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Virtually Impaired: The Consequences of Technological Advances in Gaming

About the Author: Christian Johnson

Christian Johnson is a member of the first undergraduate honors college program in cybersecurity (ACES) and is a Computer Science major at the University of Maryland. He is currently a Growth Hacker for the Gallup Organization and an Advanced Systems Developer at Mid-Atlantic Crossroads (MAX). He previously held various positions as a big data specialist for NASA’s CIO office and Science Mission Directorate.


Christian’s highlights during his time at the University of Maryland include representing the ACES cybersecurity program as Student Board President, as well as serving as the undergraduate representative to the President’s Taskforce on Cybersecurity. He is actively involved in cybersecurity research on campus, and hopes to make contributions to the Computer Science field and cybersecurity industry throughout his studies at the University of Maryland.

By Christian Johnson | Position Paper

The explosive development and expansion of a wide range of digital technologies—from networked systems to advanced image processing—have greatly enhanced the utility and appeal of electronic devices. Our consumption of social media is fast and interactive, our phone calls reach people across the world, our movie theaters provide 3-D virtual worlds, and our ability to learn and process information online is unmatched by any other capability in human history. These trends hold true in the modern gaming industry as well, where technologies have enticed over 170 million gamers in the United States to engage in video games that collectively cost over 20 billion dollars in 2013 alone (Ewalt).

These advances have naturally impacted today’s gaming industry, which has become heavily integrated with newer types of technologies. From the casual, social networking games played on Facebook to the rendered 3-D worlds created in Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO) games like World of Warcraft, the games played by today’s younger generation utilize the latest computer technologies that rely on advanced graphics and design, computational algorithms, and networked systems. Developments in these technologies have paved the way to providing enhancements in the virtual gaming world that make it easy to blur the line between the physical world and the virtual worlds created during gameplay. Through achievement systems, audio/video communication tools, realistic 3-D graphics, and appealing user interfaces, all of which were significantly limited at the inception of digital gaming, these technologies have facilitated the re-creation of real-world interaction in the virtual environment of gaming. These technological enhancements have injected games with “high levels of realism and emotional design that include diversity, experimentation, and […] sensory overload,” characteristics that have become commonplace in today’s games (Ortiz de Gortari, Aronsson, and Griffiths 16). While these advancements have ultimately made the experience of gaming far more interactive, they have also made the lure of playing these games all the more powerful. An activity that was once seen as merely a form of leisure for most has developed into a highly immersive and compelling experience for gamers, many of whom are enticed to play for hours on end in pursuit of a complete experience fulfilled by achievement, competition, reputation, fame, and even the virtual companionship of other players and virtual avatars.

In this paper, I argue that, as a result of the fast-paced advances in gaming technology, consumers may be seriously vulnerable to a multitude of side-effects that appear to be growing more severe with the rapid onset of constantly improving technology. These effects include addiction to the gaming experience, excessive competitiveness, increased tendencies for aggression and violence, and the development of negative social habits. As our technologies continue to accelerate at speeds we cannot fully measure and predict, we must clearly define and explore these side-effects in order to establish legal mechanisms that will help protect against the heightened dangers related to the progression of gaming technology.

Despite common claims from proponents who suggest that these games are mostly harmless, the reality is that many of the games in today’s marketplace can negatively influence gamers’ behaviors and actions. In order to fully assess these negative impacts, a thorough analysis of three major gaming technologies will be evaluated from the lens of the larger technologies they encompass: 3-D image processing, computer networking, and software engineering. These broader categories will be discussed in relation to the specific gaming technologies they relate to, primarily: gaming graphics engines, Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO) networks, and achievement systems.  The analysis of each will be rooted in psychological theories and definitions that stem from both traditional and modern schools of thought. These theories will be used to illustrate how the rapid growth of such technologies has enabled the aforementioned side-effects in varying degrees amongst consumers. Ultimately, this analysis will reveal a larger relationship between these technologies and human psychology and will illustrate the many consequences consumers can face in playing today’s games, especially consequences related to violence, social dissociation, addiction, competitiveness, and self-worth.

