World of Warcraft meets the academy…

I just went to such an amazing colloquium (In-school academic presentation), that I had to write a post on it. Hopefully I’ll meet up with this post-doctoral scholar in the next few days as it will be cool to keep the conversation going and reflect upon what I’ve written here. We’ve got a new Prof at Fuller in the School of Psychology, previously from Oxford. He’s rather cool, and he’s brought some post-doctoral students with him, one named Ryan Hornbeck – a PhD who received his degree studying Chinese World of Warcraft.

Now, I mentioned to Tim that there was a potential collision of our worlds in this presentation, meaning the academic (me) and gaming (Tim), and he said “pffff! WoW (World of Warcraft) is for jerks” and he refused to come along. However, I think this was a missed opportunity… and hopefully he is reading … the power of social networking to prove a point to one’s husband. #brilliant.

For those who are back thinking “this dude got a PhD in World of Warcraft? Is that possible?” – well, the shortest answer is that anything can be a PhD. But for critics who would consider this topic a waste of time, Ryan pulled out these stats:

  • Video Gaming is a 68 billion a year industry (Hollywood = 9 billion).
  • WoW just hit 12 million subscriptions; 4 million at least are ‘regular’ players or on at one time around the world.
  • Dedication to this game is amazing – some players sit 12 hours straight without even taking a bathroom break – and employers are now asking how to get this  type of productivity from their workers.

In my opinion, it’s pretty close-minded to think that something that affects this much of the world could be irrelevant. So I was quite excited to hear the results of his PhD.

Firstly, for those maternal types, playing a computer for 12 hours at a time with no break is bad. And, it is very rude not to answer your parents while they are talking to you… But, as Tim points out, the average age of gamers is around 35. So we’re not talking 12 year olds. This research group was with university students in China. Within Ryan’s research, he has found that the American Psychological Society considers gaming to not fit the category of a medical addiction. It does, however, fill gaps in people’s lives, that they search for unconsciously. He likens this physiologically to the kind of response you receive from hearing a predator behind you in the bush/forest. When you hear that sound, you stop thinking about other things. You aren’t worrying about your test results, or whether your girlfriend is happy. You are thinking about defense, and this thought has all your attention. It’s that kind of a pull that these players have into the game, and it has a certain vibrancy in the ways it fulfills these aspects of their lives – through a full-colour, virtual experience.

His theoretical piece comes out of Jonathon Haight’s Moral Foundations Theory – that there are five needs of humanity. We will, no matter what it takes, fulfil these aspects of our lives… maybe our society affirms them all, maybe not. They are: Caring; Fairness; Loyalty; Respect; Purity. If our society has no direct avenue for respect, it will bubble up in other ways within the community – but it will always be there. This is what he means by Morality.

While Ryan (or Dr Hornbeck) believes Americans may well be playing to fulfil a need for a space in life where no-one tells them what to do (and so do jerky things like standing on letterboxes to show off  or kill people or steal things), he found the majority of Chinese players play the game for interesting reasons – they are exercising Haight’s five moral traits. Particularly, they are exercising Caring, and Loyalty. Most of them believe they are becoming better people through the game, and there is nowhere else in their lives they can exercise these things. Helping members of their guild face dangerous enemies and complete quests could contribute to their moral development – because they feel like they are better people afterwards – cue the oxytocin shot. They are subversively addicted to helping people out. Seriously, people, this is incredible.

If you didn’t get any of that, just walk away with this thought… if so many people play computer games and numbers are not going down, and, if culture is not evil but just is, then perhaps they are meeting God-given desires inside of them through gaming, and gaming is and can be used for human and spiritual development. Or, alternatively, if you’re a Fundamentalist pastor, you could just say that gaming is evil and destroying society, and lose the respect of 12 million people, some of which are in your church. Your call.

10 thoughts on “World of Warcraft meets the academy…

  1. I have a friend who deliberately plays online games within an evangelistic framework. I passed your link to him as I know he will really like this post. You have given me food for thought also when quoting about ‘Jonathon Haight’s Moral Foundations Theory.’

    I see great merit in that theory and think it forms the foundation as to why social media, such as Face Book works so well for many people.

    1. And as that friend of Craig’s, I’d like to say that this was an awesome read! It’s great to see Video Games getting more positive recognition from scholars, and I love your closing thoughts – they’re something that I’ve been wanting people around me to realise for a long time!

  2. So very interesting – I have just been reading Haight’s work for one of my psych assignments. Will definitely put some thought into this. Sounds like a totally riveting PhD subject too.

      1. Ben is a deep thinker and we have many discussions about this, among other topics. I’d like to say that this reference has brought some measure of relief to Ben, as many of his peers and authority figures around him don’t get it. Though he did some ground breaking work recently in presenting a seminair at Black Stump on the subject.

  3. Yeah. Well Ben & Craig, I personally think that’s the sad thing, the Christian message has become a culture more than a spirituality. We often aren’t even willing to explore the lines between these things because the church is so Ethnocentric, and so faith looks like a middle-class white church with a drive through mentality. In fact, right now, statistically “the church” looks like an African or Latin American Pentecostal… our diversity is a potential strength we need to explore more. I love the thought of finding the missional potential within all subcultures rather than making subcultures engage an institution. The message of Jesus had little to do with an institution.

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