Nice Enthusiasm, Work On Your Execution

(Cross-posted from a Nerds post circa December 2009.)

Lately everybody and their brother with a grant looking to make a name for themselves in psych or anthropology (or even economics seems to be trying to get paid to play games get into the heads of people who play MMORPGs. As phenomenon it’s only really sprung up and become anything other than a dank and mold-infested little subcorner of the gamer world for about the last five years, and has only existed outside of MUDs and similar text-based environments for about ten. So it’s not surprising that people are looking to jump in and investigate the kinds of dynamics and psychology you get inside a virtual world where identity is at least partially created, but there’s a small problem dogging a number of them: they’re done entirely by people who have not only never played an MMORPG, let alone a MUD or MUCK, but by people who have played few, if any, video games at all. Some researchers are addressing the problem in a straightforward manner by actually trying to do what the objects of their speculation do, and others… not so much.

So here’s an article from New Scientist that starts out with an interesting enough premise: image the brains of people who play games with an online avatar (in this case Warcraft again), and see what goes on in their heads when they’re thinking about their online persona: How Your Brain Sees The Virtual You

Brain scans of avid players of the hugely popular online fantasy world World of Warcraft reveal that areas of the brain involved in self-reflection and judgement seem to behave similarly when someone is thinking about their virtual self as when they think about their real one.

Gosh, really? This sounds like an interesting result! How’d you arrive that this conclusion?

Disentangling how the brain regards avatars versus real individuals may help explain why some people spend large chunks of their life playing immersive online games, says Kristina Caudle, a social neuroscientist at Dartmouth University in Hanover, New Hampshire, who led the study along with her adviser William Kelley.

“It’s hard to imagine from an outsider’s perspective what might drive someone to spend 30 hours a week immersed in a completely imaginary world,” she says. More than 11 million people play World of Warcraft each month.

Um, okay. This would be about the point where I started wondering if Kristina has ever played anything more complicated than Tetris, because immersion in an imaginary world really isn’t the point of Warcraft, although some folks who work at it try. The thing is that there are a lot of different kinds of multiplayer online games; they range along a pretty big sliding scale of being a straight-up video game where the units you’re shooting happen to be live intelligences, to being an environment where the point is immersion in a virtual world. Warcraft is farther toward the latter than, say, Counterstrike, but it definitely is more of a traditional video game that happens to inhabit a shared universe than it is a virtual world. If that’s what Kristina wanted to study, she would have been much better off with Second Life- which DOES exist purely for that reason. Unless she considers all gaming to be incomprehensible immersion in imaginary worlds, in which case all I’d say is “the generation of the last thirty years wants to have a talk with you”.

To probe what brain activity might underlie people’s virtual behaviour, Caudle’s team convinced 15 World of Warcraft players in their twenties – 14 men and 1 woman – who play the game an average of 23 hours a week, to drag themselves away from their computers and spend some time having their brains scanned using functional MRI.

Jesus Christ, the sample size is fifteen people, almost entirely male, out of eleven million? I know brain-imaging resources are expensive, but this is kind of… unrepresentative. It’s not numerically possible for it to be even if the fifteen people were each hand-picked to be as different from each other as possible. And I suspect they were hand-picked for being undergraduates willing to turn up for little or no pay. Also, given the demographic data, male and female players and younger and older represent pretty distinct groups- something that would not have been difficult to research beforehand. Blizzard is very free with that kind of data.

While in the scanner, Caudle asked them to rate how well various adjectives such as innocent, competent, jealous and intelligent described themselves, their avatars, their best friend in the real world and their World of Warcraft guild leader.

This is actually an interesting data breakdown in and of itself, but I’m not entirely confident she realizes that only one of these categories represents anything imaginary at all. One’s guild leader doesn’t tend to so much be a cartoon elf to a player as he or she is the voice on the other end of a mic belonging to another person, no matter what their avatar looks like.

When Caudle’s looked for brain areas that were more active when volunteers thought about themselves and their avatars compared with real and virtual others, two regions stood out: the medial prefrontal cortex and the posterior cingulate cortex. That makes sense as prior research has linked the medial prefrontal cortex to self-reflection and judgement.

