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The perceived meaning of the video game experience: An


exploratory study

Article · April 2014


DOI: 10.1037/a0033828

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Psychology of Popular Media Culture © 2013 American Psychological Association
2014, Vol. 3, No.2, 110-126 2160-4134114/$12.00 001: 1O.1037/a0033828

The Perceived Meaning of the Video Game Experience:


An Exploratory Study

Christopher A. Oswald, Chris Prorock, and Shane M. Murphy


Western Connecticut State University

Psychological research on video game participation has focused on understanding the


effects of games on players, with the content of the game described by researchers, This
media effects approach has been criticized as unnecessarily restricting the scope of
psychological research on video games. It is suggested that psychology research can
benefit from adopting an approach that seeks to understand the experience of game
participants, as is often done in media and communications research. The present study
surveyed undergraduates and respondents from a computer gaming Web site and asked
them to describe what their most recent gaming experience meant to them, A qualitative
analysis of the 173 participants revealed 57 themes that best captured these gaming
experience descriptions, falling into six general categories: Emotional Responses,
Game Play, Social, Outcomes of Game Play, Goals, and Personal Qualities. The results
confirm previous research findings that video game participation is an emotionally
enjoyable experience, which incorporates a strong social dimension, but they also
indicate that video game play is highly goal-directed. Self-determination theory, which
seeks to understand intrinsically motivated behavior in terms of the psychological
needs of autonomy, competence, and relatedness, was suggested as the most relevant
theoretical framework for understanding these results. Descriptions of game meaning
by players were varied and complex, and it is suggested that future psychological
research in this field incorporate more detailed assessment of player experiences in addition
to the traditional approach of analyzing game content. New assessment techniques such as
observation and objective measurement of in-game behavior should be included in psy-
chological research studying video game play.

Keywords: qualitative research, self-determination theory, media effects, video games, violence

There has been tremendous growth in the phones and cell phones, tablets, and handheld
popularity of electronic games since arcade devices (Chatfield, 2010), and there is remark-
games and early home console systems first able variety in the types of games we play.
appeared in the 1970s and 1980s (Williams, These games have also been a popular object of
2002). Games are now played on platforms such study for psychologists. For over 30 years,
as the PC, console systems, Web sites, smart- mainstream psychological research has tended
to focus on either the effects of playing these
games on players' subsequent thoughts, feel-
ings, and behavior, an approach known as the
"media effects" approach to research (Lee &
This article was published Online First November 4,
2013. Peng, 2006), or on the motives that drive game
Christopher A. Oswald, Chris Prorock, and Shane M. play (Olson, 2010),
Murphy, Department of Psychology, Western Connecticut This media effects approach to studying
State University.
video game participation has come under in-
Christopher A. Oswald is now at the School of Education,
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. creasing criticism from psychology researchers
We thank Dan Barrett, Bryan Murphy, and Christopher (Przybylski, Rigby, & Ryan, 2010), who argue
Ferguson for their helpful suggestions on earlier drafts of that it has led to a restrictive focus on certain
this article. types of games (those with violent content).
Correspondence concerning this article should be ad-
dressed to Shane M. Murphy, Department of Psychology,
Currently, there is a vigorous debate concerning
Western Connecticut State University, 181 White Street, the outcome of the psychological research in
Danbury, CT 06810. E-mail: murphys@wcsu.edu this area, with some research (e.g., Anderson &

110
VIDEO GAME MEANING III

Bushman, 2001; Anderson et al., 2008; Bush- this research has made its way into the main-
man & Anderson, 2002; Bushman & Gibson, stream psychological literature on video games
2011; Gentile, Coyne, & Walsh, 2011) suggest- or has informed public statements by psycho-
ing a causal link between playing violent video logical organizations such as the American Psy-
games and subsequent aggression and violence, chological Association's (2005) resolution on
while other studies (e.g., Ferguson, 2007, 2009; Violence in Video Games and Interactive Media
Ferguson, Colwell, Mlacic, Milas, & Mlacic, (APA, 2005). This resolution has been criti-
2011; Gunter & Daly, 2012; Sherry, 2001; von cized by some researchers as greatly overstating
Salisch, Vogelgesang, Kristen, & Oppl, 2011) its recommendations based on available re-
find no causal link or indicate that the relation- search (Ferguson, 2013; Murphy, 2009). Grad-
ship is small or unpredictable. Some studies find ually, alternative psychological models and
both positive and negative effects on prosocial research are emerging that emphasize the cen-
behavior, with the prosocial effects more likely trality of player meaning in understanding video
when children play video games with parents game play (Murphy, 2007; Przybylski et al.,
(Coyne, Padilla-Walker, Stockdale, & Day, 2010).
2011). This issue even reached the Supreme This study seeks to analyze the entire spec-
Court, which in Brown v EMA in 2011 decided trum of responses of a set of players describing
that video games are protected under the First the video game experience in their own words,
Amendment and their sale to minors or others within psychologically meaningful categories.
cannot be prohibited due to concerns of promot- To this end, the study is modeled after research
ing violence (Ferguson, 2013). The Court con- studies that have adopted a qualitative approach
cluded that psychological research suggesting to examining the experiences of participants in
that video game play causes violence was meth- recreational activities such as walking and fig-
odologically flawed, did not show causation, ure skating (Crust, Keegan, Piggott, & Swan,
and addressed, at best, "miniscule real-world 2011; Scanlan, Stein, & Ravizza, 1989), based
effects" (Brown vEMA, 2011, p. 13) rather than on the argument that a feasible research ap-
the issue of social violence, concerns that have proach for understanding video game participa-
been raised by other researchers (Ferguson, tion is to adopt a sport psychology perspective,
2009). viewing video games as a recreational activity
A second criticism of the media effects ap- (Murphy, 2009).
proach in psychology is that it has misplaced the Qualitative research methods are particularly
research focus on the games rather than the appropriate for learning more about individual
players (Lee & Peng, 2006; Weber, Ritterfield, interpretations of and reactions to the experi-
& Kostygina, 2006). Some media and commu- ence of interest (Dale, 1996; Patton, 1990).
nications scholars contend that the meaning of There is a substantial body of emerging quali-
video game play is critical to understanding the tative research across a wide spectrum of video
effects of participation and should be a major game issues (Wolf & Perron, 2003), although
research focus. Jenkins (2006) suggests that the the qualitative research in the mainstream psy-
media effects "model is one of stimulus- chological literature has focused almost exclu-
response" that overlooks the role of the player sively on studying player motivations when
(p. 22) and suggests replacing it with models choosing engagement in video games rather
based on understanding meanings, which than other potential activities (Olson, 2010).
"emerge through an active process of interpre- This motivational research is mostly guided by
tation-they reflect our conscious engagement, existing theories of motivation and is not di-
they can be articulated into words, and they can rected specifically at developing an understand-
be critically examined" (p. 20). In recent years, ing of the game experience from the player's
researchers in fields as diverse as anthropology, viewpoint, but it does provide a broad perspec-
education, linguistics, instructional design, dis- tive on participants' experiences when playing.
course, semiotics, drama, information science, Sherry, Lucas, Greenberg, and Lachlan
and game design have published much research, (2006) used a qualitative focus group approach
from a variety of perspectives, examining in the first phase of their research, focusing on
player experiences in video games (Gee, 2005; the motivations for video game play with a
Steinkuehler, 2006; Van Eck, 2008), but little of sample of undergraduates aged 18 to 22 years,
112 OSW ALD, PROROCK, AND MURPHY

