Blog Archives

Ga(y)ming studies: The importance of sexuality in video gaming

Back in May 2014, hundreds of news outlets reported on Nintendo’s decision not to allow gamers to play as gay characters and form same-sex relationships in the life-simulation game Tomodachi Life. Understandably, there was disquiet and outrage from a number of quarters despite Nintendo’s statement that “Tomodachi Life was intended to be a whimsical and quirky game [and] not trying to provide social commentary”. Their statement at the time appeared to fan the flames rather than silence the critics.

I have been researching video game play for almost three decades and I’ve always found issues surrounding character formation, sexuality, and gender in gaming of great psychological interest. In one of our studies we found that a majority of gamers (57%) had gender-swapped their game character with female gamers (68%) being more likely to gender swap than male gamers (54%). We argued that gender swapping enabled gamers to play around and experiment with various aspects of their in-game character that are not so easy to do in real life. For others it was just fun to see if they felt any different playing a different gendered character. What makes our findings interesting is that in most instances, the gamers had the opportunity to choose the gender of their character and to develop other aspects of their character before they began to play. Choosing to gender swap may have had an effect on the gamers’ styles of play and interaction with other gamers. Whatever the reasons, it was clear from our research that the development of gamers’ online characters and avatars was important to them.


One of the reasons for the importance of online gaming identities may be because it subverts traditional parasocial interaction (PI). PI is a concept used by psychologists that has traditionally described one-sided, parasocial interpersonal relationships in situations where one individual knows a great deal about someone else, but where the other person knows little about the other (the most common being the relationship between celebrities and their fans).

A study led by Nicholas Bowman (and published in a 2012 issue of the journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking [CPBSN]) argued that the playing of video games challenges this concept “as the distance between game players and characters is greatly reduced, if not completely removed, in virtual environments.” The study claimed that online gaming encourages the “psychological merging of a player’s and a character’s mind” and is critical in the development of character attachment. In this context, the sexuality of a character for a player may be of fundamental psychological importance.

This appears to be confirmed in a paper by Melissa Lewis and colleagues (also published in CPBSN) who developed a scale to assess ‘character attachment’ (the connection felt by a video game player toward a video game character”). They found that character attachment had a significant relationship with self-esteem, addiction, game enjoyment, and time spent playing games.

American researcher Dr. Adrienne Shaw has carried out a number of studies into lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) representation in video games from a cultural production perspective. She was one of the first academics in the gaming studies field to note that there was a relative lack of LGBT representation in video games. Other areas of the entertainment media (e.g., music, film, and television) appear to have much greater LGBT representation than in video games so it does beg the question of why the gaming industry appears to be behind in this respect. I recall writing a paper back in 1993 (in The Psychologist) where I argued that most video games at the time were designed by males for other males. This arguably alienated female gamers but eventually led to developers introducing strong female characters into video games (the most notable being Lara Croft in Tomb Raider). Maybe the appearance of LGBT characters and role models within games will increase over time but I’m not holding my breath.

In a more recent paper in a 2012 paper in the journal New Media and Society, Dr. Shaw claimed that the demand for minority representation in video games “often focuses on proving that members of marginalized groups are gamers” and that the gaming industry should focus on appealing to such players via targeted content. However, she argues that an individual’s identity as a gamer will intersect with “other identities like gender, race, and sexuality.” She then goes on to say that the negative connotations about being an online gamer may lead to such marginalized groups not wanting to engage in gaming. She concluded that “those invested in diversity in video games must focus their attention on the construction of the medium, and not the construction of the audience…[This] is necessary to develop arguments for representation in games that do not rely on marking groups as specific kinds of gaming markets via identifiers like gender, race, and sexuality.”

Nintendo’s decision not to allow gay relationships to form within Tomodachi Life was ill-judged, ill-informed, and outdated. Games in which identity content can be generated by its users needs to reflect the world in which the gamers’ live. In short, there should be no compromise when it comes to allowing gamers to choose their sexuality within the game.

(N.B. A version of this article first appeared in The Conversation)

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

Further reading

Bowman, N. D., Schultheiss, D., & Schumann, C. (2012). “I’m attached, and I’m a good guy/gal!”: how character attachment influences pro-and anti-social motivations to play massively multiplayer online role-playing games. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 15(3), 169-174

Griffiths, M.D. (1993). Are computer games bad for children? The Psychologist: Bulletin of the British Psychological Society, 6, 401-407.

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.

