The Game & Word Podcast: Lost in a Good Game Study, ft. Dr. Pete Etchells
Professor Pete Etchells talks to us about the challenges facing psychological research on video games, and how to not be tricked by sensationalistic headlines and moral panics about video games.
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The Game & Word Podcast, Volume 3, Episode 3: Lost in a Good Game Study (ft. Dr. Pete Etchells)
Table of Contents
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Hello again, psychonauts!
This episode of The Game & Word Podcast, is going to wrap up Volume 3, so I’ve saved the best for last, so to speak.
Our guest this week, Dr. Pete Etchells, is a video game psychology researcher, and author of Lost in a Good Game, which is a must-read for anyone wanting to dive deeper into this fascinating field.
In this episode, we talk about the challenges facing psychological research into video games, some of the psychological benefits of games that get lost in media coverage, and how to approach science news more critically—and in doing so, better arm yourself against falling for sensationalistic headlines and moral panics about video games.
Enjoy, and catch you all on the flip side!
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Lost in a Good Game, by Dr. Pete Etchells
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NOTE: This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
INTRO: Hello, hello, hello, everyone! And welcome to The Game & Word Podcast. I'm your host, Jay Rooney, as usual. And I've got an amazing guest for you this week: Dr. Pete Etchells. Dr. Etchells is a professor of psychology at Bath Spa University, in the UK, and the author of Lost in a Good Game, which is an excellent primer on the fascinating field of video game psychology.
Today, we deep dive into the nature of psychological research into video games, and why answers to questions like "are loot boxes addictive?" or "do video games increase aggression?" are never as clear cut as we'd like them to be.
We also talk about some recent examples of games serving as vehicles for enabling a better understanding of not just certain mental illnesses, but even basic challenges of the mind, like processing grief. Finally, we end with some solid practical advice on how to tune out sensationalistic and misleading headlines on video games studies, and figure out what all the new psychological research coming out is actually saying.
It's quite an illuminating conversation, and I'm thrilled to share it with you all today. So go ahead, grab your cup of Joe or your cup of tea, put your earbuds on or turn on your speakers, and hit that play button. I'll be back after we're done to wrap things up.
Until then, enjoy Game & word's interview with Dr. Pete Etchells on video game psychology research. See you on the other side!
Game & Word: Good afternoon, everyone. And welcome to another special edition of The Game and Word Podcast. Today, I have with me dialing in, live from the UK, Dr. Pete Etchells, author of Lost in a Good Game, which is one of the big books that informed a lot of my research on this last series I've been writing for this for the past couple of months.
Pete, you wanna introduce yourself?
Pete Etchells: That was a wonderful introduction. So I don't think there's much more to say there, but yeah, I'm Pete Etchells, I'm a professor of psychology and science communication at Bath Spa University in the UK, so I do research on lots of things, but all things, digital technology, really. So I'm interested in the behavioral and mental well-being effects of video games and playing them, things like that.
I'm also interested in screen time more generally. So how does digital technology affect us in good and bad ways? So yeah, all sorts of stuff like that. Oh yeah. Wrote a book. You've already said that.
Game & Word: And how do video games affect us and how do they not?
Pete Etchells: It's Is actually a really interesting question. So in so far as the answer is they affect us in lots of different ways, but in not massive ways. So if you're approaching that question in the sense of, "do video games impact on our mental health or do they make us more aggressive or do they make us smarter? Do brain training games make us smarter?" Things like that. The answer to all of those sorts of questions is generally "no." They have a bit of an impact, but not that much. And certainly not in such a ways that's worth worrying or considering about, games will make you a little bit annoyed or a little bit happy for a little bit of time when you're playing them.
But in terms of long-term differences, there's not much going on. Brain training games don't work, they don't make you smarter. So that's no good either. But in terms of both over positive and negative effects, there's not much of a swing, either way. I think if you approach that. So the other part of that was that they affect us in lots of different ways.
So I think from a kind of cultural perspective, I think they have quite a powerful impact. So what games do allow you to do is to explore I, I use this term in the book and I hate it. It's really rubbish term, but I'm gonna say anyway, I'll try and qualify it. They allow us to explore what it means to be human, which is a it's just a bit fiery, I think.
But I think what I mean by that is that because video games are unique amongst entertainment media, in the sense that they place you as the active agent in the thing that you're doing, rather than a passive watcher, they offer you the possibility of becoming fully immersed in this experience that you're having and taking on the role of the character that you're playing, the avatar that you are, and therefore feeling things as if you were them.
So video games allow you to explore things like grief or what it feels like to lose somebody, realize how it feels to be betrayed by somebody. It allows you to explore your moral compass as well. There's some great games that have come out recently where they're choice games, basically.
But in the process of making those choices, you can be different versions of yourself. We always like to think that in a certain situation, this is how we would react. But you only really find out what you're gonna do in that situation when it actually happens to you. Video games, give you a chance to look at a version of what you might do in that situation.
