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TMB Webinar With Dr. Nick Bowman

Dr. Nick Bowman discusses his research on the impact of digital experiences on sense of place, as featured in his TMB paper 'Country Roads Through 1s and 0s: Sense of Place for and Recollection of West Virginia Following Long-Term Engagement With Fallout 76'

Published onSep 29, 2020
TMB Webinar With Dr. Nick Bowman


Audience Questions for Dr. Nick Bowman

We received many fantastic questions from viewers of the TMB Author Webinar. Below, you’ll find both the questions and answers from Dr. Nick Bowman! 

Games tend to portray negative stereotypes about groups/places. Would a sense of place then contribute to those? (And hopefully be used intentionally to decrease those)

I love that you’ve asked this question, because one aspect of this project being headed up by Christine Rittenour (our third author, and main collaborator at West Virginia University) is examining this exact question. Data analysis is still underway, but she’s curious to know if players’ interactions with others during gameplay might have shifted their perceptions of West Virginians as a whole—especially if they felt that the in-game interactions were similar to how they would imaging out-of-game interactions with the same people. 

Broadly speaking, I could see an argument suggesting that as one’s sense of place towards a location becomes more intense and more positively valenced, we might be inclined to feel more positively towards the place—which could include people and other cultural elements of the same. There is some research on the parasocial contact hypothesis (, which suggests that our mediated interactions with people can have a positive effect on reducing stereotypes we might have towards them. So then I’d be curious to see how sense of place be explored from a parsocial contact perspective. 

What work is being done (now or in the future) to investigate these effects for different people? It seems that "sense of place" must be related to "sense of self" and identity. As a first step, are there differences across participant demographics?

This is a good question and it’s one that we really didn’t investigate, in part because we didn’t have strong a priori reasoning to include those demographics as covariates and in part because we didn’t explore sense of self with any great precision. I suppose this data treats those individual differences as between-subjects error (beyond the “prior WV experience” which of course was one of our core independent variables, but I would be very interested to see a strong logic for exploring some of these differences. That said, I’d love to chat more about these analyses, and we did include an anonymous dataset in our supplemental materials: If nothing else, perhaps a secondary analysis of our data could reveal some potentially interesting demographic differences? 

All said? I could see a compelling extension of this research that considers the intersection of our identity and our sense of place. We might expect that our sense(s) of place(s) are something that helps shape our identity—certainly in the sports communication and sociology research, we see that an aspect of intense fandom is having a strong emotional bond to a space (I’m sure that I’m the only West Texan who wears St. Louis Blues sweaters in the heat of summer, to honor my hometown and my favorite team). Likewise, a lot of the tourism research that engages sense of place seems to suggest that part of travel is an expansion of the self, as well. There’s some room for research in this direction to be sure. 

I wonder if a person's sense of place is affected by previous presentations of that place. So for instance, would WV residents feel positively about the game BECAUSE WV is so rarely presented in media? (There are studies similar to this from the 70s, with young African Americans and self-esteem.)

That’s both a very basic question, and a very critical one to ask. We did consider people previous exposure to the actual place, but not their prior exposure to mediated portrayals. I could certainly see a “novelty effect” at play here—certainly in West Virginia, there was a lot of excitement about the game for this very reason, including some official partnerships between WV Tourism and Bethesda  Softworks (the makers of Fallout 76). 

Have you considered researching an authentic sense of time in a similar sense? E.g. a game that takes an older generation back to a temporal context they are familiar with but no longer exists and how this would influence their engagement with the game?

