BattleTech Masters:
Emergence of the First U.S. Virtual Reality SubCulture

Carrie Heeter, Ph.D.

January, 1993

This article appeared in,

Multimedia Review, Winter, 1993.

Table of Contents






Emergence of a Subculture: "IF YOU BUILD IT, THEY WILL COME"






The BattleTech Center in Chicago transports visitors to the year 3025, placing them in control of BattleMech robots at war in a computer-generated terrain amidst computer-generated weather conditions. BattleTech mixes physical and virtual reality. The Center itself is consistent with the theme of the virtual BattleTech experience. For $7.00 per person, uniformed crewmembers guide six players through a training and strategy session and then escort them to individual cockpits with multiple viewscreens and feedback mechanisms and more than 100 controls to navigate the terrain and fight each other's 'Mechs for 10 minutes. Somebody wins, others lose, and detailed statistics on the battle are provided after (and during) the game.

The first commercially successful Virtual Reality system in the United States, BattleTech has been operating since August, 1990. Near the Center's first anniversary, Michigan State University worked with BattleTech management to conduct a study of the "inhabitants" of this one year old virtual world, their reactions to it and their reasons for playing.

For four weekdays and one Saturday in September, 1991, players were given questionnaires when they purchased playing times, to be turned in after the game. A total of 312 completed questionnaires were collected, for a completion rate of 34%. (One questionnaire was collected per person; at least 45% of the 1644 games sold during the sample days represented repeat plays within the sample period.) Different questionnaires were administered for each of 3 classes of players: novices, who had played 1 to 10 BattleTech games (n=223); veterans, who had played 11 to 50 games (n=42); and masters, who had played more than 50 games (n=47).



Czikszentmihalyi (1990) has studied "flow," happiness and optimal experiences for 2 decades, and derived a set of six criteria which most often characterize experiences individuals consider optimal.

Optimal experiences:

BattleTech fits those criteria very well. Playing BattleTech is hard. It's confusing and intimidating at first. (And that's good, according to Czikszentmihalyi and to the BattleTech players.) There are about 100 controls on the console. Basic play uses 4 of them (left and right foot pedals, joystick and firing buttons). Six buttons along the top enable different advanced controls. Novices (who had played an average of 2.3 games) rated their understanding of how to drive the 'Mech (go left, right, forward and backward, the most basic skill) at 3.2, where 1 is VERY WELL and 7 is NOT AT ALL. Skill improves with play. "Masters" who have played 50 or more times estimate that it took them about 56 games to master cooperating with others. Just driving the 'Mech and firing basic weapons takes 3-9 games to get used to. Novices rated BattleTech as significantly less relaxing and more confusing than did veterans or masters. Both novices and veterans found BattleTech more overwhelming and more intimidating than did masters. Of note, players at all levels (novice, veteran and master) all strongly agree that they will eventually be able to significantly improve their skill at the game. There is room for improvement even after the basics are mastered. BattleTech is a game of skill.

The goals are concrete-- blow up other 'Mechs, and keep from being blown up yourself. Accomplishing the goal is very enjoyable to the players. On a scale from 1 to 7, where 1 is very much and 7 is not much at all, respondents enjoyed blowing people up an average of 1.5. Despite the confusion and anxiety, novices enjoyed playing BattleTech and want to play again: 64% of novices would like to play again right away, 19% would play again this week; 8% would play next week, 8% would play this month, and less than 1% would never like to play again.

