Fantasy And Reality: Can Gamers Tell?

By John Walker on September 21st, 2011 at 12:34 pm.

Here's me on my holidays.

Did you know that you can’t tell reality from fantasy? No, I’m not a twenty-foot dragon from Saturn, silly! I’m a human. But you can’t tell. I know this because the Metro told me so. According to the free rag, Nottingham Trent university researchers have revealed that gamers get so immersed in fantasy that they are unable to distinguish the real world. So this must be based on a broad, far-reaching study for the paper to make such a statement, right? No of course not. It’s an interview study of 42 people. Which I’ve now read. And has nothing to do with the Metro’s conclusions. So obviously I’m going to take issue with the Metro’s coverage, but then get a little bit deeper when taking issue with the paper itself.

I don’t mean to get all Ben Goldacre, but the wilful ignorance of newspaper coverage of science stories makes my brain hurt. This tiny proportion of people were selected on the basis of being aged between 15 and 21, and playing more than ten hours of games a week (an epic hour and 25 minutes a day). So not exactly a broad representation of anything, let alone gamers. It is, in fact, a study of teenagers, which doesn’t get mentioned anywhere in the coverage.

So let’s take a look at these examples of people losing the ability to distinguish reality.

“One 15-year-old named Simon (the names used are not their real names) admitted wanting to use a ‘gravity gun’ from the game Half Life to fetch something from the fridge.”

Er. Right. Who wouldn’t? I want to be able to fly, or not need to wee. But I’m able to tell that these things aren’t possible. There’s no evidence shown to suggest that Simon believes that gravity guns are real, because he obviously doesn’t.

“Another gamer, Milton, 19, said when he dropped a sandwich after playing Prince Of Persia: Sands Of Time his finger ‘twitched’ as he tried to retrieve it with his console.”

Ah, right, that’s what they mean.

“Linus, 19, said he thought he could use a search button in World of Warcraft when he tried to look for his older brother in a crowd. Others said they unwittingly acted out situations inspired by games.”

In other words, the research has discovered that repeating a task many times in a game means your brain flickers on the idea of doing it in real life. Of course! The number of times my brain has wanted to scroll up and down a magazine page, or been frustrated that wiggly red lines don’t appear under spelling mistakes when I’m writing… But I’m fairly convinced I have a reasonable grip on the distinction between reality and fantasy, despite all that word processing I do.

So of course at this point it’s time to actually look at the paper from which this is all drawn. And as one of the paper’s authors, Dr. Mark Griffiths told us, these papers have their own agenda.

It is, in fact, a study of what they’re calling Game Transfer Phenomena (GTP), where elements of gaming are associated with elements of real life, “triggering subsequent thoughts, sensations and/or player actions.” These were grouped as either intentional or automatic experiences. The stated goal was not to prove that games are dangerous, but simply to study their Game Transfer Phenomenon with relation to understanding how immersion works.

Those interviewed were 42 Swedes (39 male, 3 female) between 15 and 21, who played a broad range of games regularly. And the incidents of these gaming ideas in their real life are really fun! Like the 19 year old who, when trying to find his brother in a crowd, considered using the /who function. Or the 17 year old who starts seeing walls and buildings as potential routes after playing lots of Assassin’s Creed.

Which I think we can all quite anecdotally associate with that feeling of coming out of a big, action film at the cinema, and feeling like you could run incredibly fast, or lift up a car. These gamers report finding themselves looking at real life structures in the same way as they would in-game, looking for weaknesses or sniping points. It then goes on to describe the much-studied “Tetris effect” where you continue to see the shapes and patterns when you close your eyes, or in your dreams. Something that has proven absolutely essential for scientific research into dreaming since the 90s.

Things get more interesting when the paper discusses hypnagogic effects, such as imagining health bars above people’s heads, or perceiving dialogue choices when in conversations. Neither of course suggests an inability to distinguish reality from fantasy, but instead makes for interesting study into the way fantasy can augment an understood reality. But then it all starts to look rather trivial again as the study reports examples of teenagers, well, playing. Hiding in a box like Solid Snake, talking like cowboys. Basically normal imitative behaviour.

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The paper has a few distinct issues. One being a huge proportion of other papers cited were also co-authored by Griffiths. With an interest in so-called “gaming addiction”, for which scant useful evidence actually exists, Griffiths is no stranger to gaming controversies. Although he has also published a number of papers recognising the broad range of benefits of gaming. It also makes rather liberal use of the word “perhaps”, every time it wants to make an unsubstantiated claim.

“Today’s video games have evolved due to technological advance, resulting in high levels of realism and emotional design that include diversity, experimentation, and (perhaps in some cases) sensory overload.”

