A Social Meaning Framework for Research on Participation in Social Online Games

Shane M. Murphy

Department of Psychology, Western Connecticut State University,

181 White Street, Danbury, Connecticut, 06810.

Email: Murphys@wcsu.edu

 

Online Publication Date: June 19, 2007

Journal of Media Psychology, V 12, No. 3, Summer 2007

 

Abstract

Video and computer games have been widely researched by psychologists, with many studies focused upon the harmful effects of playing violent game content on subsequent behavior.  A Social Meaning Framework (SMf) is proposed for the psychological study of a popular new form of game, the social online game.  The SMf emphasizes that both player variables, such as purpose and imagination, and virtual environment variables, such as game design and social features, must be considered before the meaning of a game play experience can be understood.  The perceived meaning of game play will determine subsequent changes in self-efficacy, perceived ability and enjoyment and it is these psychological factors that the SMf predicts will influence subsequent behavior.  A comprehensive research agenda to investigate the value of the proposed research framework against preexisting models is suggested and several critical research questions are identified that have been either insufficiently researched or not studied at all.  

Introduction

Psychological research on the effects of playing video and computer games has focused largely on their negative effects.  One of the chief questions researchers have asked is whether playing violent video games promotes an increase in aggressive and violent behavior in children and adolescents. Enough research has been carried out that several reviews of the literature on violent video games and behavior have been conducted (Anderson & Bushman, 2001; Dill & Dill, 1998; Griffiths, 1999; Sherry, 2001).  The argument put forward in this paper is that this narrow emphasis on the effects of video game participation on aggression has lead researchers to ignore a potentially more important and much larger research topic – the effects of video and computer game participation on psychological and social development in young people and the effects of social gaming on attitudes and behavior in both the young and the old.  Modern forms of electronic gaming constitute a new environment for human behavior.  This environment, although often characterized as “virtual” (and therefore not “real”), is in fact a very real environment that has the potential to influence human behavior in a variety of ways, many of which have not been studied by social scientists.  A long research tradition of studying the effects on human behavior of media in general and television in particular must evolve to account for the development of what I term social online games.  These games are not merely a new form of entertainment but they create new environments for individuals in which they interact with thousands of others on a regular, often daily, basis.  Because these new environments throw together adults, children and adolescents in a complex social environment that can be both highly competitive as well as intensely cooperative, it is imperative that psychologists develop a research framework based upon sound and relevant theory that seeks to determine the effects of participation in these “games” on cognitive, emotional and social development.

 

The Development of Electronic Gaming in the USA

An analysis of the growth of electronic gaming is important not because it helps us understand the types of electronic games that young people play, nor because it illustrates the tremendous growth in popularity of these activities, although these are important aspects of the issue.  Rather, understanding where video and computer games have come from and where they are going illustrates the huge changes in the nature of electronic gaming and highlights why psychologists should be concerned with this phenomenon.  Modern gaming experiences for children, adolescents and adults are extremely social in nature and offer a variety of opportunities for social interactions of both a cooperative and competitive nature.  It is important to understand this new social environment and especially to understand the psychological effects of long-term participation in these activities.

 

The first home video game system ever sold was the Magnavox Odyssey in 1972, but it was the electronic game Pong, released first as a coin-operated cabinet (“arcade game”) in 1972, and then sold as a home version by Atari in Sears stores in 1975 that made electronic gaming popular in US homes.  In their analysis of the effects of violent video games, Gentile and Anderson (2003) divided the history of video games into three eras, based upon the most popular video game “console” (home unit) of its time: Atari (1975-1985), Nintendo (1985-1995) and Sony (1995-present).  However, during each of these time periods several console makers vied for dominance of market share, and the rapid rise of personal computers (PCs) created a huge additional market for computer games.  For the past three decades, games have been developed for PCs, for home consoles and for both systems (cross-platforming), so it is more accurate to discuss the history of video and computer games.  I suggest that the short history of video and computer games be viewed in terms of the dominant technology of the time: the Early Home Console Era (1977-1983); the Early PC Era (1984-1991); the Powerful Home Console Era (1991-1999); and the Online Social Era (1999-present).

 

The Early Home Console Era (1977-1983) was marked by the first technological breakthrough that was to make electronic gaming so popular.  Early games like Pong were single-engine games – the system was designed for that game only. In 1976 the Fairchild Video Entertainment System was developed, that allowed multiple games, each sold in its separate plastic case (cartridge) to be played on the system.  Atari released its own, more popular, cartridge-based system in 1977, the Video Computer System (VCS), and the very popular Intellevision system, made by Mattel, was released in 1980.  These early home video gaming systems became popular Christmas and birthday presents in the USA.  By the end of 1982, over two million Intellevision units had been sold.  Over 100 games were made for Intellevision and each game was sold separately to consumers – video games had become a big business.  In Japan, a company called Nintendo released its Family Computer (FamiCon) console in 1983, introduced into the USA in 1985-1986 as the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) and establishing video gaming as a global phenomenon.

 

The next technological breakthrough was the development of home computing systems that allowed users to perform a variety of tasks, including gaming, on their system.  Word processing, spreadsheet analysis and graphics design and presentations became possible on more powerful systems such as the Apple II computer, the Commodore 64 and the IBM PC, developments that lead to the widespread purchase of so-called home, or personal computers (PCs).  PC owners found that their systems were well-suited for leisure-time use and software companies such as Electronic Arts, Infocom and MicroProse were soon providing a tremendous variety of games for PCs (the Early PC Era, 1984-1991). Well-defined genres of games such as adventure games, first-person shooters (FPS) and role-playing games (RPGs), each with its familiar conventions, became established during the Early PC Era, while console makers began making home console versions of popular arcade genres such as platformers.

 

Video and computer gaming established truly mass popularity during the next phase of development in the industry, characterized by very powerful, dedicated gaming systems with sophisticated graphics and sound.  The Sega Genesis, 1989, was the first of these systems, and was followed by the extremely popular Nintendo Super NES, 1991, and the Sony PlayStation in 1995. The PlayStation sold over 100 million units and by 2001 one of every three US households owned a PlayStation system.  Shooting games became hugely popular during this era (1991-1999) after the release of Doom in 1993.  It inspired a host of imitators. Video and computer games have become a major environmental influence on children born since the Powerful Home Console Era.  These systems and their games provide a vocabulary and context for shared childhood experiences and have come to offer a popular form of competition as friends strive to defeat each other on their favorite games.  Cooperation is also evident in these gaming experiences as friends influence each other’s purchase decisions and share information as they learn to defeat difficult games and overcome the challenges posed by game designers.  Playing electronic games together has become a powerful social force for friends, and families, perhaps approaching the social significance of participation in traditional social activities such as youth sports (Smoll & Smith, 1996).  Famous video game characters from popular games, such as Master Chief, Mario and Sonic, are as well-known to today’s youth as television and comic book characters such as Batman, Superman and Mickey Mouse were to earlier generations.  Increasing recognition by social scientists of the widespread influence of video and computer games has no doubt been an important stimulus for the increasing research focus on the potential negative effects on psychological development of these games (Kirsh, 2006).

 

The final stage in the short history of video and computer games takes us to the present day and is defined by the advent of another technological advance that has huge implications for psychological research in this field.  The ability to connect to other computers anywhere in the world via, initially, phone lines and later via broadband connections, lead to the widespread popularity of online gaming and marks the start of the Social Online Era of video and computer games (1999-present).

 

New Developments in Electronic Gaming: Social Organizations in Online Games

At the end of the 1990’s, game play behavior was dramatically transformed by the advent of widespread access to the internet.  Before electronic gaming became popular, games, be they chess or soccer, were almost always social in nature.  Electronic gaming was, at first, a solitary pursuit, limited by the available technology which was mostly designed for a single player.  As the console game systems became more sophisticated, social gaming on a small scale was encouraged by the use of multiple controllers linked to the same game system.  Two, three or four players could play the same game side-by-side, and games of a social nature, such as Mario Party, were designed with this technology in mind, especially during and since the Powerful Home Console Era

 

As the internet became more accessible and bandwidth improved, a new genre of games began to appear – massively multiplayer online games (MMOs).  These games catered not to 3 or 4 players at a time, but to hundreds and then thousands of players interacting in a virtual-world environment.  These games are “massively multiplayer” because large numbers of players can be sharing the same experience at the same time while interacting with each other.  Games developed for the internet-friendly PC were the first to take advantage of this development. Then in 2001 the huge software company Microsoft released its own home gaming system that stressed its online capability, the Xbox.  Although the ever-popular shooting games made an easy transition to this massively multiplayer environment, with games such as Counter-Strike, Halo and Unreal becoming popular, by far the most popular genre that emerged were the online role-playing games, linked to the creative ethos of table-top social games such as Dungeons and Dragons and the imaginary worlds of J.R.R. Tolkein.  The first such game was Ultima Online, released in 1997, and this game and its successors became known as massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs).