interviewed in small groups. This research sug- studies while focusing solely on the meaning
gested that video games are played to gratify that video game players ascribe to their play.
such motives as competition, challenge, social This is an exploratory study, designed to assess
interaction, diversion from reality, fulfilling players' self-reports of meaning, to determine if
fantasies, and achieving an exciting state of previous research has been able to identify all
arousal. Funk, Chan, Brouwer, and Curtiss the categories of meanings players use in de-
(2006), using a biopsychosocial framework, in- scribing their own play experiences, and to
terviewed a child and an adult sample of game identify possible novel interpretations of game
players to understand the physical, psychologi- meaning not previously categorized. We hope
cal, and social benefits and negative conse- to provide a platform for a wider discussion of
quences of playing video games. For children, game meaning in the mainstream psychological
the psychological gains described included ac- literature.
complishment and pride, competition, entertain-
ment, absorption, fantasizing about game char-
acters, and feelings of excitement; for adults, Method
psychological gains reported included stress re-
lief and relief from boredom, exhilaration, and a Participants
feeling of excitement at being able to engage in
activities that are proscribed in real-life, such as Sample 1. Students from a small northeast-
rule-breaking, defiance of authority, and driving ern liberal arts state university were asked to
fast. Psychological losses for children included participate in this study. Institutional review
being scared, frequent frustration, and worrying board approval was obtained and all AP A eth-
about the possible negative effects of a game, ical guidelines were followed. Students were
and for adults, frustration, impulsive behavior, given a written survey involving several ques-
procrastination, and becoming obsessed with a tionnaires about their video game play and com-
game. pleted it in a classroom for partial course credit.
Kutner, Olson, Warner, and Hertzog (2008) Students < 18 years of age were excluded from
conducted focus groups with adolescent boys participation owing to informed consent issues
aged 12 to 14 years and their parents, focusing and some participants who did not play video
particularly on attitudes toward video games games were not able to respond to the questions,
with violent content. They found that while the leaving a final pool of 92 participants out of an
boys were aware of the potential for harmful
original sample of 109 students. There were 48
influence, they did not think that they would be
males and 44 females in this sample (mean
negatively affected by video game play. Olson,
age = 21 years, standard deviation = 4 years,
Kutner, and Warner (2008) reported on further
minimum age = 18 years, maximum age = 48
analyses of the responses of these boys and an
years).
additional sample recruited from boy's clubs.
Sample 2. To reach a larger sample of
They found that boys were attracted to violent
game players, a request for participation in an
content games as a way of fantasizing about
power and fame, as a means of challenging online survey was posted on several online bul-
themselves and mastering game skills, as a ve- letin boards frequented by players of social on-
hicle to deal with negative emotions such as line games such as World of Wa rc raft (Blizzard,
anger and frustration, and by the attraction of 2004). Again, participants <18 years of age
the many social interactions offered by video were not included in the study. Responses were
game play. voluntary and no inducements were offered.
These qualitative studies provide important Responses to the same written survey were re-
insight into the way in which video games are ceived from 136 individuals, but 55 respondents
experienced by participants, but they are guided did not complete the online questionnaires,
by a defined framework provided by research- leaving 81 participants for inclusion in the final
ers, such as asking why gamers play certain analysis. There were 53 males and 28 females in
types of games, or seeking to understand the this sample (mean age = 25 years, standard
gains and losses of the players. The present deviation = 8 years, minimum age = 18 years,
research project seeks to build on these prior maximum age = 59 years).
VIDEO GAME MEANING 113

