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MMOs and gaming psychology, part two: Interview with a researcher

Andrew Ross
12.30.14
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Following yesterday's article discussing current research on psychology and MMOs, we have today our conversation with Dr. Rachel Kowert herself, the lead author on the paper that originally prompted these articles. Kowert, unlike many other researchers in her field, has established gamer cred; her earliest experiences were playing basic games on a Tandy computer with her brother, but the first game to really grab her was Super Mario Brothers. Her favorite game of all time is Final Fantasy 6 (Final Fantasy 3 in the US), and most recently she's played Banished and The Sims 4.

Late in Kowert's Master's degree studies, her supervisor told her about an influx of parents expressing concern about their children's gaming habits. Finding information on the topic to help ease concerns proved difficult due to a severe lack of on-point research. This is what prompted her to switch her research focus to game studies.



Why study the "obvious?"

Every time we talk about scientific research on Massively, readers argue that results from game studies should be "obvious" and are a waste of time/money or that everyone knows MMOs are filled with anti-social trolls. Kowert told me that game studies are "not unique in these criticisms," though "they may seem stronger within this field due to the perceived frivolity of games and gaming as a field of study":

Even though gaming continues to grow in importance and popularity within society, there is still so much that remains unknown about how and why people are using this medium and what are its potential uses and effects (both positive and negative). For example, it has long been assumed that online game players are all reclusive, overweight, lonely, teenage males. This is reflected in the cultural stereotype of the group as seen in the news media and popular culture (Make Love, Not Warcraft, anyone?).
In her paper Reconsidering the Stereotype of Online Gamers, Kowert and her colleagues examined the validity of these stereotypes. As we discussed yesterday, the results proved that the opinions people hold about gamers don't quite match the media's stereotypes, even among non-gamers. Without research, we wouldn't have this information, and for me as a gamer, it's encouraging to know that times are changing. Plus, it gives you ammo when Uncle Frank tries to put down your hobby this holiday season.

Socializing as a gamer

During my examination of the research into online games and real world friendships among emotionally sensitive users, I realized I could see myself in the findings. As a child, I was very shy; part of the problem was that I didn't know how to react to people's emotions. One article about social gaming and lonely lives argued that people who game a lot can sometimes have trouble connecting with non-gamers. Many "enthusiastic hobbyists" also have this issue, whether their hobby is sports or soap operas or games.

Kowert says this is correct to an extent; we've all met the hardcore sports fans who spouts sports jargon. "There is some uniqueness in the social profile of individuals who choose to exclusively engage in hobbyist activities that are mediated by technology, such as online games," Kowert told me. "For instance, you state that you were shy as a child and preferred standing in the background rather than diving right into new social situations. Knowing this about yourself, you may have been more apprehensive to join, let's say, a sports club or a board game group, than popping in on an online forum discussing sports or joining online gaming club."

In other words, it's not that all people who play online games are shy or are using the internet to overcome some of their social problems, but for those who suffer from those problems, online gaming could be a good way for them to meet others. Being online allows people to share a social space without the fears and consequences associated with face-to-face socialization. For example, I rarely went to parties in high school, but I did run events in the online games I played, especially in older MMOs. In more raid-oriented MMOs, people constantly told me I was doing something "different," something unique or strange, and that made me stand out as also being different. In short, I was using the game world in a different way than other more mainstream gamers did, which echoes Kowert's research about emotionally sensitive players using game spaces in unique ways. She explains:
Previous research has largely focused on the relationship between MMORPG play and social outcomes, as MMORPGs are believed to have a unique ability to promote sociability between users (see Mark Chen's 2009 book Leet Noobs for a more in-depth discussion of the social environment of MMOs). As cooperation between users is often crucial to game play, the social environment of MMORPGs differs from other genres, such as multi-player first-person shooter games where gameplay is more about competition than cooperation and the social environment is more often characterized by competitiveness, trash-talking, and gloating (for more on this research see Zubek & Khoo, 2002). These differences in social environments are likely to differentially impact the social utility of the space as well as the social relationships that may come from it.
To be sure, that dichotomy excludes competitive MMOs like EVE Online, Darkfall, and probably the survival genre as a whole (sorry, H1Z1!). But the game worlds hosted by these titles are usually sandboxes that allow players to do things most lobby shooters don't. And while shooters do usually have modes that support cooperation, MMOs go further and usually encourage and enforce it, even if solo content is available. Dr. Kowert argues that "a reliance on cooperation does seem to increase the sense of social camaraderie in the sense that friendship bonds between co-players are 'emotionally jumpstarted' through a series of trust-building situations, such as killing a difficult enemy." Granted, in PvP games, that "difficult enemy" could be a very skilled player, but according to Kowert's research, "highly competitive gaming environments have been found to be characterized by gloating and trash talking between players rather than cooperation."

