What wins in making AR gaming meaningful? Imagination beats nostalgia.

May 7, 2021

Augmented reality games such as Pokemon GO tap into something beyond normal gameplay enjoyment. (AP Photo/Amr Alfiky)

Imagination may be the most powerful predictor of whether players care about characters in augmented reality games such as Pokémon GO, new research shows, signaling that nostalgia may be less of a driver of engagement with multimedia franchises in the multibillion-dollar AR gaming industry than some might expect.

Location-based AR games such as Pokémon GO ask players to search for characters in a phenomenon known as geocaching. Geocaching games rely on GPS to hide virtual objects in the real world. Gamers get a chance to interact with their usual surroundings in a new way, as AR adds dynamic characters and storylines to their everyday environments.

Geocaching-based gaming has rapidly grown in popularity over the past five years. Pokémon GO alone saw an increase of 439 million new active users since 2016, and the same developer created Wizards Unite for Harry Potter fans, which generated over $12 million in revenue in just one month. Other well-known location-based games include Minecraft Earth and Jurassic World Alive, all of which present an augmented world to players — and all of which are based on existing fictional franchises, to which many players could be expected to have some nostalgic attachment.

But a new study that included Pokémon GO players from around the world, published April 10 in Computers in Human Behavior, found that the key to deeper engagement through gaming was not nostalgia but imagination.

To find Pokémon GO players for the study, the researchers turned to Reddit, a popular social media site, ultimately gathering data from 515 players through a digital survey. The authors noted that their online call for participants had a high engagement rate, as over 96% of users in the /r/pokemongo subreddit voted on the post. The majority of gamers in the final survey were male and between 18 and 34 years of age.

The researchers created a model to test if play was enhanced by a gamer's emotions and related abilities and if these emotions or abilities led to a more meaningful experience. Besides imagination, the authors looked at childhood nostalgia, humans' innate love for nature and social connections. Online connections with strangers or friends in video games are more meaningful at a time when "society is increasingly digitized," the authors note – and as lockdowns and other restrictions on movement have kept many people indoors.

Location-based online games "can serve as a gateway into a healthy and active life after the pandemic is over," corresponding author Samuli Laato told The Academic Times. "The pandemic deprived people of many things, including outdoor exercise and face-to-face interaction. Location-based AR games are able to facilitate these both." 

Though the authors argue that a "believable fusion between the augmented world and our world is impossible," imagination helps players picture stories from virtual realities. Previous studies showed that players who create stories in their own minds are more emotionally invested in a game.

Imagination leads to an experience that users describe as meaningful instead of just fun — that is, a gaming experience that a player considers "socially, culturally, or personally important," according to MIT researchers. "Imagination allows individuals to effortlessly cooperate with even those unfamiliar to them through shared fiction," Laato and his colleagues reported in their paper.

"Surprisingly, the role of imagination has been unaddressed in several recent studies on why players play [location-based AR games]," they added. This gap in the literature proved to be significant, as they found that for AR games to carry meaning, players must be invested in the game and think or act as if the fictional game were real.

Laato said he was intrigued that, "Imagination was a more powerful predictor of affection towards the fictional Pokémon creatures than nostalgia." Although Pokémon evokes a powerful sense of nostalgia for many players, the emotion does not always translate to how fond a player is of fictional characters and did not have as big an impact as imagination.

The concept of biophilia also intrigued Laato and his colleagues. This innate human "desire to get to know other lifeforms, spend time with them and even catalog them" is often studied in biology, but not in the virtual world. The team predicted that humans' engrained love and care for nature would make players more apt to imagine a fictional world while playing, but found these factors to be far less important than either imagination or nostalgia.

The study found the experience of Pokémon GO to be more rewarding when players identify with a social community online. The authors likened this socially constructed sense of value to the value society ascribes to money. "Money gets its value from people believing in it," Laato and his colleagues explained in the paper, and, "Pokémon GO gains additional meaning in the eyes of players due to other real players playing it."

The idea of meaningfulness is also social in some ways. "Whether an activity feels meaningful is linked to … beliefs regarding what is valuable" in society as a whole, the authors note. People are more likely to engage in games or events that increase their social capital. To illustrate this point, the authors describe how the salary of a professional curling player is shockingly low, compared to the millions of dollars football players earn every season. As football is far more popular than curling, the athletes are compensated more.

Laato is currently researching AI governance at the University of Turku while finalizing his thesis there. Laato describes himself as "an avid geocacher" who brought a passion for playing location-based games into his career. One of his current projects looks at how players assign meaning to the music in old and new video games. 

"It is crucial for game developers and AR designers to determine how technology can support imagination and not get into its way," Laato said. Aside from imagination, "Nostalgia can be a powerful asset" in designing future online games since it "brings forth memories in a gratifying way," he continued. 

The study, "Why playing augmented reality games feels meaningful to players? The roles of imagination and social experience," published April 10 in Computers in Human Behavior, was authored by Samuli Laato, Sampsa Rauti and Erkki Sutinen, University of Turku; and A.K.M. Najmul Islam, University of Turku and LUT University.

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