Why are “Physical Experiences” Compelling?

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)

Physicality (objects) – When an experience incorporates tangible, physical matter. (Black Letter Game (sort of), The Journey of The Stone, feelies)

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”:

  • Books
  • 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!

16 comments on Why are “Physical Experiences” Compelling?

  • Steve

    It may be possible for a computer video game to be more immersive than a Kinect game. In theory using your own body is the least intrusive “controller.” In practice I’ve got decades of experience using a mouse and keyboard, so using them can fade into the background. I don’t recall having that experience with the Kinect. (Granted, I don’t own a Kinect, though even if I did, I would never use it more than a keyboard/mouse, 8 hours each weekday)

    • clavicarius (author)

      Definitely agreed. I’ve certainly observed my husband be more immersed in Pokemon Puzzle League or World of Warcraft (with all of its hotkeys) than I’ve seen anyone immersed in any motion-sensor game. I can’t remember what I was watching that talked about how we can use the controller as a tool, and we can use it very well (so that it fades into the background), but that the Kinect experience can be jarring in that it uses our body as a tool in a way we’re not used to.

      That study mentioned at MAGFest probably included people who were unfamiliar with a complexly-controlled game. (Though I think the most experienced players feel the greatest amount of frustration from a mis-click.)

  • Jude

    I love your past two introspectives on puzzles. I’ve always wondered what drives me to some puzzling things and not others. I have a hard time just following up and doing past puzzles unless I’m just in that mood and NEED a puzzle. Otherwise, I am way more interested in puzzles at an event with a goal and having to work as a team. Somehow it just gives me more of that adrenaline rush.

    The Black Letter Game is interesting because for some reason it actually is giving me a lot of those experiences. But I’m doing it alone so the euphoria of group solving or even tooting my own horn when I solve something is pretty absent. This latest artifact has been really hard for me too. I think I would do WAY better and it would be a lot more fun if I had a group working with me. I just don’t have the drive to solve it the way I did the last two. My girlfriend got into the first one, but this one especially is way more puzzling than she’s really interested in 🙂

    So I guess my take on it is that physical experiences do a few things for me 1) give my busy friends and I an excuse to do puzzles together 2) provide the time limitation that forces out other distractions that you mentioned and 3) provides a shared experience with all the adrenaline and euphoria of the event. So even though DASH doesn’t have the fictional immersive story you were looking for, I still find it imminently more fun than sitting home by myself doing puzzles because it gives me all those other things.

    • clavicarius (author)

      I know what you mean as far as wondering why some puzzles are more appealing than others. Sometimes I feel almost disappointed in myself.. like, “I like puzzles, why aren’t I working on all these puzzles I have queued up?” But sometimes you just have to be in the right mood, and events kind of give you more motivation.

      It sounds like a lot of people doing the BLG alone are having kind of a tough time of it. I’m on a team of 3 and I definitely find that I put off working on it unless we’re all working on it together. I guess it’s good that there is a month of solve time for each artifact, long enough to not have to do it all at once, but short enough to keep me trying to come back to it.

      The social aspect of most events is definitely something I overlooked in my post! Thanks for bringing it up =)

  • tabstop

    Perhaps not quite on point, but: the difference I see between BLG (and to some extent Post Hunt, which I also haven’t ever attended) and DASH (at least what I’ve seen of DASH, since I wasn’t actually there) is that BLG has explicitly eschewed the [b]appearance[/b] of a puzzle: the “artifacts” have to be able to pass at first glance, and maybe even second glance, to be an actual whatever-it-is. No one at the office noticed anything at all odd about the postcards until they noticed me squinting at them, and the baseball card passed unnoticed too. The puzzles at DASH look like ordinary puzzles.

    What that means is that you take away a lot of the groundwork that people know, and it becomes very much an information-processing type of thing (and IMO Post Hunt takes this to an extreme, from what I’ve seen). When I’m writing a puzzle suite, I can make something that looks like a crossword and that gives solvers an immediate “I know what to do here” bedrock. (And that also gives you some control of difficulty; if you look at my last charity suite, I could have just dropped in the skyscrapers puzzle — but then only the people who both (a) know what skyscrapers is and (b) more importantly, can identify a skyscrapers grid when they see it would be able to solve the puzzle. Giving instructions made the puzzle doable by a wider community.) The BLG puzzles, by their nature, lack that basic familiarity level, which basically immediately amps the difficulty level for the solver.

    • tabstop

      I don’t even get bold tags?!? Do I have to use HTML?

      • tabstop

        Apparently: yes.

        • clavicarius (author)

          Hey, I don’t make the rules! Wait, I guess technically I do…

    • clavicarius (author)

      I’ve been thinking about putting the postcards on our fridge when we’re done =) The authentic look of the artifacts has been very charming.

