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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.

 

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

Play a way: A brief overview of our recent papers on Game Transfer Phenomena

Following my recent blogs where I outlined some of the papers that my colleagues and I have published on mindfulness, Internet addiction, gaming addiction, workaholism, and youth gambling, here is a round-up of recent papers that Dr. Angelica Ortiz de Gortari and I have published on Game Transfer Phenomena.

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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.

  • Game Transfer Phenomena (GTP) (i.e. altered perceptions, spontaneous thoughts and behaviors with game content) occur on a continuum from mild to severe. This study examined the differences between mild, moderate and severe levels of GTP. A total of 2281 gamers’ participated in an online survey. The majority of gamers experienced a mild level of GTP. The factors significantly associated with the severe level of GTP were: (i) being students, (ii) being aged 18 to 22 years, (iii) being professional gamers, (iv) playing videogames every day in sessions of 6 h or more, (iv) playing to escape from the real world, (v) having a sleep disorder, mental disorder or reported dysfunctional gaming, and (vi) having experienced distress or dysfunction due to GTP. In addition, having used drugs and experiencing flashbacks as side- effects of drug use were significantly less likely to be reported by those with mild level of GTP. In a regression analysis, predictors of severe GTP included positive appraisals of GTP, distress or dysfunction due to GTP, and tendency to recall dreams. In general, the findings suggest that those with severe level of GTP share characteristics with profiles of gamers with dysfunctional gaming (e.g., problematic and/or addictive gaming).

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.

  • Previous qualitative and quantitative studies examining Game Transfer Phenomena (GTP) have demonstrated that GTP experiences are common. These studies have shown that many gamers report altered perceptions, involuntary thoughts and behaviors after playing video games (e.g., pseudo-hallucinatory experiences, automatic motor activations, etc.). However, the factors associated with GTP are unknown. In the present study, a total of 2362 gamers were surveyed using an online questionnaire to examine the relationship between GTP and socio-demographic factors, gaming habits, individual characteristics, and motivations for playing. Results showed that having a pre-existing medical condition, playing for 3–6 h, and playing for immersion, exploration, customization, mechanics and escape from the real world were significantly associated with having experienced GTP. Those who were 33–38 years old, playing sessions for less than one hour, being a professional player, being self-employed, and never recalling dreams, were significantly more likely to have not experienced GTP. The findings suggest that attention should be paid to young adults and the length of gaming sessions, as well as taking into consideration underlying factors such as medical conditions that may make gamers more prone to GTP.

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.

  • A variety of instruments have been developed to assess different dimensions of playing video games and its effects on cognitions, affect, and behaviors. The present study examined the psychometric properties of the Game Transfer Phenomena Scale (GTPS) that assesses nonvolitional phenomena experienced after playing video games (i.e., altered perceptions, automatic mental processes, and involuntary behaviors). A total of 1,736 gamers participated in an online survey used as the basis for the analysis. Confirmatory factor analysis (CFA) was performed to confirm the factorial structure of the GTPS. The five-factor structure using the 20 indicators based on the analysis of gamers’ self-reports fitted the data well. Population cross-validity was also achieved, and the positive associations between the session length and overall scores indicate the GTPS warranted criterion-related validity. Although the understanding of Game Transfer Phenomena is still in its infancy, the GTPS appears to be a valid and reliable instrument for assessing nonvolitional gaming-related phenomena. The GTPS can be used for understanding the phenomenology of post-effects of playing video games.

Ortiz de Gortari, A.B. & Griffiths, M.D. (2015). Auditory experiences in Game Transfer Phenomena: An empirical self-report study. In: Gamification: Concepts, Methodologies, Tools, and Applications (pp.1329-1345). Pennsylvania: IGI Global.

  • This study investigated gamers’ auditory experiences as after effects of playing. This was done by classifying, quantifying, and analysing 192 experiences from 155 gamers collected from online videogame forums. The gamers’ experiences were classified as: (i) involuntary auditory imagery (e.g., hearing the music, sounds or voices from the game), (ii) inner speech (e.g., completing phrases in the mind), (iii) auditory misperceptions (e.g., confusing real life sounds with videogame sounds), and (iv) multisensorial auditory experiences (e.g., hearing music while involuntary moving the fingers). Gamers heard auditory cues from the game in their heads, in their ears, but also coming from external sources. Occasionally, the vividness of the sound evoked thoughts and emotions that resulted in behaviours and copying strategies. The psychosocial implications of the gamers’ auditory experiences are discussed. This study contributes to the understanding of the effects of auditory features in videogames, and to the phenomenology of non-volitional auditory experiences.

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.

  • Previous qualitative studies suggest that gamers experience Game Transfer Phenomena (GTP), a variety of non-volitional phenomena related to playing videogames including thoughts, urges, images, and sounds when not playing. To investigate (i) which types of GTP were more common and (ii) their general characteristics, the present study surveyed a total of 2362 gamers via an online survey. The majority of the participants were male, students, aged between 18 and 27 years, and “hard-core” gamers. Most participants reported having experienced at least one type of GTP at some point (96.6%), the majority having experienced GTP more than once, with many reporting 6 to 10 different types of GTP. Results demonstrated that videogame players experienced (i) altered visual perceptions, (ii) altered auditory perceptions, (iii) altered body perceptions, (iv) automated mental processes, and (v) behaviors. In most cases, GTP could not be explained by being under the influence of a psychoactive substance. The GTP experiences were usually short-lived, tended to occur after videogame playing rather than during play, occurred recurrently, and usually occurred while doing day-to-day activities. One in five gamers had experienced some type of distress or dysfunction due to GTP. Many experienced GTP as pleasant and some wanted GTP to happen again.

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

Further reading

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

Ortiz de Gotari, A., 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. Gackenbach (Ed.), Video Game Play and Consciousness (pp.223-250). Hauppauge, NY: Nova Science.

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). 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). 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. (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

Test augmentation: 10 reasons why ‘Pokémon Go’ is so appealing

“Pokémon Go is a free-to-play location-based augmented reality mobile game developed…Making use of GPS and the camera of compatible devices, the game allows players to capture, battle, and train virtual creatures, called Pokémon [pocket monsters] who appear on device screens as though in the real world. The game is free-to-play, although it supports in-app purchases of additional gameplay items” (Wikipedia, 2016)

Unless you’re news-shy, off-grid, and/or a hermit, you can’t fail to have noticed all the media hype surrounding Pokémon Go. My youngest son and seemingly all of is friends have been out and about enjoying playing the latest gaming phenomenon. A lot of the press stories that I have read concentrate on the allegedly ‘addictive’ properties of the game (see ‘Further reading’ below). But what makes Pokémon Go such an appealing game? Here are my top ten reasons:

(1) It’s a popular franchise with a novel twist

Pokémon is a huge franchise with lots of associated spin-offs (animates films, carton television show, card games, figures to collect, etc.). And unlike some franchises, it’s a game that appears to be popular across age and gender but various aspects of the game (such as the use of augmented reality) give the game a novel twist on most other games (by utilizing real-world locations in which players explore their neighbourhood locality or wherever they happen to be).

(2) It’s fun, free to play, easy to play, and easy to access

Unlike many popular games, you don’t need a dedicated console to play the game. There is little in the way of barriers to entry. Anyone who has a smartphone can download Pokémon Go and it can be played anywhere at any time because it is played on a mobile device in which players try to catch Pokémon at specific locations (‘PokéStops’). This means that the number of potential users is huge, even in comparison to console games. In addition, there are no complicated buttons to press or controls to use. Most importantly it’s fun and free to play (but players can buy in-game items, an area that I’ve done a bit of research on which I outlined in a previous blog).

