Gamers, Personas, and Perception – An Interview With Professor Jamie Banks
With video game violence so often put into the media spotlight after a tragedy occurs, gamers are often portrayed as violent, anti-social individuals. The American Psychological Association is currently conducting a review of violent media research to possibly update their policy position on violent media. In an open letter to the APA, a number of psychologists, researchers and academics urged caution and concern over the methods and conclusions before updating their policy statement. Professor Jaime Banks out of the University of Toronto sat down with us to discuss the public’s perception of gamers, how our online personas differ (or sometimes don’t) from real-life, and the open letter to the APA.
WILL: Thanks for sitting down with us to do this little interview here. I’ve really been looking forward to this one. It’s not very often we get to speak with academics in regards to videogames and whatnot. For the record, what do you for University of Toronto and what’s your area of study?
PROF. JAIME BANKS: Sure. I am jointly appointed with the Institute for Communication, Culture, and Information Technology at UofT Mississauga, and with the iSchool at the main campus. And I am a new Assistant Professor; I’ve only been here since August. I moved here from Colorado…
WILL: Oh! A Fellow American, that’s good.
PROF. JAIME BANKS: Uh huh [laughs]. I teach classes related to virtual worlds and social interaction in digital spaces. And my research is…I have three veins of research: one is identity in digital spaces and how people conform and construct their identities; one is human technology relationships, and that is in particular how players have relationships with their avatars in digital games and virtual worlds […] and social networks and social interaction in digital spaces.
WILL: Excellent. So one of the things I was really curious about when I was taking a look at your credentials, was the online interactions and how people’s personas don’t necessarily reflect, or aren’t a mirror image of, their real world personas and… why do our personas change when we go online? Do you think it’s a true representation of the character of the person themselves?
PROF. JAIME BANKS: In my research, what I’ve found is that there’s a broad spectrum of how people do or do not see themselves as being the same in-game versus in their everyday life. On one end of the spectrum, they see their avatar as themselves; it’s either a perfect representation in their brain or a tool…or they see it as a completely different entity – a social other that kind of has its own governing moral system and personality and narrative trajectory. And then there’s some people who fall somewhere in between. And what I saw is that people who saw their avatars as either kind of a tool or representation of themselves kind of identified themselves as gamers, a kind of a hard-core gamer, and they saw the game as a social arena that they wanted to represent themselves as themselves so they could be known as themselves in all of their social circles. Whereas the people who saw their avatar as a distinct personalities, they were storytellers – not roleplayers per se, but they often had stories that kind of helped them make sense of their participation in that world, and a lot of them were escapists. They were trying to get away from bad situations in their daily lives – a lot of times, physical or emotional abuse, or not having very much money, and not being able to go see the world like they want to so they decided to see the world in the game. So there are lot of patterns here in terms of why people see or don’t see their avatars as themselves, and I can’t argue that one begets another – that a bad life situation causes this escapism…it could be the other way around for all I know…but all I saw were the associations.
WILL: Excellent. So in today’s society, a lot of the times it seems that people portray gamers that spend a lot of time online as introverted – they don’t socialize or interact with people. But yet, with this online presence, they’re interacting with people online, they interact with them – often two, three, or four times a day and usually extends beyond gaming, such as internet chat or Facebook. So do you think gamers are really introverted, or is it that the perception of being social needs to change in today’s society?
PROF. JAIME BANKS: I think definitely – And I really liked the way you worded the question in the email where most games are inherently social. And the more social you are, the more you interact with people, the more successful you are in many games. We still have this stereotype of a gamer as a teenager in their parent’s basement – you know, in the dark, with Cheetos and that sort of thing. But I pulled some stats actually from the Entertainment Software Association; I’ll just put these in, in case they’re useable to you. (I used to be in Journalism, so I know all the little nuggets can help.) And they’re saying the average age is 30 – I’ve heard other figures say the average age is 40. There are more women playing […] Let me go to back to answer your question before I forget about that. In my work – from my work – I say no, we can’t say that gamers are introverts. And to be clear, most of my work has been in World of War Craft (I’m expanding into some other places), but across a range of softcore and hardcore gamers, and different play motivations, whether they’re social players or raiders, or any type of gameplay focus, there were some introverts across the board; there were some extroverts across the board, and actually the people who you might think would be introverts – that is, people who have the highest tendencies towards narrative immersion, that sort of thing, the escapists – some of those were incredibly, incredibly outgoing, and had very strong reasonings for how and why they wanted to play in the game, rather than just saying, “Oh, I’m shy and I can’t talk to people”. And in fact, one of my research participants had been severely bullied when she was growing up, and as such she had severe social anxiety. And one of the ways she was working on getting over her anxiety was to create an avatar in the game and practice being social with that avatar. And as she became comfortable with being social in the game, she would slowly start to take those strategies that she learned in the game and apply them in her non-game life. And slowly, she was being able to build up a sense of self-confidence outside the game, and she actually told me, “Jamie, six months ago, I would not have been able to have this conversation with you. I would have been scared out of my mind. But at least at this point, I’ve become used to talking to people through (and I don’t think it was mumbled, I think she used “Vent”) – through Vent, and now I’m able to have this conversation with you”.
