Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Video gamers depressed drunks, alone forever

If you read the media reports on a BYU School of Family Life study concerning college students and video games, it's very likely that you saw a headline like the one above, or a Scary Image like the one at the top of this story. But the findings don't match the spin.

A BYU undergrad undertook a study attempting to pinpoint gaming's role as a mediating factor in other antisocial behavior (weakened relationships, drug and alcohol use). In a nutshell (read the story using the link above for more), the study found a modest correlation between some negative relationship and life outcomes and regular gaming.

Unfortunately, the world media has taken a study measuring a mere correlation and tried to force a connection that sociological research has yet to measure (and in fact conflicts with several other studies). Headlines like BYU Study: Hello video games, goodbye family/friends (Network World) hardly elevated the discourse, allowing this incident to serve as a prime example of the public at large misinterpreting and dumbing down research.

Kotaku commenter Ascanus gives a rundown on some of the difficulties with the study, meaning less that a survey such as this isn't relevant than that conclusive research needs to be done before confident conclusions can be reached.

The fact that BYU's news team decided to call their report "Report: Video Gamers May Be Virtually on Their Own" before renaming it, and included hysterical, stereotypical images like the one I've posted above led me to send a message to the BYU NewsNet with the following message:

I have significant issues with the "Video Gamers May Be Virtually on Their Own" feature on BYU's main page. A link to the survey [see below] and adherence to sociological principles of statistical significance and mediating factors in the reporting would have helped. (I should mention that I don't necessarily have a problem with the research team or their methods, but the reporting and slant in the study.)

It is mentioned in the study that the team found only a modest relationship between increased levels of gaming and antisocial behavior. However both the titling of the story and the related content (shots of a disgruntled, caffeinated gamer holding a controller in an unusual way) seem sensationalistic and stereotypical. It left license for the mainstream media to jump on the story, which of course they have done, concocting ever-more vivid headlines and further removing themselves from any data in the story. This seems irresponsible as it leads people everywhere to false conclusions (the story was picked up worldwide) and colors their impression of BYU.

For the reporting on this feature to adhere to journalistic standards it would need to address previous data indicating that the gender gap between gamers is not very great when computer and online games are considered, as well as studies indicating that mild-to-moderate gamers reported stronger bonds with the friends they "game" with. The misleading title, writing and accompanying images would also need to be fixed.

Again, the reporting on the study (or survey - I searched the journal mentioned but couldn't find the article so I don't know the methodology used) doesn't seem to match the obvious editorial slant taken in the story. Even the professor who headed the study has urged moderation in making rash conclusions as a result of the study (http://kotaku.com/5139973/utah-prof-backpedals-says-study-doesnt-prove-gaming-is-bad-for-you). I'm sure that Professor Walker would like this resolved, as well as people who find this type of research interesting but don't want it to become a platform for misleading coverage and analysis.

Dustin Steinacker

The representative (Joe) responded quickly with a link to the study (which was linked in the article but not visible due to what I assume is a slight blue-black colorblindness on my part) and some related clarifications. The study is more well thought-out than I thought, but the stark differences with other similar studies prompt my concern. That said, this appears to be a decent study done reasonably well with the resources a single student had available. Though I don't believe the student did all of the important research (contrasting "social" games you play with people in the same room with more solitary online or single-player experiences would have been helpful, and the Likert scale they used is technically sound but awkward), I now have issues only with the slant taken with the headline and accompanying photos.

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