Geek or chic? A brief look at video gamer stereotypes

Regular readers of my blog will know that I have spent well over two decades carrying out research into various aspects of video gaming. Online video gaming has become an increasingly popular activity amongst teenagers and adults alike. For numerous reasons, perhaps in part because of its rapid growth, online gaming is also an activity that has become highly stereotyped. That is, it is an activity that has come to be associated in popular culture with a highly specific, caricatured and also negative image. This image is reflected in numerous television shows, print media, news reports, current affairs programs and other sources of popular culture. As Dr. D Williams and his colleagues noted in a 2008 issue of the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication Monographs:

“Game players are stereotypically male and young, pale from too much time spent indoors and socially inept. As a new generation of isolated and lonely ‘couch potatoes,’ young male game players are far from aspirational figures”.

Understanding the formation of stereotypes about this group and how they are internalised may help us understand society’s attitudes towards this activity and how its participants are positioned within the status hierarchy. Where the stereotype of the pale teenage gamer came from and whether there is any truth to it are clearly important and interesting questions. Our recent research concerns the extent to which this social stereotype has been transformed into a cognitive stereotype, what form this cognitive stereotype takes, and what this can tell us about society’s attitude toward gaming as an emerging form of social or asocial activity.

Within popular culture, a clear characterisation of online gamers has emerged. Frequently caricatured, this ‘stereotype’ has been disseminated throughout the print media, as well as television and web based programs. One poignant example comes from the popular U.S. animated series South Park. In an episode devoted to the Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game (MMORPG) World of Warcraft, the stereotypical gamer was portrayed as overweight, lazy, isolated, and aggressive. Additionally, the four main characters of the series became increasingly overweight, lazy, and developed acne as their immersion into the game deepened. One of the main characters (Penny) in the U.S. television series The Big Bang Theory also conforms to stereotypic expectations as she becomes obsessive, reclusive and unkempt upon playing a fantasy-based online game.

The highly successful web series, The Guild, took a more comical approach as they followed a group of online gamers who decide to meet each other in the offline world after many months of regular online interaction. In the opening scene of the first episode, the main character is told by her therapist that her online friends do not constitute a genuine support system, and that immersion in an imaginary social environment is stunting her personal growth. Within the first few minutes of this episode, themes of obsession, addiction, reclusiveness, and loneliness arise.

The stereotypical portrayal of an online gamer has also taken more serious forms. In an episode of Law and Order: SVU, a popular U.S. television series, two individuals are arrested and accused of neglecting their child due to their immersion in an online gaming world. In addition to the depiction of the more physical aspects of the stereotype (both suspects are overweight and have poor personal hygiene), the obsessive and addictive qualities of online gaming are implicated in a much more serious context of child neglect.

The problematic and addictive nature of video games is often highlighted by the news media, and a variety of internet websites, magazine articles, and news articles dispense advice for individuals with problematic playing behaviours. Taken together, these media portrayals, news reports, and internet articles present a consistent and negative image of online gaming and its participants. Online gaming is presented as a dangerous activity that may lead to social withdrawal, physical and mental ill health, and even suicide. These concerns are reflected in stereotypical portrayals of online gamers as socially anxious and incompetent, mentally stunted and withdrawn, and physically unhealthy (e.g., overweight, pale). The origins of this stereotypical image are unknown. It may be an extension of pre-existing stereotypes about similar activities (e.g., the violent film or video game and aggression hypothesis), a subtype of a broader ‘nerd’ stereotype, or a general cynicism about a new and rapidly spreading form of social activity and interaction. The social, psychological and historical factors that led to this stereotype are clearly interesting and worth exploring.

The occurrences of the cultural stereotype described are largely examples of the stereotype of an MMORPG player, rather than online gamers more generally. MMORPG players appear to be the prototype of online gamers, as caricatured by numerous television and web-based programs. In a study published in the Bulletin of Science, Technology and Society, Dr. Rachel Kowert, Dr. Julian Oldmeadow and myself collected some data on video gamer stereotypes. We asked our participants (both gamers and non-gamers) to indicate what most other people think online gamers are like. To the extent that stereotypical portrayals of online gaming and gamers have given rise to shared trait associations, there should be strong agreement across both gamers and non-gamers with regards to how gamers are perceived by others in general. A further aim of our study was to examine the extent to which these trait associations about gamers have been internalised as personal beliefs. A total of 342 participants completed our online survey in which they rated how applicable each of a list of traits was to the group of online gamers. Ratings were made for both personal beliefs (how participants themselves see gamers) and stereotypical beliefs (how most others see gamers). While these beliefs were highly consensual as stereotypes, personal beliefs varied suggesting that the cultural portrayal of online gamers is beginning to shift into cognitive associations.

Participants were asked to evaluate the list of adjectives and rate each one in terms of how applicable they believed the trait to be of online gamers. Responses were given on a 7-point Likert-type scale, ranging from 1 (“not at all applicable”) to 7 (“very applicable”). Participants were first asked questions relating to basic demographic information, as well as information about their online gaming habits (which games they play or had played, frequency of play, and whether they consider themselves a gamer). They were then asked to rate each of the 30 adjectives according to how they personally perceived online gamers (stereotype endorsement), and how they thought other people perceive online gamers (stereotype). The tasks were presented in this order to maximise the independence between personal and stereotypical ratings.

