Monday, September 17, 2012

Playing Video Games is Productive: A Scholarly Assessment

 (Being in a university setting, with a major in the sciences definitely affects your outlook on life. In this article I take that unique outlook on life and analyze gaming and productivity.)

Time and time again we ask ourselves if we're wasting our time by playing games. There are literally millions of websites, tweets, blogs, and personal stories of people complaining that games waste their lives. There are also people cheering and writing about how they have ditched games forever and have become more productive as a result. They feel as if they've won their life back.

I'd agree that doing anything excessively wastes life, and like wise, gaming in an uncontrollable manner is definitely a waste of time. Think about the person that spends countless hours reading fiction and non fiction, never interacting with the community or friends, and always hold up in their room. Is that person any different then an obsessed gamer? What about the athlete that trains night and day to win the Olympics, sacrificing their friends and social life, just for glory. Is that person any different from an obsessed gamer? Obsession is obsession regardless of the action.

The question here we have to ask ourselves is can a person play games as a hobby or a favorite past time and not waste time. Can they gain some tangible benefit that we can see translated in the real world. Are there any inherent mechanisms of gaming that are found to actualize humans, make us better, and work as an exercise machine for our brain, emotions, morality, or heart?

I'm here to put on my scholarly cap, use the thousands of dollars of scholarly articles I have access to(Thanks to my University), and investigate whether there is or isn't any productivity in gaming. Do gamers truly waste time doing their favorite hobby or are there positive experiences or lessons that can translate to the real world and can make us better people?


 Example 1

Before we can even look into whether games are a good use of time or not we have to at least establish their ability to influence us. We have to show that games are powerful in some way or another, to be used in positive or negative manners. If we find that games are not powerful and have little affect on us, (kind of like how grass won't affect how quickly we'll finish an essay), then we can end the argument here and say gamers are weak, don't affect us, and make us unproductive.

Most gamers probably won't fear this threat as they know first hand how powerful games are and how insanely focused they can make people. Even the White House and President Obama are working on ways of harnessing the power of games for good. They look at games like Just Dance as positive examples of exercise using a game mechanic. They want to use that game mechanic to do many things, besides making us exercise more.

Gamefication is a term used by many describing how a person harnesses a games power by incorporating in some way tasks they want done to reinforce actions or messages they want expressed. That's a slightly technical definition I've included so the easiest way to describe it is making games to do things you want done that is positive in some way.

A great example of this was when a team of gamers came together and used a program to solve a problem scientists had trouble solving for years.

""I worked for two years to make these enzymes better and I couldn't do it," says Justin Siegel, a post-doctoral researcher working in biophysics in Baker's group. "Foldit players were able to make a large jump in structural space and I still don't fully understand how they did it.""

Their work inspired a scientific article in one of the two most powerful scientific journals available; Nature (The other being Science). The full citation of the article is listed here for your benefit:
Cooper, S. , Khatib, F. , Treuille, A. , Barbero, J. , Lee, J. , et al. (2010). Predicting protein structures with a multiplayer online game. Nature, 466(7307), 756-760. 

Foldit, the program they used, allows players to work with proteins and analyze their specific shapes. These molecules are on the brink of science and no one knows how they fold properly; except maybe gamers. It's quite interesting when you harness the focusing power of gaming, the creativity it brings, the crowd and social aspect, and the puzzle solving all into one small arena for the benefit of science. Clearly gaming flexes its muscles and shows its true power and potential.

Example 2

Games can inspire and teach in ways that are getting educators excited. Rather than lecture and hope the material is learned by the student, now educators are opening their eyes to interactive gaming as a means to a positive end.

A roller coaster themed game is helping inspired teenagers to enter into S.T.E.M disciplines. Each acronym expresses an area of expertise. The S stands for Science, the T for Technology, the E for Engineering, and the M for Mathematics. Without these majors and centers of learning, we literally have no internet, no society, and no hope for the future.

Gamefication of our schools and learning seems to be an important step in getting young people to find their strengths in areas they originally thought they were horrible at. This was one of the more popular topics discussed at the Gamefication conference. The theme could be explained as "School is currently a bad game, lets make it better".