Feedback is extensive and varied. There are sensors, 6 selectable viewscreens with different information-- showing the location of other players (nearby and broader viewpoint), condition of your 'Mech, heat sensors, feedback on which 'Mechs are in weapon range (if any), and more. After the game, there is additional feedback in the form of individual scores on a video display (damage inflicted, number of other 'Mechs killed and number of times you were killed) and also a complete printout summarizing every shot fired by any of the 6 concurrent players and what happened as a result of the shot. In fact, there is far more feedback than new players can attend to. Novices were asked about the three most basic forms of feedback: where they were in relation to other players, when they hit another player, and when another player hit them. The primary screen shows only what the player's 'Mech can see, based on the direction they are facing and visibility conditions. The default secondary (smaller) monitor (which displays unless the player selects an alternative) shows the nearby locations of other 'Mechs, with the player's 'Mech shown as the center of the display. 60% of novices said they could tell where other players were; 35% said they sometimes could tell, and 5% could not tell at all. When you hit another player, there is textual message indicating what happened to whom. 63% of novices could tell when they hit someone; 30% sometimes could; 7% could not. When hit by another player, your screen blacks out momentarily, with the duration linked to the severity of the damage. When a player is killed, a pair of doors close slowly, and then reopen, signifying that the player escaped in a safety pod just in time to avoid destruction, and was relocated in a new 'Mech. 57% of novices said they could tell when they had been hit; 33% sometimes could tell; and 10% could not tell.

Based on 8 hours of personal observation and informal interviews with novices, I believe the novices' responses about how well they understand what was happening are exaggerated-- either through natural tendencies to exaggerate or by virtue of the fact that the novices do not know what they don't know. In 8 hours, I did not talk to a single novice who was not confused about what happened. (I killed you! No you didn't-- you killed Tanya. Oh.) The score comes as a surprize to players -- they eagerly await the display which tells them how they did. And the printouts are the most revealing of all. They actually provide an external validation of the experience, making it more real. When asked whether the printout matched what a player thought happened, he answered "I have no idea what happened, but this will tell me."

In addition to being challenging, BattleTech was enjoyable. BattleTech was rated nearly offscale challenging, fun, exciting, unique (9 or higher on a scale of 0 to 10, where 10 is very much), creative, competitive, intense and absorbing (between 8 and 9 out of 10).

BattleTech may be a little too challenging for novices, scaring away potential players. There is a tension between designing for novices and designing for long term play. One third of novices feel there are too many buttons and controls. If novices who pay to play BattleTech feel intimidated by the complexity of BattleTech controls, that complexity likely is scaring other potential novices away. But among veterans and masters, 14% feel there are too many buttons and controls, while almost 40% say there are too few. (The remainder say it's just right.)



The BattleTech players surveyed all chose to travel to a mall and to pay to play BattleTech. Respondent demographics offer insight into who this type of Virtual Reality appeals to.

BattleTech players are mostly male. Masters are 98% male, veterans are 95% male and novices are 91% male. BattleTech is not a child's game.

BattleTech players are mostly childless, not very married and often not romantically involved at all. Novices are more likely to have kids (13%) than veterans or masters: only one respondent in each of those groups had kids. 27% of adult novices are married, compared to only 7% of veterans and masters. Roughly half the adults in all three groups are single and not involved in a relationship.

BattleTech attracts players from well beyond the Chicago area. Even among masters who have played more than 50 games, 11% of those who played during the sample week live outside of the Chicago area. Fifteen percent of veterans live outside the Chicago area. 65% of adult novices and one third of child novices were from out of town.

Chicago was host to an international science fiction convention during the end of the sample week. About 14% of respondents, mostly novices, were SF convention attendees as well as BattleTech players. Even before the convention, on weekdays, players from out of town comprised about 15% of the sample.

Among adult players, all had completed high school. All but 13-17% had attended some college. A greater proportion of novices (46%) had completed a college degree than had masters (37%). Veterans were least likely to have completed college (26%)-- they were more likely to be younger and to still be students.

The collection of occupations held by BattleTech players is eclectic, with a tendency toward technical positions. The most common occupation, accounting for 16% of players who identified an occupation, was computer programmer. But they ranged from sound engineer to neon bender to warehouse grunt to chemical engineer , DJ, kennel worker, astronomer, cartoon writer, receptionist, art librarian, armed services enlistee, respiratory therapist, mortgage broker, state bureaucrat and house husband.