One of the most powerful advancements in gaming has been 3-D image processing, which has enabled gaming graphic engines to improve remarkably from their origins in the two dimensional world of arcade and early computer gaming that was popular several decades ago. As a result, today’s video games exhibit some of the same characteristics of the physical world, creating a realistic gameplay experience that in some cases has few differences from what one would expect in a real-life situation. At a recent European gaming conference, Tim Sweeney, founder of the cutting-edge game development company Epic Games, explained that “we’ll be able to render environments that are absolutely photo-realistic within the next 10 years, [environments] indistinguishable from reality level of graphics” (Lemon n.p.). This development may seem beneficial for gamers overall; however, the ability for these technologies to enhance the realism of violence during gameplay has made some gamers more inclined to aggressive and violent tendencies. While many contend that violent games, such as those that involve first person shooters, only represent a portion of what is available in today’s market, a content analysis shows that “as many as 89% of games contain some violent content, and […] half of those games include serious violent content towards other game characters” (qtd. in Gentile 7).

Not only can buyers easily access a multitude of games with violent content, but several prominent psychological theories indicate gamers are becoming absorbed into the violence found in the virtual worlds of these popular games. One theory, known as game immersion, describes a form of selective attention where gameplay “[becomes] so complex that the gamer is unable to attend to things in the real-world due to a lack of available cognitive resources” (Jennett 19). This level of cognitive attention combined with “sophisticated graphics involving characters within a 3D virtual environment” enables gamers to be fully immersed in the violence and outward aggression towards other characters and avatars during gameplay (Jennett 15). While this immersion demonstrates a clear psychological exposure to violence, it does not fully explain how such violence may affect player’s behavior outside of the game world. In other words, the theory of game immersion in the graphical splendor of video game violence does not fully explain negative behaviors in gamers.

However, several additional theories in psychology confirm the existence of aggression and violence in such environments. According to the social learning theory developed by Albert Bandura, professor of psychology at Stanford University, “exposure to video game violence [can] evoke behavioral mimicry, reinforce already existing aggressive habits, and increase internal arousal. In turn, this internal arousal [can] be interpreted as anger, which increases the likelihood of aggression” (qtd. in Kirsh 379). Furthermore, the General Aggression Model (GAM), a model to describe the effects of violent video games on aggression, found support for video games encouraging “aggressive behavior by promoting aggressive beliefs and attitudes and creating aggressive schema, aggressive behavioral scripts, and aggressive expectations, as well as desensitizing individuals to aggression [and biasing] an individual’s personality toward aggression” in the long term (Kirsh 384). Both theories suggest that gamers can become mentally exposed to violence during gameplay, resulting in users developing aggressive dispositions over time without being aware of changes in behavior or mood.

Ultimately, this type of aggression and inclination for violence is not only dangerous to an individual’s mental well-being, but may also have unforeseen impacts on the social fabric. For example, although there is no empirical data to prove the notion that violent video games have a direct correlation to an increased number of shooting tragedies, such a possibility should prompt us to further investigate the issue and seek possible solutions to potential problems we may not be fully aware of. Investigating and identifying these types of risks in video gaming further will provide for better decision-making by game makers, consumers, and regulators, to help protect players from potential psychological side-effects.

While the immersive graphics engines often associated with enhanced video game violence have transformed many aspects of today’s virtual worlds, the development and expansion of high-speed computer networks has connected once isolated gaming worlds into an interactive multiplayer environment, allowing players to reach sophisticated levels of interaction and share similar experiences without needing to be physically located together. This type of technology is best embodied in the popular Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO) games like World of Warcraft and Guild Wars 2, both of which have millions of subscribers who make an initial investment in money, for an immersive online experience that continues as long as they are willing to keep investing in time. Supporters of MMOs note that such games have developed positive virtual spaces where players can interact socially as a natural feature of the game, and argue that such games have developed into “third places” where “conversation is a main focus of activity in which playfulness and wit are collectively valued” (Steinkuehler and Williams 890). From a psychological perspective, these features enhance the sociability of the game, where players are required to communicate with others, work effectively within a team to achieve goals, and develop differing levels of relationships with other players and avatars, ranging from casual friendships to romantic interests that may cross over into the real world.

