When it comes to the players of video games, preconceptions abound. They’re often disturbing stereotypes: the isolated youth with eyes for nothing but his computer, tablet or smartphone. Olivier Servais, a researcher at UCL’s Laboratory for Prospective Anthropology, decided to penetrate a reality that might not be as dark as we think.
Olivier Servais became interested in players of video games by chance. During a stay in Canada, where he was working as an anthropologist, he was struck by how certain First Nations populations were drawn to gambling. ‘Casinos over there were in large part managed by their communities,’ he said, ‘and by extension online casinos attracted great interest. Then a few years ago, while I was teaching first-year bachelor’s students at UCL, I noticed a group of them at the back of the auditorium with a computer and playing video games online during class. And it wasn’t the ones who were failing!’ He joked, ‘That revealed an interesting field for research!’
Though not an avid gamer, Olivier Servais took an interest in the phenomenon, especially MMORPGs. ‘To initiate a study,’ he said, ‘I applied to the Special Research Fund. I received a grant that allowed me to supervise a doctoral student.’ Accordingly, he had to acquire in-depth knowledge and research expertise. He gained research experience on the spot and enhanced it with cutting-edge research in the US. ‘On sabbatical in 2012, I spent a semester at the University of California, Irvine, where I learned a lot from highly advanced players. I also translated a reference work on virtual worlds that forced me to come up with previously non-existent French terms, for example for MMORPG, in order to write the glossary.’
Because he was one of the rare French-speakers interested in online gaming before 2010, he was quickly initiated into emerging topics, collaborating with leading experts in the US and especially in France. ‘I also collaborated on publications on new technologies in which I addressed the issue of online games. The problem in Belgium is that there are very few studies on the subject and we lack critical mass.’
So a Belgian research network needed to be created. ‘I started collaboration with several young faculty members or post-doctoral students, such as Joël Billieux, a professor in the Faculty of Psychology and Educational Sciences and a researcher at UCL’s Institute of Psychological Sciences, and Thibault Philippette, a researcher at UCL’s Institute for Language and Communication. We created the Virtual Worlds and Gaming Laboratory, which initiated collaboration with some 30 researchers from several Belgian universities (Ghent, University of Leuven, University of Liège, Université libre de Bruxelles, University of Namur, UCL) and hautes écoles [post-secondary higher education institutions] such as the Institute for Higher Social Communication Studies, the Haute Ecole de Bruxelles, etc. The goal is to assemble researchers of all backgrounds interested in gaming in general and who can conduct rigorous scientific studies.’
An initiation with a professional purpose
What’s most astonishing about this story is that Olivier Servais was not, at the outset, a video games player. This probably helped him cast a fresh eye on a topic—the ‘gamer’ profile—that attracts so many clichés and prejudices. ‘The main cliché concerns “addiction”. Yet it can’t be addiction in its literal sense, since the term implies dependence on a substance: alcohol, tobacco, drugs. It can involve dependence, passion, but it’s nuanced. To best understand the main group of online gamers who I followed, I immersed myself in a well-known MMORPG, World of Warcraft. So I observed this world of online role-playing that I previously knew nothing about, and which I chose because at the time almost half of its players played every day. For most of them, I don’t think it’s a question of dependence. However, what can bring them back very regularly and keep them playing hours on end is the game’s social aspect. Our avatar’s ability to survive and develop depends on other people; our actions have immediate or future consequences on how the game unfolds, and the actions of others will affect our progress. So it’s logical that players are tempted to closely involve others in their recreational lives. That’s why it’s the kind of game players can spend a lot of time on.’
Dependence or desocialisation?
But at what point can we really call it dependence? ‘It’s not the number of hours that’s key but rather whether the game becomes the player’s main social activity. Dependence is established when the game takes over to the detriment of social life, work, studies, or causes suffering. Which indeed happens, just look at the centres that have opened to treat video game addiction.’
According to Mr Servais, people who become dependent on these games could just as well be involved in other activities, such as team sports, in which they feel valued. ‘Represented by their avatar, these individuals—who can be very unsure of themselves—hide behind a reassuring anonymity. They’re not judged on their appearance but rather on their ability to bring something to the game, to the other players. There’s no place for value judgements and so the game creates bonds between people from very different backgrounds, from opposing countries and cultures, who otherwise never would have met.’
Contrary to another popular belief, the most assiduous video game consumers aren’t necessarily people who isolate themselves in a virtual world. ‘Such people exist, we shouldn’t deny that, but they’re a minority. The majority have highly developed social skills, unlike hard-core gamers in Japan, where the proportion of desocialised persons, the so-called hikikomori, is higher than in Belgium.’