Video Games as Part of Society

Video games, even violent ones, are here to stay. So perhaps we should study them as part of society, rather than its enemy.

Christopher J. Ferguson,1 PhD
Stetson University

Video games have had a long difficult road integrating into our society.  This well-traveled road by previous media ranges from rock and roll to comic books, and it’s been both fascinating and, in some ways, troubling to watch it unfold within my lifetime.  From their inception (and I mean Pac Man and such), video games have been considered a major contributor to societal violence.  This perspective was abetted by groups such as the APA in releasing problematic policy statements linking video games to aggression that data, in fact, could not support.  To some degree this continues to the present (one scholar recently stated in a court case that Pac Man could still be considered a violent video game according to some definitions (Rushton, 2013)).  However, there are signs of progress, as scholarship moves beyond simplistic relationships and overgeneralizations into considering video games an increasingly integral, rather than a destructive, part of society.

Former Division 46 President Frank Farley’s (2012) discussion of “big V” and “small v” violence issues reminds us of the dangers of trying to answer society’s questions within the limits of our laboratories.  Though aggression studies may get most attention, it is important to note that scholarship is moving beyond the simplistic effects paradigm to understand video games and other media use less as a corrupter and more as an integral facet of society.  Such a perspective, by necessity, views video game and media use as a complex process driven more by preexisting needs and interests of consumers than by content.  This does not rule out the possibility that media has both beneficial and deleterious effects on users, but rather suggests that such effects are likely to be more subtle, user-driven and idiosyncratic than has been advertised during much of the past few decades.

Interestingly, much of this thinking already exists within the communications field.  Theories such as Uses and Gratifications, but also psychology’s own Self-Determination Theory (Przybylski, Rigby, & Ryan, 2010) reverse the passive user assumptions of social cognitive theory (see Ferguson & Dyck, 2012 for discussion) and posit the media experience as driven in a fundamental way by the user’s motivations.  The forthcoming book by Quandt and Kroger (2013), an early version of which I had the privilege of reviewing, typifies this approach from communications, assembling an impressive array of scholars in discussing and examining the social context of video game play.

Perhaps the best analogy I can think of, at the risk of involving religion, is to consider the use of a religious text such as the Bible.  Many texts such as the Bible or Ramayana could technically be considered violent media, even “god(s) sanctioned.”  But it is plain to see that it would be simplistic and offensive to religious individuals to suggest that religious texts promote violence.  Rather, it seems, the way that people come to a religious text is often more important than what is in the text itself.  Consider the Bible.  Many people read it for positive purposes: to learn how to love others, to be inspired, to find comfort in difficult times, to learn how to love God.  Others may use the same text to disparage those who differ from them, or to vindicate their anger or hatred.  It is the same form of media, but what is more critical is what users bring to the experience, their motivations, their interests, what they want to learn from the media experience.  The users, in effect, are the more critical and more interesting part of the equation.  The relationship between media and the consumer is thus more subtle, user driven, and idiosyncratic than often implied by scholars to the general public in standard social science and communications.

The study of media-consumer interactions focused on how consumers drive and shape media has been missing from a lot of media research for some time, or perhaps it is fairer to say such work has simply been overshadowed.  If we are really going to understand media and behavior, rather than simply feeding the beast of societal panics over media, we have to think of these relationships in a more sophisticated manner.  Excellent examples of this are within the division such as Dana Klisanin’s focus on positive media (e.g. Klisanin, 2012).  Opportunities exist for media psychology to reach out and dialogue with communications scholars as well, many of whom already trod this ground.

We have the opportunity to do something truly exciting with media psychology and to bring it into its next phase.  Video game research is just one area, but considering video game play as a social space like any other can help us better understand how games have increasingly become integral to younger generations.  Obstacles for this approach are likely society’s continual hunger for simplistic “headline worthy” cause-and-effect relationships.  It may take more finesse to convince grant reviewers that a subtle approach is more valuable than studying games as a simple bane or boon.  None of this rules out the potential for media to influence us just as we in turn influence the media.  It may require some reconceptualization of media use from an automatic content-driven process to an active user-driven process.  It is time to make an active, discerning, processing user a driving force of the media experience, and to consider media, including video games as an integral, reflecting perhaps more than corrupting, facet of society.


Farley, F.  (2012).  Bad, better, best.  Psychology Today.

Ferguson, C. J., & Dyck, D. (2012). Paradigm change in aggression research: The time has come to retire the General Aggression Model. Aggression And Violent Behavior, 17(3), 220-228. doi:10.1016/j.avb.2012.02.007

Klisanin, D.  (2012).  Introducing the cyberhero archtype.  Psychology Today.  Retrieved 9/16/13 from:

Przybylski, A. K., Rigby, C. S., & Ryan, R. M. (2010).  A motivational model of video game engagement.  Review of General Psychology, 14(2), 154-166.

Quandt, T.  & Kroger, S.  (2013).  Multiplayer: The Social Aspects of Digital Gaming.  Routledge.

Rushton, B.  (2013).  Backdooring it: Defense maneuvers around setback.  Illinois Times.  Retrieved 8/20/13 from:

1. Chrisopher Ferguson received the 2013 Distinguished Early Career Psychologist Contribution from APA Society for Media Psychology and Technology.

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