Communication Research on Consumer VR

Carrie Heeter, Ph.D.

This chapter appeared in the book,

"Communication in the Age of Virtual Reality", edited by Frank Biocca and Mark Levy. 1994

Table of Contents


BattleTech (Chicago, Illinois)
FighterTown (Irvine, California)
ENTER 3-D Second Person VR at CyberArts
ENTER 3-D Second Person VR at SIGGRAPH: Once Upon a 3-D Time
College Students Contemplating Entertainment Virtual Reality

Reality and VR
The Peter Pan Principle
Perceived Reality
Cultivation Theory and VR
Violence in Virtual Entertainment
Callousness toward Violence and Sex
Positive Effects of Violent VR games?
Learning from VR
Social Interactions and VR: Intimate Strangers?
Media (and real life) Displacement
Gender Differences
Uses and Gratifications
Competition and Play
Experience of Self




This chapter is about consumer-oriented VR, which today includes a handful of commercial entertainment experiences such as Virtual World's BattleTech Center, Virtuality's mall-based science fiction games and FighterTown's military simulators. Other start-up companies are working to open their own VR entertainment centers in malls or amusement parks. Museums will be another source of VR experiences, offering entertaining educational content. Virtual travel centers will allow people to visit (and shop at) far away places. Health clubs will offer work out programs and physically challenging virtual games in exotic virtual environments. Eventually schools and even homes will have VR technology, and interactive distribution of experiences will occur over phone and cable lines. Virtual communication environments will bring friends and strangers together for communication experiences.

Although consumer VR will include a diverse set of experiences, those experiences will share some common parameters. Humans will enter these virtual worlds with the intent of engaging in a synthetic experience, with a goal of experiencing the synthetic world instead of or in addition to the real world for a period of time. Some VR will be individual experiences but most will link two or more people into the same virtual environment. Unlike dreams, these experiences will exist on computers, external to the minds of the participating humans. Each human will experience that external world from their own point of view, usually under their own control.

Data from 5 recent Comm Tech Lab studies of virtual reality will be used to revisit classic mass media effects issues (such as uses and gratifications, cultivation theory, effects of violence, etc.) in the context of consumer-oriented virtual reality. The Methods section describes the studies and the VR systems they are based on. The Discussion section identifies traditional areas of mass media inquiry, suggests ways VR may change the focus of the issue, and, where appropriate, cites data from the studies.



A total of 787 respondents offered their reactions to and opinions about four different virtual reality experiences, including two commercial entertainment VR installations, one based on science fiction fantasy and the other based on the U.S. military, two "second person VR" prototypes tested with convention participants, and one study of college students who have never experienced VR.



VR Experience

% male

age range

avg age

BattleTech (Chicago)





7 to 67


FighterTown (Irvine)





14 to 64


CyberArts (Pasadena)



2nd Person


17 to 55


SIGGRAPH (Chicago)



2nd Person


11 to 79


College (East Lansing)





17 to 32




BattleTech (Chicago, Illinois)

Since August, 1990, the BattleTech Center1 in Chicago has been transporting visitors to the year 3025, placing them in control of BattleMech robots at war in a computer-generated terrain amidst computer-generated weather conditions. For $7.00 per person, uniformed crew members guide six players at a time through a training and strategy session and then escort them to individual cockpits with multiple viewscreens 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.

For four weekdays and one Saturday in September, 1991, players were given questionnaires developed at Michigan State University when they purchased playing times, to be turned in after the game. Demographics about the "inhabitants" of this one year old virtual world, their reactions to it and their reasons for playing were studied. 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.) BattleTech differentiates 3 classes of player: novices, who have played 1 to 10 BattleTech games (n=223); veterans, who have played 11 to 50 games (n=42); and masters, who have played more than 50 games (n=47). Novices only play against each other, to assure that skill levels are somewhat matched. The novices surveyed had played an average of 3 games; veterans averaged 23 games; and masters had played an average of 228 games. Ninety-three percent of the BattleTech players surveyed were male. Age range was 7 to 67, with an average age of 23.


FighterTown (Irvine, California)

FighterTown2 officially opened in August, 1992. At FighterTown, you climb into and fly state-of-the-art military flight simulators that feature realistic aerodynamic models, functional glass cockpits and avionic panels, and stick and throttle controls. Multiple aircraft are linked in the same virtual world which each pilot sees from their own perspective projected on eleven foot by ten foot screens. Pilots can operate from land bases or take off and land from aircraft carriers to fly day or night in variable weather conditions, guided by a (human) air traffic controller who helps teach them to fly and guides them through their preplanned mission. Missions include military operations and general flight training experiences as well as combat (once a pilot has learned to fly well enough) against live or synthetic opponents. Cost for a one hour experience ranges from $27.95 per hour to fly the F-104 to $49.95 for the F-111. In addition to one time and ad hoc flights, FighterTown offers year-long squadron memberships which involve monthly team flying experiences with the same group of people every month.

During early fall 1992 when the center first opened, ad hoc FighterTown participants were given exit poll questionnaires. A total of 85 completed questionnaires were collected. It is impossible to calculate a completion rate, because during busy times (of which there were many), surveys were frequently not distributed. In general, when surveys were distributed, FighterTown employees report a high return level.

Ninety-seven percent of the FighterTown fliers who filled out surveys were male. Age ranged from 14 to 64 with an average age of 34. Twenty percent had some military experience. Nearly half had flown a (real) plane at some time. At that time, no respondent had flown a FighterTown simulator more than 5 times, and the majority (81%) had just completed their first flight. All but one respondent indicated that they intended to return to FighterTown to fly again.


