Exploring ‘The Video Game Debate’: Social outcomes and online gamers


Of all the chapters in Rachel Kowert and Thorsten Quandt’s book The Video Game Debate: Unravelling the Physical, Social, and Psychological Effects of Video Games, this is the chapter I’ve been most dreading to cover in our ongoing series on MMOs and psychology.

It’s not just because, as I previously mentioned, it’s one of the most difficult chapters in the book. It’s the findings. Dr. Kowert is very balanced in her handling of the topic, both pro and against gaming in terms of social outcomes. But for me, someone who recently had a huge bout with depression and used online games to deal with it, this chapter began as a knock-out punch to my ego before I was able to rely on some other strategies to stand up and tackle my understanding of the chapter, and myself, from different angles.

Source: Toshi Crystal

Social bonds, bridges, and capital

Kowert differentiates between social bonding and social “bridging.” Bonds are the close relationships built on similar backgrounds we have that are difficult to escape, like with family. “Bridges,” on the other hand, are more optional, like bowling teams, where we do an activity together for entertainment and to expand our social network. The problem for many game-based relationships is that the anonymity that makes them so easy to form and be at ease within also makes these relationships easy to escape, so there’s more bridging than bonding. A bridged connection can become a bond, but it’s difficult.

This is key in relation to the idea of “social capital.” Think reputation grinds: It’s what you get for interacting with people, such as new information, physical/emotional support, and new social connections. Social bridging is more like rep grinding a minor faction (like whatever comes out in each new World of Warcraft expansion), while bonding is working with a faction that will be relevant for the duration of the game’s life (like Stormwind or Orgrimmar).

However, as Kowert notes, one of the few on-point studies was survey-based and conducted online. It actually showed online activities cost people offline bridging and bonding opportunities and that online activities seemed to be more about bridging than bonding. This is why social displacement (the idea of being social through some form of communication that doesn’t involve being face-to-face in real-life places) worries people: Online gamers may be losing meatspace connections by participating in online worlds.

In other words, the social compensation received from online games is satisfying for people who want connections but have social skill issues or anxieties that prevent them from forming bonds in meatspace. This issue may even be exacerbated by online participation; while online games allow for quicker development and acquisition of social bonds, bridging, and capital, it may also stunt the growth of important social skills, leading to higher levels of depression or loneliness, according to some researchers. In fact, this is an idea Kowert’s done a bit of work on herself.

Most social problems people have with games seem to originate outside those games. For these people, it may be that they have social issues, come to the game to solve them, create new issues, become depressed, and continue to play in order to alleviate their issues.

This is personally where I was running into a problem. When I lived in the States, I could meet people easily in game and bring that into meatspace. I’d met up with guild friends several times, even housed them or worked for them! In Japan, though, that proved very difficult. In fact, most of the relationships I formed in real-life were more like bridges than bonds in that nearly none of my new connections expanded outside the very specific context I formed them in, whether it was in school or a game cafe (think internet cafe, but for 3DS and PS Vita). The same thing happened as I tried to play online games in Japan with Japanese players. I felt like I was missing something (beyond simple differences in culture and language).

Source: Cory M. Grenier
Source: Cory M. Grenier

The online threat

I’m sure we’re all intimately aware that the unique features of online games, such as “shared activities between co-players,” along with a healthy dose of “self-disclosure and intimacy” with other players, helps to form bonds not traditionally found in other social environments, which can possibly replace meatspace experiences. It’s generally a scary thing for anyone who doesn’t understand the nature of the internet or has trouble balancing work and pleasure.

However, according to Kowert’s research, online games are now the second-most popular online activity, behind watching videos on sites like YouTube, but ahead of watching TV shows/movies and listening to the radio. The social nature of online games, along with the ability to make friends and share things with them that you might not share with meatspace friends, is one of the things that gets people into the MMORPG genre. It hooks them in and is often a big part of why the game’s enjoyable. As discussed previously, the thing about online games is that they’re not just socialization spaces online but an activity space, where people are doing something fun and other people can join in to (hopefully) make that experience richer. Again, being able to inhabit a space anonymously but still communicate with others makes it easier to say things we might not say so readily in real life (which can be good or bad).

And that is all down to text. Kowert notes that voice chat exists, but for the most part assumes that text is the default communication tool for online games. People in games that have both voice chat and text (especially action-based games), in my experience, tend to favor voice chat; I’ve been “accidently” killed or even ignored in the past because I refused to use voice chat. Heck, I remember being in a few MMO guilds where people felt there was a divide between members, with people who were usually available on voice chat being seen as “preferred” members of the guild. This shows that voice chat is affecting the social space, and it’s a shame it wasn’t explored more in this chapter. From my perspective, I would expect it to make other players seem more real.

At any rate, the fear is that online relationships replace meatspace ones and may cause people to spend more time in the game rather than deal with the non-virtual world. This leads to two trains of thought:

  1. People who use online games for socializing may lose real-world social skills
  2. They had pre-existing social skill issues and use games to help them compensate.

However, it’s possible that both ideas interact together to some degree. That is, someone may have pre-existing social skill issues, use online games to help compensate, but end up losing some of those skills, such as the ability to properly react to non-verbal communication.

