Situational and gender comparisons of digital game players’ preferences

This three-part post comes from a 2007 International Communication Association conference paper.  The research was an attempt to understand if gender was as large of a factor in player’s experiences and preferences as specific situations of playing digital games.

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INTRODUCTION

            The digital game industry has become a powerful media and cultural force over the past three decades. (1)  According to the Entertainment Software Association, an estimated 65% of US heads of households report they play video and computer games, with 60% of these players being male and 40% female. (2)  In 2006, players spent an average of 6.8 hours a week playing games, or up to a fourth of all their leisure time.  By 2008, 65% of the US population plays video games and/or computer games, helping to fuel growth of the industry at a higher average annual growth than the entire US economy from the period of 2003 to 2006.

With the industry’s growing presence in the entertainment media marketplace, there have been numerous studies as to why children, adolescents and adults play digital games.  For public policymakers, the concern over “why” results from concerns as to “what effects” playing games may have.  Additionally, while digital games are a high revenue industry, the most recent data suggests the industry rarely recoups the cost of production and marketing (Fabricatore, Nussbaum & Rosas, 2002).  From an industry standpoint, it is a marketing necessity to understand what a player wants from a game, why a certain game is not being played, and why certain people are not playing.

To understand this engagement, our study sought to answer these questions: Why do people play digital games?  Why do they start?  Why do they stop?  As we will discuss, a number of reasons have already been proffered to answer these questions, ranging from focusing on the gratifications sought and obtained by the player to features of the game’s design.  While our general purpose is to further this line of research by examining this bifurcation of engagement, we have two additional more specific purposes.  First, we investigated the consistent findings regarding gender difference in engagement with digital games.  In addition, to intersect the literature currently done on engagement, and to trouble the gender difference findings, we added an initial investigation of the impact of situationality.  To this extent, our specific question was: To what extent do gender differences interact with a specific game playing situation in terms of how players evaluate games, focusing on their preferences for gratifications and game features?

As mentioned, most of the literature to date that has attempted to answer the general question of why players engage with games has focused on two primary clusters of variables: the gratifications or need fulfillments the players expect and/or get from their game playing; and, the design features of the games, from technological features of the medium to aspects of the game’s content, which are assumed to attract players.  The literature on gratifications, coming primarily from the media studies tradition of uses and gratifications (U&G), has shown that it is fruitful to study digital games as other media have been studied by comparing the gratifications players receive from different types of games.  The literature on game features, coming largely from game designers and communication technology researchers, has also demonstrated that certain features appear to be preferred by specific groups of players.

While predictors have been put forward to examine these differences in preferences, for either gratifications or game features, probably the most commonly studied predictor is gender, due largely to the discrepancy in the amount of engagement found between men and women.  This research, over two decades of collecting data, has generated rather consistent results. (3)  Yet, while largely consistent, not all studies agree.  Hartmann and Klimmt (2006), in examining a specific game, found women to prefer social interaction capabilities, while Lucas and Sherry (2004), in generalizing across games, found social interaction to be the lowest mentioned gratification for women.  Something else must be at work then.

There are at least two interruptions that can be made to this status quo that may shed new light on the hows and whys of players engaging with digital games.  First, there is the separation between these two emphases — player gratifications versus game features.  For the most part, these are two distinct trajectories in the quantitative literature.  In contrast, when qualitative work was conducted to generate the reasons players gave for why they play, the responses from the players seemed to bridge this divide (Griffiths, 1997; Malone, 1981a, b; Mudrock, 1985; Yee, 2005).  However, the majority of quantitative work still maintains this bifurcation. (4)

In fact, for all media it is known that audiences/users do make media choices to match their interpretations of media and content features, such that their choices are informed by their expectations of how their needs could be gratified (Palmgreen & Rayburn, 1982; Rayburn & Palmgreen, 1984; Swanson, 1992).   Players have expectations of features in advance that influence their decision to start playing.  Further, specific features may or may not be encountered while playing, which would influence a player’s decisions to continue or stop playing.  Thus, in a model to understand media use, the gratifications obtained are not wholly controlled by the features of the media and/or content, but also by the interpretations, expectations and other contributions the user brings to the equation.  Given that digital games inherently require higher levels of active engagement than other media use, we can expect that this intersection of gratifications and game features would be prominent (Rubin, 1993; Rubin, 2002; Sherry, 2004).

As mentioned, gender has been a consistent variable used to predict differences of gratifications and preferences as a way to understand the gender gap in game play (Reinhard, 2005).  Due to this high prevalence in the literature, we decided to use this sociodemographic category as a predictor in this study.  Further, we hypothesized that introducing a second predictor — one that would allow us to examine how gender differences might vary under different conditions — would be a useful modest step for implementing our purpose.  For this purpose, we chose to introduce game playing situation as a unit of measurement.  What we mean with the introduction of situation into the research will be explained later in this introduction.