Hussain, Z., & Griffiths, M. D. (2008). Gender swapping and socializing in cyberspace: An exploratory study. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 11(1), 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, Ciències de l’Educació i de l’Esport, 28, 245-272.

Lewis, M. L., Weber, R., & Bowman, N. D. (2008). “They may be pixels, but they’re MY pixels:” Developing a metric of character attachment in role-playing video games. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 11(4), 515-518.

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.

Shaw, A. (2009). Putting the gay in games cultural production and GLBT content in video games. Games and Culture, 4(3), 228-253.

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

Shaw, A. (2015). Gaming at the edge: Sexuality and gender at the margins of gamer culture. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press.

“I can’t believe it’s not a flutter”: Are television quizzes and television game shows a form of gambling?

Yesterday the front page of the Mail on Sunday led with the story that “Hit game shows like Deal or No Deal and Play Your Cards Right could be forced off the air after gambling watchdog claims that they break the law”. I was interviewed at length for this particular story but as usual my long interview was reduced to a few soundbites. I argued that a lot of television quiz game shows feature different forms of gambling. Even if the contestant starts of with no money, once they have won some money in the programme, the money becomes theirs and they are (to all intents and purposes) gambling with their own money. I also argued that the boundary between gambling and games is blurring all the time and that there is a growing trend of convergence between gambling and other media.

Over the past decade I have written a number of papers on various forms of television gambling. I have noted that various interactive television (i-TV) services are increasingly being linked to actual television programmes. Over the last few years in the UK, there has been a significant increase in the number of television shows raising revenue through the use of interactive programming. One of the most popular methods has viewers call into the television show using a premium-rate telephone service to either answer simple quiz questions. I have argued that this form of television programming is gambling in another guise.

This innovative form of interactive viewing experience raises many questions about whether viewers are being exploited or whether such programming is just another enjoyment-enhancing dimension of the viewing experience. However, there is a fine line between customer enhancement and customer exploitation. Programmers will argue that when viewers ‘put their money where their mouth is’ the viewing experience is enhanced. This is very similar to the gambling industry’s maxim that ‘it matters more when there’s money on it’. However, callers are charged at a premium rate (usually between 75p and £1.50 per call) even if they fail to get through to register their answer. Typically, on failing to connect, callers get a recorded message saying, ‘Even though you haven’t got through this time, we still want you to be a winner’. There are two possible routes that i-TV gambling/gaming can take. Firstly, there is television quiz show participation, which may feature gambling and/or gambling-like experiences. Secondly, there is the option of using the television as a medium on which to gamble.

To grow fast in an evolving digital landscape, television companies are formulating strategies for targeting particular segments of the industry. Platform operators appear to be deploying consumer-driven applications such as gaming (including both i-TV participation quizzes and more traditional forms of gambling via the medium of television). An environment has been created where content originators and channel operators can innovate and profitably create interactive broadband content. I-TV is seen as a way of rapidly expanding gaming and gambling because of its naturalness and ease of use. I-TV gaming can span a wide range of activities. This includes non-gambling activities such as playing video games like Tetris on the television, playing along with game shows like Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? via television remote control, and directly gambling on sports events such as horse racing and football via television remote control.

I-TV quiz shows share many of the dimensions of i-TV gambling and also raise the same concerns when talking about vulnerable and susceptible populations. The combination of gambling’s impulsive nature, the general public’s appetite for quiz trivia, and the ubiquity of television may prove hard to resist for many viewers. There are two main reasons why i-TV quiz shows could be viewed as a form of gambling.

Firstly, at a very simple level it could be argued that in many i-TV quizzes, viewers are participating in a lottery. For instance, viewers are typically asked to call a premium-rate telephone line to answer a very simple question (e.g., ‘Rearrange the following letters to make the name of a top rock group—STOLLING RONES’). A winner is then chosen from all those viewers with the correct answer. This, to all intents and purposes, is a lottery. However, unlike lotteries, those participating do not know what their probability of winning is. Secondly, it could also be argued that viewers are staking money (through the cost of the premium-rate telephone call) on the outcome of a future event (i.e., whether they will get the correct answer). Such a scenario could be defined as a form of gambling.

Whether i-TV quiz participation is a bona fide form of gambling or not, there are a number of reasons why the social impact of i-TV quizzes should be monitored. For instance, i-TV quiz shows appear to be being introduced with little concern for the psychosocial implications that may affect a small percentage of the population. Bringing such activities to a television set in the home carries with it a special social responsibility. For instance, there are issues about consumer protection for vulnerable populations, e.g., adolescents, problem gamblers, and the intoxicated.

