Two new Colorado State University studies examines the potential positive effects of video games using world of Warcraft as its testing grounds. The studies explore how video game players can become deeply involved in their games to the point where they may block out the "external environment" and temporarily feel that their play environment is as vivid and important as the real world. Researchers at Colorado State University say that such "absorptive experiences" can be positive ones, providing important mental health benefits.
Two studies recently published by Jeffrey Snodgrass, associate professor of anthropology at Colorado State, examine different types of video gaming experiences and the effects they can have on players’ lives, including their levels of stress, satisfaction and happiness. In both studies, Snodgrass and his research team examined the popular online game, World of Warcraft.
In the first study, "Magic Flight and Monstrous Stress: Technologies of Absorption and Mental Wellness in Azeroth," Snodgrass and his team defined the experiences players have as "immersive or absorptive." These "altered states" can cause both negative and positive effects. Players' out-of-game habits and levels of distress, as well as their in-game play-styles, often determine the nature of such effects.
In addition to their own in-game observations, the research team conducted surveys and interviewed World of Warcraft players to learn more about their gaming habits. For the survey, they developed a set of game specific psychological scales to measure how absorbed players become while playing the game. Many players reported that playing World of Warcraft serves as a stress or tension reliever. Players who became more absorbed in the game reported more stress relief.
"The idea is that if you lose yourself, you escape," Snodgrass said. "So it’s deeply relaxing, what some gamers describe as akin to meditation, or at other times positively challenging and stimulating, like a great chess match where you’re actually one of the pieces, and we show that there are strong associations between these various states of consciousness and the game’s health benefits. But it is important to note that the escape must be controlled and temporary to be positive, so that it leads to rejuvenation rather than simple problem avoidance, which in the end only increases the experience of stress."
Many video game studies focus on the negative aspects of gaming. Snodgrass hopes that people will start to understand that addiction is only one side of video game usage and that his recent studies indicate that video game playing can be healthy.
"But we want to be careful to present a balanced portrait of online gaming," Snodgrass said. "Our study does show that in other instances players get drawn in too much and they enjoy losing themselves too greatly. That can contribute to problematic play and what some researchers even call online gaming addiction."
The second study is called "Enhancing One Life Rather Than Living Two: Playing MMOs with Offline Friends." It focuses on the differences between playing video games with individuals known outside of the game and playing with people met online.
Snodgrass determined that playing with offline friends (friends who are friends in real life) is healthier, because they can help regulate game play. Playing with real friends also allows players to transfer their positive gaming experiences into their real lives. Playing with real friends also makes it more difficult to have those immersive experiences, Snodgrass claims, which can be positive or negative.
"If it’s harder to immerse, that’s a double-edged sword," Snodgrass said. "You’re losing some benefits of playing such as reducing stress and tension, but you’re also losing some potential for addiction."
Snodgrass’ research team included Michael G. Lacy and Jesse Fagan, CSU Department of Sociology; David E. Most, CSU School of Education; and H.J. Francois Dengah, University of Alabama, Department of Anthropology. Both articles are currently available online.