 

The growth in popularity of such social electronic games has been amazing.  The first MMORPG, Ultima Online, gained over 200,000 customers willing to pay the roughly $15 a month necessary to “subscribe” to this imaginary world.  In 1999 Sony released a game, EverQuest, set in the imaginary world of Norrath, which not only became hugely popular, garnering over 400,000 customers, but that also set the standard for many games to follow.  Meanwhile, in Asia, as internet access there became more available, MMORPGs became extremely popular, and games such as Lineage and Mu gained several million paying players.  A variety of other similarly popular MMORPGs followed EverQuest in the early 2000’s.  Then in 2004 the USA gaming company Blizzard released an online version of their extremely popular real-time strategy (RTS) video game, WarCraft.  The online game World of WarCraft is estimated to have over 8 million subscribers (Schiesel, 2006) and has established social online gaming as a cultural phenomenon.  The success of World of WarCraft has lead to the ongoing development of a host of social online games.  For this reason, I suggest that the current era of electronic gaming be called the Social Online Era.[1] 

 

Three characteristics define social online games.  First, the games themselves are structured with social play in mind.  Game designers accomplish this by several means.  For one thing, communication in-game is easy.  Players can usually talk to each other (akin to “instant messaging”) and they can also communicate in public areas that hundreds of other players visit, creating something of a community message board system.  Newer games have web-based social functions such as “message boards” built into their structure and players can identify themselves on the web via their in-game characters.

 

Second, the game play itself requires social play.  Although most MMORPGs support single-player modes where a player can go online and pursue solitary objectives, nearly all the major goals of such games can only be accomplished through the cooperation of dozens and sometimes even hundreds of players.  In World of WarCraft, for example, a large in-game cooperative event might require at least 40 participants working together to achieve a common goal (known as a “raid”) and might be scheduled weeks in advance.  In this respect, social online games have become the electronic “sports” of the 21st century and such sports phenomena as teamwork, leadership, competition and spectators are integral to current social online games.  In many games the cooperation entails players working together against the game’s artificial intelligence (AI) to accomplish specific goals (“quests” or “missions”).  But in some games the play pits coordinated teams of players against each other in very competitive settings.  Indeed, some MMORPGs such as Lineage, ShadowBane, PlanetSide, Dark Age of Camelot and Warhammer Online strive to recreate the complexities of societies at war and online battles can involve hundreds of participants at a time. World of WarCraft incorporates these large player-versus-player (PvP) experiences as an optional feature.

 

The third characteristic of online social games is that they encourage the formation of close and long-term relationships.  All MMORPGs and their kindred provide mechanisms for players grouping together in large units in order to accomplish shared long-term objectives.  These communities of players are known by such role-playing names as guilds, clans and outfits.  Players tend to meet in-game on a regular basis and schedule such events into their lives just as they would when attending a concert or watching a favorite TV show.    Furthermore, the social structure of social online games extends beyond the confines of the game.  The guilds and clans of these games tend to create their own websites and encourage regular meetings of members.  Relationships built in this way are maintained principally via the internet, although at times players meet in real-world settings such as “fan fairs”.  Preliminary evidence (Ducheneaut & Moore, 2004; Jakobsson & Taylor, 2003; Seay et al., 2004; Yee, 2006a) suggests that social groups formed in this way can to lead sometimes intense and often long-lasting relationships.  For example, Yee (2004) found that 52% of female MMORPG players surveyed and 28% of males had given their phone number to another person, while 15.7% of female players and 5.1% of males had dated someone they first met through playing an MMORPG together (Yee, 2006a). My own research indicates that many such social networks transfer their allegiance from one game to another when a new, more advanced game comes on the market. The general player-base of all these games creates a variety of online add-on experiences, such as websites catering to exchanges of needed information; online “marketplaces” where in-game objects can be bartered, bought and sold; and fan websites devoted to original writings, videos, art and other creative endeavors based upon the game.

 

The Popularity of Social Online Games.  The advent of the Social Online Era has attracted the attention of social scientists as they have endeavored to understand the consequences of participation in these very popular new forms of games (Chan & Vorderer, 2006).  As suggested above, video and computer games have become a highly popular form of entertainment in our society.  Although non-social console game play remains extremely popular, it is social online games that will be the focus of the remainder of this paper.  The latest generation of consoles released in 2005-2006 (the Microsoft Xbox 360, the Sony PlayStation 3 and the Nintendo Wii) all have significant online capabilities, emphasizing the continuing growth in importance of social online game play.  Online gaming experiences have not replaced more traditional cooperative and competitive game experiences in our society, such as sport, but they are new and emergent phenomena that affect a very large percentage of children, adolescents and adults and the evidence suggests that their influence is, and will continue, to grow rapidly (Castronova, 2005).  Sales data give an indication of the popularity of such games.  Recent estimates place the annual sale of video game consoles and games at over $10 billion annually (Richtel, 2005) – a figure that is approaching the annual revenues of movies.  A popular console game with significant online capabilities, Halo 2, sold 2.4 million copies on its first day of release (Kirsh, 2006).  It is reported that in 2006, World of WarCraft was on pace to generate more than $1 billion in revenue, making it one of the most lucrative entertainment media properties of any kind (New York Times, 2006, p.A1).

 

In terms of level of participation, Yee (2006b) surveyed 5,471 social online game players solicited through website portals concerning their level of involvement.  He found that users spend an average of 22.72 hours on their chosen MMORPG.  For those who participate, these games have become equivalent to other major forms of social entertainment in their popularity.  In a comparison of social online game play and television viewing, Castronova (2001) found that the great majority of players of the MMORPG EverQuest played between 5 and 25 hours a week, compared to an average time spent viewing television of 20 hours a week for children and adolescents and 30-35 hours a week for adults.  These participation levels are also comparable with those of youth sports participants – on average, during an 18-week season, young athletes spend at least 11 hours a week in their sport working with their coach (Gould & Martens, 1979).  Level of participation data suggest that social scientists are justified in examining the psychological consequences of participation in social online games on players.  Social online gaming experiences are a significant part of the lives of many players.

 

This brief review of the history and development of video and computer gaming experiences has established that the modern-day gaming experience for players can be very social and that social online games are extremely popular and encourage intense levels of participation.  The widespread popularity of these games and the intense level of participation often involved suggest that psychological research on the effects of game participation on social and individual behavior is warranted.  Yet a review of the existing psychological research in this area suggests that is has been narrowly focused on the violence inherent in many video and computer games and on the effects of this violent content on aggressive behavior (Kirsh, 2006).  Why this has been the focus of previous research, what is wrong with this approach and why a more comprehensive psychological framework for the study of social online games is necessary will be the focus of the remainder of this paper.

 

Psychological Research on the Effects of Participation in Social Video and Computer Games

From the beginnings of electronic gaming, game designers have been limited by the constraints of what can happen on the screen while a player sits at a keyboard or with gamepad in hand.  One of the easiest actions to program and for the player to observe is for the pixels on the screen (which might represent an ugly monster or another player) to be “hit” with a cursor and then to disappear.  In this way, “killing” became an integral part of many video and computer games and the debate on the effects of “videogame violence” on the aggressive behavior of children and adolescents was born.  The first controversial “violent” game was Death Race by Exidy in 1976 (Demaria & Wilson, 2004), although examination of the blocky, low-resolution “cars” running over the stick-figure “people” indicates that from the earliest days of the controversy, anxiety about game violence tended to be as much about symbolic violence as it did about realistically portrayed in-game violence.  Nevertheless, in response to Death Race the console-maker Atari maintained a policy against “killing recognizably human figures” (Demaria & Wilson, 2004).  