ENTER 3-D Second Person VR at CyberArts

At CyberArts International in Pasadena for 4 days in November, 1991, ENTER™ Corporation3 and the Michigan State University Comm Tech Lab exhibited 3-D interactive 2nd person VR prototypes and conducted research on participant reactions. In second person VR, you know you are there because you see yourself as part of the scene. On one side of the room, you stand in front of a blue background. You face a monitor and TV camera. On the monitor you see yourself, but instead of being in front of the blue background, the self you see is inside of a graphic or combined video/graphic virtual world. Edge detection software keeps track of your location and movement and allows you to interact with graphical objects on the screen. Rather than mimicking real world sensations, second person VR (also called "mirror worlds") changes the rules, and relies strongly on a "seeing is believing" argument to induce a sense of being there.

At CyberArts, 2nd Person VR participants wore 3-D glasses and stood in front of a blue curtain. The camera that was pointing at them was chromakeyed4 over 3-D motion video scenes, so that they saw themselves on a large screen across the room inside of a motion video scene. People were able to interact with graphical objects that appeared alongside them on the screen.

Participants could choose to swim undersea and befriend unusual sea creatures, dance or wander peacefully through a Japanese garden, or transform into Godzilla to terrorize downtown Tokyo while aliens from outer space tried to stop them. A loose non-verbal narrative story unfolded, with opportunities for the participant to interact.

Approximately 160 individuals entered one or more of these ±3 minute virtual experiences. One hundred and ten were given questionnaires to fill out (in particularly busy moments, questionnaires could not be distributed). Eighty-seven completed questionnaires, for a response rate of 79%. Three-fourths of CyberArts respondents were male. Average age was 34, ranging from 17 to 55.


ENTER 3-D Second Person VR at SIGGRAPH: Once Upon a 3-D Time

At SIGGRAPH '92 in Chicago for 5 days in July, ENTER™ Corporation and the Michigan State University Comm Tech Lab exhibited a new interface for 3-D interactive 2nd person VR prototypes and conducted research on participant reactions. As before, participants wore 3-D glasses and stood in front of a blue curtain. The camera that was pointing at them was chromakeyed over 3-D motion video scenes, so that they saw themselves inside of the video worlds.

In this installation we experimented further with second person VR interfaces, trying to build on what we learned from the initial prototypes. The exhibit was called "Once Upon a 3D Time." Instructions were built into the experience, delivered in the form of a spoken story narrative, as if describing something that happened in the past, for example: "when the sorcerer touched the ball, the scene would change..." The crystal ball and the 3-D motion Viewmaster are interfaces where it is natural to be able to touch objects to change the video scene. In both cases, you manipulate a portal to the video world, interacting by controlling the video rather than being immersed in it. As the story progresses, you enter one of the video worlds.

Approximately 300 individuals tried the three minute experience. One hundred seventy-six completed questionnaires, for a response rate of 59%. Three-fourths of SIGGRAPH respondents were male. Average age was 30, ranging from 11 to 79.


College Students Contemplating Entertainment Virtual Reality

College students were surveyed to address the industry-wide issue of gender differences in the appeal of virtual entertainment. The findings are based on a preliminary fall 1992 sample of 127 students enrolled in an introductory Telecommunication course at Michigan State University. These students completed the survey before attending any formal lectures about virtual reality. The questionnaire began with an introduction: "Suppose there were an entertainment virtual reality experience which adults could sign up to go play at a local mall..." Hypothetical questions about the desirability of different kinds of experiences were then asked.

Fifty-five percent of respondents were male. Age ranged from 17 to 32, with an average age of 20. When this study is referred to in the chapter, the respondents are described as "prospective VR users."

The study results that will be cited are exploratory-- primarily descriptive data and bivariate statistics. The goal is breadth of attention to a range of issues, with some actual data from today's consumer VR centers.



As an emerging communication technology, consumer VR will allow social scientists to reexamine the historical body of research on mass media and consider certain paradigm shifts in light of unique features of this new medium.


Reality and VR

The interaction of reality and virtual experiences is complex. Like movies and novels only far moreso, enjoyment of virtual experience is higher if you feel like you have entered another world. Theorists speak of creating a suspension of disbelief in theater audiences which allows viewers to get involved in the drama. VR seems to require a more intense involvement-- engagement of belief, perhaps. In part this feeling depends on technical and artistic aspects of the experience, and in part it depends on your ability and willingness to act and feel as if a virtual world is real.

We tried to develop questions to assess how much participants had been able to engage belief. For the second person VR survey, here are related questions: How real did the overall experience feel? How real did the 3D feel? To what extent did you feel like you had entered a different world? To what extent did you feel a physical response when your screen self touched other objects? To what extent did you feel an emotional response when your screen self touched other objects? Which felt like the real you-- the being on the screen or the one the camera was pointed at?

The first five questions used a 7 point response scale, with possible answers ranging from 1 (not at all) to 7 (very much). The last question could be answered with "the being on the screen," "the being the camera was pointed at" or "both." This was an exploratory study, attempting to shed light on how to design better 2nd Person VR experiences and how to ask better survey questions. Looking at correlations among these 6 questions, how much respondents reported feeling like they had entered another world was highly correlated with each. I split responses at the median, putting the respondents who indicated stronger than neutral agreement with that statement into one group and the rest into a second group. T-test comparisons of means between those two groups were significant for every variable in the group, even with a small sample size of 85. The degree to which CyberArts participants reported feeling as if they had entered another world strongly related to every other measure of enjoyment of the virtual experience.


Feeling of Entering Other World Compared with Other Variables

Entered other world?


5.4 3.4 .00 How real did the overall experience feel?

4.6 3.7 .00 How real did the 3D feel?

5.5 4.2 .06 To what extent did you feel a physical response when your screen self

touched other objects?

4.8 3.4 .00 To what extent did you feel an emotional response when your screen self

touched other objects?

