Every time we talk about scientific research on Massively, readers argue that results from game studies should be “obvious” and are a waste of time/money or that everyone knows MMOs are filled with anti-social trolls. Kowert told me that game studies are “not unique in these criticisms,” though “they may seem stronger within this field due to the perceived frivolity of games and gaming as a field of study”:
Even though gaming continues to grow in importance and popularity within society, there is still so much that remains unknown about how and why people are using this medium and what are its potential uses and effects (both positive and negative). For example, it has long been assumed that online game players are all reclusive, overweight, lonely, teenage males. This is reflected in the cultural stereotype of the group as seen in the news media and popular culture (Make Love, Not Warcraft, anyone?).
In her paper Reconsidering the Stereotype of Online Gamers, Kowert and her colleagues examined the validity of these stereotypes. As we discussed yesterday, the results proved that the opinions people hold about gamers don’t quite match the media’s stereotypes, even among non-gamers. Without research, we wouldn’t have this information, and for me as a gamer, it’s encouraging to know that times are changing. Plus, it gives you ammo when Uncle Frank tries to put down your hobby this holiday season.
During my examination of the research into online games and real world friendships among emotionally sensitive users, I realized I could see myself in the findings. As a child, I was very shy; part of the problem was that I didn’t know how to react to people’s emotions. One article about social gaming and lonely lives argued that people who game a lot can sometimes have trouble connecting with non-gamers. Many “enthusiastic hobbyists” also have this issue, whether their hobby is sports or soap operas or games.
Kowert says this is correct to an extent; we’ve all met the hardcore sports fans who spouts sports jargon. “There is some uniqueness in the social profile of individuals who choose to exclusively engage in hobbyist activities that are mediated by technology, such as online games,” Kowert told me. “For instance, you state that you were shy as a child and preferred standing in the background rather than diving right into new social situations. Knowing this about yourself, you may have been more apprehensive to join, let’s say, a sports club or a board game group, than popping in on an online forum discussing sports or joining online gaming club.”
In other words, it’s not that all people who play online games are shy or are using the internet to overcome some of their social problems, but for those who suffer from those problems, online gaming could be a good way for them to meet others. Being online allows people to share a social space without the fears and consequences associated with face-to-face socialization. For example, I rarely went to parties in high school, but I did run events in the online games I played, especially in older MMOs. In more raid-oriented MMOs, people constantly told me I was doing something “different,” something unique or strange, and that made me stand out as also being different. In short, I was using the game world in a different way than other more mainstream gamers did, which echoes Kowert’s research about emotionally sensitive players using game spaces in unique ways. She explains:
Previous research has largely focused on the relationship between MMORPG play and social outcomes, as MMORPGs are believed to have a unique ability to promote sociability between users (see Mark Chen’s 2009 book Leet Noobs for a more in-depth discussion of the social environment of MMOs). As cooperation between users is often crucial to game play, the social environment of MMORPGs differs from other genres, such as multi-player first-person shooter games where gameplay is more about competition than cooperation and the social environment is more often characterized by competitiveness, trash-talking, and gloating (for more on this research see Zubek & Khoo, 2002 [PDF]). These differences in social environments are likely to differentially impact the social utility of the space as well as the social relationships that may come from it.