Jamie: So there are a lot of ways that games are helping people be more social, to be comfortable in their skins and start to work to translate that into their lives – I have six or seven instances of that…so…
Will: Wonderful! That sounds fantastic! So, what it is that… with the whole public thing, I mentioned in my email – I hope you read up on it – Colleen Lachowicz, the Congresswoman, who was…well she became Congresswoman, thankfully. But she was running for Congress, and they found out that she was a big World of Warcraft fan, and they just absolutely roasted her over the coals regarding it. Why? Why do they do this? What is the tendency for people to label gamers as just these ‘bad people’, when there’s so many of us out there?
PROF. JAIME BANKS: I think that when people….I think that when it comes to politics that’s a different animal than when it comes to for example, gun violence. In politics, it’s an easy thing to latch onto, because the general public – that is, those that are not gamers – they don’t often understand what games are, how they’re played, what it means to play games, how people act in and through games. So when politicians might be able to latch onto a heuristic like “She says she stabs people”, then that’s an easy thing to grab onto and demonize. So it’s a hook when it comes to politics, I think. And when it comes to gun violence, more broadly, I think people will always look to explain things they can’t understand. And when there’s the metaphor of a gun in the game and a gun in a person’s hand, that’s something that people can grab onto fairly easily. So, it’s a scapegoat: “I can’t explain this in any other way, so I’m going to explain it in the easiest way possible. It just makes sense on the face of it.”
WILL: You would think, though, because at this point in time now, there are well into the many tens of thousands gamers in the US, North America, Canada. You would think that with gun violence, if games like Call of Duty or Battlefield, are essentially creating psychopaths, there would be a lot more of us out there!
PROF. JAIME BANKS: Exactly! [laughs] And you know, across a number of European countries, Canada, and the United States, they all have roughly the same per capita game purchasing and…actually, I’m not sure if it’s per capita, I’d have to look that up for you… but basically the same violent game consumption habits, and yet the US seems to be the one having all of the problems, with gun violence and mass shootings and that sort of thing. So, why is it that if other things being equal in what they’re blaming, the violent gaming consumption, why is it that only one of those countries is having a real problem? That suggests that there’s other stuff going on.
WILL: I would think so as well. As you know – as you recently signed an open letter to the APA regarding their upcoming study for violent media – there’s obviously a very serious look being taken [into] it. But we’ve seen in the past where some studies they might not have been written necessarily complete, or they might not have pertained to video game violence, so obviously this new study’s going to have more of a focus there. Well, why don’t you explain what the open letter was about, and what you hope the APA will be able to take from the letter?
PROF. JAIME BANKS: Sure. Well, the gist of the letter was to say, “Be careful, there is…” the Path statement – the 2005 statement – implies that there is consensus in the field that violent videogames begets violent behavior. And there isn’t consensus in the field. The main point is to say, “Let’s leave this conversation open. Not everyone agrees what the previous statement said. And when you make rigid policy statements like that, then it closes down questions – our ability to ask questions. When you’re privileging one side over the other when there really isn’t consensus, then there’s this sort of pressure to fall into that camp to produce studies where there is a positive finding. So when you do that, it’s sort of this spiral where we see more studies published that support that position, and that closes down the other side of the story.” Does that make sense?
WILL: Yeah, I think so.
PROF. JAIME BANKS: That’s kind of the gist of it. And I can’t say that I have read all of the studies that they’re referring to that the 2005 statement was based on. And really the idea is be careful when you’re working off meta-analyses. So basically what happens is, there are studies done, and the majority of them are laboratory studies – so, tightly controlled environments trying to find a relationship between A and B, for example. And then people publish those reports. Then meta-analyses, what they do is take all of those studies and analyze them together. And that, to my understanding, is what the previous statements were based on, and to some extent what the next one might be based on. And then, what further happens, when you make a policy statement around that, it decontextualizes what those initial studies reported; it kind of examines them in aggregate and kind of comes up with this idea of what they say in general, but it decontextualizes those findings.