(3) It’s nostalgic and a ‘blast from the past’

Pokémon Go features many of the early ‘classic’ Pokémon characters (the ones that you could name in a pub quiz) hailing back to the 1990s. As well as attracting new and younger players, adults who loved Pokémon as a child or teenager can now re-live some of their childhood and adolescence. In short, some players can experience something new yet familiar. A research review carried out by Dr. Constantine Sedikides and Dr. Tim Wildschut demonstrated that “nostalgia has remarkable implications for one’s future. It strengthens approach orientation, raises optimism, evokes inspiration, boosts creativity, and kindles prosociality. Far from reflecting escapism from the present, nostalgia potentiates an attainable future”. A number of online articles coomenting on the popularity of Pokémon have included quotes about the game’s nostalgic element from Dr. Jamie Madigan (author of the 2015 book Getting Gamers: The Psychology of Video Games and Their Impact on People Who Play Them). He asserted that if nostalgia is in play, and it evokes this positive emotion…our brain can substitute the question, ‘Does this make me happy’ for ‘Is this a good game?’”

(4) It’s a social game (if you want it to be)

Back in the early and mid-2000s I published a number of studies showing that the most important reason for playing online multiplayer games was for social reasons and to connect and interact with other players. The great think about Pokémon Go is that meeting other players face-to-face is almost inevitable as the game is played outside and on the move, and it’s easy to spot other like-minded players. People can make new friendships or consolidate existing ones. Players talk to each other and can share their experiences. Some may even have shared memories that plugs into feelings of nostalgia. However, Pokémon Go players (if they so wish) can play on their own too. The game is flexible enough to adapt to the player.

(5) It features augmented reality

One of the defining features of Pokémon Go is that augmented reality is a fundamental (and arguably the main) part of the game. Augmented reality (AR) is defined as “a live direct or indirect view of a physical, real-world environment whose elements are augmented (or supplemented) by computer-generated sensory input such as sound, video, graphics or GPS [global positioning system] data”. Pokémon Go has successfully managed to embed AR into the game which some players claim makes characters feel “more alive”. An article on the phenomenon in Time magazine said that Pokémon Go provides “the illusion that wild Pokémon are out there in the real world, waiting to be caught”. There are also some claims (such as a paper by Dr. Keith Bujak and his colleagues in a paper published in a 2013 issue of the journal Computers and Education) that augmented reality can be potentially addictive. The authors claim that children are most at risk from AR addiction and assert that:

“Augmented reality does not separate the user from his reality but instead uses it and realistically transforms it…This effect can cause a high degree of surprise and curiosity in users”.

(6) It’s motivating

Any one who plays videogames or researches in the area knows that successful games have to be motivating to play. Rewards within Pokémon Go help players to foster achievement, and achieving goals within the game drives motivation. As an article on the Keep It Suitable website noted: “The self-confidence that arises from the achievement of a goal – catching a Pikachu – motivates people to play more and more…and ‘Pokémon Go’ players are indeed very motivated…The ease with which the reward comes every time your phone buzzes, alerting you that a Pokémon is nearby, is very basic psychological conditioning”.

(7) It involves collecting

In a number of my previous blogs I have written about the psychology of collecting and this also appears to be one of the attractions concerning all things Pokémon (in fact the Pokémon mantra has always been “Gotta catch ‘em all”). In my articles I have always referenced the work of Professor Russell Belk who has written a lot of books and papers on the topic. He was interviewed by Forbes magazine on the topic of Pokémon Go. The Forbes article noted:

“In a 1991 article published in the ‘Journal of Social Behavior and Personality’, Belk described two main types of collecting: aesthetic and taxonomic. Aesthetic collecting occurs when objects aren’t in limited supply and so adding things to your collection depends on personal preferences. This includes artwork, but not pocket monsters. ‘I expect no matter how beautiful or ugly the Pokémon is, there’s relatively little aesthetic judgment,” says Belk…’You want them all — or as many as possible’. Collecting Pokémon is a lot like building a coin or stamp collection. It involves taxonomy – the process of naming and classifying things into groups. Taxonomic collecting can end temporarily but continue later: the original Game Boy games (Pokémon Red and Pokémon Blue) featured 151 monster ‘species,’ but sequels have pushed that number over 700. If ‘Pokémon Go’ remains popular and profitable in the long term, the app’s developer will no doubt add new species. Belk adds that the desire to collect isn’t driven by a need to complete a collection. ‘You’re not striving for that closure as much as striving for bigger and better collections…That implies some social comparisons – that your collection is in some sense better than theirs.”

In the same article, reference was also made to a just published literature review (‘Extended self and the digital world’) by Professor Belk in the journal Current Opinion in Psychology. In the paper Belk claims collecting has now gone beyond physical items and can now include the collecting of digital artefacts. As Belk notes:

“Collecting digital objects can have advantages over physical possessions. While coins and stamps are kept in cabinets at home, you can store an entire collection of ‘Pokémon’ on your phone to show friends…One reason why ‘Pokémon Go’ is so popular is that it puts digital monsters in the real world. Like finding a rare book in an antique shop, this turns the discovery of Pokémon — the challenge or thrill of the chase — into a story. With augmented reality, they’ve made the ‘thrill of the hunt’ in a version where you can tweet about it, you can post about it on your website, you can carry around images of the Pokémon that you’ve collected…That’s a conversation piece, and something you can carry with you or brag about online.”

(8) It gets people active without them really knowing it

A number of articles on Pokémon Go have noted that playing the game has meant players having to go outdoors and walk miles to catch the Pokémon. In short, if you want to do well in the game, you have to get out the house and do some exercise. As one article summed up on this aspect: ‘The running meme is that Pokémon Go managed to do in 24 hours what Michelle Obama could not manage over the course of 8 years: get people outside and active…It turns out gamification of healthy activities can be done and that’s potentially a huge win for the gaming subset of our society that doesn’t exactly have the healthiest track record”. Personally, I’m not convinced that Pokémon Go is as good as more traditional ‘exergaming’ (such as playing Wii Sports) but I can’t deny that it gets people out of a sedentary routine.

(9) It’s a never-ending game

Pokémon Go is a non-linear game in which every user’s playing experience is different given that it uses the person’s individual geo-location. Like many massively multiplayer online games, there is no end to the game and some players continue playing because of FOMO (fear of missing out). Ultimately there is theoretically no limit to how many Pokémon a player can catch or how the game might evolve over time.

(10) The rewards are unpredictable

Over the years I have written countless papers talking about the role of random ratio reinforcement schedules (operant condition processes) that underlie repetitive behaviour (that in extreme cases can result in gambling and gaming addictions). In simple terms, playing a videogame or a slot machine results in intermittent and unpredictable rewards. Knowing when a reward is coming gets boring in the long run but games where the player doesn’t know when the next reward is coming (like when in the Pokémon Go game, the player will next see a Pokémon to catch). Anticipated rewards (similarly to actual rewards) also facilitate dopamine (one of the most important ‘feel good’ neurotransmitters in the human body) release in the body. In fact, a paper by Dr. Patrick Anselm and Dr. Mike Robinson published in the journal Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience argued that dopamine release “seems to reflect the unpredictability of reward delivery rather than reward per se” and suggests that the motivation to gamble or play videogames “is strongly (though not entirely) determined by the inability to predict reward occurrence”. In short, playing Pokémon Go can keep you playing longer than you might have originally intended.

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

Further reading

Anselme, P. & Robinson, M.J.F. (2013) What motivates gambling behavior? Insight into dopamine’s role. Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, 7, 182. doi: 10.3389/fnbeh. 2013.00182

Belk, R. W. (1991). The ineluctable mysteries of possessions. Journal of Social Behavior and Personality, 6(6), 17-55.