No seriously. The other people you play the game with are not virtual. The first time somebody who had a job relating to your not getting eaten by a monster steps away from their keys mid-monster to go attend to their kid kind of drives the point home. I’m starting to wonder if anybody was alarmed that people would be unable to distinguish the strange ghost-voices from real ones when the telephone was invented.

That said, I’m sort of curious what region she thinks might otherwise have lit up when it comes to contemplating your little cartoon representative of yourself in a cooperative video game. I’m also curious if she bothered to parse out exactly what kind of reflection on self and avatar she was asking about; when you’re staring at a character creation screen or running around the city your avatar is representing you, but if you’re in a cooperative group of players- especially one that you play with often, like a guild- YOU are representing you via your ability to play the game well. People stop seeing you as a gnome and start seeing you as a good player or a terribad one awfully quickly when success depends on it.

Caudle’s team also noticed key differences between how people thought about the virtual and real worlds, which must be a necessity for preserving your sense of reality. “Clearly you don’t think of your virtual self as your real self,” she says.

They found activity differed in a region called the precuneus, implicated in imagination. “It makes good sense to me if you’re thinking about things in a virtual world you might get [activation in] these areas,” says Caudle.

No. REALLY? Seriously, though, games are nowhere near good enough to confuse anybody on the point no matter how impaired, let alone people’s senses of reality being normally this fragile.

In the future, Caudle hopes to study volunteers who spend less time playing World of Warcraft to see if there are differences in how their brains discriminate between real and virtual worlds.

It could be that people whose brain activity is more similar when thinking of themselves and their avatars are likelier to end up hooked, she says.

Or how about just more people, period? Including those who spend less OR more time in-game.

As a side note, all of the people I know who I could describe as “hooked”- which, much like the definition of an alcoholic being anybody who drinks more than you do, I’d probably define as people who spend a lot more time playing than I do or can’t handle not playing- don’t see their avatars as extensions of themselves. What they are is hard-core gamers that are extremely achievement-oriented; they’re not spending all that time in-game pretending not to be themselves, they’re conquering every bit of content they can get their hands on and then doing it all again in hard-mode, and then going to the forums to bitch about how dumbed down the game has gotten so that more than one percent of players can do this now. It doesn’t matter whether they’re sporting a female elf priest or an ugly orc warrior or a gnome that stands on their head or what; they’re going to be bedecked with epic gear and achievements within weeks. They’re creations of the game developers’ grasp of operant conditioning- not the lure of imaginary worlds.

Liane Young, a social neuroscientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge is interested in what brain activity can tell us about our relationships to our virtual characters. “You have this control over your avatar such that you’ve created this better version of yourself. I wonder whether these neural processes support reasoning about our better selves in some kind of wishful thinking sense.”

Sometimes. And this is why they really need to study more people period, because as it rapidly becomes apparent to anybody who actually spends much time playing the game, there’s a huge range of motivations and rationales behind people’s choices there. Power-gamers like I described above usually like to get the best edge in game mechanics for their chosen class as possible, and usually care little what the avatar really *looks* like. Some people are *exactly* like Young describes and populate their server slots with buffer or prettier versions of themselves. Some think of their avatars as characters rather than self-extensions and create a character that just seems like fun to play with- and some, to judge by the huge percentage of male players that create female characters, just want a more interesting rear end to look at.

The first character in Warcraft I levelled to max was a male Tauren hunter. I may not have brainscan-level insight into my psyche, but I am very goddamn certain that my ideal self is not an eight-foot man-bull that can’t stand up straight and exists to shoot every animal they see. I didn’t create that character to be a visual extension of myself, I did it because I thought a giant cow was amusing to play. I’ve also played dozens of RPGs in which the avatars you control are always given some kind of characterization and background; it’s reflex to me to think of the toon I’m steering around as a character rather than an avatar. (I also have never played Second Life or any MUCK or other environment where that’s the main point.) I don’t role-play and don’t think I’ll ever want to, it’s just the way my gaming world is ordered in my head; if given no information, make some up and design a character to fit, THEN play. I don’t really do anything with it, it’s just a point of reference for me.

And if you asked another player, you’d get a different answer, and probably a different scan if you scanned them all- and asked intelligent questions. Video games may be frivolous fun, but if you want to understand the psychology of people who play them, the road to intelligent questions probably starts with play, THEN speculation.

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