Bringing Sports Psychology To The Realm Of Video Games

Bringing Sports Psychology To The Realm Of Video Games

It probably wasn’t coincidence that Shane Murphy returned my call just after I’d thrown my third interception in NCAA ’09 and punched off the machine in full perfectionist disgust. Murphy, a professor and researcher of psychology at Western Connecticut State, would later explain that I exhibited classic high-ego, low-task gamer behaviour. That is, I am fixated on being seen as a winner, and not the process of becoming one.

Murphy approaches video gaming as a sports psychologist, with 30 years of experience in that field. The American Psychological Association’s annual convention in August 2008 discussed research showing the benefits video games deliver in learning and problem solving. Also at the convention, Murphy gave a presentation advocating for the study of competitive and cooperative behaviour in gamers.

This article was originally published 27 August 2008.

I had called him out of curiosity about my own approach to video games, whether it was shared in great numbers by others, and what that may say about the gaming community. We ended up talking more about competitive behaviour and performance psychology, how it can help define gamers, and be deepened by studying them.

Video games are not treated as seriously in studies as they should be, Murphy argues. He considers that gamers’ behaviour can be studied in the same context as participatory athletics, and that researchers might find that online play can deliver the same benefits. Colleagues elsewhere think that the lessons taught by online cooperation and competition could deliver similar payouts in assertion and self-esteem, and are worth a serious look.

“The gamer generation tends to be less risk averse and more willing to try things, even in the face of overfailure,” said Nicholas Yee, a research scientist at the Palo Alto Research Centre, whose Daedalus Project studies behaviour in MMORPG players. “It’s not the main focus of the field, yet, but there is a little data we can extrapolate from it.”

In his presentation at the APA’s meeting, Murphy laid out the case for the study of video game behaviour by sports and performance psychologists. He pointed out that video game play rivals youth sports as the social competition venue for young people. Video games also offer advantages in that lab study can capture real-time behaviour and decisions in ways that studying athletes can’t. There are also extremely large populations that are easy to find (such as World of WarCraft‘s eight million gamers). Finally, it’s another way to test sports psychology’s theories in a new area of behaviour.

Broadly speaking, sports psychology has identified two orientations we all have toward competition and goal-setting. “One is ego orientation: You want to beat others,” Murphy said. “The other is task orientation: I want to get better, I want to learn the skills and improve them.” It’s not an either-or proposition, even though it showed up that way in my behaviour with NCAA ’09. Among gamers, you would probably find these four types:

  • High ego, high task: Extremely committed to skill development and want to be recognised as winners. Highly competitive.
  • Low ego, high task: Strong team players in cooperative games and environments, and motivated to complete single-player titles.
  • High ego, low task: Strong desire to be a winner, but not that invested in developing the skills necessary. In other words, rarely reads the instruction manual.
  • Low ego, low task: Participates in a particular game as primarily a social activity among friends, doesn’t want to be left out.

It might surprise you that high ego, high task is the largest group among gamers, according to Murphy. All other groups were equally distributed. That, taken with Yee’s point that gamers are less risk averse, paints a more positive picture of gamers than perpetuated by cultural stereotypes, that of the antisocial loner who prefers virtual interactions in the comfort of his parents’ basement.

As a man who grew up in the analogue 1980s, gaming came nowhere near the kind of legitimacy that physical athletic pursuits had for setting goals or achieving them, or certifying you as a well rounded person. But properly researched, it’s possible that it could be seen in that light.

Murphy drew this analogy: Participation on athletic teams is believed to offer lessons of leadership or problem solving elsewhere, and experiences with video games can help gamers set up structured expectations and results in real world pursuits.

“The young, college-bound population that have played lots of different types of video games, it may have caused them to develop some sort of general skill sets to figure out the lay of the land in a complex, challenging environment,” Murphy said. “Because they’ve done that in games, they’re good at seeing what is the goal, and how do you win at the game?”

The game might be one’s high school or university career. “If the game is to get a high GPA, so, how do you do that? What are the strategies? It was an eerie conversation to have,” Murphy said, for gamers seemed able to zero in on the bottom line result, on the expectation that certain choices or conditions would objectively increase one’s progression toward that goal. Clearly, that kind of refined approach can have its benefits in life after school.

It isn’t the only way a game can be framed in terms of the real world. Yee’s surveys have shown a relationship between gamers and the avatars they choose — and also the roles within an MMO guild they accept. “People create avatars that idealise or express who they are, and oftentimes they choose characters whose features are exaggerated. So it has a kind of multiplication effect, your avatar has more of those traits that you want, and then some of those effects persist outside the game environment.”

For example, someone creates an avatar that is physically taller or more imposing. Studies have shown that taller persons exhibit more confidence and show more assertive negotiations. Through his research, Yee has observed some carryover to those who choose these kinds of avatars in MMOs, Yee said, less so in real life than in online relationships. Where participating in a guild, for some, might be a crutch alternative to physical interactions with friends, it can also offer new experiences.

“People will say, ‘I never thought of myself as a leader in life, and then they become a guild leader, and they got something out of that,” Yee said. But, “It’s really dependent on what a player brings to a game.”


  • Great Article, but please change the article picture. Dota 2 with controller not possible….

    • Fair call, it is a stock photo after all! That said, you can play Dota 2 with a Steam controller (although not well, I’d wager)

  • Pro tip to the guy in the stock photo, he doesn’t need a sports psychologist to git gud. He needs to stop trying to play Dota with a Playstation controller.

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