Social media seemed a fad for a while. Everyone said people would stop discussing it and that it was just something kids did to kill time. Now every corporation puts social media at the heart of its international presence. Likewise, Gameficiation can be a tool every discipline starts using to further their goals, either to enrich their students, inspire their workers, or simply work towards a better future.

I wasn't kidding about the inspire workers comment btw. In the above linked article from PCWorld, companies find they increase productivity by giving their workers gaming breaks:

"Burbage firmly believes that gaming helps the staff. The most obvious reason: "People need a break. Studies show that if you just sit at your desk all day, productivity goes down and down." He says that gaming also teaches how to think strategically, several moves ahead, and of course it helps with team building, "And hey, it's fun," adds Burbage. "After I go play Halo, I come back and I'm happy and in a good mood."

Though he can't attribute the phenomenon entirely to gaming, Burbage says that the company's culture has helped keep employee turnover at a minuscule 4 percent per year.

That leaves us with just one question: Which department produces the best gamers? Thibodeaux says that his sales department is big into shooters (draw your own conclusions on that one), but all sources seem to agree on one piece of advice: No matter what game you're playing, never go up against the IT department."


In a scholarly article titled: "The Gaming of Policy and the Politics of Gaming: A Review" author Mayer explains some of the basics of gaming and gives us an insight into how it became so powerful:
(Cited as: Mayer, I. (2009). The gaming of policy and the politics of gaming: A review. Simulation & Gaming, 40(6), 825-862.)
"Looking back at 40 years of Simulation & Gaming and other sources, it is indisputable that games have proven to be wonderful instruments for experimentation and learning and that gaming has been particularly useful to public policy making and public planning.
Regular readers of Simulation & Gaming know that simulation games can be defined as experi(m)ent(i)al, rule-based, interactive environments, where players learn by taking actions and by experiencing their effects through feedback mechanisms that are deliberately built into and around the game.
Gaming is based on the assumption that the individual and social learning that emerges in the game can be transferred to the world outside the game. This transfer is largely negotiated and not immediate, thereby making a simulation game low in external risks
and giving the players a sense of safety, which is a prerequisite for experimentation and creativity (see also Abt, 1970; Shubik, 1975a, 1975b; Duke, 1974; Duke & Geurts,
2004; Geurts, Duke, & Vermeulen, 2007; Geurts, Joldersma, & Roelofs, 1998; Mayer,
2008; Mayer, Bekebrede, Bilsen, & Zhou, 2009; Mayer & Veeneman, 2002; for the
negotiated effects of games, see also Juul, 2005)."

Games allow experimentation, interactivity, a friendly environment for creativity because of the lack of consequences to your real self, and they offer feedback mechanisms to give  you answers on the fly to all of your decisions.

The Philosophy of Productivity

Another question we want to ask ourselves is if Gaming is a low productive activity, then what should we be doing instead? What higher productive activities are so lofty, that we waste our time in our digital worlds?

Jane McGonigal gives her insights in the following videos:

Jane makes a good point asking what it is we're trying to produce. Are we trying to produce more emails, more paperwork, read more, write more? Can gaming be a way of producing more positive emotions, stronger social interactions, making us more confident, and overall making a better real us?

Jane tackles a really important issue in her second video which is the one of addiction. Games seem to be so addicting or fun because they are so good at gratifying our deepest needs. She mentions seeing the results of our actions immediately as an example, or the ability to play a hero. The social aspect is also very appealing because humans are social beings. One reason why we hate prison is because it stops us from freely interacting with other humans in the world. Jane also mentions the ability to quickly see ourselves progress and get stronger. This makes us feel more satisfied with ourselves and more accomplished. She classifies it as a sense of "Mastery".

Not all video games are perfect

This last part is a cautionary tale to explain that not every video game you play is going to benefit you. One of the most hotly contested issues in gaming, that requires its own article, is the question of whether video games desensitize you to violence or make you more violent in general.

We've learned that video games are powerful mechanics that can help us learn better, make a better world, and make us more creative. But we also need to remember that video games can have negative influences on us as well.

