Dr Yemaya Halbrook
Updated: Apr 29, 2021
This past year has seen a spike in the video game industry due to the pandemic and being stuck in quarantine and lockdowns. In particular, Animal Crossing: New Horizons and Among Us came to the forefront in 2020 for social games that allowed for gamers to connect with one another through both online and in person means. Recent research has shown that playing Animal Crossing: New Horizons has indeed been beneficial to those who were stuck in lockdown at the time of its release (e.g. Comerford, 2020). Let’s be real, those of us who play this game sunk hundreds of hours into the game in those first couple of months. I know I did! Interestingly, there are some psychological reasons behind this.
Social games can be defined simply as a game that involves social activity (Shen et al., 2013). This can include playing with others that you knew well before the game’s release or others that you met briefly through online means that allowed you to take advantage of those sweet, sweet turnip prices. I once sold mine for over 500 bells a piece through a Facebook group! These brief introductions through online communities dedicated to said games can even lead into some solid and long-lasting friendships. Personally, I joined a Discord community surrounding a YouTube streamer (TagBackTV) which has led me to meet some people I never would have had contact with otherwise. These people are from all over the world, including places I will never visit (sorry Australia, you’ve got too many spiders for an arachnophobe like me!). These bonds first started with Animal Crossing: New Horizons but gradually grew as we discovered other common interests even outside of video games. Having a shared community like this provides some social support that maybe we haven’t been able to get due to being stuck at home. I mean, who would have thought we’d still be here? I for one thought it would be over in enough time to go on the Disneyland trip I planned LAST May, and yet here we are with hairdressers and restaurants still closed. Did I mention I’m in desperate need of a haircut? But I digress. This isn’t about the limitations of lockdown; it’s about how social gaming effects the way we connect with video games.
I conducted a study of specifically social gamers to determine a couple of different things. Firstly, I wanted to see how connecting with the game and others who play related to social well-being (a paper currently under review in a peer-reviewed academic journal). Secondly, and what I’ll be discussing here, I set out to discover if there is a particular group of people that allows for a strong in-game connection. Essentially, should we be playing only with those we’ve met in person? Can we get the same satisfaction when playing with others we’ve met through other means, such as those aforementioned online communities? How much social interaction is required for us to feel like we’re connecting both with other gamers and the video game itself? These are the questions I set out to answer.
In psychology, there are many different theories that can be applied as a framework for this research. For this project in particular, I applied the Self-Determination Theory (SDT; Ryan & Deci, 2000) which states that an individual needs to satisfy three basic psychological needs in order to achieve happiness, but this can also be applied specifically to video games and how the gamer connects with the game itself (Ryan et al., 2006). These needs are autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Autonomy can be satisfied if a gamer feels in control of their actions in the game, such as playing The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild where you can do everything in literally whatever order you want. There’s no proper linear storyline here—it’s what you make of it. Secondly, competence is satisfied when a gamer feels like they can master new skills and face adequate challenges such as monsters increasing in difficulty the further you are in the game. Lastly, relatedness can be achieved in two ways: by connecting with the characters in the video game itself and/or connecting with other players in a social game. For the purposes of this project, the latter definition of relatedness was used.
The findings of the study indicate that playing with online acquaintances yields the lowest satisfaction of autonomy, competence, and relatedness. By online acquaintances, I mean individuals that you game with in a way that doesn’t include much social interaction. Examples would include games such as playing Fortnite or Fall Guys where you’re playing against others, but not really speaking to them. Although you can definitely play these rounds with people you properly know, the survey specified playing it alone against others. When you think about it, it might make more sense for someone playing relatively alone to feel more autonomous than playing with others. Playing by yourself would mean making your own decisions, wouldn’t you think? But what if it’s being able to cooperate with others that makes you feel you can control your own actions? Maybe you’ve discussed strategy with the others who ultimately decide to go with your plan. You would probably feel more in control of your decisions if others have agreed to go along with you. Competence would be similar—you would think playing mostly alone would yield the same levels of competence as playing with others since it’s about feeling like you’re facing adequate challenges. So maybe facing these challenges with others makes you feel more competent than playing mostly alone.
The findings with the relatedness satisfaction are indeed more interesting than either autonomy or competence. Now, it makes sense that an individual who plays with others without much social interaction would feel less connection with other players than someone who plays with actual interaction, which is what the findings here demonstrate. However, what is interesting is that playing with friends that were met online (i.e., a guild in WoW) yields higher relatedness than playing with friends known in real-life. These friends online also yield higher autonomy and competence, but not statistically significantly so. Why would this be the case? You would think that, logically, a gamer would feel more connected to other gamers if they are already friends in real-life. Does this mean that making friends online can yield the same kind of bond as making friends in real-life? Maybe it’s because social gamers find it easier to interact with others online rather than in person due to the level of anonymity allowed through online interaction (Griffiths et al., 2013). Maybe it’s because these online friendships can lead to solid and lasting friends that can often equal friendships in the real-world (Cole & Griffiths, 2007; Williams et al., 2006) or that the more interaction, the stronger the friendship (Hall, 2019). Do we communicate more and/or better with those we’ve met online? It’s possible. That, however, will require additional research!
All in all, it seems that playing with others that you know, whether met online or in real-life, increases the connection a gamer feels with a game they are playing. This also has benefits for social well-being, but that’s a paper that’s currently under review at a peer-reviewed journal. Link will come if/when it’s ever accepted! For all those gamers out there, try joining some communities that share your gaming interests. Make those long-term friends that you can play games with but also discuss life with. Let’s continue to move the anecdotal thoughts away from all the negative stigma surrounding video games. Nerdy gamers unite!
Cole, H., & Griffiths, M. D. (2007). Social interactions in massively multiplayer online role- playing gamers. Cyberpsychology & Behavior, 10(4), 575-583. https://doi.org/10.1089/cpb.2007.9988
Comerford, C. (2020). Coconuts, custom-play & COVID-19: Social isolation, serious leisure and personas in Animal Crossing: New Horizons. Persona Studies, 6(2), 101-117. https://doi.org/10.21153/psj2020vol6no2art970
Griffiths, M. D., Hussain, Z., Grusser, S. M., Thalemann, R., Cole, H., Davies, M. N. O., Chappell, D., & Felicia, P. (2013). Social interactions in online gaming. Igi Global. https://doi.org/10.4018/978-1-4666-1864-0.ch006
Hall, J. A. (2019). How many hours does it take to make a friend? Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 36(4), 1278-1296. https://doi.org/10.1177/0265407518761225
Ryan, R., & Deci, E. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55(1), 68-78. https://doi.org/10.1037/0003-066X.55.1.68
Ryan, R., Rigby, C., & Przybylski, A. (2006). The motivational pull of video games: A self-determination theory approach. Motivation and Emotion, 30(4), 344-360. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11031-006-9051-8
Shen, C.-X., Liu, R.-D., & Wang, D. (2013). Why are children attracted to the Internet? The role of need satisfaction perceived online and perceived in daily real life. Computers in Human Behavior, 29(1), 185-192. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2012.08.004
Williams, D., Ducheneaut, N., Xiong, L., Zhang, Y., Yee, N., & Nickell, E. (2006). From tree house to barracks: The social life of guilds in World of Warcraft. Games and Culture, 1(4), 338-361. https://doi.org/10.1177/1555412006292616