all the puzzles to make life difcult for anyone who might
come looking for him (he assumes in fact that it is Atrus who is looking
for him and addresses the player as Atrus in the middle of the game; only
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82 .Alison McMahan
later does he realize his mistake). So the player nds themself inserted into
a long game of cat-and-mouse that is really taking place between Atrus and
Saavedro, with the player assumed to be on Atruss side (there is no option
to play from any other perspective). The way to lose the game is by not un-
derstanding Saavedro and being taken advantage of by him. Though subtle,
this intersubjective triangulation between Atrus, Saavedro, and the player
gives the game environment a feeling of presence that it would otherwise
lack, based on the intelligence of the environment.
Teleportation is used in this game through the linking books, as in the
original Myst. The designers have included many references to other forms
of virtual reality, such as three telescopes that need to be carefully lined up,
to holograms, to portals (the linking books) that transport the player to
other parts of the game. Ironically, these mediations add to the feeling that
the world itself is nonmediated.
Because the game is a desktop computer game, the degree of perceptual
immersion is limited. The player is always aware of the relatively small screen
and the need to use the mouse. Using the mouse properly can be a chal-
lenge on certain puzzles. This low degree of perceptual immersion is amply
made up for, however, by a very high degree of psychological immersion.
Once the player adapts to the games conventions it is possible, if one is so
inclined, to lose oneself in the beauty and peacefulness of the environment.
There is not much need to strategize as the realistic environment also uses
sureties, shocks, and surprises to guide the player from one place to another
and from one puzzle to another. If the player does not resist the logic of rail-
ings and closed doors (trying to jump down the elevator shaft, for example,
or off a cliff, does not accomplish anything) then it is perfectly clear where
to go and how to get there. There is no time limit to solving the puzzles and
therefore no sense of hurry. This contributes greatly to the overall sense of
psychological immersion.
For a sense of how the perceptual realism works in Myst III: Exile, lets
take a closer look at the rst age, Jnanin: The Lesson Age. Jnanin is full of
sureties that guide and show the player where to go: catwalks, stone steps,
stepping stones, sandy paths, curving metal stairways, and ladders. Only
by following these paths can the player move through the game (and of
course, link to different Ages through books, a Myst convention that would
be familiar to players from other games with similar devices, such as the
portals in Diablo). So Sureties,as Fencott has dened them, are one of the
principle elements that add to the presence in this world. Shocks, the signs
that we are playing a game, are rare. If a player insists on trying to jump
into a pool of water, off an cliff, or down an elevator shaft, nothing will
happen, and they will hear a whispery warning sound, the closest thing this
game has to a shock. Of course the game is very large and requires switching
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Immersion, Engagement, and Presence .83
CDs regularly, but once started on a CD the player can play for a long time
without other interruptions.
What makes the Myst franchise special are its surprises. Attractors
abound: players want to read the diaries scattered throughout the world
(and know that the information in them functions as a retainer, as a device
for helping them solve the puzzles). They want to play with the numerous
gadgets like lamps, gears, and levers, and, best of all, go for wild rides in rail
cars or blimps. They know that in order to do this they need to solve the
puzzles. Attractors that appear early in the game, such as the Venus ytrap
and the scale that balances wooden and crystal balls, serve as connectors to
other parts of the game, because the player will encounter puzzles later that
can be solved with the information garnered from the scale or the ytrap.
This type of surprise is typical to adventure games and therefore feels very
intuitive to players with a minimum of experience.
To sum up, Myst III: Exile, like its predecessors, offers users the oppor-
tunity to explore a particular kind of worldthe typical adventure game
experience. Exile provides a more meditative experience, the result of the
way the games design emphasizes perceptual realism and minimizes social
interaction. All of this is in keeping with the games genre and theme. Other
games emphasize different elements of presence. For example, Diablo II has
an isometric view; the player can choose from a number of avatars; the game
is populated by numerous nonplayer characters and can be played alone or
in multiplayer versions. Compared to Exile, however, the world is not all
that visually immersive, and each new dungeon does not look all that dif-
ferent from the next. Diablo emphasizes social interaction. Social realism is
low, which means that there is a lot of information the player must learn
about weapons and monsters in order to succeed. However, once this is
accomplished, psychological immersion can be very high, as battling the
various monsters and other players requires the players constant attention
and strategic calculation. The monsters are not very complex social actors,
unlike Exiles Saavedro, who has a long history and a complex set of moti-
vations. But the Diablo player does not have time to really think about such
issues, anyway.
