The civilisation of virtual worlds

Our journalist Ella Rhodes synthesises some recent coverage of the changing face of gaming; with comment from Professor Chris Ferguson.

For decades the world of video gaming has been viewed by the mass media, and some academics, as a home for gratuitous violence and online bullying. But is this world actually evolving into a place of polite communities, and are the games themselves increasingly appealing to and fostering the creativity of those who play them?

Writing for’s Backchannel, Jeremy Hsu outlines the work of Riot Games, creators of the monumentally popular League of Legends, who have been using the knowledge of psychologists to moderate gamers’ attitudes and behaviour to one another. Hsu writes that the company has been testing machine-learning techniques to automatically classify behaviours and swiftly punish or reward players accordingly.

League of Legends attracts around 67million players per month, who are all potential test subjects for Riot Games. The experiments have been developed by Jeffrey ‘Lyte’ Lin, a game designer who also has a PhD in cognitive neuroscience from the University of Washington in Seattle. He is the head of Riot’s player behaviour team, more than 30 researchers who devise social psychology experiments on competitive League of Legends gamers.

Lin began his experimentation with priming, the idea that exposure to certain stimuli can subconsciously influence behaviour. Hsu writes: ‘In one study, called the “Optimus Experiment,” they tested five categories of messages displayed to players in red and blue, with white serving as a baseline for comparison. Among Western gamers, they found that a red message warning about the counterproductive results of negative behaviour  – such as, “Teammates perform worse if you harass them after a mistake” – led to a bigger drop in players having a bad attitude toward their teammates or insulting other players than the same message displayed in white. A blue message highlighting the benefits of positive behaviour also helped reduce toxic behaviour.’

The team has also been trialling punishment for misbehaving players, developing a restricted chat mode which temporarily limits the amount of messages abusive players can type per match. Hsu writes: ‘[It] has led to a noticeable improvement in player behaviour afterward – on average, individuals who went through a period of restricted chat saw 20 per cent fewer abuse reports filed by other players. The restricted chat approach also proved 4 per cent more effective at improving player behaviour than the usual punishment method of temporarily banning toxic players.’

The online gaming community, then, are perhaps being persuaded to change. But how about the games themselves? Will Wiles, writing for Aeon, asks why survival games which present the player with scarcity and austerity have grown in popularity over the past two years. He points, in particular, to the game Banished, which asks players to build a village and survive using very scarce resources. Wiles writes: ‘Scavenging sells. Starvation sells. Survival sells.’

Wiles continues that although diminishing resources, such as ammunition and health, have long been a basic part of games, they do not deplete if a gamer should stand around doing nothing. The difference in survival games is that a player can die through simple inaction – just as you would in real life. Wiles concludes: ‘At the heart of the new digital melancholy – wrapped in all that beauty – is primal simplicity, the basic animal equation: eat, don’t get eaten, keep going... Vulnerability imposes a measure of passivity – in some situations, for instance, the only workable strategy might be to wait for danger to pass, to hide behind a hedge, to stay in the shelter until dawn or nightfall – so the environment and the atmosphere become more important, they are not just a Niagara of garish detail to be rushed past.’

Similarly Keith Stuart, writing for The Guardian, explores a new generation of games whose main themes are creativity and exploration rather than action and explosions. He describes new game No Man’s Sky: ‘a vast universe filled with worlds that have been procedurally generated by computer algorithms, and it tells you to go out there and explore.’ Sean Murray, co-founder of the studio behind the game, explains how the market for games may be changing, becoming more cerebral. ‘I was in the Arctic for a while, where there’s this sense of utter isolation. It’s something games just don’t do. Danger in games is always about explosions. That’s not the danger most of us experience in real life. Games are obsessed with having no breathing space – they never let the player walk around and enjoy something… I mean, games are amazing now, they’re beautiful. But you sit and watch something that looks glorious, and hundreds of people have worked on it, and you find yourself yawning. Then you play something much more simple, like Amnesia, and you have so many more emotions – just because there are lulls, there is sometimes nothing, so when something does happen, it surprises you. That’s what real life is like. Anything you see enough of, just becomes normal. Games are terrible for that.’

Murray is anticipating a new chapter for game design. ‘The kids who grew up with Minecraft will really struggle to relate to something like Assassin’s Creed,’ he told The Guardian. ‘They won’t want to be that guy.’

Chris Ferguson (Stetson University) is a psychologist specialising in the study of video games and society. Professor Ferguson told me that the social narrative on gaming had been shifting slowly over time, interestingly, mirroring the shift in attitude toward comic books in the 1950s, which were initially thought to cause delinquency. He explained: ‘It's very much a generational issue.  Older adults remain relatively suspicious of video games, but younger adults are much less so.  As the younger folks who grew up with gaming age into the "power structure" of society (politicians, scientists, journalists, even just people who vote), stoking moral panics about games is becoming more difficult and getting met with more resistance. This is fairly identical to what happened with comic books.’ 

Ferguson said the rise in popularity of ‘scarcity games’ was part of a more general interest in dystopian books, films and TV shows, he added: ‘I've seen some theories that depictions of scarcity can also go along with periods of strain such as during financial downturns. Although economies are overall going up, that hasn't always trickled down to the lower wage earners and unemployed. So themes of scarcity may connect with them in an emotional way.’

He also pointed to some of the psychological benefits of video games in general: ‘Probably one of the most publicized areas of research is the notion that action (e.g. violent) games can promote visuospatial cognition, the types of tasks involved in careers like surgery, engineering, etc. That area has sometimes been controversial due to failed replications, just like the difficult-to-replicate aggression research. But in my own work I've seen some consistent data indicating that video games, both violent and non-violent, reduce stress.  And more complex games do seem efficient in fostering a sense of creativity.’

Ferguson concluded that, generally, people are coming to change their minds about video games being the root of all evil or societal violence: ‘I think probably a lot of people are realising it's becoming harder and harder to get traction on blaming video games for societal problems. The data just isn't there. What will be interesting will be to see if the current generation that grew up with games will be able to learn from the historical cycles of moral panic and avoid doing the same thing with whatever new media the future will bring!’

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