It could be argued that the viewers who participate in late-night and ‘through-the-night’ interactive quiz programming (like The Mint, Make Your Play, Quiz Call, The Great British Quiz) may be some of the most vulnerable and susceptible. These viewers are more likely to be those who do not work and therefore are on low incomes and can least afford to participate (e.g., the unemployed, the retired and elderly). Viewers may also be making decisions to play in an intoxicated state (as these programmes typically start just as people get in from an evening’s drinking) and/or in a state where they are not fully alert (i.e., at 3 in the morning). They may also be participating because they think their chances of winning are better in the belief that there are very few other people awake at 4 a.m. In fact, this latter point highlights the fact that no-one participating has any idea what the odds are of winning.

As there is little to stop innovative developments in i-TV gaming from moving forward, all interested stakeholders must start to think about the potential psychosocial impacts, and all companies (who, in effect, are gaming operators) must have social responsibility codes in place to ensure that viewers are not being exploited, that games are fair, and that there are protective measures in place for vulnerable individuals. I-TV gaming and gambling (including both i-TV quiz participation and more traditional i-TV gambling) are likely to bring about new and more immediate interactive opportunities. Viewers will eventually be able to make spontaneous bets during sporting events, everything from whether someone will score from a penalty in the World Cup final through to whether someone will sink a particular putt in the US Open Golf Championship.

A 2002 ‘white paper’ (Design guidelines for interactive television gambling) by Stephen Voller of TV Compass at least try to address some of the issues raised by the introduction of interactive gaming services. As Voller notes, when interactive gaming technology is brought into households, the operators have a duty to act responsibly. This applies equally to i-TV quiz participation. Voller has argued that systems that allow gaming access should have a particular requirement to provide controls that reduce the risk of gaming-related social problems. The six broad design criteria are access, reality checks, separate payments, messages, information, and self-exclusion periods.

In future, television viewers are more likely to participate in a much wider array of events than interactive quizzes and sporting events. This is likely to be via credit payment directly through their digital interactive service. This may include popular UK television events like betting on who will win the Eurovision Song Contest, who will be evicted from the Big Brother house, or who will pick up an Oscar. Such non-sport gambling may also bring in new clientele such as female television viewers. The take-up of i-TV quiz participation and/or i-TV gambling may also be very popular with those people who would not dream of going to a casino or betting shop. The use of i-TV quiz participation and/or i-TV gambling may help change people’s attitude about gambling by destigmatizing and demasculinizing it. These new types of gambling and gaming experiences could lead to a more social experience shared by clientele across the demographic spectrum.

The issue of i-TV quiz participation can also be framed more widely in a contemporary society that is increasingly governed by virtual processes. The kind of manipulation that is involved in getting people to respond to an event, even if they have to pay to respond, is achieved by offering a prize that the individual is very unlikely to win. In getting people to respond through this kind of process, the entrepreneurial operators are assured that they will have increased financial revenue through the money they raise by facilitating people to voluntarily behave in these ways. This opens up a discourse examining the ways that people are intentionally manipulated to behave in ways that cost while promising an improbable outcome. This may help us construct useful models which could help us understand and provide insight into gambling behaviours. It also invites discussion of what policies should inform the ways that media such as television and the Internet engage and prime people who have become ‘enchanted’ by a theatrical experience to behave in ways that, if not inevitable, are statistically predictable. There may even be factors of vulnerability that correlate with the likelihood that people will act that way.

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

Further reading

Griffiths, M.D. (2004). Interactive television gambling: Should we be concerned? World Online Gambling Law Report, 3 (3), 11–12.

Griffiths, M.D. (2006). Interactive television and gaming. World Online Gambling Law Report, 5 (2), 12–13.

Griffiths, M.D. (2007). Interactive television quizzes as gambling: A cause for concern? Journal of Gambling Issues, 20, 269-276.

Griffiths, M.D. (2007). Interactive television quizzes as remote gambling. World Online Gambling Law Report, 6(4), 14-15.

Griffiths, M.D. (2008). Convergence of gambling and computer game playing: Implications. E-Commerce, Law and Policy, 10(2), 12-13.

Griffiths, M.D. (2008). Digital impact, crossover technologies and gambling practices. Casino and Gaming International, 4(3), 37-42.

