When Dr. Linda Kaye of Edge Hill University decided to explore the psychology of video games as part of her research, she was surprised by just how much of the research surrounding games was focused on violence.
Talking at Develop Conference today, Kaye said that she found most of the research in video games centered on the effects of violence in games, yet there are so many other effects and angles that are yet to be explored.
So that's what Kaye set out to do -- in particular, she wanted to explore the effects of social psychology in digital and social games, and what developers can learn about their players from the way that players think and react.
The "flow" of a game was a key focus point for Kaye -- that is, she wanted to explore why players become absorbed in a game, and which elements of game design keep players best immersed, and keep them coming back.
She found that balancing the challenge of a game versus the skill of the player was very important -- if a player found a challenge too hard or too easy, it could potentially bring them out of the experience and lose their focus.
But while she was exploring this idea, she began to move into a more specific focus. "I wanted to take this further, and find out whether flow can occur during a social gaming context," she notes.
When players are working together on a common objective, do they feel a sense of flow that is similar to that of a single-player game, or is there a different shared sense of flow? Kaye says that, from her research, she has found there is definitely evidence to support this.
This shared immersion, which she calls "Group Flow," takes on multiple different forms depending on the specific type of game. In an online shooter like Call of Duty, for example, Kaye says that awareness of task-relevant skills can bring players together in flow, as each player uses their own classes to work together.
In a game more like World of Warcraft, players feel a different sense of immersion centered upon shared social belonging, where they feel like they are part of a team, and have a role to play in the team.
And when playing a game like FIFA online, players feel a sense of collective competence, as they weigh up the skills of other players they are cooperating with.
So how can developers of online games aim to maximize this sense of Group Flow in your playerbase? There are three main areas to focus on, says Kaye:
Collective competence - Collaborative game design focused on building collective skill development/mutual competence
Shared sense of belonging - identification of individual's role/achievement in relation to group goals
Awareness of task-relevant skills - Leaderboards, explicit indicators of skill level/expertise/successes in gameplay