Category Archives: Computer games

The born identity: Can online gaming help people with gender dysphoria?

About a year ago, my colleagues and I published what we believe is the very first study of the helping role that video gaming can play in the lives of transgender individuals. Before I get to that, it’s probably worth noting that there have been studies of how gamers and fans play with sexuality, gender, and the video game Minecraft on YouTube as well as papers discussing whether the gaming industry should cater for marginalized groups and develop games for groups where there is little representation within games (e.g., gay and transgendered characters). For instance, there is now a short autobiographical game by Auntie Pixellante called Dys4ia. This is a WarioWare-style game, played only with the arrow keys, chronicling the experiences of a trans woman rectifying her own gender dysphoria. Such videogames raise interesting questions about how those individuals with gender dysphoria utilize gaming as part of their identity.

In a previous blog I briefly looked at gender swapping in online video games including some of my own research. For instance, in 2003 I published a paper in the journal CyberPsychology and Behavior using secondary poll data from online gaming forums. The paper reported that of 10,350 players at the Everlore fan site, 15% had swapped the gender of their main in-game playing character. We also reported a similar finding among 8,694 players at the Allakhazam fan site with 15.5% reporting that they had gender swapped their main in-game character (and more specifically, 14.5% males and 1% were females who had changed the gender of their lead character). In a 2004 follow-up survey among 540 Everquest gamers (again in the journal CyberPsychology and Behavior) my colleagues and I reported that 60% had swapped their online in-game characters. The prevalence of gender swapping was probably much higher in this study because the question related to the gender swapping of any online game character not just their main playing character.

In a small exploratory study I published in 2008 with Dr. Zaheer Hussain in the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, we examined why people engaged in gender swapping in a self-selecting sample of 119 online gamers (mean age of 28.5 years). We reported that 57% of gamers had engaged in gender swapping (any character not just their main character), and that males adopting an online female persona believed there were a number of positive social attributes to becoming female characters in male-oriented gaming environments. The study also reported that significantly more females than males had gender swapped their character – mainly to prevent unsolicited male approaches on their female characters. Some females appeared to gender swap purely out of interest to see what would happen in the game (as a personal experiment), while others claimed that they were treated more favourably by male gamers when they played as a male character. Others reported that gender swapping enabled them to play around with aspects of their identity that would not be possible to explore in real life. Other reasons for gender swapping were that (i) female characters had better in-game statistics, (ii) some specific tools were only available with female characters, (iii) the class of character was sometimes only available in one gender, (iv) they played for fun, and/or (v) they did it to so something that they would not normally do in the game (i.e., they did it for a change in their usual playing behaviour).

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Outside of online gaming, a 2002 paper by Hegland and Nelson in the International Journal of Sexuality and Gender Studies noted that the Internet more generally can be used as a tool for expressing gender identity because it allows identities to cross cultural boundaries instantly and without regard for real physical space. They examined 30 cross-dressing websites and argued that for most cross-dressers that visited such websites, the online forum was their primary medium of expression. The users of the website used the Internet to nurture the ability to create a feminine identity, and helped them to pass as a woman in the offline public world. More generally, cross-dressers used the Internet to participate in the larger cultural dialogue of gender.

For an adult to meet current criteria for a diagnosis of transsexualism, the World Health Organisation’s International Classification of Diseases (ICD) reports they must express the desire to live and be accepted as a member of the opposite sex, usually accompanied by the wish to make his or her body as congruent as possible with the desired sex through surgery and cross-sex hormones. This transsexual identity must have been present persistently for a minimum of two years and not be a symptom of another mental disorder or a chromosomal abnormality. The latest (fifth) edition of Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) of the American Psychiatric Association uses the term gender dysphoria to describe people who are uncomfortable and/or distressed regarding their assigned gender, their physical sex characteristics and/or their associated social roles. Depending upon the intensity of this distress, some individuals may wish to transition from one point on a notional gender scale to another. The most common direction is from a man to a woman (individuals known as trans women), or from a woman to a man (individuals known as trans men). The distress intrinsic to gender dysphoria may be focused around anatomy, physiology, and/or being perceived and treated as someone of a gender with which the person does not identify. However, these diagnostic labels do not apply to all trans individuals for a multitude of reasons because some people will not identify themselves as a man or as a woman

The World Health Organisation working group has recommended that the latest ICD replace the term Transsexualism with Gender Incongruence) and remove it from the mental and behavioural disorders chapter. Gender incongruence denotes the incongruence between a person’s gender identity and their assigned sex and/or congenital primary and secondary sex characteristics. The terminology in this field has changed over the years and the terms ‘transgender’ and ‘trans’ have been used in the literature as umbrella terms to cover a wide variety of atypical gender experiences and expressions which may lead to permanent change of social gender role but does not necessarily involve treatment with cross-sex hormones or surgical intervention. A recent study has reported an prevalence for transsexualism of 4.6 in 100,000 individuals; 6.8 for trans women and 2.6 for trans men, which is primarily based on studies looking at individuals attending clinical services. (However, it should be noted that recent population studies have reported a significantly higher prevalence rate of atypical gender experiences and expressions).

The study we published in the journal Aloma originated from initial observations made by Dr. Jon Arcelus that a number of gender dysphoric clients presenting at the national (UK) gender dysphoria clinic admitted that they gender-swapped while playing online games. After I met with Dr. Arcelus I suggested he revisit his case files and and to write them up as case studies (as no study in the gaming field has ever examined online gaming among those with gender dysphoria). The main objectives of our study were to use exemplar case studies to highlight that gaming – in some circumstances – appears to be a functional way of dealing with gender identity issues, and that gender swapping in gaming may help such individuals to come to terms with their gender dysphoria.

Our paper featured four case studies who attended an assessment at the National Centre for Gender Dysphoria in Nottingham. All four individuals described in our paper were given pseudonyms and the content of their histories were anonymised (and included ‘Mary’ a 26-year old natal male who fully transitioned to the female social role six months prior to our study; ‘Mark’ a 20-year old natal female who first attended for an assessment in the female role; ‘Paul’ a 31-year old natal male who would like to be female, but still living full-time as a male; and ‘Harry’ a 23-year old natal male who presented for an assessment as a male). If you want to read about each case in detail, the paper can be downloaded for free from here).

The four case studies outlined in our paper are only a selected sample of the number of cases attending a national clinic for people with gender dysphoria. However, they were in no way unusual to the other clients that have sought help at the Centre. However, these individual accounts were specifically selected to demonstrate the different ways that video gaming may help people with gender dysphoria come to terms with their gender identity. For example, gaming can be used among trans people as a psychological tool to increase one’s awareness of gender identity and/or as part of the self. Gaming may therefore be a useful way to express one’s experienced gender identity in a safe, non-threatening, non-alienating, non-stigmatizing, and non-critical environment. This appears to mirror other the findings of other studies outside of the online gaming environment.

Articles published in the mass media have reported that online games such as World of Warcraft provide a creative space that allows gamers that might be questioning aspects of their identity to explore their lives as different individuals. Some have even gone as far as to argue that this could help gamers transform their ‘offline’ identity, as is the case with some trans gamers. This was also demonstrated in the case studies described in our study. Other authors have asserted that the online medium offers an infinite space for development and resistance to traditional gender roles, and that online interaction enables a transgression of the dichotomous categories of male and female, constructing trans (or even genderless) social identities and relationships. However, although such anonymous online communities may provide trans individuals with the power to subvert their physical sex.

Our case studies also demonstrated the different functions of gaming in trans people (e.g., the function of “testing out” their gender feelings). For instance, using gaming to ‘come out’ to other people, by initially coming out in the online community, which is perceived as a safe environment, and then gradually coming out in real life. Gaming, as for many non-trans individuals, can derive psychological benefits and a sense of escapism. This is even more relevant among trans people as it may be the only time that they feel they can be themselves, allowing them to feel happy, relaxed, and achieving a sense of completeness. This could develop into a powerful coping skill substituting unhealthy behaviours, such as self-harming behaviour. This is particularly important in this population as research shows a strong association between being trans and mental health problems, particularly depression and self-harm as a way to manage one’s trans feelings. This is not surprising as the discomfort and distress about assigned gender and body dissatisfaction may lead to a sense of hopelessness, which can bring low mood, self-injury and even suicide.

Although gaming appears (at least initially) to be a positive and beneficial activity for many trans people, there is also the risk that staying in the game becomes too much of a secure and safe environment. This can create a vicious circle where the trans person does not wish to move out of the secure online world, and back into reality. Spending an increasing amount of time in online gaming carries the risk of developing a gaming dependence or addiction. This may not only affect one’s personal relationships, work and/or study, but may also impair real life social gender role transition, as in many cases, the individual is expected to socially transition before they can be considered for treatment.

Obviously our paper only included four participants and may be perceived by some researchers as ‘anecdotal’ because the data were not collected for this specific study but were retrospectively collated. However, our findings showed that for a trans individual, the online gaming environment was perceived as “safe” but further research is needed to establish what the distinctive elements of online gaming are that help to raise gender awareness (or not as the case may be). With the rates of gender dysphoria attending clinical services increasing significantly, future research should investigate (i) the rates and severity of gaming among this population as well as its function, and (ii) the rates of gender dysphoria among game addiction as coming out may help their addiction. The game industry may also want to consider how they can use games as a way of helping trans people being more accepted within society by developing game industry may want to co-observe how their games can prepare and assist individuals to socially transition. Online games also provide a safe environment that provides people access to a platform where individuals can discuss and experiment with gender identity.

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Arcelus, J., Bouman, W. P., Witcomb, G. L., Van den Noortgate, W., Claes, L., & Fernandez-Aranda, F. (2015). Systematic review and meta-analysis of prevalence studies in transsexualism. European Psychiatry, 30, 807-815.

Arcelus, J., Jones, B., Richards, C., Jimenez-Murcia, S., Bouman, W.P. & Griffiths, M.D. (2017). Video gaming and gaming addiction in transgender people: An exploratory study. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 6, 21–29.

Dale, L. K. (2014, January 23). How World of Warcraft helped me come out as transgender. The Guardian. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/technology/gamesblog/2014/jan/23/how-world-of-warcraft-game-helped-me-come-out-transgender

Griffiths, M.D., Arcelus, J. & Bouman, W.P. (2016). Video gaming and gender dysphoria: Some case study evidence. Aloma: Revista de Psicologia, Ciències de l’Educació i de l’Esport, 34(2), 59-66.

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

Griffiths, M.D., Davies, M.N.O. & Chappell, D. (2004). Demographic factors and playing variables in online computer gaming. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 7, 479-487.

Griffiths, M. D., Kiraly, O., M. Pontes, H. M. & and Demetrovics, Z. (2015). An overview of problematic gaming. In Starcevic, V. & Aboujaoude, E. (Eds.), Mental Health in the Digital Age: Grave Dangers, Great Promise (pp.27-55). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Fahs, B., & Gohr, M. (2012). Superpatriarchy meets cyberfeminism: Facebook, online gaming, and the new social genocide. MP: An Online Feminist Journal, 3(6), 1-40.

