Video games 'blur reality', claims newspaper

Behind the Headlines

Wednesday September 21 2011

There is little clear evidence on video games

The Daily Mail has today reported that “video games blur real life boundaries and prompt thoughts of violent solutions to players’ problems”.

This headline is based on a small study exploring whether frequent video game players integrated elements of video game playing into their real lives - a theoretical process the researchers called game transfer phenomena (GTP). The study showed that most gamers experienced GTP, including experiencing brief involuntary impulses to perform actions as they would when playing a game. For example, they might try to click a button on their controller while it was not in their hand.

It is important to note that not all the players were affected by the games and the degree that people were affected varied significantly from person to person. Additionally, it is not clear from this study whether GTP was related to the game played or whether it related to the specific characteristics of individual game players. Many of the actions reported by participants were also unusual or novel, and do not provide evidence that games affect perception of behaviour. For example, one participant said that they like to pack their suitcase neatly like Tetris blocks.

Further studies will be needed to investigate whether GTP is a real, significant phenomenon and the potential link between GTP and a player’s individual characteristics.

 

Where did the story come from?

The study was carried out by researchers from Nottingham Trent University and Stockholm University. The research paper did not mention any sources of funding.

The study was published in the peer-reviewed International Journal of Cyber Behaviour, Psychology and Learning.

The Daily Mail’s report covering this study tended to focus on the violent and negative aspects of game transfer phenomena (GTP) highlighted in the study. The Daily Mail presents GTP as a proven phenomenon with definite results, but the results of this interview-based study are debatable and GTP is still only a theory.

News coverage also linked the study results to a recent murder trial where video games were reportedly implicated. This angle seemed to be a confused addition to news coverage of the research, as it could suggest to readers that games were found to be the primary cause of the incident, or that they could cause ordinary people to consider murder.

 

What kind of research was this?

This study was a qualitative study that analysed interviews with frequent video game players to explore the effect that gaming had on the player during and after their playing session.

The authors suggest that no previous research has looked at the effects of frequent video gaming on the player during and after the game. They say they were interested in exploring the extent to which frequent gamers integrated elements of video game playing into their real lives - a process the researchers called game transfer phenomena (GTP).

 

What did the research involve?

The study involved conducting in-depth interviews with 42 Swedish participants (39 males and 3 females) aged between 15 and 21 years who played video games regularly. Frequent gamers were defined as playing video games for at least 10 hours a week and having experience of different types of video games. They had been recruited from online Swedish gaming forums.

Most of the interviews were ‘e-interviews’ (interviews taking place over the internet and not in person). The remainder were carried out face to face, and typically lasted for 40-60 minutes.

GTP was classified into voluntary and involuntary elements. These were subdivided into a range of sub-categories including dreams, automatic thoughts (including resolving real life issues using video game elements) and the intentional integration of video games into the players’ daily interactions (including daydreaming about video games).

The authors analysed the interviews by applying a ‘phenomenological approach’. This is an appropriate analysis method performed by organising responses into core themes. In this technique information and perceptions are collected using qualitative methods such as interviews and presented from the perspective of the participant.

 

What were the basic results?

Some players reported integrating video game experiences into their daily lives at an automatic subconscious level. The most common experiences were:

  • expressing a desire to resolve real-life issues using game elements or as the character from a game would
  • experiencing involuntary sensations to do things as one would in a game (such as attempting to use an undo function to reverse accidents)
  • experiencing visual distortions
  • associating visual stimuli with features from games (such as noting when people in the street looked similar to certain video game characters)

The level of intensity varied among the gamers, but some had gone as far as to perform some actions as they would have done in a game.

Additionally:

  • Some of the gamers reported that they dreamed about video games.
  • Almost all participants had experienced some type of automatic thought about video games such as using something from video games to resolve real life issues.
  • Sometimes these thoughts induced involuntary reflexes such as reaching to click a button on their controller without having the controller in their hand. In other cases they visualised their thoughts in the form of game menus in a game.
  • Some players reported that when they saw situations that mimicked those in a game they would automatically think in the way they would in the game. Some players reported that this rarely happened, while other players said it constantly happened to them. One example of this included looking for particular locations to shoot a gun from.
  • Some players experienced performing actions as they did in a game without thinking and a few seconds later realising what they were doing. This included dancing like a game character.
  • Several players intentionally integrated elements of gaming into their daily lives and used gaming experience as the basis for joking, playing, imagining and pretending when around others who would understand their reference.
  • The researchers found many elements of GTP related to violence, aggression, risk behaviour and criminal thoughts. These ranged from mimicking game characters in a playful way with friends to imagining shooting a teacher who is being irritating. Many participants added they would never do this in real life but had imagined the scenario nonetheless.

 

How did the researchers interpret the results?

The authors suggest the findings show that most players, at times, “got emotionally engaged in video games”. However, “not all the players’ mood states were affected by game playing”.

They state that while personal characteristics of the gamers may have influenced the level of GTP, different individuals reported similar effects in the same games (such as climbing buildings, planning to shoot in real-life scenarios and zooming in to see things in real life with a sniper rifle) and so the game may be an important element too.

 

Conclusion

This study of a small number of frequent video gamers provides an intriguing argument that some gamers incorporate elements of games into their daily lives. However, the authors state that this study was the first of its kind and so it has discussed theories that have had limited prior exploration. As such, its interpretation of interviewee comments is open to debate, as many of the comments may simply be throwaway remarks about game-related daydreaming rather than specific evidence of modified thinking.

For example, one participant discusses the benefits of being able to use a portable tractor beam device to reach objects across the room. “The gravity gun from ‘Half Life’. I want to use pretty often. When you want something from the fridge and don´t wanna go all the way over there”. On one hand, someone might argue that this is evidence that interaction in games alters the way we intend to interact with the real world. However, it could plausibly be argued that this is simply a game-related equivalent of imagining what comic book superpower might be fun to have or how a character in a novel might respond to a situation.

Also, many of the observations were made during online questionnaires and may not offer the kind of rigour or insight gained through face-to-face interviews or quantitative analyses. For example, one participant said “When I pack, I often place my things like ‘Tetris’ blocks. And make it into a game. It becomes more fun than before”. It is hard to tell if this is a modified behaviour or just a way to pass the time.

Early qualitative studies such as these can offer some initial insight into theories by testing them in small numbers of people, but further quantitative studies will be needed to investigate the link between GTP and players’ individual characteristics. Such research could also look at the influence of different types of games on GTP, and whether other imaginative influences, such as games, books or films, have the same effect, or if the phenomenon is unique to video games.

Overall, the study seems to raise many more questions than it answers, and does not provide solid evidence of the existence of GTP. It certainly does not provide evidence that GTP can influence people to engage in violent behaviour such as murder.

Analysis by Bazian

Edited by NHS Choices

Links to the headlines

How video games blur real life boundaries and prompt thoughts of 'violent solutions' to players' problems. Daily Mail, September 21 2011

Links to the science

Ortiz de Gortari AB, Aronsson K and Griffiths M et al. Game Transfer Phenomena in Video Game Playing: A Qualitative Interview Study. Cyber Behaviour, Psychology and Learning: Volume 1, Issue 3, p15-33. 2011

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