March 4, 2005

Realistic Video Games May Be Less Stimulating

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New advances in imaging technology have enabled many computer games and modeling programs to combine the use of increasingly realistic depictions of environments.

In a talk sponsored by the Cornell Theory Center (CTC) on Monday evening, Patrik Svensson, director of HUMlab at Umea University in Sweden, argued that in certain activities, more abstract and less realistic images are more effective in engaging and teaching the user. The research that Svensson conducted so far resonates with the work that is being done at the Theory Center.

“I know that the work we have been doing has been skidding up against each other [these] past six years,” said Margaret Corbit, manager of outreach and public relations at the CTC. Svensson described HUMlab, where much of his research is conducted, as a “humanities I.T. environment.” This “unique technological and creative space” is a facility where individuals from various disciplines, ranging from humanities to engineering, can meet together and work on research and educational projects dealing with computer game studies, visualization and virtual environments.

In his work analyzing virtual environments, Svensson found that “it is not always the best thing to recreate perfect worlds [and] images.” However, he noted that creating incredibly realistic worlds has been the trend, especially in the computer gaming industry. “Gamers” who have played the latest popular computer games, such as Chronicles of Riddick and America’s Army Game, are often drawn to the “enhanced facial features [and] realistic shadows” present in these modern programs. They respond to “graphics [meant] to drench [their] senses.”

He compared these latest games to several older ones, such as The Hobbit, which was released in 1982. These older games incorporated the use of much more abstract images which were used to symbolize the protagonists in the virtual scenarios. They also incorporated a much greater use of text. Much of the crude images and two dimensional representations were the result of very little memory and processing powers of older computers. However, Svensson noted that the use of text and simpler graphics caused users to think more creatively, and therefore, were actually more successful in engaging them. Svensson noticed that in educational settings, many teachers desired game-like environments when using software demonstrations in lessons. Anything less was “not good enough,” and problems arose when the graphics were not completely realistic. The solution, Svensson said, lay in “not trying to get there.”

In several studies that Svensson conducted, a “lower level of realism [was found to be] functionally and esthetically advantageous.” One such study conducted in 1999 was designed as an educational project where students of English created virtual worlds instead of writing a final thesis paper. Students incorporated the use of text, as well as computer graphics to create game like environments that visitors could walk through. Students were given basic training, after which they were free to design the project on their own. The images in these projects were found to be mid-level between incredibly realistic “high fidelity iconic representations” and abstract symbols. Both the students and those who visited the virtual city found the project to be “fun and motivating”, especially because of the collaboration of text and less realistic images.

Medical studies on human phobias, conducted at the V.R. Medical Centers in San Diego, have shown that medium level graphics also work better in getting human subjects to overcome their fear of spiders. One theory on why this works is that more abstract-looking spiders look real enough, yet the patient can realize that they are not actually real. With that established, researchers can further help those with phobias to overcome their aversion.

Svensson also mentioned the use of the Traveler platform, a computer program in which multiple users are assigned cartoon-like avatars which they use to represent themselves in virtual chat rooms, and interact with everyone else by using their voice. This platform has been extremely effective in distance learning programs, especially when students are learning a foreign language. This abstract interaction can be more effective than videoconferencing, because the group interactions in the virtual classrooms incorporate a sharing of space between the avatars. “In high-tech videoconferencing,” Svensson explained, users “talk, but don’t share space,” something that is naturally done in classrooms.

Not all in the audience were convinced by Svensson’s arguments, however. Joydeep Chatterjee ’06 felt that “[Svensson’s] arguments were too sociological and psychological and did not examine how [game] systems were designed” and described the talk as “techno-poetry.”

Yet the gaming industry has realized some of the advantages of less realistic images, and Svensson notes that there is a commercial arena for reissued Retro and experimental games that use some degree of abstract images and textual incorporation. “Abstractions bring benefits,” Svensson concluded.

Archived article by Samira Chandwani
Sun Staff Writer