Thanks to my son, I got my Twitch stream running properly yesterday for the first time.
If you’re here to learn about science, you might be wondering why a scientist would have a Twitch stream, or maybe what a Twitch stream is. Twitch is a video streaming service that focuses on video games—think YouTube, but with a live audience, more like The Truman Show of video gaming. A few basic principles drive my approach to studying video games and mental health, and broadcasting my own video game play (however bad it is) on Twitch is a good way to accomplish those.
Video game play, like other forms of media use, occurs in the context of our everyday lives.
Debates about video game play have raged for decades. Whether it’s concerns about video game violence or new diagnoses for “addicted” or disordered gaming, millions of dollars have been spent studying the “effects” of video gaming, as if those “effects” occur in a vacuum—you get “exposed” to video games and that leads to problems, just like being exposed to measles makes you break out in a rash, develop a high fever, and possibly more serious complications. Wait, you say—most people don’t get the measles anymore? You don’t get them if you’re vaccinated? Hmmm, sounds like health-determining exposures don’t occur in a vacuum, even for something like the measles virus that has undeniably clear effects on health.
Outside of the field of public health, researchers from fields like communication science and media psychology have done a lot to explain how what seem like the effects of one type of media use behavior (video gaming) are actually dependent on many, many other things, including
- Motivations-why people play games
- Individual factors-e.g., how comfortable people feel interacting with others in real life
- Game genre-e.g., sports games vs. first-person shooters
- Modes of play-e.g., cooperative vs. competitive
- Results of playing-do you feel relaxed/confident/connected when you play?
- Social context of gaming-e.g., playing with others vs. playing alone
- Social connection and support-feeling like you belong to a community, connecting with others
The field of public health has lagged behind communications/media psychology in considering these factors, which is why my collaborators and I approached this question by looking at how adolescents’ online social interactions, video game play, and feelings of game “addiction” all worked together to determine whether they seemed like “addicted” or just “engaged” gamers. In that study, we found that
- Adolescents who played video games for 4 or more hours a day (heavy gamers) were more likely to be depressed than those who didn’t
- Adolescents who played games for 4+ hours a day but also were active in social networking and instant messaging for 4+ hours were less depressed (Social gamers)
- If you took into account the context—whether people felt like they had good friendships—the link between heavy gaming and depression went away.
This study was a good start, but unfortunately the concerns of public health/psychiatry organizations has led to the creation of two different diagnoses of disordered gaming. So now, rather than thinking about how all of these factors—depression, friendships, interacting online and playing video games a lot—work together to determine whether someone is playing in a healthy way, doctors and therapists (who likely have little idea how gamers might be using gaming and online social interactions to feel connected and get social support) will be trying to figure out whether their heavy gaming patients have an actual mental illness/disorder related to gaming. The next logical step if someone has a behavior disorder is to try to control the behavior. But what if that’s not really the problem? What if gaming is actually an effective way to deal with other problems?
For the social engaged gamers in our study, this may be the case, as the heavy gamers who also spent a lot of time socializing online and had good friendships didn’t have the same levels of depression as other heavy gamers. Context mattered.
Important to note: Our study was cross-sectional, meaning that we have no way of knowing whether depression or heavy gaming came first. (In fact, many public health scientists assume that heavy or disordered gaming causes depression, so much so that they don’t even bother measuring depression as a potential risk factor in longitudinal studies.)
How does all of this tie in with my principles as a scientist, and what does this have to do with Twitch?
- I’m a scientist, but also a gamer and a “person with the lived experience of mental illness”/consumer/service user.
- My context as a scientist includes all of those perspectives.
- Those perspectives make me a part of several communities.
- By being honest and open about my involvement in those different communities, I can
- Learn from other people who really understand gaming
- Make it clear that I come from a certain position when I do my science. I am biased toward video games—I enjoy them. I hang out with people who play them. I play them myself. In science, this is called an intellectual conflict of interest.
- However, by being open and honest about my involvement in those communities, and reflecting on my perspectives when I conduct and report my research, I can reduce the bias.
- I also reduce bias through other mechanisms like registering my scientific questions and hypotheses before doing studies, but this is a whole ‘nother post.
- Talking about intellectual conflict of interest is almost non-existent in science, unfortunately. Kudos to scientists like Halley Pontes for being open and paving the way.
Anyway, I’ll be talking about this topic next week at MAGfest, which is an awesome fan convention that will give you a great idea of what it means to be part of a gaming community. Please join me Saturday, January 6 at 10am in the Forum. I may or may not cosplay, but at the very least I will be wearing a cool t-shirt. And feel free to watch me bumble through World of Warcraft or another game on Twitch in the meantime.