90% 50% .00 The being on the screen or both felt like the real you.

6.8 5.8 .06 On a scale of 0 to 10 where 10 is very much, how would you rate your

enjoyment of the experience?


These findings inspired ongoing research into what factors contribute to a sense of presence in virtual worlds, reported in more detail elsewhere (Heeter, 1992).


The Peter Pan Principle

Both studies of Second Person virtual reality found similar proportions of participants reporting three kinds of reactions: 29-31% of the people who tried it felt as if the "being on the screen" was their real self; 26-29% felt that the physical body the camera is pointing at was their real self; 40-42% felt as if both were real. The percentages were surprisingly consistent across different audiences and different virtual experiences. This may be a personality characteristic related to propensity to get involved in virtual experiences. To extend the reactions to second person VR, it seems that about a fourth of the population are easily able to "engage belief" and get involved in a virtual experience (in fact, they may have a hard time staying in the real world generally). About one fourth of the population is so strongly situated in the real world and their real body that they have a difficult time becoming involved in a virtual world. The rest are more balanced. Second person VR requires a rather outrageous leap of faith, to transfer your sense of self into a world on the screen. But perhaps that leap is a powerful first step to experiencing a virtual world. Like Peter Pan thinking a happy thought, once you make that initial leap, reality becomes plastic and you can fly. Some people have an easier time thinking a happy thought than others...


Perceived Reality

In defining synthetic experience, Robinett (1992) differentiates four sources of VR models:

1.) Models can be scanned from the real world. Teleoperation uses video cameras (one for each eye) to scan the real world at a remote site. Binaural sound recordings (one microphone for each ear) scan an audio model of the real world. Remote sensing data scans the real world using different senses.

2.) Models can be computed mathematically. One of NASA's VR experiences represents air flow around the wind of a jet with visible colorized moving patterns which are generated by a mathematical formula. In some cases, a thing rather than a place is modeled, such as an individual molecule.

3.) Models can be constructed by artists. Polygonal CAD models are created with complete coordinate structures, allowing new views to be computed dynamically. These models can be based on actual or imaginary spaces (e.g., an exact replica of a real laboratory or an imaginary kitchen). The models are not necessarily 3-D. BattleTech, FighterTown and other virtual reality games show participants 2-D displays of the 3-D worlds they are flying or driving through.

4.) Models can be edited from a combination of scanned, computed and constructed content. ENTER-MSU second person VR combines 3-D motion video scanned from the real world with live motion video of the participant and computer-generated models of other entities to interact with. VR worlds may add mathematical forces such as gravity, force feedback or magnetism to constructed or scanned models. Ixion Corporation5 combines a physical dummy and modified laproscope with interactive videodisc to model the experience of conducting laproscopic surgery in the gastrointestinal tract, complete with the force feedback doctors feel during laproscopy.

FighterTown and BattleTech use "cab simulator" VR technology. FighterTown is like the real world. Pilots sit in real fighter plane cockpits (without the rest of the plane) and watch the virtual world projected in 2D onto the white wall in front of them. Surrounding darkness focusses attention on the projection and reduced awareness of anything else in the room. Pilots wear military flight suits, and the air traffic controllers address them in military-speak, using the same language and speech patterns as are used in the military. The pilots fly through a synthetic, made up world, using much of the same simulator technology that actual pilots are trained on. FighterTown pilots like the real world parallels. They say it is important that FighterTown is based on real planes (1.6 out of 7, where 1 is VERY MUCH and 7 is NOT AT ALL). They express a desire for technological improvements to make it more real -- motion simulators, 3-D images, visuals on all sides. They want to see a more realistic world -- preferably even to fly through the real world, with more realistic responses when they blow things up. And they do not want the FighterTown designers to make it a science fiction-fantasy world nor to change the laws of physics for variety. FighterTown developers recently added a motion simulator platform, in response to high demand.

In contrast, BattleTech is wholly imaginary, including when and where you are, who and what you are fighting and why. The BattleTech cockpit resembles nothing in the real world. A primary screen shows the virtual world in 2D from the perspective of the robot you are driving. A secondary screen shows selectable other perspectives, such as 50 feet in the air looking down, or internal views of damage to the robot.

BattleTech players were asked what kinds of features they would like to see added to the game. They are less interested in motion simulators or 3-D images than are FighterTown pilots. They want to play for longer periods, with more people at a time. 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 different kinds of robots, more terrain, more players, more missiles). Only two masters asked that BattleTech management work on "improving the reality."

Thus, both reality-based and fantasy-based consumer VR systems have been commercially successful. Perhaps as long as the experiences are well designed, people will pay to experience either kind. Or perhaps the two centers are attracting different audience segments who would not overlap if they were in the same city.

Unlike the BattleTech players, CyberArts and SIGGRAPH participants wanted goggles and more realism. They already were experiencing themselves in 3-D photorealistic motion video space for the first time, and they wanted more. Respondents were asked whether they would prefer to experience themselves in the 3-D world by wearing glasses and looking at the screen as they did at CyberArts, or by wearing goggles that fill their vision with what's on the screen, no matter which direction they look. This question is complicated. It was intended to begin to address the constraint of having to look straight ahead to see a screen all the time. The vast majority of respondents (74-84%) indicated they would prefer to wear goggles and be able to turn their head in any direction, even though the video world they were seeing would stay still, and they would watch themselves turning in a world which did not move. None of them have actually tried this-- it creates its own complications because you cannot see the real world you are moving around in when your entire field of vision is taken up by a virtual world. You enhance presence by removing competing real world perceptions, but complicate presence by making the experience even less like reality. Goggles versus single screen would be an interesting second person VR experiment.