The total sample of those surveyed was 173 research literature examined all the responses to
participants, comprising 101 males and 72 fe- look for themes within the data through re-
males. peated responses, clusters of responses, or
unique statements. The researcher identified
Procedure each such theme with an initial label. Themes
were based on "a statement by the participant
Survey data. The data for this study came which was self-definable and self-delimiting in
from written responses to an open-ended ques- the expression of a single, recognizable aspect
tion: "Think about your most recent experience of the subject's experience" (Cloonan, 1971, p.
playing a video or computer game. Think of a 117). Themes were developed inductively at
time when you played for at least 30 minutes. this stage, that is, the themes emerged from a
What game was it that you played? [space for careful reading of the survey responses (induc-
answer]. Please describe what happened when tive analysis) rather than being imposed on the
you played this game. Try to describe what that responses according to predetermined catego-
game experience meant to you." The question ries (the deductive approach).
was constructed to ask players about their most Some qualitative analyses use computer pro-
recent experience with a game that lasted a grams to organize the data during this stage, but
significant amount of time. for this study the analysis was done by the
Our goal was to study the perceived meaning researchers due to the idiosyncratic language
of the game experience across any game type, and jargon of game players, which would render
and so unlike most previous research, we did a strictly textual analysis ineffective if not coun-
not place restrictions on the type of game that terproductive to a full understanding of the data
participants discussed, nor did we focus exclu- (Davis & Meyer, 2009).
sively on violent games. There have been at- Across all participants, 9633 words of re-
tempts to categorize types of video games using sponses were analyzed. This represented an av-
various classification schemes (Smith, 2006), erage response of 55.6 words per respondent
but all such schemes have problems capturing (range 7-142).
the blistering pace and range of technological Content analysis. A list of 60 themes was
innovations in this field (Przybylski et al., initially identified and a brief definition was
2010). Broadly speaking, the students chose to provided for each. We then began the process
describe sports, puzzle/casual, and music games that Patton terms investigator triangulation:
most often, while the online sample chose mas- having two or more researchers independently
sively multiplayer online (MMO) games more analyze the data and compare their findings.
frequently, which is unsurprising given that we Two additional researchers, a faculty member
drew our online sample from Web sites fre- and a psychology graduate student, who have
quented mainly by such online game players. A each been conducting research on the psychol-
large number of the online sample also de- ogy of video game play for several years, ana-
scribed sports game experiences. Action/ lyzed the qualitative data.
adventure, role-playing games, first-person After the themes were defined, all three re-
shooter (FPS), and fighting games were popular searchers independently reviewed all the writ-
choices in both samples. Across both samples, ten responses and coded them with regard to
participants discussed games played on both which themes were represented in every re-
PCs and on game consoles, while a few players sponse. All three researchers then compared
discussed hand-held games. Our focus was on their results to triangulate a coding for each
the shared aspects of the video game experi- response of the 173 participants that fully cap-
ence, not differences due to genre types. tured the responses of all. Most responses con-
Qualitative data analysis. We used the ba- tained multiple themes, but any specific part of
sic approach to qualitative analysis as described a response (a unit) was coded with only one
by Patton (1990), paying special attention to the theme. There were 641 units labeled in this
methodology for interpreting the experience fashion (399 from the student sample and 242
while limiting the amount of researcher bias. As from the online sample, an average of 3.7 units
a first step, a graduate student in psychology per participant). If all three researchers agreed
who was unfamiliar with the video game play that a theme was present in a response, it was
114 OSWALD, PRO ROCK, AND MURPHY

accepted. In the event that they did not agree, into categories. Only when all three analysts
the response was discussed until a consensus agreed upon all categories was the process com-
was reached as to whether the theme was pres- plete. We named each category and subcategory
ent and descriptive of the response under dis- only after the groupings were finished. The the-
cussion. When necessary, definitions were fur- ories and models of the video game play liter-
ther clarified to better handle disputes. As ature were used when relevant to help identify
triangulation went on, a few new themes were and name the categories and subcategories that
consensually added and some were removed or had emerged, thus adding a deductive compo-
merged into existing themes. nent to the inductive analysis (Gibbs, 2007).
With a final list of themes identified and This process ended in a hierarchy with six major
matched to responses, the themes were ordered categories, 13 subcategories and 57 themes that
into a hierarchy (Patton, 1990). This was done encompassed all of the themes identified by the
by taking the various themes and grouping them researchers.
into similar clusters by looking for shared traits
or similarities. Researchers who have used a Results
similar methodology for qualitative data analy-
sis have described this process as "a conceptual Six major categories were identified in the
factor analysis" (Scanlan et aI., 1989). The clus- data analysis: Emotional Responses, Game
ters were arranged from most specific, which Play, Social, Outcomes of Game Play, Goals,
was the original themes themselves, to the most and Personal Qualities. Table 1 describes these
general common quality they shared. Two prin- categories and shows how many participants
ciples emphasized by Patton (1990) were used mentioned a theme within each category and
to facilitate this process. First, we attempted to how many themes were grouped within each
define all themes so that they were mutually category.
exclusive of each other. Second, higher-order By providing some quantitative data within
categories attempted to capture most of the low- our qualitative analysis, we hope to provide a
er-order themes so as to leave as few themes as means to assess the broad representativeness of
possible uncategorized. Once again the process our findings across this particular sample. But
emphasized agreement between the three ana- as other researchers who have used a qualitative
lysts. After each had produced his own hierar- approach have pointed out (Scanlan et aI.,
chy, the analysts met and used a visual display 1989), the numerical data should be considered
of all the themes to facilitate the final clustering secondary to the actual qualitative analysis re-

Table 1
Number of Participants Expressing a Theme Within the Major Categories

Number of Number of
partici pants Percentage themes in
Category (N = 173) of total category Description