Give you a bit of an inkling of as to, say where your moral compass is and things like that. So we're not talking about big, broad, positive, or negative effects on psychology here, but these quite personal. Yet still powerful experiences that they can afford.
Game & Word: So what's the next book about if if you're allowed to talk about it?
Pete Etchells: Yeah, no. Sure. So it's the same sort of style as Lost in a Good Game. But it's about screen time more generally. So it's about digital technology and the impact that it has on us, so things like the relationship between social media and mental health and screens generally and sleep attention and things like that.
Just with a general view that, there's the same sort of thing as in Lost in a Good Game, there's a general perception that screens are bad, and that they're causably bad. If you pick a particular thing that you worried about particularly when it comes to kids and adolescents, you can trace that directly back to screens.
And there's some research which supports that, but you start digging into it a little bit more and that research isn't very good. And there's lots of reasons why that research isn't very good. So it's all about why we've got into this situation and how do we get out of it. And is there any kind of, are there any things that we should actually be worried about?
If so, what, and rather than just worry about them, what can we do to help ourselves, basically?
Game & Word: Yeah.
Pete Etchells: So it's, I'm not gonna say it's a self-help book, cuz that sounds awful. It's not at all. It's more about trying to reframe people's thinking about digital technology, so that we can have more mature conversations about it and not just get stuck in this either, "they're really good and we shouldn't worry about them," or "they're the worst thing ever." Because we never get anywhere with conversations like that really.
Game & Word: Yeah, definitely. What do you feel is the biggest misconception that people have regards to, to video games and their effect on mental health?
Pete Etchells: It's a good question. I think my feeling is generally the biggest misconception about games is , about how they're played. So you, if you talk to people who don't play video games that much, or don't really understand them, you try and get a sense of what they think they are. What they'll end up describing, feels like a very solitary experience. It used to be, I don't think this is so true anymore, but it used to be the case that, you talk about what's a gamer, and people would say "teenage boy in his room on his own, playing a game, pasty white skin's going translucent cuz he's in front of his screen in the dark." I don't think many people think that video games are like that anymore, but I still think there's this sense that they're an isolating experience when actually they're the complete opposite of that. And they always have been, really from the moment that video games were created, they have been social experiences and multiplayer experiences.
They've been things to do with other people. In terms of the misconceptions around video games and mental health, I guess again, the broad strokes general one is particularly from people who don't play them, it's, that they're bad, right? That, that if you play games they're addicting and they're gonna harm your mental health in some way, when you try and press people about that...
So this word "harm" gets used quite a lot, when we talk about games or loot boxes or digital technology more generally, you try and press people on what that means and it covers all sorts of things. Really, it's a very poorly defined concept, I think.
Game & Word: Yeah.
Pete Etchells: People generally use it to mean, "it's no good for you, it's unwholesome," or something like that. So when you actually start to press, in terms of, "specifically define this thing that you're talking about," and you look at the research , that correlates with that sort of definition. You inevitably find that it's not harmful in the way that people suggest it is.
But even now I'd say if you look at this at a broad strokes level and you're talking about the effects on mental wellbeing, which is a very broad umbrella term for "how well you're doing," there's this perception that maybe video games they're okay for a little bit, but if you play a lot of them, that's maybe not such a good thing. The data that we're starting to get now doesn't seem to point in that direction. There is not much of an association going on. Where there is one, it's positive, but it depends on a lot of different things. It depends on how you interact with games while you're playing, why you're playing them in the first place, who you're playing them with, what your motivations are, and things like that.
So it becomes a very complex question to ask very quickly. And you get into conversations with people about this and what everybody in that conversation starts to realize very quickly is that it's meaningless to ask "how do games affect our mental health?" It's like asking "how does food affect my waistline?"
Depends what you're eating, who you're eating it with, when you're eating, how much of it you're eating, depends on your prior history, individual differences, whether you're allergic to foods or not, all these sorts of things. You start realizing that those are the interesting questions. That general question is meaningless in a way. It's not you a, you are never gonna get an answer to it, and B, is it worth asking, probably not, because even if you were to get an answer to it I don't think it can tell us anything useful.
Game & Word: In Lost in a Good Game, you go into quite some detail as to the myriad problems facing psychological research, insofar as video games are concerned. Do you feel that's changed at all since since you first published the book?
Pete Etchells: Yeah, definitely. I think it is getting better. I think there are still risks to the research. So I think if you look at different sub areas of research, different things are going on. So if you look at the whole violent video games and aggression research literature, that has moved on since me writing the book and since the stuff that I talked about in the book in some ways, right?
So we've developed some better ways of looking at that question and what you inevitably find is that as a research area matures and you develop better more robust methodologies, more appropriate analysis methods, where you might have found big effects in the early days they tend to get smaller and smaller.
And that's what's happened with the violent video games and aggression question is that the best evidence that we've got now really suggests that this is not a thing that is worth worrying about, there might be a small association there, but it's, it's not doing any particular damage.
