To celebrate the relaunch of my website on WordPress.com I’d like to welcome all non-German visitors by re-publishing a short essay which has been first published on my Tumblr. It addresses the concept of ‘parasocial interaction’ and is meant as a reponse to Martin Lorber’s post on his Blog für Digitale Spielkultur.

The concept of parasocial interaction (PSI) – originally developed by Horton/Wohl (1956) to describe the TV viewer’s engagement with non-fictional ‘personas’ – has been scarcely applied to game characters. Three studies that address the issue are:

  • Hartmann, Tilo / Klimmt, Christoph / Vorderer, Peter (2001): „Avatare: Parasoziale Beziehungen zu virtuellen Akteuren“. In: Medien und Kommunikationswissenschaft, Vol. 49, Issue 3, pp. 350–368.
  • Jin, Seung-A Annie / Park, Namkee (2009): „Parasocial Interaction with My Avatar. Effects of Interdependent Self-Construal and the Mediating Role of Self-Presence in an Avatar-Based Console Game, Wii“. In: CyberPsychology & Behaviour, Vol. 12, Issue 6, pp. 723–727.
  • Chung, Donghun / deBuys, Brahm Daniel / Nam, Chang S. (2007): „Influence of Avatar Creation on Attitude, Empathy, Presence, and Para-Social Interaction“. In: Jacko, Julie A. (Ed.): Human-Computer Interaction. Interaction Design and Usability. Proceedings of the 12th International Conference, July 22-27, 2007, Bd. I. Berlin: Springer, pp. 711– 720.

The findings are contradictory: Chung et al. (2007) and Jin/Park (2009) find evidence that parasocial interaction occurs between players and their player characters, while Hartmann et al. (2001) do not. However, the letter don’t solely focus on player characters, but take into account NPCs (non-player characters) as well as other digital representations online. These contradictory findings lead me to believe, that parasocial interaction is possibly the wrong concept to describe the player–avatar-relationship. Why that? Simply, because PSI requires the perception of a social entity other than one’s own self – a presupposition which is problematic if we deal with player characters (as a great number of studies on identification with game characters show).

But if we apply the PSI concept to the reception of non-player characters, it even gains explanatory power: The basic idea of PSI – as thought up by Horton/Wohl – is that responses to a media persona resemble human responses to other humans in real life. They can be described as ‘parasocial’ interactions, which means ‘pseudo-interactions’ with a social entity whose presence is only mediated. While playing a video game, our interaction with NPCs is likewise ‘parasocial’ as game characters are no less mediated than characters/persons on TV. However, the illusion of social interaction is intensified by the possibility to actually interact with this mediated representation (even though the possible reactions are limited and the interaction itself is still mediated).

A more elaborate PSI model by Hartmann et al. (2004) enables us to describe the perception of non-player characters as follows: Parasocial Interaction can be divided into 1) cognitive, 2) affective and 3) conative processes of varying intensity. These depend on character features (such as distinctiveness or the amount of ‘screen time’ during which the character is present) as well as their way of addressing the user/viewer. In addition, the intensity of PSI depends on user dispositions: their experiences, knowledge, motivation and the character’s general relevance to the player. This description fits NPCs quite fine as there certainly is a direct addressing of the player and (in most cases) a relevance to the player – especially if the character is relevant in terms of game goals.

The 1) cognitive PSI processes cover the allocation of awareness towards the character, the construction of a mental model (integrating relevant character features), or the development of future expectations regarding the character.

The 2) affective PSI processes cover emotional engagement with the character and his/her fate, general moods that are triggered by the display of the character or cases of ‘emotional contagion’ (e.g. the urge to laugh if the other laughs).

Finally, 3) conative PSI processes cover – according to the classic PSI model – physical and verbal behavior that is aimed at the ‘persona’ or other audience members (such as: gestures, exclamations etc.). Similar behavior certainly also occurs while playing a game, especially during group play against powerful NPC (such as boss monsters).

To sum it all up: The classic concept of parasocial interaction can’t easily be applied to the relationship of player and player character. On the other hand, it is an extremely useful and up-to-date concept to describe the player-NPC relationship and some very basic psychological processes that are relevant for character reception as well as the gameplay experience as a whole.

Cited:

  • Horton, Donald / Wohl, R. Richard (1956): „Mass Communication and Para-social Interaction: Observations on Intimacy at a Distance“. In: Psychiatry 19, pp. 215-229.
  • Hartmann, Tilo / Schramm, Holger / Klimmt, Christoph (2004): „Personenorientierte Medienrezeption. Ein Zwei-Ebenen-Modell parasozialer Interaktion“. In: Publizistik, Vol. 49, Issue 1, pp. 25–47.

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