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Not ‘just for kids’

WVU communication studies professor researches the interactivity of video games

A nuclear war survivor stands on the edge of an Appalachian mountain in an apocalyptic setting at the beginning of the Fallout 76’s trailer, while a version of John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads” plays in the background. The video continues to show popular places in the state, including a few from West Virginia University. The video game takes place in West Virginia and is set to release Nov. 14. 

Nick Bowman
Nick Bowman

Video games and interactive media like the Fallout series and Fortnite, which is currently one of the nation’s most popular games, have interested Nick Bowman, associate professor in the Department of Communication Studies and a research associate of WVU’s Interaction Lab, for years. Growing up around interactive media such as video games, Bowman has been researching how people experience and interact with video games and other virtual environments.

“There’s something about being able to reach out and touch the content on a screen that fascinates me,” Bowman said. “As modern media moves more toward interactivity with virtual and augmented reality headsets and mobile phones that carry the computing power enough to run full-blown games such as Fortnite, it’s going to be very interesting.”

The video game industry began regularly out-performing the film and music industries in annual revenues at the start of the 21st century. A Pew Research Center survey found that overall, 43 percent of U.S. adults say they often or sometimes play video games on a computer, TV, game console or portable device like a cell phone, and 90 percent of children are actively playing video games. However, video games aren’t “just for kids.” Industry data reports the average video gamer is 35-years-old, and the population of gamers who are women over age 18 is larger than the population of boys under age 18.

“Video games are played by just about everyone, and the price of virtual reality has dropped to the point that basic virtual reality headsets can be found on Amazon for under $20,” Bowman said. “We know that these technologies are as popular in West Virginia as they are elsewhere.”

Bowman and his collaborators, from the WVU Interaction Lab and across the world, are researching the way people interact with virtual media. As communication technologies become more interactive, they also require more from the user—as our devices allow us to touch and have control over on-screen content, the game also demands that the user do this because it will not continue until the user makes a choice.

“Interactive devices also require us to physically move and touch them in order to work,” Bowman said. “From this perspective, interactivity-as-demand is meant to remind us that as technologies become more interactive, that they also require more of our attention and we might not necessarily always want that.”

As interactive devices progress, they engage users more emotionally and socially because the user has to respond to many different people in those environments. From simple games, such as falling shapes that need to be fit into lines, to more engaging games, such as saving princesses from monsters or depicting the horrors of war in a first-person perspective, the user is often required to become cognitively, emotionally, physically and socially involved in the on-screen actions. This increased involvement can make games more enjoyable and engaging, but it can also make them more frustrating and even cause players to feel guilty about their in-game choices.

“Video games and virtual worlds are the pinnacle of interactivity,” Bowman said. “They present entire universes that are restricted to a screen and require users to make all of the decisions in order to make those universes come to life.”

Bowman will give a keynote presentation, “The Demanding Nature of Video Games and Virtual Worlds,” about this research on Saturday, Oct. 27 at the 2018 International Forum on New Media, sponsored by Shanghai Jiao Tong University and the International Communication Association. This research, along with the work of colleagues, was recently published in a book with Routledge, “Video Games: A Medium That Demands Our Attention.” That book was the result of a research symposium organized by Bowman in 2017 for the Broadcast Education Association.

“When we use interactive media, we have to touch the on-screen content,” Bowman said. “When we do this, we have to become invested in the content, even if we don’t think about it. We begin to have some emotional attachments to the on-screen world. I’m convinced that as much as we argue and debate about video games and other interactive media and their influence on users and society, I don’t think we actually know very much about the interactivity itself. The interactivity-as-demand model tries to address this.”