Hegland, J. E., & Nelson, N. J. (2002). Cross-dressers in cyber-space: Exploring the Internet as a tool for expressing gendered identity. International Journal of Sexuality and Gender Studies, 7(2-3), 139-161.

Huh, S., & Williams, D. (2010). Dude looks like a lady: Gender swapping in an online game. In Online worlds: Convergence of the real and the virtual (pp. 161-174). London: Springer.

Hussain, Z., & Griffiths, M. D. (2008). Gender swapping and socialising in cyberspace: An exploratory study. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 11, 47-53.

Lewis, A., & Griffiths, M. D. (2011). Confronting gender representation: A qualitative study of the experiences and motivations of female casual-gamers. Aloma: Revista de Psicologia, Ciencies de l’Educacio i de l’Esport, 28, 245-272.

McLean, L., & Griffiths, M. D. (2013). Female gamers: A thematic analysis of their gaming experience. International Journal of Games-Based Learning, 3(3), 54-71.

Osborne, H. (2012). Performing self, performing character: Exploring gender performativity in online role-playing games. Transformative Works and Cultures, 11. doi:10.3983/twc.2012.0411.

Potts, A. (2015). ‘LOVE YOU GUYS (NO HOMO)’ How gamers and fans play with sexuality, gender, and Minecraft on YouTube. Critical Discourse Studies, 12(2), 163-186.

Shaw, A. (2012). Do you identify as a gamer? Gender, race, sexuality, and gamer identity. New Media and Society, 14(1), 28-44

Taylor, T. L. (2003). Multiple pleasures women and online gaming. Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies, 9(1), 21-46.

Todd, C. (2012). ‘Troubling’ gender in virtual gaming spaces. New Zealand Geographer, 68(2), 101-110.

Blocking out the pain: Tetris, trauma, and Game Transfer Phenomena

Unwanted visual intrusions are characteristic of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). According to Dr. Emily Holmes and her colleagues in a 2009 paper in the journal PLoS ONE, one innovative intervention for inhibiting unwanted intrusions is playing the Tetris videogame, described as a ‘cognitive vaccine’ in preventing intrusions after traumatic events. Playing Tetris consumes heavy visuospatial working memory resources that potentially compete with cognitive resources required for elaboration of visual imagery. Since Holmes and colleagues’ study, other studies have used Tetris to inhibit intrusive imagery including more studies by Holmes and her colleagues and others by Ella James’ research group, as well as some innovative studies using Tetris to reduce drug cravings by Jessica Storka-Brown and her colleagues (see ‘Further reading’ below). However, none of these studies assessed the role of videogame content after playing in relation to Game Transfer Phenomena (GTP), an area that we have carried out a lot of research into (see ‘Further reading’ below).

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GTP research has investigated non-volitional experiences (e.g., altered sensorial perceptions and automatic mental processes/behaviours) mostly experienced after gaming. Gamers often report sensorial (visual/auditory) intrusions after playing (e.g., visual and auditory imagery, hallucinations). In a survey of 2,362 gamers that we published in a 2016 issue of the International Journal of Human-Computer Interaction, most (77%) had visualized images from a variety of videogames (including tile-puzzle games) with closed-eyes, and one-third (31%) had visualized images with open-eyes. Other studies have experimentally induced videogame-related visualizations at sleep onset (including studies by Stickgold and colleagues [2000], Wamsley and colleagues [2010], Kusse and colleagues [2012] – see ‘Further reading’).

James and colleagues’ 2015 study in the journal Psychological Science was the first to make explicit reference to GTP (referred to as the ‘Tetris effect’ [TE]). In 2012, we argued the TE term is misleading as it suggests repetition is the core of transfer effects. However, other factors are involved. Research concerning GTP makes the distinction between sensorial modalities facilitating non-volitional phenomena with videogame content that occur along the continuum from mild to severe. Moreover, the descriptive constructs of GTP are empirically based on our analysis of 3,500+ gamers and have been examined via confirmatory factor analysis demonstrating good reliability and validity.

James and her colleagues tested if playing Tetris offered a protective mechanism against re-experiencing traumatic events. Healthy participants (n=56) were randomly assigned to either playing Tetris for 11 minutes, or doing nothing before exposure to a 12-minute traumatic film. Image-base memories about the film were then registered in a one-week dairy. However, playing Tetris as a proactive interference task before watching the film did not show significant results. James and colleagues offered different explanations including: (i) duration of the task in relation to film length, (ii) temporal contingencies between the tasks, (iii) differences between the task types, (iv) videogame types used, and (v) reactivation of gameplay during the film for aided interference. In a commentary paper published in a 2016 issue of Frontiers in Psychology, we discussed these findings and some of its shortcomings in relation to GTP literature.

  • Duration of task in relation to film length: Playing Tetris for 11 minutes may not have been long enough to compete with the consolidation of memory of the 12-minute film. GTP are significantly more likely to occur when playing 3-6 hours. Our research reported only 4% of gamers reported GTP when playing sessions shorter than one-hour. Laboratory experiments have taken days of playing to induce game-related visualizations at sleep onset.
  • Temporal contingencies between gaming and film watching: The tasks were performed minutes apart from each other. GTP mostly occur soon after stopping playing but our research has found that gamers have also reported GTP days after playing. In most cases, duration of experience is very short (seconds/minutes) but in some cases hours or longer.
  • Differences between the tasks: Previous studies have demonstrated that similar tasks aid interference. However, watching a film is a passive activity while gaming is interactive requiring additional perceptual/motor skills. Therefore, it may be expected that gaming is more potent as interference task, particularly because inducing the subjective sense of presence in the virtual world may strengthen the interference.
  • Type of videogame used as interference task and emotional content of film: The unrealistic (geometric) Tetris content may have been overwritten by the film’s traumatic images. Visualization of stereotypical games induced at sleep onset are characterized by lack of emotion, assuming that the amygdala and the reward system are not involved. In GTP research, emotions in tile-matching puzzle-games are incomparable to emotions in realistic videogames.
  • Reactivation of gameplay during the film for aided interference: The use of cue reminders may have potential in reviving videogame content. In many cases, thoughts and altered perceptions are triggered by game-related cues. Selective attention toward game-related cues has been demonstrated in experiments. GTP have been reported in variety of videogame genres particularly those that have very realistic graphics and settings. Therefore, more realistic games may aid associations between real life stimuli and videogame content, and may be more effective in competing with memories of traumatic events.

In our Frontiers paper, we noted that playing Tetris is not only an effective visuospatial task (overloading working memory resources needed for imagery-formation while playing), but as demonstrated in our GTP studies, videogame content stays active after playing (e.g., mental imagery, sensory perceptions), and may offer additional benefits for managing unwanted intrusions. GTP may potentially strengthen effects of interference tasks but should be used cautiously, because videogame content not only targets unwanted intrusions, but also influences individual cognitions, perceptions, and behaviours in day-to-day contexts (e.g., attention bias, lack of task awareness, control inhibition failures). Moreover, our studies have shown distress and dysfunction have been reported with GTP.

Consequently, further research needs conducting to identify: (i) videogames that are most effective, (ii) playing duration, (iii) factors that reduce intervention efficacy and strategies to control them, and (iv) individuals that may benefit the most from such intervention. While using videogames as intervention tools for preventing unwanted imagery from traumatic experiences has potential, therapeutically it is still at an early stage.

  • (Please note: This blog was co-written with Dr. Angelica Ortiz de Gortari and is based on an article we published in Frontiers in Psychology: Ortiz de Gortari, A.B. & Griffiths, M.D. (2016). Playing the computer game Tetris prior to viewing traumatic film material and subsequent intrusive memories: Examining proactive interference. Frontiers in Psychology, 7, 260. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2016.00260)

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Holmes, E. A., James, E. L., Kilford, E. J., & Deeprose, C. (2010). Key steps in developing a cognitive vaccine against traumatic flashbacks: Visuospatial Tetris versus Verbal Pub Quiz. PloS ONE, 5(11), e13706.

James, E. L., Bonsall, M. B., Hoppitt, L., Tunbridge, E. M., Geddes, J. R., Milton, A. L., & Holmes, E. A. (2015a). Computer game play reduces intrusive memories of experimental trauma via reconsolidation-update mechanisms. Psychological Science. doi: 10.1177/0956797615583071

James, E. L., Zhu, A. L., Tickle, H., Horsch, A., & Holmes, E. A. (2015b). Playing the computer game Tetris prior to viewing traumatic film material and subsequent intrusive memories: Examining proactive interference. Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry. doi: 10.1016/j.jbtep.2015.11.004

Kusse, C., Shaffii-Le Bourdiec, A., Schrouff, J., Matarazzo, L., & Maquet, P. (2012). Experience-dependent induction of hypnagogic images during daytime naps: A combined behavioural and EEG study. Journal of Sleep Research, 21(1), 10-20.

Ortiz de Gortari, A. B., Aronsson, K., & Griffiths, M. D. (2011). Game Transfer Phenomena in video game playing: A qualitative interview study. International Journal of Cyber Behavior, Psychology and Learning 1(3), 15-33.

Ortiz de Gortari, A. B., & Griffiths, M. D. (2012). An introduction to Game Transfer Phenomena in video game playing. In J. I. Gackenbach (Ed.), Video Game Play and Consciousness (pp. 223-250). Hauppauge, NY: Nova Publisher.

Ortiz de Gortari, A. B., & Griffiths, M. D. (2014a). Altered visual perception in Game Transfer Phenomena: An empirical self-report study. International Journal of Human-Computer Interaction, 30(2), 95-105.

Ortiz de Gortari, A. B., & Griffiths, M. D. (2014b). Auditory experiences in Game Transfer Phenomena: An empirical self-report study. International Journal of Cyber Behavior, Psychology and Learning 4(1), 59-75.

Ortiz de Gortari, A. B., & Griffiths, M. D. (2014c). Automatic mental processes, automatic actions and behaviours in Game Transfer Phenomena: An empirical self-report study using online forum data. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 12(4), 1-21.

Ortiz de Gortari, A. B., & Griffiths, M. D. (2015a). Game Transfer Phenomena and its associated factors: An exploratory empirical online survey study. Computers in Human Behavior, 51, 195-202.

Ortiz de Gortari, A.B. & Griffiths, M.D. (2016). Prevalence and characteristics of Game Transfer Phenomena: A descriptive survey study. International Journal of Human-Computer Interaction, 32, 470-480.

Ortiz de Gortari, A.B., Oldfield, B. & Griffiths, M.D. (2016). An empirical examination of factors associated with Game Transfer Phenomena severity. Computers in Human Behavior, 64, 274-284.

Ortiz de Gortari, A. B., Pontes, H. M. & Griffiths, M. D.  (2015). The Game Transfer Phenomena Scale: An instrument for investigating the nonvolitional effects of video game playing. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking 10, 588-594

Skorka-Brown, J., Andrade, J., & May, J. (2014). Playing ‘Tetris’ reduces the strength, frequency and vividness of naturally occurring cravings. Appetite, 76 , 161-165.

