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Monday
Aug012011

Gamer identity

One of the things that lept out at me from all of the presentations at multi.player 2011 was talk of the gamer. There didn't really seem to be a single definition of what a gamer is - some people seemed to define it as anyone who played any digital games (often further sub-dividing that category based on either time spent or what types of games they play) whilst others just asked people whether they self-identified as a gamer. 

I find that second approach fascinating. The gamer stereotype as portrayed in popular culture is of an adolescent, over-weight, socially inept boy who plays in a darkened room. Gamers may like to believe that that stereotype is changing, but the reaction I got from some of my friends when I mentioned I was playing World of Warcraft says otherwise.

I've been looking at social identity theory. The basis of the theory is that we have subtly different identities based on the groups that we perceive ourselves to be a member of, and whichever is most salient at the time determines the way we act. So if I in a lab meeting, I will react to situations as I believe a lab member ought to, whereas if I'm at a cricket match my behaviour will be slightly different. Chances are it will be an unconscious switch. The key thing is "as I believe the group member ought to". I am picturing the 'perfect' group member, and modelling my behaviour on the way they react. 

There have been various experiments in papers I've read to establish the effects of this in computer-mediated communication (e.g. Spears et al, 1990; Reicher et al, 1995) and a fair few in face-to-face stuff too (e.g. Brewer, 1991; Ellemers et al, 1999). They do seem to set the salience of the group identity or the individual's identity by seemingly innocuous statements in the experimental instructions. I would therefore suggest that by asking people whether or not they are gamers, you could easily be pushing them into using a gamer identity to for the rest of the study. 

For example, Rachel Kowert is studying whether or not gamers really are socially inept. She got people to fill out the entire social skills indicator, and compared the results for gamers vs non-gamers. She found that there were differences, but only in specific areas - including reading body language. She did mention one of the potential causes was that the gamers were conforming to stereotype. I'm not sure when she asked them if they were gamers, it would be interesting to see if that question was at the end of the survey, would you get different answers? Maybe if you asked them how many hours a week they spend playing digital games? It would be interesting to marry the response to 'are you a gamer' to even how many hours they play, let alone going back to the social skills indicator responses. 

Lina Eklund did a study talking to students about the way they played games with their families. She mentioned that she found the gamers she spoke to "very reflexive". They kept describing how their gaming helped them, and called it a hobby - a much more positive word for most non-gamers. Ellemers et al (1999) found that if the group was self-selected (as these gamers seem to have done) members will display strong group loyalty even if the group does not have a positive image to outsiders. I think this suggests that gamers are aware of the negative images associated with their passtime, and try to justify it with their comments. Theory suggests that non-gamers (being still in the majority) would not feel such a strong group membership if at all.

Another common finding was that it was difficult to track down enough female participants in studies. I had a thought that because the social identity of gamer is generally male, perhaps most women don't identify with that? I did ask a couple of women if they would consider themselves gamers - one I know plays casual games for around 5-7 hours a week, and one I know plays games like WoW, Rift, etc. Both said no. The casual player felt she didn't play the right kind of games, and interestingly the other said she didn't feel she played seriously enough to use the name for herself. Neither said "but gamers are boys"! It's a long way from being a representative sample, but raises some interesting points about what people believe a gamer really is.

I'm finding the social identity theory fascinating (if slightly hard-going in places), and I've enjoyed speculating on this stuff. I'm a little concerned I have a hammer and suddenly everything's a nail! I need to keep reading... 

[Brewer, M. B. (1991). The Social Self: On Being the Same and Different at the Same Time. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 17(5), 475-482. doi:10.1177/0146167291175001

Ellemers, N., Kortekaas, P., & Ouwerkerk, J. W. (1999). Self-categorisation, commitment to the group and group self-esteem as related but distinct aspects of social identity. European Journal of Social Psychology, 29(2-3), 371-389. doi:10.1002/(SICI)1099-0992(199903/05)29:2/3<371::AID-EJSP932>3.0.CO;2-U

Reicher, S. D., Spears, R., & Postmes, T. (1995). A Social Identity Model of Deindividuation Phenomena. European Review of Social Psychology, 6(776502344), 161-198. doi:10.1080/14792779443000049

Spears, R., Lea, M. & Lee, S., 1990. De-individuation and group polarization in computer-mediated communication. British Journal of Social Psychology, 29(2), p.121-134.]

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