Games as places, not tools

Like other researchers we've interviewed, Dr. Kowert considers MMOs social environments, not just simple tools. "Online games share elements of various different social environments," she writes. "On the one hand, [they are] akin to any other social club that centers around a shared activity. People get together, hang out with old friends and meet new ones (there is a fantastic 2006 paper by Steinkuehler and Williams that discusses how MMOs specifically have become new 'third places')." In other words, MMOs are like your local bar or coffee shop, just online and filled with elves and space goats.

That doesn't mean they're wholly positive spaces. Kowert also likens MMOs to themeparks and how some people experience something like "being alone together." As she puts it, "without direct interaction, you still feel like you are with others and [are] having a shared experience." This isn't a jab at themepark fans; if anything, it's a bit of a jab at solo players in multiplayer games, but it does show that these players do want a social experience, even if it's a bit different from what some might consider a traditional social experience (for those of you who haven't been listening to their arguments).

In terms of positive social interaction, Kowert believes that games are unique in their ability to promote socialization due to the fact they are both social and playful activities. For example, like other online environments, such as chat rooms, "online games are social spaces where friendships often develop. However, unlike other spaces, they are centrally characterized by shared, playful, and often novel activities. This is key, as these shared activities contribute to the formation of long-lasting, highly intimate friendship bonds not traditionally found in other mediated spaces."

Socialization in online vs. offline games

According to Dr. Kowert, online games provide various social opportunities that offline activities don't, "such as visual anonymity, a reliance on asynchronous communication, and a lack of non-verbal cues." This allows the social gamer to construct his or her identity in a way face-to-face communication doesn't, which is especially useful to shy people. Online games also provide the sense of a social space even in the absence of direct socialization. Kowert referenced the Ducheneaut "alone together" paper:
Engaging within online video games is like reading a book in a busy café. While you can choose to interact with the other people in the space, one still has the sense of being in a social environment even when conducting independent activities. This element of social presence [...] allows for independent pursuits within a shared space that is inhabited by others. Therefore, even without direct socialization with other players, individuals are engaged within a social environment where one's co-players maintain a constant presence and source of company and entertainment. This is in stark contrast to more traditional mediated spaces, such as chat rooms, where the primary purpose, and sole function, of the space is to directly socialize with others. While social presence may be higher within these mediated spaces, without direct interaction an individual is not involved in the social atmosphere.
Kowert doesn't believe that online games hold any particular disadvantages compared to offline games in terms of socializing unless we are opening the discussion to the idea of people "exclusively engaging in these kinds of spaces":
While online interactions are becoming more in sync with offline interactions every day (e.g., expansion of voice over technologies, video technology, etc.), the range of social interactions and social opportunities online are still not equivalent to offline communication. For example, while game developers have attempted to increase non-verbal cues through the integration of emoticons, research suggests that the use of such icons does not accommodate for a substantial proportion of non-verbal cues that are missing in text-based communication. Thus, rather than simulating face-to-face interactions, the online world has become one in which verbal and non-verbal cues are disjointed (for more information see Moore et al., 2007).
That is, in-game, we control how we present ourselves for the most part. In real life, however, there is a lot we communicate without always being conscious of it. For example, our clothes, posture, tone, and facial expressions all send information about us and our state of mind, and that is used by others to form judgments about our personalities. That may sound like a positive, but that is only for the online gamer who is controlling their image. That person may be different in real life. At the very least, there's plenty of people who genderbend in MMOs. That can be just the tip of the iceberg!

