When I think of Sonic the Hedgehog, Kirby, or Pac-Man, I get nostalgic. I remember being dragged all around the neighborhood to local corner stores with my fifteen-year-old brother to play games. He sometimes spent hours playing Pac-Man.
Indeed, while some of us play the occasional game, others are much more enmeshed in gaming culture. In Getting Gamers: The Psychology of Video Games and Their Impact on the People who Play Them, Jamie Madigan examines the role of video games in the lives of those who play them — and the sometimes difficult personalities of online gamers as well.
A 2015 report from the Entertainment Software Association, Madigan writes, found that 155 million Americans regularly play video games and spent $22.4 billion to do so. During the 2013 Penny Arcade Expo, he writes, many eager players spent three days sharing with other gamers, seeing new video games, and listening to top developers explain the process of making new games. The “coveted” four-day passes sold out in only twenty-three minutes.
But why are people drawn to the gamer life, and why do certain personality traits seem to exist in gamer circles?
Gamers sometimes function as cold-hearted, angry, manipulative, and verbally aggressive in chat rooms and video game forums and on online game sites. Using theories from social psychology, Madigan tries to figure out why.
“Some of these people could be just awful. I mean, the worst,” Madigan writes. “Dipping your toe into certain parts of League of Legends community might get it smeared with all the insults, sexism, homophobia, racism, and general nastiness that the Internet has to offer.”
While there are some perfectly “normal” and friendly game players online and in chat rooms who seek to share the game-playing experience, Madigan writes, there are also people who become terrifyingly aggressive. Researchers, he writes, are looking for ways to reduce this level of aggression by studying the effects of video games on those who play them.
Anonymity might help explain some of the aggressive behaviors. For example, Madigan writes, websites that operate like chat rooms such as The Bigot Gamer or Xbox Live have become home to verbal aggression for gamers whose chat-room names are “anonymous” or “4458TodayBaby.” Some studies have shown that the more anonymous players are, the more likely they are to engage in verbal aggression online. After all, there is very little accountability when your name is “4458TodayBaby.”
Having an anonymous name leads to what Madigan refers to as the “you can’t see me” and “I can’t see me” phenomena. Social psychologists refer to this concept as de-individuation, a mental state where people’s identity fades into the background of their thoughts — so much so that they become more susceptible to the environment and people around them when it comes to how to behave.
Despite being a child and adolescent therapist who works with families and studies relationships, I find that I remain in the dark about the impact video games can have on individuals and families who play then. So I was excited to read Madigan’s book.
Sadly, the book is not exactly what I had hoped. For lay readers who are searching for a simplified understanding of the psychology of gamers, the book might come across as a difficult read riddled with psychobabble. And even for me, a clinician, the book lost me in several ways.
With too many jargon-y terms like de-individuation, self-categorization theory, loss aversion, reduced social accountability, fading affect bias, and social identity theory, Madigan risks losing the reader’s interest. The field of psychology already has a bad reputation for overthinking simple matters and lacing it with big terms that make little to no sense. We don’t need another book to do that.
Even more, for those of us who are not familiar with various video games, apart from the early classics, the book gets confusing. When Madigan mentions League of Legends, Warcraft III, and Eve Online as games that draw large numbers of players, I had to stop reading and look up the games to get a better understanding.
In addition, while Madigan provides a comprehensive view of the effects of games on players, he failed to convince me that the study of video games and their impact on players truly is a science.
Despite an intriguing title and fun-sounding twist on social psychology and gaming, the book leaves too many questions unanswered.
Getting Gamers: The Psychology of Video Games and Their Impact on the People who Play Them
Rowman & Littlefield, October 2015
Hardcover, 320 pages