Doing my research when it came to violence, I found a large preponderance of the data supported the fact that video games do indeed desensitize humans to real world violence. Some of the most telling studies of this effect were:

1. Nicholas L. Carnagey, Craig A. Anderson, Brad J. Bushman
The effect of video game violence on physiological desensitization to real-life violence
    Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Volume 43, Issue 3, May 2007, Pages 489–496

"The present experiment demonstrates that violent video game exposure can cause desensitization to real-life violence. In this experiment, violent game players were less physiologically aroused by real-life violence than were nonviolent game players. It appears that individuals who play violent video games habituate or “get used to” all the violence and eventually become physiologically numb to it."

2. Christopher R. Engelhardt, Bruce D. Bartholow, Geoffrey T. Kerr, Brad J. Bushman
    This is your brain on violent video games: Neural desensitization to violence predicts increased aggression following violent video game exposure
    Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Volume 47, Issue 5, September 2011, Pages 1033–1036

 "The fact that video game exposure did not affect the P3 amplitudes of high-exposure participants is interesting, and suggests a number of possibilities. First, it could be that these individuals are already so desensitized that an acute exposure to violent media was insufficient to bring about further changes in their neural responses to violence (i.e., a floor effect). Second, it could be that some unmeasured factor causes both an affinity for violent media and a reduced P3 response to violent imagery in violent gamers. In either case, the fact that playing a violent video game increased aggression for both low- and high-exposure participants, but the P3 response to violence was reduced for high-exposure participants regardless of the game they played, suggests that additional mechanisms not measured here are important to consider. Future research should continue to investigate mediators of media violence effects on aggressive behavior, especially among individuals who are habitually exposed to violent media.

In summary, the present research is the first to demonstrate that acute desensitization to violence can account for the causal effect of violent video game exposure on aggression. In short, these data indicate that a brain on media violence provides one important pathway for increased aggression."

3. Douglas A Gentile, Paul J Lynch, Jennifer Ruh Linder, David A Walsh
The effects of violent video game habits on adolescent hostility, aggressive behaviors, and school performance
Journal of Adolescence, Volume 27, Issue 1, February 2004, Pages 5–22
"It was hypothesized that exposure to video game violence would be positively related to aggressive behaviors, such as arguments with teachers and physical fights. This hypothesis was confirmed. Students who play more violent video games are more likely to have been involved in physical fights and get into arguments with teachers more frequently. The relation between violent video game exposure and physical fights is stronger than that between violent game exposure and arguments with teachers. There are several possible reasons for this, including (1) arguing is less aggressive than fighting, (2) the target of arguing is an authority figure, rather than peers, and (3) there is very little arguing modelled in violent video games whereas there is a great deal of physical aggression modelled in violent games.
That youth who are more hostile also play more violent video games raises questions of causality. Are young adolescents more hostile and aggressive because they expose themselves to media violence, or do previously hostile adolescents prefer violent media? Due to the correlational nature of this study, we cannot answer this question directly. Some studies have suggested that there is a bidirectional relationship (see Donnerstein, Slaby, and Eron (1994) for a review). GAM predicts a bidirectional effect, in which personological variables such as hostility affect media habits, which in turn reinforce and can modify the personological variables. Huesmann and colleagues (Lefkowitz, Eron, Walder, & Huesmann, 1972) have shown in long-term longitudinal studies that early media violence consumption habits predict later aggressive behaviors, but that early aggressive behaviors do not predict later media violence consumption habits. In the present research, video game violence exposure was a significant predictor of physical fights, even when sex, trait hostility, and weekly amount of video game play were statistically controlled. Clearly, hostility is not the whole story. If it were, then we would expect that children with the lowest hostility scores would not get into physical fights regardless of their video game habits. Following this logic, we would also expect that children with the highest hostility scores would get into physical fights regardless of their video game habits. Yet, low-hostile students who have the highest exposure to violent video games are more likely to have been involved in fights than high-hostile students who have the lowest exposure to violent video games (38% compared to 28%, respectively)."

4. Fraser, A. , Padilla-Walker, L. , Coyne, S. , Nelson, L. , & Stockdale, L. (2012).
Associations between violent video gaming, empathic concern, and prosocial behavior toward strangers, friends, and family members. Journal of Youth & Adolescence, 41(5), 636-649.