 

In the video and computer games of today, on-screen “killing” or “violence” can take many aspects, from a player shooting an enemy with a gun, to fighting with light sabers, to hurling magical balls of flames at enemies.  “First-person shooter” has become the label for a whole genre of games that involve playing with a virtual gun, from a first-person perspective, aiming and pulling the virtual trigger in an attempt to hit a moving target – usually the on-screen representation of another player. These FPS games have come in for some of the most vehement criticism concerning their negative effects on the subsequent behavior of players.  Some critics have gone so far as to claim that such FPS games actually teach players how to kill (Grossman & DeGaetano, 1999).  MMORPGs also use a great deal of violent content to challenge players, from early-game challenges such as individually killing weak AI opponents to later-game tests of patience that might require 25 players cooperating to destroy an enormously powerful AI enemy.  Social online games also routinely encourage players to battle each other in PvP play.

 

A review of psychological research on the effects of video and computer gaming reveals an overwhelming focus on the hypothesized link between on-screen violence and aggression (Anderson & Bushman, 2001; Anderson & Dill, 2000; Ballard & Lineberger, 1999; Funk & Buchman, 1996: Funk et al., 2002; Scott, 1995).  Some of this research has followed from a history of research into the effects of viewing television violence on aggression and indeed some researchers have linked the two together: “We know with reasonable certainty that children and adolescents who are heavy viewers of action television shows and frequent players of violent video or computer games are more likely to show higher levels of aggression and disruptive noncooperative behaviors” (Singer & Singer, 2005, p. 5).  However, there are also critics of this literature. After an extensive review of the research, Fowles (1999) concludes that the “widely held belief that television fantasy violence stimulates aggression in the real world and should be censured is what propaganda experts might call ‘a big lie’ – a grotesque fabrication to which all unreflectingly subscribe (p. 71).” 

 

It is difficult to evaluate the hypothesis that playing video and computer games increases aggressive behavior in young people because of the limited amount of specific research in the area.  Although many researchers would agree that a reasonable link between exposure to media violence and real-world aggression has been established in other mediums such as film and television (Anderson & Carnagey, 2004), there is a paucity of research examining this connection with respect to video and computer games.  In perhaps the most comprehensive review of the research on media violence to date, Kirsh (2006) concludes that with respect to electronic games, “overall, very few experimental studies have been conducted with children and adolescents as participants [and] . . . there is no research on the effects of first person shooter video games on children and adolescents. . . It is surprising how little developmental research has been conducted in this area” (p. 245).  Kirsh acknowledges that almost no research has addressed the impact of participation in MMORPGs on youthful aggression.  Clearly this is a research topic worthy of further study.  But the research tradition that is based upon studying the effects of various media on aggression and attitudes towards violence may be limited with respect to research on social online games.  Potential problems with this research paradigm are explored in the next section. 

 

Theoretical Models of the Psychological Effects of Playing Online Social Games

A number of researchers have begun to question the limited focus in psychological research on the effects of violence in video and computer games. Castronova has noted that although some research has looked at possible positive effects of video games, “most research focuses on the negative. Indeed the dominant issue in the literature has been the question of whether violence in games makes kids more violent in real life” (2005, p. 64).  Yee (2006b) has noted that “[w]ith regards to video gaming in general, the field of psychology seems fixated on whether video games cause real-life aggression. Considering that new forms of social identity and social interaction are emerging from these environments, is aggression the only thing worth our attention?” (p. 6-7).

 

What is needed seems to be a more comprehensive research framework that integrates existing research with a model of game play behavior that enables us to understand the broader behavioral, emotional and cognitive consequences of participation in these popular shared virtual environments.  The most influential recent model in this area, the General Aggression Model (GAM; Anderson & Carnagey, 2004), is based upon social learning theory and social cognitive psychology.  Interestingly, the authors of this model have recently expanded the range of the model to account for the potential positive effects of videogame play.  “Our own empirical work has focused primarily on the effects of violent video games on those who play them. That work has been framed in terms of the General Aggression Model, an integrative social cognitive model designed to handle all influences on all types of human aggression.  But that model itself can be further generalized to account for nonviolent effects of video games, many of which may well be quite beneficial to the individual as well as to larger society” (Buckley & Anderson, 2006, p. 363).  This more expanded model of the effects of video game play they term the General Learning Model (GLM).

 

The General Learning Model.  The Buckley & Anderson model begins with the assumption that all game play represents an opportunity for learning. “People can learn many complicated behaviors, attitudes, expectations, beliefs and perceptual schemata through observation and participation in video games” (2006, p. 368).  Game play situations are called learning encounters and the learning that takes place is influenced by the interaction of person (e.g., attitudes, goals, emotions, traits) and situation variables. Buckley and Anderson argue that the most important situational variables are those associated with the game features, such as its content (violent, educational), the enjoyment level of the game, and the amount of exposure to the game content.  These learning encounters influence both the subsequent internal state of the player (their arousal, emotions and cognitions) and also their appraisal of the environment and thus subsequent decisions and behavior.

 

Social learning theory (Bandura, 1977; 1991) is thus an important foundation for the GLM.  Bandura’s research showed that people learn not only from direct experience but also from observing others (modeling). In addition, people are more likely to mimic behaviors if they observe the model being rewarded for the behavior and less likely to imitate behaviors that they observe the model being punished for.  Essential to the GLM is the notion that game experiences can alter the self-concept of the player.  This idea is emphasized in the newer GLM, which states that personality changes can occur from repeated video game play due to changes in thought patterns and behaviors. 

 

Of course players in an online FPS do not fire a real gun; it is their in-game electronic representation (called an “avatar” in the research literature) that fires an electronic representation of a gun.  A critical assumption of the GLM as applied to learning in videogames is that players are mainly learning from observing and participating in (via their avatar) the unfolding content provided by the game designers.  Buckley and Anderson point out that simulation and role-playing games can attempt to “model physical or social systems in a manner that is consistent with reality” (2006, p. 372), suggesting that the more realistic the game, the more likely that learning will take place.  Bandura (1977) calls the type of learning that depends on the individual imagining that they are carrying out the modeled behavior “vicarious learning”.  Violent content leading to violent in-game activity (for example, an avatar shooting in-game representations of civilians and police) is predicted to lead to real-life changes in what Buckley and Anderson (2006) call “scripts”, internalized thought patterns that guide emotional and behavioral responses.  In a real-life situation that includes some of the same script characteristics (perhaps confrontation and frustration) the learned script is likely to be activated, and aggressive and hostile responses are predicted to be more likely.

 

This learning based upon what players observe happening in the game is a central feature of Buckley & Anderson’s GLM.  Two primary conclusions emerge from their model – that games teach and that content matters. They emphasize that “. . . researchers, educators, and parents need to pay more attention to the idea that the content of video games does matter. . . The kind of knowledge structures a person develops depends on the content of the games played – content matters” (2006, pp. 374-375).

 

The GAM and the GLM provide a welcome level of theoretical specificity to the debate on the effects of video and computer game participation.  However, a re-analysis of the model suggests that it has two weaknesses as currently proposed.  The problems with the GLM are discussed next and a solution to these problems is then proposed.

 

A Critique of the General Learning Model 

The GLM suggests that the virtual behaviors encountered and enacted by game players will form the foundation of the learning experience provided by the game.  Thus video games that portray violent behavior are a cause for concern because they teach aggressive attitudes and reinforce aggressive beliefs (Bushman & Anderson, 2002). However an alternative interpretation of video game violence suggests that there are really two games taking place at once when a video game is played.  At one level, the game is about the combat and on-screen violence taking place.  At another level, the game will mean different things to different players depending on their interpretation of the meaning of the game play.  Jenkins (2006) calls this the Meanings Model of game play and questions what might “. . . be occurring when players engage with violent video games? Might they be setting their own goals, working through their own emotional questions, forming their own interpretations, talking about them with their friends, and testing them against their observations of the real world?” (2006, p. 24).  The GLM lacks a framework for discussing the meaning of the game play to the player, emphasizing the content of the game over other factors.

 

A second problem for the GLM is that while it is a plausible account of game play effects for single-player games, the addition of other players into this scenario changes the analysis completely.  Even when playing solo, individual players have their own purpose and goals for playing a game, and will strive to understand the rules of the game in order to maximize the probability of succeeding at their goals.  In such a situation the game content provided by the designers is likely to be a very salient aspect of the game play experience, although the content will be interpreted by the player based on experience and individual differences as suggested by Jenkins (2006).  But when other players are playing the same game, their purpose and goals must be understood and taken into account if the individual player wishes to succeed.  My analysis suggests that the “social meaning” of the game becomes the focus of learning.  The game content provided by the designers will not be the most salient aspect of the learning experience in social virtual environments.  Instead, learning by interaction with and observation of other players will become the most salient aspect of social online games.

