How video games can make you a better a person, but not a worse one

GameCentral talks to psychologist and author Dr Rachel Kowert about why we make the choices we do in games, and why they’re usually good ones.

Modern video games allow for a huge amount of customisation, not just in terms of how your character looks but how they act in-game. Over the years, a binary measure of whether your in-game avatar is good or evil has given way to far more nuanced choices, often with unexpected outcomes that your character then has to live with.

It’s not just role-playing games either, with moral choices and dialogue options making it into more and more action games, but as a promotion for PC title Encased: A Sci-Fi Post-Apocalyptic RPG we were recently given the chance to talk to psychologist Dr Rachel Kowert, who specialises in human interaction with video games.

Encased developer Dark Crystal Games found that despite them adding an unusually large number of options to their game, including playing as a pacifist or with a very low intelligence setting, most players stuck to a version of themselves and rarely role-played as someone completely different. It’s likely you do the same when you play games, and you’re not alone…

Dr Kowert is the research director for Take This, a non-profit organisation that provides mental health information and resources to the gaming community and publishers, as well as the chief scientific officer of Kitsune Analytics – a market research and analytics firm. She’s also a massive Final Fantasy fan, so she not only plays games herself but researches how and why other people play.

We started off asking her more about her work, before getting into the science of game choices and why certain options are always more popular with the majority of players…

RK: The things I talk about a lot is the projection of ourselves in video games and how, when we play games, research suggests we tend to project our real personalities to form the basis of the characters that we create. So we tend to make actual versions of ourselves or slightly idealised versions of ourselves: slightly more attractive, slightly more brave.

And so when you have a game, like Encased or any other game, that allows for these customisation options we tend to create the people who are like us, as a first stopping point. Now that’s not to say we don’t ever do something different. There’s also things called alter egos or antiheroes, which we also do dabble our toes in and play.

But usually it’s not the first go round. Usually that’s the second or third time we play a game, we’ll try on different personalities. We’ll be the criminal or the person who is completely opposite from who we are – the really boisterous person versus just being someone who’s maybe slightly more confident.

GC: So you’re a psychologist specifically specialising in video games? That’s your job?

RK: It is! Isn’t that cool? [laughs]

GC: You must have even more difficulty explaining your job to other people than I do.

RK: That’s true! My mom’s like: ‘Are you sure that’s a job?’ No, it is. I promise. So I have a Masters in counselling, but I have a research based PhD from the university of York, actually. I got to study over in the UK. And then the non-profit I work for, it’s a mental health, non-profit that specifically caters to the gaming industry and gaming communities.

So there’s a lot of special concerns specifically within the gaming industry, as you can imagine, but also among people who play games. So I conduct research to evaluate the uses and effects of digital games and how it impacts us in our non-gaming spaces. So how socialising online impacts us offline, for instance, is what my PhD was.

GC: I’m always surprised at how difficult I find it to make the evil choices in games, even when I’m doing it purely for the sake of a review. And I know from our letters page, the Inbox, that that’s quite common and not, as I previously thought, proof that I am an angelically perfect human being.

RK: [laughs]

GC: So assuming that’s not the case what does that mean, what’s going on there?

RK: We tend to project who we are. So if we are people who don’t make the particularly evil choices in life it’s going to feel strange to us to act in that way in a digital space. There’s a phrase we use in the research where we ‘psychologically fuse’ with our avatar. So generally speaking, we will behave in similar ways and it actually works the other way around as well. There’s an effect called the Proteus effect, which is where the way we act in-game impacts the way we act out of game.

So they did research where they had people be very helpful, like a superhero type character, in the game. And then they found when those players went on with their daily lives, they were more helpful and more pro-social. These effects kind of carry over. We tend to emulate the effects. So it makes sense that you wouldn’t necessarily want to, you know, murder kittens or whatever in the game [laughs] if you are the kind of person who wants to pet all the kittens, when you see them in real life.

GC: So does that mean the opposite is true? I hate to ask such a tabloid question but if all you do is make evil choices in-game will you become a worse person in real life?

RK: No! It does not actually work the other way. So, when you look at the research of people, for instance, who… The Sims is always the example I give, because we’ve all been in the place where we played The Sims and you kill somebody. Like, you put the four walls around them with no door…

GC: That’s interesting, because that’s the one game where I am mean to them.

