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THIS? Exploring the
Concept of Affordance
in Virtual Reality
Bachelor Thesis by Rebecca Nöll
supervised by Prof. Dr. Sonia Fizek
winter term 20/21 | Cologne Game Lab
Can‘t touch this?
Exploring the Concept of Affordance in Virtual Reality
Prof. Dr. Sonia Fizek
Prof. Dr. Emmanuel Guardiola
Handed in by:
Date of Submission:
Bachelor Thesis for obtaining the title of Bachelor of Arts
in Digital Games at the Cologne Game Lab (TH Köln)
winter term 2020/2021
Affordance, a concept coined by psychologist James Gibson, describes an object's interaction
possibilities in relation to an actor. Don Norman introduced the term into design practice as an
essential factor for increasing usability and intuitiveness in user interactions. Therefore, the concept
of affordance might offer a useful perspective when looking at the design of Virtual Reality
applications, assuming that virtual objects hold similar affordances to their physical counterparts.
This thesis uses an integrative literature review to analyse and compare affordance frameworks
applied to digital media, games, and Virtual Reality with the goal to extract an affordance model for
VR applications. It finds that Gibson’s and Norman’s conflicting definitions of the term affordance
have led to various meanings and frameworks, resulting in a dividedness of the existing body of
research. An investigation of the collected frameworks has not offered a clear-cut advantage of any
model in application to Virtual Reality. Furthermore, it does not seem advisable to add to the existing
disunity amongst scholars. Therefore, it is concluded that the term affordance does not offer enough
scientific value for Virtual Reality research to justify adding to its ambiguous use.
Instead, an alternative framework for usability and usefulness in interactive digital media is proposed,
called the User-Usability-Usefulness model (UUU-model). The new model's premise is to enable
designers to test and optimize the intuitiveness of their created artefacts, leading to improved
immersion in VR applications. The suggested model will need to be tested in future research to verify
a benefit for design practice.
Keywords: Virtual Reality, Game Design, affordance, affordance theory, ecological perception,
Gibson, Norman, Usability, Usefulness, Intuitiveness, Immersion
Table of Contents
1 INTRODUCTION ............................................................................................................................. 5
2 METHODOLOGY ............................................................................................................................ 7
3 FINDINGS ...................................................................................................................................... 9
3.1 Understanding Affordance Theory .......................................................................................... 9
3.1.1 A Brief History of Affordance ..................................................................................................... 9
3.1.2 Navigating the Affordance Jungle .......................................................................................... 11
3.1.3 How to measure Affordance? ................................................................................................. 14
3.2 The Application of Affordance Theory to Digital Games........................................................ 21
3.2.1 Affordances and Digital Media ................................................................................................ 21
3.2.2 Affordances and Digital Games .............................................................................................. 23
3.3 The Application of Affordance Theory to Virtual Reality ....................................................... 28
3.3.1 Understanding Virtual Reality .................................................................................................. 29
3.3.2 Affordances and Virtual Reality ............................................................................................... 31
4 DISCUSSION ................................................................................................................................ 40
5 CONCLUSION .............................................................................................................................. 45
APPENDIX – List of Reviewed Literature ......................................................................................... 47
BIBLIOGRAPHY ............................................................................................................................... 49
Fifty years after the development of the first head-mounted display, affordable Virtual Reality
headsets are now available for the consumer market, sounding the bell for a new era of VR.
A new wave of practitioners is generating content, testing the bounds and establishing standards with
their ideas. But a universal language for VR still must evolve and mature, putting many developers in
the position to break new ground, developing their own ideas for communicating effectively in the
One challenge that they face in their endeavour is the quasi-reality of the medium. It is promise and
peril at the same time, auguring a second reality that enables us to fully immerse ourselves in the
virtual world while at the same time facing the undeniable limitations of hardware, software, and the
human mind. This creates design challenges unique to the medium, where users' expectations in
virtual environments are informed by their experiences in physical reality.
A concept that can help understand this schism between physical and virtual reality is the theory of
affordance, coined by psychologist James J. Gibson in his works on ecological perception and later
popularized by Don Norman in his book “The Psychology of Everyday Things”.1
Affordances are the inherent relationships between objects and actors – features that describe the
fundamental potential for interaction between them. The physical environment affords us to interact
with it, offering almost limitless opportunities. Norman argued that optimizing the perception of
affordances is a helpful tool to create more intuitive designs and increase usability.2
Virtual reality often simulates the physical world to achieve immersion, in consequence recreating its
perceived affordances. If those expectations for possible interactions are not fulfilled, the immersion
is broken – as Janet Murray puts it: “every interaction [in VR] introduces the possibility of weakening
belief,” a sentiment represented by the incredulous exclamation Can’t touch this? in the title of this
thesis.3 Therefore, the job of designers of these virtual environments is to minimize the chasm
between perceived and realizable affordances.
As an inherently interactive medium, VR is borrowing from many standards set by digital games and
often depends on its users' gaming literacy to be easily understood.4 However, a universal design
approach might make it easier to include new user groups without prior gaming knowledge and at the
same time, give developers the chance to question and rethink established gaming standards.5
1 Donald A. Norman, The Psychology of Everyday Things (New York: Basic Books, 1988); James J. Gibson, The
Ecological Approach to Visual Perception (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1979).
2 Don Norman, The Design of Everyday Things: Revised and Expanded Edition, Revised (New York, New York: Basic
3 Janet H. Murray, ‘Virtual/Reality: How to Tell the Difference’, Journal of Visual Culture 19, no. 1 (1 April 2020): 25,
4 Eric Zimmerman, ‘Gaming Literacy: Game Design as a Model for Literacy in the Twenty-First Century’, 2008, 9.
5 Hamna Aslam, Joseph Alexander Brown, and Elizabeth Reading, ‘Player Age and Aﬀordance Theory in Game
Design’, 2018, 9.
Gaver and Hodent point out that optimizing perceived affordances leads to more intuitive designs,
thereby significantly improving ease-of-use, minimizing the cognitive workload and making it easier
for new and returning users to get into the experience, increasing retention.6
Therefore, the concept of affordance offers a starting point for investigating the mechanisms behind
immersion, usability, and accessibility of VR applications. However, research studying affordance
theory in Virtual Reality is sporadic. Much of it goes into detail about specific applications or concerns
itself with the medium's general affordances rather than looking at its use within VR applications.
This thesis performs an integrative literature review to critically analyse existing affordance
frameworks in digital media, games, and Virtual Reality. It asks the question if and how existing
affordance frameworks can help designers increase immersion and intuitiveness in Virtual Reality
6 William W. Gaver, ‘Technology Affordances’, in Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in
Computing Systems Reaching through Technology - CHI ’91 (the SIGCHI conference, New Orleans, Louisiana,
United States: ACM Press, 1991), 79–84, https://doi.org/10.1145/108844.108856; Celia Hodent, The Gamer’s
Brain: How Neuroscience and UX Can Impact Video Game Design, 1st ed. (Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press, 2017).
Affordance Theory, Digital Games and Virtual Reality are all relatively new fields of study, originating
in the second half of the 20th century. Many researchers have contributed to the advancement of each
area, but literary sources combining them are scarce. A synoptical analysis of affordance theory
applied to Virtual Reality is still to be missed.
In an attempt to combine these “new, emerging topics”, this thesis will approach them with an
integrative literature review, aiming to synthesize and evaluate what is known and make a step
towards a framework for affordances in Virtual Reality.7 The goal of the resulting discussion is to
offer practical insight into the field to developers working in Virtual Reality, but also to point out the
potential shortcomings of the reviewed literature.8
The method's downside is that its results are more subjective and less easily replicable and
validatable than other scientific methods like experiments, questionnaires, or a systemic literature
review. However, most sources in the selected research area are grounded in humanities research,
dealing with highly theoretical topics that elude more direct forms of systemic comparison. In the
following, the review process will be made as transparent as possible.
This integrative literature review focusses on three significant areas of research:
 affordance theory and its general definitions and frameworks
 affordance theory in digital media and games
 affordance theory in Virtual Reality
The topics were chosen to gather broad knowledge of the field first while gradually specifying the
exploration. The application of affordance theory in digital media and games serves an intermediary
topic, offering a research base to give insight into the field of Human-Computer-Interaction (HCI) and
Game Design, both useful perspectives when looking at Virtual Reality.
The literature for this review was selected by searching for keywords associated with these general
topics and their combinations, namely affordance theory in combination with game design, digital
games, digital media and virtual reality and including synonyms (such as digital game/computer
game/videogame) and abbreviations (such as VR). Results were mainly found in academic databases
such as Research Gate and Springer and extended to online libraries and personal websites of
As a next step, the obtained literature was further examined and only included if the topic of
affordance was prominently featured or dedicated a chapter. If fitting the criteria above, sources from
the selected literature were incorporated as well.
Some papers that fit these requirements were excluded upon closer inspection, either because they
lacked a clear affordance definition in their research or because they were looking at particular cases
of affordance in VR that could not be generalized. One additional paper on the modes of locomotion
7 Hannah Snyder, ‘Literature Review as a Research Methodology: An Overview and Guidelines’, Journal of
Business Research 104 (1 November 2019): 335, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jbusres.2019.07.039.
8 Richard J. Torraco, ‘Writing Integrative Literature Reviews: Guidelines and Examples’, Human Resource
Development Review 4, no. 3 (September 2005): 363, https://doi.org/10.1177/1534484305278283.
in Virtual Reality was included although missing a direct link to affordance theory. However, its
contents were relevant and the topic of locomotion otherwise underrepresented in the resulting
Following these guidelines, a final selection for the literature review was made. The resulting list can
be found in the Appendix.
All literature was reviewed with complete readings since many of the highly conceptual approaches
could not be fully understood from only reading the discussion or results. The findings of these
readings were collected in an evidence table, focussing on definitions, research methods and
suggested theoretical frameworks.
In the following sections, the results of the literature review will be presented in three chapters.
First, the history and definition of the term affordance will be introduced, and its terminology,
theoretical models, research frameworks, and the critique of its current use discussed.
The second section will investigate studies of affordance theory in digital media and games,
gathering useful information on the use of the term in interactive digital media.
Finally, the topic of Virtual Reality and affordance will be explored, first defining the distinctive
features of the VR medium and subsequently presenting the current state of knowledge on the
Results will be collected under thematic subheadings derived from the subject areas present in the
reviewed literature. If possible and sensible, each section's results will be presented chronologically,
maintaining each field's historical context and development.
3.1 Understanding Affordance Theory
To understand affordance theory in the context of Virtual Reality, the concept itself must first be
understood. That is why the first chapter gathers definitions, terminologies and frameworks of the
term affordance aiming to extract models than can later be applied to Virtual Reality. It will also
investigate the controversy surrounding the use of the term that started when Don Norman
appropriated it and introduced it into the design world.
3.1.1 A Brief History of Affordance
According to the Merriam Webster online dictionary, to afford means “to make available, give forth or
provide naturally […]” and is a verb that has been known since the 14th century.9 However, the
corresponding noun affordance is a relatively new appearance in the English language, having its first
recorded use in the 1966 book “The Senses Considered as Perceptual Systems” by US-American
psychologist James J. Gibson.10
Gibson's original meaning is best described in his book “The Ecological Approach to Visual
Perception”. He states that “affordances of the environment are what it offers the animal, what it
provides or furnishes, either for good or ill.”.11 However, affordances are not properties of the
environment, but relationships between the environment and the actor’s capabilities. These
affordances, according to Gibson, exist independently from the needs or perception of the actor.
Affordances are always there as long as an opportunity for action exists, no matter if the actor
9 ‘Definition of AFFORD’, in Merriam-Webster.Com, accessed 3 January 2021, https://www.merriam-
10 ‘Definition of AFFORDANCE’, in Merriam-Webster.Com, accessed 3 January 2021, https://www.merriam-
11 Gibson, The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception.
perceives that opportunity or wants to act on it. However, the actor’s needs can influence the
perception and realization of affordances. Gibson claims that learning to perceive affordances is an
integral part of socialization.
Gibson came up with this concept as part of his theory of ecological psychology, a countermovement
to cognitive psychology. He opposed the reduction of human perception to conditions measured in
laboratories and emphasized the importance of our ecological surroundings and bodies. He included
aspects like movement, manipulation, perspective, and light into his theory to create a more
integrative view of how humans perceive their environment.
