Du Malone writes: My experience of video games is very narrow. I’ve played a few in-game seasons of Cricket Captain and a few hours of a shipping game called TransOcean. That’s all — except for Football Manager (FM), which is a different story.

What my experience lacks in terms of breadth, FM makes up for in terms of depth. Since being introduced to the game in late middle age, I’ve played the game avidly.

I don’t play FM all the time. Every now and then I go weeks, or sometimes even months, without playing. But then I have spells of playing intensively, I sometimes sit down at my computer on Saturday morning and think, well, I’ll just play an hour of FM — and before I know it, it’s Sunday evening, the whole weekend has disappeared, and I haven’t enough sleep.

This experience has led me to reflect on the nature of the playing the game. What explains its attraction? What makes it so engaging? How good, or bad, a use of time is this?

Psychological research

So I was interested, when browsing through Amazon’s Kindle store, to come across Lost in a good game, written by Pete Etchells and published by Icon (2019).

Etchells is a gamer and research psychologist. Both sides inform the book. Etchells is good at describing games he’s played and his experience of playing them — especially when, as a teenager, he played games as a way of coping with the death of his father.

He also writes well about the psychology of video games — or, more especially, the psychological research on video games. Here he deals will all the central, headline grabbing, questions. Are video games addictive? Do they make us more aggressive? Are they good or bad for us? To what extent are the moral panics associated with video games justified?

Many of the chapters are, in essence, literature reviews of the research in the field. He deals with such questions as how studies have been designed and conducted and the implications of such for the data generated and the interpretation of that data.

Thus the book is a serious read. It isn’t, though, heavy-going: Etchells has a gift for writing about science and its methodology with a light touch. The text genuinely addresses the general, rather than academic, reader and manages to do so without patronising the reader.

Generally, Etchells advances a cool, often sceptical, stance on the topics of public debate. There’s less reliable evidence that one might expect and little to support alarmist positions — though he is concerned about the use of gambling structures to induce in-game payments from player of freemium games.

Reflection

I read the book in part to help me reflect on my own experience. From this point of view, I found three passages particularly helpful. 

First, Etchells summaries a 1996 paper by Richard Bartle, which focused on a text-based game called MUD. The paper

“argued that there were four types of MUD players — ‘Achievers’, ‘Explorers’, ‘Socialisers’ and ‘Killers’. According to his classification, the main goal that ‘Achievers’ have in-game is to accumulate points, collect treasures, or level up their characters. ‘Explorers’ are more interested in simply finding out more about their virtual world. ‘Socialisers’ play to communicate with people they share a common interest with, and ‘Killers’ get their kicks from fighting other players and generally causing them a load of grief”.

Second, there is a 2006 study by Nick Yee. According to Etchells, Yee “argued that there three main categories of player motivation: ‘achievement’, ‘socialisation’ and ‘immersion”.

Etchells is critical of the methodology that these studies are based on. Notwithstanding his criticisms, I found these concepts useful to think with. Without needing to assent to the studies’ precise findings, I found they performed a useful role as prompts for reflection and introspection.

The third passage that did this for me was one that picked up on that concept of ‘immersion’ and its relation to other concepts, such as ‘presence’:

“Some scholars have argued that immersion is best thought of as a form of spatial presence; a sense of feeling physically located within the game. This is different to, for example, social presence (the extent to which you interact with other players or characters within a game as if they were real) or self-presence (the extent to which you merge your actual self with your digital avatar)”.

To me, the least successful chapter was the second, entitled ‘A brief history of early video games’. The chapter is well written but felt to me like a tangent: the history that it provides doesn’t seem to connect with the rest of the book.

Overall, however, this struck me as both an informative and entertaining book. It was the first book I’ve encountered on video gaming and one that I’m glad to have read,.

 

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