Most of the game playing literature to date has examined game playing as a generalized behavior, one that is aggregated and assumed to be consistent across different games and playing situations.  Thus, as examples, players have been asked to indicate their gratifications for playing video and/or computer games in general, without taking into account specific games (Chou & Tsai, 2007; Phillips, Rolls, Rouse & Griffiths, 1995; Wood, Griffiths, Chappell & Davies, 2004), or they have been asked to talk about game features for a specific game and not asked compare them to other game playing situations (Fabricatore et al, 2002; Mehrabian & Wixen, 1986).

This tendency has been symptomatic of most studies that have investigated media use (Dervin & Song, 2005).  Only recently has the turn toward situationality been called for (Denham, 2004).  Even then, however, situation has been conceptualized as static or unvarying, a box into which the media engagement is placed, with the focus placed on understanding the characteristics of this box as it impacts engagement.  Other bodies of research, such as that coming from the field of library and information science, have proposed treating situation as a variable that changes across time and space.  Indeed, we are now beginning to hear the same calls from the media studies field (Denham, 2004).  Thus, our second empirical purpose for this study was to add an emphasis on situationality as a variable rather than a constant context to our examination of gender as a predictor of game playing gratifications and game feature preferences.

There are three bodies of theoretical literature that inform our study.  One is the uses and gratifications tradition (U&G); the second is the primarily empirical work coming from communication technology studies focusing on the design features of games which may attract players; and, the third is the theoretical work focusing on situationality as a predictor of communication behavior.  We discuss briefly in the next sections how each literature informed our study’s conceptualizations.

Focus on game playing gratifications: The U&G literature

From U&G, we incorporated the premises that people perceive problems, needs or desires in their life, and from these perceptions they develop different motives for problem-solving, or gratification-seeking, behavior that can potentially translate to media consumption (Lucas & Sherry, 2004; Palmgreen, 1984; Sherry, Lucas, Greenberg & Lachlan, 2006; Swanson, 1992).  We drew upon U&G research in building and conceptualizing game playing gratifications, turning to both qualitative studies that interviewed players and created categories from these discussions, as well as to more quantitative studies that used these or similar categories from classic U&G typologies to gauge players’ evaluations of these categories as applied to a particular game or gaming itself.  By examining these studies, we used a grounded categorizing scheme to group similar gratifications as presented by researchers — either already in pre-defined categories or those presented as simple statements from players — to create mutually exclusive game playing gratifications.  This review yielded the seven gratifications listed in Table 1, which lists the name we assigned to each gratification, the specific items used in data collection, and the literature sources from which we gleaned each category.  Brief definitions follow:

  • Fantasy.  Fantasy is defined as the desire to experience a world, a life and/or an activity one cannot experience in one’s real life experience, to explore new situations and even escape reality.
  • Competition.  Competition is defined as the desire to be better than someone else at the game — to have the higher score, to beat all challengers, to have supremacy over the game and others who play.
  • Challenge.  Challenge is defined as the desire to defeat something perceived as difficult for the intrinsic reward of self-satisfaction, knowing that one can overcome struggles and frustration — it is defeating a game for the knowledge that one can successfully complete something difficult.
  • Socializing. Socializing is defined as the desire to spend time with others while playing the game, with these others being present at the site of play or virtually present through Internet connections.  Also, this desire could be interpreted as using the game as a substitute or alternative to companionship that cannot be present.
  • Mood Management.  Mood Management is defined as the desire for equilibrium in one’s affective states, and any state of disequilibrium will motivate a person to correct this, such as elevating low affect (such as sadness) and reducing high affect (such as stress).
  • Diversion.  Diversion is defined as the desire to displace one’s responsibilities by engaging in something more enjoyable.  Similar to escapism, it does not require the desire for Fantasy to replace reality, only for the activity of playing the game to replace some other activity, or to just be an appealing activity when there is nothing else to do.
  • Solitude.  Solitude at first glance may be just the opposite of Socializing, but the desire with Solitude is defined as more for enjoying one’s time alone without any particular need for others being present, either physically, virtually or by some media surrogate.