Belk, R. (2016). Extended self and the digital world. Current Opinion in Psychology, 10, 50-54.

Bujak, K.R., Radu, I., Catrambone, R., Macintyre, B., Zheng, R., & Golubski, G. (2013). A psychological perspective on augmented reality in the mathematics classroom. Computers & Education, 68, 536-544.

Chamary, J.V. (2016). Science explains why you’re addicted to Pokémon GO. Forbes, July, 12. Located at: http://www.forbes.com/sites/jvchamary/2016/07/12/science-collecting-pokemon/#276f49ac6d2e

Cleghorn, J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2015). Why do gamers buy ‘virtual assets’? An insight in to the psychology behind purchase behaviour. Digital Education Review, 27, 98-117.

Cole, H. & Griffiths, M.D. (2007). Social interactions in Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing gamers. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 10, 575-583.

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., Davies, M.N.O. & Chappell, D. (2004). Online computer gaming: A comparison of adolescent and adult gamers. Journal of Adolescence, 27, 87-96.

Duhi, A. (2016). Caught ’em all?: Why Pokémon Go is so addicting. FSU News, July 19. Located at: http://www.fsunews.com/story/news/2016/07/19/caught-em-all-why-pokemon-go-so-addicting/87309612/

Eadiccio, L. (2016). Psychology experts explain why ‘Pokemon Go’ is so addictive. Time, July 12. Located at: http://time.com/4402123/pokemon-go-nostalgia/

Goodwin, R. (2016). Why the hell is everyone so addicted to Pokemon Go? Know Your Mobile, July 14. Located at: http://www.knowyourmobile.com/games/pokemon-go/23690/why-hell-everyone-so-addicted-pokemon-go

Keep It Suitable (2016). 10 Reasons from real users: Why is Pokemon Go so addictive? July 16. Located at: http://www.keepitusable.com/blog/?p=3579

Kubas-Meyer, A. (2016). Pokémon GO Is the most addictive gaming app ever. Daily Beast, July 11. Located at: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2016/07/11/pokemon-go-is-the-most-addictive-gaming-app-ever.html

Sedikides, C., & Wildschut, T. (2016). Past forward: Nostalgia as a motivational force. Trends In Cognitive Sciences, 20(5), 319-321.

Smith, C. (2016). Science explains why you’re so addicted to Pokemon Go. BGR.com, July 13. Located at: http://bgr.com/2016/07/13/pokemon-go-game-addiction/

Wikipedia (2016). Pokémon Go. Located at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pokémon_Go

Williams, C. (2016). Why everyone is addicted to Pokemon Go. Looper, July 14. Located at: http://www.looper.com/18330/everyone-addicted-pokemon-go/

Pressing the right buttons: The positives of playing video games

Whether playing video games has negative effects is something that has been debated for 30 years, in much the same way that rock and roll, television, and even the novel faced much the same criticisms in their time. Purported negative effects such as gaming addiction, increased aggression, and various health consequences such as obesity and repetitive strain injuries tend to get far more media coverage than the positives. I know from my own research examining both sides that my papers on video game addiction receive far more publicity than my research into the social benefits of, for example, playing online role-playing games.

However there is now a wealth of research which shows that video games can be put to educational and therapeutic uses, as well as many studies which reveal how playing video games can improve reaction times and hand-eye co-ordination. For example, research has shown that spatial visualisation ability, such as mentally rotating and manipulating two- and three-dimensional objects, improves with video game playing.

To add to this long line of studies demonstrating the more positive effects of video games is a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by Vikranth Bejjanki and colleagues. Their paper demonstrates that the playing of action video games – the sort of fast-paced, 3D shoot-em-up beloved of doomsayers in the media – confirms what other studies have revealed, that players show improved performance in perception, attention, and cognition.

In a series of experiments on small numbers of gamers (10 to 14 people in each study), the researchers reported that gamers with previous experience of playing such action video games were better at perceptual tasks such as pattern discrimination than gamers with less experience. In another experiment, they trained gamers that had little previous experience of playing action games, giving them 50 hours practice. It was showed that these gamers performed much better on perceptual tasks than they had prior to their training. The paper concludes:

“The enhanced learning of the regularity and structure of environments may act as a core mechanism by which action video game play influences performance in perception, attention, and cognition”.

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In my own papers, I have pointed out many features and qualities that make video games potentially useful. For instance, in an educational context, video games can be fun and stimulating, which means it’s easier to maintain a pupil’s undivided attention for longer. Because of the excitement, video games may also be a more appealing way of learning than traditional methods for some.

Video games have an appeal that crosses many demographic boundaries, such as age, gender, ethnicity, or educational attainment. They can be used to help set goals and rehearse working towards them, provide feedback, reinforcement, self-esteem, and maintain a record of behavioural change. Their interactivity can stimulate learning, allowing individuals to experience novelty, curiosity and challenge that stimulates learning. There is the opportunity to develop transferable skills, or practice challenging or extraordinary activities, such as flight simulators, or simulated operations. Because video games can be so engaging, they can also be used therapeutically. For instance, they can be used as a form of physiotherapy as well as in more innovative contexts. A number of studies have shown that when children play video games following chemotherapy they need fewer painkillers than others.

Video games can have great educational potential in addition to their entertainment value. Games specifically designed to address a specific problem or teach a specific skill have been very successful, precisely because they are motivating, engaging, interactive, and provide rewards and reinforcement to improve. But the transferability of skills outside the game-playing context is an important factor. What’s also clear from the scientific literature is that the negative consequences of playing almost always involve people that are excessive video game players. There is little evidence of serious acute adverse effects on health from moderate play.

A version of this article was first published in The Conversation.

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

Further reading

Bejjanki, V. R., Zhang, R., Li, R., Pouget, A., Green, C. S., Lu, Z. L., & Bavelier, D. (2014). Action video game play facilitates the development of better perceptual templates. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(47), 16961-16966.

Cole, H. & Griffiths, M.D. (2007). Social interactions in Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing gamers. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 10, 575-583.

Griffiths, M.D. (1997). Video games and clinical practice: Issues, uses and treatments. British Journal of Clinical Psychology, 36, 639-641.

Griffiths, M.D. (2002). The educational benefits of videogames Education and Health, 20, 47-51.

Griffiths, M.D. (2003). The therapeutic use of videogames in childhood and adolescence. Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 8, 547-554.

Griffiths, M.D. (2004). Can videogames be good for your health? Journal of Health Psychology, 9, 339-344.

Griffiths, M.D. (2005). Video games and health. British Medical Journal, 331, 122-123.

Griffiths, M.D. (2005). The therapeutic value of videogames. In J. Goldstein & J. Raessens (Eds.), Handbook of Computer Game Studies (pp. 161-171). Boston: MIT Press.

Griffiths, M.D. (2010). Adolescent video game playing: Issues for the classroom. Education Today: Quarterly Journal of the College of Teachers, 60(4), 31-34.

Griffiths, M.D., Kuss, D.J., & Ortiz de Gortari, A. (2016). Videogames as therapy: An updated selective review of the medical and psychological literature. International Journal of Privacy and Health Information Management, in press.

Griffiths, M. D., Kuss, D.J., & Ortiz de Gortari, A. (2013). Videogames as therapy: A review of the medical and psychological literature. In I. M. Miranda & M. M. Cruz-Cunha (Eds.), Handbook of research on ICTs for healthcare and social services: Developments and applications (pp.43-68). Pennsylvania: IGI Global.

Griffiths, M.D. & Sutton, M. (2013). Proposing the Crime Substitution Hypothesis: Exploring the possible causal relationship between excessive adolescent video game playing, social networking and crime reduction. Education and Health, 31, 17-21.