RK: [laughs]

GC: Because it’s such a saccharine game by default and they look like they deserve it.

RK: Yeah. [laughs] Games are a great place to push boundaries. So a lot of times we talk about being the alter ego or the antihero. In a game, we have an opportunity to try these things, to test the boundaries, to potentially fail, to potentially lose the game. But it’s a game, it’s a safe space. The repercussions are relatively minimal. And we can test the boundaries and see what happens.

GC: So, you’re saying games can make you a better person, but they can’t make you a worse person?

RK: I mean, that’s a good headline. [laughs] The research does not show that games make you a worse person, but the research does show that games can make you a better person.

GC: I mean, considering how many I’ve played by now, I should be a psychopath.

RK: You know what? That’s, actually a very good point. Here’s the thing though, because when people say games and violence, which I know is a separate issue, that’s exactly my point. So many people play games and so many people are not criminals. Right?

GC: No one’s going to listen to you with that kind of easily verifiable logic.

RK: [laughs]

GC: But why is that? I mean, logically you would have thought if they can influence you one way, they can influence you the other way too?

RK: Because at the end of the day, games are just a piece of media, right? And media effects on us are generally relatively minimal. Can they teach us new things? Yes. Can they give us a space to kind of explore and test boundaries and be the hero? Yes. But it’s not going to completely change who we are as a person.

Again, if you look at the research, and violence is a great example, if you look at the input of video games and then you look at the input of parental relationships and peer relationships and those other things, and you put all those in the model, the effects of games go away. Because media is just one of many influences and it’s not a particularly strong one. So that’s why.

GC: I think we all know ‘that guy’ who plays GTA Online five hours a day and it definitely shows, but you’re saying that just reflects who they are anyway?

RK: We have to think of games as an analogy. I like to say it’s like a virtual sandbox, play is important throughout your life, not just in childhood. When you’re a child and you’re playing there’s cops and robbers, someone’s the robber, right? So games are just a really more advanced, interactive, engaging space where we can play, where we can do things that we wouldn’t normally do. It’s fantasy. And our brains are very good at differentiating between what’s real and what’s not.

So I think a lot of the reasons people were originally concerned about violence in games like GTA is because we see that they’re enacting these horrible things. But, you know, at a very basic level, we are very well aware that we are not actually murdering people or, you know, picking up prostitutes or whatever it is we’re doing in GTA. It’s a virtual sandbox, so to say.

GC: You mentioned creating characters that look like yourself and that’s something I’m surprised I do as well. Consciously I feel I should be going for a young Harrison Ford look…

RK: Excellent choice.

GC: [laughs] But for some reason I don’t. I just end up making someone like myself, often even with the glasses. Which I think you’re suggesting is commonplace?

RK: Yeah, we like to project ourselves into media. And I was just talking about this the other day, with customisation options. You would think that you want an avatar that was thinner, more attractive, or whatever but we want to see ourselves. We want to navigate this space. We want to be the hero in the game.

If I make someone who doesn’t look like me or doesn’t relate to me, it’s not me being the hero. I want to see myself being the hero and it actually speaks to a larger cultural phenomenon. So if you don’t see yourself in the game… I was talking about this the other day, there’s not many Latino main characters in games. And that sends a cultural signal that this group is not important enough to put into a game you’re not culturally significant and so that sends a larger, wider message.

So having the ability, as someone who may be a female, that’s not always the protagonist in the game – that’s becoming more popular now but wasn’t back in the day – being able to create a female character and navigate through the space. It leads to higher enjoyment of the game. It leads to a greater ability for the game to put me in a positive mood. These are all the things that the research shows.

It leads to playing longer, to more positive emotions when describing the game versus not. So there’s a lot that goes into that, that plays into it in terms of engagement, being able to have an avatar and navigate the space as yourself.

GC: The one time I don’t try to recreate myself though is when it’s going to be a character that’s talking a lot, like in a Mass Effect style role-player, which in my mind I do because I believe the female version of a character is usually better voice-acted.

RK: Okay.

GC: I’ve had this conversation with voice actors before, but the men are usually told to do some dreadful pseudo-impression of Clint Eastwood. Someone that smokes 15 packs of cigarettes a day and doesn’t sound like any real human being I’ve ever met. Or am I fooling myself that that’s the reason I do it?

