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The Impact and Role of Computer Games and New Media

by Katharina Weiss

In his lecture on Saturday, 08/07/10, Dr. Jeffrey Wimmer, researcher at the institute of media science and communication studies at Technische Universität Ilmenau with a focus on virtual worlds and digital games, provided an intensive insight in his collection of data and statistics done in 2006/07. A large amount of gamers and players of different agegroups and ranks had been surveyed concerning gaming practices and usage of virtual entertainment.

Jeffrey Wimmer’s presentation and research concentrated on online gaming as the MMORPG World of Warcraft – a fact, that already indicates one of the problems of researching computer games: although a mass phenomenon, scientific research proves as being extremely difficult, even limited. First of all the field of computer games is a huge one. For also casual and “simple” games as Virtual Chess or Solitaire are computer games – and these are also consumed by individuals which would not think of themselves as gamers or players, not even in the moment of playing Virtual Chess. A narrowing down of the object of investigation, as it is done by Jeffrey Wimmer’s project, which contains the gaming categories roleplaying, action, strategy and sports/racing, seems utterly expedient and necessary. To focus on social impact of computer games, Jeffrey Wimmer’s project also largely disregards privatly consumed single player and console games and centres on online games. To find out the disposition and constitution of their social relevance – and to provide scientific evidence of their “social impact” – the survey dealt with diverse categorising questions, which had been presented in statistics to the summerschool in Bremen during Jeffrey Wimmer’s lecture. Statistics concerning the disposition of gender and computer games as well as of agegroups and active playing time were, already with regards to content, considerably revealing relating to social relevance of computer games – for they actually were able to come up with surprising findings and conclusions.

By presenting his methodological approach and survey problems at the summerschool we got an interesting overview of different possibilities of approach to a research on computer games as well as empirical findings of the project, which pointed out that also academics are not immune against clichés and often not scrutinizing them. Above all, regarding the paradigms of questioning like distribution between sexes in the total proportion of computer game users or concerning gender-related distribution in genres as roleplaying or action games, it becomes evident how intensely a research for social and religious studies in virtual worlds has to consider „classical“ sociological approaches to meet its scientific claim.

My consideration in view of Jeffrey Wimmer’s quantitative statistics has been that a research of the social relevance of computer games has to be careful not to get caught in the trap of another popular cliché:  Social relevance and impact of computer games, cyberspace and virtual reality does, in general public, not arise until the level of excessive gaming has been reached – and its suppositional result of gamer’s social loss for the offline ambience and fellow men and women. Even though such cases, on the basis of their quantitative importance alone, have to be scientifically considered, the survey presented by Jeffrey Wimmer points out that in view of a distribution of gaming to almost each agegroup and with a extensive averaged expenditure of time for gaming, which remains comparatively constant, the average of an user and gamer has to be in the focus of researching interests.

As mentioned by Jeffrey Wimmer, the description and construction of the press regarding computer games – often discredited as initiators of addiction and a-social behaviour like violance or isolation – has significant impact not only on the public impression of computer games and their social relevance but – by acceptance and adoption of this impression – on the social impact of computer games itself, which is necessary to be included and kept in mind during the research.

So it seems more important to me in view of the popular clichés of an isolated, socially destituted, immobilised and addiction marked gamer of World of Warcraft to examine the transferred or at least virtually connected but, as Jeffrey Wimmer emphasized, in the survey proved social potential of, for example, online roleplaying games. Interview statements as presendet by Jeffrey Wimmer which refer to emotions of belonging and membership between online and virtually interacting gamers or even a game inspired, offline realized “clan” or statements of a sense of duty between online war cronies impressively point out how social structures are transferred into virtual space – and come back. Phenomena like clans demonstrate how borders between virtual and actual, physical worlds may be “destroyed“: what achieves social relevance in one space, may also develop relevance in the other. Of course this has not to be: Statements by gamers like they would not think about online stuff when offline are neither falsifiable nor verifiable – actually, in my opinion, only a psychological study would be able to give results concerning frequency of recurrence of online references during offline life.

As mentioned above, Jeffrey Wimmer presented the research categories of roleplaying, action, strategy and sport/racing games. In these categories, the RPG section had been the quantitative most important one. Related to the above expressed question for the specific relevance of computer games in the gamer’s every day life, if it is – as in case of extremely excessive gamers – that a game takes one or even the one explicit centre of somebody’s life, a certain question recurs: Annihilates the game the gamer’s social life, or does that relocate itself into the virtual space which has been accepted as new anexed world of living and accordingly has to be shaped? This part of the question is, regarding researches and findings of some social phenomena existing in World of Warcraft mentioned during summerschool, to be answered positively. But which role take the frank – or quested – shaping and configuration of the virtual world? And, regarding a research of religious structures and their tendency of strong and solid orientation and regularization in actual, offline life, what role play just the rules of the game, its in-game-hierarchies, its constructed world orders et cetera which a gamer probably decides to inherit when and after entering the game’s world and questing for positive experiences and progress?

Hence what kind of role do “classical” social aspects play in computer games? Jeffrey Wimmer’s study showed roleplaying games as more attractive than other genres: and they tend to have a lot of social space – as Guild Wars does – so they are supposed to present a concisely socially tagged construction. Qualitatively it should be of interest which adaptions of offline life systems prevail in virtual space – or in what way these systems get modified, maybe according to users’ and gamers’ preferences.

This notion is connected to another aspect of Jeffrey Wimmer’s lecture: targeting. Without doubt, computer game creation and development is based on industrial marketing and selling strategy and a branch of trade that orientates itself on its consuments. For example with regard  to the increasing number of “girls’ games”, based on pony riding or dress changing, it becomes apparent how the computer game industry handles stereotypes. But thinking of the social impact of video games: Do they also create stereotypes themselves?

Every leisure activity, especially those with a huge time consumption like online games, have an effect on their user. Particularly if they provide experience and joy, as it is the case with turn-based games, they may become systems of identification and orientation. Wimmer and Quandt’s article The Social Impact of Online Games: The Case  of Germany (Wimmer & Quandt 2009) even contains an interview statement, that games can be a compensation for a life that doesn’t seem to be liveable for a person. Looking at the far-reaching, but still traceable branching of gamer presence in the population, which is to large extend user and gamer itself, it can be noticed, that an interdependency between online and offline, virtual and actual world layers et cetera, like with the design and relocation of social structures in the virtual space, manipulation of identity and interdependent reception of stereotypes can be immense. But Wimmer’s classification by game genres and their quantity also shows that the research has to be done in a differentiating way. After this efficient lecture’s experience I personally doubt that overall statements about the influence of new media on society can be made. A specification to the respective medium, the online event, the virtual space, the virtual reality, the game genre et cetera is necessary.

Bibliography

Quandt, Thorsten & Wimmer, Jeffrey (2009). The social impact of online games – The case of Germany. In: Pantelli, Niki (Hrsg.): Virtual social networks. Mediated, massive and multiplayer sites. Basingstoke: Macmillan Palgrave, 75-97.

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