College of LAS « Illinois

Speech Communication

Fun and Online Video Games

Dmitri Williams

To Dmitri Williams, an assistant professor in speech communication, the truly newsworthyoutcome of his recent study of a popular online game was that his team was able to measure and observe significant social effects of video violence.

But the behaviors his team documented were not what landed Williams in a late summer maelstrom of controversy. He and his colleagues discovered that playing the violent fantasy online game "Asheron's Call 2" with "robust exposure" did not show any increased real-world aggression as a result of the experience.

The idea that a violent video game does not elicit a violent reaction among those who faithfully play it flies in the face of conventional wisdom and previous research. That's what caught the attention of media outlets such as The Economist, Los Angeles Times, and People magazine.

"It's because it's in the middle of the culture wars, because it's a hot-button topic," says Williams, the study's lead author. "I knew no matter what results I came up with, people would seize onto it and say, aha, proof that games do or proof that games don't.  And that's exactly what happened."

Williams says his study was novel because he recruited subjects who played in the comfort of their own environment, not in a contrived laboratory setting. It was also the first such study to measure the long-term effects of gaming. Over the course of a month, around 400 study participants played the game for an average of 56 total hours. Previous studies were structured in a manner where participants would play a game in one timed sitting, from 30 to 45 minutes.

While it included teenagers as young as 14, Williams did not concentrate his research on any particular age group. The participants were solicited through online message boards and ranged in age from 14 to 68, the average age being 27.7 years. Williams noted that it is possible that younger teenagers were more influenced by the violent content. Interestingly, older players in their study were "perhaps more strongly influenced by game play and argued with friends more than their younger counterparts."

Williams is quick to point out that his one-game study is an extremely limited sample, not enough to make an overarching statement about the lasting effects of the exposure to violence via online video games. Other games may elicit other reactions, he says.

"Anybody who does a study on one game and says they know what the effect of games are makes as much sense as someone who does a study of one book or one television show and says I know what the effect of books are, or what the effect of TV is," Williams says. "We know intuitively in those media that there are differences. The genres are better known.

"The same thing is true in video games—people just don't have as much understanding of them. They're all different. It's just very difficult to say I know what games do."

Today, more than 60 percent of Americans play some form of interactive game regularly, while 32 percent of the game-playing population is now over 35 years of age. Games are becoming increasingly violent, as shown by content analyses, Williams says. One reason is that "the first generation of game players has aged and its tastes and expectations have been more likely to include mature fare."

Still, some game researchers believe that video-gaming can have positive effects, leading to substantial gains in learning teamwork, managing groups, and most important, says Williams, problem-solving.

"Games are about solving problems, and it should tell us something that kids race home from school where they are often bored to get on games and solve problems. Clearly we need to capture that lightning in a bottle."

Fall/Winter 2005–06