RK: That’s a really interesting point, that I’ve never heard anybody say about the voice acting. So research has found that both men and women often prefer female avatars.

GC: Oh, really?

RK: If you look into the research, the reasons vary. I’ve never heard about voice acting, but that’s a really interesting point. I’ve heard they just prefer to look at a female avatar, or they have some kind of advantage in the game. So we chose a female avatar but the reasons are varied.

GC: There’s the classic line that if you’re going to look at someone’s arse for 16 hours, you might as well look at a nice one. And mine’s not that great.

RK: [laughs] People say that all the time in the research, that is a very common response that people give you. But, generally speaking, both men and women prefer female avatars.

GC: That leads into another thing, about how there are so many canonical lesbian relationships in video games with female characters, and almost no heterosexual ones. And that seems to be part of the same thing: men are happy to play as female characters but they don’t want to play that part of an in-game heterosexual relationship.

RK: When we talk about representation in games, whites are overrepresented in terms of ethnic representation. Disability is underrepresented. But LGBTQ storylines are actually up. I think it was 300%.

GC: And that’s great, it’s about time they were well represented in something, but I think it’s clear that it’s not for altruistic reasons on the part of the publisher. It’s because of the sort of research you’re talking about here and knowing what kind of characters people like to play as.

RK: Well, now I have to do some research, because I’m curious about female homosexual relationships versus male. Wouldn’t that be interesting?

GC: I think so. That in turn gets into something I’ve noted before, where you look at the number one subject for every other media that has existed throughout history and it’s love. But hardly any game, certainly not an action game, has that as a driving force.

RK: It’s funny because you’re talking about heterosexual relationships and love and in my head I’m immediately thinking about Final Fantasy 7. That’s an old game.

GC: I was thinking of 10, which is so dreadful, and I think that says a lot.

RK: Yeah, it’s true.

GC: The other thing I think that’s related, which is another subject I like to bring up with developers, is how rarely games take advantage of letting you see the world through someone else’s eye. You see them scratching the surface with something like Mafia 3, where the main guy’s not allowed in shops and so on, but it so rarely happens to any useful purpose.

RK: That’s a great point. I’m hopeful that it’s becoming more common. Sea Of Solitude is the game that’s coming to mind and that’s a game about depression.

GC: Depression comes up a lot more than love when it comes to video games. I don’t know what that says about developers.

RK: [laughs] That’s true. But I feel like that game does a really good job of illustrating, teaching, experiencing, what depression actually feels like. I do feel like playing that game does change your perception about something. It does teach you something, but it’s still in a relatively indie game, right? That not necessarily a whole bunch of people are playing. So yes, to your point.

I think it’s changing. I think indie developers are on the rise and with Steam people have access to all kinds of games. I’m hopeful that that maybe this would be something we’d see more in the future because games do have that ability but, yes, most likely you’re just playing your CIS heterosexual, white male saving-the-day paladin, you know?

GC: Bald space marine was always my preferred description of that trope.

RK: [laughs]

GC: Well, this has all been fascinating, but to finish up, I’m curious: if you were a game developer what kind of game would you make? Especially in terms of exploring the sort of issues we’ve discussed?

RK: I think that games don’t do enough to include mental health as part of their storytelling. I’m tired of the tropey psychopathic antagonist. He’s just crazy because he is. I’m tired of those stories. So maybe stories that have a more holistic viewsof people and integrate mental health issues with them, where it’s just one aspect of their life. Versus it being just the antagonist, who’s crazy so he’s gonna cause harm and be violent. I’m tired of that. So the opposite of that.

GC: What kind of game would you make it though?

RK: Oh, well Final Fantasy and Zelda are the foundations for my love of games. So, I would make some kind of role-playing game. Maybe something boring.

GC: Maybe something boring? That’s a hell of a pitch!

RK: [laughs] You know, you don’t always have to be the hero, right? It doesn’t have to be a big grand story to be an interesting story. It can be just something about the mundane … This is going to be a great headline: a boring mundane story about mental health!

GC: It’s your pitch to the publisher not my headline!

RK: [laughs]

GC: OK, well this has been great, thanks very much for your time.

RK: Thank you, that was very interesting.

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