The Loneliness of the Long-term Gamer

Is there any evidence that MMOs help psychologically?

Posted Feb 29, 2020

Around 25 percent of the world's population now engages in playing video or online games: Over 1.7 billion people played such games in 2014, and this figure is now over 2.5 billion1. According to the gaming industry and gaming enthusiasts, there is much pleasure to be had from this activity, and many benefits that can be gained2

Indeed, the evidence in relation to games played by individuals, such as card games, suggests there may be some improvement in their cognitive skills, but what about the real drivers of the gaming boom—the Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO) Games, usually of an Open World type—that is, the purportedly "social games"? If we can leave aside the suggestions that online games can be used to financially exploit vulnerable individuals3, and that some of these games may serve to promote violence4, then are there any positives to be seen from participation?

For many who express reservations about all things digital, gaming can be perceived as antisocial; however, the advent of MMOs and Open World games seems to have changed the outward appearance, at least, of gaming activities. Gaming now involves much social interaction; people may compete against others virtually, sometimes cooperating to win the game, and they can become involved in online forums or in gaming cafés. It's suggested that these gaming communities promote social interaction and social skills and allow the expression of social needs for some who would, otherwise, be denied this outlet: "For lonely kids growing up in big schools crammed with sports stars and bullies, they are a means of making friends and becoming a part of something exciting and fulfilling." 5

The take-off point for the increased attention being paid to such online communities is the advent of MMOs—online games or interactive worlds that often involve huge numbers of people. MMOs can be accessed through PCs (which still forms part of the stereotype of the gamer), but also through video-game consoles and mobile devices (which have really opened the floodgates). The MMOs themselves often involve a large and enduring "Open World"—a digital environment representing a world through which individuals engaged in the MMO can wander at will, deciding for themselves what they will do to achieve their goals. It all sounds wonderful—a virtual incarnation of a Rogerian Humanist utopia—but is it true?

The traditional view is that online gaming activity leads to loneliness6—certainly, this remains true of digital activity in general7. However, a number of recent articles have concluded that MMOs, in particular, mitigate the effects of social isolation generated by many digital devices8,9. For example, involvement in MMOs leads to the establishment of a self-identity (at least, as a "gamer"), improves "social capital" (although not necessarily friendship), and fosters bonding (online). 

This may all be true, and these positive effects, as they relate to the digital world, have been replicated9,10. Yet the question remains as to whether such a digital bolstering of a virtual personality is at all important. These effects only weakly help self-esteem, only weakly alleviate real loneliness, and do not improve real-world social competence8 or the likelihood of having a real-world friend10

The importance of the "real" versus the "digital" can be debated with respect to psychological well-being, and that is not going to form a major part of this argument—but reflect, for a moment, on this question: If I am fully functioning online and a wreck in the real world, does the latter matter if I spend little time in the real world? There seems to be something wrong with this argument!

All of the above discussion is contingent on findings from different, perhaps incommensurate, studies—samples were drawn from different populations, different games, different measures, etc. This makes the debate difficult, but the major problem with MMOs, in terms of generating social relationships that will make people happy, may well be much more structural—inherent in their design and purpose. They are not environments in which lasting, supporting friendships can develop easily—the lasting relationships that we hear about tend to occur when people step out of the digital and into the real world. The virtual nature of the relationships, the purpose of the games (to win or succeed), and the instability of the digital community make it hugely unlikely that any long-term social benefit will accrue from this digital activity.     

For a community to work, it has to adhere to a set of accepted rules; we've known this since Hobbes and Locke11. Although shedding your real identity is seen by some as a key attraction of the online game or MMO: "Online games remove our physical identity, and all the traumas and inhibitions that come with it; everybody starts equal, everyone is judged on their contribution." 5 

Virtual anonymity, however, is a license for breeding bullying, trolling, and otherwise abusive behavior, and this remains a major issue for gaming, as it is in the wider digital world. Many games attempt to suppress this antisocial behavior, but it does occur with relatively high frequencies. There may be numerous reasons for this virtual behavior problem.

As noted above, an attraction of digital/virtual games for many is that they can create a new identity—this means that there are few, if any, consequences to behavior that are meaningful. Of course, some abuse behavior online is a crime, as it is in the real world, but it's almost impossible to police—and being banned from a game does not really have the effect of a jail sentence. It's a moot point as to whether having your virtual persona shunned functions in the same way as social disapproval from real people in the real world—it may depend on whether your identity is entirely wrapped up in the game—which may be problematic in itself!

The motivation of some individuals to migrate into the digital world is to escape, sometimes driven by hostility toward the real world, aggression that might transpose into the virtual world. MUD, a proto-MMO, has been described as: "...being created by 'two angry young men, feeling oppressed,' who designed an escape with their own two hands; a place where the laws were fairer, where the experience was not so unkind." 12 

Those who describe the attractiveness of multiplayer games can be seen not only to value the re-creation of the self, but also to long for a fairer society—by which it is often meant, one where they can do better than in the real world—a virtual world where their skill allows advancement in a way they may find difficult elsewhere. It has been claimed that such individuals want to participate in, or create, a meritocracy12, where the valued skills allowing you to advance are in your control. Indeed, there is nothing wrong with the desire to be free to do what you do best, so long as it doesn't deliberately negatively impact others.