What is and what isn't VR has been debated with great frequency and duration on online forums and at conferences. Scientists and businesses involved in traditional immersive VR with headmounted displays, computer-generated 3D worlds and head and hand tracking tend to argue that theirs is the only true virtual reality technology. Virtual reality conferences, showrooms and exhibits contain a broader array of technologies, and experts and journalists talk about taxonomies of VR that include many different technology configurations all of which strive to create the illusion of a virtual world (Tomorrow's Realities Gallery, 1992). The question of what elements of an experience are necessary and sufficient to invoke that illusion carries theoretical, practical, artistic and financial implications.

Second person VR write-in suggestions were numerous, with more interactivity mentioned by more than 70 percent. More realism was requested in write-in responses by about half of the sample, including 3-D graphics, real photos instead of graphic objects, making the 3-D sound, tactile feedback, etc. Greater perceptual richness was definitely desired. (These people were attending a virtual reality trade show...)

Virtual travel will someday be able to transport you to Paris, or to an imaginary city. A visual representation of abstract information (such as the stock market) may bear little relationship to any reality humans have experienced, but it may still provide a form of spatial environment which can be navigated and experienced.

Shapiro and McDonald (1992) express concern about people being unable to distinguish virtual experiences from reality. Although technology may someday be so powerful that it is hard to distinguish, in many ways differentiating reality and virtual experiences is irrelevant. Unlike dreams and daydreams, VR experiences do exist outside of the mind of the human being. Those that include other people offer an externally verifiable shared experience. In other words, VR experiences are not necessarily unreal. On many important levels, there is little difference between the reality of a tennis match and the reality of a round of BattleTech. Both are shared, competitive experiences which a number of different people experience together. In the end they are probably as likely to agree on what happened during the game. Certainly something happened, whether in the physical world or not. Furthermore, some VR experiences actually affect the real world. A telepresence component of the Monterey aquarium lets you control and watch the output of a camera which is located in the ocean.

The important distinctions will be more subtle than an either/or "am I in the real world or am I connected to a VR system?" Instead, participants may consider questions like: is this representing reality in real time or in the abstract? Are my actions able to affect the real world? Who is watching me? Which beings represent real consciousness and which are artificial life? If the virtual world is purely imaginary, to what extent are elements in it based on aspects of the real world?

TV effects researchers have surveyed perceived reality of fictional television in general (e.g., how real do you think soap operas on TV are) and specific aspects of fictional television (how real do you think the problems people have on TV soaps are) and have sought to link perceptions of such reality to viewing levels and to people's own experiences. As a snapshot of consumer VR in 1992, here are answers to typical perceived reality questions. How real does the BattleTech world feel? 2.96 out of 7, where 1 is VERY REAL and 7 is NOT REAL AT ALL. To what extent does the BattleTech world respond like the physical world? 3.59. How much do you feel like you are the 'Mech when you play? 3.39. Curiously, for FighterTown, experienced pilots and those who had never flown a real plane were not significantly different in their estimates of how real the FighterTown simulators felt (2.75, using the same scale as BattleTech).


Cultivation Theory and VR

Another branch of media effects research related to perceptions of reality is cultivation theory, which assumes that "the repetitive pattern of television's mass produced messages and images forms the mainstream of a common symbolic environment." Television is the common storyteller of our time, and viewers cannot avoid absorbing or dealing with TV's recurrent patterns (Gerbner, Gross, Morgan and Signorelli, 1986). Instead of immediate change in viewer attitude or behavior as a result of viewing a specific program one time, they posit that "massive long-term and common exposure of large and heterogeneous publics to centrally produced, mass-distributed, and repetitive systems of stories" will help form people's perceptions of what the world is like.

Obviously VR entertainment is not yet common or pervasive. It is as if there have been one or two TV shows produced so far, so their effects can be more carefully studies without having to turn to Eskimo or other far away cultures to find humans not exposed to VR. However, even one VR center is likely to have a stronger impact that one violent TV show. In the two VR centers studied, entertainment VR is a repetitive experience. After one year of BattleTech Center operation, one of the frequent BattleTech players had played more than 800 times. He spent at least 8000 minutes in 1991 inside of the BattleTech world, blowing up other people's Mechs. FighterTown members fly once a month for at least a year. In addition to being a repeated experience, VR is much more of an active, direct experience than is being a passive audience member for traditional mass media.

Cultivation impacts will depend on the content of virtual experiences. CyberArts respondents were given a list of different kinds of experiences which could be created using this technology, and asked to rate their likely enjoyment of each genre, where 10 is HIGHLY ENJOYABLE and 0 is NOT ENJOYABLE AT ALL. Ratings were as follows:

Multiplayer Experiences


Interactive Live Events


Interactive Art


Science Fiction Story


Interactive Star Trek


Adventure Game


Science "Infotainment"


Cultural "Infotainment"


Participatory Drama




Interactive MTV Video


Interactive Sports




(These respondents were artists attending a computer art show. Sports and exercise may be rated higher by other populations.) This list of content preferences suggests that there will eventually be a rich body of VR content from which social perceptions of the world will be unconsciously generalized as part of people's world view. Cultivation analysis researchers count acts of violence per hour in representative samples of TV shows every season. Acts of violence at BattleTech are reported on a computer printout at the end of the 10 minute game, and can number in the hundreds.

The strong interest in multiplayer experiences and involvement with live events points to a second factor which may impact on real world generalizations: the other human players, not just the programmed content, will become part of people's experience of what the rest of the real world's inhabitants are like.