Skorka-Brown, J., Andrade, J., Whalley, B., & May, J. (2015). Playing Tetris decreases drug and other cravings in real world settings. Addictive Behaviors, 51, 165-170.

Stickgold, R., Malia, A., Maguire, D., Roddenberry, D., & O’Connor, M. (2000). Replaying the Game: Hypnagogic images in normals and amnesics. Science, 290(5490), 350-353.

Wamsley, E. J., Perry, K., Djonlagic, I., Reaven, L. B., & Stickgold, R. (2010). Cognitive replay of visuomotor learning at sleep onset: Temporal dynamics and relationship to task performance. Sleep, 1(33), 59-68.

 

Tubular hells: A brief look at ‘addiction’ to watching YouTube videos

 

A few days ago, I unexpectedly found my research on internet addiction being cited in a news article by Paula Gaita on compulsive viewing of YouTube videos (‘Does compulsive YouTube viewing qualify as addiction?‘). The article was actually reporting a case study from a different news article published by PBS NewsHour by science correspondent Lesley McClurg (‘After compulsively watching YouTube, teenage girl lands in rehab for digital addiction’). As Gaita reported:

“The story profiles a middle school student whose obsessive viewing of YouTube content led to extreme behavior changes and eventually, depression and a suicide attempt. The student finds support through therapy at an addiction recovery center…The student in question is a young girl named Olivia who felt at odds with the ‘popular’ kids at her Oakland area school. She began watching YouTube videos after hearing that it was a socially acceptable thing to do… Her viewing habits soon took the place of sleep, which impacted her energy and mood. Her grades began to falter, and external problems within her house – arguments between her parents and the death of her grandmother – led to depression and an admission of wanting to hang herself. Her parents took her to a psychiatric hospital, where she stayed for a week under suicide watch, but her self-harming compulsion continued after her release. She began viewing videos about how to commit suicide, which led to an attempt to overdose on Tylenol[Note: The name of the woman – Olivia – was a pseudonym].

McClurg interviewed Olivia’s mother for the PBS article and it was reported that Olivia went from being a “bubbly daughter…hanging out with a few close friends after school” to “isolating in her room for hours at a time”. Olivia’s mother also claimed that her daughter had always been kind of a nerd, a straight. A student who sang in a competitive choir. But she desperately wanted to be popular, and the cool kids talked a lot about their latest YouTube favorites”. According to news reports, all Olivia would do was to watch video after video for hours and hours on end and developed sleeping problems. Over time, the videos being watched focused on fighting girls and other videos featuring violence.

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The news story claimed that Olivia was “diagnosed with depression that led to compulsive internet use”. When Olivia went back home she was still feeling suicidal and then spent hours watching YouTube videos on how to commit suicide (and it’s where she got the idea for overdosing on Tylenol tablets).

After a couple of spells in hospital, Olivia’s parents took her to a Californian centre specialising in addiction recovery (called ‘Paradigm’ in San Rafael). The psychologist running the Paradigm clinic (Jeff Nalin) claimed Olivia’s problem was “not uncommon” among clients attending the clinic. Nalin believes (as I do and have pointed out in my own writings) that treating online addictions is not about abstinence but about getting the behaviour under control but developing skills to deal with the problematic behaviour. He was quoted as saying:

“I describe a lot of the kids that we see as having just stuck a cork in the volcano. Underneath there’s this rumbling going on, but it just rumbles and rumbles until it blows. And it blows with the emergence of a depression or it emerges with a suicide attempt…The best analogy is when you have something like an eating disorder. You cannot be clean and sober from food. So, you have to learn the skills to deal with it”.

The story by Gaita asked the question of whether compulsive use of watching YouTube could be called a genuine addiction (and that’s where my views based on my own research were used). I noted that addiction to the internet may be a symptom of another addiction, rather than an addiction unto itself. For instance, people addicted to online gambling are gambling addicts, not internet addicts. An individual addicted to online gaming or online shopping are addicted to gaming or shopping not to the internet.

An individual may be addicted to the activities one can do online and is not unlike saying that an alcoholic is not addicted to a bottle, but to what’s in it. I have gone on record many times saying that I believe anything can be addictive as long there are continuous rewards in place (i.e., constant reinforcement). Therefore, it’s not impossible for someone to become addicted to watching YouTube videos but the number of genuine cases of addiction are likely to be few and far between. Watching video after video is conceptually no different from binge watching specific television series or television addiction itself (topics that I have examined in previous blogs).

I ought to end by saying that some of my own research studies on internet addiction (particularly those co-written with Dr. Attila Szabo and Dr. Halley Pontes and published in the Journal of Behavioral Addictions and Addictive Behaviors Reports – see ‘Further reading’ below) have examined the preferred applications by those addicted to the internet, and that the watching of videos online is one of the activities that has a high association with internet addiction (along with such activities such as social networking and online gaming). Although we never asked participants to specify which channel they watched the videos, it’s fair to assume that many of our participants will have watched them on YouTube), and (as the Camelot lottery advert once said) maybe, just maybe, a few of those participants may have had an addiction to watching YouTube videos.

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

Further reading

Gaita, P. (2017). Does compulsive YouTube viewing qualify as addiction? The Fix, May 19. Located at: https://www.thefix.com/does-compulsive-youtube-viewing-qualify-addiction

Griffiths, M.D. (2000). Internet addiction – Time to be taken seriously? Addiction Research, 8, 413-418.

Griffiths, M.D., Kuss, D.J., Billieux J. & Pontes, H.M. (2016). The evolution of internet addiction: A global perspective. Addictive Behaviors, 53, 193–195.

Griffiths, M.D. & Pontes, H.M. (2014). Internet addiction disorder and internet gaming disorder are not the same. Journal of Addiction Research and Therapy, 5: e124. doi:10.4172/2155-6105.1000e124.

Griffiths M.D. & Szabo, A. (2014). Is excessive online usage a function of medium or activity? An empirical pilot study. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 3, 74-77.

Kuss, D.J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2015). Internet Addiction in Psychotherapy. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Kuss, D.J., Griffiths, M.D. & Binder, J. (2013). Internet addiction in students: Prevalence and risk factors. Computers in Human Behavior, 29, 959-966.

Kuss, D.J., Griffiths, M.D., Karila, L. & Billieux, J. (2014). Internet addiction: A systematic review of epidemiological research for the last decade. Current Pharmaceutical Design, 20, 4026-4052.

Kuss, D.J., van Rooij, A.J., Shorter, G.W., Griffiths, M.D. & van de Mheen, D. (2013). Internet addiction in adolescents: Prevalence and risk factors. Computers in Human Behavior, 29, 1987-1996.

McClurg, L. (2017). After compulsively watching YouTube, teenage girl lands in rehab for ‘digital addiction’. PBS Newshour, May 16. Located at: http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/compulsively-watching-youtube-teenage-girl-lands-rehab-digital-addiction/

Pontes, H.M., Kuss, D.J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2015). The clinical psychology of Internet addiction: A review of its conceptualization, prevalence, neuronal processes, and implications for treatment. Neuroscience and Neuroeconomics, 4, 11-23.

Pontes, H.M., Szabo, A. & Griffiths, M.D. (2015). The impact of Internet-based specific activities on the perceptions of Internet Addiction, Quality of Life, and excessive usage: A cross-sectional study. Addictive Behaviors Reports, 1, 19-25.

Widyanto, L. & Griffiths, M.D. (2006). Internet addiction: A critical review. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 4, 31-51.

Games without frontiers: A brief look at the psychology of play

In a previous blog I examined my favourite board game (Scrabble) and the extent to which someone could become addicted to it. Today’s blog takes a broader look at the psychology of play more generally. Arguably, many of the topics that I research involve the psychology of playing games with video games and gambling games being my two most obvious areas of interest.

It’s been argued by myself (and others) that the ritualized play of several childhood games provides ‘training’ in the acquisition of gambling behaviour and that some games are pre-cursors to actual gambling (e.g., playing marbles, card flipping, etc.). Some authors (such as Igor Kusyszyn) hold the view that gambling is in itself ‘adult play’. Unsurprisingly, Freud was one of the first people to concentrate on the ‘functions’ of play and concluded that play in all its varieties (a) provides a wish-fulfilment, (b) leads to conflict reduction, (c) provides temporary leave of absence from reality, and (d) brings about a change from the passive to the active.

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Since Freud, most psychologists have concentrated on the idea of ‘conflict reduction’ and in doing so have ignored his other three postulations. A more modern approach in the 1970s by Mihalyi Czikszentmihalyi asserted that during play a person can “concentrate on a limited stimulus field, in which he or she can use skills to meet clear demands, thereby forgetting his or her own problems and separate identity” (and provides one of the reasons that a small minority of people can develop problems playing games). Seminal research on the sociology of play by Roger Caillois states notes that play is a “free and voluntary activity”, “a source of joy and amusement” and “bounded by precise limits of time and space” whereas Erving Goffman views it as a “world building activity”.

Games provide the opportunity to prove one’s superiority, the desire to challenge and overcome an obstacle, and a medium by which to test one’s skill, endurance and ingenuity. Games, unlike some activities (including life itself!), tell us whether we have won or lost. As observed by James Smith and Vicki Abt in the 1980s:

“…in the context of a competitive and materialistic culture that has become increasingly regimented and standardized with little room for individual creativity and personal achievement, games (including gambling) offer the illusion of control over destiny and circumstance”.

Perhaps the best categorisation of game types was formulated by Roger Caillois who listed four classifications – agon (competition), alea (chance), mimicry (simulation), and ilinx (vertigo). In the context of games involving gambling, alea and agon are crucial in that they offer a combination of skill, chance and luck. As was previously asserted, most people desire opportunities to test their strength and skill against an adversary, and those games which offer a component of skill or talent combined with luck and chance provide the most favourable conditions. This is particularly prevalent in males who are deemed ‘masculine’ if during the socialization process they show (socially) important traits such as courage, independence, and bravery.

According to Caillois, play is “an occasion of pure waste: waste of time, energy, ingenuity, skill, and often of money” and is a “free and voluntary activity that occurs in a pure space, isolated and protected from the rest of life”. According to Caillois, play is best described by six core characteristics:

  • It is free, or not obligatory.
  • It is separate (from the routine of life) occupying its own time and space.
  • It is uncertain, so that the results of play cannot be pre-determined and so that the player’s initiative is involved.
  • It is unproductive in that it creates no wealth and ends as it begins.
  • It is governed by rules that suspend ordinary laws and behaviours and that must be followed by players.
  • It involves make-believe that confirms for players the existence of imagined realities that may be set against ‘real life’.

