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Science Still Doesn’t Understand Video Games

• July 07, 2014 • 9:00 AM

(Photo: Stokkete/Shutterstock)

But even with odd experiments and disparate conclusions, researchers are edging closer to a more nuanced idea of how they change our behavior.

Last spring, Gunwoo Yoon, a doctoral student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, recruited 194 undergraduates and tasked them with blasting their way through a Space Invaders-style video game. After five minutes of play, he gave each student a cup filled with chocolate or chili sauce. Give it a taste, he said, and spoon some onto a plastic dish for the next participant. That person will have to clear the plate.

Yoon told everyone the game and food components of the experiment were unrelated, but this was a lie. Under the guise of collecting separate reviews of the game and foods, he was looking for the answer to a hotly debated research question: How do video games shape who we are? He designed his game to assign each student randomly to one of three characters: Superman, Voldemort, or a nondescript circle. Superman and Voldemort had been pretested as representations of the most archetypal hero and villain; the circle was a control. Just five minutes of play as an icon of good or evil, Yoon predicted, would sway the amount of food the students served each other (though the food wasn’t actually passed on).

He was right. Students who played as Superman layered on the chocolate but spared their classmates from the chili sauce, which, in Yoon’s words, was “super, super, super spicy.” Students who played as Voldemort did the opposite, apparently much more eager to make their peers suffer.

Whether you’re hiking with your friends in a national forest or sitting on your couch leading elves on a screen through enchanted woods, you’re still you—still a human in the actual world, doing things and having things done to you.

To Yoon, the implications were clear. “[A]cting as a hero or villain causes people to perform coincident behaviors,” he concludes in the study, which was published in Psychological Science in February. “Human social responses can be altered by how virtual-self representations are implemented, and those can play a role in shaping the way people interact with others.”

Yoon pinpointed a causation, but can his study’s “virtual self-representations” really be extrapolated to today’s gaming? Modern video games provide expansive online worlds in which players befriend each other, barter, fight, flirt, and do pretty much everything else people do in real life, albeit against backdrops of magical medieval kingdoms and post-apocalyptic war zones. Isn’t it reductive to use five minutes of 16-bit play time and a couple of food toppings to gauge the influence of our virtual lives on our real-world behavior, if not outright irrelevant?

YOON’S STUDY ISN’T THE first to come up with odd measures of video games’ effects, though. In recent years, behavioral research on gaming has exploded in popularity as gaming technology has improved. New experiments now come out every month, and often share Yoon’s oblique approach. Last October, a study had men remove paper clips from a bucket of ice water and determined that those who spend more time immersed in virtual gaming environments are more emotionally rigid. In November, a study plopped a bowl of M&Ms next to people as they played Grand Theft Auto or Pinball 3-D and announced that violent video games reduce players’ self-control.

While experiments like these sound like bad science, they aren’t. They happen to be the best experiments researchers have been able to come up with. Their crude variables and simplistic results reflect a larger problem video game research continues to face as it grows, one that makes rigorous experiments hard to recognize: Scientists don’t even know how video games’ real-world effects should be measured.

In online games games like World of Warcraft, players explore vast landscapes and are free to be as kind or cruel to each other as they wish. (Photo: rangzen/Flickr)In online games games like World of Warcraft, players explore vast landscapes and are free to be as kind or cruel to each other as they wish. (Photo: rangzen/Flickr)

Yoon recently talked to me about designing his experiment, and described the process as walking a thin line between scientific precedent and shots in the dark—which is true of a lot of science, but a particular pain when you’re assessing something so intangible. His decision to use foods as proxies for pro- and antisocial attitudes, for instance—seemingly the studies’ zaniest—was based on a longstanding tradition in psychology of using hot sauce to inflict pain in experiments. His choice of the length of time he had students play the game, meanwhile, was just a guess at how long it might take virtual characters to get into their heads. “There’s no criteria or guideline of experimental duration,” he says. “By reading a ton of previous literature and learning other procedures and measures, I just decided to do this experiment for five minutes.”

In the absence of established methods for gauging video games’ influence on us, researchers have had to invent ways of marking the boundaries for what sorts of questions should and shouldn’t be asked, what works and what doesn’t. So far, their results have varied as much as their approaches. Some games make us more racist, sexist, and xenophobic; others make us less so. Violent video games increase aggression and cheating, but they don’t make depressed teens more violent, or make us less likely to help others. And, actually, they don’t increase aggression at all if they’re played with motion-capture controllers.

Collectively, despite their disparities, these studies have made good progress. Just a few years ago it was far from a given that video games have any effect on us, and now, as a recent meta-study reflects, enough controlled experiments have been done to make it clear that games affect us in a whole bunch of different ways. With that first hurdle out of the way, though, the field is poised to face the real challenge: connecting the dots of its scattered conclusions to arrive at a clearer picture of how games change how we behave.

“Human social responses can be altered by how virtual-self representations are implemented, and those can play a role in shaping the way people interact with others.”

“We have a sense now that games can impact people in a five-minute, 10-minute, maybe 30-minute range, but beyond that there are very few studies that do follow ups. That’s why it’s been so hard to really understand what’s going on,” says Nick Yee, a researcher at the video game developer Ubisoft. Yee recently published a book, The Proteus Paradox, which looks at years of studies on online gaming communities and highlights how limited resources traditionally have prevented researchers from orchestrating long-term overviews.

