Monday, August 8, 2011

Glued to Games: How Video Games Draw Us In and Hold Us Spellbound

By Scott Rigby and Richard M. Ryan
Santa Barbara, Greenwood Books,  2011
175 pages   Non-Fiction

Everyone knows someone who seems to spend an inordinate amount of time playing video games. I have several video gamers within my own family. Scott Rigby and Richard M. Ryan have written a fascinating study on video games and their place in the lives of youth and adults. Glued to Games discusses the phenomenon of video games, the life skills that are manifested by their usage, how games are overused, and a practical roadmap to games. The book discusses why specific features and content connect with the psychological needs of players, and exactly how games build value and enthusiasm.

Rigby and Ryan, both PhDs, have come to Glued to Games from their interest in what motivates gameplay at a fundamental level, and not with the strident tone of those who would focus on the dangers of video games. For the parent (or in my case, the grandparent), the whole tenor of the book leads to different conclusions than might be met with another type of book.

I respect the approach of the authors. They suggest that video games satisfy three basic needs: the need for competence, the need for autonomy, and the need for relatedness. They say: “Competence refers to our innate desire to grow our abilities and gain mastery of new situations and challenges. Even watching infants at the earliest stages of development, we can clearly see the innate energy for competence at work as the child learns to master movement, language, and problem solving. Autonomy needs reflect our innate desire to take actions out of personal volition, and not because we are “controlled” by circumstances or by others. Experiencing a sense of choice and opportunity in our lives, and acting in ways that truly reflect our wishes, result in a satisfaction of this intrinsic autonomy need. Relatedness refers to our need to have meaningful connections to others. As with competence and autonomy, we see time and again that people seek out quality relationships simply for the intrinsic reward that comes from having a mutually supportive connection with others."

Games can give us “a rich field of opportunities to pursue, activities to undertake and challenges to conquer.” I really enjoyed thinking about how when the job is lousy and the stress levels are too high, video games are one way to find value. An hour or two spent with a video game can relax a tired mind and rejuvenate a worn-down psyche. The authors do suggest, however, that when people spend so much time with video games that their other life activities are curtailed, perhaps the gamer is not getting their needs of competence, autonomy and relatedness met in other areas of their lives. “This perspective allows for an approach that begins by addressing the core issue of basic need satisfaction, rather than simply criticizing, attacking or shaming too much game play.” 

In the last chapter, the authors offer strategies for spouses and parents to help the gamer find balance in their gaming lives. This is a valuable book because it offers aha moments for game players, parents, and significant others. It puts an entirely different spin on the whole phenomenon.

I interviewed a grandchild and a son-in-law. Here is what they shared about their own video gaming.
Interview with my grandson, Lachlan, age 12
Lockie tells me his favorite video game is Call of Duty: Black Ops, and there is a fair amount of blood, because “Well, Grandma, it is a war game.” But he understands that the blood doesn’t really mean anything except that he is having success with the game. This would go along with what Rigby and Ryan indicate in the chapter on violence. Very few gamers act on the violence they experience in the game. Lockie says that he truly understands that this violence is an online experience that doesn’t translate to the real world.

Lockie says he particularly likes that he can be an expert at a game, but he also likes to play with his friends. His neighbor, Jack, is his favorite gaming partner, and they like to work cooperatively to complete the game. He does say that he has occasionally played against an online competitor, but he doesn’t think it is too much fun, because the interaction is too sporadic.

He says that he is too busy playing outside in the summer to play video games too much—maybe five hours a week, but in the winter he often plays two hours a day. One of his failings, he says, is that he gets too focused on the game and can’t stop and his parents have to make him get off the game. I know Lockie to be a fairly obsessive child, and he thinks that his ability to focus intently helps him to be really good at video games. But, he asserts that he doesn’t “clog up his brain” thinking about the game when he is off line.