 

The next section presents a Social Meaning framework (SMf) for understanding the effects of participation in virtual environments within social online games. It differs from the GLM in proposing that the virtual behaviors of the game do not provide the learning context for players but only provide the method for the player to interact with the game and other players. The SMf is based upon a socially interactive analysis of gaming, taking into account the nature of the social online gaming experience and explaining changes in the individual that occur as a result of such experiences.   

 

A Social Meaning Framework for the Psychological Study of Social Online Games

The proposed framework represents a departure primarily in its emphasis on two factors not included in the GLM.  First, this framework emphasizes that each player has their own motives for game participation and that in their efforts to satisfy these motives they develop a purpose for playing and an accompanying set of goals to achieve that purpose.  This purpose will influence the player’s appraisal of game situations encountered during play.  Second, the framework acknowledges the interactive aspect of social online games and proposes that players seek to understand their encounters with other players by assigning meaning to such encounters.  The meaning derived from the encounter will be influenced by the player’s own goals and by their understanding of the goals of other players, derived from observation and communication with them.  This meaning may be very different from any meaning intended by the game designers, who in MMORPGs provide a virtual environment for players but who do not and cannot control the types of social interactions that take place in these environments.

 

Perhaps a non-electronic game example can help clarify the major differences that occur in understanding the game play experience when utilizing an analysis that emphasizes social interaction.  A player is given a set of war game figures to play with, including knights in shining armor and armed foot soldiers.  Analysis of this player’s game experience using a model such as the GLM might suggest that the player’s experience is a violent one, as the player uses the knights to kill the toy soldiers.  Now, let us introduce another player.  Both players now compete on a designed playing field, and to an outside observer, the game experience is still a violent one as each player uses his figures to capture and kill the figures of the opposing player.  But a Social Meaning analysis suggests that each player is considering the war game figures only in terms of overall game strategy and their purpose of obtaining a tactical superiority over the other player.  The meaning of the game for these two players has nothing to do with violence but only reinforces their attempts to learn to be a better chess player.

The SMf for understanding participation in social online games is presented in Figure 1. 

 


Figure 1. The Social Meaning framework for the study of participation in virtual environments in social online games.

 

This framework uses social learning theory to help explain the experience of online gamers and predict some of the possible consequences of participation in these games. Each component of the framework will be briefly explained. 

 

The starting point for this model is the recognition that electronic gaming is an interactive process.  The notion of a player’s self-agency in “causing” or triggering the events on the screen is critically important when examining the psychological impact of gaming participation.  This suggests immediately that there may be important differences in understanding the effects of playing video games as compared to previous research on the effects of exposure to more passive media such as film and television.  Players begin the experience of social online gaming with a set of goals to achieve rather than waiting to be entertained by a film or television show.  There can be many purposes for a player’s gaming.

 

From a social learning theory perspective (Bandura, 1977), social online games involve both an individual’s self-agency in causing actions to occur in-game and a complex social feedback system in which other game players interact and respond to the actions of the individual (Ducheneaut & Moore, 2004).  The SMf attempts to analyze what takes place when an individual player interacts with other players in a complex virtual environment.  The features of the virtual environment that are important in shaping the meaning of the game are examined in this framework.

 

Finally, the SMf suggests that the interaction between the individual player and other players of the same game, taking place within this virtual environment, creates a unique meaning for each gaming experience.  The meaning that the player derives from his or her gaming experience will influence their subsequent self-efficacy, perceived ability and enjoyment of the game play experience.  These virtual experiences will thus result in real world changes in important psychological constructs that will influence subsequent behavioral choices in both game and non-game contexts.

 

The focus of this framework is currently popular social online games such as World of WarCraft and EverQuest, but it is important to emphasize that such games may represent just the tip of the potential virtual environment iceberg.  MMORPGs have been by far the most successful implementation of shared virtual environments to date but the possibilities of virtually created environments are endless.  It will be fascinating to see what developments the coming decade brings to this area of entertainment.

 

The Player

A key feature of the structure of social online games is that they involve a very strong notion of the “self” in the gaming experience. The first step in playing a social online game is to create a fantasy character that will represent the player in the game, called an avatar.  All a player’s actions in the game environment occur via controlling this avatar, and the games are deliberately designed to give players the feel that they are looking into the fantasy world through a “window” (the PC monitor or television screen) that represents the point-of-view of the avatar. Perhaps because the avatar is obviously a fantasy character (it can be a human, an elf, a dragon or a robot, etc.), many players say that the game play gives them an opportunity to behave and interact with others in a different fashion than in other areas of their lives. A 22-year-old female player quoted in one study explains her ability to experiment with different presentations of her “self”: “When I play my male characters, other male members of the party will listen to me better, take me more seriously. In my male form I could give orders and have them listened to, where as a female, my characters aren't always taken quite as seriously . . . I've enjoyed the higher level of "respect" for my abilities that seems to come with playing in a male body” (Yee, 2006b, p. 20).  Players may learn new ways to see themselves through their game participation and come to appreciate real world social implications via their game play experience.   The SMf suggests that four important Player variables are crucial to understanding participation in and the results of social online game play.

 

Purpose. The question of what motivates those who participate in online social games is central the SMf.  The player is seen not as a “black box” who is shaped by repeated interactions with the game, but as a purposeful agent who brings a set of goals to each gaming interaction.  As yet, research into the various motivations of social online game players is in its early stages. Richard Bartle, a well-known game designer, has studied the motivations of social online game users and he divides them into four types (Bartle, 2003).  First are the Explorers, those who play social online games in order to discover new worlds and see amazing new sights.  Next are the Socializers, those game players who derive their greatest satisfaction by playing with others, joining in-game social organizations and accomplishing shared in-game objectives.  The third group is the Achievers, players who are motivated to acquire in-game wealth.  They strive to build a significant reputation in the game and look to increase their own skills in playing the game as well as possible.  The final group is the Controllers, those who are directly competitive in the game and enjoy defeating others.  In some games they become known as “griefers” because they seem to enjoy causing unhappiness by manipulating other players.

 

A more research-based line of evidence into the motives of online social gamers comes from the research of Yee (2006b). He has attempted to articulate a broad range of possible motivations for MMORPG usage based on open-ended survey responses from players as well as the Player Types suggested by Bartle (2003).  A 40-item questionnaire was developed including statements such as “I like to feel powerful in the game” and “I like to be immersed in a fantasy world” and over 3,000 respondents answered these questions on a 5-point Likert-type scale.  A factor analysis identified five factors. A “Relationship” factor indicated players who like to interact with others and who establish supportive, trusting relationships with other players. The “Manipulation” factor indicated a player who objectifies other players and uses them for his or her own personal advantage. An “Immersion” factor was characterized by the enjoyment of creating characters in the game (avatars) and endowing them with a history related to the story of the game. The “Escapism” factor was related to items indicating agreement with the desire to temporarily forget, avoid and escape from real-life problems and stress. And finally, the “Achievement” factor was related to items indicating agreement with the desire to have a powerful avatar in the game and accumulate powerful in-game items. 

 

A great deal of research has been conducted on the motivations of children and adolescents who participate in another leisure-time activity, organized sports (Horn & Harris, 1996; Weiss, 1994; Weiss & Chaumeton, 1992). A comparative approach to the study of participation motivation in sports and online social games could be very fruitful. Established measures and a theoretical framework for studying participation motivation already exist in sport psychology (Gill, Gross, & Huddleston, 1983; Vallerand & Fortier, 1998) and could easily be applied to the study of social online games.  For example, Gould and Petlichkoff (1988) identified six primary motivations for youth sport participants – improving skills, having fun, being with friends, experiencing thrills and excitement, achieving success and developing fitness.  Contrasting the similarities and differences between sports and game motives could greatly enhance our understanding of the motives of children and adolescents participating in social online games.  The relationship and success/achievement motives appear to be shared by athletes and gamers, but do gamers, like athletes, also play in order to increase skills?  The SMf suggests that they do, because the more skill a player demonstrates in the game, the greater their social image, which is a key outcome of playing social online games.  Further research will clarify our understanding of motivational variables.

