Going with the Flow: The effects of VR gaming on spatial presence, flow, and positive emotions

by Melissa Quirijnen

Thesis supervisor: Drs. Ewa Międzobrodzka

Over the past years, virtual reality (VR) gaming gained popularity. VR allows for a 360-degree view of a virtual world, enabling a more immersive gaming experience than desktop games, where a virtual world ends at the edges of a screen. These technical differences which make VR games more engaging and immersive than desktop games, could be linked to various psychological outcomes, such as presence, flow, and the experience of emotions. While previous research comparing these two game modes focused on experiencing negative emotions (Lemmens et al., 2021), little is known about the possible effects of playing VR and desktop games on experiencing positive emotions and their underlying mechanisms. Therefore, the present study aimed to test to what extent end playing a video game in a VR mode (vs. desktop mode) could affect experiencing positive emotions and whether this effect could be mediated by spatial presence and flow.

Figure 1. The experimental setting

In order to meet this aim, the current study employed a two-group between-participants experimental design. A total of N = 68 participants were recruited, mainly UvA students, who were randomly assigned to play an adventure puzzle game XING: The Land Beyond (White Lotus Interactive, 2017) either in a VR mode or on a desktop monitor (see the experimental setup above) using the same PlayStation 4 pro game controllers. The experiment consisted of three phases: (1) a pre-game Qualtrics survey about demographics and previous video game experience; (2) playing the game for 25 minutes and (3) a post-game Qualtrics survey including questions about spatial presence, flow, and positive emotions. The whole procedure took about an hour.

Results indicated, in contrast to the expectations, no direct influence of VR gaming on positive emotions. However, both spatial presence and flow positively mediated the effect of playing the game in the VR mode (vs. desktop mode) on positive emotions. More precisely, VR gaming led to a higher level of spatial presence, higher level of spatial presence was related to a higher level of flow, which in turn was positively related to experiencing positive emotions. Therefore, the effect of VR gaming on positive emotions was dependent on a serial mediation through spatial presence and flow. It can be concluded that spatial presence and flow are two underlying mechanisms of the relationship between VR gaming and positive emotions.

In sum, this study adds to the relatively new research field by demonstrating that VR gaming is a medium that can increase feelings of spatial presence and flow amongst players, which in turn can contribute to experiencing positive emotions such as happiness and relaxation. Thus, VR games create environments for players in which they may experience a virtual world in a new and positive way. The current study has many practical implications for video game developers and also gamers themself, by showing that VR games may positively affect gamers’ wellbeing. This could be especially important in challenging times, such as during the COVID-19 pandemic, when video games, especially VR games, became even more popular.

Xing: The Land Beyond game trailer: https://www.xingthegame.com/