What! Another gamer?
Garth’s impressions
My son-in-law Garth is a fairly intent gamer, both video games and role-playing games. He’s not playing nearly as much now that his baby daughter has come, but he has played fairly obsessively in the past. He says that playing a video game is like reading a book. He has a hard time putting a book down, and in the same way, he has a hard time quitting a game before he has completed it. For Garth, the plot is everything. He says that if the story line of a game isn’t good, he will never get engrossed in the game and takes it back to the rental store.
I would think that my son-in-law and my grandson are fairly typical of most video game players. I’ve given Lachlan’s mother a copy of Glued to Games, which ought to ease her mind a great deal.

 The following is an interview with Scott Rigby that was sent to me by the publicist, who also gave me online access to a copy of the book.

Q & A with Scott Rigby, Ph.D
Co-author of Glued to Games: How Video Games Draw Us In and Hold Us Spellbound
Q. You say that "fun," at least when it is defined as mindless entertainment is not really what hooks people into video games and that what really underlies their appeal is their ability to satisfy basic human needs. You call this the Player Experience of Need Satisfaction (PENS) model. Can you explain?
A: Sure -- there are two points to make on this. First, fun isn't a terribly precise word, and so it doesn't really give anybody trying to understand and manage games a good handle on what's happening when we see people so deeply engaged and drawn in to game experiences. If you think about it, you use the word "fun" to describe basically any momentary, passing experience of enjoyment. Games are taking hold of us in much deeper ways -- ways that even don't even seem very "fun" at all! Gamers will study tables of numbers to learn how to play better, and will give up food, sleep, and even bathroom breaks to keep playing. Nothing about this looks "fun" when we think about the usual breezy way we use the word.
So what the "player experience of need satisfaction" model is all about is explaining the deep satisfaction and engagement in games in a much clearer and more complete way. Specifically, we've identified that games can densely satisfy some very fundamental and intrinsic human needs: The need for competence (i.e. effectiveness, growth, and mastery), autonomy (i.e. volition; meaningful choice), and relatedness (i.e. meaningful connections to others; the experience that "I matter"). This model turns out to be a much stronger predictor of sustained engagement, value, and many other factors such as ongoing motivation to play.
Q. In GLUED TO GAMES you say that, unlike old arcade games, modern games typically satisfy more than one need and therefore pull us in more strongly. How so?
A: As gaming has evolved, both game developers and gamers themselves have gotten more sophisticated. Of course technology has allowed for much more "fantastic" graphics and complexity, but more importantly this technological capacity has enabled games -- when well designed -- to satisfy multiple needs simultaneously, thus creating even greater value for the player and motivational pull. So for example: First-Person Shooter games used to be largely about competence satisfaction. They didn't offer a lot of choices about where to go, nor did they let you play with others. You just picked up a gun and started firing away. Today's FPS games provide more open environments with more meaningful choices (thus adding autonomy satisfactions), and also allow for complex team play with other players in which team members really rely on each other -- which also simultaneously satisfies relatedness needs. When games can hit this kind of "trifecta," they can be particularly compelling.
Q. There is a lot of debate about whether or not video games are addictive. What does the research say?
A: Addiction has a very specific clinical definition, and so at the level of whether games addiction is a true clinical disorder -- such as alcohol or drug addiction -- is still being debated and examined. And I think it is important for this issue to be explored thoroughly. However, on a day-to-day level, there is no doubt that many people are overinvolved with games, with gaming crowding out relationships, work, and other important life experiences. So in this sense, we need to acknowledge that -- as with any deeply compelling and satisfying experience -- there is a legitimate issue to be addressed here with a subset of gamers who become overinvolved. In our research, we are interested in identifying the core motivational and emotional "draws" of games so that there is a foundation for both greater empathy for this issue, as well as a stronger basis for intervening in ways that are both compassionate and effective.
Q. Who is most likely to overuse games?
A: Our research suggests that when people are not getting their basic needs for competence, autonomy, and relatedness satisfied in life, this is more often related to becoming over-involved in video game play. So while more research is needed to really understand the causal links and risk factors, we emphasize that overuse of games is quite possibly a symptom of a life that isn't finding basic need satisfactions elsewhere. This perspective allows for an approach that begins by addressing the core issue of basic need satisfaction, rather than simply criticizing, attacking, or shaming too much game play.