Griffiths, M.D. & Sutton, M. (2015). Screen time and crime: The ‘Crime Substitution Hypothesis’ revisited. Education and Health, 33, 85-87.

Tales of the unexpected: 10 bad habits that sometimes do us good (Part 1)

All of us have bad habits, and all of us from time to time feel guilty about these habits. But there are some bad habits – at least when carried out in moderation – that might actually have benefits for psychological and/or physical wellbeing. Most bad habits help change our mood state and reduce stress (at least in the very short-term) but tend to become less helpful the more they are engaged in. Some of these bad habits turn into addictions where the short-term benefits are outweighed by the long-term costs. However, there are many activities that can sometimes have unexpected benefits and five of these are outlined in this blog. The next five bad habits will be in my next blog.

(1) Fidgeting helps burn calories

While fidgeting might be annoying for individuals and those around them, it is an activity that expends energy and burns calories. Fidgeting is one of a number of activities (along with walking, gardening, typing, tidying up, etc.) that are known as non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT). In basic terms, NEAT is any activity that is not eating, sleeping, or sporting exercise. A number of studies carried out by obesity expert Dr. James Levine at the US Mayo Clinic (Arizona, US) have shown that individuals who fidget burn up about 350kcal a day. This is because fidgeting speeds up an individual’s metabolism by stimulating neurochemicals in the body thus increasing the ability to convert body fat into energy. So, if you are a compulsive foot tapper, an excessive thumb twiddler, or a restless doodler, just remember that all of these activities burn calories.

(2) Chewing gum helps boost thinking and alertness

Watching people chew gum is not a pretty site but if English football managers are anything to go by, chewing gum appears to be a stress relieving activity. In fact, there appear to appear to be many cognitive benefits of chewing gum. Dr. Kin-ya Kubo and colleagues in the book Senescence and Senescence-Related Disorders noted that chewing gum immediately before performing a cognitive task increases blood oxygen levels in the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus (important brain structures involved in learning and memory), thereby improving task performance. Dr. Kubo argues that chewing gum may therefore be a drug-free and simple method of helping those with senile dementia and stress-related disorders that are often associated with cognitive dysfunction. Another study by Dr. Yoshiyuki Hirano and colleagues showed that chewing gum boosts thinking and alertness, and that reaction times among chewers were 10% faster than non-chewers. The research team also reported that up to eight areas of the brain are affected by chewing (most notably the areas concerning attention and movement). As Professor Andy Smith (Cardiff University, UK) neatly summed up: “The effects of chewing on reaction time are profound. Perhaps football managers arrived at the idea of chewing gum by accident, but they seem to be on the right track”. 

(3) Playing video games helps relieve pain

Many individuals that do not play video games view the activity as a complete waste of time and potentially addictive. While excessive video game playing may cause problems in a minority of individuals, there is lots of scientific evidence that playing video games can have many beneficial effects. For instance, a number of studies have shown that children with cancer who play video games after chemotherapy take less pain killing medication. Video games have also been used as pain relieving therapy for other medical conditions such as burns victims and those with back pain. This is because playing video games is an engaging and engrossing activity that means the player cannot think about anything else but playing the game (and is what psychologists refer to as a ‘cognitive distractor task’). Pain has a large psychological component and individuals experience less pain if the person is engaged in an activity that takes up all their cognitive mind space. As well as being a pain reliever, there are also many studies showing that playing video games increase hand-eye co-ordination, increase reaction times, and have educational learning benefits.

(4) Eating snot helps strengthen the immune system (maybe)

How does it make you feel when you see someone picking their nose and then eating what they have found? Disgust? Contempt? Amused? In 2008, Dr Friedrich Bischinger, an Austrian lung specialist, claimed that picking your nose and eating it was good for you. He claimed that people who pick their noses with their fingers were healthy, happier and probably better in tune with their bodies than those who didn’t. Dr. Bischinger believes that eating the dry remains of what you pull out of your nose is a great way of strengthening the body’s immune system. He explained that in terms of the immune system, the nose is a filter in which a great deal of bacteria are collected, and when this mixture arrives in the intestines it works just like a medicine. He said that “people who pick their nose and eat it get a natural boost to their immune system for free. I would recommend a new approach where children are encouraged to pick their nose. It is a completely natural response and medically a good idea as well”. He went on to suggest that if anyone was worried about what other people think, they should pick their noses privately if they want to get the benefits.  This view is also shared by Dr. Scott Napper, a biochemist at the University of Saskatchewan. He theorises that hygiene improvement has led to the increase in allergies and auto-immune disorders and that eating snot may boost the immune system by ingesting small and harmless amounts of germs into the body. The same theory has also been applied to another bad habit – biting fingernails – because again, the act of biting nails introduces germs directly into a person’s orifices.

(5) Daydreaming helps problem solving

Daydreaming is something that can occupy up to one-third of our waking lives and is often viewed as a sign of laziness, inattentiveness and/or procrastination. However, scientific research has shown that the ‘executive network’ in our brain is highly active when we daydream. A study carried out by Professor Kalina Christoff and colleagues and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found activity in numerous brain regions while daydreaming including areas associated with complex problem solving. These brain regions were more active while daydreaming compared to routine tasks. It is believed that when an individual uses conscious thought they can become too rigid and limited in their thinking. The findings suggest that daydreaming is an important cognitive state where individuals turn their attention from immediate tasks to unconsciously think about problems in their lives. Christoff says that “when you daydream, you may not be achieving your immediate goal – say reading a book or paying attention in class – but your mind may be taking that time to address more important questions in your life, such as advancing your career or personal relationships”. In addition to this, Dr. Eric Klinger of the University of Minnesota has argued that daydreaming also serves an evolutionary purpose. When individuals are engaged on one task, daydreaming can trigger reminders of other, concurrent goals so that they do not lose sight of them.

Part 2 of this article will be in the next blog.

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

Further reading

Christoff, K., Gordon, A.M., Smallwood, J., Smith, R., & Schooler, J.W. (2009). Experience sampling during fMRI reveals default network and executive system contributions to mind wandering. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106, 8719-872

Fox, K.C., Nijeboer, S., Solomonova, E., Domhoff, G.W., & Christoff, K. (2013). Dreaming as mind wandering: evidence from functional neuroimaging and first-person content reports. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 7, 42. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2013.00412.

Griffiths, M.D. (2005). The therapeutic value of videogames. In J. Goldstein & J. Raessens (Eds.), Handbook of Computer Game Studies (pp. 161-171). Boston: MIT Press.

Griffiths, M.D., Kuss, D.J., & Ortiz de Gortari, A. (2013). Videogames as therapy: A review of the medical and psychological literature. In I. M. Miranda & M. M. Cruz-Cunha (Eds.), Handbook of research on ICTs for healthcare and social services: Developments and applications (pp.43-68). Pennsylvania: IGI Global.

Hirano, Y., Obata, T., Takahashi, H., Tachibana, A., Kuroiwa, D., Takahashi, T., … & Onozuka, M. (2013). Effects of chewing on cognitive processing speed. Brain and Cognition, 81, 376-381.

Kato, P. M., Cole, S. W., Bradlyn, A. S., & Pollock, B. H. (2008). A video game improves behavioral outcomes in adolescents and young adults with cancer: A randomized trial. Pediatrics, 122, E305-E317.

Klinger, E. (2009). Daydreaming and fantasizing: Thought flow and motivation. In Markman, K. D., Klein, W.P., & Suhr, J.A. (Eds.), Handbook of Imagination and Mental Simulation (pp. 225-239). New York: Psychology Press.

Klinger, E., Henning, V. R., & Janssen, J. M. (2009). Fantasy-proneness dimensionalized: Dissociative component is related to psychopathology, daydreaming as such is not. Journal of Research in Personality, 43, 506-510.