Guild Chat love

Communicating without words

With social displacement, the fear is that the social connections in online games are a bridge, not a real bond; people are connected, but because of the same features that make these relationships possible, it’s easier to escape them since there’s less of a “social presence.” This presence is mostly referring to a way to immediately see and feel the reaction of others through non-verbal communication (like body language and facial expressions).

Kowert notes that research shows that people who make good use of these cues (good eye contact, appropriate closeness, attentiveness to the other person while communicating) resulted in the person seemingly more likable than unlikable. These have also been tested to see how seriously the speaker was taken when/if correctly utilizing non-verbal communication. When given instructions over the phone, people were less likely to inflict (seemingly real) harm on others when instructed to do so, but face-to-face communication made the person more obedient, with physical distance also playing a factor (closer being more effective, which is why your boss gets in your face if she thinks you’re ignoring her instructions).

I can attest to this when coordinating an international program with a “partner” who didn’t want to help. Indirect communication was practically ignored, but direct messages were taken seriously. Even just the threat of the use of video chat caused that teacher to want to fall in line. When plans for a potential visit from our partner school were discussed, my counterpart claimed to be too busy that day before even hearing the date. This is intuitive, but having data support this rather than anecdotal evidence makes it more difficult to argue against. However, while lack of social cues in online games does have down sides, the upside is that it allows people to feel less inhibited, which may be a negative with certain actions but can also allow some people to better open up and express themselves.


A (potential) social hamster wheel

Then there’s the “cycle model”: play games because of the social problems (compensation), lose connections (displacement), repeat. Let’s face it: Even as MMO players, we hate grinding. We hate being on a hamster wheel, running without moving forward. However, it’s one thing to do it for fun, but it’s another when it’s your social life.

At least anecdotally, this concept of cyclic social failure makes sense. I’ve gone through it myself. More than a year after I moved to Japan, there was an incident within my own social circle unrelated to me, causing a massive rift between two sides I simply couldn’t join due to language and culture gaps. Combined with limited time and few opportunities to bond with co-workers, I again turned to online communities. I tried to bring some online ties into meatspace, failed, went back to the games to try again, and again failed. A lot of the dust of my real life has settled now, and I have been able to make social connections (on and offline) that go beyond their original social contexts, but for people who aren’t quite as lucky, it could easily become an endless cycle. As Kowert notes, recent research seems to indicate that online experiences can help lead to some positive lessons for meatspace use.

Still, this cycle of trying to play to meet people is, sadly, what seems to make this sort of player the one who loses the most connections through online play, at least with offline contacts. Luckily, the overall trend may apply only to those who are the most and least engaged in the activity; Kowert’s previous research with a large sample showed a linear correlation between quality and quantity of friendships and online gameplay, with those spending the most time online having the most “different” kinds of social skills (such as increased verbal control but more discomfort in social settings). That means “normal” folks should be pretty much fine playing games and maintaining balance in online/offline social circles. However, once you really start to get “addicted,” the negative social effects start to kick in, but they’re quite broad and actually include some benefits, so it may not be something to worry about too much.

Social anxiety increases with time spent in-game, but the magnitude is still unknown. Also, since most studies are short term, it’s difficult to know whether these problems are caused by the motivation to use the game or by exacerbating pre-existing conditions. One study did find that online play worsened the situation, but that study focused on problematic players, not the general community. Kowert did attempt to correct for this (as we’ve mentioned), leading to positive findings for adolescents who used games for social purposes. This seems to be a general issue with games and social studies (which is one reason I’ve found Kowert’s work to be useful: It’s balanced on a broad gaming community level, as opposed to just looking at those who are specifically seeking help for perceived problems).


The price(s) we pay

Kowert’s research has shown there can be growth for normal players, at least in terms of emotional control, sensitivity to non-verbal communication, and expression, but verbal skills may be lacking. But these aren’t long-term studies, which could help really determine what’s going on.

West Virginia University’s Nick Bowman recently wrote that studies show games like League of Legends help players develop transactive memory, a kind of social hive-mind mentality that makes it easier to share information with people in one’s own group. That is, if you know that people tend to ambush the middle lane within the first few minutes of a match from the north and south sides, your long-term partners will know to watch for that without your needing to tell them (hopefully).

Increasing this ability makes it easier to work with one’s own team, but it can come at a cost: The more difficult a game becomes, the less one’s avatar is a representation of oneself and the more it becomes another tool, leading players to become less emotionally involved with aspects other than the hard game mechanics while also treating other people and their avatars more as tools than as people. This is basically why a raid leader can cut someone from the team who is beloved but cannot perform well enough. This isn’t a judgment call about the raid leader, as a group of people who want to clear content would clearly agree with such an agreement, but it does help better explain why this happens.

This is why people debate that powergaming can ruin MMOs. Even more importantly, though, is that it’s led to some debate about whether online communities are even communities at all, which will be our topic for our last discussion on The Video Game Debate.

Additional Sources

Bowman, N. D. (2016). “Video Gaming as Co-Production.” In R. Lind (Ed.), Produsing 2.0: The intersection of audiences and production in a digital world (Vol. 2, pp. 107-123). New York: Peter Lang Publishing

Image Attribution: Allan Chatto

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