 

Perception of Others’ Purpose.  In games mediated through a virtual environment, many players can share the same game space and game experience at the same time.  The SMf suggests that the gamer will interact with other players and that the learning experience will be partly shaped by how the gamer perceives the intentions of others. As is the case with many other areas of psychological study, it is not the actual purpose of the other player that shapes the reactions of the gamer, but the perceived purpose of the other player (c.f., Lazarus & Folkman, 1984). Players quickly learn to describe intentionality to the avatars that represent other players and strive, via observing behaviors and communicating with other players, to understand the goals of these avatars (and of the players controlling them).  While the GLM emphasizes the importance of the player’s virtual behavior in shaping the learning experience, the SMf suggests that virtual behaviors serve primarily to achieve in-game goals, to facilitate communication with other players and to provide clues as to the intentions of other players.  The virtual behavior does not define the meaning of the game experience.  The gamer’s interpretation of the experience defines the meaning.

 

Because of the technology available to game players and because of the way social online games are designed, there is also the possibility of extra-communication (communication not mediated by the in-game behaviors of players’ avatars) between players going on during game play.  This direct communication can occur inside or outside the structure of the game.  It can take place by typing messages (akin to instant messaging) or by any of the numerous voice-communication software programs available to game players.  Extra-communication can be game-related (e.g., “Did you just see that enemy player run by?  Let’s kill him”) or it can be unrelated to the game (e.g., “What do you think of the war in Iraq?”).  Extra-communication can also influence the meaning that a game player ascribes to game events by helping define the context of the game experience.  Interestingly, in many social online games the game structure makes text communication with an “enemy” player (a player on the opposing team) impossible via the game interface.  But the possibility of opposing players using extra-communication to converse always exists and players can also use avatar gestures and expressions to communicate on a crude level.

 

Perception of Game Rules and Structure.  Another important variable shaping the player’s psychological response to the game is their perception of the rules and structure of the game. Players strive to understand the rules of the game in order to maximize the probability of achieving their goals.  Game designer Will Wright likens the process of learning the rules of a video game to the scientific method, “Through trial and error, players build a model of the underlying game based on empirical evidence collected through play. As the players refine this model, they begin to master the game world. It's a rapid cycle of hypothesis, experiment, and analysis” (Wright, 2006).  This process can lead to a variety of psychological outcomes, ranging from frustration to elation depending on the success of the endeavor.  Psychological research in this area has focused on how players construct a mental model of the virtual environment in order to successfully function in it and how such models change over time (Graham, Zheng, & Gonzalez, 2006).  These mental models are an internal representation of the virtual environment and give predictive and explanatory power to the player. 

 

Imagination.  The final factor shaping the meaning of the game experience in this framework is the imagination of the player.  Although video and computer games by nature require the active use of imagination to play successfully, this aspect of the psychology of game play has been woefully understudied.  Singer and Singer (2005) have emphasized the importance of understanding the influence of imagination on game play and the impact of extensive video and computer game play on imagination, but few research studies have included player imagination as a measured variable.  Imagination is not included as a factor in the GLM.

 

Imagination is important for the SMf because a player’s imagination during a game experience can transform the situation on-screen into something that is stored in a very different fashion in the player’s memory (Murphy, Cumming, & Nordin, in press).  For example, what appears to be a violent death in a virtual battle may be imagined by a game player as a valiant and glorious rearguard action by a heroic avatar fighting against overwhelming odds.  As a result, the psychological outcome, emotionally and cognitively, may be very different for different players.  Imagination is also important because if a game is involving for a player it is more likely that he or she will “replay” or re-imagine the game experience over time.  Such imagined replays of a game experience constitute an example of vicarious experience (Bandura, 1977) and will influence the player’s memory of the game experience and their cognitive interpretation of the experience.  This suggests that the immediate effects on behavior, affect and cognition of a game play experience may be different than the long-term effects.  Many research studies of the impact of video and computer games on players have focused on immediate outcomes, especially research into the GAM (Bushman & Anderson, 2002), but the SMf suggests that effects must be studied over time.

 

In addition to understanding player variables, the SMf also incorporates the variables associated with the virtual environment in which the game experience takes place into its description of the gaming experience and resultant psychological outcomes.

 

The Virtual Environment

A critical aspect of social online games is that they take place in persistent virtual environments.  Bandura’s (1978) notion of reciprocal determinism suggests that in everyday life, people’s behavioral choices influence the world around them and that these environmental changes in turn influence the behavior of the individual.  Applied to social online games, reciprocal determinism suggests that players of MMORPGs experience an ability to influence the game environment in meaningful ways and in turn are influenced in their choices and actions by the changes in the virtual environment they experience.  Castronova (2005) describes three features of virtual environments that combine to give them a feel of a real place. They are: persistent (changes made in the game environment persist over time); physical (all objects in the virtual environment obey certain rules, even if they are fantastic ones, e.g. everyone can fly); and interactive (if I kill another player’s avatar, he also perceives that his avatar has been killed). 

 

What aspects of social virtual environments should be studied in order to shed light on their ability to influence the psychology of the participant?  Although the GLM (Buckley & Anderson, 2006) emphasizes that “content matters” it lacks specificity in identifying the features of game content, besides violence or an effort to educate, that will shape a player’s responses to a game.  The SMf suggests that at least three features of social virtual environments are probably important:

 

Game Design.  This is akin to the “content” variable stressed in the GLM.  In current games the game designers have focused on imaginary worlds with science fiction, fantasy and horror themes, but the possibilities are limited only by the bounds of human imagination.  Not all online games have been successful in generating a high level of social involvement.  Many online games seem to be little more than online chat rooms and apparently generate little emotional involvement in the game (Steen, Greenfield, Davies & Tynes, 2006).  The presence of a wide variety of challenges that appeal to players with different purposes and with different skill sets seems to be a central feature of successful games.  Without such challenges, players are not engaged in the gaming nor are they required to seek assistance from other players.  Currently, most MMORPGs use violence as a way to create conflict and challenges, but this violence is likely to mean different things to different players (Jenkins, 2006).  It is likely that as virtual environments evolve, other means of providing challenges will emerge that are non-violent.  Already, some games have tried to emphasize other, non-combat-related, skill sets for players.  For example, in Star Wars Galaxies published by Sony Online Entertainment, players can become skilled in a variety of game pursuits such as music, politics, or cooking.  But conflict and combat remain the driving force for existing and in-development social online games.

 

Game Technology and Interface.  Whether a player achieves their purpose in a game is partially dependent on the ability of the technology to satisfy the player’s goals. One of the advances in game development that has made social online games so popular is the improvement in their graphic design and interactivity.  This allows gamers to interact in meaningful ways never before possible.  Tamborini and Skalski suggest that “today’s electronic games create virtual environments where users interact in ways hard to distinguish from interaction in actual worlds” (2006, p. 226).  This blurring between the real and the technological was originally called “virtual reality” but scholars interested in defining the feeling of “being there” in new media have created a new concept to describe the experience, “presence”. Presence has been described as “the perception of nonmediation”, understood to be “a psychological state in which the person’s subjective experience is created by some form of media technology with little awareness of the manner in which technology shapes this perception” (Tamborini & Skalski, 2006, p. 226).  Technology that increases the interactivity and vividness of virtual environments increases the spatial presence in games, their feeling of involvement and immersion.

 

Social Features.  Virtual environments would be far less interesting for researchers if they could be occupied by only one player at a time.  It is the technological ability of virtual environments to host hundreds or even thousands of players interacting with each other that makes them such a fascinating area for social and psychological research. I have already discussed how the technology and interface features in social online games increase their degree of social presence, the sense that other players are sharing the virtual environment and that they have their own purposes.  The virtual environments allow players to interact in a variety of ways and these social functions are central to creating an environment that is rewarding for individuals to participate in.  

 

These three features of virtual environments, at least, allow the player to pursue their purpose in the gaming environment and will potentially create changes in the player’s cognitions, affect and behavior. A working hypothesis is that the better the game design, the more seamless and powerful its technology and interface, and the greater the level of social involvement possible, the larger will be the potential changes in psychological states.

 

In order to fully understand the impact of the gaming experience on the individual gamer it is necessary to evaluate the interaction between the gamer and other players taking place in the context of a shared virtual environment.  Only then can researchers begin to describe the meaning of the game experience.