PROF. JAIME BANKS: And so another piece of that is that many of these studies are conducted in a lab under controlled conditions, and you have to be careful of how you generalize those outside of the lab. There are lots of different things that come into play when we’re talking about these complex phenomena, and they’re taken as generalizable to everyday life when that may not always be the case. Another problem with this is when you have studies, and you have meta-analyses, and then you have newspapers or other media outlets reporting on these meta-analyses and a policy statement, and then you have the general public and politicians interpreting those reports without ever… you’re then thrice-removed from the original studies.
WILL: It’s kind of like you’re playing Telephone.
PROF. JAIME BANKS: [ laughs] Exactly! So it becomes a little bit problematic. And another thing here is that we’re talking about aggression. Aggression is a mental state, a psychological state. And there’s a difference between aggression as a cognitive state and realized violence. [For example], you’re sitting in traffic, and you’re feeling aggressive. But you don’t go and punch the guy, right?
WILL: Right. Well, hopefully not.
PROF. JAIME BANKS: [laughs] Most people will not. So generally, what’s being measured in the lab is an aggressive cognitive state, not violence. Another issue in these types of studies, is that… an example that my partner – who’s a games scholar in West Virginia – gave is that a lot of times when you’re dealing with these studies, it’s not necessarily even aggression over time, it’s just a matter that you’ve been primed right before you’ve answered a question. So, a famous kind of example is to give them “K-I-space-space” – so give gamers “K-I-space-space”, and it’s suggested that if they answer ‘kill’, they’re feeling aggressive; if they answer ‘kiss’ they’re not feeling aggressive. But, my partner, Nick, he showed his class a video of Fruit Ninja being played. Members of his class answered ‘kiwi’, so that suggests that this could easily be a matter of priming. So more work needs to be done in understanding how this sort of priming, or how violent media exposure could accumulate over time to actually produce continuous aggressive states. But we don’t really have that work really right now.
W : So in your mind, obviously there’s a lot of thought that goes behind designing the experiments to create these studies behind, but in your mind, what do they really need to look at – uh, I’m trying to find a way to word this correctly – but, how would […] they would need to design a good test to provide a decent basis to come up with a good, honest, fair, thorough study?
PROF. JAIME BANKS: So the idea here is that violence is –I’m going draw from one of Nick’s recent studies here – violence is a very splintered thing. There are a lot of things involved, so not one single test is going to do it. There are things like family mental conditions, social norms in the place that you live, access to weapons, all sorts of different things, and the general idea that’s being conveyed in this statement is “make sure that you are not overemphasizing the relationship between media violence and violent behaviours, because there are so many different things that come into play. I can’t say that there’s any one way to do it, and in fact, the scientific process is about finding incremental findings and then building upon them. So it’s just… I’m not sure how to even say that, and to be clear, I’m not an experimentalist. I’m more of a qualitative researcher – interview-based and ethnographies, that sort of thing. It’s more—it’s less about finding the right way to study it, and more about being thoughtful in how we talk about it, in how we report our findings, and in how we encourage non-scientific entities to interpret our findings. And just not to put blinders on here. In Nick’s work, basically they looked at three components of media violence, and that was how graphic it was; how realistic it was; and whether or not it was justified in the narrative. Being justified was the most important thing in whether or not people perceived an act as being violent. So theoretically, a character could perform the same violent act in two different contexts, and if it was self-defense then it wasn’t violent, but if it was garroting somebody, then it would be perceived as violent – theoretically. So there’s a lot of stuff that goes into [it]; first of all, what is media violence, […] how our aggressive states emerge, and what is missing here is that connection between violent states and that aggression. We can’t make the connection yet.
WILL: Now with the media side of things – the news media side of things – how do you change their perception as well? I mean, it seems that a lot of outlets go towards the sensational when it comes to reporting these stories. I remember when the Sandy Hook tragedy took place, in less than an hour they were talking to the family’s plumber, and the plumber was going on about how the shooter played Call of Duty. And in my mind, I was sitting there thinking to myself, “Really? You guys went with the plumber?”
PROF. JAIME BANKS: [laughs] Right, right. [He’s] a highly credible source right?
