THURSDAY, Jan. 10, 2013 (HealthDay News) -- A new survey challenges the notion that avid video gamers are antisocial loners. On the contrary, the findings suggest that gaming is actually a way to stay connected with friends and strengthen, rather than weaken, social ties.
The Pennsylvania researchers set out to gauge the habits and attitudes of regular gamers as well as the social interaction that group play engenders.
"In general, we were interested in how engagement with video games is related with perceptions of social support, based on the common belief that playing video games is socially isolating," explained study lead author Benjamin Hickerson, an assistant professor in the department of recreation, parks and tourism management at Penn State in University Park, Pa.
Responses from 166 gamers revealed that "if a player organized their life around video games they were more likely to report lower perceptions of social support," noted Hickerson. But, "if they felt they played games for mostly social reasons, they were more likely to report increased perceptions of social support."
The effect of video games on behavior has triggered much research, and mass shootings in the United States -- from Columbine to the recent massacre of schoolchildren and teachers in Newtown, Conn. -- continue to reignite that debate. So far, studies have found an association between ultra-violent games and aggression, but not a cause-and-effect relationship, according to background information in the study.
For their study, published in the current issue of Society and Leisure, Hickerson and colleague Andrew Mowen questioned people waiting outside two Pennsylvania stores for a nighttime release of a new version of "Call of Duty," a popular shooter video game. As such, participants were deemed to be avid gamers. The respondents were overwhelmingly male with an average age of 21.
Among other things, all were asked to rank the degree to which they felt that gaming was central to their lives; how much money they spent on games a year; how much time they spent gaming a week; how much pleasure they derived from playing; and how much of their sense of identity was intertwined with gaming activities. Gaming's social role was also examined, with players asked to discuss gaming's place in their friends' lives, and whether gaming was a key and enjoyable topic of conversation in their social circle.
The result: Although those polled played video games more than 20 hours per week on average and spent more than $200 on games per year, Hickerson and Mowen found no apparent connection between social "success" and the amount of time or money gamers spent on gaming. In other words, those who played more and spent more did not say that they felt more disconnected from their friends than those who played/spent less.
However, why a gamer played did seem to affect friendship quality, with socialization suffering among those who made gaming the central feature of their lives.
By contrast, many of those surveyed viewed gaming, particularly multi-player gaming, as a leisure-time activity spent with friends. And such gamers were found to have "increased perceptions of social support," said Hickerson.
"Emphasizing the social nature of games may increase the social outcomes associated with playing and decrease use in isolation," he suggested.
David Ewoldsen, a professor in the school of communications at Ohio State University in Columbus, said the findings "don't surprise me at all."
He said, "The stereotype of the lone gamer is something I've been fighting for a long time. Because in our surveys we found that the number one motivation for why people play games is social interaction. It's the social component of games that is the big motivator."
The bottom line, Ewoldsen added, "is that it's not what you play but how you play the game that's important."
For instance, a lot of research has linked violent video games with aggression, he said. "But at the same time we have found that when people play in teams, in teams in cooperation against a computer, the cooperative behavior while gaming translates into cooperative behavior in real life," Ewoldsen said.
It's a very complex issue, he added. "And hopefully this study will help to broaden perspective on this activity."
OnGuard Online has advice for parents about kids and video games.