Back in 2000, I published an article on the psychology of games in Psychology Review and what makes a good game. I noted that:

  • All good games are relatively easy to play but can take a lifetime to become truly adept. In short, there will always room for improvement.
  • For games of any complexity there must be a bibliography that people can reference and consult. Without books and magazines to instruct and provide information there will be no development and the activity will die.
  • There needs to be competitions and tournaments. Without somewhere to play (and likeminded people to play with) there will be little development within the field over long periods of time.
  • Finally – and very much a sign of the times – no leisure activity can succeed today without corporate sponsorship of some kind.

I was recently interviewed by Lucy Orr for an article on board games for The Register – particularly about the psychology of winning. For instance, why is winning so important? I responded to Orr by pointing out that winning makes us feel good both psychologically and physiologically. Winning something – especially if it is a result of something skilful rather than by chance – can feel even better (unless the chance winning is something life changing like winning the lottery). Winning something using your own skill can demand respect from other competitors and brings about esteem (that can feed into one’s own self-esteem). Winning can be a validation that what you are doing is worthwhile. Other parts of my interview were not used.

I was asked whether beating other people makes winning more rewarding? Of course it does. Any time we engage in a behaviour that feels good we want to do it again (and again). Winning can be reinforcing on many different levels. There may be financial rewards, social rewards (peer praise, admiration and respect from others), psychological rewards (feeling better about oneself and feeling that the activity is a life-affirming and life-enhancing activity that feeds into self-esteem), and physiological rewards (increases in adrenaline and serotonin that trigger dopamine and makes us feel happy).

For some people, winning can become addictive. You can’t become addicted to something unless you are constantly reinforced and rewarded for engaging in the behaviour, and (as mentioned above) there are many different types of rewards (e.g., financial, social, psychological and physiological). Any (or all of these) could lead to repetitive and habitual behaviour and in a small minority of cases be addictive. However, as I have noted in a number of my papers, doing something to excess is not addiction. The difference between a healthy excessive enthusiasm and an addiction is that excessive enthusiasms add to life and addictions take away from it. For most people, winning behaviour – particularly in the context of playing board games – will be highly rewarding without being in any way problematic

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Brown, J. (2011). Scrabble addict. Sabotage Times, May 16. Located at: http://sabotagetimes.com/life/scrabble-addict/

Caillois, R. (1961). Man, play and games. Paris: Simon and Schuster.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1976). Play and intrinsic rewards. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 16, 41-63.

Goffman, E. (1967). Interaction Ritual: Essays on face-to-face behavior. Garden City, New York: Doubleday Anchor.

Griffiths, M.D. (2000). The psychology of games. Psychology Review, 7(2), 24-26.

Griffiths, M.D.  (2005). A ‘components’ model of addiction within a biopsychosocial framework. Journal of Substance Use, 10, 191-197.

Griffiths, M.D. (2010). The role of context in online gaming excess and addiction: Some case study evidence. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 8, 119-125.

Kusyszyn, I. (1984). The psychology of gambling. Annals of American Academy of Political and Social Sciences, 474, 133-145.

Orr, L. (2016). Winner! Crush your loved ones at Connect Four this Christmas. The Register, December 16. Located at: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2016/12/15/beating_your_family_and_winning_this_christmas/

Smith, J. F. & Abt, V. (1984). Gambling as play Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences, 474, 122-132.

Walsh, J. (2004). Scrabble addicts. The Independent, October 9. Located at: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/this-britain/scrabble-addicts-535160.html

Don’t blame the game: Parents, videogame content, and age ratings

Back in March 2015, BBC News reported that parents of children in 16 Cheshire county schools had been sent a letter saying that head teachers would report them to the authorities if they allowed their children to play videogames that are rated for adults (i.e., games that have an ‘18’ rating). The teachers claimed that popular games like Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty are too violent to be played by those under the age of 18 years. They also stated that such games increased sexualised behaviour and left children vulnerable to sexual grooming. The schools also threatened to report parents who let their children play such games because it was a form of parental neglect. The author of the letter, Mary Hennessy Jones, was quoted as saying that:

“We are trying to help parents to keep their children as safe as possible in this digital era. It is so easy for children to end up in the wrong place and parents find it helpful to have some very clear guidelines”.

I’m sure the letter to parents was written with the best of intentions but as a parent of three ‘screenagers’ and someone that has spent almost three decades researching the effects of video games on human behaviour, this appears to be a very heavy-handed way to deal with the issue. Although it is illegal for any retailer to sell ‘18’ rated games to minors, it is not illegal for children to play such games, or illegal for parents to allow their children to play such games. Many parents need to be educated about the positives and negatives of playing video games but reporting them to the “authorities” is not the right way forward.

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Back in the early 1990s I was probably the only academic in the UK carrying out scientific research on children’s video game playing. In fact, I was proud of my role in getting age ratings onto all video games in the first place, and for writing the text for educational information leaflets for parents (outlining the effects of excessive playing of such games) sponsored by the National Council for Educational Technology. There are many positive benefits of playing video games (something that I wrote about in a previous article for The Conversation).

I know from first-hand experience that children often play games that are age-inappropriate. Two years ago, my (then) 13-year old son said he was the only boy in his class that did not play or own the Call of Duty video game. This is also borne out by research evidence. One study that I was involved in found that almost two-thirds of children aged 11- to 13-years of age (63%) had played an 18+ video game. Unsurprisingly, boys (76%) were more likely than girls (49%) to have played an 18+ video game. Children were also asked about how often they played 18+ video games. Of the two-thirds who had played them, 8% reported playing them “all the time”, 22% reported playing them “most of the time”, 50% reported playing them “sometimes”, 18% reported playing them “hardly ever”. Again, boys were more likely than girls to play 18+ video games more frequently. Children were asked how they got access to 18+ plus video games. The majority had the games bought for them by family or friends (58%), played them at a friend’s house (35%), swapped them with friends (27%), or bought games themselves (5%). This research certainly appears to suggest that parents and siblings are complicit in the playing of age-inappropriate games.

There is a growing amount of scientific literature that has examined the content of video games designed for adults. For instance, a study led by Dr. Kimberley Thompson and published in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine attempted to quantify the depiction of violence, blood, sexual themes, profanity, substances, and gambling in adult (18+) video games and to assess whether the actual game content matched the content descriptor on the packaging. Although content descriptors for violence and blood provided a good indication of content in the 36 games examined, the authors concluded that 81% of the games studied (n=29) lacked content descriptors of other adult content. Other studies carried out by the same research team have found that adult content can be found in lots of games aimed at young children and teenagers.

Another study led by Dr. David Walsh published in Minerva Pediatrica tested the validity of media rating systems (including video games). Results showed that when the entertainment industry rated a product as inappropriate for children, parents also agreed that it was inappropriate. However, parents disagreed with many industry ratings that were designated as containing material as suitable for children. The products rated as appropriate for adolescents by the industry were of the greatest concern to parents.

The issue of children and adolescents playing 18+ games is no different from the debates about children and adolescents watching 18+ films. However, based on anecdotal evidence appears that parents are more likely to adhere to age ratings on films than they are on video games. This is one area that both media researchers and media educators need to inform parents to be more socially responsible in how they monitor their children’s leisure activity. A school sending out a threatening letter to parents is unlikely to change parental behaviour. Education and informed debate is likely to have a much greater effect in protecting our children from the potential harms of video game playing.

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

 Further reading

Anderson, C.A., Gentile, D.A., & Dill, K.E. (2012). Prosocial, antisocial and other effects of recreational video games. In D.G. Singer, & J.L. Singer (Eds), Handbook of Children and the Media, Second Edition, (pp. 249-272). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Anderson, C. A., Shibuya, A., Ihori, N., Swing, E. L., Bushman, B.J., Sakamoto, A., Rothstein, H.R., & Saleem, M. (2010). Violent video game effects on aggression, empathy, and prosocial behavior in eastern and western countries: a meta-analytic review. Psychological Bulletin, 136, 151-173.

Bartlett, C. P., Anderson, C.A. & Swing, E.L. (2009). Video game effects confirmed, suspected and speculative: A review of the evidence. Simulation and Gaming, 40, 377-403.

Ferguson, C. J. (2007). Evidence for publication bias in video game violence effects literature: A meta analytic review. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 12, 470-482.

Ferguson, C. J. (2013). Violent video games and the supreme court: Lessons for the scientific community in the wake of Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association. American Psychologists, 68, 57-74.

Ferguson, C. J., San Miguel, S. & Hartley, T. (2009).  Multivariate analysis of youth violence and aggression: The influence of family, peers, depression and media violence. Journal of Paediatrics, 155, 904-908.

Gentile, D. A. & Stone, W. (2005). Violent video game effects in children and adolescents: A review of the literature. Minerva Pediatrics, 57, 337-358.

Griffiths, M.D. (1998). Video games and aggression: A review of the literature. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 4, 203-212.

Griffiths, M.D. (2000). Video game violence and aggression: Comments on ‘Video game playing and its relations with aggressive and prosocial behaviour’ by O. Weigman and E.G.M. van Schie. British Journal of Social Psychology, 39, 147-149.

Griffiths, M.D. (2010). Age ratings on video games: Are the effective? Education and Health, 28, 65-67.

Griffiths, M.D. & McLean, L. (in press). Content effects: Online and offline games. In P. Roessler (Ed.), International Encyclopedia of Media Effects. Chichester: Wiley.

Grüsser, S.M., Thalemann, R. & Griffiths, M.D. (2007). Excessive computer game playing: Evidence for addiction and aggression?  CyberPsychology and Behavior, 10, 290-292.

Ivory, J.D., Colwell, J., Elson, M., Ferguson, C.J., Griffiths, M.D., Markey, P.M., Savage, J. & Williams, K.D. (2015). Manufacturing consensus in a divided field and blurring the line between the aggression concept and violent crime. Psychology of Popular Media Culture, 4, 222–229.

McLean, L. & Griffiths, M.D. (2013). The psychological effects of videogames on young people. Aloma: Revista de Psicologia, Ciències de l’Educació i de l’Esport, 31(1), 119-133.

McLean, L. & Griffiths, M.D. (2013). Violent video games and attitudes towards victims of crime: An empirical study among youth. International Journal of Cyber Behavior, Psychology and Learning, 2(3), 1-16.

Mehroof, M. & Griffiths, M.D. (2010). Online gaming addiction: The role of sensation seeking, self-control, neuroticism, aggression, state anxiety and trait anxiety. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 13, 313-316.

The song and binding mode: Musical hallucinations in video game playing

According to a 2015 review in the journal Frontiers in Psychology by Jan Coebergh and colleagues, musical hallucinations (MHs) “are auditory hallucinations characterized by songs, tunes, melodies, harmonics, rhythms, and/or timbres…and that the mechanisms responsible for the mediation of MH are probably diverse”. While Danilo Vitorovic and Jose Biller reported in a 2013 issue of Frontiers in Neurology that the prevalence rate of MHs among the general population is at present unknown and/or rare, ‘involuntary musical imagery’ (INMI) is thought to be more commonplace. For instance, in a 2012 Finnish study in the journal Psychology of Music, Lassi Liikkanen reported that 89% of the total sample (n=12,519) reported experiencing INMI at least once a week. Music hallucination prevalence rates among various groups have been reported including obsessive-compulsive disorder patients (41%; Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 2004), elderly people with auditory problems (2.5%; International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, 2002), and general hospital setting patients (0.16%; Psychosomatics, 1998).