On the other hand, you've still got all the same players in that research field, right? So you are still getting research that, that does the same thing that it did 10, 15, 20 years ago, and saying the same things. What I think is starting to happen there particularly is that people are just ignoring those older arguments now and just focusing on the good research which is a good thing to see. So you look at other areas, so I've done research on loot boxes and the relationship with things like problem gambling and mental well-being and things like that. That's a relatively new area. So I think the first study in that area came out in 2018. If you look at the broad stretch of research in that area, it's pretty good.
Preregistered, a lot of the times people make their data openly available and their code and things like that. So its all these really strong principles of open science that a lot of us have been talking about in psychology for a good few years now to try and improve the state of the discipline: be more honest about the things that you're doing and share things so that people can check if they need to check your stuff. But it's more about, not reinventing the wheel constantly and collecting the same data and over again.
Its all these principles of open science, which is good. My worry with that is that there are potentially new problems in that area of research that we're not thinking about.
These are somewhat akin to other problems that we've seen elsewhere in video games research that we're not really kinda getting a handle on. And I think it generally goes back to this idea of the interplay between the development of video games and moral panic in society. So what happens is. Video game comes out.
Something happens in the real world. People who don't understand video games, maybe attribute the thing, the horrible thing that's happened to video games. And that's what starts something like the whole "violent video games that they cause aggression" worry. Now what happens in, in the research world is that psychologists come along and say, okay, here's this thing that people are worrying about.
We've not really thought about it up until now. It's not been a thing it's not been on our radar or anything like that, but people really care about that. Right? People, the general public are really worried about it. Parents are worried about it. Policy makers are interested in doing something about it.
We need to know what's going on because this is all quite fast paced you end up doing quite rapid research, tends not to be necessarily very good, but you'll find something. That was the problem with violent games research, it was very reactive towards what was going on in society.
The methods that we used to ask that question, weren't particularly good, but they showed big effects. They showed big negative effects of playing violent video games early on. And then that was taken as "well, violent games do cause aggression." When, actually over time you realize that the thing that you're measuring is not the thing that you think you're measuring.
And when you do start measuring things properly, you find that effect actually isn't there. If it is at all, or it's not very big and it's not worth worrying about. And the problem with loot box research is that it's same sort of thing. Start to do research on loot boxes because they were a thing that started worrying about. And what we're kind of missing there, I think, are two things. One is without exception, the research on loot boxes and problem gambling is correlational in nature. So it's really good, really robust work, but it's correlational. Tends to show, and my work shows the same thing, that people who spend more money on loot boxes also tend to score more highly on scales of problem gambling habits.
That doesn't tell you which one comes first. So it doesn't tell you whether spending money on loot boxes causes problem, gambling habits, or vice versa. Some people argue that doesn't matter in a way, because if it's that loot boxes cause problem gambling habits, then you know, you've got really problematic mechanism in games that's causing problems for people.
If it's that people who. Are more likely to have problem gambling habits are more likely to spend money on loot boxes than you are you're targeting vulnerable individuals. So neither of those realities is good,
Game & Word: Yes. Yeah. Mm-hmm.
Pete Etchells: But we dunno much about the causal mechanisms and critically, what we don't know is whether there's a third variable that impacts on both. And then we don't know what's happening on the other side of it as well. So lots and lots of studies show this correlation with problem gambling. Very few, if any studies show that translating into psychological distress say, or problems with mental wellbeing or things like that. And you look at the kinda good studies that are coming out at the minute, there's a potential problem here, obviously, with biases in participant samples.
So you know who does your study might not be a random representative population of the entire population of people who play video games and buy loot boxes. But yeah, there's still big studies. I've got a study that's just about to come out where we surveyed 3000 people that played video games and bought loot boxes and all this sort of stuff tend to find those studies is that what people report is that they don't spend that much money on loot boxes per month.
So I think, even in like problem gambling categories, people are spending $50, $60 a month, on average. So there's an argument there is to say, "is that really a problem?" Now, the difficulty with that is that obviously you see a lot of single case stories in the news where people say, "my kid got hold of my credit card and they spent $3000 on FIFA in two days," and things like that. There are people who are spending vast amounts of money on loot box games in what is probably gonna be quite a problematic way. So I don't think the research literature is capturing those people particularly well at the minute. But equally, I'm not sure that it's got a clear sense of what the worry is, or what we want to do at the end of this.
There's this association between a particular survey measure you use, which scores problem, gambling behaviors, and loot box spending. But you also get studies, which show that there's no association between loot box spending and psychological distress. So people are spending money on these games and they may be not happy about that, but it's not causing them psychological harm or distress, really.
So what do you do with that? And, there's not easy answer that because a lot of this work has happened because people are worried about loot boxes with a view to regulating them. And particularly worried about kids having access to these sorts of things.
Do they effectively work as a sort of gateway mechanism for other forms of gambling? We really don't know that yet. And I should say that part of the reason why we're struggling with this, research-wise, at the minute is that whenever you have a reactive research area, that's trying to catch up with what's going on in society, it tends to be very theory-light.