Emotional 127 73% 13 Themes expressing game playas a positive or negative


responses emotional experience, or as avoidance of negative
emotions
Game play 109 63% 16 Themes expressing the process of how the game was
played, immersion in it, or
satisfaction/dissatisfaction
Social 63 36% 9 Themes describing relationships such as friendships
derived from playing, competition, or gaming with
others
Outcomes of 58 34% 9 Themes describing anticipated outcomes such as
game play achievement and failure, or unanticipated outcomes
such as obsessive playing or somatic symptoms
Goals 47 27% 6 Themes describing the goals players set, either
individually or collectively
Personal qualities 18 10% 3 Themes describing perceived level of ability,
competitive nature, or self-control
VIDEO GAME MEANING liS

suits and interpreted with some caution. A given themes expressed. For example, a single sub-
theme might have been mentioned by just a few ject may have reported the themes of Excite-
participants, for example, but it might be an ment, Intensity, and Nostalgia, but would still
important finding because it reveals a new be counted just once in the Positive Emotions
understanding of the gaming experience or subcategory.
suggests avenues for research that have been The six categories that emerged from the
overlooked. qualitative data analysis support some recent
In the Tables 2-7 describing each of the six trends in the psychological research on video
categories, the higher-order subcategories that games. The most commonly mentioned themes
emerged from data analysis are shown, and the expressed by our respondents clustered together
number of participants and percentages of the in a category we called Emotional Responses,
total sample who reported each of the themes consisting of three subcategories: Positive Emo-
and subcategories within each category is given. tions, Avoiding Negative Emotions, and Nega-
For every theme, an illustrative quote is pro- tive Emotions (see Table 2). These were among
vided in the accompanying table (the "sample the simplest themes to identify and this category
quote"). emerged early and consistently during the data
Although some participants mentioned a analysis process. Almost three-quarters of our
theme twice, the frequencies presented here sample used emotional descriptors in discussing
count only one theme per participant so as not to the meaning of their gaming experience. By far
give some participants more influence than oth- the largest subcategory in our study was Posi-
ers on the final results. For example, a partici- tive Emotions, although fun/enjoyment has
pant who mentioned Excitement twice is sometimes not emerged as a dimension of video
counted only once in Table 2. However, some game motivation in previous mixed methods
subjects reported multiple themes from the studies (e.g., Sherry et al., 2006).
same category, so numbers for the higher-order Game Play, the process of mastering the tech-
subcategories are not simply the sums of all nical and skills challenges of the game, becoming

Table 2
Emotional Responses

Subcategory Number of Percentage


Theme participants of total Sample quote

Positive emotions 89 51%


Fun 68 39% The game provides a fun experience playing hockey.
Excitement 15 9% When I play this game it is exciting.
intensity 9 5% The experience gave me an adrenaline rush.
Nostalgia 6 3% I used to play this 5 years ago regularly and loved it.
Humor 5 3% I looked at my friend I was playing with and I just started
laughing.
Avoiding negative emotions 34 20%
Reduced boredom i4 8% Gives me something to do when I'm done with homework
and friends are busy.
Relaxation 9 5% I spend every day at work or school thinking, and it's
nice to be able to relax.
Stress relief 8 5% Playing World of Ware raft is something I do as a form of
catharsis for the built-up emotions and energies from
school.
Escape 8 5% World of Warcraft is something that I can come home to
and just zone out.
Negative emotions 22 13%
Frustration 12 7% It made me feel frustrated to lose by 1 point.
Boredom 4 2% It was fun but got boring after a while.
Anger 3 2% By the end of the games someone usually gets really mad.
Anxiety 3 2% I ran around with my nerves teetering on the breaking
point.
116 OSW ALD, PROROCK, AND MURPHY

Table 3
Game Play

Subcategory Number of Percentage


Theme participants of total Sample quote

Process of game play 64 37%


Mechanics 27 16% I matched colored arrows up with movements.
Challenge 18 10% I felt like the game challenged my intellect and skills.
Simulation 12 7% I played songs on the guitar.
Violent actions 12 7% We had a great time, talked crap, and killed each other.
Physical activity 7 4% It makes me feel good because [ have fun doing it and
it gives me a good workout.
Violent content 5 3% I thought the game was pretty cool because ... anything
you see can be blown up.
Involvement and
immersion 50 29%
Character fantasy 19 11% I vicariously experience being a major league baseball
player.
Engrossing game play 15 9% I didn't answer several phone calls while playing.
Discovery 10 6% I felt excited that [ was doing something new to the
game.
Heroic fantasy 8 5% I felt like a Madden God.
Multiple roles 6 3% [ played three different characters.
Autonomy 3 2% [I] enjoy exerting the control over the development of
the civilization.
Creativity 2 1% I like the solos because they give you a chance to be
creative and impress everyone.
Evaluation of game play 30 17%
Game play dissatisfaction 12 7% I didn't like the social status of the game because the
conversations weren't real and didn't make sense.
Lack of meaning 10 6% It didn't mean that much to me.
Game play satisfaction 8 5% Really nice graphics, the game responds very well to all
command[s].

