Michael’s article, “Good game / bad game” over at the Brainy Gamer, provoked me to come up with some sort of response as both a psychologist-to-be and a gamer terribly critical of the existing debates surrounding games-and-culture. Michael’s article takes on the existing (rather heated and polemical) debates about games and their relation to academic research, and his hope that academic research may paint a path out of a moral minefield full of hot air and rhetoric. Without cutting to the chase too soon, I hope to demonstrate that in fact academic research has (so far) done very little to bring any kind of intellectual finesse or insights to the debates on video games, gives us no reason to look to them for help, and is just as susceptible to unintelligible monkey screaming matches.
In the article, Michael says,
In the end, it seems unlikely we’ll discover video games make us smart, happy, and productive; nor is it likely we’ll find they make us stupid, anti-social, and violent. Like most things, video games defy binary definitions of good or evil…
… Dr. Joshua Smyth, associate professor of psychology in The College of Arts and Sciences conducted a randomized trial study of college students contrasting the effects of playing MMORPGs with more traditional single-player or arcade-style games…
“Video game play does interfere in some aspects of real-life — such as academic performance, health and social life — but game play can also foster strong feelings of virtual support and new friendships,” Smyth says…
Such studies won’t settle the “what to do about video games” debate…and that’s a good thing. Instead, they may help move the discussion away from entrenched polemics and toward something that looks more like a reasonable conversation.
After working in academic psychology for the last few years, I have to admit that I think Michael’s conclusion was very hopeful but quite misleading (note: clearly I understand that he was using this research example as fodder for his conclusion, so I do not point any fingers here). Regardless, studies like this in fact do tend to further entrench polemical debates, and are not immune from political rhetoric. For two reasons (that I can think of):
1. The most obvious is that studies like these are often picked up by either side of the debate and used as “proof” – that ‘see! games really do ruin people’s lives! this is why my kid didn’t pass Math 113!’ News reporting services are very good at twisting research literature into the kinds of spins they wish to impart, along with the kinds of political goals their organizations have.
- The American Psychological Association reports that violent video games increase aggression. Could this have anything to do with the APA promoting psychologists as a solution for video game violence in children?
- The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation reports that children watch TV and play games just as much as they play outside. Could this have anything to do with the KFF’s interests in American public health policy?
- National Geographic reports that video games boost visual skills. Perhaps for… photographing tigers in the wild!? (Okay, a bit of a stretch here, but you get the idea!)
2. Academic psychology is itself in a major flux. After 75 years of intellectual poverty, psychologists are finally starting to own up to the fact that we don’t actually know how to use science in psychology! Studies like these (a) do not reveal anything we didn’t already know about the ways that students play games, (b) do not posit any kind of clear theoretical claim and are simply empirical shots in the dark, (c) do not have any clear understandings of human emotion or feelings (ie. when’s the last time you called your feelings positive or negative?), and (d) do not offer any clear advice for how we should live in life given the kinds of people we already are.
A Quick Case Study: A review of Smyth’s video game article
Smyth’s article is actually titled, “Beyond Self-Selection in Video Game Play: An Experimental Examination of the Consequences of Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game Play” and is not a full article but rather a “rapid communication” – a quick 5-page note that describes his experimental methods and discoveries. It is unfortunate that the original source did not bother to read the article, because there are many obvious problems with Smyth’s study and the conclusions the source drew from it:
- The study was intended to make causal inferences about the effects of game genres on a person’s self-reports of their well-being.
- The sample was comprised of 100 18-20 year old undergraduate students. 73% of them were male, and 68% of them were caucasian.
- The study lasted 1 month.
- The games were: Gauntlet: Dark Legacy (PS2, single-player), Diablo II (PC, single-player), Arcade games (unnamed), and Dark Age of Camelot (PC, multi-player).