We’ve not doing any research on this specific idea, but I like where you’re going with this. Perhaps the only analogous research that I can think of is our team’s work on nostalgia and video games (myself, John Velez of Indiana University, Tim Wulf of LMU-Munich, and Johannes Breuer of GESIS Cologne): In that work, we’ve borrowed from Natterer’s (2014) perspective on nostalgia, which distinguishes between personal nostalgia (nostalgia we feel for past personal experiences) and historical nostalgia (nostalgia we feel for bygone eras that we never personally lived): That’s a little bit different than what you’re discussing, but I’d be curious to know how these different forms of nostalgia might be correlated with the sense of place. Broadly speaking, I suspect that fostering an authentic and meaningful sense of place is a critical moderating variable for anyone using interactive worlds (video games, virtual reality, etc.) in a teaching or a training context. 

I wonder whether similar studies in interactivity have been done in relation to cross-cultural variables. Do you have any idea whether similar studies have been in Europe, Australia, or Japan. In some cultures, gamers sit down together 5 0r 6 of them at the front of screen.

I appreciate the interest in our work! For this particular study we didn’t intentionally focus on intercultural dimension, but we did have about 10% of the sample playing the video game from overseas (naturally, most all of these players were non-native West Virginians). 

I do like the discussion of group play—Mia Consalvo’s work at Concordia University in Montreal focuses extensively on the notion of “tandem play” in which groups of people play games together, even if only one person is at the controls: and I could certainly see room for research into how interpersonal and group dynamics shape one’s sense of place towards a digital environment. 

Do you sense that people who live in a communal culture will interact with technology as intense as people from more individual culture (I am using Hofstede' cross-culture concept)

I think that to engage this question more faithfully, we’d really have to define what we mean by a technology and of course, what the technology is designed to do. Specifically related to your question, some technologies could be considered more isolating in nature while others could be considered more social in nature … and of course, technologies can be designed for one purpose and then used for very different purposes. Perhaps one way to approach this, assuming that we’ve identified a focal technology, is to consider (a) the features of that technology (as related to social interaction) and (b) the different social affordances that the technology allows—a good recent paper on this, from Jesse Fox of Ohio State University and Bree McEwan of DePaul University:

Is there a relation to this theory and some of the theories around why games have difficulty being adapted into films?

I’d like to do a bit more research in this direction, for sure. I mentioned this during the presentation also, but I’d be curious to know about the relationship between sense of place and transmediation (the existence of an intellectual property across several media). If you’re not familiar with the term, I’d most certainly recommend Henry Jenkins book “Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide.” I don’t have a direct answer for the question, but I would be really curious to see if and how sense of place might be comparatively fixed or flexible within different media forms: perhaps fans have a particular sense of place for the novelized version of a “thing” and seeing it onscreen disrupts that sense. Of course in our study, we had native West Virginians who of course know that the state has not (yet) been decimated by nuclear war, but their sense of place was still quite high overall. I would think that there is a budding line of research here, to be sure. 

Is this related to an MIT study done several years ago that found that people were able to store and find things in a virtual office more easily than trying to identify locations without the cues?

Unfortunately, I’m not familiar with that specific study … but I feel like I should be. It sounds like some of the “transfer effects” that a lot of virtual reality scholars are finding in their research: as we form mental models of content in digital spaces, some of that will transfer to physical spaces – especially if those spaces share common elements. One of my graduate students, Philippe Chauveau, has been studying this from the perspective of “sameness”—if a digital object shares common elements with other objects we’ve seen before, we can more easily process the information: in a sense, we’re familiar with it. Another colleague, Grace Ahn of the University of Georgia, has an extensive research portfolio that uses virtual reality interventions to trigger and guide “real-world” behaviors. 

There is a connection that we should be exploring however, as I’m just starting to work with a pair of collaborators of the University of Bologna (Davide Guisado and Ferdinando Toscano) on how sense of place might be a particularly relevant concept for telecommuting—especially as more companies turn to virtual reality solutions as a way to help tele-workers feel an attachment to their companies (and even the physical locations of those headquarters) while working from a distance. We’ve got a theoretical paper under review now, and I suspect that the study you’ve mentioned would be critical for our literature review as we move it forward. 