Focus on game feature preferences: The communication technology literature

The second group of studies we enlisted dealt with the medium and content aspects of the engagement, coming largely out of communication technology fields.  As with gratification studies, numerous attempts have been made to classify what players see as the most important aspects of games as they impact enjoyment of playing.  These important aspects have been described in two ways.  First, there are the elements fundamental to the nature of playing the game, or the elements that impact the actual interaction, with these elements linked to both the technology used to play the game as well as to the structure of the game.  Second, there are the features of the game’s content, such as narrative and characters, which may be influenced by the technology used to play the game.  Again, both aspects have been reported via qualitative and quantitative methods.  For this study we analyzed the aspects as reported in the literature and then grouped and conceptualized as game feature preferences.  This literature review yielded Table 2, which shows seven game feature preference categories, the specific items used in data collection, and the literature sources used to glean these categories.  Brief definitions follow:

  • Appearance.  Appearance is defined as the sensory experience of the game world, and includes the vividness of detail in the graphics and sound effects, and the overall realism of the portrayal.
  • Narrative.  Narrative is oftentimes defined as key aspects of game design, although genres do exist that do not have narrative.  Most games do have stories to some extent, even if they do not appear central to game play.
  • Characters.  Character, as with narrative, may not occur in all games.  Characters provide the player with a chance to role-play or express themselves through the selection and/or the customization of the character through appearance and skill level.  The literature suggests that the combination of characters and storyline can improve game engagement through identification.
  • Control.  Control is defined as how much the player determines the progression of the game.  It begins with how the player perceives the method used for interacting with the game, such as a keyboard or handheld controller.  Another impact on control is how much of a fit there is between the player’s abilities and the game’s requirements, as a mismatch may make it harder for the player to control the game as is needed for successful completion.
  • Complexity.  Complexity is defined as a content-specific feature and varies between and within genres, and sometimes even within a game should the game have different difficulty settings.  Design features include the number of and requirements to defeat goals, the amount and type of performance feedback a player receives in striving for the goals, and the method needed to achieving goals.
  • Curiosity.  Curiosity is defined as a desire for the game to surprise the player.  Game design features can influence the level of novelty the game provides, such as the appearance and progress of the game having new and even surprising elements designed into them.
  • Immersion.  Immersion is defined as the ability of the game to keep the player’s attention engaged.  Also known as “presence,” it is the extent to which the player feels present in the game and not in the actual physical surroundings.  For some games, this is a built in technological feature while for other games it may be a consequence of content features.

A turn toward situationality

The extant literature that has focused on gender has found mostly consistent differences in men and women players’ game playing gratifications and game feature preferences (Funk, 2001; Kafai, 1998; Lucas & Sherry, 2004; Martinson, 2002; Reinhard, 2005).  Women have been said to prefer nonviolent games that allow for more socializing with friends or solitary games requiring puzzle solving skills.  Men have been said to prefer violent games that allow them to compete with each other or themselves as they attempt to beat their best scores.  Sherry (2004), by using flow theory, proposed that men and women differ in their cognitive abilities, which interacts with varying gaming requirements and cause men and women to play different types of games. These preferences for gratifications and/or game features have been said to differentiate how long and how frequently players play (Colwell, Grody, & Rhaiti, 1995).

The various theories all have their merits in explaining the observable differences, and most likely it is a combination of the theories that can explain the complex system of gender impacting a person’s engaging with digital games.  To respect the theories and the complexities they address, we reasoned that what was needed was to maintain the essential model of the extant literature but step outside it sufficiently to allow a different kind of comparison to be made by gender — a comparison that might examine how gender differences vary across different game playing situations.

As mentioned above, we are seeing an increase in the emphasis of situation-based media use.  However, situation is typically held constant, with its characteristics studied as a slice of time and space, without any attention paid to comparing across different slices. (5)  A few studies have begun to compare media use in situated ways; that is, to compare different situations of engaging with media products to one another to deconstruct the complexity that is media use.  Dervin and Song (2005) compared users’ gratifications of different media as they were discussed in different situations, while Reinhard (2008) considered how a person’s sense of gender interacted with different engagings with gendered media.  However, because the long tradition of media studies work, particularly quantitative studies, has conceptualized media use primarily as an attribute of habitual user behavior or, particularly qualitative studies, as bound by specific contextual factors, we see relatively little theoretical work in media studies on the concept of situationality.  One thus gets a picture of situational differences only by examining differences across studies, which does not yield the same information as understanding situational differences that one individual experiences as they move from situation to situation.

