Last week, Washington DC played host to the 145th official, national conference for psychologists, otherwise known as the American Psychological Association (APA) annual convention. Each year, thousands of working professionals, students, retired members, keynote speakers, and other related field members all gather to hear the latest research and discussions, straight from the people who make it all happen.

And among the many, many topics, the discussion of video games and what they are doing to us is still white hot.

Every year, the week is packed with talks from early morning until evening. But with the APA split into 54 different divisions, it can sometimes be a bit overwhelming sorting through all the subdisciplines to find the information most relevant to you. And though its social media presence is rising (#APA2014!), the APA hasn't always made its general findings super accessible to the general public, with consideration that APA is a conference by professionals tailored for other professionals.

But science is important. It helps us know what we should anticipate, and objectionably why. And you should know what we're finding.

So let me point you in the direction of Division 46. It's the Society for Media Psychology & Technology, and it was involved in some excellent talks this year on where the field of game research is going. In particular, and with apologies to the many, other fantastic lectures who spoke throughout the week, let me briefly highlight three of the discussions that should be of interest to those who are most affected by the research: you guys.


Online Ugliness: Objectionable, Antisocial, & Stereotype Driven User Behavior In Online Games

Did you hear online gaming is getting less obnoxious? Well, researchers at Penn State University Park and Virginia Tech University (Did you know Virginia Tech actually has a Game lab? Go read what they've found out!) have been investigating levels of social toxicity in games and have come up with some pretty interesting data. Here's some very brief recaps on their portion of the symposium:


In examining the online behavior of 2000 players in Call of Duty: Black Ops, Halo: Reach, and Call of Duty: Black Ops II, it turns out people choosing to speak in game is much less common as compared to people who choose not to speak in game.

But whenever they do talk?

They demonstrated that those who choose to speak most often use profanity. Conversely, racial slurs, sexual content, and drug references, among other coded negative interactions, were rarely spoken but were far more often seen through various user-made avatars instead.


A second study examined over 1,350 participants in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3. Here, one researcher played the game while a separate researcher would microphone chat saying either negative things, positive things, or nothing at all. Afterwards they would send out friend requests to the other players to see if their behavior impacted their acceptance. The hypothesis was that real life gender expectancy would impact whether or not players would accept the friend requests. The results?

On average, women's friend requests were accepted more than males, but males were far more likely to have their friend requests accepted if they spoke negatively. This actually confirmed the research on gender expectations. However, women were more likely to have their friend requests accepted if they said nothing at all. This was followed by positive interactions and then negative interactions for females.


Finally, studies on characters. In addition to analyzing non-player characters, player made avatars were examined. It can be reasonably presumed that the idea behind having one's own customizable avatar is to allow more nuanced level of self-expression in an otherwise pre-scripted, virtual world. So far, however, this does not seem to be the case - at least as far as gender and race is represented.

The four games explored in this study (selected by way of sales volume) were World of Warcraft, Guild Wars, Dungeons and Dragons Online, and RuneScape.


One of the measures reports an aggregate count of 43.4% white and 52.8% non-gendered unique character appearances, as compared to only 3.8% black avatars. Similarly, another measure showed males accounted for 57.38% of unique character appearances as compared to 34.22% non-gendered avatars and 8.41% female avatars. Black was the only non-white racial group represented whatsoever.

In a separate study of avatar perception, researchers reported that participants would respond to help requests in World of Warcraft consistent with offline sex stereotypes of physical appearances. Women were less likely to receive the same assistance as men whenever their avatars were gender swapped against their account – gender swapping had no effect on people's assistance of men. This suggests that men have more freedom to explore different identities in a game environment than perhaps women.


Why is all of this? Possible societal and demographic issues abound. In regards to the lack of minority avatars, it is theorized in part that minority and female players may seek to assimilate into the norm to risk potential harassment or abuse. Offline beliefs seem to be reflecting online stereotypes, as well as potentially vice-versa.

Regardless of why, this stable of studies shows video game representation of minorities and women still vastly disproportionate to the playing population, even in instances when the players have a small hand in shaping the world.

