“Video games matter.” I have lost track how many times I’ve said that. It is not that I am trying to justify my interests; anyone who pays attention to social trends will notice that digital games are more prolific every year… as are debates about their influences. I make that statement, because they matter in policy. Unfortunately, too many studies do a poor job translating their research into policy language and many fail to makea policy relevant conclusion at all. This leaves policymakers interested in gaming policy poorly informed.
I use the term “digital” instead of “video” in most of my work, because the term is more inclusive. We generally think of video games as console games (like the Xbox, Play Station or Wii). The term “computer games” is often used to describe games played on a PC or Mac. While “mobile games” is used to describe the newest medium of games, those on mobile devices such as phones or tablets. All of these are in the digital sphere, and digital games is a more accurate and holistic description. It will also be applicable to future mediums for digital games.
Gamers have grown up.
Thanks to popular media, the average gamer is assumed to be a teenage boy living with his parents. This may have been true twenty years ago, but gaming culture has changed significantly. According to the Entertainment Software Association’s (ESA) 2013 “Essential Facts” survey, the average gamer is 30 years old and has been playing games for 13 years. Obviously the average age differs from game to game, but many genres have popular games which reflect this age. For example, half of World Of Tank’s North American players are over 26 years old. The average age of an Eve Online player is estimated to be 32. And World of Warcraft, the most (in)famous of all online games? 30.
Age is not the only demographic the stereotype gets wrong. While men still outnumber women, the numbers are much closer than many expect. Private market research firms and popular surveys have all found that the gender gap is narrowing. The ESA estimates that 45% of all gamers are women. Similarly, a Pew poll found that teen girls are as likely to play digital games as teen boys. The same poll also found that a staggering 97% of teens aged 12-17 play digital games (99% of boys and 94% of girls). Gamers are not only getting older, but more diverse.
Why should we care?
Video games, like all types of media, undoubtedly shape behavior and social views. Their impact on culture will only become more significant as generation Z grows up. Policymakers will have to start listening to gamers, because their voice is growing. In fact, it will not be long before gamers are policymakers. Therefore, the effects of digital games will have an ever larger effect on the policy process. And video games have many effects, both positive and negative.
The negative effects have been well reported, if not well researched. Heightened levels of aggression, mental agitation and addiction have all been observed. Digital game rehab centers are more common than one would expect. But there is also a less publicized positive effect. Consider a 2007 study from the University of Toronto where researchers found that playing an action game “can virtually eliminate” the gender gap in spatial skills. Generally, boys have shown a higher proficiency with spatial skills, which have been linked to innovation and better performance in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).
Another amazing, and rarely discussed example, is in the field of biology. In 2011, it had been 15 years since scientists had begun trying to solve the mystery of a protein in the study of AIDS. Researchers decided to take a different approach: they made it into a game called “Foldit.” It was designed as game where players manipulate protein structures and earn points the closer they get to the correct form (I am not a biologist, but apparently how proteins “fold” matters). How long did it take gamers to unravel the protein? 3 weeks.
Not just science skills.
Data from Electronic Entertainment Design and Research found that video games with an online component generally make their developers double the amount of money. If for no other reason, we can expect that this will push game developers to include online components in their games, which means more online interactions. While online interactions are inherently different from real world ones, for better or worse, more of our society is moving online and the ability to interact online is becoming more important.
Take virtual team leadership as an example. Many online games encourage interaction with others to solve complex problems. They require the management of large groups of diverse people who might never meet in real life. The challenges and benefits of “virtual leadership” are well documented in leadership literature. Now consider that today kids are learning how to manage such groups at a very early age. These digital civic engagement skills will be second nature to the next generation of leaders.
Will gamers be more adapt at problem solving?
Maybe. Maybe not. It is too early to single out the long term effects of digital game play. This is especially true of online game play which is forming a new kind of digital civic engagement. However, it is without doubt that future policymakers will be different. Nevertheless, there is a challenge for policymakers and researchers today to make sure that both the negative and the positive influences of digital games are understood. We should not stereotype a medium if we want to make sensible policy. In order to do that, we need informed policymakers.
Unfortunately, the current academic atmosphere is not conducive to balanced research. Some researchers complain that journals often want to see the more “sexy” topics of violence and aggression. Why? It gets headlines, and because most reviewers, like most policymakers, have misconceptions about gamers. While digital game researchers have limited leverage over journals’ incentives, we can and should do a better job at educating our peers in academia.
Improving the academic usefulness of digital game research has two important dimensions. First, the approach must be multi-disciplinary since all policy decisions impact multiple facets of society. Just as a defense policy has security, economic, technological and other impacts, so does any policy related to digital games. Second, academia must get better at attracting the private sector into research projects. Gaming companies have taken considerable steps to tap the skills and experience of academics. Academics have not done as well attracting gaming companies’ participation. This is due partly to costs: samples of convenience (i.e., using undergraduate students) are very common. But this approach weakens external validity because the average gamer is not a college student (although, they are a significant demographic).
The end game.
As a gamer, I would love to see a more knowledgeable public, better informed policymakers and balanced academic work. After all, this is not only an academic and professional interest, but also a hobby (admittedly, when time permits). Those of us who are direct stakeholders in this medium (gamers, the industry, and researchers) must push for more diverse research and look for opportunities to conduct cross-discipline and cross-sector research. We must also always remain transparent, acknowledge potential conflicts, and explore the good and the bad.
At the end of the day, everyone with a stake in digital games needs to understand that no one will change any of this for us. Policymakers are too busy with a plethora of other issues. Academics are focused on publishing. Gaming companies on making games. Even the average gamer is too busy playing the games. Yet, video games are changing society just as radio, television and other media have. It would be far more beneficial if we played a role in that change. We, the gamers, should not wait to inherit the world… we should have a hand in shaping it.