In short, Lombard and Dittons conceptualization of presence enables
critics and analysts to conduct an aesthetic analysis of various types of games,
which can contribute to a fuller overall analysis as well as to a badly needed
elaboration of game genres, which have experienced some rapid changes
recently. An elaborated concept of presence also can help those working in
virtual reality, those working in games, and those working in interactive
instruction design develop a common vocabulary and therefore learn from
each other. It also provides players with a terminology to discuss the games
that they like, so they can ask for more.
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Notes
1. Eugen Provenzo, Video Kids: Making Sense of Nintendo (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University
Press, 1991), 6465.
2. J. C. Herz, Joystick Nation: How Video Games Ate Our Quarters, Won Our Hearts and Rewired
Our Minds (Boston, New York, Toronto, London: Little, Brown, and Company, 1997), 155.
3. Janet Murray, Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace (Cambridge,
MA: The MIT Press, 1997), 9899.
4. Two representative discussions of the nature of immersiveness can be found in Thomas B.
Sheridan, Interaction, Imagination and Immersion: Some Research Needs,in Proceedings
of the ACM Symposium on Virtual Reality Software and Technology. Seoul, Korea, (2000),
5, and in George Robertson, Mary Czerwinski, and Maarten van Dantzich, Immersion in
Desktop Virtual Reality,in Proceedings of the 10th Annual ACM symposium on User Interface
Software and Technology. Banff, Canada (1997), 11.
5. Clifford Geertz, Deep Play: Notes onthe Balinese Cockght,inThe Interpretation of Cultures
(New York: Basic Books [1972] 1973), 432.
6. Personal communication.
7. Mark J. P. Wolf, The Medium of the Video Game (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2001), 66.
8. Van Burnham, Supercade: A Visual History of the Videogame Age 19711984 (Cambridge,
MA: The MIT Press, 2001), 216.
9. See Steven Poole, Trigger Happy: Video games and the Entertainment Revolution (New York:
Arcade Publishing, 2000), 112, and Wolf, The Medium of the Video Game.
10. Van Burnham, Supercade.
11. Poole, Trigger Happy, 211.
12. Van Burnham, Supercade, 382.
13. Poole, Trigger Happy, 121.
14. Poole, Trigger Happy, 121.
15. Poole, Trigger Happy, 12223.
16. Ataris vector arcade game, Star Wars (1983), had an immersive rst person perspective, like
Battlezone, with guns at the edge of the screen and the ability to steer through the space.
This article focuses primarily on 3-D games with polygonal graphics, but we are not done
learning from older vector games.
17. Randy Pausch, Jon Snoddy, Robert Taylor, Scott Watson, and Eric Haseltine, Disneys
Aladdin: rst steps toward storytelling in virtual reality,in Proceedings of the 23rd annual
conference on Computer Graphics and interactive Techniques (1996), 95.
18. Michael Lewis, and Jeffrey Jacobson, Game Engines in Scientic Research(Special Issue:
Game Engines in Scientic Research), Communications of the ACM45, No. 1 (January 2002):
27.
19. John E. Laird, Research in Human-Level AI Using Computer Games,Communications of
the ACM 45, No. 1 (January 2002): 32.
20. Jonathan Steuer, Dening Virtual Reality: Dimensions Determining Telepresence,Jour-
nal of Communication, 42, No. 4 (Autumn, 1992): 7393. Available online at <http://
www.cyborganic.com/People/jonathan/Academia/Papers/Web/dening-vr.html>.
21. Marie-Laure Ryan, Narrative as Virtual Reality: Immersion and Interactivity in Literature and
Electronic Media (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001), 6768.