Although Coebergh and colleagues described MHs, they were not explicitly defined. In a review in a 2014 issue of the Journal of Medical Case Reports, Woo and colleagues defined MHs as complex auditory perceptions in the absence of an external acoustic stimulus and are often consistent with previous listening experience” whereas the 2013 review by Vitorovic and Biller (see above) noted that MHs represent a specific form of auditory hallucinations whereby patients experience formed songs, instrumental music, or tunes, without an external musical stimulus”. In a 2015 paper in the journal Psychomusicology: Music, Mind, and Brain, Tim Williams provided a classification of INMI and noted they cover a number of different types of involuntary musical experience (including MHs). Despite the lack of detailed definition, it is known that MHs occur within the context of an individual’s culture and are often viewed by those experiencing them as intrusive and sometimes unpleasant.

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In 2015, Dr. Angelica Ortiz de Gortari and I wrote a commentary paper on musical hallucinations in videogame playing in response to the review by Coebergh and colleagues. As far as we were aware, we noted that no review paper examining musical hallucinations had ever included papers referring to musical hallucinations arising from playing video games. The earliest report in the psychological literature is by Sean Spence (published in 1993 in the Irish Journal of Psychological Medicine) who reported the case of a 20-year-old female patient with a family history of psychosis. She presented with persecutory delusions, suicidal ideation, violent behaviour and third-person auditory hallucinations comprising 48 hours of constant MHs from the Mario Brothers videogame that developed into delusional thoughts. No drugs were found in her urinary system and her EEG was normal when MHs occurred. The MHs from the videogame decreased within 48 hours of treatment (using antidepressants and neuroleptics).

More recently, a series of papers by Dr. Ortiz de Gortari and I examined Game Transfer Phenomena (GTP). GTP research has demonstrated how the videogame can keep on playing even after the game has been turned off. GTP are non-volitional phenomena (e.g., altered perceptions, automatic mental processes, and involuntary behaviors). In an analysis of over 1600 gamers’ self-reports, our research has shown that videogame playing can lead to (i) perceptual distortions of physical objects, environments, and/or sounds, (ii) misperceptions of objects and sounds that are similar to those in the videogame, (iii) interpretation of events in real life contexts that utilize the logic of the videogame, (iv) ghost perceptions and sensations of images, sounds, and tactile experiences, and (v) involuntary actions and behaviors based on experiences from the videogame.

One study that we published in a 2014 issue of the International Journal of Cyber Behavior, Psychology and Learning specifically examined auditory GTP experiences. Gamers’ experiences identified as GTP in one or more modalities (e.g., visual, auditory) were collected from 60 online videogame forums over seven months. Of these, there were 192 auditory experiences from 155 gamers collected. The largest numbers of experiences (90%) were identified as involuntary auditory imagery. This manifested as hearing music (n = 73), sound (n = 83), or voices from within the game (n = 12). Some experiences were triggered by external cues associated with the game, while others were not. Experiences with music included hearing high pitch music in addition to calm and classical music.

Music from the videogames was usually experienced persistently, while sound effects or voices appeared to have occurred more episodically. Hearing the music persistently provoked sleep deprivation, annoyance, and uncertainty. When the music was re-experienced very vividly, the gamers attributed them to external sources associated with the videogame. More specifically, when auditory cues were associated with adverse videogame content, they resulted in irrational thoughts, reactions and changes in behaviour. In many cases, the gamers said that they had been playing intensively (i.e., either playing long sessions or playing frequently). Previous studies have linked hearing music in absence of auditory stimuli with the recent or repeated exposure to music (see ‘Further reading’ below including: Gardner, 1985; Gerra et al., 1998; Hyman et al., 2012).

In our study, one gamer said that he heard the sound of music coming out from the speakers so he stood up to check them while another heard music from Pokémon when vacuuming. It also appears that musical hallucinations can cross sensory modalities. For instance, some gamers have reported hearing music while seeing images from the video game. An online survey about GTP with a convenience sample of 2,362 gamers found that hearing music from videogames when not playing were the more prevalent (74%) than hearing sounds (65.0%) or voices (46%) when not playing (Ortiz de Gortari & Griffiths, 2015b).

Based on what is known empirically, our paper concluded that (i) MHs from videogame playing – although not well documented – appear to be relatively commonplace among gamers and prevalence appears to be higher than found in other populations, (ii) individual interpretation of MHs from videogames are influenced by the meanings and uses of auditory cues in the videogames, (iii) MHs can manifest beyond one sensory modality and has been reported across-sensory channels (e.g., hearing music while seeing ghost images from the game), (iv) there is little evidence that MHs among videogame players are linked to other underlying pathology (e.g., epilepsy, psychiatric disorder, etc.), (v) those researching in the field of MHs and INMI appear to have overlooked the literature on these phenomena related to videogame playing, and (vi) better definitions are needed for MHs and a distinction between MHs and INMI is required.

(Please note: This blog is based on material used in the following paper: Griffiths, M.D. & Ortiz de Gortari, A.B. (2015). Musical hallucinations: Review of treatment effects. Frontiers in Psychology, 6, 1885. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01885).

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Coebergh, J. A. F., Lauw, R. F., Bots, R., Sommer, I. E. C., & Blom, J. D. (2015) Musical hallucinations: review of treatment effects. Frontiers in Psychology, 6, 814.

Cole M.G., Dowson, L., Dendukuri, N., & Belzile, E. (2002). The prevalence and phenomenology of auditory hallucinations among elderly subjects attending an audiology clinic. International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry (2002) 17, 444–52.

Fukunishi, I., Horikawa, N., & Onai, H. Prevalence rate of musical hallucinations in a general hospital setting. Psychosomatics (1998) 39, 175.

Hermesh H. (2004). Musical hallucinations: prevalence in psychotic and nonpsychotic outpatients. Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 65, 191–7. doi:10.4088/JCP.v65n0208

Gardner, M. P. (1985). Mood states and consumer behavior: A critical review. Journal of Consumer Research, 12, 281-300.

Gerra, G., Zaimovic, A., Franchini, D., Palladino, M., Giucastro, G., Reali, N., . . . Brambilla, F. (1998). Neuroendocrine responses of healthy volunteers to `techno-music’: relationships with personality traits and emotional state. International Journal of Psychophysiology, 28(1), 99-111.

Griffiths, M.D. & Ortiz de Gortari, A.B. (2015). Musical hallucinations: Review of treatment effects. Frontiers in Psychology, 6, 1885. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01885

Hyman, I. E., Burland, N. K., Duskin, H. M., Cook, M. C., Roy, C. M., McGrath, J. C., & Roundhill, R. F. (2012). Going gaga: Investigating, creating, and manipulating the song stuck in my head. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 27, 204-215.

Liikkanen, L. A. (2012). Musical activities predispose to involuntary musical imagery. Psychology of Music, 40(2), 236-256.

Ortiz de Gortari, A. B, Aronsson, K. & Griffiths, M. D. (2011). Game Transfer Phenomena in video game playing: A qualitative interview study. International Journal of Cyber Behavior, Psychology and Learning, 1(3), 15-33.

Ortiz de Gortari, A. B. & Griffiths, M. D. (2014). Auditory experiences in Game Transfer Phenomena: An empirical self-report study. International Journal of Cyber Behavior, Psychology and Learning, 4(1), 59-75.

Ortiz de Gortari, A. B. & Griffiths, M. D. (2014). Altered visual perception in Game Transfer Phenomena: An empirical self-report study. International Journal of Human-Computer Interaction, 30, 95-105.

Ortiz de Gortari, A.B. & Griffiths, M.D. (2014). Automatic mental processes, automatic actions and behaviours in Game Transfer Phenomena: An empirical self-report study using online forum data. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 12, 432-452.

Ortiz de Gortari, A.B. & Griffiths, M.D. (2015). Game Transfer Phenomena and its associated factors: An exploratory empirical online survey study. Computers in Human Behavior, 51, 195-202.

Ortiz de Gortari, A. B., Pontes, H. M. & Griffiths, M. D. (2015). The Game Transfer Phenomena Scale: An instrument for investigating the non-volitional effects of video game playing. Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking, in press.

Ortiz de Gortari, A.B. & Griffiths, M.D (2015b). Prevalence and characteristics of Game Transfer Phenomena: A descriptive survey study. Manuscript under review.

Spence, S. A. (1993). Nintendo hallucinations: A new phenomenological entity. Irish Journal of Psychological Medicine, 10, 98–99.

Vitorovic, D. & Biller, D. (2013). Musical hallucinations and forgotten tunes – case report and brief literature review. Frontiers in Neurology, 4, 109. doi: 10.3389/fneur.2013.00109

Williams, T. I. (2015). The classification of involuntary musical imagery: The case for earworms. Psychomusicology: Music, Mind, and Brain, 25(1), 5-13.

Woo, P. Y. M. Leung, L. N. Y., Cheng, S. T. M. & Chan, K-Y. (2014). Monoaural musical hallucinations caused by a thalamocortical auditory radiation infarct: a case report. Journal of Medical Case Reports, 8, 400.

Gore-ist information: A brief look at virtual reality horror games

“I recently played ‘The Visitor’ in VR. In front of an audience of drunken friends egging on my high pitch outbursts. I lasted seven out of the ten minutes, finally succumbing after a close encounter with a pixelated pillow. The Visitor’s story is about an unexpected guest calling to your house in the middle of the night. Developed by ‘NostalgicBear VR’ for the ‘Oculus Rift’ and ‘HTC Vive’ it relies on atmosphere to unsettle players, using visual cues in the form of intermittent flickering lights to inform the player where to look. Paralysed and lying in bed, you can only wait and watch as the strange occurrences culminate in one of the biggest jump scares I’ve ever experienced. As virtual reality goes, this particular experience has a high creep factor. It’s one of those new VR ‘games’ that really should come with a free pair of pants…In the wake of the PlayStation VR release, headed up by the dark and psychological Here They Lie, pretty much every major gaming outlet slashed their prices on horror games and gamers all over the world have been celebrating Halloween with their first exposure to a virtual reality freak out…VR grips the gamer with such a suspension of disbelief; when the headset is on there is seemingly no escape. Do developers take into account the psychological differences between previous gaming horror experiences and that of VR?”

The opening quote in today’s blog is from an article by Gareth May published last month for the Wareable website (‘Could VR horror be too…horrifying?’). I was interviewed by May for the story and is one of a number of media stories that I have been interviewed over the last year concerning virtual reality. Regular readers of my blog will know that I have a personal interest in horror films and a professional interest in excessive use of virtual reality so it was an interview I enjoyed doing (in fact, May interviewed me for two stories simultaneously, the other being on mechanophilia – sexual arousal from machines – which also was published last month in an article in the Daily Telegraph).