So it tends to be like surveys and stuff. So, do you spend money on this thing? How do you feel? Is there a correlation? That sort of thing. But in the absence of a theoretical framework to think about that question, to pose the question in the first place to think based on our understanding of human psychology, if we gave somebody this sort of mechanism, what might we predict would they do? And how could we change that? You want predictive theories to be able to figure out what's gonna happen for the next big thing that's gonna come out. As well as figuring out why loot boxes are a problem, if they are, and we are really struggling with that at the minute in that particular area.
And I think we will be for a while because it's very easy to do. And I, I should hold my hands up here and say, yeah, the stuff that I've done recently on loot boxes is also pretty absent of theory, because it's not clear what's the best theoretical framework, to think about these questions. I have a friend called Andy Przybylski who who does a lot of work in this area. I interviewed him for Lost in a Good Game. I can't remember whether this quote got into it or not, but when he was talking about this sort of general video games, research, and digital type research, he kinda used this analogy of kids playing football.
So it's what we're doing at the minute as scientists is if you've got a bunch of people who don't play football very much, and somebody punts the ball down the field and everybody runs to where the ball is about to bounce, and then somebody picks up and throws it somewhere else or kicks it somewhere else.
And then everybody runs to that point. Nobody's thinking about what's gonna happen next. And that's what happens with good football teams, right? So they predict plays and strategy and things like that. And that's how you kinda win the game, right? That's what we need to start doing, I think in video games research, generally in loot box research specifically is thinking about, "what's the big question that we care about? What is it that we're worried about here?" And how do we best frame it? Because I think, loot boxes will disappear in the next few years, right? They're a pretty toxic way of monetizing games because they've just got such a bad reputation. So they will go and something will replace them.
And NFTs, don't get me started on those. NFTs are not gonna replace anything in video games. That's just, it's just never gonna happen. They're a nightmare, but something will replace them. And that could be something a lot worse potentially, or it could be something that is not a problem. And that's what we wanna aim for as psychologists is thinking about, okay how do we put in or take out mechanisms within games so that we can maximize the benefits and minimize the potential harm.
Game & Word: Yeah. And I'm curious too, I wonder if you've noticed in your research, or just reviewing the body of research generally, if there's a cultural component to the nature of these moral panics . Like for example, in the US, after each mass shooting, lawmakers are gonna point the finger at video games instead of guns. Which is very much, I think, an American phenomenon. Whereas loot boxes, I think it's more generally agreeable that we probably shouldn't let kids basically gamble.
So I wonder if there's, a cultural effect at play too, at least as far as certain things that people worry about with video games.
Pete Etchells: Yeah, I think so. I think there's perception, biases, right? If you look at the violent video game question and does that cause aggression, by and large, if you look at the generally two camps of researchers, there's one that's very clearly "they do cause aggression." And there's one that's "very clearly that they don't." If you look at who those groups are there are some very kind of clear boundaries between them, right? So the group of researchers broadly speaking, obviously it's not the same across the board, but who are consistently producing research that shows that violent video games cause aggression tend to have a pediatrics background or a clinical background.
And my sense is that what's happening there is that, they're getting patients in their clinics. Parents with kids that they're worried about who are showing aggressive behaviors and you go into the history and playing games and they're playing these specific types of what we call violent games or whatever.
And it's hard not to see that might be a potential link there. And then on the other side of it, you've got so the group who generally produce research that shows that there's no effects tend to be, public health specialists, epidemiologists, criminologists, people who are looking at population level statistics.
And again, there you look at population level statistics, violent acts are going down over time. Video game sales are going through the roof, that's not the correlation that you'd expect if these were really strongly driving violent behavior. So there's that kind of base perception point.
Game & Word: Yeah.
Pete Etchells: I think when you talk about things like, a mass shooting, in America, when something like that happens, I think it's so , it defies understanding on such a basic human level that we don't get it. We can't understand possibly how this could have happened and what you wanna try and do is find explanations.
You wanna find explanations quickly. And there's gotta be for something so shocking and singular, there's got to be a singular cause, so I think that's why it's very easy to point the finger at video games again, especially if you don't play them or you don't understand them or don't know them, if you build up this perception in of certain types of video games in the media that you know, they're gory and the point that the games go around, shooting people and you get points for that, you get rewarded for it.
Without any more of an understanding about what those games are or why people engage with them, it's very easy to connect those dots.
When actually, the reality of this situation is much more complicated. That's not what, that's not what video games are. Something that people don't really talk about is that violent video game as a term doesn't mean that much, right?
What is a violent video game? You look at some of these cases over time and it will include things like DOOM, Call of Duty, World of Warcraft, those sorts of games. You look at those games and compare them. Yeah, very different games, right? There's not much really to compare Call of Duty with World of Warcraft.
If you look at this purely in terms of visual perception, just look at the visual display, right? What these games look like, and they could not be more different. Call of Duty versus World of Warcraft. One's a first person shooter. One's a third person perspective game. One, your visual attention is directed very much to the center of the screen, where you are pointing your gun.