The income question asked for annual personal rather than household income. Students had the lowest income: 12% of players 20 and older made less than $5,000 per year. Eighteen percent made between $5,000 and $14,999; 33% made between $15,000 and $29,999; 29% made between 30,000 and 59,999. The remaining 7% earned more than $60,000 per year.



Significant gender differences were found in reactions to BattleTech. Because such a small percentage of veterans and masters were female, gender comparisons for BattleTech were conducted only among novices. (Significant differences using Oneway ANOVA for continuous data and Crosstabs for categorical data are identified in the text by a single asterick for cases of p< .05 and double asterick for stronger probability levels of p<.01.) Specifically, 2% of masters, 5% of veterans and 9% of novices were female. This small group of females who chose to play BattleTech might be expected to be more similar to the males who play BattleTech than would females in general. Even so, gender differences in BattleTech responses were numerous and followed a distinct, stereotypical pattern.

On a scale from 0 to 10, female novices found BattleTech to be:

**LESS RELAXING (1.1 versus 2.9 )
MORE CONFUSING (7.2 versus 5.9 )
MORE INTIMIDATING (5.1 versus 3.8 )
**MORE EMBARRASSING (4.1 versus 2.0 )
LESS ADDICTIVE (6.7 versus 7.7 )
than did male novices.

Females were killed more often (1.6 times per game versus 1.0) and killed others less often (.67 versus 1.3) than males did, although these differences were not statistically significant. Females were significantly more dissatisfied with their skill as a player (5.6 versus 3.5**, where 7 is NOT AT ALL ).

Males were more aware of where their opponents were than females (63% versus 33%*), of when they hit an opponent (66% versus 39%**) and of when they were hit themselves (58% versus 44%).

Females enjoyed blowing people up less than males did, although both sexes enjoyed blowing people up a great deal (2.4 versus 1.5** out of 7, where 1 is VERY MUCH). Females reported that they did not understand how to drive the robot very well (4.6 compared to 3.1** for males where 7 is NOT AT ALL). Fifty-seven percent of female novices said they would prefer that BattleTech cockpits have fewer buttons and controls, compared to 28%** of male novices.

Seventy percent of males preferred to play BattleTech in teams, while 53% * of females preferred everyone against everyone.

The average female novice has a higher income, more education and is more likely to be married than the average male novice. Forty-two percent of male novices over 18 earned less than $15,000 per year, compared to 15%* of females. Eighty percent of females had completed college, compared to 42%* of males. Forty-six percent of females were married, compared to 25%* of males.

Among novices who came with someone rather than alone, males were more likely to come with friends to BattleTech than females were (70% compared to 47%**).



BattleTech classifies frequent players as veterans (11 to 49 games) and masters (50 or more games). Here we look at similarities between the two groups. All masters were once veterans. A key question is predicting which veterans will go on to join the ranks of master. Veterans who completed surveys had played an average of 23 games; masters had played an average of 228 games. Forty-two veterans and 47 masters completed surveys.

The average person who has gone past novice status as a BattleTech Player (combining veterans and masters) is a 22 year old unmarried male who lives an active media life. He reads newspapers about 4 days a week, reads 4-5 books and 7-8 magazines a month. He watches about 3 hours of television per day, including 30 minutes of MTV and listens to 4 or 5 hours of radio per day. He goes out to theater movies 2.5 times and rents 6 or 7 home videos per month. BattleTech related behavior includes spending about 5 hours a month with online services, playing arcade video games 5 to 11 times a month, playing video games at home 15-21 days per month, and playing fantasy games 26 times in 1991 (as of September).

Veterans were younger*, less educated* and had lower incomes* than masters. Income may be an inhibiting factor on the road to master status. Media behavior differences are consistent with the age differences. Veterans (who tend to be younger) read significantly fewer newspapers* and significantly fewer books** than masters, although both read about the same number of magazines. Veterans played more arcade games* and played BattleTech fewer times per month (7 versus 20**, on average). Their use of MTV, radio, movies, VCRs, online computer services, home video games and fantasy games was comparable to that of masters.