According to Gibson, our perception solely depends on “information pickup” with all the necessary
information provided by the environment (affordances) and directly perceived by our senses with no
need for additional cognitive processing. His ideas are in radical opposition to cognitive
psychologists who believe that mental models based on past experiences help us process our
Donald Norman, an engineer and psychologist, was acquainted with Gibson and (by his own record)
they often discussed their ideas “over many bottles of beer”.13 Norman points out that he often
disagreed with the fellow scientist, especially on the concept of direct perception. However, the idea
of affordance was something that caught his attention because it put the focus on the richness of
information that was present in the environment.
In the first edition of his book “The Psychology of Everyday Things”, Norman married his engineering
and psychology background and created an account of how people perceive everyday objects and
how intuitive design can increase usability. He appropriated Gibson’s term “affordance” to describe
“the perceived and actual properties of the thing” in the context of design, thereby introducing it to his
Norman’s book, whose title was later changed to “The Design of Everyday Things”, gained attention as
it was illustratively written, offering many real-world examples for good and bad design. It was
“assigned in courses and handed out as required readings in many companies”, and so the term
affordance made its way from Gibson’s ecological psychology into many other fields of research like
industrial design and Human-Computer-Interaction (HCI).15
The Problem with Norman’s Adaptation
However, Norman’s initial definition did not match Gibson’s idea of affordances. As stated before,
Gibson’s affordances exist independently of perception and in relation to the actor. In contrast,
13 Norman, The Design of Everyday Things, 12.
14 Norman, The Psychology of Everyday Things, 9.
15 Norman, The Design of Everyday Things, xii.
Norman focuses on the “perceived and actual properties” of an object, leaving out the role of the
In the revised edition of his book published in 2013, Norman clarifies that he was really talking about
perceived affordances and refers to Gibson’s original idea as real affordances. He also introduces
signifiers as an alternative notion that can describe “where the action should take place” instead of
conveying which actions are possible.16
Unfortunately, in the 25 years in-between the original publication and the revised edition of the book,
the meaning of affordance had already been adopted by many practitioners and researchers, often
without completely understanding its meaning and origin. Norman, frustrated by the term's
misapplications, already attempted to clarify his original intentions in online discussions and articles
during the time.17
Finally, exhausted with the confusion about affordance, now offering a “goldmine for academic
scholars” discussing “the true meaning of the term”, Norman in 2018 appeals to designers to “[f]orget
affordances and provide signifiers.”18
Although Norman’s latest statement might not offer the brightest outlook for this thesis, the goldmine
of research on the term affordance shall first be examined before throwing the helve after the
3.1.2 Navigating the Affordance Jungle
Over the years, many researchers have concerned themselves with affordance, using the term in their
studies or extending on Gibson’s and Norman’s ideas, some of them not being aware of the profound
difference between them. This has led to a cornucopia of different approaches and definitions of the
term. In the following, the works of various authors are presented whose research either alters, builds
on or criticizes the use of the concept.
The Critique of the Term Affordance
Before Norman’s own statement on the matter, many others had already noticed that the meaning of
affordance for research was getting increasingly ambiguous. In a study of publications using the
term, McGrenere and Ho have found no consensus amongst the HCI-community which meaning to
follow. Of the nineteen papers, eight used the original definition by Gibson, six were closer to
Norman’s idea, and five used a concept deviating from these initial notions of affordance altogether.19
Gerard Torenvliet, an Interaction Designer, points out the mistakes that Norman made when
introducing the term and criticizes the resulting confusion around it, leading to definitions that are
almost polar opposites of Gibson’s original idea. He states that the amount of different meanings has
16 Norman, 13 ff.
17 Donald A. Norman, ‘Affordance, Conventions, and Design’, Interactions 6, no. 3 (1 May 1999): 38–43,
18 Donald A. Norman, ‘Signifiers, Not Affordances’, jnd.org, 2018, https://jnd.org/signifiers_not_affordances/.
19 Joanna McGrenere and Wayne Ho, ‘Affordances: Clarifying and Evolving a Concept’, Proceedings of the
Graphics Interface 2000 Conference, 1 January 2000, 4 f.
led to a devaluation of the term affordance and that it is now “worse than useless” because it causes
confusion.20 Torenvliet advocates for a return to Gibson’s original definition in HCI and points out its
value to the field since it does not “ask how to make something look like a door, but instead ask if a
door should even be there.”.21 He also argues that a common definition would enable interdisciplinary
discourse with the field of Gibsonian psychology.22
In his article “The Problem with Affordance” Oliver Martin recognizes similar problems with the
introduction of Norman’s definition but comes to a more radical conclusion. He thinks that the
confusion caused cannot be rectified and that it might be best to abandon the term altogether. In his
opinion, the underlying concept is too complex to be easily explained and maintaining the term results
in a “false impression of research coherence” that hides its underlying problems and diminishes its
Another solution to the problem can be identified in Sherman and Craig’s use of the term who simply
differentiate it into “Gibsonian” and “Normanian” affordance, treating them as different concepts
instead of trying to unify them. Rambusch and Susi take a similar path in their paper, separately
analysing affordances in computer gameplay from Gibson’s and Norman’s point of view.24 However,
they also admit that “there are as many definitions of [affordance] as there are researchers defining
Attempts to clarify the Concept
Nevertheless, to understand the conflicting terminology and concepts, the existing research will be
examined. Many authors are aware of the contradictory definitions and try to establish a more unified
theory or propose other solutions to tackle the issue.
With his paper “Technology Affordances” William Gaver was one of the first to apply affordance to
Interaction and Interface Design. He found that Gibson’s original texts offered too little information
about complex interactions and therefore introduced the idea of “sequential” and “nested”
affordances, something that Gibson had already implied. According to Gaver, sequential affordances
reveal themselves only after another affordance has already been realized. This often happens in
digital products where clicking a button can lead to new information or interaction possibilities.
Therefore, he proposes to include the aspect of exploration into the notion of affordance. Nested
affordances are grouped in space but belong together like the door handle and the door itself. Gaver
states that “the role of a good interface is to guide attention via well-designed groups of sequential
and nested affordances.”26
20 Gerard Torenvliet, ‘We Can’t Afford It!: The Devaluation of a Usability Term’, Interactions 10, no. 4 (July 2003):
21 Torenvliet, 17.
22 Torenvliet, ‘We Can’t Afford It!’
23 Martin Oliver, ‘The Problem with Affordance’, E-Learning and Digital Media 2, no. 4 (December 2005): 402–13,
24 Jana Rambusch and Tarja Susi, ‘The Challenge of Managing Affordances in Computer Game Play’, Human IT 8,
no. 3 (2008): 83–109.
25 Rambusch and Susi, 84.
26 Gaver, ‘Technology Affordances’, 82.
Gaver visualized affordance by mapping it to two axes (see Fig. 1a) separating the perceived
information about the affordance from the actual affordance. According to him “when the apparent
affordances of an artifact match[es] its intended use, the artifact is easy to operate.”, emphasizing the
importance of perceptible affordances (Norman’s perceived affordances) for good design. He also
introduces the term false affordances which applies to artefacts that are wrongly perceived to afford a
particular action.27 Sherman and Craig adapt Gaver’s diagram in their book to map out Normanian and
Gibsonian affordance (see Fig. 1b). According to their graph, Norman’s definition lies solely in the
realm of perceived affordances while Gibson’s affordance deals exclusively with actual (real)
Fig u r e 1 . (a) Separatin g affordan c es fro m the in f o r ma tion abo u t them ( G a ver, 8 0 , fig. 2)
(b ) Comparing No r manian w i th Gibs o n ian affo rdance u s i n g Gaver ’ s model ( S h e rman an d
Craig , 113 , fig. 3-2)
The work of Joanna McGrenere and Wayne Ho also tries to separate the two concepts, describing the
difference between Gibson’s and Norman’s approach as the difference between an objects
usefulness and its usability which are related but separate design issues (see Fig. 2). Usefulness
describes the actual functionality of an artefact (Gibsonian affordance) whereas usability serves as
an informational layer between the artefact and the user (Normanian affordance). They also criticize
Gaver’s term of false affordances since affordances can never be false, only falsely perceived. In
conclusion, they advocate a return to Gibson’s terminology but argue that affordance information and
affordance interactions can be subject to gradual change. This proposal is represented in their
framework for design which will be discussed in the next section.29
Fig u r e 2 . Usefu l n ess and Usabilit y (McGrener e and H o , 6, f i g . 3)
27 Gaver, ‘Technology Affordances’.
28 William R. Sherman and Alan B. Craig, Understanding Virtual Reality: Interface, Application, and Design (Morgan
Kaufmann, 2018), 113.
29 McGrenere and Ho, ‘Affordances: Clarifying and Evolving a Concept’.
Leonardo Burlamaqui and Andy Dong at the University of Sydney take a different approach to the
same issue. With their paper “The Use and Misuse of the Concept of Affordance”, they want to create
a new shared understanding of the term, making it viable for empirical research, by analysing different
affordance theories and extracting five “common foundational elements” between them which are:
Artefact, agent, environment, perception, and potential use. According to them, affordance research
focuses on how to transmit cues from artefacts and the environment to a perceiving agent.30
The work of Rex Hartson takes a purely semantic approach to affordance theory, using the
specification of terminology and language as a tool to clarify the concept. In his paper, he proposes
four types of affordance: cognitive affordance, physical affordance, sensory affordance, and functional
affordance. Cognitive affordance is the counterpart to Norman’s perceived affordance and describes
the information displaying cognitive clues about affordances. Hartson’s physical affordance, on the
other hand, correlates with Gibsonian affordance or Norman’s real affordance, referring to the actual
physical make-up and possibilities of the artefact. Sensory affordance takes on a supporting role and
is implied in most other theories. Hartson separates this aspect to emphasize the importance of
sensory clues to help users recognize both physical and cognitive affordances (see Fig. 3). The last
type of affordance Hartson mentions is functional affordance. Functional affordance is the
“mandatory component of utility or purpose” that each physical affordance must carry in the context
of design. Hartson also acknowledges the existence of sub-affordances to either of these categories,
for example, mnemonic affordance as a type of cognitive affordance.31
Fig ur e 3 . Comparis o n of affo r dance te r minolo g y ( H a r t s on, 3 1 7, table 1)
3.1.3 How to measure Affordance?
Although Gibson himself has described affordances as something that “cannot be measured as we
measure in physics”, many researchers conducted experiments or created design models to make the
concept more applicable in practical work.32 As has been shown, a clear definition and taxonomy
should always be established before researching the topic. In the following section, various
approaches to affordance research are introduced.
30 Leonardo Burlamaqui and Andy Dong, ‘The Use and Misuse of the Concept of Affordance’, 2014,
31 Rex Hartson, ‘Cognitive, Physical, Sensory, and Functional Affordances in Interaction Design’, Behaviour &
Information Technology 22, no. 5 (September 2003): 315–25, https://doi.org/10.1080/01449290310001592587.
32 Gibson, The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception, 120.
Anthony Chemero, a fellow psychologist, criticized that Gibson’s original explanations on affordance
make them seem like “impossible, ghostly entities that no respectable scientist […] could have as part
of their ontology.”33 Therefore, he made an effort to create a more scientifically usable definition of
affordance while still keeping the original concept intact. He clarifies that Gibsonian affordances are
persistent features (not properties) present in the environment and the actor and are “perfectly real
and perfectly perceivable.”34 In his attempt to make affordance a scientifically valuable concept,
Chemero even creates a formula for affordance, where affordance is described as “Affords-ϕ (feature,
ability)”. In this context, ϕ is a behaviour, feature refers to a feature of the environment, and ability
refers to an organism's ability.
Perceiving affordances is put down as “Perceives [animal, affordance-of-ϕ]”, missing the feature and
ability aspect of the previous formula because animals are usually not aware of their exact abilities or
the specific requirements of the environment (e.g. the weight of a boulder). However, according to
Chemero, humans can achieve an awareness of their abilities with training (in contrast to other
animals). He also mentions that affordances can change due to changes in environmental features or
the actor's skills.35
McGrenere and Ho who also favour Gibsonian affordance, propose a design framework based on
“varying degrees of affordance”.36 They use the same axes as Gaver’s model but add the possibility
for gradual change (see Fig. 4a, compare with Fig. 1a). One axis describes how easy an affordance is
to realize and the other how clear the information about the affordance is. According to them, the
purpose of design is to create useful artefacts which are usable for various user groups.