Q. Let's look at a particular game, such as Call of Duty, World of Warcraft, or any other popular game within the PENS model. Tell us how this particular game satisfies the three basic needs of competence, autonomy, and relatedness.
A: I touched on modern FPS games earlier, and this is an example of how a blockbuster FPS game such as Call of Dutyachieves satisfaction across all three of our basic motivational needs. World of Warcraft (WoW) is another great example of a "trifecta" game (i.e. one that hits on all three needs quite strongly). In WoW, the design of the game world always presents to       the player a dense "field of opportunity" for them to take action, by engaging in quests, exploring, or battling monsters (or other players). The design has been tuned so that for dozens and dozens of hours of play, you always feel there is more to explore and discover, which fundamentally satisfies the basic need for autonomy. Then, these explorations lead to greater and greater challenges that stretch the players skills and abilities, which simultaneously satisfy needs for competence/mastery. And if that weren't enough, woven into this basic gameplay are group quests that are more difficult, requiring teamwork and cooperation (which provides significant satisfaction for relatedness) as well as a greater degree of skill (leading to even more competence and mastery satisfaction).
We often explain the draw of games not just in terms of their ability to satisfy these three basic needs, but the way in which successful games do so with such immediacy, consistency, and densityImmediacy means that you can turn the game on and have a satisfying experience within seconds or minutes (something that is hard to do in other areas of life). Consistencymeans that you can count on the game to provide rewards and satisfactions in a way that is reliable. In other words, games don't overlook your hard work (another thing that often happens in real life). Finally, games provide a density of need satisfaction -- with opportunities and successes available almost moment-by-moment. This is a remarkably strong dynamic and helps to explain why great games in particular are so compelling.
Q. More men than women play video games. Is there any research as to why this is, and if not, what are your thoughts about it?
A: More and more woman play games every year, and I think that it is just a matter of time before this difference (which is shrinking) goes away entirely. Some data shows we're almost there already, perhaps at a 60/40 male to female split. Remember that video games started in computer labs that in the 60's and 70's were predominantly male, and many early games revolved around themes of war, violence, and power -- which is still true today in many areas of gaming. So it follows -- and I'm speculating here -- that this would draw a male audience that is socialized more in that direction to start. But what's amazing is how quickly gaming is becoming a mainstream activity for men and woman alike, and what a strong and growing force woman have in gaming today.
Q. You devote a chapter of GLUED TO GAMES to the controversial issue of whether or not violence in video games leads to violence in the real world. Your research on this has taken a different perspective and your findings are pretty startling. Please explain.
A: Well first, let me say that as psychologists we are not trying to either grind an axe (so to speak) against violence in games,       nor do we dismiss the concerns about violence in games which we feel are legitimate to raise and to research. Our research was really to get at something more basic -- do players really VALUE the blood and gore itself? This has always been the assumption, but it didn't really make sense to us because many people who are kind, gentle folk love blowing people's heads off in video games. Our hypothesis was that the value of the violence wasn't the blood and gore per se, but that gore was just an effective way in which the game provided competence/mastery feedback. In other words, if I shoot you in the shoulder, I can see the impact immediately -- I get immediate informational feedback on my effectiveness -- and that is satisfying of my basic need for competence. If I blow your head off, I get even more powerful feedback on my competence. So if it's really the competence feedback that matters, then if you can provide that in other ways besides blood and gore, the game should be just as enjoyable.