Meatspace friends vs. online friends

So exactly why are real world connections are considered to be inherently better than online ones? Let me put myself out there as an example: Most of my meatspace friends are no longer friends of mine, mostly because they moved away and couldn't be bothered to keep up. But my online friends, many of whom I eventually met in real life, still communicate with me no matter where I live or what timezone I'm in, even when we no longer play the same game together. One became my first employer! I bonded with my first girlfriend through online gaming. One guildmate encouraged me to live abroad to pursue my dreams. Had I stuck with the people I hung out with in high school, I might still be in my hometown trying to hide my passion for games, suffering through a day job to get back to my video games. My life isn't perfect, but my online friendships have seemed preferable, even more stable.

Kowert reassured me that not only am I sane but I have my priorities straight.
I also have many people in my life who I know exclusively in an online context who have come to be some of my closest and most trusted confidants. However, I would say that if one's social circle consists of exclusively online contacts, they may be missing out on some of the social benefits that [real life] friends can provide.

From an academic perspective, this is because online friendships are relatively weaker than offline friendships due to a lack of situational (i.e., non-verbal) cues and the ability to freely engage or disengage in such relationships without repercussions in one's offline life. As such, online friendships are believed to be more limited in their capability to provide feelings of social support and closeness.

Put plainly, sometimes we need to move heavy furniture or help changing a tire. Sometimes we need a hug. Virtual contacts much less able to provide this kind of support than non-virtual ones.
I still have real-life friends, even if some are being replaced by people I have to work harder to communicate with. I have people in my life who can help me move furniture and can even get some hugs despite Japan's being a country that doesn't really do hugs. My physical needs are met. My social support and feelings of closeness mostly come from sharing ideas, and since my dearest online friends have shown they'll stick by me even when it's easy to "disengage" from our relationship, I will be OK.

This is why I was a bit surprised about Kowert's finding that online social gaming seems to lead to "lonely lives," but offline social gaming doesn't mean much either way. In the states, my offline gaming friends were the least stable and persistent compared to my online friends. But in Japan, it's very different; most people game online with friends from real life, which makes it hard for foreigners to connect in-game as well as out-of-game. While language barriers probably don't help my personal situation, the local gaming scene, from Monster Hunter groups to Pokemon duels on the trains, has been less welcoming to me, no matter how hard I've tried to find a group to stick with. While I could make friends easily enough with non-gamers and befriend online gamers, real-life gamer circles are hard to break into here.

Kowert's results surprised her as well. She told me her team expected real-life social gaming to "lead to an increase in friendship quality among co-players as they are spending increased time engaging in shared, playful activity." However, she did note that part of the "problem" is that many of the gamers were spending most of their time online to begin with. I'm guilty too, living outside of a major Japanese city; plus, PC gaming in particular here is associated with "adult" games. This is critical because online gamers have a habit of trading offline relationships and goals for online ones. Online, it's easier for me to find people whose values align with mine, while real-world friends are more of a proximal convenience.

Are gamers growing up without developing social skills?

Intriguingly, accordingly to Kowert's research, age doesn't seem to be a factor when predicting the habits of emotionally sensitive online gamers. Personally, I started playing online games before I was 14 and felt as if my fellow gamers helped me "grow up." I was lucky, mostly playing with adults who rarely told poop jokes and only tooted their own horn for fun, not to put other others down or elevate themselves above me. But, I know some parents worry about what their children do when interacting online. In particular, Kowert's study on online gaming and lonely lives focused on online relationships replacing real world ones and the effect on children still trying to develop social skills. If someone socializes primarily through games, might he not fail to develop proper coping techniques for face-to-face socialization?

Kowert says she hears this question a lot. "The influence of any one medium (video games, television, violent movies) is relatively minimal," she told me. "As discussed by Schramm and colleagues in 1961 article discussing the impact of television... 'in order to understand television's impact and effect [...] we first have to get away from the unrealistic concept of what it does to children and substitute the concept of what children do with television' (p. 169)."