WILL: Exactly! So, I mean, it seems that the media goes out to find whatever they can to say ‘this person played video games.’ I think the West Virginia, and I’m paraphrasing here, I’d have to look it up – I know that one of the other tragedies that happened, the person played Pokémon and Sonic the Hedgehog. So what do groups like the APA have to do, to get the media to shift gears, and what can we as a gamer community do to also do our part to get this perception to, you know, “we’re not bad people”?
PROF. JAIME BANKS: That’s a good question! When it comes to the APA, the APA isn’t focused specifically on games; they’re a professional and scientific organization of psychologists. But, I think that’s part of the motivation for the open letter to the APA is, “Don’t make these rigid statements” because when people are trying to – and journalists are human too. In one sense maybe their job is to tell the best story, but in another sense, they’re also trying to explain it in the same way that we as the community in which these violence crimes happen are trying to explain them as well. And that’s… it’s just an easy thing to latch onto, because of the metaphor: There’s a gun and a gun, so, yeah, why not? When it comes to – in terms of the APA and what they and other scholarly entities can do is just be responsible; don’t be rigid. Make sure you’re clearly reporting what your findings are in a way that is contextualized. So it’s not “This happened in the lab, and this will happen in real life.” And good scientists will contextualize their findings, and state to what extent their findings are generalizable, and what matters and what doesn’t matter. And in terms of gaming communities, that’s a very good question. I think that more gamers are becoming more inclusive in terms of who they count as members of their community. I think this is a good thing. For a long time, gamers were a subculture, if you will, and it was uncool to be a gamer, and you were a geek or a nerd. But it’s kind of gone through this cycle where it became cool and it’s almost been in some senses been appropriated so it’s no longer a subculture, so it’s more of a privilege. And I think we need to find a middle ground as gamers, where we are being inclusive and we’re talking about it, and if we’re to remain a sort of underground culture, and we hide our gaming and we hide our geekery, then it’s still something to be afraid of because people don’t understand it. I’ve seen some gaming groups in Toronto, and that’s flipping awesome! Expand your PR efforts, and call people who are new to gaming or who have never gamed before. There’s even potential to reach out to reporters, I mean why not? If gaming communities wanted to take an active role in advancing the brand of gamers, why not reach out?
WILL: So maybe reaching out to the broader non-gaming community in different ways. For example, you have the Extra Life event and Child’s Play – the charitable events obviously…
PROF. JAIME BANKS: Yup.
WILL: So, you have those, but you’re also saying they need to find other ways to get it out there…and…
PROF. JAIME BANKS :I’m not saying it’s an imperative, but I mean there’s an opportunity there […] to be ambassadors for the games and the gameplay that we love.
WILL: Excellent. That’s a fantastic answer! Well, we’re coming up on the thirty minute mark, so I’ll go ahead and give you the rest of your day. And if you ever need or want to reach out to us for anything, feel free.
PROF. JAIME BANKS: Well, […] there is one thing, and I’m totally going to forget the name of it now. In the DC area, there’s an organization that retrofits games and gaming consoles for use by people who have physical and mental disabilities.
PROF. JAIME BANKS: it’s such a cool thing, and I’ll send you the link. And they’re getting ready to open a second location at the Semaphore lab at our downtown department.
WILL: Here in Toronto?!
PROF. JAIME BANKS: Here in Toronto. Sarah Grimes is the professor downtown; she’s awesome! And I don’t know the exact details or timelines just yet, but they are looking at opening up a facility in our Semaphore lab here in downtown.
PROF. JAIME BANKS: it’s a really, really cool effort.
WILL: Yeah, if you could get me in touch with her, I would love to sit down with her.
PROF. JAIME BANKS: Sure thing! Let me drop her a note, and I’ll see what’s going on with that and where’ they’re at. And I’m going to very quickly – since these guys say it way better than I do – I’m going to drop a few links in Skype for you. This is an article by Chris Ferguson, and he’s the one who actually drafted the statement – he is kind of the… he sat on the US Congressional panels and that sort of thing. He’s The Guy.
WILL: Very cool.
PROF. JAIME BANKS: And he talks very well about those problems way better than I can, with the problems with reporting. This is the article about the dimensions of violence […]. This was an article I found helpful…and this […] one is hilarious… the 9-year-old who got suspended for bringing weapons to school because of Minecraft.
WILL: Ah, yes, I did hear something about that.
PROF. JAIME BANKS: Yeah!
WILL: ooh! Mother Jones too! They’re always a good read.
PROF. JAIME BANKS: yeah, they’re pretty well written.
WILL: Well, thank you very much!
PROF. JAIME BANKS: No problem!
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