      Interesting analysis about BLG vs traditional puzzles, I hadn’t really considered or recognized the differences but they’re definitely big ones. Artifact #3 has been somehow very appealing to my husband and I, and I think it’s because it more closely resembles the puzzles we’re most familiar with, which are from The Stone. Those puzzles are essentially an image and nothing else, and it’s all research and trial-and-error trying to find leads. There are rarely any conventions carried over from puzzle to puzzle, and I don’t know that you ever really get “better” at solving them. You just get better at Google searching and more tolerant to spending hours and hours and hours doing so.

      I’m interested in exploring further the differences between these types of puzzles, because it’s still very fuzzy in my brain. Can you imagine a puzzle in something like DASH that wouldn’t include that pre-established groundwork/toolbox, or is that simply not done for those types of events? How innovative can you get within the boundary of keeping things in familiar puzzle territory?

      Do you think “information-processing” is sort of a puzzle genre of it’s own then?

      • Jude

        Yeah, I’m having the opposite reaction to BLG. The first two artifacts engaged me. This third one is just not doing it for me. I don’t like the Google searching beyond a certain point. I want to be able to solve the puzzle not spend all that time searching the Internet. And I’m kinda bummed because I feel like I’ve gotten a little bit of each puzzle on my own. Now the hints are coming in and they are what I’ve already figured out. I’m just having trouble putting it together and my motivation is low. Frustrated. 😕

        • tabstop

          The hints being timed so everyone gets the same hint at the same time (relative to their clock) is fair and all, but annoying to actually live through. (I suspect the WHO hints will take two more cycles to get to where I am….) That was actually a bit of a motivation: get the puzzles done so that the useless hints will stop. 😉

          I have to admit, most of the Googling I’ve done for this go-round turned out to be superfluous and/or incorrect. Oh well.

          • Jude

            I actually put them down for the week. Plan to take time tomorrow morning and work on them over my leisurely Saturday morning breakfast. Maybe that mindset will help with my mental blocks.

      • tabstop

        I think it’s been done somewhat, as long as you’re aware that it will increase difficulty — I think some of the West Coast GAMEs have had puzzles like that, and there are some (maybe a lot) MIT mystery hunt puzzles that are physical-object based. (For the most recent outrageous example, see here.

  • zosa

    Great thought piece…lots to process and consider in designing game/play experiences. I have to ask, am I alone in thinking that board/table/card games should be considered when discussing “physical experiences”? One of the reasons I prefer these games to video games is the visceral nature of the tangible interactions with physical objects. I have yet to try Skylanders but I think this and other App-based tangible interfaces are starting to bridge that gap.

    • clavicarius (author)

      Thanks for stopping by =)

      It was a struggle to figure out what should fall under the “physical experiences” definition, and I definitely don’t think I have it right. Board games are definitely a candidate! Maybe instead of shooting for a strict definition, we should just consider and identify the physical/visceral elements of certain media/games.

      Board games are interesting to consider.. Physical elements in board games are usually bonuses/enhancements and not essential to the core gameplay (with the exception of games like Jenga, and maybe Cranium), but they are extremely appealing. So many of the Catan-style games that are becoming popular now have really high quality boards and pieces, which I think sets them apart from the Monopoly generation of board games. I’d love to have some kind of deluxe edition of Catan with really really nice pieces, if it existed. I am currently lusting for this sweet storage board on Kickstarter: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1098774296/ultimate-store-and-play-board-settlers-accessories

      It’s also important to consider the social element that board games require. Of course, once you look at any board game’s online or ipad equivalent, you can see that some of those interactions might only be enhancements as well. One game we play that seems to require interaction is Betrayal at House on the Hill. The second half of the game requires all of the players to work together to form a strategy against the traitor player (who leaves the room during this time). I guess most party games hinge on social interaction, but it’s less common in more traditional strategy board games.

      Skylanders is a really interesting example. It’s basically a mainstream ARG of sorts. Extra Credits did a 2-part episode on the future of ARGs (alternate and augmented) that was really interesting: http://penny-arcade.com/patv/episode/args-part-1

      • Steve

        There was a super-deluxe Catan: http://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/17419/catan-3d-collectors-edition. I think they only made a limited number of copies and it sold for something like $300. I know someone who has one and while it’s pretty, it’s actually kind of hard to play on.

        There are other good, cooperative board games; some are against the game/randomness and others are a team playing against one opponent. (And some let you choose between the two, often in an expansion). Including, but not limited to: Pandemic, Lord of the Rings, Shadows Over Camelot, Arkham Horror, Scotland Yard.

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