 

Meaning of the Game Experience

The chess analogy provided earlier demonstrates a crucial aspect of the SMf that has too often been left out of the discussion and research on video and computer games.  Although the online video and computer game experience is vastly more complex and immersive than chess, the fundamental point of this story remains.  What the player learns from a social game experience is dependent upon the meaning the player attributes to the social learning encounters in the game.  For example, a player’s avatar might be violently killing hordes of in-game enemies in a typical virtual environment, but what is the player’s purpose?  If their goal is to gain experience and “level up”, the meaning attributed to the game violence may have nothing to do with aggression.  As one player we interviewed in our research commented, “killing in World of WarCraft is just a means of production to me.  It gives me gold, experience and valuable items, so I try to plan how to do it most efficiently” (male, age 18; Murphy, 2006). Imagine that while our subject is carrying out this killing activity, another player’s avatar is encountered.  Now the first player must try to decipher the intentions of the other player.  Are they hostile and a threat – might they attack?  Are they friendly and cooperative – perhaps they will help me kill these enemies?  Are they self-centered with a similar purpose to mine – now I might view them as competition because they might take away some of the rewards I am trying to accumulate.  In each case the shared social interaction results in a specific meaning that will be attributed to the event by the player.

 

Depending on the meaning that is ascribed to the interaction, our subject may take a variety of different actions in the game.  If the meaning is interpreted to be a hostile encounter, our subject may attack the other player in self-defense.  If the situation is perceived to have potential for cooperation, our subject may invite the other player to form a team so that they can share the completion of a goal.  And if the situation is thought to be competitive, our subject might intensify efforts to complete the task before resources become scarce.  The subject’s behavior can not be predicted based upon an analysis of the game situation and the in-game actions available to the player – it is necessary to determine their understanding of the social encounter and what it means to them.

 

This means that the feelings generated by the game play experience and what the player learns from the encounter will also be dependent on the meaning of the encounter and subsequent behavioral choices.  In the hostile situation, our subject may learn that other players from different social game groups are to be avoided or attacked and may end the game play situation feeling aroused by the fight but frustrated by being killed.  In the cooperative situation our subject may leave feeling more efficacious about their ability to work with other players, having learned some important lessons in teamwork.  In the competitive situation our subject might decide that other players are greedy and take away the lesson that sharing is a losing strategy. 

 

This example suggests only a small number of the vast array of possibilities inherent in social learning encounters in online games.  A clear implication of the SMf is that there exist an enormous variety of possible experiences and outcomes in social games, including positive, negative and ambiguous outcomes.  Research already suggests that several psychological factors are worthy of serious attention as important measures of changes in a player’s psychological state as result of participation in social online gaming.  The following three factors are considered to be the most important in determining subsequent gaming and non-gaming behaviors after exposure to a social online game experience.

 

Self-efficacy.  All MMORPGs provide players with constant challenges that require an application of skill and problem-solving to overcome.  Bandura (1977) and other social-cognitive theorists (Harter, 1978) propose that the experience of success in meeting such challenges generates the cognitive state of self-efficacy, the belief that one can successfully perform the behaviors needed to produce the desired outcome.  These games therefore become highly reinforcing because they provide continual opportunities for enhancing self-efficacy (Klimmt & Hartmann, 2006).  If the player interprets a gaming experience as successful in achieving her purpose, she will experience increased self-efficacy.  The experience of personal success and mastery is the most powerful means of changing efficacy beliefs.

 

Changes in self-efficacy will influence future goal choices.  For example, a player who is new to social online gaming and has low self-efficacy may interpret a gaming experience as a failure and be unwilling to set new gaming goals.  This will decrease the likelihood of the player returning to that game, or of choosing to play a game versus other alternative activities.  On the other hand, an experienced player with a history of success in a game may view a failure experience in the game as a temporary setback.  His high self efficacy will lead him to persist at the game challenge and he will be more likely to choose playing the game over other activities.  These goals will in turn influence his purpose in future gaming experiences.  Self-efficacy tends to be domain specific (Bandura, 1997).  A player may have high self-efficacy about one game but not another, or may have high self-efficacy about online game play performance but not about academic or social performance.

 

Perceived Ability.  Most importantly to the SMf, a player’s actions in a social online game take place in a social context, so that the player can continually compare his/her own progress with that of other players.  Social-cognitive theory, which provides the foundation for the SMf, proposes that motivation is highly influenced by the types of success and failure experiences described by Bandura (1977).  Nicholls (1984) has proposed a developmentally based theory of achievement motivation that builds upon Bandura’s theory and helps explain social gaming behavior.  According to Nicholls and later theorists such as Duda (1989), the central feature of achievement motivation is the socially derived concept of an individual’s perceived ability.  Players with high perceived ability will be more persistent in the face of failure while those with low perceived ability will have a greater tendency to give up when faced with failure.  However, Nicholls (1989) suggested that there are two pathways by which players judge their own ability. Task-involved players will develop a sense of increased competence and ability by using their own level of effort and task completion to assess their progress.  On the other hand, ego-involved players will attempt to demonstrate superior ability at the game by achieving a high level of success with the minimum expenditure of effort. 

 

Players can also learn new social skills via playing social online games.  A key component of self-concept is that it is based on our perceptions of our competencies (Nicholls, 1989).  We tend to define ourselves by the things we are good at and the more competent we feel in a given domain the more goals, and the more challenging goals, we will set for ourselves in that domain (Seligman, 1990). Game designers appear to understand the reinforcing nature of goal-achievement in defining self-concept because these games are heavily structured around goal achievement that increases in difficulty level as the player gains skill and experience in the game.  For example, avatars gain additional in-game skills the more time a player spends with the game (a process called “leveling”). Also, many goals are available to players by the game’s programming (quests or missions) and these can range from simple goals achievable by a single player to very complex goals attainable only by a highly cooperative group of players.  Many players find this goal achievement to be a major motivation for their game participation. ‘“Ninety percent of what I do is never finished – parenting, teaching, doing the laundry,” says Elizabeth Lawley, a Rochester, N.Y., college professor. “In WOW, I can cross things off a list – I’ve finished a quest, I’ve reached a new level”’ (Levy, 2006, p. 49).

 

Social online games provide a highly visible social structure for judging success and progress.  Unlike other types of video and computer games that can be played solo, all the actions of a social online gamer take place in a virtual environment accessible to many other players.  Players can instantly judge another player’s degree of experience by looking at that player’s avatar’s “level”.  In many games players can go further and inspect the quantity and quality of in-game items a player has accumulated as rewards.  In fact the game World of WarCraft has a feature that allows the many millions of its players to go to a web-based database that shows such markers of progress as level, skills acquired, items possessed and ranked proficiency in PvP combat for any avatar in the game. This emphasis on social comparisons between players tends to reinforce an ego-involved orientation to social online games, a pattern that achievement motivation theorists have termed a competitive climate (Amos, 1992).  However, social online games offer players multiple opportunities to set goals in either ego or task, or both, fashions and to experience rapid feedback as to goal attainment and perceived ability. 

 

Achievement goal theory (Harwood, 2005) suggests that the types of goals that players set for themselves in the game and their degree of satisfaction and enjoyment will be strongly influenced by the task- or ego-involved nature of their experience.  The SMf therefore suggests that MMORPG play has the potential to be highly motivating due to its ability to generate increased self-efficacy and provide reinforcing feedback concerning perceived ability and the attainment of both ego- and task-involved goals.  The presence of a challenging virtual environment that is experienced in a shared social context is not an arbitrary feature of the success of social online games; it is the critical feature that shapes their capacity to be highly motivating to many players.  The social context of video and computer games is neglected in the GLM, which focuses mainly on how violent video games increase an individual’s aggressive thoughts, feelings and behaviors.

 

Enjoyment. The final important psychological state that is strongly influenced by social online gaming experiences is the perception of the experience as enjoyable or not.  The researcher most closely identified with the study of the motivational properties of enjoyment is Csikszentmihalyi (1990), who coined the term flow to describe the psychological state accompanying an activity that is so enjoyable that just doing it is reward enough.  According to Csikszentmihalyi, flow tends to occur under specific conditions.  When an individual is faced with a challenging situation, that requires the use of some acquired skills to overcome, and is given clear goals and feedback concerning the challenge, flow is likely to occur.  Notice that this definition is also an accurate description of many social online game experiences.  The player is faced with a challenging goal (e.g., kill a powerful AI dragon deep inside a cavern), that requires certain skills to achieve (e.g., put together a team with the abilities to defeat the dragon; stay focused and perform the game skills needed to win the encounter), and receives rapid feedback about their progress (the dragon is killed or not; sometimes multiple attempts are allowed as players try out different strategies and learn more about the encounter; the dragon’s death probably will provide some excellent game rewards).  Thus social online games have a high potential to create flow experiences.