Improvements on both axes lead to better design and improved usefulness of the artefact.
Furthermore, they imply that this affordance framework must be imagined for each potential user
since usability requirements can differ depending on prerequisites, for example, the experience level
of a user in a specific application.37
Fig u r e 4 . (a) Repr e s e n ting t h e afforda n c e and th e in formation t h a t spec i f ies the a f fordance
on a c o n tinuum ( McGren e r e and H o , 7, f i g. 4) ( b ) Vi s u a l repr e s entatio n o f Burlam aqui and
Do ng’s affordan c e framew o r k (Bu r l a maqui and Dong , 17, f ig. 1 )
33 Anthony Chemero, ‘An Outline of a Theory of Affordances’, Ecological Psychology 15, no. 2 (April 2003): 182,
34 Chemero, 191.
35 Chemero, ‘An Outline of a Theory of Affordances’.
36 McGrenere and Ho, ‘Affordances: Clarifying and Evolving a Concept’, 8.
37 McGrenere and Ho, ‘Affordances: Clarifying and Evolving a Concept’.
As the result of their paper, Burlamaqui and Dong also present an affordance framework based on
two axes, but in their model framing and classification are the decisive factors when looking at
affordance-based design (see Fig. 4b). They borrowed these terms from the sociologist Basil
Bernstein who used them to analyse the transmission of knowledge in education.38 Classification
refers to the degree to which the intended affordance is perceived, independent of the context. For
example, a pen will afford writing, no matter if the actor finds it on his desk or in the bathroom, while a
pencil holder might afford holding a toothbrush in the same scenario. An artefact’s framing describes
its intrinsic constraints that determine how it can be used. The pen and the pencil holder, have a
strong framing since their functionality is limited. On the other hand, a sheet of paper has a weaker
framing since it can fulfil various functions depending on the user's needs.
With this model, the authors point out the importance of context when considering affordance in
design, which aligns with Gibson’s ecological perception and is often disregarded by other
frameworks. They say that affordance-based design relies on information transmission. With the help
of their model, designers can create artefacts with either strong or weak framing, depending on the
Another proposal comes from Jonathan Maier and Georges Fadel who introduce their “framework for
affordance based design”. They want to emphasize the importance of non-functional aspects in
design, such as the human factor or aesthetics. They define two types of affordance: artifact-user-
affordance (AUA) and artifact-artifact-affordance (AAA), which they subsequently place in the context
their designer-artifact-user (DAU) system (see Fig. 5). An artifact-user-affordance describes the
relationship between an artefact and the user and potentially leads to affordance-related behaviour.
Fig u r e 5 . A fforda n c e related intera cti o n within a designe r -
arti fa ct-user s ys tem ( M a i er and F a d el, f i g. 2)
38 Burlamaqui and Dong, ‘The Use and Misuse of the Concept of Affordance’, 15 f.
39 Burlamaqui and Dong, ‘The Use and Misuse of the Concept of Affordance’.
are affordances between objects that usually exist to support AUAs (like the “stackability” of chairs).40
Burlamaqui and Dong criticize Maier and Fadel’s framework and especially their idea of “artifact-
artifact-affordances” since aperceptual affordances go against the “very nature” of the concept.41
Rex Hartson takes inspiration from Norman and adapts his “Seven Stages of Action” model. In “The
Design of Everyday Things”, Norman describes that actions always consist of two parts, execution
and evaluation, and subdivides them into seven distinct steps to provide a guideline for the design
process (see Fig. 6, left).42 Hartson places these steps under five umbrella themes and puts them into
a circular arrangement to create his “Interaction Cycle” (see Fig. 6, right). From these categories, he
draws his User Action Framework (UAF), a usability knowledge base, and mentions affordance as the
“single most important overall concept” in it.43 He states that affordances are necessary for each step
of the Interaction Cycle and that cognitive affordances are the most prominent ones. However, the
UAF is presented as a tool for general usability testing, which can be extended by questions about
specific affordances but does not necessarily include them.44
Fig u r e 6 . Trans iti o n from N o r man’s m o del to H a r tson’s In t eraction C ycle ( H a r tson, 3 29, fig.
The number of mentioned models and their sometimes fundamental differences reveal how divided
the theoretical groundwork on the topic is. Furthermore, most of these models are presented without
much practical work to support them. Burlamaqui and Dong acknowledge that fact and mention that
their “framework generates testable hypotheses” and that this will be the next step in their research.45
40 Jonathan Maier and Georges Fadel, ‘Affordance Based Design: A Relational Theory for Design’, Res. Eng. Des.
20 (1 March 2009): 13–27, https://doi.org/10.1007/s00163-008-0060-3.
41 Burlamaqui and Dong, ‘The Use and Misuse of the Concept of Affordance’, 7.
42 Norman, The Design of Everyday Things.
43 Hartson, ‘Cognitive, Physical, Sensory, and Functional Affordances in Interaction Design’, 330.
44 Hartson, 328–36.
45 Burlamaqui and Dong, ‘The Use and Misuse of the Concept of Affordance’, 18.
While this thesis's focus lies on theoretical frameworks, some experimental methods were still
applied by the reviewed sources. These methodological approaches to practical affordance research
will be presented in the following section, while some of their results will be found in later chapters.
An aspect to keep in mind when attempting to measure affordance is that, by its very nature, it is
influenced by the capacities of the potential actor. Furthermore, Regia-Corte et al. point out that the
ability to perceive affordances changes with age, and that anxiety (for example induced by vertigo), or
relative perception (exemplified by the contrast effect) can have an impact on affordance
assessments as well.46 Ergo, all of these factors have to be taken into account when verifying the
validity and reliability of the performed research.
In one of the first experiments investigating affordance, William H. Warren studied the perceived and
actual “climbability” of stairs by a row of three experiments. He tested at which height users perceived
stairs to be “climbable” or unclimbable” and if those assessments (perceived affordances)
corresponded to the measured actual climbability (real affordance) (see Fig. 7).47
Fig u r e 7 . Measurin g the c l i mbabili ty of s tai r s (Wa rren, 685, f i g. 1; 687 fi g . 2)
Similar studies on perceiving affordances were done in VR by Regia-Corte et al. who replicated a real-
world study that tested the ability to assess whether a slanted surface afforded upright standing.48 To
measure realized or acted affordances in Virtual Reality, Jean-Claude Lepecq et al. investigated how
participants reacted when walking through a narrow aperture in VR, comparing it to the results of a
real-world study by Warren and Whang.49 Another study examined the affordance of Virtual Reality
46 Tony Regia-Corte et al., ‘Perceiving Affordances in Virtual Reality: Influence of Person and Environmental
Properties in Perception of Standing on Virtual Grounds’, Virtual Reality 17, no. 1 (March 2013): 17–28,
47 William H Warren, ‘Perceiving Affordances: Visual Guidance of Stair Climbing’, 1984, 21.
48 Regia-Corte et al., ‘Perceiving Affordances in Virtual Reality’.
49 William H Warren and Suzanne Whang, ‘Visual Guidance of Walking Through Apertures: Body-Scaled
Information for Affordances’, 1987, 13; Jean-Claude Lepecq et al., ‘Afforded Actions as a Behavioral Assessment
of Physical Presence in Virtual Environments’, Virtual Reality 13, no. 3 (September 2009): 141–51,
controls and interfaces, comparing hand placement during real and virtual sweeping, using a real
push-broom and different VR controllers.50
A different approach to affordance research was taken by Draper and Barton in 1993. They tested the
effectiveness of learning by exploration (LBE) in digital interfaces by putting novices in front of the
program MacPaint and telling them to learn as much as they could in a specific time frame.
Subsequently, they drew conclusions from observing the resulting user behaviour.51 Aslam and Brown
propose a similar methodology which also involves unsupervised user interaction. They let individual
participants explore unknown boardgames whose rulebooks have been removed and subsequently
ask questions about the perceived functionalities and game design.52 Aslam, Brown and Reading
used the same methodology in a previous study, measuring the impact of player age on affordance.53
Another observatory approach is used by Jonas Linderoth and Ulrika Bennerstedt in their paper on an
ecological (Gibsonian) approach to computer games. They use the method of interaction analysis to
draw conclusions from pairs of people playing Timesplitters 2. They use transcripts of the interactions
and conversations observed during gameplay and analyse them in the context of their proposed
theory (see Fig. 8).54
Fig u r e 8 . Experim e ntal set u p and t r a n s cripti o n (Lind e r o th and B e n n ersted t, 603, f ig. 2)
50 Noah Miller, Pete Willemsen, and Robert Feyen, ‘Comparing Interface Affordances for Controlling a Push
Broom in VR’, in 2018 IEEE Conference on Virtual Reality and 3D User Interfaces (VR) (2018 IEEE Conference on
Virtual Reality and 3D User Interfaces (VR), Reutlingen: IEEE, 2018), 635–36,
51 Stephen W. Draper and Stephen B. Barton, ‘Learning by Exploration and Affordance Bugs’, in INTERACT ’93 and
CHI ’93 Conference Companion on Human Factors in Computing Systems - CHI ’93 (INTERACT ’93 and CHI ’93
conference companion, Amsterdam, The Netherlands: ACM Press, 1993), 75–76,
52 Hamna Aslam and Joseph Alexander Brown, ‘Affordance Theory in Game Design: A Guide Toward
Understanding Players’, Synthesis Lectures on Games and Computational Intelligence 4, no. 1 (26 March 2020): 1–
53 Aslam, Brown, and Reading, ‘Player Age and Aﬀordance Theory in Game Design’.
54 Jonas Linderoth and Ulrika Bennerstedt, ‘This Is Not a Door: An Ecological Approach to Computer Games’,
Authors & Digital Games Research Association (DiGRA), 2007, 10.
In later research, Burlamaqui and Dong conducted an online survey on perceived affordances of newly
designed everyday objects and used it to test their previously discussed affordance model of
classification and framing. By running the experiment as an online survey, they prevented the
participants from physical experimentation with the artefacts. They asked more than 100 participants
to pick the most likely action they would perform with the depicted artefacts from a list, presenting
them in different contexts to test their idea of classification. Interestingly, they also discovered that
participants usually did not refer to the objects’ affordances, but rather to their intended purpose or
semantic category when picking their answers – a discovery which might have implications for
affordance research methodologies.55
In summary, it can be said that there are many different approaches and objectives in practical
affordance research. However, similarities can be discovered. Some methods let users evaluate
design artefacts with little to no guidance and afterwards either observe their behaviour or validate
whether they have (correctly) understood a particular function. These setups can also have the goal
of verifying affordance theories by comparing the results to expected outcomes. In VR research,
affordances are often measured by comparing the expected real-world physical behaviour to
behaviour in Virtual Reality.
55 Leonardo Burlamaqui and Andy Dong, ‘Affordances: Bringing Them out of the Woods’, Interactions 23, no. 4 (28
June 2016): 80–82, https://doi.org/10.1145/2934292.
3.2 The Application of Affordance Theory to Digital Games
When Gibson and Norman created their groundworks of affordance theory in the 70s and 80s, the
digital age was in its beginning stages, personal computers were a rare sight in households, and the
World Wide Web was only about to start establishing itself. Therefore, the concept of affordance was
created without full awareness of the impact that digital media would have on our everyday
interactions and lives. Nevertheless, the term quickly made its way into the digital realm as
practitioners applied it in many different areas of design.
This chapter serves as an intermediary step and will look at how affordance theory was applied to
digital media in general and the interactive medium of digital games in particular, paving the way to its
eventual use in the context of Virtual Reality.
3.2.1 Affordances and Digital Media
Janet Murray identifies four representational properties of digital media that she calls affordances.
Affordance is used in this context to describe the general attributes of the medium which are its
reliance on processing power (procedural affordance), its immersive properties achieved through
navigation (spatial affordance), its ability to store and organize information (encyclopaedic
affordance) and its possibilities for enabling social interaction (participatory affordance).56
Knowledge of these general features can help identify additional affordances within the different
media forms collected under the umbrella term digital media.
Gibson’s View on Digital Media
Gibson died in 1979 and did not live to see affordance applied to the medium of digital games.