Violence in Virtual Entertainment

The consumer VR centers that exist today are based on combat or military themes. Designers of VR entertainment are cognizant of possible social and media backlash about the violence, and their language and world designs reflect that awareness. Humans never die -- at BattleTech they eject to safety at the last minute and reappear in a new Mech; at FighterTown they parachute to safety. System operators also carefully avoid making the virtual enemy be associated with a particular nationality or ethnicity (except when real humans are playing against real humans in real time) -- instead the virtual enemies are futuristic robots, imaginary people or aliens. Players sometimes ask whether the enemy can represent some real-life foe (for example, during the recent Persian Gulf war, people asked to have the enemy targets be Iraqi). System operators have every desire to avoid promoting ethnic strife, getting bad press and alienating potential customers by presenting them as the enemy. Consistent with military-speak, at FighterTown one does not "blow people up" -- one successfully "engages enemy targets." These nameless, faceless, unreal enemies are different from action adventure TV and movie antagonists, where the bad guys are human actors with visible physical and social characteristics.

Some people are very interested in engaging in violent virtual acts. Prospective VR players expressed a desire to shoot at attacking enemies -- an average of 5.5 out of 7 where 7 is VERY MUCH. (Two thirds of males and 16% of females would like this very much-- the average for males is 6.2 compared to 4.6 for females, significantly different by t-test at p<.001). Prospective players also expressed a desire to see explosions in realistic detail when ships are blown up (5.5 out of 7, where 7 is VERY MUCH) .

BattleTech players enjoy blowing people up-- the average degree of enjoyment is 1.5 out of 7, where 1 is VERY MUCH. This was significantly different by gender, but both sexes enjoyed blowing people up. Slightly more than one third find it more fun to blow up good friends (35%) or acquaintances (3%) than strangers (5%), but the majority (57%) say it makes no difference.

In open-ended responses to a question of what they would like to experience in VR, 47% of male and 13% of female prospective players volunteered that they would like to experience sex or violence. There was little overlap. One fourth of the males were interested in "war, combat, death and destruction;" one fourth wanted sex," and 4% wanted both. Ten percent of the females were interested in "fighting and conquering;" five percent mentioned sex or love; one female wanted both.

Although there is still disagreement after decades of research into whether television violence causes aggression in the real world (Tan, 1986), there is general consensus that TV violence can cause short term arousal and modeling effects.

Bandura's social learning theory (Bandura, 1977) has often been applied in studies of the effects of TV violence on children's behavior. According to social learning theory, when an observer sees a modeled event which is positively reinforced (particularly if the observer is an aroused state), the modeled behavior may be remembered and reproduced. Reproduction of modeled behavior is most likely when the observer is in a circumstance similar to the observed occurrence. This suggests that the danger of modeling aggression is greatest during those times when players find themselves inside of robot or fighter plane cockpits. Following social learning theory, the less close to reality, the less likely violent behavior in VR will be replicated in real life.

Rather than merely observing a violent behavior, in VR you engage in violent behavior. Bandura defines aggression as "behavior that results in personal injury and physical destruction." At today's VR centers, no humans are shown being injured. So, there are reasons to postulate a more intense effect of violent VR than violent TV, and also reasons to postulate a less intense effect. Advances in VR technology may be accompanied by more hardcore VR violence, with stronger negative effects.


Callousness toward Violence and Sex

Desensitization is one of the impacts of media violence and sex. A literature review by Fenigstein and Heyduk (1984) concludes that as people are exposed to more and more media violence, they become less emotionally responsive to violent acts (Cline Croft and Courrier, 1973; Thomas, Horton, Lippincott and Drabman, 1977). Unlike VR violence where no humans really get hurt, in virtual sex humans presumably become aroused. A study by Zillmann and Bryant (1982) found that massive viewing of pornography led to a loss of sensitivity toward rape victims, expressed in the form of more lenient sentences recommended for rapists. Participation in pornography may have stronger impacts than observation.

As VR becomes more realistic and pervasive, researchers will surely revisit these issues.


Positive Effects of Violent VR games?

VR experiences are active and involving, unlike television viewing. The experiences are challenging and motivating for the players. Although few studies have been conducted about video games, they do suggest positive impacts. Kubey and Larson (1990) studied 483 children who carried pagers and reported on their activities and emotions when the pagers beeped at random times during the day. They found the children reported significantly higher attention, arousal and motivation levels while playing video games than they reported while watching television. Graybill, Kirsch and Esselman (1985) were surprised by their own findings when they compared elementary school children who had just played violent video games to those who had just played nonviolent video games. Using Rosenzweig's picture-frustration scale, the subjects responded cartoon-like depictions of everyday frustrating situations. Those who had just played violent videogames were more likely to attempt to seek solutions to the problem, while those who had just played a nonviolent video game were more likely to react to frustration with ego-defensiveness. In my own informal interviews, BattleTech players told me that playing BattleTech was great way to relieve stress. And that blowing someone up was a great way to make new friends.

Catharsis was defined by Aristotle as "the release of emotion evoked by the action represented in a play" (Aristotle, 1954). VR consumer games do not provide the kind of theatrical, gut wrenching, sensitive, intelligent explication of good, evil and justice as was intended with the word catharsis. But some kind of powerful emotional release seems to occur. Playing BattleTech has a similar feel to real world athletic competition.


Learning from VR

Gagnon (1985) conducted early research on learning from videogames. She writes about video games producing subtle changes in cognitive skills, increases in attention span and concentration and improving spatial visualization and eye-hand coordination. Her exploratory study randomly assigned college students to two groups. The experimental group practised playing videogames for 5 hours. Both groups were tested on spatial skills and hand eye coordination, and significant correlations were found between scores on the videogames and scores on the spatial skill and hand eye coordination.

FighterTown is based on flight simulators used to train military personnel to learn to fly. The experience that people pay to enjoy is very much like what the military is required to do for their jobs. Learning certainly occurs. At FighterTown the learning has a relationship to the real world. At BattleTech, even masters who have played an average of 200 games believe they will be able to improve. The learning may or may not extend explicitly to other walks of life. There are at least three classes of learning that occur during VR entertainment experiences: 1.) learning skills or facts or gaining experience in things directly related to real life; 2.) learning skills or facts related to the specific game; 3.) incidental learning of things like spatial skills, hand eye coordination, persistence, teamwork, aggression, etc. Each of these three kinds of learning may involve learning generally considered to be socially positive, negative or neutral...