Kubo, K. Y., Chen, H., & Onozuka, M. (2013). The relationship between mastication and cognition. In Wang, Z. & Inuzuka (Eds.), Senescence and Senescence-Related Disorders. InTech. Located at: http://www.intechopen.com/books/senescence-and-senescence-related-disorders

Levine, J.A. (2004). Nonexercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT): environment and biology. American Journal of Physiology-Endocrinology And Metabolism, 286, E675-E685.

Levine, J.A., Melanson, E. L., Westerterp, K. R., & Hill, J.O. (2001). Measurement of the components of nonexercise activity thermogenesis. American Journal of Physiology-Endocrinology and Metabolism, 281, E670-E675.

Levine, J.A., Schleusner, S. J., & Jensen, M.D. (2000). Energy expenditure of nonexercise activity. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 72, 1451-1454.

Redd, W.H., Jacobsen, P.B., DieTrill, M., Dermatis, H., McEvoy, M., & Holland, J.C. (1987). Cognitive-attentional distraction in the control of conditioned nausea in pediatric cancer patients receiving chemotherapy. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 55, 391-395.

Reichlin, L., Mani, N., McArthur, K., Harris, A.M., Rajan, N., & Dacso, C.C. (2011). Assessing the acceptability and usability of an interactive serious game in aiding treatment decisions for patients with localized prostate cancer. Journal of Medical Internet Research, 13, 188-201.

Vasterling, J., Jenkins, R.A., Tope, D.M., & Burish, T.G. (1993). Cognitive distraction and relaxation training for the control of side effects due to cancer chemotherapy. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 16, 65-80.

Wighton, K. (2013). From biting your nails to burping and even eating in bed: The bad habits that can be GOOD for you! Daily Mail, April 8. Located at: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-2305953/Bad-habits-From-biting-nails-burping-eating-bed-The-bad-habits-GOOD-you.html

Money for nothing (and your clicks for free?): Why do gamers buy ‘virtual assets’?


Video gaming has evolved from a single-player platform to a multi-player realm where interaction with other players is often a necessity. In order to enter the game, players must first create an avatar, a representation of their self in the game that is used to explore and interact with the virtual environment. When creating an avatar, players can also buy virtual assets to augment and/or enhance their online character. Virtual assets are items or customisations for video game avatars, bases, and characters that are purchased with real money.

In a previous blog, I looked at some of the anecdotal evidence that claimed a few individuals had become ‘addicted’ to buying virtual assets. At the time I wrote that article, there was almost nothing published academically on the psychology of virtual assets and why people bought virtual assets. A few months ago, Jack Cleghorn and I published a qualitative paper in the journal Digital Education Review based on our interviews with gamers that regularly bought virtual assets. Today’s blog looks at some of our findings.

For researchers, the buying of virtual assets provides an opportunity to try and understand why people become so immersed in games and what motivates gamers to spend real money on items that some would consider as having no value. In a multi-player environment, it becomes clear that the avatars seen on screen are graphical representations of someone real and may be part of human desires to be noticed, respected, and interacted with. Furthermore the gamer controlling their avatar has motivations, emotions, thoughts, and feelings. Virtual item purchases are therefore likely to impact on a gamer’s psychological wellbeing.

The growing market for virtual items indicates that transactions are becoming commonplace in gaming. The virtual market functions similarly to real markets in that there is demand, fluctuating markets, and profits to be made. The importance of virtual items to some people is illustrated by a divorce claim in a story on Hyped Talk in which a wife made a claim for over half of her husband’s virtual assets. In a different case (outlined in a 2005 issue of The Lawyer), Qiu Chengwei, a middle-aged man killed a fellow gamer over a dispute involving a virtual item. Obviously these cases are extreme but they highlight the fact that virtual items can have both financial and psychological value for gamers.

But why do people buy virtual items? Performance and general quality of an item is seen to be an important motivation whether the item is real or virtual. Online, an appeal to social status may be a better predictor for purchase behaviour than function. However, some claim that appealing to social status has no motivational significance in purchase behaviour. Another unique element of buying virtual items is the potential exclusivity. Exclusive or limited items tend to be unattainable through gameplay and instead must be bought with money. Exclusivity online has been shown to be of importance, and segmentation is a technique used by the games producers that limits certain items to certain classes, levels, or races. This has been shown to stimulate purchase behaviour. The amount of time invested in a game is also key to understanding spending patterns, and gamers will often buy virtual items after a dedicated amount of gameplay has been spent building an avatar.

Naturally, the longer the amounts of time that are spent online and in-game, the more the player emotionally and psychologically invests in the game. The concept of ‘flow’ (formulated by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in many papers and books) has been applied to gaming and can involve becoming emotionally attached to a character (in fact I published a paper on this with Damien Hull and Glenn Williams in a 2013 issue of the Journal of Behavioral Addictions). Flow is the feeling of complete absorption in an activity and affects consciousness and emotions of the individual experiencing it. A key element of feeling ‘flow’ is the experience and perception of the world of the avatar and has been applied to electronic media. The adaptation of ‘flow’ to the virtual world suggests that just like other leisure activities, an individual investing time in an environment where they feel socially accepted can become emotionally attached to their avatar. Gaming has been shown to affect consciousness and emotions of gamers that are both necessary in experiencing ‘flow’. It could be that purchasing of virtual items is also motivated – at least in part – by the feeling of emotional attachment to an avatar.

Gamers are being drawn in to an environment by the appeal of social interaction, manipulation of objects, exploration, and identification with the avatar. To some gamers, the virtual world can takes on more significance than ‘actual’ life and residency in their preferred games is what they consider their actuality. This suggests that the reward of gaming is great, indicating that those individuals who buy virtual items are doing so because they feel involved in an environment that benefits them personally.

Given the lack of empirical research, the qualitative study I published with Jack Cleghorn was based on in-depth interviews with six gamers who all regularly bought in-game virtual assets. We examined the (i) motivations for purchasing virtual items, (ii) psychological impact of purchasing virtual items on self-esteem and confidence, (iii) social benefits of gaming and virtual asset purchasing, (iv) emotional attachment to an avatar, (v) choice of items and customisation of the avatar as a form of self-expression, (v) impulsivity versus thoughtfulness in purchase intentions of virtual items, and (vii) impact of transaction machinery on the ‘game experience’ from a gamer’s perspective.

Using interpretative phenomenological analysis (IPA), the study was exploratory and aimed to understand the psychology underlying purchase intention of virtual items and assets among online gamers. As a result of interviewing the gamers, seven theses emerged: (i) motivation for purchase, (ii) social aspects of the gaming and purchasing, (iii) emotional attachment to the avatar, (iv) psychological reward and impact, (v) self-expression, (vi) ‘stock market gaming’ and gaming culture, and (vii) research/impulse buying. The use of IPA allowed each gamer to share their unique experience of playing and purchase behaviour.

Despite the negative aspects of online gaming, the gamers in our study emphasised a more positive side to buying virtual items and gaming more generally. Item exclusivity and item function were major motivating factors and contributed to an item’s importance in-game. Another key motivation for purchase behaviour was the appeal to social status. Attainment of items demonstrates to others how powerful the gamer is. Naturally, if an item has benefits for the avatar it is more likely that the gamer will spend money to obtain it. Function linked to progression, purchasing items, and buying in-game currency are all sometimes a necessity to progress. Novelty and collectability were also important motivators for some of our gamers. Despite subjective motivations, purchasing virtual items arose out of gaming as a predominant pastime. All of the gamers in our sample were dedicated gamers who spent relatively large amounts of time online and, as perhaps expected, larger gaming commitment to led to purchase behaviour.