Masters were somewhat more likely (43% versus 35%) to say that BattleTech controls did not have enough buttons. Veterans found BattleTech somewhat more confusing, overwhelming and intimidating than did masters, and felt they had more room for improvement in their skill level (1.4 versus 2.5**, where 1 is VERY MUCH and 7 is NOT AT ALL). Veterans and masters were very different in their estimates of how long it takes to become proficient at various BattleTech "skills." Veterans, having played an average of 23 games, estimated on average that mastering each of 9 skills took between 3 and 6 games. Conversely, masters believed BattleTech took much longer to achieve proficiency. Among these fanatics who had played an average of 228 games, average estimates of time to master a skill ranged from 6 to 56 games, depending on the skill. In about 9 games, masters felt they had mastered driving the 'Mech, using secondary screens, being aware of others, firing weapons and using advanced controls. It took about 15 games to learn to track their own damage; about 25 games to control heat, 42 games to become proficient at using terrain strategically and 56 games to master cooperating with others.

At least three quarters of both groups own personal computers. One fourth own cellular phones. Masters play BattleTech about 20 times per month, compared to 7** times per month for veterans. Seventy percent of masters purchase BattleTech souvenirs, compared to 45%** of veterans.


Emergence of a Subculture: "IF YOU BUILD IT, THEY WILL COME"

From the movie "Field of Dreams" echoes the ethereal phrase: "if you build it, they will come." In the movie, ghosts of players past materialized at the baseball field built by a dreamer on a corn field following advice from a mysterious voice. With BattleTech, the players are alive and the world is virtual. But the moral seems the same. If you build a virtual world, people will live in it. There are individuals (the masters) for whom the BattleTech Center has become "home." Some who have played more than 900 games. When asked whether they thought special communities of BattleTech masters would emerge wherever new BattleTech games were installed, 96% (all but 1) of the 47 masters surveyed said YES.

Masters were asked additional questions about themselves and their perceptions of BattleTech. They were given a list of 13 activities and asked to rank each on a scale from 0 to 10, where 10 meant they liked doing the activity very much. Playing BattleTech was the top-rated activity (8.4), which was deemed better than reading science fiction, going to parties, going to the beach, playing fantasy games, going to the museum of science and industry, rafting, working, going to the art institute, going to Great America amusement park, snorkeling and going to cubs games. The choices are listed in order of decreasing preference. Great America, snorkeling and cubs games were very low on the list. Presumably, given the 4.3 rating of Great America, BattleTech must be very different from it in one or more ways.

Given a list of 25 personality characteristics and asked to pick those they liked best about themselves found intelligent to be the most strongly valued self characteristic. Second tier traits of BattleTech masters include creative, coordinated, logical, reliable, loyal and romantic. Lowest on the list were athletic, strong, organized, practical, and gentle.

BattleTech masters are a close-knit social group who get together for social functions outside of the BattleTech center in addition to playing BattleTech together. On average, masters say they have made an average of 15 new friends through playing BattleTech. They have played so many times and have become so good at it that it is difficult for them to enjoy a match against anyone but another master. The center, by necessity, groups players together by skill for games.

Is there a limit to how many people a virtual world can hold? Masters were asked whether they felt the special community of BattleTech regulars was almost as full as it could get, or had room for lots more people to join. One person said it was nearly full; one third thought there was room for lots more people, and nearly two thirds thought there was room for more, but not a lot more. As masters continue to increase their skill and close group friendship continues to grow closer, it seems like it gets harder for a newcomer to join the group. In each of the first four months of BattleTech operation, between 10 and 16 future veterans or masters who filled out questionnaires played their first game. In the fifth month, 5 of the future regulars started. In each of the 6 subsequent months, an average of only 2 new future veterans or masters surveyed played their first BattleTech game. The number of new steady players began high and leveled off to a steady quota of 2 new recruits per month (2-4% of the total surveyed) by the 6th month of operation.



