In the aftermath of the Newtown, CT shooting, people are searching for answers. The mental illness aspect is obvious, much like with the psychology graduate student in Colorado who opened fire on viewers at a theater, but this time the focus is on the anti-social tendencies of Adam Lanza and how they were exacerbated by video game and Hollywood violence.
Penn State academics note that while society might want to look for something to fix easily - ban guns, ban video games, ban home schooling - when it comes to video games, a lot depends on the role of the game-playing activity in the gamer's life. People derive meaning from leisure activities in a variety of ways, including using them to help establish and maintain friendships, social bonding - and a need to organize their lives around the activities - centrality.
Multi-player, first-person shooter games allow video game players online to compete against other players around the world or they can team with other players in a variety of combat scenarios. In an examination of people who played multi-player, first-person shooter games, like Call of Duty and Halo, gamers who organized their lives around gaming tended to experience a negative effect on their friendships and relationships but gamers who primarily played the game as a way to reinforce social bonds said they experienced higher levels of social ties and support.
To collect their data, they surveyed the gamers who were waiting in line for a late night release of a new version of the video game, Call of Duty: Black Ops II, at two central Pennsylvania video game stores. They said that gamers who attend these new release gatherings tend to be both behaviorally and psychologically committed to the activity.
The researchers asked 175 video game customers to fill out a questionnaire about their video game playing habits and attitudes. 166 completed and returned the questionnaire.
To assess whether or not video game playing served a central role in the life of the gamer, the participants were asked to assess the truth of statements, such as, "I find that a lot of my life is organized around video gaming" and "I invest most of my energy and resources in video gaming."
They also measured what role social bonding played in their gaming by asking them to what extent they agreed with statements such as, "Most of my friends are in some way associated with video gaming" and "I enjoy discussing video gaming with my friends."
To measure the behavioral investment, the researchers asked the participants to estimate how much time and money they spend on video game playing. On average, the respondents spent 20.5 hours per week playing video games and a majority spent more than $200 a year on video games. They relied on a scale that experts use to assess a person's involvement in leisure activities, said that the other factors of the scale, such as, deriving pleasure and self-identity from video-gaming, did not significantly affect social ties. Some gamers who participated in the study were deeply invested in the game, both financially and behaviorally.
"Some participants indicated they spent more than 100 hours per week on playing games, which is well above the national average," said Benjamin Hickerson, assistant professor of recreation, parks and tourism management at Penn State, but he noted that behavioral indicators, such as the amount of time and money spent on games, were not related to the gamers' success in maintaining their social ties. "What the study does seem to point out is that video gaming is not always a negative. Players may actually be doing something positive when gaming becomes a way for games to connect with friends who they otherwise may not be able to spend time with, especially friends who they are not near geographically."
This information could help video game designers create games that identify problematic behaviors, such as excessive centrality, and build games with features that help the gamers maintain friendships and relationships.
"There's a common stereotype that if you play video games, then you are a loner," said Hickerson. "But it may have more to do with how a person is involved in gaming that determines how their social support is affected."
Any obsessive activity could be a warning sign, of course. Spending 40 hours a week on Science 2.0 isn't likely to lead to any harm.
Published in Society and Leisure.