An integral part of multiplayer gaming is the interaction with other gamers. The feeling of ‘social presence’ in an online environment is reliant on an emotional response to social interaction and the gamers in our study felt social satisfaction. The game sometimes enabled social interaction that might not otherwise be present. Previous research has shown how emotional attachment to games affects behaviour. Our study highlighted the role of emotional attachment to an avatar as a predictor for purchase intention. As well as emotional attachment increasing likelihood of spending, the spending of real money on items increases the attachment felt. It could be that purchasing virtual items may be a cyclical behaviour. It is also the case that purchasing affects the cognitions and emotions of gamers – ‘pride’ was a feeling that resonated among our interviewed gamers.

Our study also highlighted how gamers research items before purchasing them. It might be expected that easy-to-use transaction machinery might facilitate spending. However, in reality, the gamers we interviewed were guarded with their spending online and recommendations from friends playing a major role in purchase behaviour. Virtual assets can be then researched and the placing of real monetary value on the virtual items indicates the value they may hold to the gamer. Unlike media coverage focussing on the more negative impact of online gaming, our study highlighted the positive aspects of purchasing virtual assets for the gamer. They are able to feel connected socially, feel confidence in themselves and their success, express their inner and ideal self without constraint or fear, build lasting relationships, impress people, and generally benefit from gaming and buying virtual items.

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.

Csikszentmihalyi, M., & Csikszentmihalyi, I. (1992). Optimal experience: Psychological studies of flow in consciousness. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Cole, H. & Griffiths, M. D. (2007). Social interactions in Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing gamers. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 10, 575-583.

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.

Griffiths, M.D., Hussain, Z., Grüsser, S., Thalemann, R., Cole, H. Davies, M.N.O. & Chappell, D. (2013). Social interactions in online gaming. In P. Felicia (Ed.), Developments in Current Game-Based Learning Design and Deployment (pp.74-90). Pennsylvania: IGI Global.

Guo, Y., & Barnes, S. (2011). Purchase behavior in virtual worlds: An empirical investigation in Second Life. Information and Management, 48(7), 303-312.

Hamari, J. & Lehdonvirta, V. (2010). Game design as marketing: How game mechanics create demand for virtual goods. International Journal of Business Science and Applied Management, 5(1), 14-29.

Hassouneh, D., & Brengman, M. (2011). Shopping in virtual worlds: Perceptions, motivations and behaviour. Journal of Electronic Commerce Research, 12(4), 320-335.

Huang, E. (2012). Online experiences and virtual goods purchase intention. Internet Research, 22(3), 252-274.

Hull, D., Williams, G. A. & Griffiths, M. D. (2013). Video game characteristics, happiness and flow as predictors of addiction among video game players: A pilot study. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 2, 145-152.

Hyped Talk (2010). Virtually addicted Chinese woman claims virtual assets in her divorce plea. Available at: http://hypedtalk.blogspot.co.uk/2010/12/virtually-addicted-chinese-women-claims.html [Accessed: 6 March 2013].

Lee, P. (2005). The growth in the computer game market is leading to real legal issues in virtual worlds. The Lawyer, 19 (19), 14.

Lehdonvirta, V. (2009) Virtual item sales as a revenue model: Identifying attributes that drive purchase decisions. Electronic Commerce Research, 9(1-2), 97-113.

Li, Z. (2012). Motivation of virtual goods transactions based on the theory of gaming motivations. Journal of Theoretical and Applied Information Technology, 43(2), 254-260.

Manninen, T. & Kujanpää, T. (2007). The value of virtual assets – the role of game characters in MMOGs. International Journal of Business Science and Applied Management, 2(1), 21-33.

Blocked-in syndrome: Another look at Game Transfer Phenomena

Back in the early 1990s, I used to play the video game Tetris on my handheld Nintendo Game Boy. Although I say so myself, I was a really good player and I used to play for hours every day. When I went to bed I would see falling blocks as I closed my eyes. I often experienced the same thing when waking up. What I didn’t realise was that many other gamers experienced this too and that it had a name – ‘The Tetris Effect’. According to Wikipedia,the Tetris effect occurs when people devote so much time and attention to an activity that it begins to pattern their thoughts, mental images, and dreams.”

In the late 1980s I started researching into the area of video game addiction. One of the papers I cited a lot in my early research concerning the side effects of excessive playing was a 1993 case study published in the Irish Journal of Psychological Medicine by Dr. Sean Spence. Dr. Spence reported the case of a female video game player who was diagnosed as suffering from persecutory delusions, exhibiting violent behaviour, and experiencing constant imaginary auditory hallucinations triggered by the music of the Super Mario Brothers video game. This case study and the Tetris effect are both examples of what I and my research colleague Angelica Ortiz de Gortari call ‘game transfer phenomena’ (GTP).

These phenomena tend to occur when video game players become so immersed in their gaming that when they stop playing, they sometimes transfer some of their virtual gaming experiences to the real world. These phenomena can occur both visually and aurally as well is in the form of unconscious bodily movements.

We have been researching GTP for a number of years and our first published study in 2011 made worldwide news. Some of the press coverage was both sensationalist (“Gamers can’t tell real world from fantasy, say researchers) and misleading (“How video games blur real life boundaries and prompt thoughts of violent solutions to players’ problems) and angered some of the gaming community. Our first published study in the International Journal of Cyber Behavior, Psychology and Learning was an exploratory study in which 42 gamers were interviewed. Although the sample was small, we reported that all our participants had, at some point, experienced some type of involuntary sensations, thoughts, actions and/or reflexes in relation to videogames when not playing them. For instance, one gamer reported witnessing a mathematics equation appearing in a bubble above his teacher’s head while another reported health bars hovering over football players from a rival team. However, this didn’t stop some of the press coverage being derogatory (Unscientific survey of 42 gamers concludes video games interfere with perceptions of reality).

Since then we have published three more studies from a self-selected dataset of over 1,600 gamers’ experiences (all of who had experienced some form of GTP) in various academic journals (International Journal of Human Computer Interaction; International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction; International Journal of Cyber Behavior, Psychology and Learning). Our findings have shown that some gamers (i) are unable to stop thinking about the game, (ii) expect that something from the game will happen in real life, (iii) display confusion between video game events and real life events, (iv) have impulses to perform something as in the video game, (v) have verbal outbursts, and (vi) experience voluntary and involuntary behaviours.

While some gamers qualify their experiences as funny, amusing, or even normal, others said they got surprised, felt worried, embarrassed and their experiences were a reason to quit playing. Based on our research so far, Game Transfer Phenomena appear to be commonplace among excessive gamers but the good news is that most of these phenomena are short-lasting, temporary, and appear to resolve of their own accord.

Despite instances of GTP elsewhere in the psychological and medical literature, we argue that there are important reasons for not using the ‘Tetris effect’ concept when studying game transfer effects. Among the most important are that: (i) the Tetris effect definition is very broad and does not emphasize the importance of the association between real life stimulus and video game elements as a trigger of some of the transfer experiences, (ii) it does not make a clear distinction between sensorial modalities in the game transfer experiences or talk about players’ experiences across sensorial modalities (e.g., hearing a sound and visualizing a video game element), and (iii) the name itself is inspired by a one specific stereotypical puzzle game (i.e., Tetris). This simple name indicates that it is repetition that triggers the transfer effects but there are other factors involved in game transfer experiences. Furthermore, modern video games use more than abstract shapes and offer more flexible scenarios compared to Tetris and similar games.

