Every week, people around the world devote an estimated 3 billion hours to video games. What exactly is the allure? While plenty of researchers have focused on the negative effects of video game playing — Does it encourage aggression? Diminish attention span? — relatively few studies have investigated what benefits, if any, players derive from World of Warcraft, The Sims, Fallout 3, and other digital diversions. However, new research in an upcoming issue of the journal Psychological Science offers fresh insights into our video-game obsession. Here's a summary:
How was the study conducted?
A team of psychologists from England, Germany, and the United States — led by Dr. Andy Przybylski of the U.K.'s University of Essex — examined video-game habits of players from several countries. They scrutinized the players' motivations for playing a particular game, and appraised the players' mental state after a gaming session.
What did the researchers find?
In short, that no one wants to be himself. Players derive the greatest enjoyment from a game when the overlap between a player's actual self and his idealized video character is minimal. "When someone wants to feel that they are more outgoing and then [adopts an outgoing persona], it makes them feel better...," says Przybylski, as quoted by Science Daily. Video games, says Chris Gayomali at TIME. give "us a glimpse of a life we'd secretly like to lead."
What does this study say about gamers?
Instead of simply acting out aggression or other impulses, players are arguably using video games as a positive, esteem-building exercise. "I was heartened by the findings which showed that people were not running away from themselves, but running towards their ideals," said Przybylski. "They are not escaping to nowhere, they are escaping to somewhere."
Could these findings change the nature of video games?
Possibly. Armed with evidence that inhabiting the identity of an idealized avatar is one of gaming's key pleasures, designers might be well-advised to spend more time "on character development and narrative context," says Gayomali at TIME.