However, he was aware that a theory of ecological perception would have to include the ever-evolving
and different kinds of media that humans created. That is why the last part of his book deals with
depiction, looking at the perception of non-moving images, and devoting a whole chapter to the visual
awareness of motion pictures. His views on these topics can give an insight into a general
(ecological) perspective on cultural artefacts and digital media.57
First of all, Gibson points out that an environment altered by humans should not be seen as different
from the natural environment. He includes all human-made cultural artefacts into his ecological
perception by saying that “[i]t is a mistake to separate the natural from the artificial as if there were
two environments” and “[i]t is also a mistake to separate the cultural environment from natural
environment, as if there were a world of mental products distinct from the world of material
When talking about non-moving images, Gibson clearly states that pictures are not replications but
subjective representations. There is neither the possibility nor the need to think of them as real. That
56 Janet H. Murray, Inventing the Medium: Principles of Interaction Design as a Cultural Practice (Cambridge,
Mass: The MIT Press, 2011).
57 Gibson, The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception, 266–302.
58 Gibson, 130.
is why he refers to objects that are represented in images as virtual objects. Gibson sees them as a
perceptual paradox since they are perceived as a surface and as a scene simultaneously and require
an indirect awareness of what is depicted.59
Motion pictures, or progressive pictures” as Gibson calls them, are in his view more similar to our
normal perception than still images are and are thus easier to perceive. Film presents to him the
possibility to create empathy in the film viewer, not only through image content but also through
camera panning and perspectives. However, he advocates for more natural film editing and camera
techniques that emulate real human perception.60
From these standpoints, it can be hypothesized that Gibson sees all forms of digital media as part of
the ecological environment. However, he would probably favour more natural user interfaces and see
our constant exposition to the paradoxical perception of digital screens as something that works
against our natural perception capabilities.
Norman’s View on Digital Media
Norman dedicated his book to industrial design concepts but has been publishing articles ever since,
clarifying his positions on the ongoing developments of his theory and updating his views and
opinions on specific applications of the term.
In “Affordance, Conventions, and Design” Norman states that affordances only play a minor role in
screen-based (digital) products and that the concepts of cultural conventions and visual feedback are
more important. Designers of digital media can only control the perceived affordances on the screen
while physical devices like screen, keyboard or controller are already built into the system. Their real
affordances cannot be changed. He also points out that icons and other visual clues on the screen
cannot be understood as affordances as long as they do not limit the user’s input possibilities.
Norman says that limiting an input field to typing could be seen as an affordance while the change of
the cursor icon to a hand or other visual feedbacks would only tell the user to follow a learned cultural
In a more recent article from Norman’s website, he underlines his previously mentioned views,
pointing out again that the design of screen-based products is mainly about following the established
cultural conventions. He points out four principles for designing screen interfaces: to follow
conventional usage, use words to describe the desired action, use metaphors, and follow a coherent
conceptual model within the UI.62
Affordances and Socio-Cultural Learning
The cultural conventions that Norman mentions in conjunction with digital products come close to the
concept of digital literacy, as pointed out by Julian Hopkins in “The Concept of Affordances in Digital
59 Gibson, 266–91.
60 Gibson, 292–302.
61 Norman, ‘Affordance, Conventions, and Design’.
62 Donald A. Norman, ‘Affordances and Design’, 2004, 5.
Media”.63 Digital literacy describes the general ability to create and retrieve digital information and
content and can be seen as a form of socio-cultural learning.64
However, as Susi and Rambusch point out, the aspect of socio-cultural learning has not been clearly
addressed by Gibson’s original theory. They argue that direct perception (and therefore, the
perception of affordances) is not influenced by accumulated knowledge and that consequently, virtual
affordances might not be “affordances in the Gibsonian sense”.65 In their opinion, we do not perceive
affordances in digital media, but instead, get better at recognizing its interactive parts.66
Jonas Linderoth explicitly opposes Susi and Rambusch’s conclusion, pointing out that they directly
oppose Gibson’s idea of an integrated ecological environment in their attempt to separate virtual from
real affordances. Although Gibson described affordances as invariant, he recognized that our
perception of them could be influenced by training and knowledge. Gibson’s post box example states
that “the real post box […] affords letter-mailing to a letter-writing human in a community with a postal
system” and later works on perceptual learning by Eleanor Gibson reveal that socio-cultural learning is
an integral part of affordance theory.67
It can be concluded that while there are divided opinions on whether affordances are present in digital
media artefacts, Gibsonian affordance would include digital media into its ecological view and take
the socio-cultural context of its users into account.
3.2.2 Affordances and Digital Games
Games as an interactive medium are closely related to Virtual Reality and make up a significant part
of applications offered for consumer VR devices. Therefore, when looking at the affordances present
within the VR medium, it is of interest to look at term’s application to digital games over the years. For
that purpose, subsequently, theoretical models and applications of affordance theory in games will be
Affordance Frameworks for Digital Games
One of the earliest applications of the term affordance to Digital Games was by Michael Mateas, one
of the two developers of the AI-based narrative game Façade. In his 2001 paper “A preliminary poetics
for interactive drama and games” he applies the classical Aristotelian theory of drama to games or
In Aristotelian drama, all parts of a play follow a particular hierarchy, displayed in Figure 9 (left). The
63 Julian Hopkins, ‘The Concept of Affordances in Digital Media’, in Handbuch Soziale Praktiken Und Digitale
Alltagswelten, ed. Heidrun Friese et al. (Wiesbaden: Springer Fachmedien Wiesbaden, 2020), 47–54,
64 Liana Loewus, ‘What Is Digital Literacy?’, Education Week, 8 November 2016,
65 Rambusch and Susi, ‘The Challenge of Managing Affordances in Computer Game Play’, 103.
66 Rambusch and Susi, 101.
67 Jonas Linderoth, ‘Beyond the Digital Divide: An Ecological Approach to Gameplay’, Transactions of the Digital
Games Research Association 1, no. 1 (5 April 2013), https://doi.org/10.26503/todigra.v1i1.9.
formal cause refers to the author's point of view when creating the spectacle, whereas the material
cause is the audience’s experience when watching the play.
Fig ur e 9 . Aristote l ian and N e o - A r istote l ian the o r y o f dr a m a ( s e e Mateas , 143, fig. 1; 144, fig .
Mateas describes these causes as affordances and places the player as character in the Aristotelian
hierarchy while interactive objects are located somewhere between spectacle and pattern. According
to Mateas, the player “introduce[es] two new causal chains”, creating new formal affordances (plot) as
a result of their intents and actions, at the same time being limited by the material affordances
(actions) of the game world (see Fig. 9 right). In conclusion, Mateas says that player agency results
from a balance between the material and formal affordance of gameplay, ergo a balance between
narrative and action possibilities.68
In a previously mentioned study, Linderoth and Bennerstedt observed pairs of players in Timesplitters
2, using the resulting interactions as a basis for explaining their ecological approach to computer
games. They find that players perceive affordances in the game environment and become more
skilled over time, developing a professional vision and distinguishing between relevant and non-
relevant game objects. Additionally, they claim that gamers are especially attentive to game-specific
affordances which inherently differ from the affordances of non-interactive media or the real world.69
Rambusch and Susi oppose Linderoth and Bennerstedt and argue that the players’ learning process to
distinguish interactive objects is not affordance-related since objects can never afford inaction.70
According to them, button-pushing on a controller is afforded at any time, and the connection of the
virtual environment with the physical button is a concept rather than an affordance. They call this
disconnect between virtual and physical action an affordance-action gap.71 As a result of their
investigation, they advocate against overuse of the term affordance in game-related contexts since
68 Michael Mateas, ‘A Preliminary Poetics for Interactive Drama and Games’, Digital Creativity 12, no. 3
(September 2001): 140–52, https://doi.org/10.1076/digc.188.8.131.5224.
69 Linderoth and Bennerstedt, ‘This Is Not a Door: An Ecological Approach to Computer Games’.
70 Rambusch and Susi, ‘The Challenge of Managing Affordances in Computer Game Play’, 101.
71 Rambusch and Susi, 90.
the players’ perception in games relies on more factors than the Gibsonian perception theory can
In another paper, Linderoth specifies his ecological approach to gameplay, introducing his own
framework of affordances in games. In doing so, he questions the necessity of a distinction between
digital and non-digital games and suggests categorizing them by their gameplay features instead.
Gameplay from his ecological view is “to perceive, act on and transform the affordances that are
related to a game system or other players in a game”.73
The basis of his framework is that all actions have exploratory and performatory aspects, meaning
they either gather information or execute an action. Games can afford both types of action, offering
either exploratory or performatory challenges to the players. Linderoth’s framework can analyse
games according to their designed gameplay and independent of their medium. For example,
Linderoth thinks that games like SimCity or chess afford mostly exploratory actions, with the
challenge lying in the perception of affordances. Games like Call of Duty or table soccer focus on
performatory action, where the challenge is quickly acting on affordances.74
A last theoretical approach comes from Rogelio Cardona-Rivera and Michael Young at the Digital
Games Research Center in North Carolina. While they generally agree with Linderoth’s framework,
they criticize its ecological approach to games since it “leave[s] how players perceive, understand,
and learn a virtual environment unexplained” and instead solely focusses on the game environment.75
They propose a cognitivist framework based on Norman’s terms of real affordances, perceived
affordances and feedback to analyse player behaviour in the context of game environments. They
argue that game design focuses on perceived affordances and players’ experience of games in
similar genres has to be taken into account when optimizing them, referring to a specific kind of
Like the frameworks presented in the first chapter, the variety of approaches to affordance theory in
games reveal how fundamentally different the understanding of the term can be within one field of
research and how many different perspectives it can potentially offer.
Affordance Theory applied to Digital Games
Despite the lack of a clear theoretical framework, affordance theory is used in the practical work of
game developers. One example comes from Emilia Schatz, a level designer at Naughty Dog. In her
article on environment language for video games, she shares some best practices from her work,
including how affordances can be used to create intuitive gameplay and environments. Schatz points
out the problems of the ever-increasing visual fidelity of game environments which requires a high
level of detail but at the same time cannot provide all the interactions that would be expected from
the real environment. This schism is problematic for gameplay since every unsupported action leads
72 Rambusch and Susi, 103.
73 Linderoth, ‘Beyond the Digital Divide’, 8.
74 Linderoth, 12.
75 Rogelio E Cardona-Rivera and R Michael Young, ‘A Cognitivist Theory of Affordances for Games’, 2013, 3.
76 Cardona-Rivera and Young, ‘A Cognitivist Theory of Affordances for Games’.
to a “break in immersion”. She mentions gaming literacy as one factor which can help but also
highlights the importance of an “environmental language” that she bases on affordances.
Schatz advocates for greater use of diegetic affordances in environment design since they do not
break the players’ immersion. As a tool for designers, she suggests cataloguing all existing gameplay
mechanics that interact with the environment and subsequently defining how the environment has to
be designed to afford or not afford them. One crucial factor in optimizing these affordances is
For example, to make it clear to the player which objects afford ducking behind them for cover, all
potential cover objects in Uncharted range only between specific heights, leaving out the so-called
buffer zones that would not be clearly identifiable as cover by the players. The same goes for the
placement of climbing handholds or interactable objects. Their silhouette should be separated
enough from the rest of the environment to be clearly visible. The surrounding area should be kept
free of any similar shapes that could cause confusion.
Her article's last central point is the conscious use of primitive shapes in environment design since
they offer primary emotional associations that seem to be culturally consistent (see Fig. 10). She says
that round shapes lack affordance, rectangular shapes offer affordance, and pointy diagonal shapes
serve as an anti-affordance.77
Figure 10. Primitive shapes and their effect on affordances in level design (Schatz)
Celia Hodent, psychologist and game UX consultant, mentioned another application of affordances to
games in her book “The Gamer’s Brain”. She says that research identifies two significant functions of
visual perception: identifying objects and visual guidance for actions. Hodent states that the latter is
highly dependent on affordances and that they must be optimized in every aspect of a game to
increase the intuitively understood functionality.78 In her seven usability pillars for game UX, Hodent
mentions affordances under the Form follows function pillar, emphasizing the importance of correctly
mapping the visuals of game elements to their intended use. For example, this can be achieved by
usability tests where participants are asked what functions (affordances) they connect to specific
icons or character designs to verify that they transfer the correct information.79
77 Emilia Schatz, ‘Defining Environment Language for Video Games’, 80.lv, 27 June 2017,
78 Hodent, The Gamer’s Brain, 31.
79 Hodent, 125.
In a later section of the book, Hodent dedicates a subchapter to affordances and presents the four
different types of affordance by Rex Hartson in a game context. As an example of physical
affordance, she mentions placing buttons in a mobile game to accommodate natural finger
movement. Cognitive affordances can be easily found in UI elements like buttons, text and
iconography while sensory affordances refer to legibility, sound design and colour schemes and
include accessibility options. Functional affordances are an integral part of game design and UX
decisions, making sure to give players the features they require, such as options to sort, filter, or pin
items in their inventory.