Situationality as an emphasis in media studies has not advanced to the extent that it has in library and information science (LIS).  That field has a robust literature labeled under the genre name “information seeking in context” (Dervin & Foreman-Wernet, 2003; Savolainen, 2004; Vakkari, Savolainen, & Dervin, 1997).  This line of work has a direct analog to the work in media studies because it is concerned as well with both information utilities (i.e. gratifications) and information characteristics (i.e. features).  It is beyond our purpose here to review the foundations of this body of work in depth.  Briefly stated, drawing heavily on systems theory, chaos theory, and the communication theorizing work of Carter (Carter, 2003) and Dervin (Dervin & Foreman-Wernet, 2003), its premises are that while communication behavior is in part habitual, it’s very embodiment and anchoring in changeable situations means that it always has the potential for changing.  These changes could be flexible in the sense that the actor has developed repertoires of contingent communicative behaviors and selects the one best suited for negotiating the situation; they could be inventive in that the actor sees self as facing new situational conditions and constructs new orientations to those conditions; it could be capricious in that for the actor the situation is so new that either consciously or unconsciously he/she is floundering and/or testing new alternatives.  A robust line of work has confirmed the hypothesis that situational differences make a difference in the context of information seeking and use (Dervin & Foreman-Wernet, 2003; Fisher, Naumer, Durrance, Stromski & Christiansen, 2005; Savolainen, 2006), and initial steps have been taken in communication studies to conceptualize situation this same way (Kayany, Wotring & Forrest, 1996; Wendel & Dellaert, 2005).

Based on this conceptualization, we introduced situationality to implement our purpose of examining how both game playing gratifications and game feature preferences of men and women vary under different conditions.  In selecting our situational measure, we reasoned that a modest but useful place to start was with the implied situationality that has driven much of the attention to game features — i.e. the hypothesis that players pursue games whose features make the game playing situation one they like and eschew features that make the game playing situation one they do not like.  For our three category measure of game playing situation, the first two categories were based on actual playing experiences: playing a game I liked; and, playing a game I disliked.  We introduced a third: imagining a game I would like someone to create so I could play it. (6)

There has been a long tradition in communication studies that has measured attitudes and behavior in hypothetical situations, where researchers present participants with a situation they have not personally experienced.   In contrast, the present study introduced the idea of an imagined ideal anchored in real experiences.  As documented in the information seeking in context literature, users who use media systems do actively imagine ideal alternatives.  The introduction of an imagined ideal here is not based on the introduction of a situation that game players have not experienced, but rather asking players to tell us about that imagined game they would want to play that is based on their past experiences with games.  Because our survey was not intended to be only for hardcore gamers, those who have played many different types of games, it was hoped that putting in a situation that required players to consider a game playing situation they desired we could capture the sentiment that the industry has yet to create something they wanted to play, and perhaps understand what could turn non-players into a players.

(The study’s method and analysis can be found in this post.)

ENDNOTES

(1)  For the purposes of this study, digital games were defined as any form of interactive gameplay that requires some level of computer technology in order to operate.  This definition subsumed games found on computers consoles or handheld devices and known by a wide variety of terms — e.g. computer, video, internet, play station, MUDS (multi-user dungeons), and MMORPGs (mass multiplayer online role playing games).

(2) The Entertainment Software Association is the organization that monitors the ratings and market for digital games.  These figures come from the Entertainment Software Association’s latest release about the industry, “2008 Sales, Demographics and Usage Data: Essential facts about the computer and video game industry,” retrieved December 1, 2008 from http://www.theesa.com/facts/pdfs/ESA_FF_2008.pdf.  Compared to their 2006 report, this gender gap has shrunk, slightly; it had been 52% male, 38% female.  These figures come from the Entertainment Software Association’s release about the industry, “2006 Sales, Demographics and Usage Data: Essential facts about the computer and video game industry,” retrieved October 22, 2006 from http://www.theesa.com/archives/files/Essential%20Facts%202006.pdf.

(3) It was beyond the scope of this paper to discuss the full two decades worth of research on this question.  The reader is encouraged to sample any of the studies listed in Table 1 or Table 2 as they pertain to the gratifications and game features researched and used to inform this study.

(4) Studies that have sought to understand these gratifications and game features from a qualitative approach have included using interviews, focus groups, and field observations: Fabricatore et al, 2002; Griffiths, 1991; Malone, 1981a, b; Mudrock, 1985; Phillips et al, 1995.   Studies that have applied categories unto game players engagements from a quantitative approach have included: Chang, Lee & Kim, 2006; Chou & Tsai, 2007; Kim & Choi, 2005.  Studies have also been done that were influenced by both methodologies in their attempt to answer these questions: Jones, 2003; Myers, 1990; Sweetser & Johnson, 2004.

(5) When media use, and in particular digital games engagement, studies have considered situation, it was largely by considering situation as a box.  The box’s features, or context, then impacted the overall engagement.  For example: Knobloch-Westerwick & Alter, 2006; Myers, 1990.

(6) It deserves brief mention to emphasize that the conceptualization of situational differences we use here is one that treats the situation with a single attribute that deals less with the actual lived experience of game players than with the outcome of their playing.  The literatures we draw on in the “information seeking in context” community focus far more on describing situational differences in terms of aspects that pertain more to processes rather than outcomes.

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