In his article on VR horror, May wanted to know about whether the playing of VR horror games could be problematic in any way (or as May asked me, ‘Is it possible that VR is just a bit too ‘real’?’). I pointed out that there had been little empirical research on the topic and that almost everything that I said was speculative. I noted that while VR is certainly more immersive than usual, we should remember that immersion can occur even without being in an VR environment. For instance, a lot of my research into video gaming demonstrates that gaming can be immersive (particularly the research I have been carrying out with Dr. Angelica Ortiz de Gortari on game transfer phenomena and some research I co-authored in the mid-2000s on time loss in video game play). I did point out to May that for most people, there’s not going to be a problem with playing VR horror games. Those that already enjoy watching horror films, the vast majority will probably love it even more in VR and it’s not going to have a negative impact on them. I told May that I loved gore in horror films and said that I would probably be fine playing an immersive horror VR game and that seeing somebody being disembowelled in front of me would have little effect on me psychologically. (However, I ought to point out that my few experiences of VR have left me feeling sick as I suffer from motion sickness). However, you can never rule out a small minority of individuals that it may negatively affect either psychologically or traumatically. In short, I don’t have many concerns about this until scientific evidence proves otherwise.

May also interviewed Professor Tanya Krzywinska, Director of the Games Academy at Falmouth University who thinks that VR and horror video games are a good match:

“VR is the next natural step for one of gaming’s most popular genres. Horror made its way into video games very early on [such as] the 1995 point and click ‘Phantasmagoria’ [was] an early breakthrough game due to its use of video snippets to show a ‘real’ actress reacting to the horrific events as they unfolded around her…’Silent Hill’ [was also] a game-changer for its use of sound and its surreal ‘Twin Peak-ish twist’ on survival horror. Both these games utilise a particular emotional palette that I regard as central to games: a sense of claustrophobia and the sense of being unable to act effectively on a situation…VR can make very good use of this palette because of its immersive nature and I think horror is one of the few genres that VR really suits…Horror is very inclined to want to take advantage of new formats to refresh the palette and work with the cache that the novelty provides. Without that novelty, repetition occurs and you then only manage to engage younger audiences who haven’t been around the horror block. Horror is a very suitable place to take a good, long, critical look at ethics and I hope that some game designers see that”.

So is the introduction of VR for the horror genre a game-changer? May also interviewed the independent games developer Sergio Hidalgo, creator of the creepy dungeon game Dreadhalls. He was quoted as saying:

“VR can work as an immersion multiplier, and given that the horror genre is built on immersion, it simply opens more opportunities to create experiences that take advantage of that sense of physicality it can provide. Simply being in a scary environment can be a very engaging experience in VR on its own. This was already true when I started ‘Dreadhalls’ but the technology keeps moving forward and improving with new developments such as room scale or motion tracked controllers…In ‘Dreadhalls’ there are monsters that react to the player’s gaze direction, forcing the player to either not look at them directly or the opposite. This is a much richer interaction when the player is performing it herself rather than via a mouse or controller. ‘Dreadhalls would never have gathered such attention if it weren’t for the new types of interactions and features made possible by VR tech…The main ethical recommendation I have in this regard is that of not betraying the player’s trust. When the player enters a VR experience and surrenders control over their senses to the developer, it’s important that [the players are] aware of exactly what to expect, and that this promise isn’t broken by the developer”.

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In an interview that May had with Ben Tester, the games developer of VR horror game Don’t Knock Twice, Tester noted:

“Developers are in a strange predicament where it’s now possible to make a game that’s too scary. For that reason, ‘Don’t Knock Twice’ includes traditional adventure gameplay elements, such as puzzle solving and environmental props, to aid storytelling and remind the player every once in a while that they are still playing a game. We want to make a great horror game that people will remember for sure but we don’t want to make it so uncomfortable that it makes it unplayable. In ‘Don’t Knock Twice’, we want to avoid the player going through a constant stream of scares one after another and instead, create an interesting and atmospheric environment which will creep out any horror enthusiast. It’s about finding the right balance between having a solid gaming experience and immersing the player in a terrifying horror situation…In the VR demo of ‘Don’t Knock Twice’, players can break down a door with an axe. [This often leads to players] leaning their heads forward and triggering the classic ‘Here’s Johnny’ moment [from ‘The Shining’], which only amplifies the jump scare which follows. A scare that wouldn’t have been half as effective if it was in traditional gaming style”.

Finally, May asked me for some advice for those who were scared witless by playing VR horror games. My quoted response? “Just shut your eyes”.

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Ashcroft, S. (2015). VR revenue to hit $21.8 billion by 2020. Wareable, July 29. Located at: http://www.wareable.com/vr/vr-revenues-could-reach-dollar-218-billion-by-2020-1451

Griffiths, M.D. (2016). Can virtual reality be addictive? Virtual Reality News, June 28. Located at: http://www.virtualreality-news.net/news/2016/jun/28/can-virtual-reality-really-be-addictive/

Juniper Research (2016). White paper: The rise of virtual reality. Available from: http://www.juniperresearch.com/document-library/white-papers/the-rise-of-virtual-reality

May, G. (2016). Could VR horror be too…horrifying? Wareable, November 3. Located at: http://www.wareable.com/vr/virtual-reality-horror-experiences-too-real-ethics-55

Ortiz de Gortari, A.B. & Griffiths, M.D. (2015). Game Transfer Phenomena and its associated factors: An exploratory empirical online survey study. Computers in Human Behavior, 51, 195-202.

Ortiz de Gortari, A.B., Oldfield, B. & Griffiths, M.D. (2016). An empirical examination of factors associated with Game Transfer Phenomena severity. Computers in Human Behavior, 64, 274-284.

Ortiz de Gortari, A.B., Pontes, H.M. & Griffiths, M.D. (2015). The Game Transfer Phenomena Scale: An instrument for investigating the non-volitional effects of video game playing. Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking, 18, 588-594.

Stables, J. (2016).  Gambling, gaming and porn: Research says VR is set to blast off. Wareable, September 15. Located at: http://www.wareable.com/vr/gaming-gambling-and-porn-research-says-vr-is-set-to-blast-off-1682

Sung, D. (2015). VR and vice: Are we heading for mass addiction to virtual reality fantasies? Wareable, October 15. Located at: http://www.wareable.com/vr/vr-and-vice-9232

Tractica (2015). Virtual reality for consumer markets. Available at: https://www.tractica.com/research/virtual-reality-for-consumer-markets/

Wood, R.T.A. & Griffiths, M.D. (2007). Time loss whilst playing video games: Is there a relationship to addictive behaviours? International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 5, 141-149.

Wood, R.T.A., Griffiths, M.D. & Parke, A. (2007). Experiences of time loss among videogame players: An empirical study. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 10, 45-56.

Sense and sense-ability: A brief look at ‘virtual reality addiction’

Ever since I started researching into technological addictions, I have always speculated that ‘virtual reality addiction’ was something that psychologists would need to keep an eye on. In 1995, I coined the term ‘technological addictions’ in a paper of the same name in the journal Clinical Psychology Forum. In the conclusions of that paper I asserted:

“There is little doubt that activities involving person-machine interactivity are here to stay and that with the introduction of such things [as] virtual reality consoles, the number of potential technological addictions (and addicts) will increase. Although there is little empirical evidence for technological addictions as clinical entities at present, extrapolations from research into fruit machine addiction and the exploratory research into video game addiction suggest that they do (and will) exist”.

Although I wrote the paper over 20 years ago, there is little scientific evidence (as yet) that individuals have become addicted to virtual reality (VR). However, that is probably more to do with the fact that – until very recently – there had been little in the way of affordable VR headsets. (I ought to just add that when I use the term ‘VR addiction’ what I am really talking about is addiction to the applications that can be utilized via VR hardware rather than the VR hardware itself).

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VR’s potential in mass commercial markets appears to be finally taking off because of mass-produced affordable hardware such as Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, PlayStation VR and the (ultra-cheap) Google Cardboard (in which a smartphone can be inserted into cardboard VR headset frame). Last year, a report by the marketing and consulting company Tractica claimed that spending on virtual reality hardware could be as much as $21.8 billion (US) by 2020. A more recent report by online and digital market research company Juniper estimated that global sales of VR headsets would rise from 3 million in 2016 to 30 million by 2020. Three markets are likely drive sales, and they all happen to be areas that I research into from an addiction perspective – video gaming, gambling, and sex. I’ve noted in many of my academic papers over the years (particularly my early papers on online gambling addiction and online sex addiction) that when new technological advances occur, the sex and gambling industries always appear to be the first to invest and produce commercial products and services using such technologies, and VR is no different. As an online article in Wareable by Dan Sung on VR sex noted:

“What [VR] headsets offer is immersion; 180-degree (or more), stereoscopic action with you as the star of the show and the adult actors and actresses looking deep and lustfully into your eyes as they tend to your genitalia. It’s small wonder that users have been donning their headsets and earphones in numbers and praying to their god that nobody walks in. Yet gambling and porn are synonymous with addiction, and increasingly, questions are being asked about whether the VR revolution could finally ensnare us humans into virtual worlds”.

I was interviewed by Sung for the same article and I made a number of different observations about VR sex. I commented that in terms of people feeling reinforced, aroused, rewarded, sex is the ultimate in things that are potentially addictive. Sex is one of those activities that is highly reinforcing, it’s highly rewarding and how people feel is probably better than the highs and buzzes from other behaviours. Theoretically, I can see that VR sex addiction would be possible but I don’t think it’s going to be on the same scale as other more traditional addictions. The thing about VR (and VR sex) – and similarly to the internet – is that it’s non-face-to-face, it’s non-threatening, it’s destigmatising, and it’s non-alienating. VR sex could be like that whether it’s with fictitious partners, someone that you’re actually into, or someone that you’ve never met before. Where VR sex is concerned, if you can create a celebrity in a totally fictitious way, that will happen. There may be celebrities out there that will actually endorse this and can make money and commercialise themselves to do that. It can work both ways. Some people might find it creepy while others might see something they can make money from.

In one of my previous blogs I looked at the area of ‘teledildonics’, a VR technology that has been around for over two decades (in fact I was first interviewed on this topic on a 1993 Channel 4 television programme called Checkout ’93). Dan Sung also interviewed Kyle Machulis who runs the Metafetish teledildonics website for his article. He said that in relation to VR sex there is a problem with haptics (i.e., the science of applying tactile sensation and control to interaction with computer applications):

 “We’re good on video and audio but haptics is a really, really hard problem…A lot of toys out there right now are horrible and it’s very hard to come up with something quality. So, instead, what the porn industry is aiming for right now is immersion. It may not feel better but they’re so much closer to the action that it may be better, and I think we’re on the cusp of that right now.” First, we need consumer hardware. We need things to be released and available to customers to see if it’s really going to take off or not. But when this happens – late this year, the beginning of next – as soon as the headsets are available, the media is ready and waiting…Of course, there’s straight women, gay men and gay women to develop for too but, for a lot of people, the perfect porn experience is doing something that’s not even physically possible – either through the laws of physics or the laws of land, and that’s something that only VR can solve…Even so, what we saw in teledildonics in gaming is that people used them to begin with but there’s always a lot of fall off with new technologies like this. So, there’s going to be a hardcore set of people who stay with VR porn but it’s hard to say how popular it will be beyond that. We’re all still guessing at the moment. This time next year it will be a completely different story”.