 

What makes the flow experience interesting to researchers studying the allure of participation in social online games is that Csikszentmihalyi argues that whatever the original purpose of participation in such an activity, the flow experience makes the activity intrinsically rewarding – what Csikszentmihalyi calls an autotelic experience.  Because many other activities in life do not seem to have intrinsic value (many people report being disconnected from their work and do not enjoy it, and even much leisure time is spent passively absorbing information without a sense of self agency) an activity that is intrinsically rewarding is an attractive choice to spend time in.  Csikszentmihalyi therefore warns that activities that generate an experience of flow also have the potential to be addictive.  This is an issue I will return to when I examine important research questions arising from the SMf.

 

The SMf has been developed to address some deficiencies identified in previously proposed models of game play and behavior, especially with regard to social online games, such as the GLM.  Prior models have not addressed player purpose or the meaning derived from game play in determining the influence of game participation on subsequent behavior.  Nor have prior models adequately incorporated the social nature of video and computer game play into explanations of game play effects.  It is important that the SMf be evaluated by conducting research to test the adequacy of the predictions made within this research framework.  This framework will be a valuable addition to the ongoing research in this area if the SMf and prior models predict different outcomes from game play that are testable by research.  The final section of this paper proposes several such areas of research that are suggested by the SMf.  Hypotheses that are novel or that predict different outcomes from those derived from models such as the GLM will be the focus of this final section.

 

A Social Meaning Research Agenda for the Psychological Study of Virtual Environments

The following are suggested research avenues based upon the SMf developed above.

 

Effects of Social Online Game Experiences on Aggression

Does exposure to violence within video games promote cognitive changes that lead to either short-term changes in aggressive behavior, long-term increases in violent behavior, or both?  Although some literature reviews indicate such a link  (Anderson & Bushman, 2001; Anderson, Gentile, & Buckley, 2007), other reviews suggest that not enough evidence has yet been gathered to answer this question for video games in general and social online games in particular (Kirsh, 2006).  While prior models such as the GLM focus research attention on the content of video and computer games, the SMf suggests that the meaning derived from the game play experience will be the determining factor in subsequent changes in behavior.  For example, the GLM predicts that a player participating in a violent online game such as World of WarCraft or Guild Wars will learn to think and behave aggressively based upon repeated exposure to episodes of aggression, violence and death.  Research has not found a reliable link between playing violent video games and hostility or aggression, but has shown that such games tend to increase access to aggressive cognitions (Anderson & Dill, 2000). However, the SMf proposes that the player’s purpose, their interaction with other players, and the context provided by the social virtual environment will combine to create a unique meaning even for violent game play episodes.  If the game play experience is perceived as a social event that resulted in cooperation and the attainment of group goals, the player might learn skills such as teamwork and communication rather than learn to be aggressive and hostile, despite the presence of aggressive thoughts.  The SMf proposes that it is very important to identify the meaning of the game play experience in understanding the effects that game play may have.

 

A recent study sheds light on this issue of whether sustained participation in in-game violence in a social online game leads to subsequent aggressive behavior (Williams & Skoric, 2005).  The researchers recruited 213 participants and randomly assigned them to a treatment group that was given and asked to play the MMORPG Asherson’s Call 2 (AC2) for a month or to a control group that did not play a game.  The game AC2 was chosen because it represented a good test of the General Aggression Model (GAM).  The game is highly violent, with blood and gore oozing from dying “creatures” as they writhe and scream upon attack by the player. Violence in the game is part of a repetitive routine of killing in order to level that should produce the types of cognitive changes predicted by the GAM. Outcome measures included the Normative Beliefs in Aggression general scale (Huesmann & Guerrra, 1997) and two behavioral questions inquiring about recent episodes of serious arguments with friends or loved ones. The treatment group consisted of 75 final participants and averaged 56 hours of game play during the month of the study while the control group had 138 participants.  Results indicated that compared to the control group, those who participated in the game play intervention were not different in their normative beliefs on aggression than they were before playing the game, did not increase their argumentative behaviors after game play, and were not more likely to argue with their friends and partners.  Simple correlations between hours played and the three outcome variables were also non-significant.  The results appear to support the SMf rather than the GLM, although the study could be criticized for utilizing very general measures of aggressive thoughts and behaviors.  The month-long follow-up is a strength of this study and should be carried out more routinely in this type of research.

 

A specific test of the different outcomes proposed by the SMf would involve at least two groups of MMORPG players.  One would be exposed to a violent game play experience that occurred in the context of players having the goal of improving their teamwork and learning how to be more successful in fighting in-game battles.  The other group would participate in a series of violent encounters where the context was hostile – the sole goal would be to defeat or gain revenge upon “enemy” players.  The SMf would predict that the former group would display much less hostile and aggressive cognitions than the second group, and might display increases in ratings of teamwork, if they interpreted the meaning of the game play as an attempt to achieve cooperative goals.  The ability to structure these sorts of different experiences within virtual social game environments, expose players to these experiences, observe behavioral responses during game play and then assess emotional and attitudinal outcomes offers an unparalleled research opportunity for psychologists interested in these issues.

 

Negative Effects of Heavy Time Investment in Social Online Gaming.  Can Games be Addictive?

The GLM makes no reference to another undesirable outcome of online game play that has been identified by researchers, the potential for some players to spend so much time playing games that other areas of their life, such as social or work domains, begin to suffer consequences.  Some researchers believe that enough anecdotal evidence exists to suggest that this is a serious problem.  “People who spend all their time pursuing friendships and romance online are choosing to let their offline relationships wither.  The institution of online friendship takes away time from the institution of offline friendship” (Castronova, 2005, p. 100).  Researchers in China have become so concerned about this problem that they have developed an instrument, the Online Game Addiction Inventory (OGAI), to measure the extent of the problem (Wang & Can, 2006).  Many social online games now warn their player base in-game that the game should be played in moderation, and some even suggest to players at regular time intervals (e.g., hourly) that they should take a break from playing.

 

Several studies have measured the extent of this problem in different populations.  In a survey of 322 Chinese undergraduates, Zhang et al. (2006) found a rate of computer game addiction of 15%.  Parsons (2006) surveyed 513 MMORPG players and found that approximately 15% of them met the criteria for internet addiction.  In his web-based survey of 3989 MMORPG players, Yee (2006b) found that 18% of users agreed that their time spent in game play had caused them health, relationship, academic or financial problems, and a striking 50% of respondents answered the “yes/no” question of whether they considered themselves addicted to an MMORPG affirmatively.  In terms of time spent playing, 8% of respondents spent 40 hours or more a week playing and 70% reported they had played an MMORPG for at least 10 hours continuously at least once.  These various studies suggest that around 10-20% of social online game users may have problems limiting their time spent playing such that it causes problems in other life areas.

 

More research is needed on this issue.  In a study of Taiwanese adolescents, Wan & Chiou (2006) measured the motivational states of those addicted to online games and found that the flow state (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990) was lower while playing in addicted than non-addicted players.  This suggests that gamers do not become hooked on a “psychological high” as an explanation of their high frequency of play.  In a second study, these researchers found that addicted players did not have a higher sense of satisfaction when playing, but they did experience an increase in dissatisfaction when not playing.  On the other hand, more casual players did experience more satisfaction when playing and not playing did not make them more dissatisfied. 

 

This suggests that it is not enjoyment that causes some players to play so much that they neglect other life pursuits, but perhaps dissatisfaction that is only alleviated by the temporary flow experience of game play.  The SMf suggests that if feelings of self-efficacy are not being attained in the pursuit of real life goals, it is possible that some players may seek to reduce this deficiency via increasing their feelings of self-efficacy and accomplishment through game play.  Such efforts are likely to be very time-intensive, since social online games are designed such that the attainment of power, wealth, prestige or influence takes a very considerable investment of time and energy.  And yet because it is a game, the strategy to achieve such objectives is much clearer and more highly-defined than in life, leading the unhappy individual to perhaps choose game play rather than other life areas as the vehicle for reaching his or her goals.  The SMf suggests that individuals with large perceived deficits in perceived ability and self-esteem will be more at-risk for negative problems in time management than will those with moderate to high self-esteem because they will be more motivated to overcome their perceived lack of ability or self-esteem through successfully reaching in-game goals.  Individuals with strong self-concepts and high self worth would be predicted to engage in social online game play for enjoyment, a less time-consuming goal than increasing perceived ability.  The SMf also predicts that high self-esteem players will see game play as just one possible activity worthy of their time, so they will not choose the goal of game play as frequently.