22. For example, see Thomas B. Sheridan, Interaction, Imagination and Immersion: Some
Research Needs,in Proceedings of the ACM Symposium on Virtual Reality Software and
Technology, Seoul, Korea, 2000.
23. See especially M. Lombard et al., Measuring presence: a literature-based approach to the
development of a standardized paper-and-pencil instrument.Project abstract submitted
for presentation at Presence 2000: The Third International Workshop on Presence. Available
online at <http://nimbus.temple.edu/mlombard/P2000.htm>.
24. Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin use immediacy to dene a similar concept, in their book
Remediation (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, [1999] 2000):
Immediacy (or transparent immediacy): A style of visual representation whose goal
is to make the viewer forget the presence of the medium (canvas, photographic
lm, cinema, and so on) and believe that he is in the presence of the object of
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Immersion, Engagement, and Presence .85
representation. One of the two strategies of remediation; its opposite is hyperme-
diacy, A style of visual representation whose goal is to remind the viewer of the
medium. One of the two strategies of remediation.(27273).
25. Originally published in Michael Heim, The Metaphysics of Virtual Reality (New York: Oxford
University Press, 1993).
26. By simulation, Heim means the trend in certain kinds of VR applications that try to approach
photo-realism, using graphics or photographs, and also use surround-sound with an aim
toward realism.Heim points out that we think of any interaction mediated by a machine as a
virtual one (including phone calls with people we never meet). By Articiality, Heim means
what other scholars such as Cubitt mean by Simulation; in other words, an environment
with possibilities for action (a world) that is a human construct. This construct can be
mental, like the mental-maps of Australian Aborigines, or constructed, like a 3-D VR. For
Heim,Immersion refers to VR technologys goal to cut off visual and audio sensations from
the surrounding world and replaces them with computer-generated sensations.Full-Body
Immersion, which Heim also called Projection VR,following Myron Krueger, is dened
as Interactive Environments where the user moves without encumbering gear(such as a
Head Mount Display) Projection VR requires more suspension of disbelief on the part of
the user. Heim makes the distinction between VR and telepresence: vir tual reality shades into
telepresence when you bring human effectiveness intoa distant location for example,using
robotics. For Networked Communications, Heim followed the denition of Jason Lanier: a
virtual world is a shared construct, a RB2 (Reality Built for Two) Communication with
others in an environment is essential; online networked communities strongly embodies
this element of VR. Heim incorporates all seven elements into a new denition of VR: An
articial simulation can offer users an interactive experience of telepresence on a network
that allows users to feel immersed in a communications environment.
27. See, for example, M. Ryan, Cyberspace, Virtuality and the Text,in Cyberspace Textuality,
Computer Technology and Literary Theory, ed. Marie-Laure Ryan (Bloomington and
Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1999), 78107.
28. Matthew Lombard and Theresa Ditton, At the Heart of It All: The Concept of Presence,
JCMC 3, No. 2 (September, 1997): 4.
29. Lombard and Ditton, At the Heart of It All: The Concept of Presence,4.
30. Nat Durlach and Mel Slater, Presence in Shared Virtual Environments and Virtual Togeth-
erness,Research Laboratory of Electronics (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2000).
31. Alluqu`
ere Roseanne Stone, The War of Desire and Technology at the Close of the Mechanical
Age (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1996), 8392.
32. Bolter and Grusin, Remediation, 247.
33. Alison McMahan, Spectator, Avatar, Golem, Bot: Interface and Subject Position in Interac-
tive Fiction(paper given at the Society for Cinema Studies Conference, Chicago, 2000). See
also The Effect of Multiform Narrative on Subjectivity,Screen 40, no 2 (Summer 1999):
146157.
34. Pac-Man, of course, also achieved a high degree of recognisability and tie-in merchandising
and spinoff TV show, hit song, and numerous sequel games.
35. Ad copy on back of Lara Croft: Lethal and Loaded, 50 min. West Long Branch, NJ: White Star
Video, 2001, DVD.