Something like World of Warcraft. If you're looking in the center of the screen you're not doing the game properly, particularly if you're in like a raid scenario or something like that, you need to be looking in at what you're standing in where you need to go, where everybody else is. You need to look at the chat box to coordinate what's going on with the rest of the team.
Game & Word: And also, technically speaking, Mario stomping on a Goomba could be considered violent.
Pete Etchells: Yeah, sure. So there's a paper in the early 2000s where they tried to quantify violence in video games. And the most violent game that topped out on the list was Centipede. I dunno if you remember Centipede from the 1980s so there's a centipede kind of scrolling its way down.
It kind looks a bit like Space Invaders, right? Scrolling its way down the screen. And you're the bottom trying shoot segments of it, and you're just looking at that in terms of shooting at something X times per second over the course of a 20-minute gameplay session.
And it comes out as something like 93% violent. Centipede is not a violent video game. That is not, that's not gonna cause any problems anywhere. But I think it generally speaks to this problem that we've got with defining games and talking about them just generally, it's so hard. And I found this in my own, so I've done research on violent games and aggression, and something difficult when we were doing that research was trying to find a sensible way to categorize games.
The obvious approach to go for is to categorize 'em into genres, but even then that doesn't sit right.
So there's a study that I published in 2016 where we use data from an amazing longitudinal study. So it's big study in the UK where they followed something like 15,000 mums to be and then followed their kids all the way through their life. So it started out in the early nineties and it's still going now.
So it's called the Children of the Nineties Study. You kinda get data from the kids and their parents every six months or a year or so. And you get saliva samples and these huge amount of data that so many amazing findings have come outta that in terms of kinda medical health and things like that.
And, anybody can use that data set. You just have to apply for permission to use it. And we looked at it and they had some measures of video game use. We were like, yeah, this is incredibly prescient for a study like this, to ask about, what sort of games are you playing?
Things like that. So that data was collected in 1998 and we published our paper in 2016. Even if it was the most perfect study in the world, would it tell you anything meaningful about modern day video gameplay? Because the kind of, violent games you might be talking about, our data set would be things like Goldeneye, which nowadays looks really archaic, looks cartoonish. One of the key problems that we found was that while it was great that they had questions about video game use in this survey, they weren't particularly good questions. They'd not been particularly well constructed insofar as... so they didn't have a first person shooter category.
The closest that we got to that was "shoot 'em up." Now, if you don't know much about video games and you've got a list of genres here, and you're saying, what is Goldeneye? You probably gonna take "shoot 'em up."
Shoot 'em ups are a very specific type of video game, right? They're side-scrolling games, very different to what you might think of as a shooter game now.
And that's, you can make educated guesses about what people might have been thinking, or you can be conservative about it and say, okay we don't know what people were ticking this box for. It's probably the most violent category because it's got the word "shoot" in it. But how you make those decisions is really difficult.
Game & Word: Yep. Yep.
Pete Etchells: And even how you categorize games now. Like how do you categorize Minecraft?
Game & Word: Mm-hmm.
Pete Etchells: Is it a sandbox building game? Is it a multiplayer, social, glorified, social network game? Is it a violent game? Is it a violent first person game? Because I can't remember whether they actually did it in the end, but there was talk about it being banned in Turkey a few years ago. Because it was violent cuz you're going around hitting zombies with sticks.
So nobody really agrees on how to define that. Genres aren't a good way of defining them, clearly.
You could get super artsy about this, right? So what counts as a game.
And everybody will have different definitions of that. So that's one of many reasons why it's really hard to do research in the area because you're just trying to deal with this amorphous, constantly changing thing, but nobody really knows how to define and nobody really knows how to talk about it.
Yeah. I found that was part of the reason why I wrote the book was to try and find a way of talking about video games in a way that people who play them can relate to, and it doesn't feel patronizing, but people who don't play them and don't really have much experience of them can get a sense of what they're like, really.
And it's one of the things I talk about in the book is that, games are an entertainment medium. And it's weird that we have these conversations, right? We don't have these conversations about movies or music, not anymore. Like maybe had the moral panic debates about heavy metal and stuff in the 1980s, but we don't talk about, "is music driving people to commit horrendous acts of societal violence" and things like that. But we still have these conversations around video games.
And I think one of the things that sets games apart from other forms of entertainment media is that there's a really high barrier to entry. So if you've never watched a movie before and you want to get into movies, cuz you think that might be a fun thing, you might enjoy them, you go to a cinema or you stick on the TV because there are about a million movie channels. Now you literally just sit there and watch a movie. And if you don't like that movie, if it doesn't gel well with you, it's not that hard to watch a different movie. And eventually you might find a genre of movies that you like.
If you decide having never played them before that you wanna get into video games, you get a PlayStation 5, if you can. Good luck. You open it up, loads of wires. You figure out how to plug it into your TV and things like that. Then you gotta figure out how to navigate around the menu system.
