📚 Finished reading Lost in a Good Game by Pete Etchells.

Since childhood the author, Professor Pete Etchells, has deeply enjoyed playing video games. Some now have special meaning to him. And now he’s a Professor of Psychology and Science Communication he’s written a book that is an intriguing mix of tales of his personal gaming experience along with a more objective review of what the science so far tells us about the effects of gaming on humans, good or bad.

Gaming certainly seems to have brought him solace throughout some challenging parts of his life, which he goes into in detail. He lovingly writes about certain games; what they’re about, how he participated, who he played with and so on. Anyone who has played many of the mega hits over the past few decades may well identify fondly with these parts. Anyone unfamiliar with, or wary of, videogaming in general might probably learn a lot about the hobby - and perhaps be surprised at the wide range and depth of the full gamut of things we call computer games. It’s not all gem-laden Match 3 phone apps.

On one hand, as he mentions, there’s a school of thought that suggests his love of gaming might make it hard for him to research the topic objectively. But the opposing school of thought, to which he belongs, argues that in fact people who are experienced gamers can do better research because they already have the necessary background to understand the nuances of content and context involved within the activity.

Although not always thought of this way, games are a fairly unique form of art in that we are (often) in control of them rather than passive observers. This can give us a sense of personal investment and immersion that we don’t find in other artistic domains. Games might give us a sense of exploration, provide escapism, or connections to other people. It might vary by game, by person, and over time. All in all, they can be a very personal experience that leave us with memories of hopefully good times and on occasion maybe teach us something about ourselves.

We also learn a lot about the history of video games, which is longer than one might expect. The first computer that was capable of playing a game against a human was apparently “Nimrod”, which was exhibited in 1951. By the 1960-70s games were starting to move from the computer lab into arcades. Pong, the first digital arcade game release, came out in 1972.

He then looks into why we play video games. The upshot is 1) that different people play for different reasons at different times, and 2) it’s hard to get an unbiased view on those reasons. This uncertainty and unknowingness is a key theme to which we return to a lot when it comes to evaluating the science of gaming.

Perhaps the most commonly used classifications of why an individual plays games are those based on Richard Bartle’s work of 1996. Bartle observed four main groups:

  • Achievers: players who aim to score points, collect treasures, level up their characters.
  • Explorers: players who like to find out more about the virtual world.
  • Socialisers: Players who aim to communicate with people who they share an interest with.
  • Killers: players who like to fight or otherwise annoy other players.

But Bartle makes never claimed that these are particularly scientific. It’s just what he picked up after talking to countless players over the years.

More generally regarding motivations, Etchells touches on self-determination theory. That’s an idea from psychology that suggests our behaviours are driven by both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. The intrinsic side of things is probably why we participate in most forms of play and sports, and hence is likely relevant to video games. Three key components of intrinsic motivation emanate from our human desires for competence, autonomy and relatedness - all of which (some) games can provide.

There’s a lot of confusion we need to concern ourselves about in the literature and beyond. Firstly what is the definition of a video game? Call of Duty? Candy Crush? Both? And if both, do we risk conflating too much when we talk about “video gaming”. Why should one produce the same effects as another? In which case, it’s questionable how useful it is to talk about “the effects of videogames” as a whole.

Computer games are also a newish form of art. Today’s grandparents, and possibly parents, we’re unlikely to have grown up playing them. This leads to a very understandable fear of the unknown, exacerbated by media scare stories. I think the author sees this kind of sentiment as the latest in a historical line of “these new things are ruining your children” moral panics.

We then learn about the bad scientific practices that infuse historical video games research - and indeed psychology in general. Conclusions emanating from bad science are rarely useful. This section is worth reading to learn more about what makes for good or bad science even if you have no interest in video games.

As well as statistical trickery, there’s also the fundamental questions of what research questions are asked. The author believes that the vast majority of research has pursued a very limited number of questions, mainly around the harms of video games and in particular their link with violence. A study will never report any positive effects of video gaming if it is not set up to look for them. A habit of critical thinking is to be encouraged.

In addition to any outright fraud, there’s a wide range of what have come to be known as questionable research practices to consider, some of which historically are extremely prevalent in psychological research. Here we’re talking about both individual-researcher controlled behaviours things like p hacking as well as more structural issues such as the file drawer effect and so on.

So what does Etchells conclude as being the verdict of whether video games harm us, make us violent and so on? What mainly comes across from this book is the sad fact that we just don’t know very much. There are certainly studies that claim to show harm. But there are other studies that claim to show no harm, or even some benefit. Many, perhaps almost all, of these studies are suspect, or at least incomplete, in one way or another. It’s not even clear that we know how to measure something like aggression in a way that we should actually care about in terms of negative real word outcomes.

His take, which makes sense to me, is that the mixed messages coming out of this body of work mean that it’s unlikely that the games studied so far have a huge effect either way on outcomes such as real-world violence. Certainly there is not nearly the ubiquitous evidence for harm you would assume there is if you read only the moral panic driven newspaper headlines on this topic. But this is of course not evidence that games can’t cause any harm to anyone in any circumstance. The author finds it likely that some people are more prone to harm from video games than others, and some more prone to benefit - the same as almost any other such activity humans get up to in life.

He is particularly concerned about the more recent “innovations” in gaming which have, necessarily, been studied less. Examples include the added immersion caused by virtual reality and the all-too-present prevalence of what are essentially addictive gambling mechanisms - or indeed actual gambling - that infuse many of today’s most popular games, especially on mobile devices.

In 2018 gaming addiction was classified as a mental health disorder by the WHO, although there is apparently much debate in academia as to whether this is a good thing or not. The author reports that there’s certainly no agreement over how prevalent this diagnosis is or where its boundaries should lie, which are problems in themselves when it comes to making sense of or acting on such a potential problem.

Games usually show up on screens, so one chapter in the book deals with the perils and pleasures of screen time. Sadly the same kind of conclusions on the science show up here as we saw in the critique of gaming science. There’s no universally accepted 100% definitive science showing that screen time is bad or good, and little in the way of reliably measuring or classifying it in the first place. Once again, perhaps not all screen time is the same or likely to have the same effect, any more than all videogames are the same.

He cautions us to think of screens as merely a tool. As with any tool we should learn to use them properly. We control them, not the other way around.

We later learn about how games can produce data that aids science, leading to more understanding about the human body and brain works. We end a chapter on e-sports, which even 6 years ago was a $900 million industry, and one on loss. That’s loss both of the personal type but also in the sense of how we could or should preserve games themselves. This proves to be a much greater challenge than simply putting some 30 year old disk in a safe somewhere and hoping for the best. Apart from any technical issues, there’s more to gaming and gaming culture we should want to share and remember than a series of magnetic 0s and 1s.

His final conclusion is not all that satisfying. But it is what we apparently have and hence should drive how we should think about the topic when we’re making our own decisions about gaming. Known unknowns are, after all, better than unknown unknowns.

Are games good or bad for us? The honest answer is that we don’t convincingly know either way, and it’s probably a bit of both…

As much as they’re a form of entertainment, they’re also a tool: one that must be treated with respect and responsibility, in the full knowledge that if used improperly or without due care and attention, they may cause as much damage as good.

Lost in a Good Game book cover