Friday, September 19, 2008

Are Online Gamers More Depressed or Is EverQuest II Simply Depressing?

(cc) booleansplitA recent study by a team of researchers at University of Southern California in Los Angeles, the Palo Alto Research Center, and the University of Delaware revealed that American gamers are in better than average condition, a finding that flies in the face of the flabby, black t-shirted greasy out of work punk that is the stereotype. I, of course, looked nothing like that when I played games nonstop back in the day, even when I ate donuts. I was in great shape. It just happened to be a lot rounder than I would have liked.

The researchers quizzed 7000 players of the role-playing game EverQuest II about their physical and mental health. They enticed the gamers to participate "by offering a specially created virtual weapon as an incentive - the 'Greatstaff of the Sun Serpent'." There is nothing like offering free rares to get the gaming community to rally to your cause. "The researchers then combined the survey responses with statistics about players' online activities and playing habits," stated the article over at New Scientist Tech.

The study also showed that the gamers reported more cases of depression and substance abuse than the average non-gaming person. Here's where I sat up and paid attention. The problems I have with this study is the same as I have with most studies. If you sampled an audience at a Jackie Chan flick and 88% happened to be left handed, you could report that 88% of left handed people like Jackie Chan movies, but is it true?

Consider this. What about the correlation between substance abuse and Depression? Couldn't the Depression be a result of this link instead? Certainly other studies have pointed to a link between the two. The gaming may have nothing to do with the link. Correlation, as they say, is not causation. Perhaps the gamers were depressed because of their monthly EverCrack bill? Others call the game "EverGrind II" due to the long hours needed to level up characters & skills to advance in the game. Doesn't that sound depressing?

Although the researchers couldn't pinpoint why there was a correlation between Depression and EverQuest II players, they did offer the following:

"...the team suggest[s] it may be because more educated, wealthier people are attracted to computer games, and these people also tend to take better care of their health."

So dumb, poor people don't play online games? That's a nice assessment. Considering the "EverCrack" label, however, perhaps the game turns educated, wealthy people into dumb, poor people?

I believe my greatest complaint with the study is that their method of gathering data appears to flawed. Offering rares to entice anonymous gamers to fill out surveys is such a lame-brained idea, I snorted when I read it. How do they know that the gamers answered truthfully? Obviously, I only know as much about their methods as the article reveals, but I wonder if they had never logged on and interacted with gamers socially. You have female gamers playing as male avatars and male gamers playing as female avatars. Anime fans like to claim they are from Japan. Europhiles from Oregon claim they are from France. People from the East Coast like to claim they are from the West Coast, and on and on. Online play is anonymous and all about role playing. Players often modify their personal information as best they can to reflect the backstory of the character they are playing.

Then there is the cheeky attitude of the gamers in question. When faced with a chance to get a rare, they'd say anything. I know of online people who think it is funny to lie their way through a survey to get at the goodies. Various USB keychain offers come to mind. Why wouldn't they lie about their physical shape and claim they smoke heavier than an old truck with a bad carburetor?

In the end, I do not believe much should be made of this study. The links between physical and mental health with EverQuest are tenuous at best and completely reliant on the honesty of the gamers. As usual, one's personal experience is the greatest statistic to pay attention to. If long hours online grinding your Sacred Sword of Prickly Bits are inducing Depression, perhaps you should consider a break or even not playing the game altogether. As depressives we need to be smart about the activities we undertake. By keeping tabs on our mental health we can avoid activities that may ideally seem enjoyable, but ultimately leave us down in the dumps.

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