In 2020, Hamna Aslam and Joseph Alexander Brown published a book called “Affordance Theory in
Game Design” where they present different playtesting methods in an approach to understanding
players better. They advocate a universal approach to design, including diverse groups of players, and
use their research to understand the differences between them better.
They find that the most common ways to test for affordances are surveys, user testing and
interviews. However, they propose their own method, which “allows insight into user’s affordances
both from Gibson and Norman’s point of view”.80
In their experimental setup, they confront playtesters with a board game from which all rulebooks
have been removed and subsequently ask questions about the game’s mechanics, number of players
and winning condition to analyse the affordances of the game material. An essential factor for the
playtest is a non-competitive environment that allows players to interact with all game elements
freely. The results of the questionnaire and observations can give insights into Gibsonian affordances
when asking what possible actions the game elements offer and into Normanian affordances when
analysing how well the game supported the designed mechanics.81
Aslam and Brown use their method to investigate differences between the perception of affordances
for different ages and gender and state that the goal of such playtests is ultimately to draw
conclusions for digital games. They see boardgames as and providing “abstraction of video game
elements” and compare unboxing a boardgame with looking at all elements of a digital game’s
narrative at once.82
While all of these practical approaches to affordance in games offer insight into important aspects of
game usability, they reveal the varying understanding of the term. In her article, Schatz mentions four
types of affordance that otherwise have not been encountered in the reviewed literature and have
been left out to prevent confusion. Additionally, much of what she describes as affordances instead
fits into Norman’s notion of signifiers. Hodent, on the other hand, refers to three different authors
(Gibson, Norman and Hartson) but never specifies which definition she is referring to.
Only Aslam and Brown seem to be aware of the difference between Normanian and Gibsonian
affordances, taking both definitions into account in their research and analysis of results.
80 Aslam and Brown, ‘Affordance Theory in Game Design’, 10.
81 Aslam and Brown, ‘Affordance Theory in Game Design’.
82 Aslam and Brown, 13.
3.3 The Application of Affordance Theory to Virtual Reality
Finally, after investigating the origin and definitions of the term affordance and seeing how it has been
applied to digital media and games, this thesis aims to apply affordance theory to Virtual Reality. This
venture aims to provide designers with frameworks and tools to increase usability, intuitiveness, and
immersion in Virtual Reality applications.
As early as 1998, Flach and Holden already proposed to apply Gibson’s ecological perception to
Virtual Reality. They state that Gibson’s theory of perception offers itself as a tool for measuring
immersion in VR since it looks at the potential for action as the basis for reality. 83 In recent years, two
major books about Virtual Reality “The VR Book” and “Understanding Virtual Reality” have dedicated
chapters to the notion of affordance, showing that the concept is still met with interest by VR
In their “Framework of Affordances for Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality” Jakob Steffen et al.
point out some general affordances of the Virtual Reality medium and verify their results by
conducting several studies (see Fig. 11). They point out that the medium of VR has four distinct
affordances: its ability to enhance positive and diminish negative elements of the physical world, the
means to recreate real-world features and the potential to create aspects that do not exist in real
Fig u r e 11. F r a m ework o f A ffordances for Vir t u a lly As s i s t ed
Act i vitie s ( S teffen e t al., 721 , fig. 5)
These general affordances of the medium can be taken as a starting point to dive further and explore
affordance in Virtual Reality applications.
83 John M. Flach and John G. Holden, ‘The Reality of Experience: Gibson’s Way’, Presence: Teleoperators and
Virtual Environments 7, no. 1 (February 1998): 90–95, https://doi.org/10.1162/105474698565550.
84 Sherman and Craig, Understanding Virtual Reality, 109–17; Jason Jerald, The VR Book: Human-Centered Design
for Virtual Reality, First edition, ACM Books 8 (New York: acm, Association for Computing Machinery, 2016), 277–
85 Jacob H. Steffen et al., ‘Framework of Affordances for Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality’, Journal of
Management Information Systems 36, no. 3 (3 July 2019): 683–729,
3.3.1 Understanding Virtual Reality
Before applying affordance to the VR medium, its fundamental characteristics must first be
recognized and understood. This section asks how Virtual Reality is defined, what its peculiarities are
and investigates its relationship to physical reality.
What is Virtual Reality?
Brenda Laurel, game designer and scholar, describes her fist VR experience in 1987 with the words “it
was really VR: I felt myself to be immersed in a virtual world in which I could take action”.86 This
sentiment contains two defining aspects brought forth by many authors when defining VR: immersion
For example, Sherman and Craig name them as two of their five key characteristics of Virtual Reality.
They say that mental immersion, the “state of being deeply engaged” is often combined with physical
immersion when talking about VR and that the community has agreed on using the term “presence”
for this particular combination enabled by the medium.87 They emphasize physical immersion as a
“necessary component” for VR and see sensory feedback as a critical aspect for achieving it.88 While
Steffen et al. also name immersion as the key defining aspect of the medium, they additionally note
that it goes hand in hand with an exclusion of physical reality which comes with potential advantages
Grabarczyk and Pokropski point out the three types of immersion by Ermi and Mäyrä: challenge-based
immersion, sensory immersion and imaginative immersion. While different media can potentially
achieve immersion in various ways, sensory immersion is a defining aspect of the VR medium. They
also bring forward the idea of embodiment, a sense of connection to the experienced virtual
representation of oneself. While some scholars think that embodiment is necessary to achieve
immersion in VR, others argue that VR offers the opportunity to think beyond embodiment and
introduce a new state of disembodiment.90
Another common denominator among Virtual Reality definitions is the possibility of interaction, but
opinions vary on the required amount of interactivity. While Sherman and Craig describe 360° movies
as “expos[ing] the fuzzy edges of what is or is not VR”, Brenda Laurel gives a simple answer to the
question whether or not 360° video is VR: “It is not.” Her principle of action requires VR experiences to
offer a level of interactivity beyond head movement for a dynamic point of view and includes a “larger
sense of personal agency”. According to Laurel’s definition, Virtual Reality should not describe
passive experiences. It is a medium that affords active participation and is, therefore, more suited for
digital games and interactive experiences than for 360° movies.91
86 Brenda Laurel, ‘What Is Virtual Reality?’, Medium, 18 June 2016, https://medium.com/@blaurel/what-is-virtual-
87 Sherman and Craig, Understanding Virtual Reality.
88 Sherman and Craig.
89 Steffen et al., ‘Framework of Affordances for Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality’.
90 Paweł Grabarczyk and Marek Pokropski, ‘Perception of Affordances and Experience of Presence in Virtual
Reality’, AVANT. The Journal of the Philosophical-Interdisciplinary Vanguard VII, no. 2 (1 December 2016): 25–44,
91 Laurel, ‘What Is Virtual Reality?’
A different approach to defining VR comes from Jason Jerald. For him, “VR is communication”,
referring to the interplay between human and machine or between virtual objects. He differentiates
between direct communication, which works without interpretation like our body movements,
emotions and direct sensory input, and indirect communication, which requires intermediary
processing in the form of subjective interpretation, created by learning and experience.92
How real is Virtual Reality?
Since the concept of affordances is rooted in our physical reality, a transfer process must take place
to apply it to Virtual Reality. That is why the medium's quasi-reality is an essential factor to be
investigated in the preceding research.
Ivan Sutherland’s idea of “the ultimate display” describes a room within which “the existence of
matter” could be artificially controlled, creating a replicated reality indistinguishable from the real
world.93 Some researchers want to see Virtual Reality as a stepping stone towards this ultimate
display, for example philosopher and cognitive scientist David Chalmers.
In his 2017 paper “The Virtual and the Real” he argues that Virtual Reality can be seen as “a sort of
genuine reality” that “virtual objects are real objects” and that “what goes on in virtual reality is truly
real”. 94 His arguments are rooted in deep philosophical assumptions about the makeup of our
perceived reality and offer an appealing starting point for discussion.
However, in “The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception”, Gibson clearly states his disbelief in the
possibility to achieve an illusory reality and also sees “no need to do so”. Talking about paintings, he
argues that the illusion can only be perfect from a fixed point of observation, not aware of the
technological advances that will enable a dynamic shift of perspective depending on the viewer’s
actions. Since Gibson’s perceptual model considers a person’s whole sensory array, it can be
assumed that the perceptual awareness of the VR headset and the missing visuals of one’s own body,
would not change his opinion that “the illusion of reality is a myth.”95
Janet Murray takes a similar stance in her article “Virtual/reality: How to tell the difference”. She
speaks against the idea of virtual reality as a “fully immersive” medium making its way into the
academic discourse, saying that “[y]ou have only to put on a pair of VR goggles to see how fragile the
sense of presence actually is […]”.96 She emphasizes that there is no “special magic” in VR and its
contents are not closer to reality than those of any other medium: “VR experiences are like movies but
with interactivity; they are like paintings but with navigable spaces; they are like plays but with
The same opinion is held by Jesper Juul who directly opposes Chalmers, arguing that virtual
representations can never achieve the same fidelity and action possibilities (affordances) as real
92 Jerald, The VR Book, 10–13.
93 Ivan E. Sutherland, ‘The Ultimate Display’, Information Processing Techniques Office, ARPA, OSD, 1965, 2.
94 David J. Chalmers, ‘The Virtual and the Real’, Disputatio 9, no. 46 (27 November 2017): 309–52,
95 Gibson, The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception.
96 Murray, ‘Virtual/Reality’, 22.
97 Murray, 23 f.
objects. He also agrees with Gibson’s sentiment that an exact replication of reality should not be the
goal when creating cultural artefacts.98
Apart from the philosophical discussion, research also shows that the real world is perceived
fundamentally differently from the virtual world on a fundamental level.99 Nevertheless, even when
Virtual Reality cannot be seen as real in itself, it can induce real physical actions and reactions.
In an experiment where participants walked through virtual apertures, Jean-Claude Lepecq et al.
noticed that people adjusted their stance similarly to participants of a real-world study. They
concluded that the observed behaviour could be seen as “an objective indication of presence”. 100
Sherman and Craig call this type of action “representative behaviour”.101 However, in the mentioned
study, two of the nineteen participants did not adjust their stance during the experiment. Instead, they
walked through the aperture head-on, leading to a collision with the virtual walls.102 This underlines
Janet Murray’s notion that VR does not only require “suspension of disbelief” but also “active creation
3.3.2 Affordances and Virtual Reality
According to Murray, we are only at the beginning of creating “conventions of participation” for the VR
medium. While the technological advancement of VR hardware can offer developers new possibilities,
it does not refute the need to create a common language to create more immersive, accessible, and
enjoyable VR experiences.104 The concept of affordance can offer insight into usability challenges in
VR and might help create a more universal understanding of the medium. This is why finally, this
thesis looks at the reviewed literature and tries to extract aspects of the investigated theories,
frameworks and methods that can be applied to Virtual Reality.
Virtual Reality Hardware
The physical setup of virtual reality devices is one of the major limiting factors when designing VR
applications. One challenge that developers have to face is the variety of devices owned by end users,
offering different resolutions, performance and input methods. The hardware determines the
medium's physical (real) affordances and limits the available options for sensory feedback. At the
same time, it is something that game developers have little influence on which can be especially
demanding when aiming for cross-platform publishing.
98 Jesper Juul, ‘Virtual Reality: Fictional All the Way Down (and That’s OK)’, Disputatio 11, no. 55 (1 December
2019): 333–43, https://doi.org/10.2478/disp-2019-0010.
99 Timofey Y. Grechkin, Jodie M. Plumert, and Joseph K. Kearney, ‘Dynamic Affordances in Embodied Interactive
Systems: The Role of Display and Mode of Locomotion’, IEEE Transactions on Visualization and Computer
Graphics 20, no. 4 (April 2014): 596, https://doi.org/10.1109/TVCG.2014.18.