- At the beginning of the study the students were asked to estimate the number of hours they played the games each week, their overall health, sleep quality, academic performance, social life and well-being using a scale from 0 (very poor) to 6 (very good). At the end of the study, the students completed a similar questionnaire that asked them to estimate how enjoyable they thought the game was, how likely they were to keep playing the game after the study, how much they thought the game interfered with real-life socializing, how much they thought the game helped with making new friends, and how much the game had interfered with academic achivement.
With those kinds of things in mind, these are the results that Smyth found:
- MMORPG players self-reported playing 14 hours / week, while computer, console and arcade players reported many less hours.
- MMORPG players self-reported significantly less on a 0-6 scale on their overall health, game enjoyment, real-life socializing interference, new friendships, and academic interference.
Now, putting aside the serious experimental problems this kind of project has, what kinds of things should we worry about as critical readers? What kinds of things should this tell us about academic studies on video games?
- The results rely upon the self-estimates of undergraduate students, the majority of which were white males. Not only do we not know anything meaningful about these guys – their tastes in games, their daily involvement in games, their tastes in films and books – but it also tells us nothing about the habits of female gamers, or gamers who don’t report themselves as being caucasian (such as myself!).
- Of the games listed in the study, I’ve only played one of them: Diablo II. There is no discussion of what kinds of genres these games belong to, how much these games suck in comparison to each other (I thought D2 was pretty good!), and if these games are even played anymore! Furthermore, on what basis were these games chosen? If the answer is “because they’re the only games the researcher has ever played”, we should worry about the kinds of people conducting game research.
- What on earth does this researcher mean by “overall health” and “sleep quality”? Are these categories that are actually used in daily life? I don’t remember ever telling anyone that I would rate my overall health as a “4″ on a scale of 0-6; in fact, I have no idea how I would rate my overall health. In comparison to other people? In comparison to my past health? What is included in my overall health – my fitness? weight? tooth decay? This is just an example, but you should be able to ask yourself: for any of the questions that Smyth asks students to answer, do they even make sense? If a friend asked you how much you thought video games affected your ability to socialize, wouldn’t you just say ‘I dunno. Can’t be sure either way, really.’? By virtue of the questions themselves being senseless, their answers are equally senseless.
- This is the most troubling aspect of the study, aside from all of the aforementioned problems, I think. The study tells us nothing new. It tells us nothing that we did not already know about video games:
- We already knew that MMORPGs are woefully addictive, and take many more hours to play than the average single player game.
- We already knew that if you stay up all night playing games, you’ll probably have a bad sleep.
- We already knew that MMORPGs often allow people to make new “friends” online.
- We already knew that if you play games all day, your school marks are going to suffer. I call it “The Law of FINITE TIME”.
- We already knew that if Jeff stays home to play World of Warcraft all night, he won’t be able to come out for a beer with us.
There is simply not a single insight into what games ‘are’ to the people who play them here. There is not a single interview with any of the players, nor any observation of just how they play the game. The researcher just chose a few questions he thought were important to him as a social psychologist, and asked 100 19-year-olds to take their best guess at answering them. I mean no direct offense to Dr. Joshua Smyth, but this is clearly just poor research. Is this how we want games represented in academic literature?
With those thoughts in mind, I don’t see most academic researchers in any position to advance the debate surrounding video games to something we could call a “conversation”. For that, we have to look at examples of real conversations, social commentaries, books, and philosophers that are in fact providing insightful discussions and debate. This is where we have to turn to a growing mass of thoughtful gamers that are willing to engage in meditative conversations. Academic research in psychology is a world of its own, and rarely has anything insightful to tell us. If you really want to know why violence in video games is a constant moral panic for society, read some psychoanalysis and learn about wish-fulfillment and fantasy and their relations to childhood sexuality. You’ll be disturbed. This is why people want to look to academic studies on games – they don’t want to look inwards.
And if you’re too lazy for that, just watch the World of Warcraft episode of South Park. Even if you don’t like the show, this episode is dead-on.