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The social fabric of virtual life: A longitudinal multi-method study on the social foundations of online gaming

Final Report Summary - SOFOGA (The social fabric of virtual life: A longitudinal multi-method study on the social foundations of online gaming)

Digital games have become a driving force in today's entertainment industry. What was once the medium of a niche audience is now used by millions worldwide. The market for computer, video and mobile games is still growing and has surpassed the film industry in turnover. However, comparisons with other media are becoming increasingly obsolete: Digital games are an established part of the entertainment sector now, with its own specifics and rules.
With the growth of the industry and the development from a secondary sector of the media entertainment industry to one of its major driving forces, the audience has changed as well. The stereotypical underage male gamer is no longer the role model for the majority of gamers – neither statistically nor in public perception. Digital games are played by children and young adults, but even by so-called silver gamers in the retirement age. Furthermore, gaming is not confined to the living room any more. With the differentiation of hardware, gaming has become mobile and versatile, filling many niches in the everyday life of the users. However, with the growth and differentiation of gaming, public concerns regarding negative forms of use became apparent. But what once was just affecting a minority of society has become a topic – and problem – for many.
The project SOFOGA was focusing on the societal impact of digital games, and more specifically networked games (which includes a majority of digital games nowadays), its positive but also its negative sides, using a holistic approach and multiple methods to gather access to the life world of the users. The project had three research goals. Its aim was to analyse (1) how social ordering online game worlds is generated and how it is sustained, (2) how the gamers real world is influenced by the social order of the online game world, and (3) how the experience of the online game world is influenced by the real world.
In order to answer these questions, the projects’ holistic approach included several research steps on the micro, meso and macro level that were conducted in a longitudinal logic. The respective field in its breadth and variety was analysed through large-scale telephone surveys (omnibus studies), a three wave panel survey, focus groups, network analysis and qualitative interviews, as well as innovative methods like observations in the field, i.e. ‚in’ the respective games themselves. The project had methodological pioneer character. For example, in order to observe the in game behaviour and the real-life (physiological) reactions, a dedicated laboratory – the so-called GameLab – was built.
Research results addressed questions on various topics in different subfields of (online) games research, including: (1) Games industry, (2) Game use, (3) Socialisation, (4) Learning, (5) Aggression, (6) Militarism, (7) Addiction and (8) General aspects of gaming/theory & methodology. The findings had some notable impact both in the field and in the public. In the societal discussion, the findings contributed to a more neutral estimation of health concerns regarding digital games (esp. addiction and aggression). Overall, the immediate effects of gaming were considerably small, whereas the changes in the social lives of the users were much more pronounced. We found simple effects models to be inadequate to describe the use of digital (online) games. They are interactive, they dynamically react to the users actions, they form environments for the experience of interaction with AIs or human players, and they offer options for inherently ‚social‘ experiences. This sets them apart from other types of entertainment media that are rather static and non-responsive, and also calls for new theoretical and methodological approaches to this fascinating field of research.