In reference to Monday’s post, experience designer Sara Thacher tweeted “Why are ‘physical experiences’ compelling?” I only touched on that question briefly in my post, but there is so much more waiting to be explored there. Good friend Jen Doo brought up some interesting thoughts as well in the comments of that post, and before I knew it I practically had a whole post’s worth of a reply. So let’s talk more about physical experiences!
I’m new to all of this, and a lot of terms have presented themselves in my attempts to describe different types of experiences, particularly physical ones, so here is a short glossary of those terms as I am interpreting them:
Presence – When an experience requires you to actually “be there” in person. (Post Hunt, haunted houses)
Physical (person) – When an experience incorporates moving and taking action. (Kinect games, Amazing Race)
Interactivity – When an experience requires action on your part, and responds to that action (video games), as opposed to passive experiences (books, movies, TV).
Real world / Reality – A bit hard to define. I think we have fairly strong boundaries between most of the fictional experiences we enjoy and our real world. We expect our media to stay within its medium, and that medium has its proper place within our world and our mind. When the experience branches out to, say, our cell phone or a package on our doorstep, it seems to be “invading” our “real world”, blurring the line between the fictional experience and our real experiences. (Is this what “transmedia” is about?)
Urgency – The feeling that an experience must be enjoyed at a certain time, or within a certain time frame. You cannot put it off or do it later.
Novelty / Uniqueness – An uncommon or unusual experience.
Immersion – The feeling of being consumed, caught up, and absorbed in an experience.
Narrative – The story that surrounds an experience. Beyond just plot, backstory, and characters, I think this definition could be expanded to include aesthetic, atmosphere, and general presentation of the experience.
So first of all, what exactly is a “physical experience”? I’m not sure I can come up with a good definition on the spot, so maybe it would be best to look at some specific examples.
Things that I would not consider to be “physical experiences”:
- Movies and TV
- Most video games
- Puzzles found online or in books
Things that I would consider to be “physical experiences”:
- Haunted Houses
- Johann Sebastian Joust, (all motion-sensing games?)
- DASH, Post Hunt, The Game, and other puzzle hunts, scavenger hunts, road rallies, etc.
- Alternate and Augmented Reality Games
- Sports (Though I think it’s clear we’re mostly talking here about traditionally intellectual/emotional, fictional/fantasy, media experiences that have moved to the physical realm)
I’m still not sure this helps me define anything. I don’t think the things I listed share a common trait, but rather seem to have some combination of presence, physicality, and interactivity. I think Johann Sebastian Joust is the one item that’s throwing me off. JSJ feels like it belongs, but I wouldn’t say the same about all Kinect/Move games.
- Johann Sebastian Joust – Physical, interactive, and novel. Very compelling.
- Motion-sensing games in general – Physical, interactive, but their novelty is wearing off. Somewhat compelling.
- Video games – Physical? (Where do we draw the line? Standard controller < Wiimote < Kinect. Is “physical” just a dial you turn up or down? Can it really be used as a defining feature?) Interactive. Only compelling depending on the content
I think the mix of physical/interactive/novel is making me lump JSJ in with these other very compelling physical experiences. But take away the novelty, and it’s just another motion sensor game. Turn down the physical dial on motion sensor games, and you have a Wii game. Turn it down some more, and you’ve got a regular video game, which I would not include in my “physical experience” list.
So, somehow, a “physical experience” may be some uncertain mix of presence, physical action, tangible objects, and interactivity. Even if we can’t define “physical experience” with 100% accuracy, I think we can still talk about what factors contribute to making those types of experiences compelling.
Experiences that require presence often result in a sense of urgency, and there is little more compelling than urgency. A one-time-only event, a 7:30pm deadline, a time-based leaderboard, a buried puzzle piece that some other team might locate and dig up first. We are slaves to the ticking clock, and an experience that feels urgent can sometimes hold our interest longer than it otherwise ought to. We don’t like to miss out, we don’t like to run out of time. (What about presence experiences that are not urgent? Do these even exist? Please discuss.)
Presence, physicality, and reality are all fairly novel in our fiction-based experiences. While there are plenty of entertainment experiences that incorporate these aspects (like sports), few incorporate intellectual work, fiction, or fantasy. And vice-versa, we’re not used to our fiction/fantasy entertainment experiences taking place in the physical realm or invading our reality. These things are new and exciting. If these experiences ever lose their novelty, they could become less compelling.
Finally, experiences that require presence seem to be very immersive. “Immersion” is the big buzz word in video games right now. Is it the holy grail of core gameplay virtues? Is it a virtue at all? What makes a game immersive? What could be more immersive than an actual physical experience that complements your intellectual one?
In January, we attended the first part of a panel at MAGFest run by a group of researchers who had been studying immersion in games. One factor they looked into was controls. If a game’s controls were obtrusive in any way, it made it much more difficult for the player to lose themselves and become immersed in the game. The bulky, unnatural controls kept calling attention to themselves and taking the player out of the game. A Kinect game might be extremely immersive, your body being the most natural controller of all, but if the sensor is not reading you well and the game’s feedback does not mesh with your physical intention, it can make your body the most frustrating controller of all. It’s hard to imagine a worse way to obstruct immersion than to make one’s own body movements feel unnatural or wrong.
Going back to experiences which require presence, it seems like they have the same potential for immersion or distraction by requiring the player’s real body and self. To physically do and experience is the pinnacle of immersion, I would imagine, but I think a strong narrative is required first. At DASH this year, there were so many distractions trying to take us away from the experience. It was pretty cold in the morning, it started raining in the afternoon, and we often had a hard time finding good places to sit and work together. Discomfort kept us from being immersed, kept reminding us that we were at this fabricated event and at the mercy of GC’s capabilities and foresight.
However. (My English teacher always taught me never to begin a sentence with that word. How about an entire stand-alone sentence?? This is my blog, I do what I want!) DASH did not have a strong narrative to begin with, so even in the most comfortable of scenarios I think it would have taken a lot of imagination on our part to become immersed in any capacity. On the other hand, in an event where the narrative and aesthetic were strongly presented, and where we were perhaps playing as renegade detectives investigating a series of murders while on the run from conspirators inside the government (can you tell I’ve been watching a lot of X-Files?), a little rain, cold, and discomfort might actually serve to enhance our immersion in the game. In short, I think narrative is an extremely powerful tool that can be used to make these physical experiences more immersive, and therefore more compelling.
So I think the answer to the question, “Why are physical experiences compelling?”, is that their use of presence and physicality can make them feel urgent, novel, and/or immersive — all very compelling qualities in an experience.
I’d love to hear anyone else’s thoughts on the subject, or on any specific parts of this post. Thanks again to Sara and Jen for bringing up such interesting questions and ideas. I’m in Media Studies major heaven!