While I concede to gaming enthusiasts’ claims that this environment offers the opportunity to communicate and collaborate with others, I also assert that these networking capabilities have negative social consequences that can often outweigh the benefits these technologies provide. In a work by Torkil Clemmensen entitled “The Psychology of Online Sociability: Theory and Examples,” Clemmensen presents a psychological theory known as the Social Reality Theory of Online Sociability, to explain sociability in gaming based on “cultural symbols, specific social reality(ies), and the concrete communication processes that develop and maintain the relations between these” (10). Explaining one dimension of the theory, “negative sociability,” Clemmensen describes experiments conducted with university students in Active World, in which students were required to give academic presentations in the virtual world as avatars, with the entire class isolated physically from one another. In one scenario, a student represented by a male motorcyclist ran his avatar into a female avatar who had no reaction to the incident. When the female student later delivered her report, she claimed it “had felt unpleasant […] to be hit by the motorcycle avatar,” but did not know how to react (19). In her final report, she voluntarily characterized this behavior as molestation. This type of behavior not only demonstrates the potential for avatar violence, but more importantly the alteration of reality in which “the cultural symbols available in the online social reality refer to a violent sociability that cannot be communicated openly” (19). The peculiar behavior in this scenario further suggests that even if one may have strong social skills in the physical world, one can fail to show these skills in online environments. Not only does this scenario show dissociation with cultural symbols in the real world, but it also demonstrates the ability for negative social interaction to exist even in a space where positive sociability is meant to be encouraged and supported by technology.

Game like World of Warcraft similiarly demonstrate the difficulty gamers have in learning to treat avatars as other individuals in the virtual space. In one study, researchers found that some players considered avatars as mere “props or tokens,” due to “the number of participants [being] so large that it becomes impossible for a single player to have meaningful interaction with each co-player” (Stenros, Paavilainen, and Mäyrä 87). Furthermore, the large numbers of players in MMOs can often serve as tokens that “are there to witness, to provide a feeling of an inhabited world, and to be looked at” (87). The audience only serves the purpose of advancing the gamer’s goals and reputation in the game, and this gameplay dynamic has been characterized by experts as playing “alone together” (87). The dissociation from others and the lack of meaningful interaction in MMOs is ultimately creating virtual environments that foster bad social habits. Not only are gamers’ drawn into these worlds as described by the aforementioned game immersion theory, but they are naturally processing negative social habits and experiences that may be taken with them back into the physical world.

Arguably, gamers may more easily fantasize extreme situations in the real world because of the dissociation between reality and the infinite imaginative possibilities in the virtual world. This mental capability to dissociate the real and the virtual, combined with other traits discussed such as aggression and violence, can potentially become a haunting marriage of negative behaviors that can lead to bizarre real-world tragedies. For example, when Anders Breivik testified in court for gunning down seventy-seven people in Norway, it was found that he had not only played World of Warcraft for 16 hours per day for a year, but that he openly admitted training for the attacks using the game Call of Duty: Modern Warfare.  Breivik had been practicing “his shot using [a] holographic aiming device he had bought to use with the war simulation game” (Pidd n.p.). While it cannot be scientifically proven that his actions were a result of video game usage, the mere fact that he was able to train to kill with a video game suggests that we do not understand enough about the psychological dangers and risks that can enable mentally unstable gamers to re-create tragic virtual scenarios in the real world. Not only do we need to better understand the social interactions that take place within these games and the negative behaviors that can be shared amongst online gamers, but we need to better define the relationship between the technologies and how they correspond to psychological phenomena. Failing to do so will impede the ability for legal protections to be developed based on a factual understanding, as opposed to relying solely on the highly opinionated and polarized commentaries published after such incidents occur.

In addition to the above technologie, which are catalysts for negative side-effects and behaviors, the enhanced software engineering capabilities used by game designers and computer scientists have created better game features that increase the overall appeal of today’s games.  These game features, in turn, make it easier for gamers to become addicted to the types of games and extended gameplay that can yield negative effects. The improvements in standardized methods used to develop software have created easy-to-use software development kits (SDKs) that make it simple to add modular components to new games. In particular, the development of “achievement system” technology in modern games has grown to become a part of nearly all games sold in the last few years; many gamers consider this technology to be an essential enhancement to games in today’s market. Achievement systems, which refer to the gaming engines that allow players to collect virtual rewards, unlock new levels, and gain reputation amongst other players, provide gamers with additional incentive and motivation to play such games, and also provide a dangerous psychological rewards system that can lead to severe addiction and compulsive behavior (Jakobsson n.p.).