100 Lepecq et al., ‘Afforded Actions as a Behavioral Assessment of Physical Presence in Virtual Environments’.
101 Sherman and Craig, Understanding Virtual Reality, 173.
102 Lepecq et al., ‘Afforded Actions as a Behavioral Assessment of Physical Presence in Virtual Environments’.
103 Murray, ‘Virtual/Reality’, 25.
104 Murray, 22.
To Murray, headset and controllers fulfil the function of “threshold objects”, giving players a physical
reminder of the experience's virtuality, which can help suspend disbelief. She says that the “double
consciousness” of the physical and virtual space adds to the excitement of VR experiences.105
Virtual Reality hardware setups can significantly impact player actions (realized affordances) as has
been proven by Grechkin et al. They measured differences in player behaviour when boarding a virtual
train depending on the mode of locomotion (walking or joystick) and the mode of display (headset or
projected environment).106 They also mention the risk of poorly designed “natural” user interfaces that
can potentially lead to decreased usability.107
While the headset hardware can have limiting factors for development, it is generally of less concern
to affordance researchers than those of the input devices used for VR. Game controllers give players
the possibility to “extend [their] agency into the realm of the game” and thereby create the potential
for the existence of affordances in the first place.108
Rambusch and Susi suggest that controllers can “becom[e] an extension of a player’s body” if they
have sufficient skill operating it, almost directly perceiving the virtual world through the input
device.109 Although not referring to games, Gibson holds a similar opinion, seeing tools as an
extension of the hand.110 However, Rambusch and Susi go on to say that a controller button can never
have an affordance that is connected to the game world since input mappings can differ between
applications and are therefore a learned convention rather than affordances.111
Brenda Laurel thinks that game-controller UI for VR games is “unacceptable” and names “natural
gesture and movement” as a core characteristic for Virtual Reality experiences, having the potential to
increase immersion.112 Nowadays, most VR devices come with motion-tracked hand controllers,
locking players’ hands in a constant “power grip”, affording crude hand interactions rather than
incentivising more delicate ones.113
Investigating more natural input methods, a study by Miller et al. compared hand positions when
performing a sweeping motion between VR controllers, a VR broom and a real broom (see Fig. 12).
Their results indicate that the virtual broom offers a more similar hand position. However, a more
reliable experimental method is needed for future work.114
105 Murray, 18 f.
106 Grechkin, Plumert, and Kearney, ‘Dynamic Affordances in Embodied Interactive Systems’.
107 Grechkin, Plumert, and Kearney, 596.
108 Linderoth, ‘Beyond the Digital Divide’, 14.
109 Rambusch and Susi, ‘The Challenge of Managing Affordances in Computer Game Play’, 99.
110 Gibson, The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception.
111 Rambusch and Susi, ‘The Challenge of Managing Affordances in Computer Game Play’, 90.
112 Laurel, ‘What Is Virtual Reality?’
113 Robin Hunicke, Understanding The Body’s Role in VR & AR Game Design, GDC, 2016,
114 Miller, Willemsen, and Feyen, ‘Comparing Interface Affordances for Controlling a Push Broom in VR’.
Fig u r e 12. Comparison o f VR Contr o l l er, VR push br o o m
and real push b r o o m (Mille r et al., 63 5, fig. 1)
In “The VR book” Jerald also reasons that “speciality devices” representing well-known real-world
input methods (like a steering wheel) are well-suited for creating immersive VR experiences since they
offer the actual physical affordances of the virtually performed action. However, he points out that
such devices are often only viable for location-based VR experiences since they solely work for a
particular type of application.115
Sherman and Craig mention the advantages of handheld props as well, arguing that their properties
offer physical affordances and thereby increase the intuitiveness of controls. They see a benefit in the
increasing availability of low-cost 3D printing, which could easily customize VR controllers to a
specific application, giving it the shape of the hilt of a sword, a tennis racquet or possibly even a push
As has been discussed previously, opinions are divided on whether or not Gibsonian affordance
includes the idea of socio-cultural learning. Even so, Gibson clearly states that learning to perceive
affordances is an aspect of the socialization process in children, so while affordances themselves
might not change depending on previous knowledge, their perception does.117
Similarly, Sherman and Craig compare a person entering a previously unknown Virtual Reality
scenario with an infant who relies on trial and error to find out the affordances of this new world.
Therefore, they advocate using (perceived) affordances that have already been learned in the real
world and in technological devices to make VR experiences more intuitive.118
Jerald calls this principle “interaction metaphor” and names it as a crucial factor for introducing users
to new concepts and tools. However, appropriate interaction metaphors must be picked to serve the
115 Jerald, The VR Book, 311 f.
116 Sherman and Craig, Understanding Virtual Reality, 237 ff.
117 Gibson, The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception.
118 Sherman and Craig, Understanding Virtual Reality, 117.
intended purpose and should be kept consistent across one application if possible.119 In VR, working
with interaction metaphors from physical environments seems to be an obvious choice.
However, following this line of thought can cause what Norman calls a “legacy problem”, the issue
that design often replicates previous standards, either to ensure compatibility or because people have
already gotten used to them.120 For example, VR controllers feature similar button layouts as regular
game controllers. They have the advantage of leading to increased familiarity and “guessability” by
people with previous gaming experience.121 However, the disadvantage is that the existing standard is
not put into question and that usability is decreased for people without the required prior knowledge.
This is a critical factor since, according to Sherman and Craig, participants and creators are an
essential element of Virtual Reality. They rightly note that participants come into the experience with
different backgrounds, capabilities, and knowledge and that therefore, each player experiences VR in
a distinct way.122 Since affordance is described as a relationship between environment and actor,
these differences in users and user experience must be considered when designing towards
optimized affordances in VR.
Therefore, several authors are in favour of intuitive mapping. Norman describes natural mapping as a
correspondence between artefacts (for example the controls and the controlled object) where the
relationship between them is easily identified, for example by their physical layout.123 Gaver describes
the similar term nomic mapping as an apparent causal relationship between an object and its
function, for instance, an onscreen button that looks like a button.124 These statements can be
interpreted as promoting more intuitive and natural interface designs that require less previous
knowledge and interpretation to be correctly understood. While different forms of digital literacy
cannot be expected in every user, a common denominator amongst all people is their knowledge of
the physical world and the affordances it offers.
Locomotion and Space
Another key factor in Virtual Reality experiences is the physical and the virtual space and how players
move within them. In his model of ecological perception, Gibson puts a major focus on locomotion
and how it is inseparably connected with perceptual information. According to him, our movement is
dictated by our self-perception and the (mostly visually identified) affordances of the environment.125
Flach and Holden argue that Gibson’s idea of perception as a facilitator for potential action makes
locomotion and interaction inside virtual environments the most important factor for an immersive
A problem for locomotion in Virtual Reality spaces is the limitation of the real physical space, either
restrained by the play area or cable-bound VR headsets. The displayed virtual space and its
119 Sherman and Craig, 544 ff.; Jerald, The VR Book, 278.
120 Norman, The Design of Everyday Things, 127.
121 Burlamaqui and Dong, ‘The Use and Misuse of the Concept of Affordance’, 15.
122 Sherman and Craig, Understanding Virtual Reality, 6.
123 Norman, The Design of Everyday Things, 113 ff.
124 Gaver, ‘Technology Affordances’, 81.
125 Gibson, The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception.
126 Flach and Holden, ‘The Reality of Experience’, 94.
affordances are usually at odds with the room's actual physical layout and haptics, except in
specifically adjusted location-based experiences. Additionally, space is perceived differently through
VR headsets; for example, distances are often underestimated in virtual environments.127
Walking movement, as afforded by any virtual experience displaying a solid floor, is therefore usually
not viable within VR applications. Substitutes for natural locomotion have to be introduced, leading to
a potential break in immersion and the phenomenon of simulator sickness – a type of motion
sickness that can be caused by a discrepancy between the perceived and actual movement.
While not directly mentioning affordances in their paper, Costas Boletsis and Jarl Erik Cedergren
empirically analysed and compared different prevalent modes of locomotion for VR according to their
usability and immersion (see Fig. 13).
They found that Walking-in-Place (WIP) offered high immersion, a perceived naturalness and potential
for an “extra element of fun” – but the negative aspects of tiresome action, motion sickness and a
fear of real-world collision were similarly prominent results. Controller-based locomotion provided
satisfactory immersion and was found easy-to-use, however, the interviews revealed that this ease-of-
use was due to previous experiences with non-VR game controllers and therefore based on
knowledge of gaming conventions. The motion sickness caused by this mode of locomotion was
reportedly only temporary and can also be alleviated by dynamic field-of-view adjustments. Of the
three investigated methods, teleportation offered the lowest level of immersion, but also fast
navigation and the fewest cases of motion sickness. Nevertheless, the visual jumps were reported as
tiresome for the eyes, which had a negative impact on the overall experience.128
Fig u r e 13. Comparison o f VR l o c o m o tion te c h n iques
(B ole t s is and C edergre n , 9, f i g. 8)
127 Grechkin, Plumert, and Kearney, ‘Dynamic Affordances in Embodied Interactive Systems’.
128 Costas Boletsis and Jarl Erik Cedergren, ‘VR Locomotion in the New Era of Virtual Reality: An Empirical
Comparison of Prevalent Techniques’, Advances in Human-Computer Interaction 2019 (1 April 2019): 10,
Sherman and Craig mention another interesting method of navigation. They introduce the “move-the-
world paradigm” as an alternative to flying through a VR experience. In this mode, the player model
remains stationary and can move and manipulate the world around them. Although not truly
locomotion, this approach still provides a navigation method which can seem natural in specific
contexts while potentially reducing motion-sickness.129
Finally, Grechkin et al.’s comparison of the boarding of a virtual train in different VR setups underlines
that there can be profound differences in player behaviour depending on their mode of locomotion,
emphasizing the consequence that this design decision can have for VR experiences (see Fig. 14).130
Fig u r e 14. Comparing t h e moment o f boardin g o f a vir t u a l train
de pending o n VR dis pla y and mo d e of locomo t i o n
(G r e c h kin et a l., 60 1 , fig. 3 )
While Murray mentions elevators as an immersive and performant possibility of connecting multiple
VR spaces, it has been shown that the navigation within those spaces still poses a challenge to
developers.131 Since the afforded action of walking can in most cases not be realized, developers
have to lower their sights or come up with creative solutions, balancing usability, comfort and
Perception of Virtual Environments
So far, the impact of hardware, socio-cultural learning and locomotion techniques on affordances in
VR have been investigated. All these aspects can also affect how the user perceives the virtual
environment. VR Hardware limits the available sensory stimuli, cultural knowledge informs perception,
and the mode of locomotion determines the perceived affordances for movement. Ultimately, the goal
of virtual environments is to mentally and physically immerse the user, but as Murray puts it:
“immersion is a delicate state that is easily disrupted.”132
129 Sherman and Craig, Understanding Virtual Reality, 26 f.
130 Grechkin, Plumert, and Kearney, ‘Dynamic Affordances in Embodied Interactive Systems’.
131 Murray, ‘Virtual/Reality’, 18.
132 Murray, 18.
One factor that can disrupt immersion in VR is the comparative lack of sensory stimuli. “Perception” is
one of the key elements of affordance identified by Burlamaqui and Dong and Rex Hartson gives
“sensory affordance” an own place in his semantic model.133 While the real world makes full use of
our multimodal perception and affords us to smell, touch, see, hear, and taste, VR is often limited to
downgraded versions of three of our senses, focusing on visual input which Sherman and Craig call
“sensorial precedence”.134 Therefore, Steffen et al. postulate that experiences that require a “high
haptic richness” will be hard to recreate in VR without an obvious draw on immersion.135 Laurel and
Murray emphasize the importance of using spatialized sound features in Virtual Reality to make full
use of the other prominent sense that VR can address.136 The third sensory output offered by most VR
hardware is controller vibration.