For most gamers, games are just one of many activities in their lives. Gamers "typically also have many other obligations in their daily life: going to school, having family dinners, going on a date, fighting with siblings, etc.," Kowert explains. "Through these other interactions, individuals (particularly children and adolescents) are given many opportunities to learn and perfect the various social techniques that are needed for effective face-to-face communication. As such, there is little reason for the average parent to worry." As long as a young online gamer is playing for social purposes and isn't ignoring real-life obligations, there's no danger of stunted social growth. In fact, Kowert argues that "it is unlikely that [children] may fail to completely develop a particular skill simply through the use of online games alone. Interpersonal factors, such as personality dispositions, availability of effective social models, range of social opportunities, and geographic isolation/integration, are all important (and likely, far more important) factors in terms of developing a set of effective social abilities than media use itself."

She counsels gamers who believe their socialization is impaired against panic: "If someone does fear that they have lost out on developing particular social skills for whatever reason, there is no panic! Today, there are many social skill training courses available." Self-help books are one avenue, but Kowert believes seminars are better since they provide practice as well as feedback. "The best way to go about finding [help] services is really to google for what is available in your specific area," she told me. "Typically these training seminars are hosted by mental health professionals or educational centers. I googled 'social skills training, Texas' and found a bunch right off the bat - hopefully this helps clarify how people can go about finding services." In fact, she shared three helpful links with me:
Voice chat, video chat, and facial recognition in MMOs

Voice chat always comes up in regard to socialization. While many shooters provide voice chat options (sometimes even on by default), online gaming in general is seen as being text heavy. However, as video game ballet strategies require more and more choreography coordination, many players have adopted the use of voice chat technology, like Skype or Mumble. This cuts back on the delayed responses normally associated with online communication, making vocal conversation a bit more like face-to-face communication, though still lacking gestures and other visual signals (unless you're also using video chat while gaming, mostly still the domain of livestreamers).

Kowert notes that for researchers, text has always been the focus. While voice chat may be growing in popularity, its functions and uses by gamers, especially shyer ones, is still unknown. It's another area ripe for research.

Even more recently, we've gotten a taste of facial recognition tech appearing in at least one MMO. This is significant because, unlike voice chat and video chat, facial mapping tools allow the user to share some tone and facial expressions while still masking his or her voice and physical face. This was technology Kowert wasn't aware of prior to our interview and couldn't think of any research on it. She suspects, however, that these tools will be loved by some gamers and hated by others: "For some, the visual anonymity provided by the game is one of its most desirable qualities. If you take that away by including facial recognition, you are losing some of your anonymity and gaining more social constraints. On the other hand, this would make online communication more [similar to] offline communication [which] would be a huge upgrade from emotes, which is the current non-verbal system in these spaces."

Games psychology research

In my graduate years, I found that digging up research on game-specific topics in my field (linguistics) wasn't easy. If you're interested in where to start on getting into games and research in the academic field, Dr. Kowert has some additional advice:
The field is becoming more promising every day! When I first applied my PhD program, there were only a few professors dedicating their primary research agenda to game studies. Today, there are whole departments (e.g., ITU Copenhagen, Concordia, etc.) dedicated to the study of games, gaming, and gamers.

To those budding scholars out there, I would suggest joining some of the professional organizations dedicated to game studies, such as the Digital Games Research Association (DiGRA) or the Game Studies special interest group of the International Communication Association. Both of these organizations host annual conferences and have active Facebook and Twitter groups which can be valuable resources for uncovering new graduate programs, getting up to date on recent research, and meeting other scholars interested in the field. DiGRA even has a student-centric group on Facebook (as well as a page to follow) and Twitter as well as a website that hosts a range of resources, such as a wiki for discovering game studies graduate programs and Ludodemia, a new data base for helping to locate game studies research in a specific area of study.
Massively would like to extend its deep gratitude to Dr. Kowert for her research, advice, and insight in these articles.

When readers want the scoop on a launch or a patch (or even a brewing fiasco), Massively goes right to the source to interview the developers themselves. Be they John Smedley or Chris Roberts or anyone in between, we ask the devs the hard questions. Of course, whether they tell us the truth or not is up to them!

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