A Multi-Dimensional Approach to Game Studies
Towards the end of 2008, the PEW Internet & American Life Project released two studies on video games whose results were met with some shock by the mainstream media. The first PEW survey focused on youth and video games and found that 97% of the respondents (ages 12 to 17) play video games, including 99% of boys and 94% of girls. A few months later, the project followed this up with a second study which found that 53% of adults aged 18 and older reportedly play video games. Taken together, these results challenge the enduring stereotype that video game players are usually antisocial teenage males. As these studies help illustrate, playing video games has become an enormously popular activity in contemporary America. So popular in fact, that the overall revenue of the game industry is beginning to rival that of Hollywood and other major entertainment industries. For example, in 2008 alone, the games industry reportedly brought in $9.5 billion simply in America.
Sadly, the majority of the scholarly literature has failed to recognize the growing social significance of video games in the contemporary world. Reflecting videogames’ usual treatment by much of the mainstream press, most of the academic research on this topic focuses on the highly theorized connection between video games and violent or “antisocial” behavior. While these studies receive a significant amount of media attention when their results indicate a link between gaming and violence, their methods are often questionable at best. Reflecting this concern, a recent study by the behavioral psychologist Christopher Ferguson found no connection between exposure to video games and school shooting incidents. Additionally, after a meta-analysis of the video game exposure literature in general, Ferguson concludes that most of the research is based on a faulty understanding of contemporary games and/or problematic methodology. Perhaps not surprisingly, Ferguson’s research did not receive a large amount of mainstream media attention.
This is not to say that studies on the potential hazards of video games should not be pursued. There is obviously significant merit to exploring such concerns. However, if the majority of social scientists focus only on the potential relationship between video games and violent behavior, much of the social complexity of video games will fail to be uncovered. Fortunately, in recent years a growing body of interdisciplinary research has emerged that has sought to more fully make sense of this relatively new cultural medium. These scholars have attempted to examine both beneficial and troubling aspects of video games, looking at the medium’s ability to allow players to construct and experience new identities, its capacity to serve as a “third place”, the potential ideological functions of games as well as how games may act as a site of resistance. Yet most of these works remain on the periphery of the social sciences. Approaches such as these must move out of the periphery and into the center of scholarly discussion if the social sciences are ever going to gain a more comprehensive understanding of the video game medium.