Griffiths, M.D. & Parke, J. (2010). Adolescent gambling on the Internet: A review. International Journal of Adolescent Medicine and Health, 22, 59-75.

Griffiths, M.D. & Wood, R.T.A. (2000). Risk factors in adolescence: The case of gambling, video-game playing and the internet. Journal of Gambling Studies, 16, 199-225.

King, D.L., Delfabbro, P.H. & Griffiths, M.D. (2010). The convergence of gambling and digital media: Implications for gambling in young people. Journal of Gambling Studies, 26, 175-187.

Griffiths, M.D. (2011). Gaming convergence: Further legal issues and psychosocial impact. Gaming Law Review and Economics, 14, 461-464.

Is playing poker a sport?

This morning I was interviewed by BBC Radio Ulster on their Sunday Sequence show about whether poker should be classed as a sport. Personally, I don’t view poker as a sport even though skill is quite clearly involved in playing. However, chance still has a part to play. I would also argue that blackjack is a skilful game (especially if you are a card counter) but again, I wouldn’t class blackjack as a sport. To me, poker is more akin to games like chess than traditional sporting competitions.

Over the last few years, one of the most common questions I have been asked by the media is whether the poker boom is going to last. It is easy to see why the press would ask such a question because there were – and still are – countless instances of games and toys flourishing for brief periods of time, reaching unprecedented heights of popularity – only for them to disappear without a trace (the Rubik Cube being a good example). However, I truly believe that poker will have a long shelf life because it shares fundamental similarities with other long lasting leisure activities.

These factors that determine whether games like poker become firmly established or simply fade away include the capacity for skill development, a large bibliography, competitions and tournaments, and corporate sponsorship. Let’s look at these briefly in turn.

Firstly, all good games are relatively easy to play but can take a lifetime to become truly adept. I would therefore argue that the capacity for continued skill development is important for poker’s continued popularity and future existence. In short, there will always room for improvement.

Secondly, 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. The sheer number of books on poker and the emergence of monthly poker magazines again demonstrates how healthy the state of the poker industry is!

Thirdly, 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. Although playing poker isn’t an Olympic sport, there are those who think it should be. This is very much linked to the capacity for skill development as the best players in any activity will want competitive arenas in which they can demonstrate their dexterity, prowess, physical and mental reactions, problem solving ability and overall game play.

Finally – and very much a sign of the times – no leisure activity can succeed today without corporate sponsorship of some kind. The poker industry is a multi-billion pound industry so corporate sponsorship in this particular area shouldn’t be too much of a problem! Connected with this is the fact that poker has also moved onto the small screen and into our living rooms. When I’m channel hopping late at night I seem to do nothing but flick from one poker programme to another.

Televised poker is similar to reality TV, but poker players are really competing for a million dollars and are not acting. When people watch professional sports they may project themselves as being able to “play with the pros,” but they know it is a fantasy. Viewers of poker can think along with the players and really feel that if they had the opportunity, they might be one of the players at the final table. There seems little doubt that the media blitz of television poker shows has contributed to the surge in poker popularity. Today’s youngsters are the first generation in history under the age of 25 years, to grow up in a gambling permissive society. It is a cultural change that has taken a game that was once largely limited to card rooms and gaming halls to casinos, the Internet, and national television.

In addition to these factors is the psychological appeal of poker itself. Poker has the same appeal that chess (or any other game of strategy) has. It’s the psychological and intellectual “game within the game.” Like chess, you’re also thinking further ahead than the next card. The number of things to think about is virtually limitless. It’s an intellectual game that never has an ending. There is no perfect strategy and everything you do is contingent upon a hundred other factors, so it never gets boring for players. Every table is different, every game is different, every hand is different. And – if you do it well – you can win a lot of money!

Sean Carroll from University of Chicago goes a little further. He thinks that the secret of the allure (and challenge) of poker is that it’s a game of incomplete information. Gamblers know the cards they already have, and they (should) know the probabilities of various further cards coming their way, but they have to infer their opponents’ hands from tiny hints (such as their bets, their positions at the table, their personal styles, etc). Carroll says Texas Hold-Em is so popular because it manages to accurately hit the mark between “enough information to devise a consistently winning strategy” and “not enough information to do much more than guess.” The psychological charm in such games is that there is no perfect strategy, in the sense that there is no algorithm guaranteed to win in the long run against any other algorithm. The best poker players are able to use different algorithms against different opponents, as the situation warrants.

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