Social Interactions and VR: Intimate Strangers?

If participants have their way, VR will be a very social technology. BattleTech, CyberArts and SIGGRAPH data identify consistently strong desires for interacting with real humans in addition to virtual beings and environments in VR. VR will bring new forms of computer-mediated social interaction. To understand the social possibilities of VR, consider for a moment your own hypothetical preferences. If you were jogging or walking in a virtual exercise path, would you prefer to encounter other real people who are also exercising, or would you prefer it to be empty of other sentient beings? If other real humans did appear and could se and talk to you, would you prefer that they be people you know, people who are at the same physical site, or people from around the world? Would you prefer to see and be seen by others as your real self, or as some fantasy representation of yourself (such as the lobsters Jaron Lanier discusses (Lanier and Biocca, 1992)? If you go to a VR entertainment center with family or friends or a date, would you want to stay with them throughout the virtual experience, or meet afterwards to leave together?

FighterTown plans to network different locations around the country into the same world, so that pilots from around the U.S. will be able to see each other flying by (and engage in friendly or combat maneuvers together).

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%).

The BattleTech study results are corroborated by the CyberArts findings mentioned earlier. The desire to have other, real people in second person VR worlds with you is strong. Sixty-nine percent of respondents rated having multiple players in the virtual world as highly enjoyable (9 or 10). The second highest desired experience was to participate in live events interactively, rated highly enjoyable by 61%.

The majority of people very much want to experience virtual environments with other people. Only 14% of prospective players indicated they would prefer to play alone against and with computer generated beings. On the other hand, it matters very little whether those other people are friends or strangers. When asked how much it mattered whether BattleTech players played with people they knew, the response was 5.27 on a scale where 7 was NOT AT ALL.

Although science fiction sometimes portrays people becoming addicted to VR experiences to the point that they ignore the real world and starve to death, our data suggest that virtual worlds and virtual reality interfaces are likely to connect people to other people and to world events in new ways. Communication in virtual environments may have interesting differences from face to face interactions. Lanier discusses post-symbolic communication and Moulten described VR communication scenarios elsewhere in this book.


Media (and real life) Displacement

When a new medium becomes available, time spent using the new medium has to come from some other leisure time activity. Today's consumer VR fanatics are still heavy users of other media. The typical frequent BattleTech player is a heavy consumers of other media. He 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). On the average, he plays BattleTech 12.4 times per month.

In the case of BattleTech, virtual reality entertainment does not appear to extinguish other media behaviors. BattleTech regulars consume lots of other media. They are, however, mostly single, childless and not involved in a romantic relationship. There may or may not be a causal relationship between VR game fanaticism and lack of (interest in? or time for?) a romantic life.

Players who had played more than 50 BattleTech games 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 more enjoyable 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.


Gender Differences

Gender differences are frequently found in the realms of television content preferences and viewing styles. For example, females more strongly prefer soap operas, dramas and sit coms, while males more strongly prefer sports and action adventure programming. Males are frequent zappers, who channel surf and avoid commercials, while females are more likely to watch an entire show from start to finish.

Gender differences are evident in the extreme for today's consumer VR, which appears to hold little appeal for the female half of the population. Ninety-seven percent of the FighterTown pilots surveyed were male. At BattleTech, 2% of masters, 5% of veterans and 9% of novices were female. The small group of females who actually 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. (Significant differences using One-way ANOVA for continuous data and Crosstabs for categorical data are identified in the text by a single asterisk for cases of p< .05 and double asterisk for stronger probability levels of p<.01.)

On a scale from 0 to 10, female novices found BattleTech to be: **LESS RELAXING (1.1 versus 2.9 ) and **MORE EMBARRASSING (4.1 versus 2.0 ) than did male novices. Males were more aware of where their opponents were than females (63% versus 33%*), of when they hit an opponent (66% versus 39%**).

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.

What can consumer VR offer to appeal to women? Jordan Wiseman (1992), President of Virtual Worlds Entertainment which founded BattleTech, discussed his companies thoughts on that topic. He said they had concluded that to be aggressive, men just needed a place, but women needed a reason. Thus, if the game is to continue it's basic theme of blowing up other people's Mechs, the Mechs you blow up may need to have done something terrible to you or a loved one, to motivate the violence.


Uses and Gratifications

Rubin (1986) describes uses and gratifications research as a "receiver-oriented approach" where the focus is on what people do with mass media rather than what mass media do to people (Klapper, 1963 in Rubin, 1986). Media use is assumed to be goal-directed and purposive. Media are used by individuals to satisfy felt needs. Individuals initiate media selection.

VR use today is a very purposive (expensive, inconvenient) activity. Models of media impacts have moved from the original hypodermic needle view of injecting opinion and information into passive viewers, to a more receiver oriented perspective, and even to a "participant" type of model of effects. VR pushes that transformation even further, such that the human becomes the center of the universe (or, if there is more than one human, each is one center in a multi-centered world). The kinds of gratifications that humans seek, even from today's limited VR entertainment centers, is distinctly different from the needs viewers of more passive media are hoping to satisfy.

Typical gratifications sought from television, based on Greenberg's original 1974 study and confirmed and modified by Katz, Blumler and Gurevitch (1974) are:

The first three are the most salient, or strongest reasons people cite for watching television.

An analysis of BattleTech as an optimal experience using Czikszentmihalyi (1990)'s theory of "flow," happiness and optimal experiences found that BattleTech fit well a set of six criteria which most often characterize experiences individuals consider optimal (Heeter, 1993).

