Amy Gay - Ethnography

Communication and Online Gaming

As Internet connections have become faster and we have become capable of storing more information online, online games have increased in prevalence. These online games often take place in some sort of other world or in a different time period, and players can typically choose from several approaches to playing the game. A key element in many online games is collaboration with other players to achieve goals, and this makes playing online games a very social experience for many people. Many gamers spend long periods of time immersed in online games, and there has been a great deal of discussion about the affects of online games on game users. As someone who plays online games, I am interested in the potential affects of online games on their users, and my specific goals in this project were to discover how the virtual gaming world differs from the physical world and how this technology affects communication, both inside and outside of the game.

I used several methods to study the relationship between gamers and online games. I started my research by creating a survey for both gamers and non-gamers, which I sent out over several listservs and posted on Facebook. I received 18 responses from gamers and 32 responses from non-gamers, and the links to these surveys are listed at the bottom. At the start of my work, my primary focus was the relationship between communication and gaming, so this survey only collected information on that topic. I later realized that I also needed to address the virtual gaming world and its differences from the physical world when I received several emails from gamers who were upset that I referred to the physical world as “real life” in my survey questions. As one gamer said, “The line drawn between real and gaming seems arbitrary, or not very well defined. I have to say that all of my online interactions are real, whether we are going to play a game at some point or not.” This gamer’s comment helped me to see that the main difference between the virtual world and the physical world is that they are two different spaces, and “real” events occur in both. This thought led me to a research article that addressed the issue of virtual and physical space.

Since communication occurs within a space, I will first discuss the differences between virtual space and physical space and the ways in which they are related, before moving on to the topic of communication. According to Steven Downing, online gaming differs from offline activities “primarily in that it does not require a face-to-face encounter” Downing goes on to further define the difference by saying that the Internet serves as a place where “persons can meet at any time and develop influential peer groups” (Downing 297). This primary difference between the virtual gaming space and the physical world already relates to the topic of communication, since the lack of face-to-face interaction in the virtual space requires that gamers communicate differently. In order to replace verbal and nonverbal cues, gamers must find other ways of conveying and interpreting this information, and this is often done through the use of avatars, text chat, and emoticons.

Though the virtual and physical spaces require different means of communication, the two are not completely isolated from each other because gamers inhabit both spaces, and they impact the virtual space by bringing in ideas and values from the physical world. Downing specifically discusses ethics and how gamers translate their ethics into the virtual world. These translations are not always the same, so this can cause problems when one user plays according to a different set of ethics than another (Downing 309). Downing also says that one of the main areas where differences in ethics cause problems is the concept of virtual items. Some users believe that it is okay to steal virtual items from other users because they are not physically real, while other users believe that this is wrong (Downing 314). This can be a difficult dilemma for many gamers, and I recently had to determine for myself the ethics regarding virtual items. I play an online game called Neopets, and recently I unknowingly obtained several very rare and valuable items that had been stolen from another user. I put the items up for trade, and I received a message from another user asking how I had obtained the items and saying that she thought that they had been stolen from her. I determined that this user was telling the truth, since she knew how I had gotten the items, and though I really wanted to keep them, I decided that a person can own a virtual item and that even though the item might not be “real,” stealing others’ virtual items still negatively affects them, and therefore, it would be wrong for me to keep the items. Similar to my recent experience in virtual ethics, Downing also acknowledges that virtual items affect real emotions (Downing 314).

It is clear that gamers affect the virtual space they inhabit, so it is likely that these games have also in some way affected their users. Before conducting research, my main hypothesis was that since gamers must adjust communication styles in order to play online games, this would result in changes in this area of their lives that would also result in changes to their social lives. I also had several specific hypotheses prior to creating my survey. These were that gamers spend more time than non-gamers calling, texting, or instant messaging (IMing) friends rather than interacting with friends face-to-face; gamers are less satisfied with their social lives than non-gamers; gamers are more socially inhibited in face-to-face interactions than non-gamers; and gamers and non-gamers are just as likely to insult people they know, but gamers will be much more likely to insult people they don’t know while playing online games.

