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Talking about emotions in games often circulates around the constantly regurgitated themes related to media effects (the idea that media are suspect) in a range of correlation studies.  Yet there is more to the puzzle of complex human emotions related to play and gaming.  And, perhaps more importantly, correlation (people who are sometimes violent sometimes consume violent media and games) rather than evidence of causality (Johnny played a violent video game, then behaved  aggressively).  This is because it is difficult to draw such causalities.  After all, humans were figuring out ways to kill each other long before modern media came into existence.  But it’s a convenient scapegoat for society’s larger and seemingly unfixable problems.  Blame the video games, sweep contrary evidence under the rug, and voila! something new to hate and blame every societal ill upon.


The thing that the well-meaning pundits of the media effects outcry seem to miss is that yes, some people play video games.  And yes, some people who are also gamers have shot people.  But, and this is the important bit, they are actually the outliers.  The vast majority of people who play video games do so in a peaceful way.  Sometimes it’s competitive, but usually in a camaraderie-through-competition kid of way.  It’s a bit like playing a favorite sport with some favorite friends and agreeing to hate them for a while (creating a magic circle that outlines the parameters for play). Or the fact that highbrow games like chess began as abstractions of violent battlefields.  We no longer see the battlefield in the game, which is a bit like gamers experience the most seemingly violent games.

Johan Huizinga wrote about play as a guiding principle in his seminal work, Homo Ludens. His stance, and the stance of many other play scholars and researchers is that play is as fundamental to human nature as eating, drinking or sleeping.  We use play as a mechanism for discovering the possibilities and yes, threats, inherent in our world.  And as author and games researcher Julian Dibbell suggests, play is to the 21st century what steam was to the industrial revolution.  It’s the energy of creation and explorations of possibilities that both help us learn and usher forth massive innovation when used appropriately.

There are definitely some negative things that can be said about online role playing games. People with social issues can often be encouraged to pull further in or to be even more cruel depending on the environment they put themselves into and what they go looking for.I think a lot depends on what the people going in make of things. There are bad people in every walk of life, but just because a few bad seeds are out there you cannot stigmatize an entire population. That’s the purest form of ignorance. We criticize what we don’t understand, and we look for scapegoats for any social problems rather than placing the blame ourselves. Gaming has been good for me. It has helped my social skills and it hasn’t detracted from my real life, made me more violent, or given me an inability to distinguish between fantasy and reality. Partially, my parents were very good at making sure none of those things happened – but eventually we all become adults and are responsible (or should beheld responsible) for our own decisions. – Caucasian female, 25-30, Online Gaming Study

This reflection from an avid gamer reveals some of the paradoxes inherent in the experiences. For example, Will Wright has spoken at length about the fundamentals of game design, and predicts a future replete with games that will evolve to fit us.  He also points out that games are a media platform with some very special characteristics: the allow an experience well beyond consumption, and encourage co-creation and active participation.  As such they are the only type of media that really encourage us to feel emotions like pride and accomplishment.


Researcher Nicole Lazarro categorizes emotions related to video games in four different ways:

  • Hard fun (challenge, accomplishment)
  • Easy fun (focus on the experience itself)
  • Altered states (escapism, perspective shifting)
  • The social factor (interpersonal and group dynamics)

Nick Yee is another researcher who has conducted a large study of online gamers and many of the emotions they associate with play in virtual worlds:


Now on to the really soft and cuddly emotions! Multiplayer games offer unique opportunities to explore the nuances of online games and the group dynamics that emerge from them.  I wrote my dissertation on this topic, if you are very ambitious.  My participants widely reported intense feelings of camaraderie and community, often well beyond the experiences they have in their physical lives.  Even more interesting is how self-actualized many gamers feel, like this City of Heroes player who created an ode to playing the hero.  Brings a tear to my eye every time. is one of many sites dedicated to improving marital relationships through gaming.  I myself know quite a few gaming couples and I can tell you this is one of the most intense romantic bonding experiences ever.  Not only are you playing with their partner, but you can see and experience them trying on a variety of identities and behaviors that may differ from their physical world personas.


Like having your fear strings plucked instead?  There are so many thriller/horror games out there!  Again, I think there’s enough horror in the real world, but if that’s your bag, go for it.


In a world outside the virtual that seems pretty crazy, exploring alternate manifestations of self, as well practice arenas for the 21st century, might just be the learning toolkit for the productive human of the future.  As researcher Jane McGonigal notes, it might be reality that’s broken, and therefore natural for us to find sanctuaries in play spaces.


Finally, the 2011 documentary Level Up explores these ideas within their broader social and cultural contexts, with a big dash of warm fuzzies to boot.


In a 2012 article Conor Murphy discusses some of these problems and opportunities…

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