Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Games Develop Social Bonds and Communication Skills

For a long time, many people have assumed that ‘gamers’ are unsociable, loners with poor social skills who reside in their dark bedrooms, only venturing outside to fulfil their basic needs.  However, research shows that this is far from the truth.

Some research does indicate that playing first person shooters such as Halo and Call of Duty does impact negatively on the players’ relationships.  However, that seems to be more to do with the way that people play games than the games themselves.  Research from Benjamin Hickerson at The Pennsylvania State University has found that some gamers play the game primarily as a way to reinforce social bonds.  In-game features such as cooperative modes and multiplayer options make playing games socially both easy and attractive.  The research shows that among this group of social game players, the games help build social ties and enhance social support.

Hickerson’s research suggests that indicators, such as the amount of time and money spent on games, are not related to gamers’ success in maintaining social ties.  He  argues that “Players may actually be doing something positive when gaming becomes a way for games to connect with friends who they otherwise may not be able to spend time with, especially friends who they are not near geographically.”

Hickerson’s study measured centrality (the need to organise ones’ life around the activity) against social bonding.  ‘Centrality’ scores indicated that on the whole, peoples’ social lives were not adversely affected by gaming, although there were a minority that were implicated.  However, Hickerson believes that games may be able to help.  He argues that this information could help video game designers create games that identify socially problematic behaviours (i.e. excessive centrality) and include features in the games that help the players maintain friendships and relationships.

But do games not already do this?  As well as playing in cooperative and multiplayer modes as I mentioned earlier, experts believe that MMORPGs (Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games), may actually “promote sociability and new worldviews.”  Experts have described these virtual worlds as a new kind of ‘third space’ (a place for social interaction and relationships, outside of home and work).  For many people, they are the preferred way of meeting and hanging out with people, when in the past they may have gone to the pub or to a café.  The study titled, “Where Everybody Knows Your (Screen) Name: Online Games as ‘Third Places.’” suggests that the cause of this phenomenon is the lack of real-world hangouts.

In these games, people can hold multiple real-time conversations using text or their voices through microphones.  The study explains that this can enable them to build “relationships of status and solidarity.”  Often, the games reward people for creating long-term relationships and lasting player ‘guilds’ and it can be difficult to play some MMORPGs without doing so.  This is exactly what Hickerson was talking about.

Researchers Steinkuehler and Williams also found that participation in these virtual ‘third places’ “appears particularly well suited to the formation of bridging social capital – social relationships that, while not usually providing deep emotional support, typically function to expose the individual to a diversity of worldviews… In other words… spending time in these social games helps people meet others not like them, even if it doesn’t always lead to strong friendships. That kind of social horizon-broadening has been sorely lacking in American society for decades.”

The authors explain that “To argue that their MMO game play is isolated and passive media consumption that takes the place of informal social engagement is to ignore the nature of what participants actually do behind the computer screen… It’s really a question of what kind of balance the person has in their life… that reason, online spaces are not a one-size-fits-all phenomenon that can simply be labelled ‘good’ or ‘bad.’”

I completely agree, in that the stereotypical view I described in the first paragraph of this post describes very few people who enjoy games.  In my opinion, you could describe many other people in this way who read books, like films, spend their lives on Pinterest and so on.  In my opinion, it is not the activity, but the personality of the individual that defines whether they are sociable or not.

There is much research like that above which shows that games can encourage social interaction and increase social skills and bonds.  Games are increasingly becoming a social activity akin to the past where a family may have gathered around a piano or radio.  You can hardly argue that consoles such as the Wii and Xbox Kinect weren’t designed to be used socially.

One of the factors that actually encourages learning has been found to be social interaction.  Therefore, there is huge scope for cooperative games based learning such as the games in my blog article: ‘Kinect Games Based Learning’ and those that we at games-ED develop.  We have delivered over 450 workshops using games based learning and we find that our simulations are a great tool for encouraging cooperation, teamwork and building bonds.

We also firmly believe that games can be great talking points and can encourage communication skills.  For more research and expertise in this area, see our blog posts: ‘The Art of Conversation’ and ‘Developing Communication Skills via Games Based Learning’.


  • Hickerson, B., & Mowen, A. (in press). Behavioral and Psychological Involvement of Online Video Gamers: Gateways or Barriers to Social Integration? Society & Leisure.
  • Steinkuehler, C., and Williams, D. (2006). Where everybody knows your (screen) name: Online games as “third places.” Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 11(4), article 1.

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  1. The research shows that among this group of social game players, the games help build social ties and enhance social support.

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