 

Given the high rate of players of social online games who become very time-intensive players, further research in this area is warranted.  Although such high levels of game play may seem to be a problem for participants, research on whether such players experience life problems or related psychological issues from their play is urgently needed.  If time spent playing is correlated with psychological distress and life problems, research should focus on the game design factors that seem to encourage very heavy time investment and on the player variables that place individuals at-risk for becoming compulsive users.  Also, researchers in this area need to be careful in the terminology they use.  In several studies that have examined the reasons for such problem usage, researchers have described very high-frequency players as “addicts”.  In general we should be cautious of using the term addiction for this problem, as the concept of addiction is associated with the substance abuse area and suggests strong physiological underpinnings such as tolerance and withdrawal.  A better term to describe this problem might be “impulse-control disorder”, the term used in DSM-IV-TR (American Psychiatric Association, 2000) to describe behaviors, such as pathological gambling, when individuals cannot resist the urge to engage in self-harmful behavior.  Pathologically intensive game playing is a behavior that may share more in common with compulsive gambling than it does with drug addiction.

 

Effects of Participation in Online Social Games on the Development of Social Qualities such as Teamwork, Leadership and Communication

Absent from the existing psychological research on video and computer game play is the recognition that children and adolescents interact with each other and with adults in many virtual environments that demand that players cooperate successfully in order to succeed. A natural implication of repeated exposure to such environments is that players must develop better teamwork – or they will not succeed at in-game goals and will become frustrated and leave the game environment. Singer and Singer (2005) have suggested a number of ways in which computer programs can promote the development of prosocial skills in children but much of the research they discuss is with unique programs developed by researchers for this purpose. In fact, dozens of existing game worlds are “teaching” players skills such a teamwork, leadership and communication and yet almost no research has attempted to document the influences being exerted on young players by participating in such hugely popular game environments as EverQuest and World of WarCraft.  If the hypothesis is plausible that young players who engage in violent in-game behavior are more likely to develop aggressive and violent cognitions, attitudes and behavior, then the complementary hypothesis that young players who engage in repeated cooperative, problem-solving and self-esteem enhancing behaviors might be more likely to develop greater social and problem-solving skills and more cooperative attitudes must also be seriously examined.  The GLM suggests that beneficial consequences of game play can exist for players, but focuses mainly upon educational games that are designed for specific teaching purposes.  The SMf is more flexible in being able to account for both positive and negative outcomes of game play depending upon the meaning derived from the experience.

 

In his online, open-ended survey responses, Yee (2006b) has found many indications that players themselves consider the skills they learn in these games to be transferable to the real world.  A female player quoted in Yee’s study stated that “I’ve never been one who is particularly comfortable with a leadership role in real life. In the game, friends and I left another guild that no longer suited us for various reasons and formed our own. I was approached by several of these friends to assume leadership of the guild and agreed, even though I was uncertain of my suitability. I've grown more accustomed now to directing various aspects of running the guild and providing a vision and leadership to the members. Follow-up and assertiveness now feel more natural to me even in real life. It has been an amazing opportunity to push myself beyond my boundaries and a rewarding experience” (Yee, 2006b, p. 21).  The concept that skills gained in virtual environments can transfer to other life areas gained substantial support when a report from the Federation of American Scientists, representing nearly 100 experts on the video game industry (including both researchers and game developers) concluded that when “individuals play many commercial video and computer games, they must employ a wide range of higher-order skills. This suggests that games may be effective in teaching these skills” (Federation of American Scientists, 2006, p. 20).  Their report suggested a wide range of skills that may be gained through participation in games such as MMORPGs, including: thinking strategically and planning and executing plans; mastering resource management; understanding the interaction of system variables; multi-tasking and making decisions in rapidly changing situations; learning how to compromise and trade-off; managing complex relationships; and exercising leadership, team building, negotiation and collaboration.

 

Social online games are a natural laboratory for the study of the development of teams and groups and offer researchers a controlled and accessible environment for the study of the development of skills such as teamwork and leadership.  Research is urgently needed in this area to help understand the interactions between motivation to participate in online social games and the experiences of teamwork, leadership and related social and cognitive skills.  The SMf suggests that such transferable skills will develop when the virtual environment is designed to foster such skill use and when players perceive the context of the game play experience to be focused on these skills.

 

The Social Meaning of Children and Adolescents Playing in Competitive and Cooperative Virtual Environments with Adults

The psychological research that has focused upon the effects of violence in video and computer games has been based upon a legitimate concern that the violent content of some games may have far-reaching consequences on the psychological development of children and adolescents.  The underlying assumption is that the majority of game players are children and teenagers.  But what is the concern if the majority of players of social online games are adults?  Are the same issues important?  An important aspect of social online games that has been largely overlooked in the psychological research literature is that children and adolescents are apparently a minority of players in these games.  In his web-based survey of MMORPG players, Yee (2006b) found that of 5,509 respondents, the average age was 26.57, the median was 25, and upper and lower quartile boundaries were 32 and 19.  In his sample, only a quarter of players were adolescents.  In his survey of 3,619 EverQuest players, Castronova (2001) found the average age of his sample was 24.3 years. 

 

An analysis of this age-of-player finding within the SMf suggests that an important question for researchers is how regular interactions between adult players and young players will affect both groups?  Do the purposes and goals of young players differ substantially from those of adults?  Does the meaning of the game play experience change when adults play with young players?  It is difficult to think of a similar social situation in which huge numbers of adults sit down to play intensively, in a complex social environment, with large numbers of children and adolescents.  Research in the sport psychology area (Murphy, 1999) has focused upon the possible harmful effects to young athletes of exposure to overly competitive youth sports environments, but in youth sports the children and adolescents play with each other – parents and adults only organize and implement the game experience.  Social online games are a very different experience, because the young player and the adult are interacting as they play. 

 

Consider the possible situations. An adult player might be leading a large group of players, including young players, towards a complex game goal; a group of young players might be fighting a group of adults in an online battle environment; or players of vastly different ages might be communicating in-game about any number of non-game-related issues.  The possibilities are endless and many questions arise about what is being learned from such interactions?  Sport psychologists have for many years been concerned with the issue of what children and adolescents learn about cooperative and competitive attitudes and behaviors from their participation in youth sports and their exposure to role models such as coaches (Botterill, 2005; Scanlan, 1996; Weiss, Smith & Stuntz, in press).  Yet the amount of such exposure and the proximity of contact of the role models may be less in youth sports than in virtual game environments.  This suggests that research is needed to discover what young players are learning from their older counterparts in virtual game environments.  The lessons may be beneficial, e.g., how to lose gracefully after a game defeat.  Or the learning may be hurtful, e.g., exposure to taunting, cursing or even ostracism by older players.

 

Psychological researchers are well placed to study the emerging social phenomenon of social online game play using the theories and research tools of social cognitive psychology.  Current research has focused almost exclusively upon the effects on attitudes and behavior of young people who play violent video and computer games, but this research focus is too narrow when considered in the light of the most popular forms of online entertainment now emerging and the widespread appeal of these games across generations.  A SMf to guide research in this area was proposed, emphasizing that both player variables, such as purpose and imagination, and virtual environment variables, such as game design and social features, must be considered before the meaning of a game play experience can be understood.  The meaning of game play for the individual player will determine subsequent changes in self-efficacy, perceived ability and enjoyment and it these psychological factors that will govern changes in behavior and guide future gaming activity.  Predictions derived from this SMf were contrasted with those from other approaches such as the GLM (Buckley & Anderson, 2006).   The GLM ignores the meaning of the game experience for the individual, focusing instead on the effects of the content of the game on player cognitions and emotions.  The GLM also underemphasizes the importance of the social context in which most game activity occurs.  By incorporating these factors, the SMf is able to predict the effects of participation in social online games on subsequent game play behavior, social interactions, and choices between game play and other activities.  While the GLM emphasizes largely unconscious and possibly short-term effects of game play on individual thoughts and emotions, the SMf emphasizes purposeful behavior and the long-term social and psychological consequences of social online game play on behavioral choices.  It remains to be seen which model best helps us understand the increasing influence of electronic games, and in particular social online games, on children, adolescents and adults.  The nature and quality of subsequent research employing one or both models will help answer this question.

 
 

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Author Note

 

            Shane M. Murphy, Department of Psychology, Western Connecticut State University.

            Acknowledgements. The author wishes to thank Dan Barrett, Bryan Murphy, Sean McCann and Maureen Weiss for reading prior drafts of this manuscript and providing invaluable feedback.

 

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[1] All subscription data are drawn from Castronova (2005) and Woodcock (2006).