Gamer Stereotypes: You Can Do Better
Posted by Peter Charnell
Gamer stereotypes are fortunately moving away from the image of a young man spending hours alone with a machine, especially with the advent of hugely popular games like Rock Band which wouldn’t be amiss at a party of average college students, or console first-person shooters like Call of Duty that are played by a broad spectrum of men (Modern Warfare 3 sold 6.5 million copies in the first 24 hours following its release in November 2011 and grossed over $1 billion over sixteen days). But popular stereotypes are notoriously poor indicators of reality, generally referencing the state of a topic many years out-of-date.
Turning to portrayals of gaming in the news media, two themes tend to predominate: gaming leads to increased violence and gaming will change the world. As an example of the first, the Guardian ran a piece on March 18th called “Are video games just propaganda and training tools for the military?” Judging from the user comments, many of the British public are as skeptical as I am about such an argument. The second theme is a bit more positive. Last year, Jane McGonigal published Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World, which is a highly-readable overview of the ideas underlying the gamification movement. More recent discussions of gamification may be found in the coverage of venture capitalist Bing Gordon’s talk about gaming in business at the South by Southwest (SXSW) conference last week (e.g., “What Gaming Should Teach IT Leaders,” “Structuring Your Business like a WoW Guild,” and “Lessons for PR: Think like a Gamer“). Gordon argues that the main traits of gamers include an emphasis on cooperation, a willingness to experiment and fail, a heightened ability to learn independently, and a desire for continuous improvement.
I find both positive and negative gamer stereotypes to be problematic. As a gamer, I am fully aware that a Chinese gold farmer in WoW is certainly not developing the positive “main traits of gamers” by grinding away in one location, generally alone, to obtain gold to sell to American gamers for real currency. A teenager playing FarmVille is also highly unlikely to be positively impacted by paying $5 to build a virtual stable for her virtual ponies. I also know that killing a Russian in a Cold War-themed first-person shooter does not make me think it’s a good idea to kill a Russian in real life. Stereotypes are simplifications, heuristics if you will, that generally have some truth to them (e.g., leading a raiding guild in WoW may very well benefit your leadership skills in the real world — see Nick Yee’s Daedalus Project) but must be handled with care. I wouldn’t tell a mother that she should let her 6 year old son play a violent and morally-questionable game like Grand Theft Auto. I also wouldn’t give out Bing Gordon’s advice that “game design is the new MBA. If you don’t have an MBA yet, play World of Warcraft instead. It’s only 12 bucks a month instead of $40,000 a year.”
Humans use heuristics, stereotypes being one variety, because they’re less time-consuming and cognitively-taxing than the deliberative-reasoning approach (i.e., gathering information and logically analyzing it to draw only those conclusions supported by available evidence — basically, the process of academic research, which is quite accurate but intensely time-consuming and difficult). Condemning stereotypes for not being accurate in all situations is silly, because their inaccuracy is exactly why they’re useful. A person can either learn everything there is to know about games and as a result have accurate perceptions in every situation, or hear about a stereotype and have accurate perceptions in many situations (Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow is a wonderful introduction to the two cognitive systems I mentioned, sometimes termed “hot” and “cold” cognition).
What is the less-than-perfectly knowledgeable person to do? My suggestion: use better stereotypes. There’s a large amount of space between believing that “games make people better leaders” and “games make people socially inept.” A better stereotype might be: “games that engage a person in a large amount of collaborative tasks involving a high level of coordination that offer many avenues for communicating and relationship-building are likely to improve a person’s ability to function well on a team.” Besides being more specific and probabilistic, the stereotype I offer is also an extension of my level of knowledge on the topic. As I’ve been playing a variety of games seriously for much of my life and I’ve read a large amount of academic research on both gamers and the effects of games, any generalization I make is going to have a much wider and deeper evidentiary-base than a generalization offered by my mother, who has not read any research on the subject or played games, meaning that her generalization will be based solely upon second-hand observations of three persons (her children). Her generalization may actually be accurate, but it’s far less likely when compared to the potential accuracy of my generalization.
Where does one find better stereotypes? I find books written by academics for a popular audience to be the best possible source of information when approaching a new topic (academic journal articles are wonderful once you have some knowledge about a topic — Google Scholar is quite handy). A person with a PhD from a solid university will have been trained to be very careful about stating anything definitely and such a person will typically refer to the evidence supporting a claim as well as critically evaluate its reliability. This might mean that looking for a good stereotype is more difficult than reading news articles like the ones I mentioned above, but you always have to keep the trade-off in mind: do you want accuracy or ease? My preference is for the middle ground on most topics (e.g., I don’t have much of a desire to personally analyze Neanderthal remains to resolve a debate with a friend about their typical height and weight). In addition to Reality is Broken, a few other solid books written by academics about gaming include Infinite Reality: Avatars, Eternal Life, New Worlds, and the Dawn of the Virtual Revolution, Leet Noobs: The Life and Death of an Expert Player Group in World of Warcraft, and Synthetic Worlds: The Business and Culture of Online Games. Unfortunately, academic research about gaming is a relatively young field so there aren’t many books to choose from and they’re often shallow (i.e., written by non-gamers or written for non-gamers).
Over the next few weeks, I’ll be writing a series of articles about the academic research on several topics related to games and psychology (e.g., leadership and social skills, cognitive benefits of gaming) that have interested me with the intent of offering a set of better stereotypes (generalizations) about both gamers and gaming (the people who tend to play games may share certain traits separate from the effects of games on an average person). For now, I would highly recommend looking at Jamie Madigan’s blog (The Psychology of Video Games), Mark Chen’s blog (a post-doc at the University of Washington who studies the educational implications of games), and Nick Yee’s Daedalus Project.