Regarding the claims of dissociation, the paper itself identifies this as “fuzzy”, pointing out that there’s “no clear accepted definition of what it actually constitutes.” It then goes on to fudge a rather ambiguous association with gaming, seemingly deliberately ignoring the trauma aspects one would more usually associate with dissociative behaviour.

It’s also a little troubling that there’s a seeming lack of familiarity with the games being discussed. The typographical error, “When just ‘Cause 2′ got released…” is telling.

But most significantly, and of course a typical flaw in interview-based research, is that the psychological profiles of those taking part were not looked into, let alone taken into account (as the paper goes on to discuss in its discussion). One subject referred to as Linus, aged 19, contributes some of the more extreme responses (such as dancing like a WoW character in his school), and “Carl”, also 19, who reports that he has brief urges (on which he does not act) to throw himself down stairways and steal cars. Because only 42 were studied, and because they were selected from Swedish gaming forums without any psychological profiling, such anecdotes are pretty much useless out of context. Perhaps “Carl” does suffer from delusions and dissociation, and games aren’t helping him (although the evidence given here suggests not, just that he recalls gaming actions in real life before dismissing them). But we don’t know, and there’s certainly no proof, nor any attempt to prove, that gaming would be the cause of this. Terms like “intrusive thoughts” – a condition associated with anxiety disorders – are used astonishingly inappropriately here, again without evidence.

The language used also seems to try to create sensation where there is none. In the section on violent reactions in real life, it admits that these are all imagined and not acted on. But almost reluctantly, with language like,

“Violent solutions to real life conflicts appeared to be used by a few of the players, at least in their imaginations.”

That’s just abysmal phrasing in a scientific paper, almost as bad as the newspapers so lazily misquoting it all. It should more properly read, “Violent solutions to real life conflicts were not used by players, but some imagined doing so.”

I also find the paper’s use of the word “even” to be extremely unhelpful. Repeatedly it editorialises with this word to imply more than is being reported. For instance,

“Some players reported that their perception of the world had changed, at least temporarily, when they found themselves integrating dangerous scenarios in the real life environment. Most of the time these experiences appeared as a thought, but one player even performed an action to avoid the possible danger.”

Again the phrasing sensationalises before admitting the reality. And the use of “even” is entirely unnecessary – this is supposed to be reporting findings, not being astonished by them. And the incident? It’s Linus again, who said that he once chose to stick to the path when walking through some woods, because he’s “less likely to get attacked my [sic] mobs.”

It’s also not helpful that they conclude that imagined things were “hallucinations”, which is an extremely strong word to describe seeing floating images after staring at a repeated pattern for a long time. Such exaggeration reaches the point of farce when the discussion of uncanny moments of associating games with life is described as opening “a ‘Pandora’s Box’ for some players”. Yes, thinking that a street looks a bit like Assassin’s Creed is very much the same as unleashing all the evil forces in the universe.

Perhaps the most strange and heavily biased aspect of the study comes in what the researchers choose to dismiss. Gamers reporting to them that they can distinguish reality from fantasy even during the GTP events is dismissed, based on other things the gamers said. Which makes no sense at all. Because the researchers conclude these anecdotes are examples of hallucinations, delusions, etc, with no psychological evidence, it is considered that this contradicts the gamers’ statements that they are able to distinguish such moments. Why not the other way around? This is not considered. Nor is the similarity of these effects with watching television or film. Clearly this is a study of gaming, but to not mention that the same effects are commonplace from other media is wilfully ignorant.

Of course the study does go on to list its own flaws, as is only proper. It acknowledges that the sample size was extremely small, and that “the findings cannot be generalized in a mechanical way.” It also mentions that the questions used in the interviews (most of which were electronic) “may have influenced the experiences reported by the players and the incidence of certain experiences.”

And its final conclusion? “Modern video games’ realistic scenarios may trigger associations between the two worlds among some individuals.” Aside from the complete failure to explore the concept of “realistic scenarios” at any point during the study, indeed referencing Tetris and Guitar Hero as often as GTA or Assassin’s Creed, and that making such a conclusion is mystifying, it’s rather important to note that this does not, in any sense, suggest that gamers cannot tell the real world from fantasy, as the Metro newspaper claims.

Of course, it’s worth noting the Metro’s agenda here. The “Related Items” bar at the side lists the following headlines in order:

“‘Call Of Duty makes gamers dumb’ says Dishonoured developer”

“Nintendo 3DS ‘makes gamers sick'”

“Teenage gamer hangs himself in ‘virtual suicide mistake”

It’s taking all my strength not to pick apart the nonsense in each of those three stories too. And of course on the other side of the screen are the newspaper’s links to its Gamescom 2011 coverage. Gosh, it will eat all of that cake. Perhaps they’re best off sticking to reporting how Nic Cage is a vampire.