Another area that we will need to monitor is how the gambling industry will harness VR technology. The most obvious application of VR in the gambling world is in the online gambling sector. I can imagine some online gamblers wanting their gambling experiences to be more immersive and for their online gambling sessions to be more akin to gambling offline surrounded by the sights and sounds of an offline gambling venue. There is no technical reason that I know of why people that gamble via their computers, laptops, smartphones or tablets could not wear VR headsets and be playing poker opposite a virtual opponent while still sat on the sofa at home. As Paul Swaddle (CEO of Pocket App) noted in a recent issue of Gambling Insider:

We already know that participation in online gambling is snowballing, so if the entertainment industry can use VR to simulate the experience of being inside a video game, or social media sites can give you the opportunity to not just see your friends’ pictures, but to walk through them, why shouldn’t online casinos be able to do the same? VR may actually be the hook that mobile and online casinos need to draw in more millennials, with the average age of players in mobile casinos currently being 40 [years old], and the average age of mobile gamblers in general being 35 [years old]. Millennials simply aren’t engaging with mobile and online casinos to the same extent as older generations, and I suspect that this is down to younger players being much more used to immersive and sociable gaming, as a result of the cutting-edge developments that are being constantly rolled out in the video gaming industry”.

I agree with Swaddle’s observations as the gambling industry are constantly thinking about the ways to bring in newer players. Today’s modern screenagers love technology and do not appear to have any hang-ups about using wearable technology including Fitbit and the Apple Watch. As Swaddle goes on to say:

“By using 
VR technology to transport players and their friends to exciting locations for their online gambling experience, such as a famous casino in Las Vegas, or a smoky basement room in 1920s New York, or even to the poker table in the James Bond film Casino Royale, mobile and online casinos may stand a better chance of drawing in younger audiences if they use VR to gamify the casino experience”.

Again, this makes a lot of sense to me and I wouldn’t bet against this happening. Swaddle thinks that such VR gambling experiences will become commonplace in the years to come and that the gambling industry needs to get on the VR bandwagon now. 

Perhaps of most psychological concern is the use of VR in video gaming. There is a small minority of players out there who are already experiencing genuine addictions to online gaming. VR takes immersive gaming to the next level, and for those that use games as a method of coping and escape from the problems they have in the real world it’s not hard to see how a minority of individuals will prefer to spend a significant amount of their waking time in VR environments rather than their real life.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Ashcroft, S. (2015). VR revenue to hit $21.8 billion by 2020. Wareable, July 29. Located at: http://www.wareable.com/vr/vr-revenues-could-reach-dollar-218-billion-by-2020-1451

Griffiths, M.D. (1995). Technological addictions. Clinical Psychology Forum, 76, 14-19.

Griffiths, M.D. (1996). Gambling on the internet: A brief note. Journal of Gambling Studies, 12, 471-474.

Griffiths, M.D.  (2001).  Sex on the internet: Observations and implications for sex addiction. Journal of Sex Research, 38, 333-342.

Griffiths, M.D. (2003). Internet gambling: Issues, concerns and recommendations. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 6, 557-568.

Griffiths, M.D. (2012). Internet sex addiction: A review of empirical research. Addiction Research and Theory, 20, 111-124.

Griffiths, M.D., Király, O., M. Pontes, H.M. & Demetrovics, Z. (2015). An overview of problematic gaming. In Starcevic, V. & Aboujaoude, E. (Eds.), Mental Health in the Digital Age: Grave Dangers, Great Promise (pp.27-55). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Juniper Research (2016). White paper: The rise of virtual reality. Available from: http://www.juniperresearch.com/document-library/white-papers/the-rise-of-virtual-reality

Király, O., Nagygyörgy, K., Koronczai, B., Griffiths, M.D. & Demetrovics, Z. (2015). Assessment of problematic internet use and online video gaming. An overview of problematic gaming. In Starcevic, V. & Aboujaoude, E. (Eds.), Mental Health in the Digital Age: Grave Dangers, Great Promise (pp.46-68). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Stables, J. (2016).  Gambling, gaming and porn: Research says VR is set to blast off. Wareable, September 15. Located at: http://www.wareable.com/vr/gaming-gambling-and-porn-research-says-vr-is-set-to-blast-off-1682

Swaddle, P. (2016). Is virtual reality the future of mobile and online gambling? Gambling Insider, 23, June 3, p.9

Sung, D. (2015). VR and vice: Are we heading for mass addiction to virtual reality fantasies? Wareable, October 15. Located at: http://www.wareable.com/vr/vr-and-vice-9232

Tractica (2015). Virtual reality for consumer markets. Available at: https://www.tractica.com/research/virtual-reality-for-consumer-markets/

Gaming desires: A brief look at ‘venatophilia’

In a previous blog on sexual paraphilias that have yet to be studied empirically, I briefly mentioned ‘venatophilia’.  In an online article about cartoon quicksand fetishes (which I discuss below), there was mention of a fetish group called ‘Giant Video Game Girls’ and they appear to have coined the term ‘venatophilia’ from the Latin venatus, meaning ‘game’ and describes sexual attraction to or fascination with video game characters. Venatophilia also gets a mention on the Wiktionary protologism page (a page that lists prototype neologisms) where it listed alongside venatology (“the study of games, the act of playing them, and the players and cultures surrounding them”), venatomania (an obsession with games), and venatophobia (a fear of games). Personally I find this somewhat strange as most paraphilias derive from Greek (rather than Latin) names. If this paraphilia exists I would argue that it is a sub-type of toonophilia (sexual attraction to cartoon characters) that I examined in a previous blog.

Cartoon quicksand fetishes are an integration of quicksand fetishes (itself a form of ‘stuck fetishism‘ that I examined in a previous blog) and (as mentioned above) cartoon fetishism (‘toonophilia‘). The Motherboard article by Jagger Gravning featured an interview with ‘quicksand artist’ A-020 who draws fictional damsels, women that are stuck in quicksand typically wearing a “tight miniskirt, pantyhose, heels, and boots”. (If you are interested, there is lots of art featuring women stuck in quicksand on the Deviant Art webpage). A-020 said:

 “I’m open with [my quicksand cartoon fetish] online because I’m comfortable under a screenname…Though when it comes to knowing me in person, it’s pretty much a secret! I haven’t been in a situation where I had to reveal this fetish…I was pretty young, maybe 7 or 8, when I started seeing quicksand scenes in a movie or a TV show. Some of those films I recall seeing were Beastmaster, Neverending Story, A Nightmare on Elm Street 4 and Ursus in the Valley of the Lions…Once in a while, I’d fantasize about it”.

Gravning makes the point that there are other fetishes that cartoonists incorporate into their videogame graphics. Some of these are strange behaviors that I outlined in a previous blog – ‘unbirthing’ (i.e., returning to the womb) such as that featuring ‘Princess Peach’ and Pokemon characters (such as those here and here) and vore (vorarephilia). In fact, Zeus Tipado wrote an online article for The Stoned Gamer about the “vore fetish of game characters swallowing each other whole”. There are also online articles that examine the best sexual moments in videogame history. In an online article entitled ‘Gamers as fetishists‘  by Gus Mastrapa on the Joystick Division website notes:

“Nowadays we equate fetishism with perversity, but the roots of the word are about perceiving power in objects or things. A religious idol is a fetish object. In the days when more and more parts of our lives are digital it is easy to fetishize the physical. Gamers, I think, have a bit of a head start. Because the videogames we play have long been about making our imaginations physical – by embodying and creating the ideals and fantasies we carry around with us. I mean just look at the characters in a Final Fantasy game and tell me that gamers aren’t serious fetishists…There’s a huge swath of the gaming community who love JRPGs [Japanese role playing games] like Final Fantasy and Persona – where characters are defined more by what they wear than their facial features. Costumes are a huge concern for these fans…It is easy to pick on anime nerds and their weird fixation with trench coats, boots and nerdy glasses. But this exercise would be pointless without self-examination…Gamer fetishism goes beyond the aesthetic…Games encourage obsession. They draw it out of us or provide a vessel for us to pour it into. And so it makes sense that they’d also be filled with objects of our obsession. Weapons, riches, vehicles, clothing, other people – they’re all things we want because we fill them with our dreams and desires”

Earlier this year, the makers of World of Warcraft launched a new videogame, Overwatch which according to an article in Maxim magazine by Zeynep Yenisey is “an over-sexualized first-person shooter featuring tons of big-breasted anime chicks”. Yenisey reported that after the game was released, there had been an 817% increase on Pornhub for Overwatch-related searches particularly for the buxom character Tracer.

So what is the psychology behind fetishes and sexual attraction to videogame characters? Gravning interviewed the evolutionary psychologist Dr. Catherine Salmon

“If somebody has attached to a character because they play a game a lot and fantasize about that character, it wouldn’t be surprising that they take that character and stick it somewhere else. It’s not surprising that some of the female characters in video games who are heroines and are portrayed as very sexual characters in terms of the way that they’re drawn might end up as the stars of gamers’ sexual fantasies. The social aspect of using familiar characters is another reason for using them in quicksand imagery and other fetishes. If you use a known character for a fetish, it gives your work some degree of a built-in audience, a device often used for fanfiction…There is a community of men who are creating and sharing these stories or these images. If they share an interest in the original material as well, then using that original material creates an additional commonality of interest. It’s one thing to have your sexual fantasies and it’s another thing to share your sexual fantasies. If you’re creating art or fiction and you’re putting it on the web, you’re not just doing it for yourself, it’s not just your fantasy that you’re jerking off to, you’re giving that to other people as well. To do that, you find a built-in community if you’re using a shared character”.

Gravning notes some of the “shared characters” find themselves in “exactly the same situations that these artists fetishize” and asked Dr. Salmon whether witnessing individuals repeatedly stuck in quicksand when a child could possibly lead to such unusual fetishes:

“It could be something like that. Whether it’s quicksand or tar pits, there’s things like that in children’s cartoons. It could be something as simple as that. Part of it is the damsel in distress kind of image. Watching ‘Wonder Woman’ caught in that kind of circumstance when people are younger – [it’s] an image that’s eroticized, a very sexually drawn, very feminine image. And they might enjoy watching that sort of thing or the struggle, as she’s trying to get out of whatever that circumstance is. There are a lot of unusual circumstances in cartoons and fantasy and you may get aroused while you’re watching it and then carry some of that too”.