Even though online gamers are a relatively new social category within society, our results demonstrated that a collective stereotype about this population has emerged. All our participants showed an awareness of a shared stereotype that is in accordance with the anecdotal characterisations commonly portrayed by popular media. Stereotype ratings were consistent across gamers and non-gamers, suggesting that these beliefs are widely shared within society. Based on the results of this study, we concluded that the current stereotype of online gamers is largely negative, based on the traits of popularity, attractiveness, idleness, and social competence. Online gamers were stereotypically viewed as unpopular, unattractive, idle, and socially incompetent, a characterisation that seems to match common stereotypical portrayals in the media, television, and internet articles.

As this investigation was largely exploratory, care needs to be taken in interpreting the results and further research is needed to confirm the factors that emerged here. For instance, it is uncertain if the results found here are reflective of the generalized stereotype of gamers (including online gamers more generally) or the popularized prototype of the MMORPG gamer. While some have found that MMORPG gamers are viewed more negatively than the generalized construct of the online gamer, future research is needed to further examine the general stereotype in relation to the subgroups contained within it. This will hopefully provide clarification into the stereotypical differences amongst the broad categorization of online gamers as compared to more specific subgroups, such as MMORPG gamers or casual online gamers (e.g., individuals who play online games that require no major time commitment or special set of skills to complete, such as the highly popular Zynga game, Farmville). Future research may provide further insight into the progression of the shared beliefs about online gamers ‘out there’ developing into internalised cognitive associations ‘in here’. Somewhat fortuitously, the stereotype of online gamers is still undergoing formation within society, providing researchers with the unique opportunity to study this characterisation as it continues to evolve.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Additional input: Dr. Rachel Kowert and Dr. Julian Oldmeadow

Further reading

Cole, H., & Griffiths, M. (2007). Social Interactions in Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 10(4), 575 – 583.

Griffiths, M., Davies, M., & Chappell, D. (2003). Breaking the stereotype: the case of online gaming. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 6(1), 81 – 91.

Kowert, R., Griffiths, M.D. & Oldmeadow, J. (2012). Geek or Chic? Emerging stereotypes of online gamers. Bulletin of Science, Technology and Society, 32, 371-379.

Kowert, R., & Oldmeadow, J. (2012). The stereotype of online gamers: new characterization or recycled prototype. Paper presented at the Nordic DiGRA, Tampere, Finland.

Lucas, K., & Sherry, J. (2004). Sex differences in video game play: a communication-based explanation. Communication Research, 31(5), 499 – 523.

Ogletree, S., & Drake, R. (2007). College students’ video game participation and perceptions: gender differences and implications. Sex Roles, 56, 537 – 542.

Williams, D., Yee, N., & Caplan, S. (2008). Who plays, how much, and why? Debunking the stereotypical gamer profile. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication Monographs, 13(4), 993 – 1018.

Yee, N. (2006). The demographics, motivations, and derived experiences of users of massively-multi-user online graphical environments. Teleoperators and Virtual Environments, 15(3), 309 – 329

About drmarkgriffiths

Professor MARK GRIFFITHS, BSc, PhD, CPsychol, PGDipHE, FBPsS, FRSA, AcSS. Dr. Mark Griffiths is a Chartered Psychologist and Professor of Behavioural Addiction at the Nottingham Trent University, and Director of the International Gaming Research Unit. He is internationally known for his work into gambling and gaming addictions and has won many awards including the American 1994 John Rosecrance Research Prize for “outstanding scholarly contributions to the field of gambling research”, the 1998 European CELEJ Prize for best paper on gambling, the 2003 Canadian International Excellence Award for “outstanding contributions to the prevention of problem gambling and the practice of responsible gambling” and a North American 2006 Lifetime Achievement Award For Contributions To The Field Of Youth Gambling “in recognition of his dedication, leadership, and pioneering contributions to the field of youth gambling”. His most recent award is the 2013 Lifetime Research Award from the US National Council on Problem Gambling. He has published over 600 research papers, four books, over 130 book chapters, and over 1000 other articles. He has served on numerous national and international committees (e.g. BPS Council, BPS Social Psychology Section, Society for the Study of Gambling, Gamblers Anonymous General Services Board, National Council on Gambling etc.) and is a former National Chair of Gamcare. He also does a lot of freelance journalism and has appeared on over 2000 radio and television programmes since 1988. In 2004 he was awarded the Joseph Lister Prize for Social Sciences by the British Association for the Advancement of Science for being one of the UK’s “outstanding scientific communicators”. His awards also include the 2006 Excellence in the Teaching of Psychology Award by the British Psychological Society and the British Psychological Society Fellowship Award for “exceptional contributions to psychology”.

Posted on April 15, 2014, in Addiction, Adolescence, Case Studies, Computer games, Cyberpsychology, Games, Gender differences, Obsession, Online gaming, Popular Culture, Psychology, Technological addiction, Video game addiction, Video games and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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