imaginatively involved, and feeling satisfied or the game as an outlet for their Creativity. Players
dissatisfied by the experience, was a major cate- also expressed their opinions as to whether the
gory in this research. Game Play consisted of three game satisfied them (Evaluation of Game Play).
subcategories: Process of Game Play, Involve- The most frequently expressed theme in this sub-
ment and Immersion, and Evaluation of Game category was the articulation of overall unhappi-
Play (see Table 3). Many players tried to explain ness with the gaming experience (Game Play Dis-
what the game meant to them by telling us about satisfaction), and several players stated explicitly
the game, their involvement with it, and evalua- that they found a Lack of Meaning in their
tion of it. Almost two thirds of our sample men- gaming.
tioned at least one of the themes in this category. Over 36% of our total sample described their
Participants in our study thought that understand- game experience at least partly in social terms,
ing the controls and the rules of the game they and these themes clustered into three subcate-
were playing was an important aspect of a suc- gories, Relationships, Competition, and Social
cessful play experience. Immersion in the game Gaming (see Table 4). One of the most common
was also important: players fantasized about their descriptions of the gaming experience was in
role within the game (Character Fantasy, Heroic terms of playing with and against roommates,
Fantasy); described exploring new locations in a spouses, and friends. Our participants often em-
virtual world and sometimes a sense of surprise at phasized maintaining existing friendships, play-
discovering new aspects of the game or the game ing with or against their friends, spouses, room-
play (Discovery); became so completely im- mates, or others. They also talked about online
mersed in the experience that they temporarily lost friendships that developed from playing the
track of reality (Engrossing Game Play); and used game itself. Sometimes participants described
VIDEO GAME MEANING 117

Table 4
Social

Subcategory Number of Percentage


Theme participants of total Sample quote

Relationships 44 25%
Friendship outside of 33 /9% My friend and I played at his house because I didn't have the
game system.
Communication /0 6% The game is the only way I can really spend time with this friend
due to location of our homes so it meant quality time to talk.
Friendship in the game 8 5% I just had a friend online and wanted to play with him ... 1 like
being social (even if its online).
Competition 28 16%
Player competition /8 /0% I love music and playing guitar against other people (especially in
battles).
Competitive artificial
intelligence (AI) play 9 5% I felt a challenge to best the computer.
Tournament 2 1% I was singing and had a tournament with my little cousins.
Social gaming 13 8%
Cooperation 6% "[T]eam is the key to survival-the team is depending on you."
Group enjoyment "3 2% I was playing with a group of friends and the experience was an
enjoyable one.
Altruistic game play 2 /% I logged on to help my friend level.

their social interactions in terms of their Com- ference between themes in the two categories was
munication with others while playing, such as that players intended and/or expected the results in
via "party chat" (a text-based group chat ap- the Anticipated Outcomes subcategory, such as
plication in the game), an aspect of gaming proudly describing their accomplishments in the
that is becoming increasingly important as game, recounting their failures, and mentioning
many games are embedded in social online new skills they gained, whereas they described the
structures such as Facebook (Axelsson & Unanticipated Outcomes, such as Obsessive Play-
Regan, 2006). ing and experiencing Somatic Symptoms such as
The fourth category that emerged from the muscle aches and dizziness, as undesirable and
analysis was Outcomes of Game Play, consisting unwanted.
of two subcategories: Anticipated Outcomes, and These outcome themes are closely tied to
Unanticipated Outcomes (see Table 5). The dif- those contained in the fifth category, Goals,

Table 5
Outcomes of Game Play

Subcategory Number of Percentage


Theme participants of total Sample quote

Anticipated outcomes 49 23%


Achievement 31 18% I played for I Y2 hr and got to World 5!
Pride 10 6% That game experience gave me a sense of accomplishment.
Failure 9 5% I never beat the last level.
Skill development 8 /6% It's a hobby that I enjoy becoming more skillful at.
Perseverance 4 2% I kept losing but I kept trying.
Unanticipated Outcomes 21 12%
Obsessive playing 9 5% I played until I realized how late it had gotten, and I needed
to go to bed.
Verbal taunting 6 3% We like to talk smack to each other.
Somatic symptoms 4 2% When I play video games for awhile I get really bad
headaches and feel dizzy.
Aroused behavior 2 1% When r couldn't complete a mission I would get pissed/
throw the controllers and stop.
118 OSWALD, PROROCK, AND MURPHY

Table 6
Goals

Subcategory Number of Percentage


Theme participants of total Sample quote

Individual goals 39 23%


Progress goals 30 17% I was playing a career mode where you playas yourself in the game
and try to make it in the pros.
Personal goals 7 4% I also like to complete the game quickly.
A voidance goals 3 2% I also used it to procrastinate from doing schoolwork.
Excellence goals 3 2% I try to be the best in my mind.
Social goals 11 6%
Competitive goals 6 3% T got competitive with my roommate trying to beat her high score.
Group goals 5 3% We couldn't fail or the game would be over so you had to work as
a team.

which contains two subcategories: Individual The final category that emerged from the
Goals and Social Goals (see Table 6). Individ- analysis was the smallest, Personal Qualities. It
ual Goals were under the player's individual contained no subcategories and was character-
control. The most common goals referred to ized by player evaluations of their temperament
specific game objectives, such as reaching a and ability. Three themes comprised this cate-
target, gaining a skill, or finishing a mission gory: Perceived Level of Ability, Competitive
(Progress Goals). Personal Goals were ex- Nature, and Self-Control (see Table 7). In de-
pressed uniquely to the player and were not scribing the challenge of gaming, several play-
obviously contained within the structure of the ers described their skill level at the game in
game. Further themes in this subcategory in- question, often comparing their skill with that of
cluded Excellence Goals and Avoidance Goals, their opponents (Perceived Level of Ability).
when the purpose of playing was to avoid real The most frequent comment was that players
life responsibilities. sought an evenly matched competition. There
Social Goals differed from individual goals was a feeling that competing against a more
in that they expressed objectives that could only highly skilled player might lead to frustration
be completed with or against other players. but that beating an equally skilled competitor
These types of goals indicate a keen awareness was satisfying.
of the social nature of gaming for many of our Some players gave unsolicited evaluations of
respondents. The Competitive Goals theme was themselves as having a Competitive Nature.
usually described in terms of setting goals to This must be significant in a video game context
beat another player, while the Group Goals for some players as it was the only personality-
theme described shared objectives that required type variable thus mentioned. Perhaps partici-
players to work together. pating in a competitive activity such as gaming