Our latest study that surveyed over 2,500 gamers is currently being analysed but preliminary results indicate that game transfer phenomena appear to be common among players – especially those that play heavily. It could be that some gamers are more susceptible than others to experience GTP. Although for many gamers the effects of these experiences appear to be short lived, our research also shows that some gamers experience them recurrently. More research is needed to understand the cognitive and psychological implications of GTP. Our studies to date show there is a need to investigate neural adaptations and after-effects induced by video game playing as a way of encouraging healthy and safe video game playing.

Note: This blog is an extended version of an article first published in The Conversation

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

Further reading

Gackenbach, J.I (2008). Video game play and consciouness development: A transpersonal perspective. Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 40(1), 60-87.

Griffiths, M. D., Kuss, D.J., & Ortiz de Gortari, A. (2013). Videogames as therapy: A review of the medical and psychological literature. In I. M. Miranda & M. M. Cruz-Cunha (Eds.), Handbook of research on ICTs for healthcare and social services: Developments and applications (pp.43-68). Pennsylvania: IGI Global.

Ortiz de Gotari, A., Aronnson, 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. Gackenbach (Ed.), Video Game Play and Consciousness (pp.223-250). Nova Science

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). 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). 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.

Parfitt, B. (2011). Metro “can’t tell real world from fantasy”. MCV. September 21. Located at: http://www.mcvuk.com/news/read/metro-can-t-tell-real-world-from-fantasy/085065

Purchase, R. (2011). Prof clarifies Game Transfer Phenomena. Eurogamer.net. September 21. Located at: http://www.eurogamer.net/articles/2011-09-21-game-transfer-phenomena-authors-defence

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

The Tetris Effect. Located at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tetris_effect

Coming a part of the themes: The psychology of familiarity in gambling

Have you seen slot machines featuring Spiderman? Or the ones based on the Monopoly board game? Or the slots that have pictures of Lara Croft from the Tomb Raider video game? Most gaming operators will appreciate that all of these images have a strong brand presence, and that it is one of the main reasons for themed games. However, a more basic marketing tactic is being used here – the psychology of familiarity. This is used throughout the gaming industry but is most common on slot machines, online games, and scratchcards. For instance, Camelot’s scratchcards in the UK have featured film tie-ins (e.g., James Bond, Pirates of the Caribbean, Star Wars), and popular games (e.g., Connect Four).

But this wasn’t always the case. Back in the late 1980s I did some research on the names that gaming designers and operators gave their slot machines. One of the more interesting findings I reported in one of my academic papers was that over 50% of all machine names that I came across in amusement arcades had some reference to money on them (such as ‘Cashpoint’, ‘Cashline’, ‘Action Bank’, Piggy Bank’, ‘Money Belt’ etc.). Psychologically, all of these machine names gave the impression that this was where a player could get money from – not where they would lose it! Other categories of machine names included those with some reference to skill on them (‘Fruitskill’, ‘Skillchance’) suggesting that machine playing was a skillful activity and that gamblers could perhaps beat the machine. Other machines had what I called “acoustically attractive” names (Nifty Fifty, Naughty But Nice) or puns (Reel Fun, Reel Money). Since making these observations, I have always been interested in the subtle techniques that the gaming industry uses in getting the punter to play on their products. The psychology of gambling – or rather the psychology of gambling marketing – has come a long way in the last decade.

As I’ve already said, one of the techniques that the gaming industry uses (whether they realise it or not) is the psychology of familiarity. Gaming operators and marketers have realised that one weapon in their marketing armory is to design products which appear familiar before a player has ever even played on them – something that can partly be achieved through the name or theme of the slot machine. The examples I gave above showed that the names of slot machines appear to be important in impression formation. It is highly unlikely that the names of slot machines have any influence on gambling behaviour per se. However, when tied in with recent research on the psychology of familiarity, the names of machines do seem to be critically important – particularly in terms of gambling acquisition (that is, getting people to gamble in the first place).

Nowadays, slot machines are often named after a famous person (the Elvis Presley machines appear very popular in one of my local casinos), place, event, video game, board game, television show or film. Not only is this something that is familiar to the gambler but may also be something that the potential gamblers might like or affiliate themselves with (such as James Bond). This is different from a simple naming effect in that the machine’s theme may encompass the whole play of the machine, including its features, the sound effects (e.g., the theme tune to popular television programmes like Coronation Street or Eastenders), and light/colour effects. By using well-known and common themes, gamblers may be more likely to spend time and money playing them.

Some of the most popular UK slot machines are those that feature The Simpsons. There are many possible reasons why a gambler might be more likely to play on a Simpsons’ machine. The Simpsons have mass appeal and popularity across all ages and across gender. The machines are celebrity-endorsed and players may place trust in a ‘quality’ brand like The Simpsons. Gamblers may also hope that knowledge of the characters will help in the playing of the game. On a basic level, it might simply be that the game play of The Simpsons is more exciting, and that the sound effects and features are novel, cute and/or more humorous than other machines. There are many cases similar to this one where it could be speculated that the slot machine becomes so much more inducing because it represents something that is familiar and/or special to the gambler.

Familiarity is a very important psychological aspect of why themed slot machines have been more prominent over the last decade. Familiar themes have the capacity to induce a ‘psycho-structural interaction’ between the gambler and the gambling activity. This is where the gambler’s own psychology interacts with the machine’s structural characteristics and produces different consequences for each person depending upon what the feature means to them personally. If the themes are increasingly familiar, a gambler might be more likely to persevere with the complexities of a machine. Gamblers may find it more enjoyable because they can easily interact with recognizable images they experience. Therefore, the use of familiar themes may have a very persuasive effect, leading to an increase in the number of people using them, and the money they spend. Whilst there are many other aspects that influence an individual’s decision to gamble, the possible persuasive nature of the themes should not be underestimated.

As you may have already gathered, there is a strong overlap between the psychology of familiarity, branding, and the psychology of persuasion. In very simple terms, a gambler must be exposed to the product and be aware of its presence before they can even make the decision to gamble. This is relatively easy to achieve given the ubiquity of slot machines and the fact that current machines will use any number of techniques to grab a potential player’s attention. These include television or film theme tunes, bright flashing lights, and/or pictures or voices of celebrities. Once a gambler’s attention has been gained, the product must be likeable and familiar enough for them to think about gambling and wanting to interact with the machine further. Immediately familiar images and sounds are likely to lead to a much quicker decision to gamble. All which goes to show – the gaming industry knows what it is doing!

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

Further reading

Griffiths, M.D. (1993). Fruit machine gambling: The importance of structural characteristics. Journal of Gambling Studies, 9, 101-120.

Griffiths, M.D. (2007). Brand psychology: Social acceptability and familiarity that breeds trust and loyalty.Casino and Gaming International, 3(3), 69-72.

Griffiths, M.D. & Dunbar, D. (1997). The role of familiarity in fruit machine gambling. Society for the Study of Gambling Newsletter, 29, 15-20.

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.

King, D.L., Delfabbro, P.H. & Griffiths, M.D. (2010). Video game structural characteristics: A new psychological taxonomy. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 8, 90-106.

Parke, J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2006). The psychology of the fruit machine: The role of structural characteristics (revisited). International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 4, 151-179.

Parke, J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2007). The role of structural characteristics in gambling. In G. Smith, D. Hodgins & R. Williams (Eds.), Research and Measurement Issues in Gambling Studies (pp.211-243). New York: Elsevier.

Wood, R.T.A., Griffiths, M.D., Chappell, D. & Davies, M.N.O. (2004). The structural characteristics of video games: A psycho-structural analysis. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 7, 1-10.

No time for the crime: Excessive adolescent video game playing, social networking and crime reduction

On Sunday February 9, 1964, The Beatles made their debut on US television. Their appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show drew an estimated audience of 73 million people. One of the most quoted consequences associated with this particular show was that between 8pm and 9pm when the show was aired, a number of news reports claimed that there was no reported incidence of juvenile crime across America during the time of the broadcast.  The editor of Newsweek, B.F. Henry, went as far as to claim that “there wasn’t so much as a hubcap stolen” during the hour that The Beatles were on the show.