Human perception is “cross-modal”, meaning that our brain sometimes links the processing of our
different senses into single events.137 This fact can be taken advantage of in VR applications by
creating “sensory substitutions” for the missing perceptual input.138 Gross et al. outline the
importance of sensory substitution for correctly perceiving affordances in virtual environments. They
state that while it seems most obvious to use visuals for substitution, the sensorial precedence of
vision is not given in every case. They divide between spatial and temporal perception – perceiving
the environment instead of perceiving the passage of time – and say that aural stimuli are more
important for the latter. As a result, they recommend using auditory stimuli for substituting temporal
perception and visual stimuli to substitute for the perception of space (see Fig. 15).139
Fig u r e 15. D e s i gn Rec o m m enda t i o n for Sens o ry Subs tituti o n s
to E voke Aff o r d a n c es (G ro ss et a l., 48 4, t a ble 1 ; 489 , tabl e 2 )
133 Burlamaqui and Dong, ‘The Use and Misuse of the Concept of Affordance’; Hartson, ‘Cognitive, Physical,
Sensory, and Functional Affordances in Interaction Design’.
134 Sherman and Craig, Understanding Virtual Reality, 160.
135 Steffen et al., ‘Framework of Affordances for Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality’, 690.
136 Laurel, ‘What Is Virtual Reality?’; Murray, ‘Virtual/Reality’.
137 Hunicke, Understanding The Body’s Role in VR & AR Game Design, 127 f.
138 Sherman and Craig, Understanding Virtual Reality, 160 f.
139 David C. Gross, Kay M. Stanney, and Lt. Joseph Cohn, ‘Evoking Affordances in Virtual Environments via
Sensory-Stimuli Substitution’, Presence: Teleoperators and Virtual Environments 14, no. 4 (August 2005): 482–91,
Additionally, the vibration feedback that is provided by most VR controllers can serve as a universal
sensory substitution for any kind of haptic feedback, for example, to emulate the tension when
bending a virtual bow.140
Although lacking some features of physical reality, affordances can be similarly perceived in VR as in
real life. In an experiment that analysed the participants’ ability to tell whether a virtual slanted surface
afforded upright stance, Regia-Corte et al. learned that the results came out similar to a previous real-
life study. Additionally, they found that the displayed surface texture correctly influenced the
perception of affordance. Participants assessed visuals that suggested low friction like ice differently
from a surface with a wooden texture.141 Their research suggests that the real-life affordances of
surfaces, colours and materials can be correctly translated into virtual environments.
Lastly, Virtual Reality will always be perceived as what it is: Virtual. Users are aware of this fact, which
gives them the chance to learn about the virtual environment's rules and makeup on their terms. As
Linderoth and Bennerstedt observe, players (and in extension VR users) develop a unique perceptual
field that enables them to differentiate between real and virtual environments and their distinct sets of
Self-Perception and Manipulation
Although Gibson did not anticipate the VR medium, he favoured subjective first-person camera
techniques like used in 1947’s Lady in the Lake when investigating the perception of motion pictures.
Gibson thought that this direction showed promise and possible benefits for education and training
and should be further explored.143 Virtual Reality now offers people the chance to not only watch a
movie filmed from another person’s perspective but to become that person and interact with intent
and agency in a virtual world. That is why in this last section, the impact of the self and the ability to
act within VR environments will be considered.
An important factor frequently mentioned in this context is the sense of embodiment, the feeling of
inhabiting a body in the virtual world. Embodiment can be seen as an essential factor for the
perception of affordances since affordances require a potential agent to exist – ergo in order for them
to exist in VR, there must be a VR agent.144 Grabarczyk and Pokropski claim that the ability to
dynamically change perspective already creates a sense of embodiment since the user automatically
relates the virtual movement and positioning to their apparent virtual self.145
However, VR agents need additional means to interact with the virtual world apart from changing
perspective. Most VR input devices offer one motion-tracked controller for each hand to replicate the
hands’ position and motion in the VR environment. Developers can choose how to portray the virtual
representations of those hands and which abilities to give them. Some choose to display the
140 Sherman and Craig, Understanding Virtual Reality, 425 ff.
141 Regia-Corte et al., ‘Perceiving Affordances in Virtual Reality’.
142 Linderoth and Bennerstedt, ‘This Is Not a Door: An Ecological Approach to Computer Games’, 608.
143 Gibson, The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception, 292–302.
144 Burlamaqui and Dong, ‘The Use and Misuse of the Concept of Affordance’; Chemero, ‘An Outline of a Theory of
145 Grabarczyk and Pokropski, ‘Perception of Affordances and Experience of Presence in Virtual Reality’, 37.
controllers, aligning the virtual affordance with the real one. Others show virtual hands that can
assume a limited set of gestures depending on the fingers’ position on the input device.
However, this approach comes with some downsides. In his chapter on locomotion and manipulation,
Gibson notes that reaching and grasping are the most common human interactions. He also
emphasizes the need for visual perception of the hands in order to properly use them, a prerequisite
that is not met in VR.146 Although virtual hand representations can create a similar effect to the rubber
hand illusion when accurately displayed, this “transparent connection” between real and virtual hand
is easily broken, for example when touching a virtual surface or using an unrecognized gesture.147 In
addition, our hands are versatile tools and their “uses […] are almost unlimited”, a premise that no
programming can attempt to replicate.148 Camera-based hand tracking technology aims to create an
inexpensive way to increase the alignment between real and virtual hands without additional
hardware. However, its uses are still limited, and the lack of input buttons or any haptic feedback
creates another set of challenges for the perception of affordances.
Another aspect related to self-perception is the perceived interactivity of the environment. Following
Gibson’s notion of action defining the basis of experience, Sherman and Craig suggest that
purposefully limiting possible player interactions could lead to enhanced immersion and a more “real”
experience.149 One way to achieve this could be to – instead of trying to replicate the user’s hands –
limit hand representation and action to a specific tool, decreasing the actor's capabilities and
therefore the affordances of the environment.
On the other hand, Grabarczyk and Pokropski name “adding affordances to the simulation” as a
strategy to enhance presence in VR experiences.150 They see the ontological shift between 2D
representations and 3D objects as them becoming “rich (possibly even infinite) source of affordance”,
which is hard to achieve in a simulation.151 A lack of realizable affordances in VR environments
quickly leads to the creation of false cognitive affordances since a real object’s virtual counterpart will
be similarly perceived.152 As Schatz points out, when the “desire to act” in virtual environments is not
supported, it can easily break a player’s immersion and undo all effort of creating a visually immersive
environment.153 Grabarczyk and Pokropski even suggest dynamically adjusting virtual environments
to individual users to make sure that affordances are correctly perceived by each player.154
146 Gibson, The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception.
147 Murray, ‘Virtual/Reality’, 17.
148 Gibson, The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception.
149 Sherman and Craig, Understanding Virtual Reality, 115.
150 Grabarczyk and Pokropski, ‘Perception of Affordances and Experience of Presence in Virtual Reality’, 40 f.
151 Grabarczyk and Pokropski, 36.
152 Burlamaqui and Dong, ‘The Use and Misuse of the Concept of Affordance’.
153 Schatz, ‘Defining Environment Language for Video Games’.
154 Grabarczyk and Pokropski, ‘Perception of Affordances and Experience of Presence in Virtual Reality’, 40 f.
The literature review performed in this thesis has shown that affordance theory is used by many
researchers of digital media, digital games and Virtual Reality. With 17 of 41 analysed sources on the
topic being published within the last five years, it is also clear that the subject is still highly relevant to
scholars although more than half a century has passed since its introduction. Affordance is
commonly used as a tool to measure intuitiveness in game design and the immersion experienced in
Virtual Reality applications. Several experimental methods have been uncovered that are used by
scientists of various fields in their research.
The Term Affordance
However, the review has also revealed that usage and definition of the term affordance is highly
ambiguous. The cause of this ambiguity is the existence of two schools of thought: The first one was
introduced by psychologist J. J. Gibson in his works on ecological perception and is here referred to
as Gibsonian affordance. Don Norman coined the second one in his book “The Design of Everyday
Things” and has its roots in industrial and interaction design, termed Normanian affordance. The
Gibsonian model focusses on the relational aspect of affordance and sees affordances as action
possibilities available to a specific actor, independent of perception or knowledge. Normanian
affordance, on the other hand, looks only at the perceived action possibilities and puts no primary
focus on differences between individual actors. Several researchers, including Norman himself, have
observed the term's unclear use and proposed different solutions. The three main proposals for
counteracting the problem are integration, finding a way to merging the concept of Gibsonian and
Normanian affordance;155 separation, keeping the two ideas apart and using them in their respective
sense;156 and annulation, refraining from using the term in further research since it has already
become too convoluted to be of scientific value.157 The last proposal is supported by Norman himself.
Applying Affordance Frameworks to VR
Drawing universal conclusions about affordance theory from the conducted research appears
difficult. One common denominator is the use of experimental setups to observe and compare user
assessment in Virtual Reality and compare it either with real-life studies or between different
hardware setups to see how the perceived affordances are influenced. However, these comparative
quantitative studies do not necessarily require the notion of affordance to offer useful research
results for usability in Virtual Reality.
When looking at theoretical research, many scholars have proposed their own models and definitions
on the topic most of which approach the subject from vastly different angles and motivations. Some
155 Burlamaqui and Dong, ‘The Use and Misuse of the Concept of Affordance’; Hartson, ‘Cognitive, Physical,
Sensory, and Functional Affordances in Interaction Design’.
156 Aslam and Brown, ‘Affordance Theory in Game Design’; Rambusch and Susi, ‘The Challenge of Managing
Affordances in Computer Game Play’; Sherman and Craig, Understanding Virtual Reality.
157 Oliver, ‘The Problem with Affordance’; Torenvliet, ‘We Can’t Afford It!’; Norman, ‘Signifiers, Not Affordances’.
put focus on the importance of context when perceiving affordance,158 some highlight the role of
exploration or socio-cultural learning,159 some place affordance within other models or create new
taxonomies to make sense of it.160 In digital media and games, many question if the term, which
originated in perceptual psychology and industrial design, can be appropriately applied to virtual
objects and environments at all.161 When used in the context of digital spaces nevertheless, the usage
of the term becomes even cloudier since the affordances of hardware and physical reality are still
present, but their relevance not often discussed. On top of that, the different theoretical models rarely
specify experimental methods used to measure or verify their ideas, making their evaluation for
design practice and research difficult.
In the end, practitioners need practical models to use in their everyday work without having to conduct
in-depth research on the definition, advantages, and disadvantages of each affordance framework.
While many of the mentioned theories offer interesting approaches to the topic, there is no scientific
foundation for picking one specific model or definition over the other when attempting to apply
affordance theory to Virtual Reality. Therefore, it has to be questioned whether affordance theory
offers enough merits for Virtual Reality to justify adding yet another theoretical model to the existing
body of research.
A New Framework for Usability and Usefulness
Instead of creating an affordance framework for Virtual Reality, other options were explored to draw
value from the gathered knowledge. It was concluded that the term affordance, despite being the
main object of investigation, was too ambiguous and its history and use too convoluted to offer real
value for scientific research or design practice. This evaluation is in line with other researchers'
opinions who advocate leaving the term if no universal rules of application can be established.162
In search of an alternative term that was not directly connected to affordance, Joana McGrenere and
Wayne Ho’s notion of usefulness and usability was found to offer a similar functionality while being
not semantically bound to the term affordance. McGrenere and Ho argued that Gibsonian affordance
could be described as an object’s usefulness, referring to its actual functions. Normanian affordance
could be seen as usability, the information available about an object’s functionality.
In an attempt to make use of the concepts of usefulness and usability in VR, McGrenere and Ho’s
schematic view of perception (see Fig. 2) was adjusted to the medium by including VR Hardware as
an intermediary between the interfaces and functionalities of virtual objects (see Fig. 16). The notion
of direct perception from Gibsonian psychology was removed and Affordances, referring to Gibsonian
affordances, replaced by Programming which limits the available functionalities in digital spaces.
158 Burlamaqui and Dong, ‘The Use and Misuse of the Concept of Affordance’; Burlamaqui and Dong,
159 Gaver, ‘Technology Affordances’; Draper and Barton, ‘Learning by Exploration and Affordance Bugs’; Linderoth
and Bennerstedt, ‘This Is Not a Door: An Ecological Approach to Computer Games’; Hopkins, ‘The Concept of
Affordances in Digital Media’; Cardona-Rivera and Young, ‘A Cognitivist Theory of Affordances for Games’.
160 Mateas, ‘A Preliminary Poetics for Interactive Drama and Games’; Hartson, ‘Cognitive, Physical, Sensory, and
Functional Affordances in Interaction Design’; Maier and Fadel, ‘Affordance Based Design’.