Table 7
Personal Qualities

Category Number of Percentage of


Theme participants total sample Sample quote

Personal qualities 18 10%


Perceived level of ability 10 6% My friends and I are about the same skill level and I won.
I was very happy.
Competitive nature 6 3% I am a very competitive person.
Self-control 3 2% I don't play video games unless I'm with a group of
people ... We usually don't play them for more than
an hour.
VIDEO GAME MEANING 119

makes this aspect of one's self more salient to video games is stressful and anger-inducing but
the player. The final theme in our analysis was is also reinforcing has always been a conun-
that of Self-Control, typified by participants drum for the media effects approach. Our find-
who described using some type of time man- ings suggest that players rarely experience
agement strategy as they played, such as the video game playas stressful, instead experienc-
20-year-old female who said, "Then I forced ing them typically as positive, often as stress-
myself to stop and study." reducing, sometimes as frustrating or boring.
A second major finding in this study is that
Discussion participants have a wide variety of goals they
seek to fulfill when gaming. Two categories
The qualitative findings of this research pro- identified in our analysis, Goals and Outcomes
vide a detailed picture of the perceived game of Game Play, paint a picture of participants
experience of video game players in their own who evaluate their experiences in terms of suc-
words. Four major findings emerge strongly cess and failure in reaching their goals, taking
from our results. Three of these findings are pride in their game accomplishments and skill
supportive of prior qualitative and quantitative development. Discussion of the goal-directed
research on player motivations. First, the over- nature of video gaming has been largely absent
whelming majority of players describe game from the mainstream psychological literature,
playas a positive emotional experience. An indicating a possible disconnect between re-
emerging alternative to the media effects per- searcher-developed frameworks of video gam-
spective emphasizes this affective nature of ing and the experiences of players themselves.
video game participation. As suggested by This finding that players set goals related to
Ryan, Rigby, and Przybylski (2006), a self- achievement, progress, excellence, competition,
determination theory (SDT) analysis of video and teamwork once again supports Ryan et aI.'s
game play suggests that video games are expe- (2006) notion that autonomy (a participant's
rienced as intrinsically rewarding by players. sense of volition in performing an activity) and
They are pursued for their own sake because competence (feelings of challenge and achieve-
they satisfy the three basic human needs of ment) are central motives for video game play.
autonomy, competence, and relatedness (Deci Some researchers have used Csikszentmihalyi's
& Ryan, 2000). The centrality of the gaming (1990) concept of flow, which suggests that
experience as Fun (mentioned by 39% of our individuals experience the metamotivational
participants) is central to the notion of game state of flow when performing a challenging
playas intrinsically rewarding: "Why do so activity with the appropriate level of skill, to
many people spend so much time engaged in further understand why goals and skills are so
such [video] games? The immediate and most important to players (Cowley, Charles, Black,
obvious answer is 'because they are fun.' In- & Hickey, 2008). Video game participation is
deed, video game play differs markedly from apparently an activity akin to sports, often in-
activities that are engaged in for some form of volving skill development and personal chal-
external reward (e.g., payment for work)" (Pr- lenges. Athletes describe similar goals for their
zybylski et aI., 2010, p. 154). sports participation (Harwood, 2005).
Participants also referred to reduced negative The strikingly active role that social themes
feelings, and a smaller number of players de- played in player descriptions of their experi-
scribed negative emotions when playing, of ences was the third major finding of our study.
which the most common was frustration. The Nearly all investigations of motives for video
negative emotions putatively associated with game play have identified a social factor (Fer-
playing violent video games have been elevated guson & Olson, 2012; Olson, 2010; Sherry et
to a central focus in much psychological re- aI., 2006; Yee, 2007). Over a third of partici-
search (Buckley & Anderson, 2006), but our pants in our sample described relationships with
results found that negative emotions such as others when discussing their experience, includ-
anger and anxiety were salient for a small num- ing friendships formed through games as well as
ber of players, even though many of them dis- preexisting friendships strengthened through
cussed playing violent-content games such as mutual play. Feelings of relatedness (Deci &
FPSs and MMOs. The idea that playing violent Ryan, 2000) are generated when individuals
120 OSW ALD, PROROCK, AND MURPHY