That's the kind of experiments we did -- and that's exactly what we found. In one study, for example, we designed two versions of basically the same game, only one had lots of blood and gore, and the other didn't. Because we included competence feedback in both, players enjoyed the less bloody version just as much as the bloody version. And what was really interesting was this was true even for young, adolescent male players of violent games who scored high on trait aggression (i.e. those who stated that the loved violent games)! So even for those players who are the "core audience" for violent games, the enjoyment of a less bloody version was the same as long as basic need satisfactions were met. For us, it shows the value of how you can apply a basic understanding and model of game engagement to answer a lot of interesting questions with greater precision.
Q. The public debate about gaming tends to be a binary one, with one side saying gaming is at the very least a waste of time and the other side touting the challenges, community, and intellectual challenges of modern games. Your position is more nuanced. Can you tell us what you think some of the benefits and the perils of gaming are?
A: I think games are deeply fascinating in their ability to engage us, and in this sense they have both promise and peril. I am lucky in that I spend a lot of time talking to psychologists, parents, and other groups that are more concerned about gaming, and also work with the game developer community -- so both I and my co-author on Glued to Games, Rich Ryan, get to listen       to all sides of the debate.
On the one hand, those who argue that games are a waste of time will often make false comparisons. If you ask them "games are a waste compared to what?" they will often say things like "you could be climbing a real mountain instead of a virtual one," but that really isn't true. More likely, you'd be watching TV, or walking around the local mall, etc. Is that really better? Games offer a gateway into mentally engaging and often thrilling and satisfying experiences, and we think it is only fair to acknowledge this potential and see where that takes us in how we can do interesting things with games to make life more meaningful.
That said, I only have to look as far as my own life to see that when I am in a game world, I am not in the real one. My wife could be three feet away from me, but as far as she's concerned I'm a million miles away. Even if I'm playing with others in the game world, games can be isolating to those around us -- in particular those who we love the most and are closest to us (i.e. our own families). Also, I do think we need to ask ourselves whether what we're "learning" in the game world really translates beyond the boundaries of that world into who we are. Are we truly growing and experiencing things in games in ways that are lasting? The movement to create more meaningful games -- games that link in to real world issues -- is a fascinating approach to these kinds of questions. But they persist for me, and I think they are important to consider.
Q. Many parents are concerned about how much time their kids spend in games. How can they foster healthy gaming and recognize when there really is a problem?
A: First, I think it is important to understand why kids are so compelled to spend time in games, and this is part of why Rich and I wrote the Glued to Games book: To make the motivations for games less of a mystery so that parents and kids could engage the topic more honestly and clearly. This connects to healthy gaming because parents can better talk to their kids about what kids are experiencing and "getting out of" games, and this can lead to healthier choices and less of a rift between parents and kids about gaming. Then, I think when games start to "crowd out" other meaningful relationships and activities that this should be considered a danger sign and a red flag that there is a problem, one that perhaps is rooted in basic needs not being satisfied in the kid's life, thus leading to them to turn to games too frequently.
Q. Are you a gamer? If so, what are your favorite games and why?
A: I am a gamer -- have been ever since I played "Space Invaders" back in the 70's at a big arcade in Penn Station in New York City. I still play games regularly both because I enjoy them, but also because I think it's important to play them if we are       going to try to understand them and their psychological dynamics. My favorite game of all time -- hands down -- is Civilization,       by Sid Meier. It's the only video game I still play after twenty years. For me, it is definitely the incredible autonomy the game provides in making meaningful decisions and responding to a very dynamic play field, moment to moment. Or maybe I just like the idea of world domination. Yeah . . . unfortunately that is probably the real reason . . .
© 2011 Scott Rigby, co-author of Glued to Games: How Video Games Draw Us In and Hold Us Spellbound
Author Bio
Scott Rigby, Ph.D, 
co-author of Glued to Games: How Video Games Draw Us In and Hold Us Spellbound, is founder and president of Immersyve, Inc., a research and consulting group specializing in the psychology of virtual worlds and interactive technologies. In addition to publishing scholarly research on human motivation, Dr. Rigby has himself developed interactive applications for entertainment (Sony, Warner Brothers), education (The Smithsonian Institute), and health care.

For more information please visit and follow the authors on Facebook and Twitter

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