Can you pontificate on ways this may apply to sense of place in VR? For instance, do you see any relationship between this research and efforts to give "the same experience" to people attending a basketball game in real life vs "sitting at center court" in VR? How might this apply, if it does?

My short answer is that sense of place work is highly relevant for virtual reality applications and yet, I’m somewhat surprised that I’ve not seen much work in that direction. There is a 2006 paper from Turner and Turner that somewhat talks about the relationship between sense of place and presence in the context of VR: and a few writings about VR and sense of place in educational contexts (we cite these papers in our TMB manuscript, as well). I suspect that some of the lack of research could be a result of sense of place being more of a critical/cultural concept that might not lend itself well to empirical measurement—even in our paper, I think that the scale used could be much improved (and we had tried to distill a more robust scale from a previous attempt). 

That said, I’d be cautious about confusing presence (the sense of being in the actual basketball arena) with the sense of place (the emotional connection one has to that arena)—the former is studied quite a bit, and I think we need a lot more research into how these two constructs correlate and interact. There is a lot of potential here, to be sure. =) 

You mention that people (clinicians) don't see virtual environments as "real" places. Have you ever addressed this empirically - others accepting someone's virtual experience of a real place as "real"? Any indication if people who visit WV in Fallout 76 accept their experience as real?

I was probably a bit too hasty to claim that clinicians don’t see virtual environments as “real” (I can think of a few that use games and VR in therapy, for example). Rather, I was commenting on what I see as broad discussion about virtual environments that seem to diminish them as “less than real” in ways that are problematic. In communication research for example, we often fall victim to a presumption that face-to-face communication is the “gold standard” and as a result, any other forms of communication that aren’t F2F (such as text messaging) are somehow deficient. Fortunately, these perspectives are changing rather rapidly as we see more researchers adopting more functional models of technology—that is, spending less time asserting normative values on interactions and instead, focusing more on what people actually do with these technologies. 

I suppose in way we could argue that most of the research on presence and related constructs comes from the assumption that the user is accepting the on-screen/in-headset portrayal as a “real” one, as the presence construct is defined as the “illusion of non-mediation” (, although this definition has been updated over the years). Although we didn’t measure presence in our study, and we really should do this in replication and extension, I suppose I’d want to see if there is a causal relationship between presence and sense of place—perhaps the more we feel that we are standing in a “real” environment (focusing on spatial presence for a moment), the more likely we are to form a sense of place for that environment? I’d have to think more on this, but I’d love to chat more. 

What about transportation in time in addition to place?

It’s an interesting question, and connections to another question above about how we might connect to places that are not “fixed” to the present day—for example, historical locations portrayed in entertainment or educational media. I suppose the question we’d have to clarify is whether or not we’re feeing a “sense of place in the past” or a “sense of place because of its past.” Both could be compelling lines of work, especially if people are able to distinguish place and time (thinking of my hometown as a child as compared to feeling connected to my hometown today). 

How important is it for places to be represented in a 3D format verses a standard 2D picture (e.g., Zelda map) in order to get a sense of place?

I love the question. =) The short answer is that it’s an open empirical one, because I suspect that there is a minimum number of cues that allow us to feel a sense of place for a on-screen location that does not require a highly immersive experience. In fact, I’d suspect that the relationship is likely more exponential than it is linear and as a result, we might end up finding that sense of place scores can be boosted rather quickly with only some on-screen cues, and there might be a “diminishing return” that comes with increased cues and fidelity. Some of my suspicion here comes from the role that emotions play in media entertainment and that audiences can have strong emotional reactions to comparatively “low-tech” media. Related to a few comments earlier, I suspect that future research should pay more attention to the correlations and relationships (either associative or even causal) between sense of place and presence … and it might also include a focus on narrative engagement: Some argue that these constructs are similar, but our team (myself and Geah Pressgrove of West Virginia University) have been able to demonstrate empirically that audiences do distinguish between presence (being “in the environment”) and narrative engagement (being “in the story”):

