Augmented reality games as tools for social interaction

Photo courtesy of UBC

Video games have advanced significantly from the first generation of games, such as Pong and The Odyssey, which are now regarded as arcade classics. Developers have strived to make games more expansive, experiential and realistic. Through this process, developers have increasingly blurred the line between game and reality.

In a study recently published online in Personality and Individual Differences, Amori Mikami, associate professor in the University of British Columbia (UBC) department of psychology, and Adri Khalis, the study’s lead author and graduate student in the UBC department of psychology, have explored the impact of players’ personalities, social competence and social anxiety when playing Pokémon Go, an augmented reality (AR) game.

“Augmented reality games are a rich platform that youth are using to socialize,” says Mikami.

Augmented reality and social interaction

In the summer of 2016, Nintendo’s Pokémon Go, which is based on augmented reality, captured the public’s imagination and quickly became a social phenomenon. Pokémon Go integrated the virtual world with the real world by having players find, catch, fight and organize virtual characters called Pokémon. These would appear on a smartphone at the same place and time as the player. A player’s phone would vibrate when they were near a virtual Pokémon character. Naturally players would come into contact with other players on their journey and they would cooperate and compete with each other to capture the most and rarest Pokémon possible, scoring points in the process.

This virtual world helps facilitate and foster a unique set of social interactions in the real world. The UBC team of psychologists were amongst the first to identify these relationships and to explore its potential vectors for therapy.

“Video gaming is a popular activity and modern video games have many social features. Helping people play these games in a more positive fashion may potentially improve their mood and well-being,” says Mikami, the study’s senior author.

Potential long term benefits

Professor Mikami and her team study peer relationships in children, teenagers and young adults.

“I enjoy the complexity of understanding human behavior, and in particular, the unpredictability of what children and adolescents will do, ” she says.

Her team is currently examining the social strategies young adults use when navigating augmented reality games such as Pokemon Go, as well the quality of these interactions. Their central purpose is to examine whether these social interactions impact the mood and well-being of participants over a period of time, even after participants stop playing. They hypothesize that players will be able to improve their mood and well-being, as well as the quality of their face to face relationships outside of the game, if they participate in Pokemon Go and other augmented reality games in a meaningful, positive manner.

“I hope that it’s useful for educators to understand the importance of communicating in the digital world, especially for youth,” says Mikami.

Professor Mikami and her team do not view video games and other digital media as inherently negative social arenas where civilized behaviour and discourse are the exception rather than the norm. Rather, their studies indicate that there is the potential for these mediums to help their users form healthy relationships.


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