The results of my survey suggest that my general hypothesis that games affect gamers’ communication patterns and their social lives was correct; however, some of my more specific hypotheses were not quite as accurate. The survey results disproved my hypothesis that gamers call, text, and IM more frequently than non-gamers. Non-gamers use these methods of communication for an average of 13 hours per week, though the median was 5.5 hours per week, and gamers’ average use of these technologies was 15 hours per week; however, one survey respondent entered a value of 168 hours, which drastically skewed the results. Without this value, the average was 6 hours per week, and the median was 4 hours. Since the medians for the two groups where somewhat close, there is probably not a significant difference in gamers’ and non-gamers’ calling, texting, and IMing habits, though the averages do indicate that non-gamers are more likely to spend greater amounts of time calling, texting, and IMing. This trend is also true for the number of hours per week spent with friends. The medians are similar, between 15 and 16 hours, though non-gamers have a much higher average number of hours. These results are somewhat surprising because the technologies that gamers often use to communicate such as voice systems, chat and IM, are very similar or the same as calling, texting, and IMing. However, it appears that gamers spend more face-to-face time with friends than they do using these technologies.

Though I was wrong in my hypothesis that gamers spend more time than non-gamers calling, texting, and IMing, my hypothesis that gamers are just as likely as non-gamers to insult people they know and more likely to insult people they do not know while playing online games was partially correct. My hypothesis was wrong in that gamers are actually more likely to insult people they know than non-gamers are. Of the non-gamers, 48% said they insulted people in their daily lives (of that number, 90% only insult people they know), while 58% of gamers insult people outside of online games (of that number, all of them only insult people they know). However, 50% of gamers admitted to insulting other users while playing online games, and of this number, 66% insult people they do not know, and 77% insult other users about once per week or more. These statistics demonstrate that insulting other users while playing online games is quite common and that a statistically significant portion of gamers (17%) insult people they do not know.

These results are interesting because they could indicate another instance of ethical transfer between gamers and online games. In my experience, the anonymity of being online makes it more acceptable to insult other users while playing an online game than it is to do so offline. It seems that for some players, there is no ethical issue in insulting or harassing another player. Since this behavior is a fairly common occurrence online, it could be that some gamers are transferring these in-game ethics into their offline lives, thus accounting the 10% difference in offline insults between gamers and non-gamers.

The fact that gamers are more likely to insult people outside of online games also relates to my hypothesis that gamers are more socially inhibited than non-gamers. In this way, gamers seem to be less socially inhibited than non-gamers; however, results from part of my survey provide contrary evidence. I asked both gamers and non-gamers if they were comfortable saying whatever came to mind during activities outside of playing online games, and 66% of non-gamers and 39% of gamers responded “yes.” When I asked gamers if they felt comfortable saying whatever came to mind while playing online games, 61% replied “yes,” so it seems that gamers are almost as comfortable within virtual space as non-gamers are in physical space, meaning that though gamers appear to be less socially inhibited with regard to insults, they may be more inhibited in other areas.

Though some gamers may be more socially inhibited than non-gamers, more gamers reported that they were satisfied with their social lives than non-gamers did. When asked to choose a statement that described their social lives, 50% said they were somewhat satisfied, 39% somewhat satisfied, 6% neutral, and 6% somewhat unsatisfied. In addition to this, 58% of gamers said that playing online games positively affected their social lives, 32% said playing online games did not affect their social lives, and 11% said playing online games negatively affected their social lives. In comparison, 31% of non-gamers reported being very satisfied with their social lives, 50% were somewhat satisfied, 3% were neutral, and 16% were somewhat unsatisfied. These results demonstrate that contrary to the stereotype of gamers having unhealthy social lives, the average gamer actually leads a more fulfilling social life than the average non-gamer. This evidence coincides with Downing’s statement that “some research has also revealed a connection between game playing and positive characteristics and life-influences” (Downing 296). However, contradictory evidence also exists. Scott Caplan et al say that “deriving one’s sense of community from online relationships was a positive predictor of [problematic Internet use]” (Caplan 1317).

Though communication within virtual gaming spaces and physical spaces are quite different, and my research, as well as that of others, suggests that there is no solid boundary between these two worlds that prevents transfer, the data that I collected demonstrates that for the most part, the game adaptations that game users incorporate into their lives do not negatively affect communication. My research does indicate changes in communication that some might deem pathological, such as less communication with friends than non-gamers; however, since gamers report higher levels of satisfaction with their social lives than non-gamers, and most gamers say that playing online games positively affects their social lives, I would say that this communication difference is more interesting than problematic.

Survey links

Gamer survey:
Non-gamer survey:

Works Cited

Caplan, Scott, Williams, Dmitri, and Yee, Nick. “Problematic Internet Use and Psychosocial Well-being Among MMO Players.” Computers in Human Behavior 25 (2009): 1312-1319.

Downing, Steven. “Attitudinal and Behavioral Pathways of Deviance in Online Gaming.” Deviant Behavior 30 (2009): 293-320.