Playing BattleTech is hard but fun for those who choose to play. 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. In addition to being challenging, BattleTech was enjoyable. BattleTech was rated nearly off scale 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).

Factor analysis of ratings of how well 18 positive and negative adjectives describe "what BattleTech is like for you" resulted in five factors with variables loading above .5 of two or more adjectives. Factor loadings, percent of variance explained, alpha reliability of the scale and average response on a scale calculated by summing the high loading factors and dividing by the number of items are listed below:


BattleTech Gratifications Factors

Factor 1: QUALITY DESIGN (average 8.4 OUT OF 10) 20% of variance alpha .63

.74 creative

.72 realistic

.69 unique


Factor 2: INVOLVEMENT (average 8.7 out of 10) 13% of variance alpha .69

.74 intense

.63 fun

.63 competitive

.60 addictive

.54 exciting


Factor 3: Social DISCOMFORT (average 2.5 out of 10) 9% of variance alpha .61

.81 embarrassing

.77 silly

.52 intimidating


Factor 4: OVERLOAD (average 5.6 out of 10) 6% of variance alpha .50

-.70 relaxing (not)

.64 confusing

.57 overwhelming


Factor 5: SOAK UP (average 7.6 out of 10) 6% of variance alpha .34

.83 expensive

.50 absorbing


Factor 6: CHALLENGING (just 1 item -- ignored factor) 6% of variance

.76 challenging


Given the way the question was asked (how well do the following words describe how BattleTech is for you), these might be considered gratifications received, as opposed to gratifications sought. INVOLVEMENT was the highest rated factor, averaging 8.7 out of 10. INVOLVEMENT brings together fun, exciting, competitive, addictive and intense. An evaluation of a QUALITY DESIGN of the virtual experience, combining unique, creative and realistic, was also highly rated (8.4). The propensity for BattleTech to SOAK UP money and attention averaged 7.6, but the reliability of this scale was low (.34). Feelings of OVERLOAD: not relaxing, confusing and overwhelming, were experienced much more strongly by novices (6.1) than by 10-50 game players (4.7) or 50+ game players (3.2). Social DISCOMFORT such as feeling silly, intimidated and embarrassed was the lowest rated factor, averaging 2.5 and not varying significantly with experience. The three negative factors are not normally part of TV gratifications, because gratifications usually ask why people watch TV. Social discomfort is experienced only by a small set of players. Overload varies by experience, and the tendency for BattleTech to absorb (soak up) time and money is most strongly felt by those who spend a lot of time and money playing it...

In the next survey, this one at FighterTown, 21 reasons for flying the simulators were asked, in an attempt to assess gratifications sought from the experience in a manner more closely paralleling uses and gratifications research for other media. The scale was zero to 10. Factor loadings, percent of variance explained, alpha reliability of the scale and average response on a scale calculated by summing the high loading factors and dividing by the number of items are listed below:


Fightertown Gratifications Sought Factors

Factor 1: AGGRESSION (average 4.6 out of 10) 31% of variance alpha .81

.84 as an outlet for aggression

.75 to compete with others

.70 to engage enemy targets

.62 because it's addictive

.57 to prepare for a pilot's license


Factor 2: VARIETY (average 5.2 out of 10) 12% of variance alpha .80

.79 to try moves I couldn't try in a real plane

.67 to cooperate with others

.61 because it's different every time


Factor 3: EXPERIENCE (average 7.2 out of 10) 10% of variance alpha .81

.83 because I've always wanted to fly

.87 to experience what it's like to be a pilot

.67 to experience virtual reality


Factor 4: CHALLENGE (average 7.8 out of 10) 7% of variance alpha .76

.76 for a sense of accomplishment

.75 to learn new skills

.68 because it's challenging


Factor 5: CHEERS (average 6.6 out of 10) 7% of variance alpha .34

.94 because it's exhilarating

.92 for the camaraderie


Factor 6: ESCAPE (average 6.5 out of 10) 6% of variance alpha .56

.83 because it feels good

.72 to get away from the real world


Factor 7: FUN (average 8.7 out of 10) 5% of variance alpha .59

.90 because it's fun

.52 because it's challenging


Factors that emerged included CHALLENGE (average 7.8 out of 10) which combined "because it's challenging," "to learn new skills," and "for a sense of accomplishment." EXPERIENCE (average 7.2) linked "because I've always wanted to fly," "to experience what it is like to be a pilot," and "to experience virtual reality." CHEERS (average 6.6) reflected a kind of social exuberance: "because it's exhilarating" and "for the camaraderie/friendship" but the scale had low reliability (alpha=.34). ESCAPE (6.5) was closest to the typical TV gratification of the same name, combining "to get away from the real world" and "because it feels good." VARIETY (5.2) represented a combination of "because it's different every time," "to use my imagination," "to try moves I couldn't try in a real plane," and "to cooperate with others." AGGRESSION (4.6) included "as an outlet for aggression," "to engage enemy targets," "to compete with others," and "because it's addictive." Although the averages for VARIETY and AGGRESSION are near midrange, they are both roughly trimodal, with about one third of respondents rating each very high (10), about one third rating them very low (0 ) and one third in the middle. Most of the other gratifications were much closer to normal distributions.