Gravning also interviewed the sex therapist Dr. Elizabeth Lars (who shares my own view on this by alluding to classical conditioning). Dr. Lars calls such associations “accidents of learning” in which the associations “don’t have to be exactly like the fantasy that comes, it just has to resemble it”. Furthermore, she went on to speculate:

[Quicksand fetishists] probably fantasized and got into the feeling that goes with that, not just watching. It could [also] be identifying with it. The kid imagining himself stuck in quicksand in the victim’s place, for example, could be part of its erotic appeal. You could either be observing it or experiencing it. You could be doing both at the same time in a fantasy. Some evidence certainly suggests that sexual patterns are already there, for sure in males, by the age of eight. They may or may not have begun masturbating to fantasies until adolescence, but something is going on internally at a very young age. This highly influential period of age eight through adolescence is also probably for many a prime time for the ingestion of the bizarre imagery and situations contained in video games and cartoons, which often also incorporate sexualized heroines. It looks like what we call fetishes are remarkably easy to install in the early learning experiences. Same thing about fears too.”

Back in the late 1990s, I had a regular column with the now defunct magazine Arcade. My very first column (which you can download here) was on the psychology of Tomb Raider and the sexualization of lead character Lara Croft and the influence it might have on young boys and emerging adolescents. This is echoed by the neuroscientist Dr. Ogi Ogas who when interviewed by Gravning said that pubertal males probably spending a lot of time with sexualized videogame characters like Lara Croft.

“They are seeing these characters during their formative time. They are kind of perfect and ideal – and you don’t have to actually interact with them. Psychologically, it’s truly like a stripped-down, pure erotic stimuli. So it’s much easier to imprint on that, to fetishize that. Part of the fascination is simply being culturally exposed to characters like Lara Croft…[In relation to quicksand fetishes], the notion of being smothered or trapped is universal in the sense that it exists to greater and lesser degrees all over. It’s not just one or two people that have it. It is found in a lot of places. Clearly our normal brain design is not that far removed from [wanting to be] enveloped. It’s probably something to do with our tactile system, our touch system of the brain, that’s quite naturally wired to our sexual arousal system. The tactile system is also interconnected with sensations like being smothered and being interred, being doused with water. Probably, somehow – and I’m speculating here – that’s what got crossed up for whatever reasons. How someone’s brain entangles sexual arousal with the notion of being trapped or smothered might simply be a perturbation of the neural system. A quirk in the brain, essentially. It could be some randomness in the seemingly infinite complexity of your DNA. So, from a perspective rooted in computational neuroscience, niche sexual desires needn’t be wholly, or at all, explained as the result of social construction or evolutionary adaptation. As we’re learning more about the genetics of brain construction, “we’re coming to understand the genetic expression that leads to different neural wiring is highly variable and dependent on so many things [that] could happen in the womb, things that happen in early life, different environmental things. There’s just myriad, myriad factors that can cause unusual neural wiring to arise.”

Dr. Ogas also claimed are fundamental to the human condition and that one in particular (domination/submission) seems to underlie many fetishes:

“The most important, underappreciated sexual interest in our species is an interest in domination and submission. This interest in manifestations of domination and submission applies to people worldwide. To men, women, whether they be gay, lesbian, straight, or anything else. Everybody. Whether your mindset is to be dominant or submissive sexually is fundamental to your sexual identity even though this interest is thought of culturally as an atypical fetish. The concept that one person has power, one person doesn’t, runs through all forms of erotica across the world”.

Based on what I’ve seen and read online, venatophilia appears to exist although it could be argued that videogame fetishes are just sub-classes of other types of fetishes and paraphilias such as vorarephilia, unbirthing, and stuck fetishism.

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

Further reading

Aggrawal A. (2009). Forensic and Medico-legal Aspects of Sexual Crimes and Unusual Sexual Practices. Boca Raton: CRC Press.

Gravning, J. (2016). The fetish for video game characters trapped in quicksand. Motherboard, March 19. Located at: http://motherboard.vice.com/read/quicksand

Griffiths, M.D. (1998). Shrink rap: The Croft Report. Arcade, 1 (November), p. 49.

Love, B. (2001). Encyclopedia of Unusual Sex Practices. London: Greenwich Editions.

Mastrapa, G. (2011). Gamers are fetishists. Joystick Division, March 9. Located at: http://www.joystickdivision.com/2011/09/gamers_are_fetishists.php

McCombs, E. (2008). Toonophilia: Is it porn? Huffington Post, October 1st. Located at: http://www.asylum.com/2008/10/01/toonophilia-is-it-porn/

Monroe, W. (2012). Fetish of the week: Schediaphilia (toonophilia). ZZ Insider, March 12. Located at: http://www.zzinsider.com/blogs/view/fetish_of_the_week_schediaphilia_toonophilia

Tipado, Z. (2015). Exploring the vore fetish of game characters eating each other whole. The Stoned Gamer, October 25. Located at: http://thestonedgamer.com/features/item/351-exploring-the-vore-fetish-of-game-characters-swallowing-each-other-whole

Yenisey, Z. (2016). How the bizarre ‘overwatch’ fetish is getting gamers hot and bothered. Maxim, May 11. Located at: http://www.maxim.com/entertainment/overwatch-pornhub-2016-5

Working while lurking: A brief look at participant observation in online forums

In offline situations, many social science researchers have employed ethnographic methods as a means of understanding and describing different culture and behaviours. However, ethnographic methods can also be used online for studying various types of excessive behaviour. For instance, I argued in a 2010 paper in the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction that by being online, gaming researchers have the capacity to become a part of the phenomenon that is being studied. Recently, I along with a number of my research colleagues at Nottingham Trent University, published a paper in Studia Psychologia that online forums are providing a new and innovative methodology for data collection in the social sciences.

cyberpsychology

For those who don’t know, ethnography focuses on accounting for the actions and intentions of the studied social agents, and outlining how such behaviour is rationalized and understood by the wider group. Traditionally derived from anthropology, ethnography aims at studying people and their behaviours and cultures within their socio-cultural contexts. Behaviours and communications are engulfed with meaning by being situated within the field site. What is needed on behalf of the researcher is what Dr. Clifford Geertz described as the production of a “thick description” of what takes place in these field sites to discern the latter’s contextualized meaning.

When it comes to virtual (i.e., online) ethnography, it is important to notice that while in-person ethnography is constrained by the laws of the physical world where the researcher needs to interact with the participants, online ethnography or as Dr. Robert Kozinets calls it in his 2010 book about online ethnography – “netnography” – can be done in a more unobtrusive way without the need to interact with the participants. Lurking is a possibility that Dr. Kozinets describes as opening a “window into naturally occurring behaviour” without the interference of the researcher.

Virtual ethnography takes the idea of participant observation a step further by challenging the notion of a geographically bound and relatively stagnant field site by replacing it with the virtual sphere that has no set boundaries. In this respect, virtual ethnography is what Dr. Christine Hine says “ethnography in, of and through the virtual”. The Internet is used as place, topic and means of research. It is an important qualitative online methodology and has been used in a variety of different research endeavours, including the studies of people’s explorations of multi-layered identities on the Internet, different levels of online experience, and playing Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games such as Everquest.

There are a number of principles that underlie virtual ethnography. Ethnographers must immerse themselves in the (virtual) field site in order to gain an in depth insight into why and how interactions take place and what they mean within the context of the respective virtual sphere. However, the relationship of the latter’s agents to their real (embodied) lives cannot be disregarded. The online space is a space ‘in between’ that is connected to the world outside of the Internet. Therefore, virtual ethnography is but a partial study and cannot deliver a full account of what it sets out to study. It can never be a holistic approach. Nevertheless, this is aided by the researchers who must be reflexive about what they experience, and about the method they use. The involvement of the researcher and the researcher’s interpretation of the actions and communications that occur within the virtual field site are integral to this type of research. In addition to this, the technology of the Internet itself is essential because it provides the tools for, the objects and the context of analysis.

Given the wide variety of advantages of and important insights virtual ethnography can offer for the researcher, potential disadvantages also need to be taken into consideration. The researchers’ active participation in the field site offers them the possibility of in-depth insights that would not be possible without their involvement. However, at the same time, they might lose their critical distance towards the object of their study. Sacrificing some critical distance therefore is a trade-off for in the collection of invaluable and profound data. As Dr. Christine Hine notes, these data are necessarily biased by the researchers’ experience and perception of online interactions in the respective realm that, due to their immersion, is knowledgeable and familiar.

Dr. Adrian Parke and I applied online ethnography to the study of poker skill development within online poker forums, and published our findings in a 2011 issue of the International Journal of Cyber Behavior, Psychology and Learning. Our study was a virtual ethnographical research design looking at how poker gamblers utilized computer-mediated communication (CMC) to develop their poker skill and profitability, and to examine the factors associated with problem gambling. The study was a six-month participant observational analysis of two independent online poker forums. Dr. Parke participated in poker gambling during the entire study period and used strategies proposed from forum members to develop poker ability. This approach provided an insider’s perspective into how skill development through CMC affects poker gambling behaviour.

We generated forum discussions regarding specific behavioural concepts and cognitive processes based on accumulative analysis of emergent data from the online poker players. Forum interaction was observed, monitored and analyzed through traditional content analytic methods. Membership and participation in such online community forums provided poker players the opportunity to benefit from the consequences of reporting gambling experience and acquiring both poker gambling structural knowledge and skill.

One of the key advantages of data collection via online forums is that it can provide a detailed record of events that can be revisited after the event itself has finished. Furthermore, screen captures can be taken and used as examples or related back to the data collected – something that has been used in the gaming studies field (and outlined in a 2007 paper I published with Dr. Richard Wood in the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction). Study findings can be posted on bulletin boards and participants have the opportunity to comment on their accuracy or comment on any other observations that they may have. This also helps to empower the participant and can prevent misrepresentation.

Given the increase in the number of hours we now spend online every day, carrying out research online is going to become an ever more popular (and useful).

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

Further reading

Geertz, C. (1973). The interpretation of cultures: Selected essays. London: Fontana Press. 

Griffiths, M.D. (2010). The use of online methodologies in data collection for gambling and gaming addictions. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 8, 8-20.

Griffiths, M.D., Lewis, A., Ortiz de Gortari, A.B. & Kuss, D.J. (2016). Online forums and blogs: A new and innovative methodology for data collection. Studia Psychologica, in press.

Hine, C. (Ed.). (2005). Virtual methods. Issues in social research on the Internet. Oxford, UK: Berg.

Hine, C. (2000). Virtual ethnography. London: Sage.

Kozinets, R.V. (2010). Netnography. Doing ethnographic Research Online. Sage: London.

Parke, A., & Griffiths, M.D. (2011). Poker gambling virtual communities: The use of Computer-Mediated Communication to develop cognitive poker gambling skills. International Journal of Cyber Behavior, Psychology and Learning, 1(2), 31-44.

Wood, R.T.A. & Griffiths, M.D. (2007). Online data collection from gamblers: Methodological issues. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 5, 151-163.

Wood, R.T.A., Griffiths, M.D. & Eatough, V. (2004). Online data collection from videogame players: Methodological issues. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 7, 511-518.