Austin video-game researcher’s book opens up areas for debate

‘The Video Game Debate’ covers topics including addiction, online communities and the health benefits and hazards of gaming.

The idea came a decade ago, when an online game called “World of Warcraft” was still shiny, new and considered very addictive by some parents.

Rachel Kowert was doing a clinical internship on the way to a master’s in counseling psychology. She’d hear from the parents and they were very concerned about the relatively new concept of video-game addiction. “At the time, there was no research at all on the gaming effect, just a lot of moral panic about what could be happening.”

Fast forward 10 years. In that time, there’s been quite a bit of research done on gaming addiction, particularly for massively multiplayer games such as “WoW.” Kowert now has a Ph.D in clinical psychology and has spent a chunk of her intervening time co-editing a new book that summarizes that information and other areas of scientific research related to video games.

The Video Game Debate: Unraveling the Physical, Social, and Psychological Effects of Digital Games” was published last month. It’s a book of academic essays, written by top experts in topic areas including violence in video games, health benefits of digital entertainment, whether gaming communities really foster community and whether playing video games can make us smarter.

The purpose of the book, Kowert says, is to give an overview of a lot of information the public often only hears about secondhand in overblown news reports that may only focus on one specific study, not the prevailing consensus to date. “Today, there’s tons of research, but it’s all locked behind paywalls and insulated within the scientific community,” Kowert said. “My co-editor and I thought, ‘People need this information. Let’s summarize it and make it accessible to a nonscientific population.’”

The effort to keep the book free of jargon and research-speak is not completely successful. The first essay of the book, “A History of Video Games,” by Virginia Tech professor James D. Ivory, begins, “Evolutionary biologists use a term called ‘convergent evolution’ to explain the existence of similar traits in living organisms that are otherwise markedly different and only distantly related. (Footnote) For example, similarities between the body types of fish, marine mammals such as dolphins and whales, and the extinct ichthyosaur may give the impression that these animals share a similar biological class even though other less superficial characteristics of these animals clearly identify them as members of separate animal classes.”

But what follows is a thorough 20-or-so pages guiding you through the first experimental games, through the arcade craze of the 1970s and ’80s and into the modern era of shooters and online role-playing.

Future chapters are eye-opening, as much for what research has been done — particularly in the area of how games can be used as therapy or for learning — as for what’s missing. In one of the biggest hot topics the book tackles — whether games make us more aggressive and potentially violent — it turns out that there’s a lot of conflicting information due to the lack of standardized data collection and the wide array of types of games and game players.

When a study about such a topic blows up in the news, it may be a study that hasn’t been peer-reviewed or that is contradictory to other, more thorough studies. The book, Kowert says, is an attempt to get an overview from top experts who’ve combed through these studies to draw more informed conclusions.

“You can read a thousand scientific articles or read the book and get a summary of those thousand scientific articles,” Kowert said. “There’s more clarity for people in these fields than what the public is getting.”

Often, as the book’s “Debate” title suggests, there are no clear answers as to whether, say, violent video games are inherently “bad” or “good.”

Even after more than three or four decades in the mainstream, video games are still relatively new in terms of research. The book reveals that serious studies of topics such as video-game addiction or the potential educational benefits of games took a long time to develop and are still frequently not consistent across different disciplines.

Kowert co-edited the book with Thorsten Quandt, the chair of Interactive Media and Online Communication at the University of Münster, whom she worked with in Germany until the end of last year, when she moved to Austin. The articles were written by that time, and, until the book was published, involved a lot of emailing back and forth.

Finding the contributors for the book’s 10 chapters wasn’t difficult, Kowert said. “Game study is a huge field with hundreds of scholars. That was the easy part.”

Apart from illuminating in detail emerging areas of video-game study, such as how socializing online translates to real-world interactions or how some games promote healthy eating, the biggest takeaway may be that “gaming” as a concept is anything but monolithic.

In the closing chapter, written by Kowert and Quandt, they write, “The insights and criticisms discussed here regarding the status quo of the public debate are not meant to imply that previous research has not been useful, and that some types of research are not fruitful and valid approaches as such. … Our argument is rather directed against a reductionist, overgeneralizing perception and interpretation of research findings in public. In short: There is not one type of games, not one type of gamers, not one type of gaming!”

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