161 Rambusch and Susi, ‘The Challenge of Managing Affordances in Computer Game Play’; Norman, ‘Affordance,
Conventions, and Design’.
162 Oliver, ‘The Problem with Affordance’; Torenvliet, ‘We Can’t Afford It!’; Norman, ‘Signifiers, Not Affordances’.
Furthermore, in the adapted model, Action only happens between user and hardware, whereas the
new aspect of Interaction visualises the communication between hardware and software. The
element of Sensory Substitution has been added in between interface and hardware to direct attention
to the necessity of adjusting perceptual clues to fit the Sensorial Output options of the hardware.
Fig u r e 16. Mc G r enere a n d Ho’s Us e f u lness a n d Usa bility a pp lied to Vi rtual Re a l i ty
(a d a p ted f r o m M c Grener e a n d Ho, 6, fig. 3)
Various affordance frameworks can still be placed within this schematic, for example, Burlamaqui
and Dong’s five foundational elements of affordance. The virtual artefacts and environments exist in
interface and functionality. The agent is represented by the VR user. The perception of the interface is
mediated by hardware, and the potential use is defined by the programming and communicated by
How to use the Framework
Additionally, McGrenere and Ho propose a design framework based on Gaver’s visualization of
affordances and add a gradual dimension to it (Fig. 5a). In Figure 18, the graph was adapted and now
features the alternative terms usefulness and usability to offer a tool for measurement and
evaluation. The layout was adjusted to create four distinct sections which offer clear takeaways for
practice implied by certain positions on the graph.
Fig u r e 17. U ser -U sabili t y - U s e f ulnes s model ( U U U - model), proposed
fr a m e work fo r U s a b ility a n d Usefuln e ss in i n teractive digita l media
(b a s e d on Mc G r enere a n d Ho; Gave r ; Burlama q u i and Do ng)
The created User-Usability-Usefulness model (UUU-model) is proposed for general use in interactive
digital media since it does not contain any factors that would limit its use to Virtual Reality. The
framework measures and compares the usability (perceived information about functionality) and
usefulness (programmed functionality) of a given digital media artefact concerning a specific user. It
can be employed to investigate a particular function or specific artefacts in digital applications at any
level of detail.
Usability can be measured by observing (attempted) user action and interaction. This could be
achieved by tracking players’ movements, and button uses in VR in relation to the observed artefact or
by application or by using the “thinking out loud” method, asking users to comment on their actions
while interacting. Another possibility would be to use a questionnaire to determine which interactions
players would expect of certain investigated artefacts. It should be kept in mind that usability can also
refer to perceived passive uses like hiding behind cover. The degree of usability can show how much
functionality is implied and that one artefact can be perceived differently among different users and
user groups depending on factors like age, gender, culture, or physical abilities.
This aspect is introduced by the user aspect, which is at the centre of the model. When using the
model, user data must be additionally collected to put the usability data gained through the
framework into context. However, user data is not limited to the users' personal information,
experiences, and skillset. In the UUU-model, the user aspect incorporates everything that can
influence user capabilities, including hardware and software limitations depending on the investigated
issue. Usability information can be compared amongst user groups, in-between different hardware
solutions, in varying visual contexts or in the case of games depending on player models and
The usefulness of an artefact is determined by its programming. It would usually be a binary value,
depending on whether a certain functionality has been implemented. However, the degree of
usefulness is defined in relation to an artefact’s usability information. While some of the perceived
functionality might exist, other features implied by usability might not be present in the artefact.
Usefulness must also be evaluated in terms of design, matching Hartson’s idea of functional
affordance and asking whether the implemented feature provides value to the user. In the case of
passive usefulness like the previously mentioned example of cover, programming still needs to
facilitate that the cover offers protection.
The framework contains four distinct sections, showing how high or low values on the usefulness or
usability scale might inform design decisions. Usable and useful artefacts are interactive artefacts
whose communicated function matches their actual use. High and matching values on both axes
should be the goal for every interactive artefact presented in VR.
Unuseful artefacts match Gaver’s idea of false affordances. They communicate interaction possibility
to the player, but do not support the expected use, making them wonder why they can’t touch this?
Unuseful artefacts must either be made useful by adding the expected functionality or their usability
information must be decreased, reducing them to a passive artefact (indicated by arrows in the
Unusable artefacts are not recognized by the user as interactable although functionality has been
implemented. If not intended by design (for example in a puzzle game) the usability information
should be increased, so players recognize the intended function (indicated by an arrow in the model).
Passive artefacts neither communicate usability, nor are they meant to be interactive. Passive
artefacts should instead serve non-programmed or non-interactive purposes, for example visual
guidance or storytelling.
Based on these assessments, the User-Usability-Usefulness model offers concrete lines of actions for
digital media and Virtual Reality designers. In line with the previously presented research, it is
assumed that matching usefulness and usability of VR artefacts will also increase immersion in
Virtual Reality experiences.
Limitations of research and the proposed model
When considering this thesis's methodology, the author’s subjectivity and the quantitative nature of
integrative literature reviews must be taken into account. It is possible that relevant sources were not
found due to limitations of search terms or their availability in the investigated resources.
Nevertheless, the found sources draw a broad picture of affordance research and include various
opinions and approaches on the topic.
The decision to propose a different model instead of pursuing the ideas that were presented in this
thesis further is, in the end, a personal one – but one that is rooted in extensive knowledge about the
The proposed framework must be tested and validated to see if it provides value for practice.
Different experimental methods to measure usability information and user capabilities will have to be
applied, and specific quantitative methods developed to properly compare usefulness and usability.
The collection of user data must be undertaken especially carefully since it can introduce bias or
causal fallacies into the framework. Since the model does not include concrete instructions on
achieving the desired effects, it has to be paired with user experience knowledge to derive real benefit
from it by creating satisfying user interactions.
Using the widespread term usability to only refer to perceived usability might cause semantic
confusion, which is why usability information might be preferable when referencing it in the context of
Despite the potential downsides, if proven effective, the concrete design and research
recommendations of the UUU-model might offer a useful tool for practitioners in interactive digital
media. It would enable them to investigate user actions and expectations in relation to their individual
capabilities without relying on the ambiguous term of affordance. The proposed model can
additionally help to create a basis for more universally understandable and accessible design
In Virtual Reality, the UUU-model can be used as a tool to increase the sense of immersion. Specific
challenges for VR applications can be investigated by putting the available usability information in the
context of VR hardware, modes of locomotion or virtual hand representations.
This thesis set out to investigate the concept of affordance in Virtual Reality using an integrative
literature review to extract useful definitions, frameworks and models for VR development. Research
on affordance theory, affordance in digital games and affordance in Virtual Reality was synthesized to
reveal an abundance of different affordance models in all areas.
The evaluated literature showed that the term affordance is often ambiguously applied due to two
partly conflicting schools of thought, described here as Gibsonian affordance and Normanian
affordance. Many scientists have attempted to either integrate both affordance definitions or
separate them more clearly to clarify the confusion. As a result, the body of knowledge and the
different meanings of the term affordance have become increasingly convoluted, lowering its
scientific value for design research. As a result, an affordance model that stood out for use in the
Virtual Reality medium could not be reasonably identified. It was therefore concluded that the concept
of affordance does not offer true merit for further application in Virtual Reality.
As an alternative to adding to the increasing number of affordance frameworks, a different approach
to researching actual and perceived action possibilities of interactive digital artefacts was proposed.
The User-Usability-Usefulness model (UUU-model) is based on Joana McGrenere and Wayne Ho's
work and introduces new terminologies to substitute for the overworked concept of affordance (see
The UUU-model looks at interactive digital artefacts in terms of their usefulness (programmed
functionality) and usability (perceived functionality) and proposes that matching usefulness and
usability leads to increased intuitiveness of interactions. The collected data must always be seen in
relation to data on user capability, which can be related to personal user data but can also be defined
by the offered hardware or software features. By giving direct implications for practice, the framework
provides concrete approaches of action for designers, but further research will be required to verify
the proposed model's validity.
Aiming to find an affordance framework that can be used for Virtual Reality applications, this thesis
has instead created a new framework to support intuitive design in interactive digital media. While the
original intention of the research has not been met, it is believed that adding additional frameworks
and definitions to affordance theory would not have offered any new insights into the topic. Instead, it
would have added unnecessary ballast to an already divided academic field, because “[j]ust as
printing money devalues existing money, the more new definitions the term affordance gains, the less
value any of them has.”163
The proposed model offers testable hypotheses and research methods that can be further
investigated to prove whether it provides a solid alternative to using affordance frameworks in design.
Designing with the UUU-model in mind could help to create a “VR literacy” that is not based on
previous gaming knowledge but takes the individual user and their capabilities and previous
experiences into account. Based on the conducted research, it is assumed that applying the model to
163 Torenvliet, ‘We Can’t Afford It!’, 13.
Virtual Reality applications would help designers to increase the intuitiveness of interactions in VR,
thereby also increasing the sense of immersion.
Looking to align usability and usefulness of virtual environments can help practitioners form a
consistent language for the medium. VR developers are continually finding new ways to work around
the hardware-, software- and physical limitations. Purposefully limiting player interaction by
representing the players’ hands as lightsabers like in Beatsaber, weightless movement for locomotion
in Lone Echo or limiting each level to a confined walkable space as in Job Simulator are just some of
the approaches that developers took to close the chasm between virtual and physical reality.
Subsequent studies could use the UUU-model to analyse these practical approaches, compare
promising trends and find innovative solutions to increase user experience and immersion.
While hardware developments such as improved visual fidelity, hand tracking technology or
sensomotoric feedback might be just around the corner, Murray is right when she states that these
changes will not magically improve VR as a medium.164 In the end, it lies in the hand of developers
and their understanding of each individual user’s expectations to create truly engaging Virtual Reality
164 Murray, ‘Virtual/Reality’, 22.
APPENDIX – List of Reviewed Literature
James J. Gibson
The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception
William H. Warren
Perceiving Affordances: Visual Guidance of Stair Climbing
William W. Gaver
Stephen W. Draper,
Stephen B. Barton
Learning by exploration, and affordance bugs
Affordance, Conventions, and Design
Affordances: Clarifying and Evolving a Concept
A preliminary poetics for interactive drama and games
An Outline of a Theory of Affordance
We Can't Afford It!
H. Rex Hartson
Cognitive, physical, sensory, and functional
affordances in interaction design
Affordances and Design
The Problem with Affordance
David C. Gross et al.
Evoking Affordances in Virtual Environments via Sensory-
This is not a Door: An Ecological approach to Computer
The Challenge of Managing Affordances in Computer
Affordance based design: a relational theory for design
Jean-Claude Lepecq et al
Afforded actions as a behavioural assessment of physical
presence in virtual environments
Janet H. Murray
Inventing the Medium: Principles of Interaction Design as a
The Design of Everyday Things
Tony Regia-Corte et al
Perceiving Affordances in Virtual Reality: Influence of
person and environmental properties in perception of
standing on virtual grounds
Beyond the Digital Divide: An Ecological Approach to
Rogelio E. Cardona-Rivera,
R. Michael Young
A Cognitivist Theory of Affordances for Games
The Use and Misuse of the Concept of Affordance
Timofey Y. Grechkin et al.
Dynamic Affordances in Embodies Interactive Systems:
The Role of Display and Mode of Locomotion
Affordances: Bringing them out of the Woods
The VR Book: Human-Centered Design for Virtual Reality
What Is Virtual Reality?
Pawel Grabarczyk, Marek
Perception of Affordances and Experience of Presence in
The Gamer's Brain
Defining Environment Language for Video Games
The Virtual and the Real
Noah Miller et al.
Comparing Interface Affordances for Controlling a Push
Broom in VR
Hamna Aslam et al.
Player Age and Affordance Theory in Game Design
Signifiers, not affordances
William R. Sherman,
Alan B. Craig
Understanding Virtual Reality: Interface, Application and
Design (Second Edition)
Jacob H. Steffen et al.
Framework of Affordances for Virtual Reality and
Virtual Reality: Fictional all the Way Down (and that’s OK)
Jarl Erik Cedergren
VR Locomotion in the New Era of Virtual Reality: An
Empirical Comparison of Prevalent Techniques
Joseph Alexander Brown
Affordance Theory in Game Design: A Guide Toward
Janet H. Murray
Virtual/reality: how to tell the difference
The Concept of Affordances in Digital Media
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