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Be all you can be

New study reveals video game appeal lies in exploring your ideal self

By: Derek Mitchell

  |  Posted: Wednesday, Aug 24, 2011 06:00 am

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It is estimated that, each week, three billion hours are spent worldwide playing video games. It’s a $30-billion industry with appeal that crosses international boundaries. World of Warcraft alone has logged almost six million years worth of gamers’ time globally. But why? What is it about the electronic arts that satiate the gamers’ thirst?

Until now, most research has been dedicated towards investigating the effects of gaming, both beneficial and detrimental. We know, for instance, that video games can increase reaction time, visual acuity and the body’s dopamine levels. We also know that excessive gameplay can lead to increased aggression and decreased attention in youth.

But little scientific research has been done into the appeal behind video games. Fortunately, that trend is beginning to shift. Scientists are realizing that, with video games no longer being child’s play — the average Canadian gamer is 35 years of age, after all — it is becoming more important to understand the “why” behind video games.

Earlier this month, a study conducted at Britain’s University of Essex found that the greatest drive behind playing video games is the thrill of becoming your ideal character, of embracing a quietened side of yourself.

Dr. Andy Przybylski of the Department of Psychology’s research explains: “The attraction to playing video games and what makes them fun is that it gives people the chance to think about a role they would ideally like to take and then get a chance to play that role.”

The findings of the lab-based study will be published in an upcoming article in Psychological Science entitled “Ideal Self at Play.” It looked at over 1,000 dedicated gamers playing everything from The Sims to World of Warcraft. Participants were then asked about their motivation for playing and their ideal selves. They were also asked how the games they experienced, and their subsequent enjoyment, matched their ideal.

This does not mean that everyone who plays as Mario secretly want to be a short, pudgy, plumber living in Mushroom Kingdom. It’s the traits the characters embody, the glimpse of a life we’d secretly like to lead, that prelude the attraction.

These findings explain not only the popularity and re-playability of role-playing games like World of Warcraft, Dragon Age and Elder Scrolls, but also that of first-person shooters. By playing through another’s eyes, a player feels like he or she becomes that character. An outlet is then found for the player’s own bravery, strength and intelligence. Plus, who hasn’t dreamed of having superpowers?

Yet this new research shows that gaming is not about living dreams, those “children of an idle brain, begot of nothing but vain fantasy” (thank you, Shakespeare’s Mercutio). According to the research team, playing video games is not about escapism. The study found that the greatest enjoyment was when there was an overlapping of the player’s ideal self with their actual self. “People were not running away from themselves,” says Przybylski, “but running towards their ideal. They are not escaping to nowhere; they are escaping to somewhere.” That “somewhere” is a drive deep within us that all entertainment, in its various forms, aims to placate.

In much the same way that certain books and movies appeal to our inner selves, allowing us to explore various facets of our own nature, so too do video games provide an opportunity for personal exploration. As video game developers use the Przybylski findings and future research to develop richer characters and storylines, ones more in tune with our own natures, videogames will become increasingly popular reflections of our personal, sociological and psychological development.

When he’s not teaching junior high school, St. Albert Catholic High School alumnus Derek Mitchell can be found attached to a video game console.


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