This apocryphal tale, at the very least, shows the apparent compelling logic in the argument that when an activity is so engrossing it has the capacity to stop people engaging in other types of activity such as crime. Inspired by a speculative blog post on the topic, my friend and research colleague Dr. Mike Sutton failed to disconfirm what Dr. Sutton and I have called the Crime Substitution Hypothesis. We recently published a small paper in the journal Education and Health that examined the extent to which popular youth activity (namely video gaming and social networking) may be having an effect on youth offending and victimization.

Young people’s use of technology (the so called ‘screenagers’ and ‘digital natives’) has increased greatly over the last two decades and a significant proportion of daily time is spent in front of various screen interfaces most notably videogames, mobile phones (e.g., SMS) and the internet (e.g., social networking sites like Bebo, Facebook). These ‘digital natives’ have never known a world without the internet, mobile phones and interactive television, and are therefore tech-savvy, have no techno-phobia, and very trusting of these new technologies.

One of the most empirically researched areas is in the area of adolescent video gaming. Negative consequences of gaming have included addiction, increased aggression, and a variety of medical consequences, such as repetitive strain injuries, obesity, and photosensitive epilepsy. There is certainly evidence that when taken to excess, videogame playing can in some cases be addictive, especially online videogame playing where the game never pauses or ends, and has the potential to be a 24/7 activity. However, there are many reported benefits that adolescents can get from playing videogames. These can be educational, social and/or therapeutic.

Another positive benefit of playing video games along with activities like social networking may be the capacity to reduce youth crime. The reason why videogames may have implications for crime reduction is their use as ‘distractors’ (such as in the role of pain management). The reasoning is that ‘distractor tasks’ consume some degree of the attentional capacity that would otherwise be devoted to pain perception. I have noted in a number of my academic papers that the main reasons that videogames make good distractors are because they:

  • Are likely to engage much of a person’s individual active attention because of the cognitive and motor activity required.
  • Allow the possibility to achieve sustained achievement because of the level of difficulty (i.e. challenge) of most games during extended play.
  • Appear to appeal most to adolescents

For instance, one study reported the case of an eight-year-old boy with neurodermatitis being given a handheld videogame to prevent him from picking at his face. Where previous treatments had failed, the use of the game kept his hands occupied and within two weeks the affected area had healed. A number of studies have demonstrated that videogames can provide cognitive distraction for children undergoing chemotherapy. All these studies have reported that distracted child patients report less nausea after treatment (when compared with control groups), and that playing videogames reduced the amount of painkillers the children needed during treatment. The very reasons why video games may be of benefit therapeutically may also be applied to video games in a crime reduction context (i.e., the playing of video games is so cognitively distracting that that there is little time to do or think about anything else).

Consequently, there is a developing school of thought arguing that peoples’ participation (especially excessive use) in video gaming and social networking may be contributory factors that may partly explain the fall in crime rates in recent years. For instance, the economist Larry Katz was quoted in a 2010 issue of The Economist suggesting that the playing of video games may be playing a role in crime reduction. Katz’ reasoning is simple – keeping people busy keeps them out of trouble. There appears to be some statistical support for such a hypothesis as the decrease in US crime rates appears to show an inverse correlational relationship with increased sales of video game consoles and video games. Clearly this correlational evidence should be treated with caution as it says nothing about causation. However, it does provide a hypothesis that could be the subject of future empirical testing.

Could the rise in video game playing and social networking be a major cause of what criminologists claim is an unfathomable drop in crime, and if not, then why not? Routine Activity Theory predicts that if a substantial numbers of young people are not on the streets either as victims or offenders then overall high volume ‘crime opportunities’ would diminish, resulting in an overall drop in high volume crime rates. We have no idea yet whether what we might call the ‘crime substitution hypothesis’ is plausible. Therefore, in our recent paper, Dr. Sutton and I set out some ideas that support it as something possibly worthy of further exploration.

As highlighted above, research suggests some young people are spending many hours playing video games or social networking. Research also suggests that video games can be engrossing, addictive and in some cases compulsive. Additionally, research has failed to establish that violent media is either a necessary or sufficient condition for causing crime. Therefore, taking a Routine Activity Approach, it would seem that an increase in video gaming might feasibly lead to a rise in the illicit market for stolen computers and games consoles. However, there might be fewer thieves to supply it if:

  • Fewer potential offenders are getting addicted to opiates and other drugs, and/or misusing alcohol out of boredom because they have escaped boredom in the real world by entering the more exciting world of cyberspace to play and interact with others.
  • Potential offenders and victims are gaming excessively and/or compulsively checking Facebook and/or other social networking sites.
  • The game players and other ‘netizens’ are playing at home so (a) fewer potential offenders on the streets and fewer potential victims, and (b) houses are occupied for longer and so less susceptible to burglary.
  • Immersion and gaming prowess and reputation may be sufficient substitutes for the same things in the offline (real) world
  • The Internet allows more people to work from home so teleworking may reduce the pool of “available” victims on the street and also ensure fewer homes are empty during the day.

The evidence provided for the ‘crime substitution hypothesis’ in our paper was anecdotal and/or correlational in nature but we would argue that this would provide a fruitful avenue for further research. Such research into ‘crime substitution’ and gaming/social networking might involve: (i) measuring time spent gaming and social networking by groups that empirical research predicts are at greater risk of becoming offenders, (ii) conducting ethnographic studies with young people to gauge whether, and if so to what extent, gaming and social networking are used as a substitute for risky activities in the offline (real) world, and do this in relation to both potential offending and victimization, (iii) examining issues of offline and online peer status and how this may impact on consequent behaviour (including criminal activity), and (iv) further examining the correlation between console and game sales – and any data on playing time and type of games – with the general crime trend over the past 20 years.

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

Further reading

Cole, H. & Griffiths, M.D. (2007). Social interactions in Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing gamers. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 10, 575-583.

De Freitas, S. & Griffiths, M.D. (2008). The convergence of gaming practices with other media forms: what potential for learning? A review of the literature. Learning, Media and Technology, 33, 11-20.

Griffiths, M.D. (2005). Video games and health. British Medical Journal, 331, 122-123.

Griffiths, M.D. (2005b). The therapeutic value of videogames. In Goldstein J. & Raessens J. (eds.) Handbook of Computer Game Studies (pp. 161-171). Boston: MIT Press.

Griffiths, M.D. (2008). Internet and video-game addiction. In C. Essau (Ed.), Adolescent Addiction: Epidemiology, Assessment and Treatment (pp.231-267).  San Diego: Elselvier.

Griffiths, M.D. (2010). Trends in technological advance: Implications for sedentary behaviour and obesity in screenagers. Education and Health, 28, 35-38.

Griffiths, M.D. & Kuss, D. (2011). Adolescent social networking: Should parents and teachers be worried? Education and Health, 29, 23-25.

Griffiths, M.D. & Sutton, M. (2013). Proposing the Crime Substitution Hypothesis: Exploring the possible causal relationship between excessive adolescent video game playing, social networking and crime reduction. Education and Health, 31, 17-21.

Kuss, D.J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2011). Online social networking and addiction: A literature review of empirical research. International Journal of Environmental and Public Health, 8, 3528-3552.

Kuss, D.J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2011). Excessive online social networking: Can adolescents become addicted to Facebook? Education and Health, 29. 63-66.

Kuss, D.J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2012). Online gaming addiction in adolescence: A literature review of empirical research. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 1, 3-22.

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