Thursday, April 24, 2014

The Connection between Social Psychology and Video Game Design

The Connection between Social Psychology and Video Game Design

                The world of interactive media has grown increasingly popular with each consecutive year.  People are tending to gravitate towards an experience that can give them an occasional escape from the doldrums of reality.  These games can range anywhere from a simple, one-tap control mobile game to immense open world alternate realities.  “The video game industry’s revenues surpassed the movie industry’s several years ago, and it surpassed the music industry’s in 2008.”(Gentile 2009)  These games have expanded to be available on almost every kind of electronic device.  One aspect of these games has started to become the center of a lot of research on interactive media.  It started with the obsession that playing video games always tends to have a negative effect on the players by making them more violent, but then it was taken one step further.  Not only was the question why do people play violent video games but instead was why do people play video games?  One of the most popular games in recent years has been a title called the World of Warcraft which had 12 million active players worldwide in 2010. (Blizzard 2010)  The main reason World of Warcraft was able to achieve this massive player base was the fact that it was a social experience, designed around meeting and interacting with other players in a virtual world.
World of Warcraft was classified as a massively multiplayer online role playing game or MMORPG.  MMORPG’s have become increasingly popular after World of Warcraft opened the floodgates into the realm of online gaming possibilities.  The game’s players would start the game with a character they were allowed to customize from many different fantasy races.  Anything from orcs to elves, gnomes to the undead, World of Warcraft was a diverse place where you could usually find a character type that would personify yourself as a player.  In the beginning of the game you would have to go off on your own and start the process known as “questing.”  Questing was a way to accomplish small tasks within the game that would give your character experience points, gold and sometimes even equipment to use in your adventures.  Then with these experience points, you might “level up” and increase the base statistics and strengths of your character and even occasionally acquire new skills that would help you in your quest to make your character more powerful.  These abilities could be anything from a new offensive power that can help you destroy more enemies or a defensive ability that reinforces the survivability of your player character and sometimes other players.  Eventually in your questing you would encounter what would be a “group quest” or a “dungeon quest.”  These quests suggested that you would need more than one person to accomplish them. 
The first group quest in the game for players that chose the Human race in game would be the slaying of a beast named Hogger.  This was the first time within the game that the player would need to branch out of their solo experience and enlist the help of others.  If you could gather extra players to assist in eliminating Hogger, the rewards were great.  There were always other options though.  Through clever gameplay mechanics, some players might find a way to destroy Hogger on their own, and others would just avoid the quest altogether to favor the solo questing experience.  The convenience of having options to choose from when met with adversities in the game was always one of the best selling points World of Warcraft ever had.  This appealed to a wider audience of introverts and extroverts alike.  Even though the ability to avoid the quest was apparent, the rewards for completing it were always tempting.  The game was designed around the group experience.  Later in the game, players would encounter the first dungeons within the game.  Dungeons were a zone that would be within the game that would have a series of smaller battles leading up to a confrontation with a story-relevant boss battle.  Boss battles were usually non-player characters within the game that had some relevance within the game’s lore and would usually require dispatching, but they were too powerful to be taken on by a solo player in the main game world. The game was designed that a small group of five players could accomplish the imminent boss battle.  Now you had players branching out from not just introducing themselves to just one other person within the game world, but now you had to make a small community to accomplish a shared goal.  Throughout the game’s history, these group sizes would increase to 10, 20 and even 40 man encounters that would later be called “raids.” 