"As mentioned, violent video gaming has been linked to lower empathic concern and prosocial behavior separately (Anderson et al. 2010), but these studies have not taken into account the relationship between empathic concern and prosocial behavior. Thus, the current findings extend existing research by suggesting that violent video gaming is not only linked to prosocial behavior and lower levels of empathic concern, but also linked to prosocial behavior through lower levels of empathic concern. Theoretically, this provides support for the GAM (Bushman and Anderson 2009), showing that during emerging adulthood in particular, the arousal brought on by media violence may gradually influence the internal state or personality of the player, which is then associated with decreases in helping behavior. Again, we would note that associations were not particularly strong, nevertheless they were statistically significant. It is also important to note that the cross-sectional nature of the current study precludes causal inferences; but given past experimental research suggesting causal relationships between violent video gaming and reductions in both empathic concern and prosocial behavior, future research should continue to examine empathic concern as a mediator between violent video gaming and prosocial behavior."

"Despite the limitations mentioned, this study highlights the associations between violent video gaming and prosocial outcomes during emerging adulthood. Our findings add to the extant research by further exploring the associations between violent video gaming and prosocial behavior, specifically by highlighting one mechanism (decreased empathic concern) through which this process might function. Emerging adulthood is a highly exploratory time, when identities are formulated and relationships are redefined (Arnett 2004). Although it seems that many emerging adults greatly enjoy playing violent video games, playing may be associated with negative consequences not only on strangers but also within close relationships. Thus, the current study adds to a growing body of research suggesting that the target of the prosocial behavior is important to consider, and highlights violent video gaming as one potential socialization influence that might impact prosocial behavior differentially as a function of the target. "

As an academic I looked at the preponderance of evidence and even spent extra time looking for articles to support the opposite side that violent video games do not desensitize us. The fact remains though that there is little literature that supports that.

Games aren't perfect and they have their downsides too. If you were to watch a person in real life being murdered slowly, a thousand times, it would affect you negatively.

It's only common sense that watching the same movie or same story over and over again bores us. In the same way, exposure to violence, especially at a young age when we're more impressionable, seems to desensitize us. Gamers should keep this in mind and realize not all games or all experiences are good for us.

Final Thoughts

We've found games to be powerful, thought provoking, creative, and essential in some ways to our future. We've also tempered our hope with a bit of reality showing that there are darker sides to gaming as there are with anything.

But to say that all gaming is unproductive and to ignore the boundless opportunities gaming offers to the world; ignoring all the positive results that have come about, is reckless.

That type of negativity is defeatist. Nothing in this world is perfect. Even if gaming may have its worries with addiction and violence, it also shares those same imperfections as other hobbies. There are no perfect choices out there or perfect hobbies.

Even gardening, a seemingly mundane task, if taking to an extreme, has a negative impact on a person. Improper gardening is what lead us to the drug war, where plants became a way to make money, create a black market, and ruin the lives of millions of individuals.

But do we tell people to stop gardening? No. Of course not. Without gardening there wouldn't be life. Similarly, gaming has its benefits and pitfalls and the objective of an unbiased human should be to take the benefits and avoid the pitfalls.

Like everything else in life, gaming can have wondrous beauty, amazing creativity, and lead to worlds never imagined. We need to cultivate the best part of gaming while limiting the darker sides.

But to say that all gaming is unproductive flies in the face of the facts. Gaming nurtures our souls. As long as we feed it positive energy, it will work to uplift us. It, like electricity, social media, and the internet, can uplift us in ways we never imagined, if we only grasp its hand.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Digital Games are not Physical ones and shouldn't be priced as such

(Gamers have a right to be treated fairly. If they buy a lower quality item they should pay a lower price.)

I read a very interesting article on the BBC's site about how humans are born fair and how the idea of fairness is really unique to humans.

Now we know the world isn't fair and we've come across a lot of things that shouldn't be, but that doesn't mean we give up and allow rampant murder throughout the streets of the world.

We do our best to try to get as much justice for people as possible, so that we can live as fairly as possible. What does all of this have to do with gaming? The game industry is charging us the same price for a digital game as it would for the physical copy. That's like a slap in the face to the regular gamer. Literally, we're all being slapped and have been for years now, and no one seems to be speaking up about it.

Physical Distribution

It takes months to prepare to mass release millions of physical copies of games and hundreds of hours just to make the discs, print the instruction manuals, get the plastic cases, and make sure it's all working and it's all transported across the entire globe!