Stick the game in, then the game's gotta download a load of updates for two hours. And then at that point, finally, you can start the game. You can start playing it, but before you can get into the game, you've gotta figure out how to use the controller, what the controls are for that particular game.
And then the first time you play it, you'll be terrible at it. Cause you've never really done anything like this before. And there's a learning curve to learning what the ins and outs of the games are. And it takes a long time investment to get to a point in a game where you feel competent, where you really get what's going on, right? And that can be incredibly off putting for people to the point that if you haven't played video games before, and you watch somebody else playing video games, it looks like quite a jarring experience. Cause you don't really get what's going on. I found this now I'm starting to get old now.
And I'm nearing an age where anything new that comes out. I look at with a certain amount of fear and disdain, talk about eSports in the book as well. And I tried to get into eSports, but I think I, because I'm getting a bit old and my brain's getting a bit slower.
I just can't follow what's going on. I can't, it's just a blur to me of what's going on.
Game & Word: My wife is is very much a non-gamer in every sense of the word. Not just video games, too, like board games card games, everything. They just don't engage her mind the way that they do mine.
And over the years, I've tried introducing her to more newbie-friendly fare like Animal Crossing and like games like that. And nothing's really stuck, until we sat down to play What Remains of Edith Finch. And she actually really enjoyed it. And it's a short, only a two-hour game. So it's the only game so far, that she's actually finished with me.
Pete Etchells: That's one of the nice things about a an entertainment medium that's starting to mature, right? Like you look at the top 10 games and your Call of Duties and Animal Crossing and things like that. And there will always be a place for those sorts of games.
But as people who started out in the video games industry and started playing video games in the eighties and nineties have kinda grown up and developed more discerning taste, there's become more of an appetite for different sorts of games that tell different stories. And I think that's a real power of video games, that you can you can tell an infinite number of stories from an infinite number of perspectives that really draw people into a game.
And it's just a matter of trying to figure out what those games are, and what you like and what you don't. And I think we're increasingly seeing that really, that the developers really feel comfortable exploring more personal stories and presenting these as things to people in the knowledge that there will be a receptive audience for it. One of my favorite examples of that is Hellblade, which is a game that came out a few years ago. It's, your kind of standard looking first person perspective fighting game. The awesome thing about that game is that the main character has psychosis and it's part, it's very kind of integral part of this, the story. Now there's 2 decisions that you can make.
If you make a game like that, one is that you can do no research and just use all your kind of standard tropes about mental illness. And people will buy the game, but it'll be a rubbish, horror story, completely unrepresentative of what it's like to have psychosis, but it will work as a game. Or you can do what Hellblade did which was, get a a clinical psychiatrist involved in the development of the game, somebody who's worked with people who suffer from psychosis and from schizophrenia, through focus groups, with people who have this, to really understand what it's like to experience this sort of condition, and then build that into the game. And that's what they did with Hellblade. One of the interesting things about Hellblade is that it's one of the most realistic experiences you could have to date of trying to understand what it's like to have a psychotic episode.
And one of the nice things, I think about that story, it was funded by the Wellcome Trust, which is a biomedical charity based in the UK. They wanted this to be a sympathetic and accurate portrayal. A lot of people who suffer from psychosis and from schizophrenia, who've played the game have got in touch with Ninja Theory, the developers to say, "thank you for making this game because I can give it to my family and my friends and let them play it. And that's what it's like, that's my experience. And it's the closest that I've come to be able to give them an understanding of what these sorts of experiences are like, over and above talking about them." Cause you can never really truly, visualize what that might be like.
But this is the closest thing yet. And people get it a bit more now. And I think that's great, It's a AAA-rated top game in and of itself, with high production values and things like that. And it's got a good storyline. But there's this extra really cool scientific element to it that makes it better for people and the world, and it makes the world a little bit of a better place. And I don't think we would've necessarily seen that 15, 20 years the industry.
Game & Word: Yeah, absolutely. Do any other titles come, come to mind as far as good representations of living with certain mental illnesses?
Pete Etchells: Not that I can think of the top of my head, in terms of mental illnesses. I think in terms of human experiences, one of my favorite games over the past year has been a game called Spiritfarer, which I've been playing on the Switch. And Spiritfarer is, it's a weird game, but it's a nice game, but it's a difficult game as well.
It's a very complex game. For a lot of different reasons. It's a 2D side scrolling sort of game, and it's a little bit of lots of different things. So it's almost a bit like a sim management game, a business management game, but it's also a bit of an RPG as well. And the basic storyline is that you play this character called Stella, who is over in the afterlife as the person who ferries souls on to the great beyond.
And she's got this boat and you go around trying to find lost spirits. And each Spirit's basically a level. So each spirit has a series of quests to complete before they can find peace and you can send them. So it's a story about death basically, and you pitch it like that, and you say why would you wanna play a game about death?