Then of course there’s the Mail’s approach to the story, where they use it as proof that GTA caused the killing on that submarine.

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167 Comments »

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  1. Matt says:

    the original story just reads like someone dug up one of those of “dungeons and dragons leads kids to play satanism in steam tunnels” articles from the 1980s and did a quick find/replace on it.

  2. johnpeat says:

    Is this the same newspaper which regularly talks about the events in soap operas or on reality shows as if they’re “real life” events too??

    or indeed talks about the lives of celebrities as a measure of fashion and health behaviour???

    Those newspapers? – they’re calling someone out for not knowing the difference between fantasy and reality??

    Really???

  3. Melf_Himself says:

    I’m glad you take the time to pick this stuff apart John. In the future you should run the journal name past this:

    http://science.thomsonreuters.com/mjl/

    They list any journal of even marginal repute that is considered scientific. There are lots of other psychology journals listed here, but the “International Journal of Cyber Behavior, Psychology and Learning (IJCBPL)” is not. Which of course implies that this “research” is utter garbage.

    By far the biggest specific point you made, and the only one you really needed to make, was the part about the subjects being “selected from Swedish gaming forums”. That is just…. not an accurate cross-section of the population, unless your population is intended to be the denizens of Swedish gaming forums.

    • Deadend says:

      To be fair, it’s a newer journal, only 3 issues in.
      The sad part is that it made it through a double-blind peer review.

      It also does some very heavy biasing judging from the quotes, most articles I’ve seen wouldn’t be published with that sort of tone to them.

      And the fact the interviews were done online, to Swedish Gamers and the quotes are all in english which means they were either translated or it’s a second language to the subjects and there is no way to tell if it’s in jest and my school doesn’t subscribe to the Journal so I can’t get the exact part of the paper.

      It doesn’t look like a paper that should be out there as it’s not fit for publication in a journal of quality.
      Shame on those who were supposed to review it for doing such a poor job.

  4. Preciousgollum says:

    Both Colonel Gaddafi and Naopleon I Bonaparte have (actually) suffered the delusional effects of CCS. Chess Conquest Syndrome is the belief that becoming good at chess will transfer skills over to military applications and, in the case of the two subjects above, will result in becoming Brotherly Leader and Guide of the Revolution of Libya or His Imperial and Royal Majesty Napoleon I, By the Grace of God and the Constitutions of the Republic, Emperor of the French, King of Italy, Protector of the Confederation of the Rhine and the Grand Duchy of Frankfurt, Mediator of the Helvetic Confederation, respectively.

    The Prussians also invented a brand-new wargame, to be played by all army-generals, in pursuit of similar effects.

    • Leonard Hatred says:

      This explains the unprecedented success of the America’s Army, and i think we can all agree to cower in unanimous fear of the CSS-engorged Leisure Suit Larry fans, but outside the trad GTA RAGE cooperative online games really do offer room for personal development – teamworking, leadership, organisation and an encyclopedic knowledge of homophobic slurs being the hilights.

      Almost certainly considerably more positive than the gaping chasms of character flaws Monopoly at my mother’s reveals every Christmas.

  5. Leonard Hatred says:

    Whilst i can tell the difference between reality and fantasy (to my constant disappointment, frankly) years of online gaming has turned me into a bitter and jaded individual. I’m not convinced that without the videogames to distract me from the other godawful people online i would be the well-balanced individual i am now.

  6. Premium User Badge

    TheApologist says:

    I was a bit worried about John’s critique in places. So, yes, this might not be a well written study, and a lot of the points made sound perfectly fair. But at times the article seems to imply that the only valid types of research are ones with large representative samples. There are other useful types of research – case studies, various forms of qualitative analysis – that can be helpful and that do not (practically could not) use large or representative sample sizes.

    That of course changes the claims that can be made – this study couldn’t really make a widely generalised claim that playing games for x time will have y effects – but they can be useful is forming hypothesis for further study, for example.

    • Koozer says:

      I think the problem is is that the paper jumps to too many conclusions; it doesn’t bill itself as preliminary work. I was actually accepting of it up until I saw it doesn’t even mention any other sources of exactly the same phenomenon: films, TV, tasks at work etc. It’s just not tentative enough.