Stretching out my answer a little bit more,  my most recent research has been rather squarely focused at how interactive media users “make sense” of the many different demands of technologies such as video games and VR. We can think of these in terms of cognitive demand (how much we have to think through it), emotional demands (how we react affectively to it), physical demand (how much we have to actively manipulate it) and social demand (how much we engage with others in it). These demands are likely what make interactive media content so much fun, but they can also conflict with each other: it’s hard to tell a gripping emotional tale in a video game when the player can’t solve a complex puzzle in order to get the next chapter, for example. In 2018, we released an edited volume focused on demand ( and recently the journal Media and Communication invited us to curate a special issue on demands in gaming ( How does this connect back to the discussion of minimal cues? There could be a “sweet spot” or balance of demands under which content has a high potential for fostering sense of place, but there could also be scenarios under which the medium becomes frustrating to otherwise disruptive as our attention is taken away from the content. 

What did your IRB look like?  How did you recruit participants?

This IRB was quite simple, really. As we solicited voluntary participation from individuals already showing interested in playing Fallout 76 (we recruited mostly from online discussion forums of fans already engaging the video game franchise), the study was exempt from IRB review. We didn’t have any sensitive questions or other personally  identifying information, and the study didn’t involve any interventions—we didn’t do anything beyond ask participants to complete a survey (and of course, send them a few reminders via email). 

Are there any ethical considerations that come to mind with games that very accurately replicate real residential areas?

This is a question that I have been asked by a few people, and I don’t have a great answer just yet. One of my colleagues here at Texas Tech (Rob Peaslee) has been studying the complex relationship between places and media tourism—for example, the crush of visitors to New Zealand following the filming of Lord of the Rings or to Dubrovnik (Croatia) to visit the Red Keep from Game of Thrones. I’m unsure if this work has been extended to consider video games, but I suspect that it’s on a matter of time before we engage the work. After all, a critical distinction between “showing a space on TV” and “rendering a space in a video game” is that the latter allows people to control and navigate the space on their own. The implications for that are interesting, as there seem to be very different considerations when faithfully rendering a national monument in 3D compared to a local neighborhood; some of this sounds similar to privacy debates regarding Google Maps and our general right to privacy. I’ll have to think more critically on this, myself. =) 

Were the participants asked to create their character to be similar to them? If so, do you think the character's similarity to themselves affected their connection with the game/environment?

We didn’t control any of the player behaviors or otherwise give any instructions on how players were supposed to engage the game. We do have some data associated with the player’s connections with their avatar using Jaime Banks’ and my own player-avatar interaction scale (PAX): (the scale has since been translated into German and Mandarin Chinese: 

Did the participants who continued playing, but not for enjoyment share the same SoP, or recollection?

Unfortunately, we don’t have data at this granular of a level—that is, we don’t have any data on the participants’ motivation for playing. I would say that future work looking at the intersection of selective exposure (our reasons for actively or even intuitively selecting different media) and sense of place could be a good compliment to this work, for sure. A few years back, I wrote an encyclopedia entry on selective exposure to media that could be useful here:

I think that what you stated that WV natives tended to enjoy the game more, but WoW players hated the movie. I wonder if this is due to the difference between an actual place, versus a world where one’s gaming actions develops the story and gamer’s world? 

That’s a pretty clever empirical question. I was speaking more in anecdotal terms of course but I like the concept for sure. For sure, media entertainment “works” so well because it does provide for us rich narrative worlds to visit: Melanie Green of the University of Buffalo does quite a bit of work related to narrative transportation and I’ve mentioned some of the work on narrative engagement in an earlier comment. What I really like about this concept is that it really speaks to sense of place as a *perception* rather than a property of anything in the actual place. Perhaps what would be most interesting are the common elements of “real” and “fictional” locations that foster sense of place? I’ll have to chew on that a bit more.