36. See especially Diane Carrs article in ScreenPlay: Cinema/videogames/interfaces, eds. Geoff
King and Tanya Krzywinska (London: Wallower Press, 2002); and my chapter on avatars
and bots in Alison McMahan, Branching Characters, Branching Plots: A Critical Approach to
Interactive Fiction (forthcoming).
37. For a more detailed cultural analysis of networked communications and MUDs, see my essay
Verbal-Visual-Virtual: A MUDdy History,in Gramma: Journal of Theory and Criticism 7
(1999): 7390.
38. Lombard and Ditton, At the Heart of it All: The Concept of Presence,5.
39. Clive Fencott, Presence and the content of Virtual Environments,(1999). Available online
at <http://web.onyxnet.co.uk/Fencott-onyxnet.co.uk/pres99/pres99.htm>.
40. J. D. Prothero, D. E. Parker, T. A. Furness III, and M. J. Wells, Foreground/background
manipulations affect presence(paper presented at HFES 95). Available online at
<http://www.hitl.washington.edu>.
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86 .Alison McMahan
41. Matthew Lombard et al., Measuring Presence.
42. Lombard and Ditton, At the Heart of it All: The Concept of Presence,6.
43. Bolter and Grusin, Remediation, 214.
44. M. J. Schuemie, C. A. P. G. van der Mast, M. Krijn, and P. M. G. Emmelkamp, Exploratory
Design and Evaluation of a User Interface for Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy,in Medicine
Meets Virtual Reality, ed. J. D. Westwood, H. M. Hoffman, R. A. Robb, D. Stredney, 468474.
IOS Press, 2002. Availableonline at <http://graphics.tudelft.nl/vrphobia/mmvr2002.pdf>.
45. From the Immersence website at <http://www.immersence.com/publications/ephpaper-B.
htm>.
46. Josephine Anstey and Dave Pape, Animation in the Cave,Animation World Magazine
(April 1, 1998). Available online at <http://mag.awn.com/index.php3?ltype=search&sval=
Animation+in+the+Cave&article no=532>.
47. Alison McMahan, Sentient VR: The Memesis Project (Report of a Work in Progress).
In Proceedings of the 6th World Multiconference on Systemics, Cybernetics and Informatics,
ed. Ngib Callaos, Marin Bica and Maria Sanchez. International Institute of Informatics
and Systematics, Vol. XII (2002): 467-472. Available online at <http://faculty.vassar.edu/
almcmahan/memesis/home/index.html>.
48. Lombard and Ditton, At the Heart of it All: The Concept of Presence,10.
... In general, when people use computers to carry out tasks such as online meetings or video calls over a prolonged period, or when they play video games on computers, consoles, or handheld devices, they typically become immersed to the extent that they either feel 'lost' in whatever they are engaged, or they feel a 'connection' with it. As described in [16] and [17], immersion and presence do not always occur but the likelihood of them occurring is higher if certain characteristics of the users, the games, and the software are present. ...
... The precise definitions of 'presence' and 'immersion' have been the subject of considerable discussion since their introduction into descriptions and analyses of video games. The term 'presence' was originally used in the context of telemedicine [17] and relies heavily on the metaphor of mental transportation between geographical locations. It may also apply to the use of networked services to allow users to be present in a virtual conference or meeting. ...
... The following conditions have been listed [17] as necessary to create a sense of immersion in video games: (1) the conventions of the game must match the user's expectations, (2) there must be meaningful tasks for the player to do, and (3) there must be a consistent game world. These three conditions need not co-exist in equal measures, but they are all needed for users to become immersed in the game experience. ...
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... Stufeu nd gibt damit den Grad derI nteraktivitätf ürd as ge-samteAR-LLSan.DerP arameter "Kongruenz mitd er Realität" ista nd ie Definition desBegriffs"Realismus" nach McMahan[22]angelehnt worden undw irdw eiteri nSozial-u nd Wahrnehmungsrealismusu nterteilt. Sozialrealismusb eschreibt, wiep lausibel und lebensnahE reignisseu nd sozialeI nteraktionen im Vergleich zurRealitätbzw.realenHandlungensind. ...
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