  7. Manac0r says:

    It’s certain attitudes out there which the media fans and even dictates, that lead me to keep this as my wallpaper on my pad and phone… (it’s a safe image, and not offensive)

    http://db.tt/WkDfP2h

    Gaming is not a crime, although some would have you think otherwise.

  8. onomatomania says:

    Once, after playing Braid for three hours, I needed to walk to the bathroom to go piss. Except I couldn’t walk to the bathroom because then I’d go back in time and I wouldn’t be able to piss here and now. So just sat there, which was fine, because I figured time wouldn’t move forward and I’d never piss myself.

  9. Preciousgollum says:

    Roman Proverb says “Better to Live a Day as a Lion Than a Life-Time as a Sheep.

    Clearly, the Romans would be advocates of video-games…

  10. BobsLawnService says:

    True story – a few years ago I was writing so many insane dynamic SQL queries at work that I started writing imaginary queries in my head to query strange facts about the world around me. From this I deduce that work is a danger to society and we should all stop this shit right now.

  11. Leonard Hatred says:

    When he promised a searing critique of the paper, i was hoping for an essay on how Metro is a terrible News Comic. :(

  12. Drake Sigar says:

    The hacks who write this crap aren’t spewing an unproven anti-gamer agenda because they actually believe it’s the single greatest threat to our civilization since swine flu, they’re doing it because it’s a profitable buzzword designed to recruit and maintain an audience who feel alienated by our rapid technological leaps. “Ooo, look at all the young people and their strange electronic devices. Is this a harmless fad, or the prelude to a communist invasion? We’ll let you decide comrade!”

  13. pipman3000 says:

    Writer for newspaper shakes fist at kids, demands they get off his lawn.

  14. Ovno says:

    I used to shit myself driving at night through the tunnels in Birmingham cus they look remarkably like the tunnels in one of the playstation 1 versions of Gran Turismo which I always ending up coming off and smashing into the walls in….

  15. AMonkey says:

    I just read that article in the Metro and decided it was rubbish when they claimed that killing pedestrians in GTA gives you “points”.

    • Post-Internet Syndrome says:

      In the first two ones it does, even if the “points” have the guise of money. And GTA3 didn’t give it to you automagically, but they still dropped it for your looting pleasure. I don’t think this particular kind of nitpicking is very productive. Of course the gta games encourage you to kill innocents! There’s no use denying that. What I do deny however is that this somehow makes the games horrible and damaging of our society.

  16. somini says:

    Since the first Assassin’s Creed, when I’m late for school I run like Altair, bending over and keeping my arms extended. Apparently it’s a very efficient way of running, but I’m not sure because “SCIENCE” said that I don’t really grasp reality.

    Oh, and this article can be resumed in a few words:
    AND.IN.THE.GAME.

  17. Zarunil says:

    After playing Space Pirates and Zombies for a total of 20+ hours, I’ve started designing my own spaceship. I plan to launch before Christmas, wearing a rented Captain Hook outfit. Destination: Alpha Centauri. I do not plan to return for at least a week. Wish me luck.

  18. S.T.A.L.K.E.R. says:

    I am amazed no one has done it yet…

    Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?

  19. Nallen says:

    In the Super Mario Brothers movie (I think) they had NES pads on their belts, and they could push a direction to go really fast. To this day when I am walking (all the time, I don’t drive) I feel the urge to reach down to my belt and push the button to WHOOSH off in to the distance.

    I am 30 years old.

    God if I’ve remembered that wrong I’ve been living a lie for 18 years.

    Still if anything positive came out of that Metro article it’s that I saw a link to this!:
    http://www.metro.co.uk/tech/games/875997-studio-ghibli-game-ni-no-kuni-gets-western-release-but-not-name

  20. Theodoric says:

    Eh, getting sucked into anything really hard happens with anything. Not just games or other computer programs, but with things in general when you haven’t spent enough time in the ‘real world’ for a while. Our brains acclimating to certain environments after a time spent insensve living in it is nothing new. I’d say that, without that, we wouldn’t be as adaptable as we are now as a species. I’d wager we’d have been extinct, even.

  21. Post-Internet Syndrome says:

    What a shame.

    “Or the 17 year old who starts seeing walls and buildings as potential routes after playing lots of Assassin’s Creed.”

    Funny thing is, this is quite common in the actual parkour community, as a side effect of prolonged exposure to… parkour. It is seen as a very positive thing indeed, a sign that you are starting to “get it”. As a lot of people have already pointed out, these things are not restricted to video games, not by a long shot.