feel connected with others and this seemed to the world to Silvermoon and he shared the quest he had
to do with me. By my tanking we were able to do lots
occur frequently during gaming experiences for
of quests in a small amount of time. During this game-
our participants, providing further support for play I believe our friendship that had already existed in
the relevance of SDT in understanding the game RL [real life] grew because I was willing to help him
experience. Competition between players was even though the quests were low level for me. Then I
forced myself to stop and study.
another kind of social interaction frequently
mentioned by our participants, as was the expe- This fourth finding suggests that the common
rience of social gaming, including cooperating mainstream psychological research strategy of
with others to achieve common goals, and even evaluating game content in order to understand
altruistic game play. Social scientists have in- games and to determine psychological effects
vestigated a wide range of social influences in on players has inherent limitations. These lim-
video games (Chen, 2009; Ducheneaut & itations and suggestions for improving future
Moore, 2004; Jakobsson & Taylor, 2003; Seay, video game research based on our results are
Jerome, Lee, & Kraut, 2004) although assess- discussed next.
ment of the influence of social factors on player
perceptions of game features such as violence Psychology Research Should Focus on the
and competition has been lacking (Anderson & Actual Play Experience via Assessment of
Carnagey, 2009). Player Perceptions and Observation of
The centrality of positive emotions, player
Game Behavior, in Addition to
goals, and social relationships in this sample of
players supports the notion that SDT has the
Understanding Game Content
potential to be a unifying theoretical framework
One of the central features of a great deal of
in the field of video game research (Murphy, existing research on the psychological conse-
2009; Przybylski et al., 2010). The substantial quences of video game play is that the content
body of research on sport and exercise supports of the game is assessed in some manner to
the cognitive evaluation theory (the major sub- establish a relationship between it and subse-
theory of SDT) prediction that autonomy and quent player behavior, affect, and cognition.
competence predict interest and sustained par- Nearly all existing research that shows a rela-
ticipation in these activities (Ryan & Deci, tionship between violent content and subse-
2007) and similar findings are emerging in the quent aggression is based on this methodology
study of video games (Przybylski, Weinstein, of content analysis (Anderson & Carnagey,
Ryan, & Rigby, 2009; Wang, Khoo, Liu, & 2009; Anderson & Ford, 1986; Carnagey &
Divaharan, 2008). Anderson, 2005). Our results indicate three ma-
The fourth finding that emerges from our data jor problems with this approach, but they also
analysis is the overall complex character of the suggest new assessment approaches that can
varied responses to our simple question, what address these problems.
did this mean? Our qualitative approach cap- First, our results showed that the game expe-
tured the varied personal meanings ascribed to rience is often not reflective of the apparent
their gaming experiences by our sample, a com- content of the game. Researchers must be care-
plexity not revealed by merely examining Ta- ful not to assume, for example, that the social
bles 2-7 and the sample quotes we provided. dimension of a game is necessarily determined
We were struck by the first-person accounts of by its design or by analysis of game content.
gaming experiences and the apparent identifica- Our data suggest that even a richly social game,
tion with games and characters described by such as World of Warcraft, can be played as
participants, revealing how game pla~ ~e~ges essentially a single-player game requiring no
with and influences other areas of an individu- social interaction if, for example, a participant
al's life. For example, a 20-year-old female turns off all social communication channels,
player's description of a game experience re- ignores other players, and focuses on solo game
veals social goals, cooperation, altruism, time play goals. Likewise, violent content in a game
management, and a blossoming relationship: did not determine a violent game play experi-
I logged on to help my friend level. I played my alt ence. We found prosocial and even altruistic
(level 12) to level his level 8. I flew to the other side of experiences described by players of the game
VIDEO GAME MEANING 121

World of Warcraft, which has a high level of nature of the game content by the players of the
violent content and has been a focus of much game who participate in the research; or using
research on pathological gaming (Pawlikowski the ratings and descriptions of game content
& Brand, 2011; Sublette & Mullan, 2010), and provided by external evaluators such as the En-
other researchers have found that many violent tertainment Software Ratings Board. Up until
video games contain numerous pro social now, no viable alternative to these three ap-
themes (Ferguson & Garza, 2011). Such find- proaches has been suggested. However, the
ings can emerge from studying player experi- present research study suggests that asking
ences but are difficult to identify from analyzing players about their perceptions of their game
game content. While research into the lived experience, rather than asking them to rate the
experiences of game players has flourished in content of the game played, can be a valid
some fields such as anthropology and ethnogra- research tool. An analogy is provided by the
phy (Nardi, 2009; Shaw, 2010), it has been history of stress assessment research. The first
largely absent from the mainstream psychology widely used measure of human stress was the
literature. Social Readjustment Rating Scale (Holmes &
A second problem with using game content to Rahe, 1967). Items on this scale were weighted
define a player's experience is that the social by the researchers, who made a determination
factor we identified in our results provides a of how much change each event necessitated.
context that can dramatically alter the player's Measured in this way, stress was a weak pre-
perceptions of the game. Social interaction dur- dictor of health. Later conceptualizations of
ing play can change the experience of the par- stress by Lazarus and Folkman (1984) sug-
ticipants in ways that those evaluating the game gested that assessment should not conceptualize
content may not anticipate. Game publishers stress as an objective environmental stimulus
themselves acknowledge this issue, as many but instead must assess the meaning of the event
games today come with the warning to players for the individual. Current stress research uses
that "Game play may change during online assessments that ask respondents to rate their
play." Our results suggest that in some, perhaps perceptions of stress rather than relying on re-
many, situations, this social context is the pri- searcher judgments of the nature of an event and
mary influence on the participant's experience, a stronger stress- health relationship emerges
rather than the game content itself. This hypoth- (Searle & Bennett, 2001). Similar techniques
esis is certainly worthy of testing. can and should be used in future video game
The third problem with content analysis that research.
emerged from our research is that participants To complement assessment of game content
reported playing games of such length that a full and player perceptions, another practical and
analysis of the game content would be impos- easily implemented assessment approach would
sible. Many players discussed playing games be to assess actual in-game behavior of players.
with> 100 hr of content, and some with >300 When assessing violence issues in sports, re-
hr of content, while players of the popular on- searchers in sport psychology do not rate the
line MMO games sometimes described partici- "violent content" of the game being played, for
pating for thousands of hours over several years example, hockey or football, but instead mea-
of play. Many new games also have randomly sure the violent or aggressive actions of players
generated content, so that no two players will during play (e.g., Kavussanu, Stamp, Slade, &
ever experience the same game play (e.g., Ring, 2009; Rascle & Coulomb, 2003; Sage &
Skyrim, Minecraft). Clearly, rating the full game Kavussanu, 2007). This methodology should
content of such games is impossible. also be suitable for video game research. Play-
The problem of assessing game content has ers can be asked which behaviors they engaged
been identified as a critical one for the field by in during play; researchers can observe game
other researchers. Ferguson (2010), for example, play and assess the total number of occurrences
discusses the limitations of the three methods of aggressive or violent actions; or in-game
typically used by researchers: expert assess- tracking features can be used to record activi-
ments by the researchers, who examine the con- ties, for example, most FPS games record
tent of the video games being studied and rate "number of kills," "head shots," "deaths" and so
the violence of the game content; rating the on during a play session. Furthermore, this
122 OSW ALD, PROROCK, AND MURPHY

