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Research / Discovery

Study examines potential positive effects of video games

April 7, 2011

Video game enthusiasts can become deeply involved in their game play, sometimes to the point where they block out the external environment and momentarily feel that their play space is as vivid and important as the so-called "real world" outside the game. CSU researchers now say that such absorptive experiences can in the right circumstances actually be positive ones, providing important mental health benefits.

Jeff Snodgrass, associate professor of anthropology Two studies recently published by Jeffrey Snodgrass, associate professor of anthropology at Colorado State, examine types of video gaming experiences and the effects they can have on players’ lives, including their self-reported levels of stress, life satisfaction and happiness.

In both studies, Snodgrass and his research team examined the popular online game, World of Warcraft, which currently has about 12 million players worldwide. In the game, players develop avatars and complete tasks in cooperation with other players. The complex and highly interactive nature of the game can lead players to feel as though they have become part of a vividly compelling alternate universe that is in some important sense separate from the world outside the game.

These types of games are known as massively multiplayer online games, or MMOs. At a given time, a player could have the potential for interaction with hundreds or thousands of other players.

Immersive state of play

In the first study, “Magic Flight and Monstrous Stress: Technologies of Absorption and Mental Wellness in Azeroth,” Snodgrass and his team defined the deeply involved experiences players have as immersive or absorptive. These altered states can cause both negative and positive effects, and players’ particular out-of-game habits and levels of distress, as well as their in-game play-styles, determine the exact nature of such effects.

In addition to in-game observations, the research team conducted surveys and interviewed World of Warcraft players to learn more about their gaming experiences and habits. For the survey, they developed a set of World of Warcraft-specific psychological scales to measure how absorbed players become while involved in the game. Many players reported that playing World of Warcraft serves as a stress or tension reliever, Snodgrass said, and players who absorbed more deeply reported more stress relief.

“The idea is that if you lose yourself, you escape,” Snodgrass said. “So it’s deeply relaxing, what some gamers describe as akin to meditation, or at other times positively challenging and stimulating, like a great chess match where you’re actually one of the pieces, and we show that there are strong associations between these various states of consciousness and the game’s health benefits. But it is important to note that the escape must be controlled and temporary to be positive, so that it leads to rejuvenation rather than simple problem avoidance, which in the end only increases the experience of stress.”

Balancing act

Many video game studies focus on the negative and addictive aspects of game play. Snodgrass hopes that people will start to understand that addiction is only one side, albeit an important one, of video game usage—his recent studies indicate that to some degree, video game playing can be healthy.

“But we want to be careful to present a balanced portrait of online gaming,” Snodgrass said. “Our study does show that in other instances players get drawn in too much and they enjoy losing themselves too greatly. That can contribute to problematic play and what some researchers even call online gaming addiction.”

Online vs. offline friends

Snodgrass, seated on left with no helmet, and his virtual research team in World of WarcraftThe second study, “Enhancing One Life Rather Than Living Two: Playing MMOs with Offline Friends,” focuses on the differences between playing video games with individuals known outside of the game and playing with people met online. Snodgrass and his colleagues determined that playing with offline friends (friends who are friends in “real life”) is healthier, because offline friends can help regulate game play. Playing with offline friends also allows players to transfer their positive gaming experiences into their real lives.

Playing with offline friends also makes it more difficult to have those immersive experiences, Snodgrass said, which can be positive or negative.

“If it’s harder to immerse, that’s a double-edged sword,” Snodgrass said. “You’re losing some benefits of playing such as reducing stress and tension, but you’re also losing some potential for addiction.”

Snodgrass’ research team included Michael G. Lacy and Jesse Fagan, CSU Department of Sociology; David E. Most, CSU School of Education; and H.J. Francois Dengah, University of Alabama, Department of Anthropology.

Both articles are currently available online. “Magic Flight and Monstrous Stress: Technologies of Absorption and Mental Wellness in Azeroth” is published in the journal Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry. “Enhancing One Life Rather Than Living Two: Playing MMOs with Offline Friends” is published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior.

Public lecture on Friday

Jeff Snodgrass will present a lecture on these topics and others in, “Virtually Shamans: Archaic Spirituality Now Online!” 5:30 p.m. April 8 at the Primrose Studio in Reservoir Ridge Natural Area, 4300 Michaud Lane in Fort Collins. The  lecture is free to attend, however due to limited seating, RSVP is required. Contact Jaime King if you are interested in attending at Jaime.King@colostate.edu or (970) 491-4635. 


Contact: Kimberly Sorensen
E-mail: Kimberly.Sorensen@colostate.edu
Phone: (970) 491-0757