“Gamers can’t tell real-world from fantasy,” screamed the headline in the Metro on Wednesday morning. Dr Mark Griffiths, who heads up Nottingham Trent University’s International Gaming Research Unit, must have slumped back in his chair with incredulous horror when he read that.
His team had been carrying out another video game study when they discovered that many of their 42 interviewees were talking about a similar experience. Often, after playing a game for a long time, they would momentarily transfer elements of the game content, or the interface, into their real-lives, usually harmlessly.
Griffiths knew it was a common phenomenon – he’d experienced it himself playing Tetris – but it hadn’t been named or categorised. So the department came up with a term – Game Transfer Phenomenon – and started looking into it. The resulting report has just been published in the International Journal of Cyber Behaviour, Psychology and Learning.
“The academic literature goes back to 1993,” says Griffiths. “There was a case of a woman who had auditory hallucinations; she just couldn’t get the tune of the game she was playing out of her head – it was very intrusive. But what came out of our pilot research were lots of different experiences, some that were auditory, some visual and some were tactile. We had the example of a teacher who dropped his pen and immediately reached for a joypad button to retrieve it, as though he were in a game.
“Most of the experiences were neutral and often quite positive. We distinguished between what we call automatic GTP, which are almost like reflexes or classically conditioned responses, and those where players deliberately take elements out of the game and work them into their day-to-day routines.”
There are examples in the paper of players using game scenarios and systems in everyday language – for example, joking about “levelling up” when they learn a new skill, or quoting liberally from game scenes.
So what’s going on here? What does this tell us about the human mind? “We’ve argued that a lot of these will be classically conditioned responses,” says Griffiths. “Go back to basic psychology and think of Pavlov and his dogs. If you’re in a game and doing something repetitively, you’re using the controls automatically, in the same way as an experienced driver can do it almost instinctively.
“So if you come out of the game and come across a similar situation in real life, this conditioned response kicks in for a second or two. From our interviews it’s clear that gamers fully realise they’re not in a video game – they’re just taken back to it.”
Which, of course, directly contradicts that bizarre Metro headline. “Some of what I’m reading in the papers goes way beyond what we were saying. This idea that players can’t tell the difference between reality and fantasy is just nonsense, it’s not what our paper is saying at all.”
But then, the elements that have been picked up by the Daily Mail and the Metro are the sections in the research that mention violent fantasies; several participants in the survey appeared to daydream about solving real-life problems – like strict teachers – with violent strategies drawn from games like GTA and Max Payne. Isn’t that a problematic leap from such a small group of interviewees?
“It’s probably not that different from the way you may relive a TV programme or a film you’ve seen,” says Griffiths. “It’s just that, in terms of screen-based technology, a lot of people now spend more time playing games than watching TV. We’re not saying this is a new phenomenon, we’re trying to categorise all the different types of experience.”
Griffiths, who has previously studied gambling addiction, says the point of the research is understanding repetitive behaviours and their effects. “Some people may be worried that they’re seeing things, but if they know it’s a fairly normal phenomenon with no long lasting effects it might make them feel better. If we find in our future research that GTP is mostly experienced by intensive game players, we may be able to set time limits in order to stop the effects from happening.”
He is also keen to point at the original report is just the beginning. “There’s been a lot of criticism this morning that we’ve based these findings on just 42 players – how can this be representative? The paper quite clearly states it’s a small interview study. But now we’ve collected over 2,000 different experiences, and now my co-author Angelica Ortiz de Gortari is categorising them, seeing whether the taxonomy we developed in this initial paper is more widespread; and it certainly seems to be the case.”
What worries me, though, is some of the language, some of the insinuations, in the report. In one section the team writes: “The close resemblance to real life sceneries (sic) in video games may have opened a ‘Pandora’s Box’ for some players.” This emotive metaphor comes after long sections cross-headed ‘Criminal thoughts’ and ‘Dangerous behaviour’, detailing some violent game-related fantasies apparently experienced by interviewees.
It didn’t take an enormous mental leap for the Daily Mail reporter to go from the Nottingham Trent University research to the Ryan Donovan murder case. It’s tabloid gold dust – and indeed, the connection is made in the third para of the Mail’s story on the research.
Nobody is helped by this, nobody gains. If there is evidence of negative emotional or psychological experiences as a result of GTPs, it must be dealt with in rigorous scientific language, scrupulously tied to data. Research reality and tabloid perception are vastly different, the former must not court the latter. That is a Pandora’s Box that should never be opened.
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