In order to understand this claim, it is important to comprehend what motivates a person to participate in gaming.  I will define motivation as the action of being “energized or activated toward an end” (Deci and Ryan 54). The psychological school of thought in Self-Determination Theory, developed by psychologists Ryan and Deci at the University of Rochester, provides a strong distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. These two types of motivation are differentiated based on whether a person acts out of a curious interest (intrinsic) or because the action has a quantifiable, known outcome (extrinsic). The latter form most accurately describes the effects of the “achievement machine.”  In Mikael Jakobsson’s research, he asserts that these virtual rewards that are distinct from the game itself have dramatically increased the popularity of these systems, and that the coveillance of a game, or the practice of comparing achievements, sparks competition that pressures many to feel as if there is an expectation of “mandatory participation” (n.p.).

The pressure to participate is a key psychological motivation that is making gamers, especially adolescents, susceptible to game addiction. For example, a scholarly video documentary by the Films Media Group narrates the tragic story of fifteen year old Brandon’s Crisp’s death, which occurred shortly after losing his video gaming privileges. Brandon was a natural in Call of Duty 4, according to his friends, and together they formed an organized gaming clan to compete online. His friends described how they felt a pressure to perform while playing out of a fear of not pulling their weight and damaging their team ranking and achievement level. Therapist Gary Direnfeld claims that this peer pressure is a natural part of the game design, describing the average player’s reasoning: “If I get killed, I am letting down my team. If I get called for dinner, if I want to go do my homework, I’m letting down the team. Somebody else may die and if they die then they are out of the game” (“Top Gun”). While Brandon’s friends may have been motivated to perform in order to prevent a teammate’s emotional disappointment, Brandon’s motivations were compounded by another extrinsic factor, the cash prizes awarded for excellence within the game. In his case, he was on target to make $100,000 dollars that year had his parents not taken away his Xbox upon reaching the top 10 bracket. After Brandon’s parents took his console away, he ran away from home and was missing for a month until his body was found in the woods after what appears to have been a fatal fall while hiking.

It is an extreme anomaly that Brandon’s actions after losing his video game privileges resulted in death. Yet the behavioral mindset that led him to run away shows his emotional inability to handle losing what felt like his life’s achievements that were only accessible through the one item that was taken away from him. The ability for gamers to develop an addiction to video games to a point as severe as Brandon’s is frightening, not only because of the energy diverted from other daily activities, but most importantly because it is a potent gateway that can lead to negative behaviors that affect other social interactions. With a variety of psychological motivations in modern games available through the achievement system, gamers can easily create internal motivations to spend more time gaming, which leads to the game immersion that can expose gamers to violence, aggression, negative sociability, and compulsive competition.

Not only do gamers run the risk of long term exposure to these negative behaviors, but the psychological Game Transfer Phenomena (GTP), an extension of game immersion theory, concludes that immersive behavior can occur “involuntary, automatically, and without premeditation by players” (Ortiz de Gortari, Aronsson, and Griffiths 18). GTP also measures this in terms of distinct sub-categories including dreams, automatic thoughts, alteration of sensory perception, and automatic behaviors. If gamers as a whole are this susceptible to involuntary behaviors stemming from virtual environments with a multitude of different negative situations, how many of these gamers will go on to exhibit negative behaviors in their real-world interactions?  And how many of those gamers will develop the extreme forms of addiction, aggression, violence, social disconnectedness, or compulsiveness that may lead to further harm to both the individual and others? We may never have a way to predict which gamers will fall into that category, but we must strive to fully document and understand these behaviors in order to pursue ways in which consumers can be better protected against the side-effects growing with the evolution of technology, a growth trend that will likely continue to accelerate.

Many gamers continue to be excited about recent advances in games in the last decade, and are equally as enthusiastic about the next generation of gaming technology that will transform gaming yet again. While I admit that these technologies are a natural development in gaming as they are in many other applications, I insist that we must carefully understand, investigate, and continue to monitor how we embed these technologies into games in order to lessen the frequency and severity of the negative behaviors that can result from using these systems. Even before games became digital, gaming was meant to be a means of enjoyment, relaxation, and connectedness with others. Although video games have become far more sophisticated, they should still embody these same characteristics. Our civic duty not only prompts us to protect one another from potentially negative consequences of gaming, but our common sense dictates that we fully evaluate ways in which we can reduce the psychological grip video games can have on players’ personalities in order to prevent them from degrading their character and becoming a menace to those around them.

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