If participants have their way, VR will be a very social technology. The BattleTech data identify consistently strong desires for interacting with real humans in addition to virtual beings and environments in VR. In BattleTech, playing against and with other people was very important. Just 2% of respondents would prefer to play against computers only. 58% wanted to play against humans only, and 40% wanted to play against a combination of computers and humans. In general, respondents preferred playing on teams (71%) rather than everyone against everyone (29%). Learning to cooperate with others in team play was considered the most challenging BattleTech skill by masters, who estimated on average that it takes 56 games to learn how to cooperate effectively. Six players at a time was not considered enough. Veterans rated "more players at once" 7.1 on a 10 point scale of importance of factors to improve the game; more players was even more important to masters (8.1).

Veterans have made an average of 2.3 new friends while playing BattleTech; masters have made an average of 14.6** new friends. Masters find that the people at BattleTech feel more like family than veterans do (3.5 versus 5.3**, where 7 is NOT AT ALL). Slightly less than half of the BattleTech players surveyed came to BattleTech Center alone (48% for novices, 42% for veterans, 45% for masters). Of those who came with someone, 65% of novices 79% of veterans and 73% of masters came with friends as opposed to family. BattleTech masters are not antisocial people-- their top three average enjoyed activities from a list of 13 possible activities were Playing BattleTech (#1: 8.4 out of 10), Reading Science Fiction (#2: 7.7) and Going to Parties (#3: 7.5).

For a write-in question of what you like about BattleTech asked of masters only, more than half of the 27 masters who wrote answers identified people as what they liked best. For 30%, it was people to compete with ("real foes; competition, fame and glory; winning"), and for 22% it was meeting people ("socializing w/people similar to me; the staff"). Twenty-two percent liked the idea of virtual reality. Fifteen percent identified fairly macabre pleasures ("explosions; blowing both arms and one leg off a stripped mech and then leaving it alone; the ability to kill people without hurting them; the entire atmosphere, death & destruction").

Curiously, it is not particularly important to play against people you know, as long as you play against people. The average ranking of how important it is to play against people you know (on a scale where 1 is very much and 7 is not at all) comes to 4.9 for veterans and 5.4 for masters.



Veterans and masters were asked how much they thought 11 possible changes to BattleTech would enhance the experience (where 0 is not at all and 10 is very much). The most desired changes were more variety, less cost, more players at a time, and playing time of longer than 10 minutes (ranging from 9.4 to 7.9). 3-D images, motion simulators and totally new games were the next tier (6.3 to 7.1). Being able to play from home was not rated particularly high (4.9). But least desired changes were to wear 3D goggles, to wear a data glove, and to have less complex cockpits (3.4 to 2.2).

On a masters-only write-in question asking what they would change about BattleTech, the suggestions tended not to address fundamental alterations in the game or how it is played. One third of the 25 responding masters proposed improvements in maintenance and customer relations. One third asked for more of the same (more 'Mechs, more terrain, more players, more missiles). Sixteen percent wanted lower cost. Sixteen percent complained about other players ("fewer drunk yuppies"). Only two masters asked that BattleTech management work on "improving the reality."

Clearly, veterans and masters are, by definition, people who really like BattleTech. The BattleTech experience shows that people are interested in experiencing this type of virtual world, so much so that some will make it an ongoing part of their lives. Which people probably depends on the nature of the experience, among other factors. The overall lack of desire expressed by BattleTech regulars for radically improved realities may be somewhat disheartening to virtual reality developers working hard to generate ever greater realism. The reaction to more encumbered VR (goggles and a glove) was quite negative. It is an unfair test of technology respondents have never tried to ask them how much they would like it. It is entirely possible (and, I think, very likely) that 3-D BattleTech with cockpit motion simulators could be vastly more compelling than the current version. Both the commercial success of BattleTech and the findings of this survey say that BattleTech is definitely doing some things right and offers some lessons to designers of future virtual worlds. It will be interesting to apply some of these same metrics to the "inhabitants" of new virtual worlds as they are introduced.



Czikszentmihalyi , Mihaly. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Harper & Row, Publishers: New York, 1990.


Return to Table of Contents