That's a really depressing thing to play. And surely it's quite a horrible experience, but, it's all very cartoonish very lighthearted. So it's really nice sort of safe environment to think about think about death in and the reason that I mention that is that so it turns out that all of these spirits I don't think this is spoiling thing too much, but all of these spirits are people that Stella knew in her real life.
So they're kind of story arcs are mirroring things that happened up until their death in real life. And there's one particular story of a character who's really outgoing and really sociable. And you do a bunch of stuff for him. And every character, they have one big quest at the end.
And then the last thing that you do with them is that you put them in your little boat and you take them to this thing called the Ever Door. You have a really nice, deep and meaningful conversation with them. You've got this one particular character is this like big jovial, larger than life character. And he appears, or at least you finish his story quite a bit through the game.
So by this point, you've taken quite a few characters through and I should say that in and of itself is quite a heart wrenching experience because that's it, then they're not in the game anymore. They've gone. They're properly dead. They're a constellation in the sky.
So yeah, you build up quite a rapport with these characters, right? And you get to know them, you get to feel as though you know them, and then you lose them and it's quite hard, but there's this one character you go through the motions of doing their particular quest and then their last big quest is everybody, you gotta find out what their favorite food is, you have this big feast, and it's lovely, then night comes in, and you wake up in the morning expecting to see that quest and your quest log saying "take this guy to the Ever Door." And it doesn't appear and he's disappeared. Like he's not on the boat anymore. So when it happened, I, spent a good five, 10 minutes wandering around the boat, trying to find him talking to different characters.
And they all say, "oh, I don't know he's gone." And that's it. That, that is the end of that character's story. There's nothing else. There's no Ever Door sequence. That is it. And it transpires through, looking at what goes on later in the game that, that this guy in real life was Stella's uncle.
And this is what happened in real life, just one day he disappeared and nobody ever saw him again. And, it really struck me as one of the most accurate representations that I've ever seen of death and how it actually does happen. We like to think that when people close to us die, that, we will have the chance to say things that we want to say to them, and that, you can prepare yourself for what's gonna happen and steal yourself against that eventuality.
And sometimes a lot of the time, that's not how death works, people go when you don't expect them to, people go in ways that you don't expect them to. And it just hits you out of nowhere and there's nothing you can do about it. And that's it. And you've gotta live with the consequences of that.
You've gotta deal with reflect on. And I was, I had to put the game down after that stop for a bit and really think about this.
Game & Word: Yeah. Mm-hmm
Pete Etchells: It really hit me. Going through this motion and it started to treat it like a a sequential game in a way saying, "I've got this spirit, I've gotta do X, Y, and Z, then take through the Ever Door, do X, Y, Z, take through the Ever Door, and then I'll get to the end."
And then it just hits you with this one character that "no, that's not how things always work." And there's nothing you could do about it. They've gone. That's it. You can't do your nice little rituals that you did with all the other characters that you built up and, make sure you give them one final hug and things like that.
And that's a really good example to me of what the power of video games are, right? Because, you don't really get that sort of experience with any other sort of medium where you are the person, you are the character that's been personally affected by this thing. And because you've invested so much time and energy in the process getting to that point, you've got skin in the game effectively, and these things that happen with them can really, have an impact on you.
And yet, it's this super fun, super bright cartoony game. It's not, it doesn't feel like a hardship to play, but it's a way to explore grief and explore how we deal with death in this really nice, safe environment, to think about, if you've never gone through that before, this might be a little bit what it feels like.
If you have gone through that before, you get to reflect on. You know how you dealt with it before and how you might deal with it again, and things like that. And I think that's one of the amazing things about video games that we miss in a lot of the general conversations.
Game & Word: So I guess to wrap up here, my audience is actually split fairly evenly between gamers and non-gamers. So if you could offer some parting words of wisdom, as far as, interpreting whatever hot new research comes out on video games, or some moral panic, or whatever, what would you advise to gamers and to non-gamers, as far as interpreting that critically and responsibly?
Pete Etchells: That's such a good question. I think it's something that I'd say of any kind of science in the news. Really, science communication is a big part of what I do. And that's a really difficult question, right? So my, my kind of naive answer there is that, if there's a new study that comes out in the media the ideal scenario thing to do is to not necessarily pay too much attention about what's said in the story itself, but go and read the paper itself or very least read the abstract to get a bit more of an idea of what it might be suggesting practically.
That's a ridiculous thing to suggest, because nobody's got time for that unless it's their job, like it is mine. I think one of the big things is to just, and I think this is true not just of video games, but of anything broadly that you see in the news, particularly about science, is to just be reflective of your own biases.
So don't just automatically accept something because it fits with your worldview, and don't just reject something because it runs counter to what you think already. Be critical in both of those. It's a lot harder to be critical when something comes along that you agree with. But those are the times to be super wary and super reticent.
But just think critically about these things. Think about, if you can access the abstract, does what the news article say match what's in there? If you don't wanna do, that's fine. I totally understand. But look at other news sources and see how other places are reporting this.