Dr. James D. Ivory and Dr. Adrienne Holz Ivory are faculty at Virginia Tech University, and serve as faculty to the G.A.M.E.R. lab. Franklin T. Waddell is a doctoral student from The College of Communications, Penn State University Park. Drs. James and Adrienne Ivory can be found here and here. Links to Franklin T. Waddell's research are here.


Toward an Etiology of Dysregulated Electronic Game Engagement

The American Psychiatric Association has punted on "Internet Use Disorder", as it was only included within the DSM-V for future consideration as a condition known as "Internet Gaming Disorder". Dr. Andrew K. Przybylski from the University of Oxford has some ideas as to how we can get this to where it needs to be.


Dr. Przybylski conducted a metaanalysis on the research regarding gaming addiction, reporting at least 64 different studies on the topic, and at least 18 different measures on the same thing. He argues that many of them are more or less adaptations of gambling addiction scales, which are pathological in measure, and largely with hampered validities. A whopping 7 of the 9 current criterion for Internet addiction explicitly mention "Gaming" as the hinge for which to assume the diagnosis!

In English? Instead of diagnosing electronic obsession by what is wrong, Dr. Przybylski thinks there needs to be a shift in thinking by implementing what is normal. His proposed solution is to leave pathos behind and pivot towards a future model of gaming through Motivational theories so that we can establish what is normative behavior, and thus allow for claims to become falsifiable, creating better science as a result.

Perhaps this might inspire a motivational model that will finally explain our hat crafting obsessions.


Dr. Andrew K. Przybylski is a research fellow at the University of Oxford. He publishes on the effects of video game playing and can be found here.

Politics of Video Game Research & How We Might Move Forward

In order to understand how we got to the political landscape of violence and game playing, we first need to know how we got to where we are. Dr. Christopher J. Ferguson has spent a career digging into the politics of games and was able to report a consistent tone that the whole of gaming research has wrought, showing three observable periods over time:

  • Early (pre-2000)
  • Alarm (2000-2007)
  • Confusion (2007-Present)

The early days are marked by about 20 or so studies colored as more or less inconclusive. But the early 2000's onward marked a dramatic shift in volume and content, with consistent effects and similar variables largely directed towards researching violence. Of course, Columbine was the event that spurred this sea change, and it was not until late into the decade that the research started to come back towards what he calls the "confusion" era; Failed replications and null results pepper the field today, with an expansion on researched behaviors now beginning to be explored (you may recall studies using things like hot sauce to display aggressive behavior in gaming?)


So what's with all the mixed messages? According to Dr.Ferguson, we are far too fixated on a variable that may in fact not even be anywhere near the most important gaming byproduct, if it even truly is one: violence.


Using current correlational (not causational!) graphs and Moral Panic Theory to illustrate this point, we are left with some hard truths: Video game sales are near an all-time high while youth violence rates are at their lowest since the 1960's, mass shooters are virtually never implicated with game playing in the media if they are above 30 years old, and we have well over 200 studies that study video game playing and aggression, while research on topics such as video game playing and negative attitudinal behaviors towards minorities are still largely unexplored. (Dr. Ferguson would go on to give a separate talk on "Girls in games", where he described female gender portrayal as "just terrible".)

In 2005, the APA took an official stance on violence and video games, using harsh language that certainly comes across as implicating. In 2011, the Supreme Court struck down a Californian led law that sought to ban violent game sales due largely to extremely negligible research results.


Dr. Ferguson wants the APA to start to look at themselves.

To borrow his paraphrase, congressmen and women used to think Van Halen and Ozzy Osborne were the devil. And now they totally rock. It seems inevitable that the true effects of media exposure won't be known until a similar changing of the guard in the perception of our media occurs.

In fact, he hopes for a greater rise in research on the impetus for not violent behaviors from electronic media, but what is leading towards this rise in research itself. In his estimation, "Sociology of Media Research" may become more telling than the several hundreds of works that seem to be leading nowhere. Or at least, are putting an extremely elaborate point on a problem yet to be demonstrably proven.


Dr. Ferguson is a media researcher from Stetson University, and has published many critical works on the media and media perception. He can be found here.


Alan is a grad student studying the psychology of creativity in southern California. He got all the way to the finals of the Mario Kart 8 tournament at Comic-Con, but doesn't wanna talk about it.