Playing for Social Comfort

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Internet connectivity has changed the way that video games are being played by allowing users to connect worldwide in shared gaming spaces. These highly social environments allow players to connect, interact, and learn from each other. Despite this, there is a growing concern that online video game play contributes to a displacement of real-world connections and interactions. Over time, this displacement is believed to lead to a wide variety of losses in “offline sociability”, such as a reduction in the size and quality of one’s social circle or a deterioration of offline social skills. My most recent article, entitled Playing for social comfort: Online video game play as a social accommodator for the insecurely attached, addresses these concerns by examining what users may be gaining or losing (socially) as a result of continued participation in online video game environments, and what mechanisms potentially underlie such changes, through an examination of the relationships between social skills and online video game involvement via the lens of attachment theory. While an inverse relationship between social skills and online video game play has been discussed in previous research (see Kowert & Oldmeadow, 2013; Lemmens et al., 2011; Liu & Peng, 2009), this study is the only known empirical assessment examining these relationships via attachment theory.

The rationale for selecting an attachment framework was two-fold. First, the ability for the use of any kind of media (TV, movies, video games) to significantly contribute to individual change in and of itself is questionable, with many researchers arguing that the relationship between video game play and outcome effects specifically are grossly overstated if evident at all (see Granic et al., 2014). Additionally, the main effect of media use has historically been behavior reinforcement (see Perse, 2008), not change, with interaction within a particular medium being just one possible source of influence among a host of other possible influences. As such, it is not prudent to draw conclusions as to the relationships between media use and any outcome variable without some consideration for the personal attributes of the users. While researchers have not specifically evaluated the relationships between insecure attachment and the use of online games, researchers have found that individuals who are insecurely attached use mediated social environments differently from their insecurely attached peers (see Buote et al., 2009, Oldmeadow, Quinn, & Kowert, 2013). As highly social, mediated, and quasi-anonymous spaces, it is possible that online games are particularly suited as alternative social spaces for insecurely attached individuals who are looking to compensate for any social difficulties.

Enlisting an attachment framework also uniquely allows for an examination of causal mechanisms in the absence of a longitudinal design. As attachment forms in childhood, which is likely prior to prolonged online video game exposure, significant links between attachment, social skills, and online video game use would signify that social differences amongst game players are at least partially attributable to an underlying construct that existed prior to exposure.

Confirming previous findings in this area (e.g., Kowert & Oldmeadow, 2013; Lemmens et al., 2011; Liu & Peng, 2009), significant linear relationships between social skills and video game involvement emerged. Contrary to predictions, attachment was not found to be a significant individual predictor of video game involvement independent of social skill outcomes, nor a mediator of the relationship between social skills and involvement. However, positive correlations between insecure attachment and “Playing for Social Comfort” did emerge, indicating that users high in attachment anxiety and avoidance report a greater participation in online gaming environments when feeling stressed, anxious, sad, and lonely.

Taken together, the results of this study challenge the assumption that online video game play is inexorably associated with severe, negative social consequences for the player and indicates the potential for online gaming spaces to serve critical attachment functions by providing a social outlet that promotes a sense of closeness, belonging, and security that satisfies needs for those high in attachment avoidance. While inverse relationships were found between video game use and social skills among the game playing community, positive correlations between online game play, insecure attachment, and playing for social comfort indicate that online games may be socially beneficial for those with pre-existing social difficulties.

This study is available online ahead of print and will also appear in an upcoming print addition of in Computers in Human Behavior later this year. Special thanks to my co-author Julian Oldmeadow.

A nice commentary on this article is also available from the Huffington Post.