The first raids needed a coordinated group of forty players working together to be able to accomplish the more difficult content within the game.  These raids would then usually split up into some form of hierarchy.  A designated raid leader, sometimes decided by a democratic or authoritative leader, would be chosen, as well as other leaders within the raid that would get chosen in both formal and informal ways.  Raids would sometimes have class or role leaders depending on the level of organization.  Class leaders would be leaders among any given in-game player class.  The classes in World of Warcraft were warlock, mage, paladin, priest, warrior, rogue, druid and shaman.  Then other times there were role leaders.  These roles were tanking, damage dealers, and healers.  Tanks were the players that were in charge of handling mob aggro.  Aggro was defined as maintaining the attention of the enemies around you.  The tanks were in charge of protecting the rest of the raid group from harm.  The damage dealers were the players that specialized in dispatching the in-game enemies.  The healers were the players that were more interested in a support role.  They were in charge of keeping their allies alive and using abilities that benefit the other players in some way.  This combination of tanks, healers and damage dealers has been described as the “Holy Trinity” of MMO gaming.  It has been a popular game design style for a majority of these massively multiplayer online experiences.  These are roles that players can immediately understand and predict their role in a group setting.  The many different group challenges in World of Warcraft then lead to the forming of Guilds.
A guild is just another name for a tribe.  Tribes are a social group that is usually a close-knit community based on relationships, the exchange of goods, and a common location.  In MMORPG’s these tribes have different names like Clan, Corporation, Guild, Conglomerate, or even Fireteam.  In World of Warcraft, they are simply referred to as guilds.  Guilds are formed by people that are friends or related in the real world, and then expand by meeting new people online, communicating with them, and discovering that they have similar goals within the game that they would like to obtain.  These guilds would come together for a variety of reasons in World of Warcraft.  Some players enjoyed the small group setting and playing several different characters through the questing experience and just doing the five person group content.  Other players would strive to be competitive and defeat the hardest content in the game with their large forty person groups.  There were even players that were not concerned with the boss and dungeon encounters, but instead wanted to prove themselves in combat against other players in what was called the player vs player content or PvP.
                Player vs Player based games have become very popular.  The most popular of these recent PvP based games have been the titles League of Legends and Call of Duty.  In most instances of PvP games, it is similar to the world of competitive sports.  You form teams to compete against one another in the spirit of friendly and occasionally non-friendly competition.  In League of Legends, there are two armies that are in a constant struggle.  These two armies are sending forces at each other and through defenses to destroy each other’s headquarters.  A group of five players then aligns themselves with either side, and join this battle to destroy the opposing forces’ headquarters.  Then the results of the battle are tracked online and the players’ accomplishments and statistics are tracked and they can get a feeling of satisfaction, or identify areas of which to improve their gameplay for a competitive edge.  These players get to take on the role of a virtual being and get to feel powerful.  Many players are attracted to these kind of games because of the feeling of accomplishment they get from it.  In some cases the stats and achievements are used to “prove” that they are better at the given game than the other players competing.  PvP games usually use the statistics and achievements to reinforce the players accomplishments, but games also have other ways of rewarding players.
                The other main game type is called player vs environment or PvE.  This game type is where the player is set against the world that has been crafted to challenge them.  This is where the main game challenge will not come from competing with other players around you, but instead working with them to achieve a common goal.  The rewards can be anywhere from something as simple as a notification that you’ve completed the event, to new equipment for your character that will help your adventuring in some way.  The most challenging PvE content was the raid content.  The players within the raids would be rewarded with in-game currency and equipment for effectively slaying the boss encounters.  This positive reinforcement was even expounded upon in later iterations of the game.  World of Warcraft was an evolving online world that continually had content added to the game to keep the players satisfied.  Players were further reinforced for accomplishing any task in game by receiving in-game achievements.  Achievements were special awards you received for meeting certain conditions within the game.  Then these awards would be tracked in a list of your achievements.  Players could then use their achievement list to prove to other players that they have accomplished tasks in the game, or just to remind themselves of everything they’ve done.  World of Warcraft was able to maintain their player base through repetitive positive reinforcement.  Do what the developers intend, and receive rewards for doing so.  Giving this constant reinforcement was a way to make every player within the game feel like they were succeeding at something within their lives.  It is this idea of temporary and immediate satisfaction that has been drawing in players of all age ranges and personality types.
