Time for another Research Review!
Every month, I will select a recently published research article in the field of game studies and provide an in-depth review. After taking into account the motivations, methods, and analyses, we will explore the takeaways from this work and break down how it can help us better understand the uses and effects of video games on its players.
In this inaugural episode, I tackle a 2020 study entitled “Real-world social support but not in-game social support is related to reduced depression and anxiety associated with problematic gaming” by Tham and Colleagues. This article assesses whether in-game social support provides the same “buffering” benefits to depression and anxiety as out-of-game social support, specifically in relation to problematic gaming.
Social support is generally helpful due to the fact that social support systems tend to provide instrumental aid (i.e., tangible favors), emotional support, and self-esteem enhancement. In this article, the researchers want to explore whether or not it is possible that in-game social support is as effective as real-world social support in providing social support and its associated benefits, such as a protection from the symptoms of depression and anxiety.
To assess this they conducted a survey (n=361) of university students, some of which belong to a campus eSports group. They measured problematic gaming, depression, anxiety, in-game and out-of-game (what they call ‘real world’) social support. Analyses found problematic gaming was significantly associated with decreased real world social support and increased in-game social support. Only real world social support was associated with reduced depression and anxiety. In game social support showed no significant relationships. Problematic gaming had a significant direct effect on depression and anxiety. The authors conclude that real-world social support should be encouraged in the face of problematic gaming behaviors.
For me, this study left more questions than provided answers. First of all, the researchers seemingly focus on problematic gaming because of its relationships with depression and anxiety. However, if the research question truly is “do in-game friendships provide the same buffer with mental health as ‘real world’ offline friendships?”, the focus on problematic gaming seems… unnecessary.
The researchers themselves even note:
“There has been little research on the downstream consequences of in-game social support, especially with regard to mental health outcomes such as depression and anxiety. It could be that gamers receive in-game social support, but does this have the same beneficial effects on mental health as real-world social support? (p.2).
So why not measure that directly?
I also have some concerns about the measures that they used. For example, the measure of anxiety seems to focus on state (environmental based) verse trait (personality based) anxiety. There is a significant difference between these two concepts and I wonder why they chose to use this kind of assessment that is often environmental based and relatively transient rather than chronic and more personally centered. The reasons for this are not specifically clarified in the article.
The statistical analyses are solid and they did find significant relationships. That said, I’m not sure how enlightening or novel this is considering the focus on problematic gaming and the focus on state anxiety. I would love to see a follow up without the focus on problematic gaming. Can in-game social support provide a buffer for depression and anxiety in similar ways that we know “traditional” relationships can? That is a more interesting question and one i’d like to see in the numbers. Because anecdotally, we already know many gamers report they perceive online friendships as important, or more important, than non-in game friendships (Williams, 2008). We also know that in-game friendships can, and often do, provide various kinds of social and emotional support (Kaye et al., 2017; Domahidi et al., 2016). Does that transition into tangible benefits, when it comes to depression and anxiety? We’re going to need another study to figure that out.