[Paper] In-game and Out-of-game Social Anxiety Influences Player Motivations, Activities, and Experiences in MMORPGs

1265 words papers,

How are MMORPGs perceived by people with social anxiety? What do they find enjoyable about MMORPGS? How does real-world anxiety translate to social experiences in a video game setting? This CHI 2020 paper by Dechant et al. studies these and other questions about the interactions between social anxiety and video games.

Authors: Martin Dechant, Susanne Poeller, Colby Johanson, Katelyn Wiley, Regan L. Mandryk

Link: ACM Digital Library


MMORPGs (massively multiplayer online roleplaying games) are a type of game in which players interact in a shared virtual world. The stereotypes of the lonely gamer have been shown to be inaccurate, and MMO players view games as another social medium. The authors chose to study the question of social anxiety within games. From the abstract:

Anxiety and fear about social interactions can lead to withdrawal from socializing in the physical world, yet players with social anxiety preferentially choose MMORPGs—a highly social genre—raising questions of whether social anxiety expresses differently during in-game interactions. In the present study (N=181), we explore whether and how social anxiety translates into MMORPGs.

To study this, they measure in-game social anxiety, and conclude that social anxiety “differently affect[s] preferences, behaviours, and experiences” in the game world.

Social anxiety in the physical world significantly predicted the reasons for playing, with players reporting that it is easier to connect with others in-game, that the MMORPG world is less broken, and that they feel more socially competent within it. On the other hand, in-game anxiety predicted reduced participation in activities related to socializing and difficult in-game challenges. These differences in play behaviour did not affect overall enjoyment of the MMORPG genre, which was very high in our sample. Regardless of anxiety type or level, players found events in the physical world to be more threatening than the same events in the game world.

Let’s break it down.

Methods and findings

The authors recruited 181 participants from Mechanical Turk, then asked them whether or not they played popular MMOs (mostly World of Warcraft, two Final Fantasy versions, Elder Scrolls, and Guild Wars). They used the Liebowitz Social Anxiety Scale (LSAS) to assess social anxiety, then developed their own “Gaming Social Anxiety Scale (GSAS)” to assess social anxiety in the game world.

There are some interesting findings—that players with real-world social anxiety are better able to make sense of the game world:

RQ3: We find that players with physical-world social anxiety tend to think that the game-world makes more sense and feels safer, view in-game social interaction as more accessible, and perceive a greater sense of self-worth. Players with in-game social anxiety tend to agree less that the game is socially accessible, and are less interested in taking their game relationships to other contexts.

And that players with real-world social anxiety generally view the game-world as less threatening:

As seen in Table 4, LSAS significantly predicts greater agreement that all the events we asked about are less threatening in the game world than in the physical world. This includes being insulted or judged for their performance, being observed by others, making mistakes, performing in front of others, having a social interaction go wrong, as well as being insulted for who they are, and for choices they make.

This suggests some kind of escapism—that players with social anxiety turn to the game world because they feel like they’re better able to fit in there. Perhaps it gives them more control over their surroundings or their interactions; there are all kinds of similar feelings I’ve had when jumping into the game world.

On construct validitiy

I … don’t really trust this. I don’t think this paper did a good enough job convincing me that this GSAS is a valid metric for social anxiety in a gaming setting. To me, it’s kind of circular—“we developed this GSAS to measure social anxiety in game settings,” followed by “look at the distribution of how much people exhibit social anxiety in gaming settings!”

To me, it feels like the GSAS should have been developed and validated before using it to compare in-game and out-of-game social anxiety. How do we know that it’s measuring the same kinds of anxiety that the LSAS, which has been studied many times, is? That feels like it should be its own paper.

I’m reminded of a section on construct validity from one of Dr. Stevie Chancellor’s papers, which I wrote about in March:

These challenges with construct validity jeopardize the credibility of identifying MHS and the replication of these studies in the future. As Ernala et al. also found in their explorations of schizophrenia prediction on social media, the operationalization of identifying MHS is not connected to theoretically or clinically rigorous definitions of mental health, nor is the new method of identification formally or causally validated. Without construct validity being established, it is hard to know if the studies in our corpus indeed measure MHS in ways that may be useful for other audiences, such as clinicians, or if they are in fact measuring something else.

To use their words, it’s hard to know if this scale is indeed measuring social anxiety in a game setting, or if it’s measuring something else. The stakes are lower here than when e.g., predicting depression or suicidality from social media data. But in order for this kind of study to be able to inform game designers, we have to make sure that the metric is valid construct—that it’s measuring the right things.

Also: it’s quite possible that I’m wrong here, and that using this scale is highly appropriate. Please feel free to change my mind by emailing “me” @ [this domain]. In the absence of other evidence, though, I don’t think so. To me, this lack of construct validity weakens any conclusions derived from the GSAS scores.

Implications for game design

There are still useful implications for game design, despite what I mentioned above:

Because social anxiety can significantly change how people respond to social interactions [49], players with in-game social anxiety seem to play the game differently than non-anxious players. Game designers can increase the accessibility of their game by addressing the needs of this user group; for example, by giving players more tools to manage in-game social interactions, preventing toxic behaviours, and creating a more welcoming experience in the game, with a less strong focus on performance that is visible to other players.

Online games could certainly do to be less toxic, and designing games that reduce toxicity would be welcome. Another suggestion by the authors is offering communication options that require less explicit conversation and instead communicate via actions, emotes, or symbols. It remains to be seen how effective these would be at mitigating in-game social anxiety, and we’d need a validated metric for that, but they’re still noble goals.

Closing thoughts

This is interesting given the context of COVID & social distancing. I’ve noticed that I’ve been getting a fair amount of social activity from Animal Crossing lately, and while it’s not an MMO, the experience of being able to visit friends’ islands has given me a surprising amount of satisfaction when I can’t do this in real life. There’s something to be said for giving people agency in a virtual world when they have little in the real one.

I don’t totally buy the conclusions of this paper, though there are still useful parts. I don’t think the GSAS can be considered a major contribution of this research without more work to validate it. But the research into how players with real-world social anxiety experience MMOs differently is valuable, and offers important implications for game design.