methodology can be used with other behaviors playing video games. Finally, some of our par-
engaged in during game play, including proso- ticipants described the use of self-control strat-
cial as well as antisocial behaviors. While some egies such as time management to help them
video games largely determine the experience keep their video game activities in balance
of the player via limited options and uniformity with other life priorities. This last finding may
of content, many video games today offer a suggest an effective strategy to combat the
wide range of play styles. Assessment of actual obsessive aspect of playing identified by
game experiences should be a simple step for some participants.
psychology researchers and one that promises to Finally, there are some limitations of the
open up entire new areas of assessment and present research study that deserve discussion.
research. First, our methodology did not allow us to sur-
Qualitative research always carries the limi- vey participants immediately after their game
tation that with different researchers, or even experience, so our data are subject to possibil-
the same researchers under different conditions, ities of biased recollection, changing or forget-
theme analyses may have been different. This ting memories, or overlooking aspects of game
suggests the need for mixed-methods research, play that were significant at the time (Nisbett &
which uses both qualitative and quantitative Wilson, 1977). Because our focus was on as-
analyses. Convergence among different re- sessing participants' interpretations of the
search studies also strengthens confidence in meaning of past game experiences, we expected
qualitative findings. Themes that were identified such possible reevaluations and this was not a
in previous qualitative studies that also ap- major problem, but research interviewing par-
peared in our analysis include competition, ticipants during or immediately after their game
challenge, social interaction, diversion from re- play would be a welcome further step in this
ality, excitement, arousal, mastering game research process. It would be informative, for
skills, accomplishment and pride, cooperation, example, to assess how an individual's subjec-
entertainment, absorption, fantasizing about tive experiences of games vary over time or
game characters, stress relief and relief from between different games. The behavioral ap-
boredom, somatic complaints, obsessive play- proach we suggested for future research would
ing, violent content, and frustration (Funk et al., also be needed to address some elements of the
2006; Olson et al., 2008; Sherry et al., 2006). game experience, for example, arousal, affect,
Such commonalities among these studies and and aroused behavior, which may not be accu-
ours give us greater confidence in our findings. rately recognized or reported by players in a
Our analysis also diverged in some ways self-report study such as this.
from previous studies. Perhaps more than any Our research did not try to account for pos-
previous study, this research suggests that sible differences in experience between genders
player goals are a critical component of the or among individuals of varying cultural back-
meaning of the game experience, shaping in- grounds, as our qualitative methodology was
game choices and activities, evaluations of and poorly suited to such analyses and there was no
reactions to the game, and emotional experi- random or representative selection of a diverse
ences. Our respondents also provided us with a sample of participants. The convenience sample
more nuanced picture of participants' emotional of students we used and our recruitment of
response palette than has emerged from most respondents from an MMO Web site also limit
other studies, describing not only fun and ex- the representativeness of our results. Broader
citement, but also intensity, nostalgia, humor, samples, including a wider range of respon-
frustration, anger, anxiety, and being bored. Our dents, demographically and by age, would en-
participants also engaged in some self-reflection hance follow-up research. Funk et al. (2006),
that was not characteristic of prior research, for example, identified distinctly different con-
identifying several personal qualities that be- cerns in a sample of children compared a sam-
come salient when gaming. The first of these ple of adults. The perceived meanings we iden-
were descriptions of their perceived level of tified apply to a sample of mainly young adults,
ability, comparing their own skills with those of many of them in college.
others. Our participants also noticed their own Our research took place immediately before
competitive nature emerging in the context of the surge in popularity of mobile, freemium,
VIDEO GAME MEANING 123

and casual games that are simply designed and The themes that emerged in this study were well
suitable for mobile devices such as smartphones captured within the SDT framework of auton-
and tablets. Such games can quickly attract mil- omy, competence, and relatedness, the same
lions of users worldwide (Anderson, 2012; motives that drive participation in other intrin-
Wortham, 2010). It will be exciting to extend sically rewarding forms of recreation such as
this type of qualitative methodology to an anal- sport. At the same time, there are a number of
ysis of such games and perhaps to even newer factors related to game play, mechanics, and the
interactive "augmented reality" devices and fantasy and immersive aspects of games that
software that are on the horizon. differentiate the video game experience from
Previous studies have varied widely in their other pursuits such as sport. The present study
descriptions of their methodologies, ranging contributes to an emerging interdisciplinary
from cursory descriptions of data analysis such view of what the video game experience
as "interviews were analyzed for repeated means to the individual participant and points
themes" (Sherry et al., 2006), to detailed ac- to some exciting new research possibilities
counts of qualitative methods used (Kutner et for psychologists.
al., 2008). Clear descriptions of methodologies
give researchers some confidence that inherent
biases in qualitative analyses were avoided as References
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