These multiplayer games teach prosocial concepts.  “Games can provide models, give direction, require practice, and prove immediate reinforcement or feedback.” (Gentile 2009)  While games are so multi-faceted, they can also effect aggressive and prosocial behaviors.  Video games are a carefully crafted space in which a player can practice behaving in ways they don’t feel comfortable with outside of the game world.  “It is, therefore, a continuous cycle of learning and reinforcement.” (Gentile 2009)  If establishing communication and fellowship with other players is being accomplished and reinforced by the game’s environment, then the players can take the lessons they’ve learned from within the game, and apply them to their everyday life.  The games still require a form of social mastery.  This mastery can be in many varying degrees of expertise, but the majority of players will see and effect on their social skills from these games.  In some cases, the results can be negative.  Games can cause hurtful stereotypes to come out because the players believe they are behind this impenetrable wall of anonymity. 
The popular games have been designed in ways to promote positive social interaction.  World of Warcraft provides many different kinds of in-game rewards for making a group of players and maintaining that group while accomplishing in-game goals.  These games show the players that working with other people can yield great rewards.  They encourage less social players to branch out of their comfort zone while still providing them with a safe environment to do so.  Even if a player fails in one give social interaction, there are so many people within the game, that they could almost have an unlimited opportunity for practice.  The only limits to that practice are the amount of people playing the games.  But when this number is in the millions, it provides ample opportunity for practice.  In a chart about the General Learning Model referenced by Douglas Gentile in the article Prosocial Video Games and Behavior, he describes that the repeated learning encounters and practice are then effected by many different factors before coalescing into what is viewed as your individual personality.  Everything from your beliefs to your attitudes, stereotypes and emotions all play a role in interpreting these lessons and shaping your personality.  In one of their studies they “directly tested the hypothesis that habitual playing of prosocial video games would increase prosocial behavior assessed months later.” (Gentile 2009)  They studied Japanese children’s video game habits and their behaviors twice over a three to four month time span.  The results of these studies proved that there was a “bidirectional relationship between prosocial gaming and behavior.” (Gentile 2009)  These lessons and tasks within these games that promoted playing with other people really were affecting the players in positive ways.  There was a similar study done linking violent video game playing and aggression, but it just further supports that these games can have a psychological effect on the players.  The practice and lessons learned within the game environment have a definitive impact on the players in both short-term and long-term ways.
Games that are designed to reinforce social behavior are indeed having a positive effect on players inside the game as well as outside of the game world.  In other studies done by Gentile and other psychologists, it was shown that players that engaged in these prosocial video games would then be more likely to engage in helpful actions towards other players within the game on a more regular basis.  While on the other side, players that engaged in violent competitive video games would then have a tendency to have a hurtful stance towards other players.  “The present state of arousal can also be affected by both personological and situation variables.  Some people are chronically aroused, and numerous situational variables, including playing certain video games, can temporarily increase arousal…  This arousal effect is not specific to violent video games, but could occur with any game that happens to be very exciting.” (Anderson 2000)  This feeling of excitement and accomplishment keeps players involved in the prosocial or hurtful environments which the game creates.
Games can be a useful tool for positively and negatively reinforcing the behaviors of the player.  The game designers behind the game systems are usually iterating on game systems that have been financially successful in the past for other titles, but sometimes games are designed to give the player a new kind of personal experience that they have not had before.  Games are a powerful tool that can be used to influence players in a variety of ways.

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Happ, Christian, Andre Melzer, and Georges Steffgen. "Like The Good Or Bad Guy—Empathy In Antisocial and Prosocial Games." Oakton Library Databases. US: Educational Publishing Foundation, 03 Mar. 2014. Web. 08 Apr. 2014. <>.
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"Press Releases." Blizzard Entertainment. Activision Blizzard, 7 Oct. 2010. Web. 24 Apr. 2014.

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