Academic journal article Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media

Groups and Goblins: The Social and Civic Impact of an Online Game

Academic journal article Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media

Groups and Goblins: The Social and Civic Impact of an Online Game

Article excerpt

Video games have joined the media mainstream and are now played regularly by a majority of Americans (Entertainment Software Association [ESA], 2005). As an industry, they gross almost as much as motion pictures. Although many people perceive video games to be the province of children (Williams, 2003), their use has become an all-ages phenomenon, with the average player now 30 years of age and rising (ESA, 2005). Nevertheless, the cultural reception surrounding video games has focused research attention largely on their potentially harmful effects on interpersonal violence and aggression in adolescents (Anderson & Dill, 2000; Sherry, 2001). Recently, scholars have begun to take notice of the socially networked aspect of game play, opening up new lines of inquiry (Griffiths, Davies, & Chappell, 2003; Jones, 2003). In particular, games played over broadband networks, whether they are based on personal computers or console systems, have begun to link people from around the world as they engage in a shared play experience. These computing networks create social networks (Wellman & Gullia, 1999), which in turn have brought networked gaming into the research arena of Internet effects. Online gaming, then, has become a place to test hypotheses about civic engagement, social capital, and the displacement of face-to-face interactions.

Although some scholars predict the general flourishing of virtual communities (Rheingold, 1993)in such new "third places" (Oldenburg, 1997), others predict a sharp decline in face-to-face contact that will necessarily lead to a loss of social capital and civic engagement (Nie, 2001). Others note that not all online activities will produce the same kinds of effects because they may well have different structures (Eveland, 2003) and occur within different social contexts (Ribak & Turow, 2003). Yet although speculation and anecdote are readily available, there are no strong data for games to support either contention. In short, what are the civic and social impacts of networked game play? This article reports the findings of a large panel study in which participants played one involved, time-consuming, and relatively asocial networked online game for 1 month.

The study is not intended to generalize to all video games, or all online games. This experiment used a largely asocial title to test issues of social capital, social networks, civic media use, family relationships, and physical and mental health. As such, it was a test of the least engaging end of the game spectrum and so sheds light on the worst possible set of outcomes rather than acting as a more generalizable midpoint. It was also the first panel study of an online game and the first published study of any game to exceed 1 hour of stimulus time. As a result of their play, the participants experienced declines in some forms of social capital but increases in others. Although the outcomes were generally negative, there were a handful of unexpected positive findings related to worldview and activism. The findings are discussed, along with their implications for civic engagement, theory, and future testing.

New Media Impact

Wartella and Reeves (1985) suggested that fears about new technologies follow a predictable cycle: First, fears emerge out of concern that the new medium might be displacing a more socially acceptable activity. Then fears of health effects appear, followed by fears about deviance and violence. Although there has been inquiry about aggression and delinquency due to video gaming, social and civic impacts have received little attention. The scarce initial research suggests that online game play is correlated with reduced social capital and engagement (Kwak, Skoric, Williams, & Poor, 2004). There is, however, a wide range of possible impacts to explore. Social theorists of the Internet have begun investigating the medium as an agent that substitutes, enlarges, or reconfigures existing social patterns and networks (Monge & Contractor, 2003). …

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