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‘Games have helped me a lot throughout my life’

Dr Pete Etchells is Reader in Psychology and Science Communication at Bath Spa University. Annie Brookman-Byrne asked Pete to tell us about his first book, Lost in a Good Game: Why We Play Video Games and What They Can Do For Us.

04 July 2019

You’ve spent many years blogging about science. What made you take the jump and write a book, particularly on a topic that is very personal for you?
Writing a book is something that I’ve always wanted to do, right from when I was a kid – although I think, back then, I had designs on writing some sort of epic sci-fi space opera. Over the past few years though, I really felt as though there was a need to lay out a more detailed thesis about why the public discussion around video games has become polarised. It’s not really a topic you can drill down to in much detail over the space of a blogpost, so a book seemed more appropriate. That, and it gave me the chance to talk about one of the most important people in my world – my Dad – in such a way that I could share his life with others.

Throughout the book you describe the many issues with the research base around the impact of gaming. If you could design and run the perfect study investigating the effect of video games, what would it look like?
Hah, good question! To be completely honest, I don’t know – it’s something that I’ve been grappling with, unsuccessfully, for a number of years now. But I think it’s a problem that goes to the heart of the video game debate. Although they’re seen as mere playthings, or too simple to be worthy of academic attention, it’s actually remarkably difficult to construct a well-designed and robust study about gaming effects. We’re talking about something that people do in their leisure time, which can last for minutes or hours. To try and capture that experience in the lab, in the space of about half an hour, is a near-impossible task. And the effects that we worry about are ones that can last for long periods of time – changes in personality or behaviour, aggression or impulsivity. Capturing a snapshot of those effects within a limited timeframe doesn’t really do the topic justice.

If I had the resources though, I guess it would be really useful to set up a huge longitudinal study, something akin to the Children of the 90s study. If we want to figure out what the long-term effects of games are, it would be great if we could get thousands of people into the lab, at multiple time points, over the course of many months or years, and track their gaming habits in between. That’s no easy undertaking.

You took many trips to museums and to meet people in the making of the book. What was your favourite excursion?
Every trip that I took for the book was fascinating for different reasons. If I had to pick one though, I think it would be my visit to the Musee Mecanique – an old-world arcade on the edge of San Francisco’s tourist district. It really gave me a sense of how video games are embedded in the history of arcade machines; ‘modern’ games like Tekken and Battlezone sat alongside older mechanical games and pinball machines from the 1950s and earlier. I guess it was more about the location though. I took a trip to San Francisco with my Dad in 1995, and the arcade isn’t that far from another tourist trap that brings back very happy memories of that holiday. Just outside Ripley’s Believe It Or Not museum is a visual illusion – a giant flowing tap that appears to be floating in mid-air, apparently unaided. I remember at the time that I was completely perplexed about how such a thing could exist. My Dad was always keen to encourage a sense of scientific curiosity and investigation in me, and rather than simply explain the illusion, he instead urged me to figure it out for myself. After a moment’s hesitation, I jabbed my hand into the water pouring from the tap – only for it to hit a clear Perspex tube. It was the literal backbone of the illusion, providing both the support structure and constant flow of water. A simple but effective idea – certainly for an 11-year-old kid – but one that’s stuck with me my entire life. I don’t get the chance to go to San Francisco often, but when I do, it always makes me think of my Dad.

In the book you describe how some games researchers compare scientists who suggest the effects of games are negligible, like you, to Holocaust deniers. What do you think it is about games that evokes such strong reactions?
I think people on both sides of the debate really care about the effects that games are having on us. So it’s partly because of that, but partly also because games are such a ubiquitous form of entertainment nowadays. If there’s a chance that they might be doing something detrimental to us (or kids in particular), and if you’re on the side of the debate urging caution about them, it’s understandable that you might view people who are more dismissive of their effects with disdain or scepticism. That’s just human nature. It’s really unfortunate that the disagreements often become so vitriolic though – I don’t think that’s helpful for encouraging good, open science to be done, nor do I think it particularly helps in the more public-facing debates about games. It would be great if we could take a more dispassionate look at them, and start to think more closely about the grey area inbetween those two extremes – that games are all-good or all-bad – to try and figure out where their true effects lie.

You say in the book that games give us the chance to find out something about ourselves. What have you found out about yourself through gaming, and would you say that writing a book also gave you the chance to find out something about yourself?
Games have helped me a lot throughout my life. Whenever I’ve been faced with big, life-changing events, I’ve often been able to find solace in playing something for a little while. I find that it gives me time to process whatever it is that’s happened, so that hopefully I can deal with it more positively later on. Especially when I was younger, I didn’t have the opportunity to make many friends in my local area, so games also became a conduit through which I could develop social relationships and friendships, and I think that possibility is something that’s often missed in the wider concerns about whether games are bad for us. Of course, it depends on the game as well, and through the course of writing the book, I got the chance to play a few games that, at their heart, allow you to test and interrogate your own moral compass in a relatively safe space. It was always a relief that when I was faced with a difficult decision, what I thought I might do in that sort of situation, versus what I actually did do, were the same thing!

As for writing a book, well, I found out that I have a chronic tendency to leave things until the last minute, for better or worse. It was a huge learning experience, and while I hope that the end result was something that is worth a few hours of everyone’s leisure time, I’ve definitely learned some tips and tricks to make writing the next one a little less stressful.

- Lost in a Good Game: Why We Play Video Games and What They Can Do For Us by Pete Etchells is out now (Icon, £14.99).
Keep an eye on @psychmag on Twitter for your chance to win a copy.