Making play while the sun shines: Online games can be a great environment for friendship and social support
Posted by drmarkgriffiths
A couple of weeks ago, I was commissioned by The Conversation to write an article on the social benefits of online gaming in times of lockdown due to coronavirus-19 (COVID-19). Today’s blog features the original article I write rather than the version that was eventually published. The published article can be read here).
As people all around the world begin to self-isolate and increasingly live life indoors as the spread of COVID-19 widens, there has been much discussion in the mass media about how individuals must use modern technologies to socialize and keep in touch with each other. While much of the conversation appears to focus on social media, Skype, and FaceTime, another popular way in which individuals can do this is through online gaming. Here, gamers can socialize with others online and create a sense of community and wellbeing. Most gamers value the socialization aspects very highly and are among the main motivations for playing, particularly when it comes to engaging in ‘massively multiplayer online games’.
I first became interested in the psychology of videogames while I was doing a PhD on slot machine addiction back in the late 1980s. I used to spend a lot of time doing observational research in amusement arcades up and down the country and I soon realized there was a lot of psychological, social, and behavioural overlap between arcade slot machine players and arcade videogame players and developed player typologies based on playing behaviour and socialization characteristics. I never could have imagined back when I started my gaming research over 30 years ago that gaming would evolve into what it has become today. Over the past three decades, gaming has become more and more social and many players develop good friendships with the people they meet with online.
In a previous article for The Conversation I wrote about many of the positive aspects of gaming. There is now lots of research showing the many benefits of gaming and I have written on most of these including educational benefits, therapeutic and medical benefits, cognitive benefits, and social benefits. While I have probably published more papers on gaming addiction than any other academic I am not at all anti-gaming and I have always advocated that the advantages of gaming far outweigh the disadvantages.
In 2003, I published the first empirical study concerning online gaming and debunked the stereotypical myth that online gamers were socially withdrawn teenagers. Among a sample of over 11,000 Everquest players, most were adults, and 23% said that their favourite aspect of playing the game was grouping and interacting with other people (23%), and a further 10% said it was chatting with friends and guild mates (10%). We followed up with a study a year later and found almost identical results.
In 2007, I carried out a study with Helena Cole that specifically examined social interactions in online gaming that received worldwide media attention (and has also become one of my most cited studies). We surveyed over 900 massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) players from 45 different countries and found that MMORPGs were highly socially interactive environments providing the opportunity to create strong friendships and emotional relationships. The study showed MMORPGs can be extremely social games, with high percentages of gamers making life-long friends and partners.
Approximately three-quarters of both males and females said they had made good friends within the game (and the average number of ‘good friends’ in the game was seven). Many players went on to meet up in real life with others they had first ‘met’ in the game. One of the reasons we got so much press publicity about our study was that 10% of the participants reported having at least one romantic relationship with someone they had met in-game. We concluded that online gaming allowed players to express themselves in ways they may not feel comfortable doing in real life because of their appearance, gender, sexuality, and/or age. MMORPGs also offered a place where teamwork, encouragement, and fun could be experienced. A gamer in one of my later published case studies ended up marrying someone he met in the online game World of Warcraft.
According to the latest gaming industry statistics, 65% of adults play videogames across different types of hardware (60% on smartphones, 52% on a personal computer, and 49% on a dedicated console). What might be surprising is that among gamers, the gender split is narrowing – 46% are female (average age 34 years) and 54% are male (average age 32 years). One of the most significant findings is that 63% of gamers play with others and that many players get social support from the gaming communities that they are in. Other research has shown that there appears to be no difference in general friendships between gamers and non-gamers and that social online gaming time increases the probability of finding online friends.
Gaming often gets bad publicity because most media coverage tends to concentrate on the minority of gamers who play to such an extent that it compromises all other areas of their life (i.e., ‘gaming disorder’) but we have to remember that millions of gamers play every day and many do so for the many positives it brings. Friendship, social support, and being in a like-minded community are just some of the reasons that online gaming is going to be so popular at a time when we are being asked to stay indoors as much as possible.
Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
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