However, the basic setup in the majority of MMOs is that of interpersonal competition and the virtual society's recognition of your skills at the deliberate expense of somebody else's. Even the "guilds" in a game like World of Warcraft were set up only to help self-advancement. This may improve a participant's self-esteem in a narcissistic sort of way, but it is not an ideal structure through which to maintain social cohesion. 

It might be argued that this is the way in which the real world has prospered and progressed—and there may be something to that—but the real world has something that the virtual world does not—there are structures in place to cause a cost to joining or leaving a group, and these are not present in a virtual open world13. This would predict that social groups in the virtual world could never be as stable, large, or long-lasting as they are in the real world, with all of the potential negative impacts of that digital instability for their members.

A largely accepted suggestion is that there are limits to the size of groups that are functional—and it's not in the thousands, like on MMOs—so it's not surprising that smaller subgroups do form in these virtual communities. In the real world, it is thought that our cognitive capacities limit us to maintaining around 150 relationships at any one time (that's not close relationships—just relationships strong enough to make a community work)14. A year-long study of World of Warcraft found that: "...there might be a hard limit on the size of a viable organic group online, possibly set at around 35 group members or less." 13 This suggests there are problems with the digital world as a functioning social environment (rather than problems with the estimate of 150 for a maximum viable community).

According to one study13, the reasons why social subgroups in MMOs tend to be limited involve the inherent competitiveness of the MMO and the people who inhabit it. Players tend to self-select to experience a success that they perhaps do not experience elsewhere (not true for all, of course)—and the instability of such virtual social groups in MMOs is highest in player-versus-player environments, where competition is most obvious13

Moreover, in the absence of meaningful societal rules to encourage cooperation, when the probability of reoccurring necessary cooperation between two people is low, people tend to behave selfishly and abandon the group15. Cooperation is a behavior that is reinforced and learned and happens when it serves the individual—cooperation may have beneficial results for all, but it's still driven by self-need—and in a virtual world, cooperation is not needed for any longer than winning the game.   

The outlook for a positive impact on the pro-social behaviors of MMOs is not strong. This conclusion is based not just on the evidence for and against its benefits, but on thinking about the likely consequences of the contingencies it operates—what behaviors it reinforces. These contingencies may also find fertile ground for their action in the behavioral needs of those who frequent these virtual gaming environments—that is, such people may find such virtual environments positive places, as they may want to be anonymous and competitive. However, this is not socially positive behavior in the digital world, and any benefits do not translate out of the digital world in any meaningful way.

References

1.      Statistica. Number of active video gamers worldwide from 2014 to 2021.  https://www.statista.com/statistics/748044/number-video-gamers-world

2.      Wesey, J. (26.2.2020).  Competitive gaming builds skills outside virtual world. The Manitoban. http://www.themanitoban.com/2020/02/competitive-gaming-builds-skills-outside-virtual-world/39176/

3.      Weale, S. (22.10.19) Clamp down on Fifa 'loot boxes', urges children's commissioner. The Gauradian.  https://www.theguardian.com/society/2019/oct/22/clamp-down-on-fortnite-loot-boxes-urges-childrens-commissioner.

4.      Teng, Z., Nie, Q., Zhu, Z., & Guo, C. (2020). Violent video game exposure and (Cyber) bullying perpetration among Chinese youth: The moderating role of trait aggression and moral identity. Computers in Human Behavior, 104.

5.      Stuart, K (31.7.13) Gamer communities: the positive side. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/technology/gamesblog/2013/jul/31/gamer-communities-positive-side-twitter

6.      Lemmens, J. S., Valkenburg, P. M., & Peter, J. (2011). Psychosocial causes and consequences of pathological gaming. Computers in Human Behavior, 27(1), 144-152.

7.      Costa, R. M., Patrão, I., & Machado, M. (2019). Problematic internet use and feelings of loneliness. International journal of psychiatry in clinical practice, 23(2), 160-162.

8.      Kaye, L.K., Kowert, R., & Quinn, S. (2017).  The role of social identity and online social capital on psychosocial outcomes in MMO players. Computers in Human Behavior, 74, 215-223.

9.      Martončik, M., & Lokša, J. (2016). Do World of Warcraft (MMORPG) players experience less loneliness and social anxiety in online world (virtual environment) than in real world (offline)? Computers in Human Behavior, 56, 127-134.

10.  Sundberg, M. (2018). Online gaming, loneliness and friendships among adolescents and adults with ASD. Computers in Human Behavior, 79, 105-110.

11.  Friend, C. Social contract theory. In The internet encyclopaedia of philosophy. https://www.iep.utm.edu/soc-cont/

12.  Paul, C. A. (2018). The toxic meritocracy of video games: Why gaming culture is the worst. U of Minnesota Press.

13.  Ducheneaut, N., Yee, N., Nickell, E., & Moore, R.J. (2007).  The life and death of online gaming communities:  A look at guilds in World of Warcraft.  CHI Proceedings.

14.  Dunbar, R.I.M. (1993).  Coevolution of neocortical size, group size and language in humans. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 16(4), 681-735.

15.  Axelrod, R. (1984).  The evolution of cooperation. Basic Books, New York.