The good news for researchers, however, he says, is that as technology breeds increasingly intricate games, it also provides better methods of analyzing the people who play them. Yee helped pioneer the use of online surveys to track gamer demographics and attitudes over a multi-year period, and his job gives him access to data from gamers across the world every day—a lot more information than the data a scientist gets from a handful of volunteers in a lab. Game analytics have allowed researchers to break down the social structures of entire online communities, and even target the age at which gamers perform best. “Researchers are much better suited now to look at longitudinal effects,” Yee says. “We still need to develop new tools to understand all this data, but it’s giving us a certainty we’ve never had before.”

This certainty from “big data” video game analysis, Yee believes, should help us tackle big-picture questions that small-scale studies haven’t been able to address. More encompassing data should also help dispel outdated assumptions about who gamers are, for instance. “There were a lot of stereotypes that gamers were male teenagers in their basements,” he says of one of his early surveys, “but it turns out that they’re mostly 30-year-olds with jobs and kids.” More critically, better data could calm highly polarized public health debates around topics like video game violence. This perennial source of controversy reached a fever pitch three years ago when the Supreme Court struck down California’s ban on selling violent games to minors, largely on the grounds that the science on violent video games’ effects was inconclusive.

Probably the most obvious and valuable lesson improved video game studies should support, in fact, Yoon contends, is that video games have different effects on different people. “The medium is neither inherently good or evil,” he says. “A lot of what you get out of games is your frame of mind and what you’re putting into it.”

Wendel at work. (Photo: Gamerscore Blog/Flickr)Jonathan “Fatal1ty” Wendel at work. (Photo: Gamerscore Blog/Flickr)

CASE IN POINT: JONATHAN Wendel. Better known by the gaming handle “Fatal1ty,” Wendel is the head of a successful video game accessories company and one of the world’s earliest and most accomplished professional gamers. He made a name for himself—as well as about half a million dollars—by winning tournaments that featured popular shooting games like Doom and Quake, which he trained for by spending eight-plus hours a day perfecting the most efficient ways to blow other players’ brains out. But instead of suffering the deranged psychological side effects you might expect from this regimen, Wendel thrived on the competition. Gaming taught him discipline and teamwork, he says. He even found the violence therapeutic.

“As a kid, I used to be so upset at my parents or at school or work or whatever, and I just wanted to break something, or do something destructive because I was so frustrated with certain things in my life,” he told me over the phone. “And I would play video games for one hour, and all of a sudden I’m like, ‘Holy crap, I totally forgot what I was even mad about.’ It was a total decompressor for me.”

Wendel was careful in our conversation not to argue that video game violence is good for everyone. Instead, he echoed Yee. People take away what they put into games, he believes. “What you practice is what you are sometimes. If you practice being a dick online, most likely you’re going to become a dick in real life.”

“We have a sense now that games can impact people in a five-minute, 10-minute, maybe 30-minute range, but beyond that there are very few studies that do follow ups. That’s why it’s been so hard to really understand what’s going on.”

Researchers will have to reckon with gamers’ individual differences as they reach for broad conclusions about gaming’s effects, a task that’s not getting any easier as games become more immersive and give players so many different ways to interact. Jennifer Haley, a playwright whose work often is about video games and virtual worlds, claims she actually became a better friend by getting hooked on the online fantasy game World of Warcraft a while ago. “I got one of my best friends across the country addicted to the game. It was such a fun way to hang out, because instead of spending two hours on the phone after not having talked to each other for months, we’d go level up together online every day and have little conversations while we were running around,” she says. “I’ve hardly felt so close to her.”*

But then there’s Haley’s brother. He got sucked into World of Warcraft in high school, and became someone he didn’t want to be. “He was completely absorbed by the game for a good six years straight,” she says. “He even dated some girls through the game and got dumped virtually. Eventually he was like, ‘Oh, maybe playing this game all day is contributing to the problem,’ and quit. Once he came out of the game, it took him a little while to figure out how to take care of everyday details in the real world.”

Gaming research still has a long way to go before it can understand games’ abilities to sneak into our “real world” lives. But if the science so far tells us anything, it’s that we can take Wendel’s idea about the effect of our virtual behavior on our real actions a step further. Virtual worlds may not be the real world, but they very much exist within it. Whether you’re hiking with your friends in a national forest or sitting on your couch leading elves on a screen through enchanted woods, you’re still you—still a human in the actual world, doing things and having things done to you. So when you’re being a jerk online, you are being a jerk in real life too. Your actions online have real-world consequences, and the clearer gaming’s influence on us becomes, the more the line between real and virtual worlds blurs.

Yee, for one, isn’t intimidated by how difficult these consequences are to investigate. “The one thing I think a lot of lay people don’t understand about research is that it’s really a process,” he says. “We’re never going to get to a point where we say, ‘A-ha, now we know for certain this is true.’ It’s always this slowly shifting ground where certain paradigms come into play and then lead to new ones. It’s about the sense that as a whole we’re moving closer and closer to understanding human nature.”

Then again, Yee’s a sucker for process. He learned its value from a video game. “When I played a lot of EverQuest in college, I realized I was more interested in advancing in games than actually reaching a destination. Once I reached a high level I usually didn’t have that much fun,” he says. “This actually helped me reflect on the goals I wanted to set for myself in life, and then focus on the process of reaching them. Yes, I realize how corny this sounds, but the game taught me that sometimes the journey is what it’s all about.”

*UPDATE — July 07, 2014: We originally misspelled the name of playwright Jennifer Haley.

Paul Bisceglio
Editorial Fellow Paul Bisceglio was previously an editorial intern at Smithsonian magazine and a staff reporter at Manhattan Media. He is a graduate of Haverford College and completed a Fulbright scholarship at the University of Warwick in Coventry, United Kingdom. Follow him on Twitter @PaulBisceglio.

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