    • Nallen says:

      I remember watching an episode of that SAS: Are you tough enough? show where our ‘host’ good old Eddie Stone is talking to the participants saying something to the effect of ‘when I walk down the highstreet now all I see is cover point, firing line, ambush…”

      I don’t think there is anything shocking, new or specific to video games about the the fact that when you make your brain think in one way for a long period of time it continues to think in that way.

  22. hadrianw says:

    This effect of course exists, but of course it’s not limited to computer games.
    I like to play some puzzles with my wife:
    i.g. saying all words beginning with r and ending with the letter ‘r’ (Polish words)
    * After few hours (not only sitting, but doing all sorts of things and thinking about another word) we ended it. But mind was still freaked about words beginning or ending with the letter ‘r’.
    * After whole day of solving jigsaw puzzles we ware in puzzle solving mode to the end of the day.

    Another thing – manual labour: with exhaustive flat repair session I was still in repair mindset – searching for uneven surfaces on all kinds of surfaces.

    In gaming:
    I was playing Wolf:ET for all week. Many times I was field-op and one of strategies for me was to check minimap to find out where is need of ammo so I could go there. I needed to go to loo in real life and when I was walking I was mentally pressing G key to check minimap ;D

  23. mikep says:

    The points you raise seem valid. On a small note, I would point out that it’s not uncommon for authors in such publications to cite their own work. Theoretically this work has also been peer reviewed and so in a sense been judged to be worthy of citation. I wouldn’t dismiss it for that reason, the other reasons are adequate.

    You may have considered this, you have mentioned it’s a “huge proportion.”

  24. ArcaneSaint says:

    Yeah, I’ve got to admit. Ever since playing Dwarf Fortress I’ve been hunting midgets, capturing them and locking them up in a cave. Every now and then I select seven of them, give them a pick, axe and a barrel of beer and drop them off somewhere in the middle of nowhere to fend for themselves. And I have them address me as Armok, God of Blood.

  25. aircool says:

    I enjoy racing downhill picking up golden rings, except I always get twatted by that bee-thing that hurls blobs of energy at me. I am a blue hedgepig.

  26. bill says:

    Other than the post-GTA driving effect, and the tetris dreams effect, I tend to find that coming out of movies has a much stronger effect than games.

    throughout my teenage years, almost every post movie skate home involved some fantasies of flying, shooting or kung fu ability.

    Then again, Jackie Chan says he can’t walk down a street without thinking how he could climb things and jump off them… so i’m in good company.

  27. HothMonster says:

    “Another gamer, Milton, 19, said when he dropped a sandwich after playing Prince Of Persia: Sands Of Time his finger ‘twitched’ as he tried to retrieve it with his console.”

    all i could think about after this was: http://www.theonion.com/articles/i-spilled-my-soda-report-nations-dopes,20530/

  28. Miidgi says:

    Being a good reader, I decided to read through the linked article from the Metro first. I promptly stopped when I saw that the sample size was 42, and was initially disappointed in RPS for reporting this, until I continued reading this article and discovered to my delight that it was critical of exactly that. Bravo.

  29. SoggySilicon says:

    Interesting article, but really I would not loose too much sleep over it. Many a video game magazine such as Kotaku and the Escapist publish some “extremely” rubbish articles that fail even primary school academics. I find the hot button is normally when empirical data points are taken to be relevant when making social critiques. To the people writing this trash it is true, but it was true before they read anything scientific on the subject, the “science” is simply another round of ammo in their misguided cannon.

    On another note, most of human life on this planet engages in some kind of fantasy projection of one form or another. This includes you, and me, and the writers of this article. Like anything one would have to follow a practice to “not” do it on a regular basis. From religion to bad science, to make believe science fiction/reality the species is as into it, as flies are into a fresh steamy lozenge.

  30. NthRincewind says:

    I just want to defend the normal Metro game coverage.
    The game section was taken over from the Teletext GameCentral page that took over from the old Digitiser Teletext page.

    The reviews are good, much better than any other newspaper, and the letters are usually interesting.

    Metro Games

  31. stratala says:

    On the BBC as well now…

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/newsbeat/15002820

    • mondomau says:

      The same BBC news that currently considers it important to have a scrolling bright red Breaking news banner at the top of the page declaring that REM are splitting up :-/ Journalism in this country is in real fucking trouble when even the BBC isn’t checking it’s sources.

  32. theleif says:

    If they’d done a study about teenagers and books, they would have come to the exact same conclusion. I bet there are hoards of teenagers out there, wishing they had Harry Potters magic rod.

    We should totally ban books.

  33. sinister agent says:

    One subject referred to as Linus, aged 19, contributes some of the more extreme response

    Well what do you expect from a believer in the Great Pumpkin? Talk about loaded dice.