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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

Gamblers anonymous: The psychology of live online casino gambling

Over the last decade, my research unit has carried out an increasing amount of research into the psychology of online gambling. In some of our recent research interviewing online gamblers, offline gamblers and non-gamblers, we found that people who gambled online did so because of its (i) convenience, (ii) greater value for money, (iii) the greater variety of games, and (iv) anonymity. Perhaps more interestingly, were the inhibiting reasons that stopped people from wanting to gamble online in the first place. The main inhibiting reason that stopped people gambling online was that offline gamblers and non-gamblers said the authenticity of gambling was significantly reduced when gambling online. We also found a number of other inhibitors of online gambling including (i) the reduced realism, (ii) the asocial nature of the internet, (iii) the use of electronic money, and (iv) concerns about the safety of online gambling websites. The reduced authenticity and realism may help to explain why online live action casino games are seen as increasingly popular among some types of gamblers.

This empirical research also chimes with my own personal psychology of online gambling. One of the main reasons I don’t like gambling at Internet casinos is that I believe the majority of game outcome are likely to be pre-programmed and/or predetermined. To me, this is somewhat akin to playing with imaginary dice! Our empirical research findings also help explain the rise of live online casino gambling. Players not only want increased realism and authenticity, but still have the added advantages of online anonymity while playing.

In online live casino gaming, the anonymity of the Internet allows players to privately engage in gambling without the fear of stigma. This anonymity may also provide the gambler with a greater sense of perceived control over the content, tone, and nature of the online experience. Anonymity may also increase feelings of comfort since there is a decreased ability to look for, and thus detect, signs of insincerity, disapproval, or judgment in facial expression, as would be typical in face-to-face interactions. For activities such as gambling, this may be a positive benefit particularly when losing as no-one will actually see the face of the loser. Anonymity may reduce social barriers to engaging in gambling, particularly those activities thought to be more skill-based gambling activities (such as poker or blackjack) that are relatively complex and often possess tacit social etiquette. The potential discomfort of committing a structural or social faux-pas in the gambling environment because of inexperience is minimized because the player’s identity remains concealed.

Furthermore, one of the main reasons why behaviour online is very different from offline is because it provides a ‘disinhibiting’ experience. One of the main consequences of disinhibition is that on the internet people lower their emotional guard and become much less restricted and inhibited in their actions.

The increase in online live casino gambling has happened alongside the rise of online betting exchanges – the type of online gambling where it could be argued that skill can – to some extent – be exercised. For gamblers, having a punt on live sporting events via betting exchanges is a psychologically safer option because punters know (or can check) who won a particular football or horse race. The playing of live action casino games via the Internet shares some of the psychological similarities of online betting exchanges.

The rise of live online gambling has been coupled with increasingly sophisticated gaming software, integrated e-cash systems, and increased realism (in the shape of “real” gambling via webcams, live remote wagering, and/or player and dealer avatars). These are all inter-linked facilitating factors. Another factor that I feel is really important in the rise of online gambling (including online live action casino games) is the inter-gambler competition. Obviously there is an overlap between competitiveness and skill but they are certainly not the same. What’s more recent research has suggested that being highly competitive may not necessarily be good for the gambler. For instance, Professor Howard Shaffer, a psychologist at Harvard University, claims that men are more likely to develop problematic gambling behaviour because of their conventionally high levels of aggression, impulsivity and competitiveness. Clearly, the idea of the competitiveness of the activity being one of the primary motivations to gamble is well supported.

Based on the fact that so little research has systematically examined the links between gambling and competitiveness, our research unit did some research into this area. We speculated that a gambler who is highly competitive will experience more arousal and stimulation, and be drawn to gambling as an outlet to release competitive instincts and drives. This is likely to occur more in activities like online poker and online live action casino games. Our research did indeed show that problem gamblers were significantly more likely than non-problem gamblers to be competitive.

Being highly competitive may help in explaining why in the face of sometimes negative and damaging financial consequences, gamblers persist in their habit. Psychological research in other areas has consistently shown that highly competitive individuals are more sensitive to social comparison with peers regarding their task performance. Applying this to a gambling situation, it is reasonable to suggest that competitive gamblers may be reluctant to stop gambling until they are in a positive state in relation to opposing gamblers, perhaps explaining why excessive gambling can sometimes occur.

Sociologists have speculated that factors of the human instinctual expressive needs, such as competition, can be temporarily satisfied when engaging in gambling activities. Evidence exists supporting gambling as an instrumental outlet for expressing competitive instinctual urges. The US sociologist Erving Goffman developed what he called the ‘deprivation-compensation’ theory to explain the relationship between gambling and competitiveness. He suggested that the stability of modern society no longer creates situations where competitive instincts are tested. Therefore, gambling is an artificial, self-imposed situation of instability that can be instrumental in creating an opportunity to test competitive capabilities. Again, online live action casino gambling is another gambling form that can facilitate such instinctive needs.

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

Further reading

Goffman, I. (1972). Where the action is. In: Interaction Ritual (pp. 149–270). Allen Lane, London.

Griffiths, M.D. (2010). Gambling addiction on the Internet. In K. Young & C. Nabuco de Abreu (Eds.), Internet Addiction: A Handbook for Evaluation and Treatment. pp. 91-111. New York: Wiley.

Griffiths, M.D. & Parke, J. (2003). The environmental psychology of gambling. In G. Reith (Ed.), Gambling: Who wins? Who Loses? pp. 277-292. New York: Prometheus Books.

Griffiths, M.D., Wardle, J., Orford, J., Sproston, K. & Erens, B. (2009). Socio-demographic correlates of internet gambling: findings from the 2007 British Gambling Prevalence Survey. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 12, 199-202.

Griffiths, M.D., Wardle, J., Orford, J., Sproston, K. & Erens, B. (2011). Internet gambling, health. Smoking and alcohol use: Findings from the 2007 British Gambling Prevalence Survey. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 9, 1-11.

Kuss, D. & Griffiths, M.D. (2012).  Internet gambling behavior. In Z. Yan (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Cyber Behavior (pp.735-753). Pennsylvania: IGI Global.

McCormack. A. & Griffiths, M.D. (2012). Motivating and inhibiting factors in online gambling behaviour: A grounded theory study. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 10, 39-53.

McCormack, A. & Griffiths, M.D. (2013). A scoping study of the structural and situational characteristics of internet gambling. International Journal of Cyber Behavior, Psychology and Learning, 3(1), 29-49.

McCormack, A., Shorter, G. & Griffiths, M.D. (2013). An examination of participation in online gambling activities and the relationship with problem gambling. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 2(1), 31-41.

McCormack, A., Shorter, G. & Griffiths, M.D. (2013). Characteristics and predictors of problem gambling on the internet. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 11, 634-657.

Wardle, H. & Griffiths, M.D. (2011). Defining the ‘online gambler’: The British perspective. World Online Gambling Law Report, 10(2), 12-13.

Wardle, H., Moody, A., Griffiths, M.D., Orford, J. & and Volberg, R. (2011). Defining the online gambler and patterns of behaviour integration: Evidence from the British Gambling Prevalence Survey 2010. International Gambling Studies, 11, 339-356.