Are they all reporting it in the same way? Is it all off the same press release? Is the press release right? Things like that, press releases are very often wrong. When you think about the point of a press release is, so what my job is as a scientist is to do research. And what that involves is doing a study, writing it up for publication in a journal getting it published, and then using that to springboard the next study scientists are increasingly pressured to care about impact though.
So when you've got a study that you think might be interesting to people, you'll write a press release for it, or you'll get your university press office to write a press release, or you'll get the journal to write a press release. So that point, what you're doing is you're writing a very short blurb about what the study's about, why it's important, why people should care about it.
Now, one of the big points of a press release is to make it interesting enough that a newspaper will pick it up, right? And there's real risk there that therefore what you end up doing is over exaggerating something or blowing things out of proportion. And therefore, what happens in news is, a lot of the time, you'll see basically a press release published. You have be very careful just taking those at face value because they will have been written in such a way to make them attractive for newspapers to pick up.
And attractive in that sense does not always necessarily equate with accuracy, but scientists are guilty of this as well. In the drive to make things seem more novel and exciting and sexy, in the discussion section of scientific journal article, which is the last section where you talk about what all of this stuff might mean that you've just done.
There is a tendency sometimes for people to go a bit crazy in the last paragraph and go like "in conclusion, further research is needed, but this has the potential to inform new treatments for such and such a disease," when actually what they did had nothing to do with that.
But the way science journalists read scientific articles, is that they'll read that bit first. So if you go, "this could be a cure for cancer," then you can't be surprised. Then when the newspaper article is headlined "scientists discover new cure for cancer," because you wrote it in your article, even though if somebody talks to you go "actually, no, it's not. We just said that because it might possibly in the future." I think you always have to remember that scientists are human and humans can be idiots. And humans can be fallible and they can be biased and they can have pressures that run counter to scientific accuracy, sometimes not deliberately, but that's just the way the world works.
So don't just buy something because the newspaper article says "scientists say this," think about, does it make sense? Does the research question match what they did? Do their results match? Make sense based on the methodologies that they used. Talk to people, there's loads of scientists out there on places like Twitter and stuff who love talking about science, and talking about accuracy and science and they're good barometers.
When some newspaper article comes out, there'll be somebody talking about it on Twitter and they can be a good potential barometer. It's risky me saying that, I think because, obviously the counter to that is, the easy way of interpreting what I said there is to go "I'm just not gonna believe anything that I see written in the news about science."
And I don't think that's the right approach, either. And this is why it's so hard, right? Because, whether or not a study that you see about video games in the news is worth reading about or paying attention to is dependent on so many hidden factors that you won't potentially have access to.
It's very difficult to get a gauge of whether that's worth paying attention to. There's a very simple barometer. That's probably a really objective one, more than anything that I've said so far, if you see stuff about video games published and big claims made about them in the news.
First thing to do is ask, "did they make their data available? Did they pre-register their study?" So in other words, did they put a paper up online somewhere that said, before they did anything in the study, before they actually ran the experiment, they put a paper up saying, "this is what we're gonna do, this is how we're gonna do it, and this is how we're gonna analyze the data." Because what you'd hope is that, once they come collecting the data, they actually follow the things that they said that we were gonna do.
And at the very least, if people do that, you can be a little, not completely convinced, but you can be a little bit more reassured that something weird hasn't gone on where, they've got some data, they analyzed it, it didn't give them the result that they thought they wanted. So they analyzed it in a different way and then analyzed it in a different way, and eventually they found the result that they thought was gonna happen. So they just report that.
There's an entire chapter in the book about why that's a problem. But things like preregistration and making your data and available to people, are a good potential, not a complete panacea, but they're a good inoculation against dodgy headlines.
Game & Word: Do you wanna plug your pluggables?
Pete Etchells: I haven't really got any current pluggables, except if you're interested in reading about video games, I've got a book and I've been talking about it. It's called Lost in a Good Game. It's about why we play games and what they might do for us as opposed to do to us.
So if you're interested in psychology and how video games affect our mental wellbeing and behavior and things like that then that's the book for you.
Game & Word: Great. Wonderful. Thank you. Thanks again for coming on the show.
Pete Etchells: No worries. Sorry. It took me so long to get there in the end.
Game & Word: Oh, no worries. It was worth the wait, great conversation. And thank you all for listening, and ladies, gentlemen, non binary folks, anyone and everyone in between: Dr. Pete Etchells. Thank you very much.
Pete Etchells: Thank you.
OUTRO: All right. That's a wrap, folks. Thank you so much, once again, to our wonderful guest, Dr. Pete Etchells, for such a great conversation and such useful insights. As we both mentioned several times, his book is called Lost in a Good Game and it's available wherever books and audio books are sold.
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And now that this episode is aired, that wraps up Game & Word Volume Three: Game Over Matter. I do hope you've enjoyed reading, listening, and watching this volume content as I did producing it. Next up is Game & Word Volume Four: Tempus Ludos, which will dive into how video games explore the concept of time and how we experience it.
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