In his book, GLUED TO GAMES: HOW VIDEO GAMES DRAW US IN AND HOLD US SPELLBOUND, psychology consultant Scott Rigby and clinical psychologist Richard M. Ryan offer a balanced research-based analysis of games and gamers, addressing both the positive and negative aspects of habitual playing, by drawing on significant recent studies and established motivational theory.
BOOKGASM: In your book, you say that modern games pull users in more than we were by the arcade games of decades past. How is that?
RIGBY: As gaming has evolved, both game developers and gamers themselves have gotten more sophisticated. Of course technology has allowed for much more “fantastic” graphics and complexity, but more importantly this technological capacity has enabled games — when well designed — to satisfy multiple needs simultaneously, thus creating even greater value for the player and motivational pull.
So for example: First-person shooter games used to be largely about competence satisfaction. They didn’t offer a lot of choices about where to go, nor did they let you play with others. You just picked up a gun and started firing away. Today’s FPS games provide more open environments with more meaningful choices, thus adding autonomy satisfactions, and also allow for complex team play with other players in which team members really rely on each other — which also simultaneously satisfies relatedness needs. When games can hit this kind of “trifecta,” they can be particularly compelling.
BOOKGASM: Ever since video games exploded into our daily culture, there’s been the argument that video games are addictive. According to your research, are they?
RIGBY: Addiction has a very specific clinical definition, and so at the level of whether games addiction is a true clinical disorder — such as alcohol or drug addiction — is still being debated and examined. And I think it is important for this issue to be explored thoroughly.
However, on a day-to-day level, there is no doubt that many people are overinvolved with games, with gaming crowding out relationships, work, and other important life experiences. So in this sense, we need to acknowledge that — as with any deeply compelling and satisfying experience — there is a legitimate issue to be addressed here with a subset of gamers who become overinvolved.
In our research, we are interested in identifying the core motivational and emotional “draws” of games so that there is a foundation for both greater empathy for this issue, as well as a stronger basis for intervening in ways that are both compassionate and effective.
BOOKGASM: And then there’s the other ongoing debate: whether real-world violence is caused by playing such violent video games as CALL OF DUTY.
RIGBY: Well, first, let me say that as psychologists, we are not trying to either grind an ax, so to speak, against violence in games, nor do we dismiss the concerns about violence in games which we feel are legitimate to raise and to research. Our research was really to get at something more basic: Do players really value the blood and gore itself? This has always been the assumption, but it didn’t really make sense to us because many people who are kind, gentle folk love blowing people’s heads off in video games.
Our hypothesis was that the value of the violence wasn’t the blood and gore per se, but that gore was just an effective way in which the game provided competence/mastery feedback. In other words, if I shoot you in the shoulder, I can see the impact immediately — I get immediate informational feedback on my effectiveness — and that is satisfying of my basic need for competence. If I blow your head off, I get even more powerful feedback on my competence. So if it’s really the competence feedback that matters, then if you can provide that in other ways besides blood and gore, the game should be just as enjoyable.
That’s the kind of experiments we did — and that’s exactly what we found. In one study, for example, we designed two versions of basically the same game, only one had lots of blood and gore, and the other didn’t. Because we included competence feedback in both, players enjoyed the less bloody version just as much as the bloody version. And what was really interesting was this was true even for young, adolescent male players of violent games who scored high on trait aggression, i.e. those who stated that the loved violent games!
So even for those players who are the “core audience” for violent games, the enjoyment of a less bloody version was the same as long as basic need satisfactions were met. For us, it shows the value of how you can apply a basic understanding and model of game engagement to answer a lot of interesting questions with greater precision.
BOOKGASM: Who’s most likely to fall into this trap?
RIGBY: Our research suggests that when people are not getting their basic needs for competence, autonomy, and relatedness satisfied in life, this is more often related to becoming over-involved in video game play. So while more research is needed to really understand the causal links and risk factors, we emphasize that overuse of games is quite possibly a symptom of a life that isn’t finding basic need satisfactions elsewhere. This perspective allows for an approach that begins by addressing the core issue of basic need satisfaction, rather than simply criticizing, attacking or shaming too much game play.
BOOKGASM: What about kids overusing them? Should parents be concerned or is it just no big deal?
RIGBY: First, I think it is important to understand why kids are so compelled to spend time in games, and this is part of why Rich and I wrote the GLUED TO GAMES book: to make the motivations for games less of a mystery so that parents and kids could engage the topic more honestly and clearly.
This connects to healthy gaming because parents can better talk to their kids about what kids are experiencing and “getting out of” games, and this can lead to healthier choices and less of a rift between parents and kids about gaming. Then, I think when games start to “crowd out” other meaningful relationships and activities that this should be considered a danger sign and a red flag that there is a problem, one that perhaps is rooted in basic needs not being satisfied in the kid’s life, thus leading to them to turn to games too frequently.
BOOKGASM: And speaking of play, why is it that more men play video games than women?
RIGBY: More and more woman play games every year, and I think that it is just a matter of time before this difference, which is shrinking, goes away entirely. Some data shows we’re almost there already, perhaps at a 60/40 male-to-female split.
Remember that video games started in computer labs that in the ’60s and ’70s were predominantly male, and many early games revolved around themes of war, violence, and power — which is still true today in many areas of gaming. So it follows — and I’m speculating here — that this would draw a male audience that is socialized more in that direction to start.
But what’s amazing is how quickly gaming is becoming a mainstream activity for men and woman alike, and what a strong and growing force woman have in gaming today.
BOOKGASM: Do you play games yourself?
RIGBY: I am a gamer — have been ever since I played SPACE INVADERS back in the ’70s at a big arcade in Penn Station in New York City. I still play games regularly both because I enjoy them, but also because I think it’s important to play them if we are going to try to understand them and their psychological dynamics.
My favorite game of all time — hands down — is CIVILIZATION, by Sid Meier. It’s the only video game I still play after 20 years. For me, it is definitely the incredible autonomy the game provides in making meaningful decisions and responding to a very dynamic play field, moment to moment.
Or maybe I just like the idea of world domination. Yeah … unfortunately, that is probably the real reason.