It's frustrating, time consuming, and frankly it's why publishing companies exist. Besides putting up the cost of marketing a game, a publishers job usually includes paying for the manufacturing costs. These costs are significant and include managing things like logistics which is simply the art and science of moving things across the world efficiently and in a timely manner.

Game companies earn every penny when they sell us that physical copy and they get it to us whether we're in Europe, Japan, America, or Korea. They work hard and long hours and put in lots of quality control mechanisms to make sure their game launch goes off perfectly.

Digital Future

 Digital games require NONE of this. There is much less planning needed about launch day besides making sure all the servers can cope with the downloads.

Literally, all you do is upload the game to all the servers, make sure they stay up, and allow everyone to download it. No DVDs that cost time and money to produce; no covers; no instruction manuals; no painstaking hours of logistics because the whole world is already connected by the internet.

Yet for getting rid of the game publishers headache, customers willing to buy the digital copies of a game pay the SAME exact price as if they bought the physical one. Not a penny less. 

What's worse is EA, one of the largest gaming companies, and the only gaming company currently listed on the S&P 500 says gamers are trending towards buying more digital games then physical ones. They're saying this is the future. This decade is simply the end of the long headache that game publishers have had for the past few decades.

"EA Labels President Frank Gibeau has told GamesIndustry.Biz that he believes EA will be a “100% digital” company in the future.
“It’s inevitable,” says Gibeau. “It’s in the near future. It’s coming. We have a clear line of sight on it and we’re excited about it.”"

The game industry is definitely thrilled to see this transition. Everyone wants to live as easy a life as possible and the stress that goes with launching a game is exhausting enough without having to worry about juggling physical copies around the world to your millions of fans.

 Punishing Gamers

But while the game industry celebrates the common gamer is left only to be punished. For sacrificing our cherished physical copies of games we're giving up a lot.

Here's a small list of what gamers give up when they go digital:

  1. Right to re-sell game as used. Sacrifices 20-40% returns on initial costs if consumer had resold game.
  2. Shrinks the supply of used games - making gaming more expensive as it gets harder to find cheaper used games.
  3. Loss of instruction guide and artwork.
  4. Right to play your game without internet. Hard to travel with your game:
    1. Overseas: You can take an Xbox with games and play it anywhere. But that can't be said by installing Steam overseas without the ability to validate it in counties without internet. Even if you got a signal, you still have to download every game you want to play. Most games are very large and take hours to download on a fast connection. On a slow one or medium one it can take the whole day.
    2. Hotel: You go on a road trip and you're at a hotel room. You want to play your games but you can't since internet there costs extra. Had you brought an PS3 with games, you'd have been set. Or even if the hotel has internet, it may be slow, and it may take you hours to re-download the games you want to play.

These are just a few problems associated with digital games and just the fact that you can't resell your game is reason enough to be wary of it.

 So understandably, if the consumers are willing to make a large sacrifice and actually buy the digital download of a game, the game should come with a huge price drop. But the fact remains that it doesn't.

The whole digital gaming industry is in on this and has made it standard practice. From Gamefly to Steam to Amazon, all retailers sell brand new games at physical copy prices. There isn't enough competition to force one of them to turn against the others and it has been this way for years.

Gamers Choice

Gamers have a choice to make about their future. If they want to be treated fairly and pay fair prices for the games they love they need to start speaking up and letting the game companies know that this business practice is simply wrong, unfair, and unjust.

It's no wonder people are rushing to consoles when there are so many issues with PC downloads. The other added bonus of Consoles is that they also don't have the same nagging D.R.M issues that P.C's have when downloading digital games.

If we are willing to make the lives of the gaming industry significantly easier, we should get a reward as well, and that means significant price reductions on digital downloads from their physical siblings.

You can't sell a stripped down version of a product for the same price as the full version. Sometimes this is followed up by tacking on DRM, making the whole experience even more stressful.

If this situation doesn't change boycotts may come into effect, especially as the issue gets more traction and gamers realize exactly how much they are being punished.

This information will spread and game companies will eventually be called to account for what they've done. If not now then eventually one day. To gain back a loyal customer is much harder than to keep them in the first place. It makes financial sense to be fair from the beginning with your customers. Game companies simply need to do what's right, not what's most profitable in the short term.