Returning to the comparison with TV gratifications, VR entertainment experiences are not relaxing. They are not something people do out of habit, to pass time-- they are too expensive and inconvenient, not to mention challenging and arousing. Arousal needs are common to both TV and VR, but the levels of arousal VR affords are presumably much higher. Escape shows up for both media, though TV presumably distracts and numbs the mind, while VR is a more literal escape from the real world into another world, still as a proactive entity or CPU. "To get away from the real world" means something quite different to a VR game player than to a TV viewer. TV offers a substitute for companionship, while VR brings friends and strangers together to share experiences, providing real companionship. LEARNING is typically the lowest-rated TV gratification. INVOLVEMENT, CHALLENGE and EXPERIENCE are the strongest VR entertainment gratifications. Watching television is extremely different from playing VR games. Players seek and obtain a sense of accomplishment as they seek to improve their skill at a challenging experience. Even the most experienced BattleTech master believes he can and will significantly improve his performance over time. FighterTown offers the chance to experience what it is like to fly a plane, with sufficient realism and challenge.

Television is bemoaned as a passive medium. Active viewers change channels and take control over what they view. Another form of active viewer is the critical viewer who consciously processes and critiques incoming messages. VR players are an almost ideally active media consumer. In many ways, VR entertainment today is not very different from video games, in part because VR is so crude today. Even so, the presence of other humans and the fact that you are playing against or with other humans rather than just a computer seems to make a difference in player's perceptions of VR compared to video games. It will always be difficult to differentiate video games and VR, because eventually they will be one and the same.

In general, prospective players want the game to be somewhat educational, so that they learn something while they play (5.2). They would like the game to have meaningful parallels to real life situations, that help them understand their own life (5.1). Females are more likely than males to want to learn something while they play (5.6 vs. 4.8, p<.019) and to have it parallel real life situations (5.7 vs. 4.7, p<.001). Fifty-two percent of females compared to 34% of males would like the experience to involve "very much" learning (as compared to "some" or "none"), p<.008.


Competition and Play

Traditional television offers little opportunity for competition. VR often presents a competitive physical and/or mental challenge. One can win or lose. Regardless of winning or losing, one can play well or poorly on a particular day. Zillmann and Bryant (1986) explore the entertainment experience of television viewing, concluding that people can be very deliberate in their entertainment choices. Television can be used to produce excitement, particularly when someone's initial state is a relatively low level of excitation. Entertainment can also soothe and calm those who are uptight, annoyed, or otherwise disturbed. The proposal that people form mood-specific preferences based on their current affective circumstances is supported by research (Bryant and Zillmann, 1984.) Great enjoyment follows great distress, as long as there is a happy ending. A competitive VR situation opens the possibility of greater catharsis because of the physical involvement, but also greater possibility for frustration at losing or playing poorly.

BattleTech players were asked how satisfied they were with the way they played their last game. The response was near the middle-- 3.4 out of 7 where 1 was VERY SATISFIED and 7 was NOT AT ALL. Players claimed it was not essential that they win -- asked how much it mattered, the average was 4.2 out of 7. Even among those who had played 800 games, there was a belief that they would improve if they kept playing (1.67 out of 7). Despite or because of the competition, BattleTech was quite universally considered fun, challenging, exciting and competitive (all rated an average of at least 9 out of 10, where 10 means the word describes BattleTech VERY WELL). FighterTown is also considered very fun -- an average of 9.4 out of 10. And FighterTown pilots (including those who have actually flown a plane) feel motivated to do well flying and to improve (2.1 out of 7, where 1 is VERY MUCH).


Experience of Self

Unlike mass media where people are merely "viewers" who watch or listen to content, virtual reality experiences place you inside of the content. People want to be able to experience a strong sense of self in the virtual worlds. They want to be able to see their real hands, perhaps their real bodies. They want to be able to interact with the environment and with other people in as many ways as possible. They want to be in control, to have an effect, and to clearly understand the causal link between their actions and the effects of those actions.

Prospective VR entertainment players would like others to be able to see their real face in the virtual world (57% reacted positively, with an overall average of 4.8 out of 7). But they are even more interested in seeing other people's real faces (78%, with an average of 5.7). And they want to see the "real" faces of computer-generated agents or characters (82%, with an average of 5.9).

They are divided 50:50 on whether they would prefer to be represented by their real face or a fantasy face. (Women are more likely to prefer a fantasy face; men are more likely to prefer their real face; the difference is statistically significant at p<.006.) Asked whether they would prefer to wear their regular clothes or a special costume, 48% strongly preferred a costume, while 25% strongly preferred regular clothes. Gender differences were not statistically significant.

For whichever of the 3 experiences a CyberArts participant tried, (Undersea Adventure, Japanese Garden and Tokyo Godzilla), they were asked to rate their enjoyment, on a scale from 0 to 10 with 10 being very enjoyable. Those who experienced only their shadow on average rated the experience 5.8, compared to average ratings of 8.0 for those who saw their real self . Otherwise identical experiences were considerably more enjoyable when you got to see your real self in the world.

VR experiences which use a power glove or data glove frequently show users a computer-generated hand to represent their real hand movements. SIGGRAPH participants were asked whether they would prefer to see a computer generated hand or their whole, real body. Eighty-seven percent would prefer to see their real body. Seeing your real self makes VR seem more real and more enjoyable.

Today's consumer VR centers are only a hint of things to come. Even this brief survey of possible VR effects suggest that it will be a richly new societal phenomenon with impacts distinctly different than any previous communication medium.



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VR Experiences:

  1. The BattleTech Center in Chicago is located at North Pier Mall on Illinois Avenue. For more information, call 312-243-5660
  2. FighterTown is located at 8 Hammond, Suite 100 in Irvine, California. For more information, call (714)- 855-8802.
  3. ENTER Corporation is headquartered in Larkspur, California. For more information, call (415) 924-4512.
  4. Chromakeying one video signal over another involves use of a chromakey-capable video switcher which strips a predefined or user-defined subset of the overall picture chromanence of one of the two signals, and replaces all parts of the image that were comprised of that chromanence setting with the other video signal. Typically the color used is blue.
  5. Ixion Corporation is headquartered in Seattle, Washington. For more information, content 206-547-8801.

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