Exploring Video Games from an Evolutionary Psychological Perspective

Exploring Video Games from an Evolutionary Psychological Perspective

Zack Mendenhall (Concordia University, Canada), Marcelo Vinhal Nepomuceno (Concordia University, Canada) and Gad Saad (Concordia University, Canada)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-61520-611-7.ch073
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Abstract

Video games are a relatively recent form of entertainment whose sales growth has been enormous (almost 700% from 1996 to 2007), with sales for 2007 reaching 9.5 billion dollars in the US (Entertainment Software Association, 2007). This figure does not include the sales of hardware components such as consoles and accessories, or subscriptions to high-speed Internet providers. To contextualize this sales figure, the US cinema industry garnered 9.6 billion dollars domestically in the same year (MPAA, 2007). The video game industry is so robust that it appears to be impervious to the current economic crisis (Economist, December 20, 2008).
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Introduction And Background

Video games are a relatively recent form of entertainment whose sales growth has been enormous (almost 700% from 1996 to 2007), with sales for 2007 reaching 9.5 billion dollars in the US (Entertainment Software Association, 2007). This figure does not include the sales of hardware components such as consoles and accessories, or subscriptions to high-speed Internet providers. To contextualize this sales figure, the US cinema industry garnered 9.6 billion dollars domestically in the same year (MPAA, 2007). The video game industry is so robust that it appears to be impervious to the current economic crisis (Economist, December 20, 2008).

Video game research typically follows one of two avenues. Authors either champion games for their positive effects on users (hand-eye coordination, problem solving, and teamwork, for instance) or lament them for promoting violence (see Mäyrä, 2008 for a broad overview of gaming studies). More recent work (Ducheneaut et al., 2006) has focused on descriptive statistics of online gamers, but all these streams of research tend to rely on “Blank Slate” reasoning (Pinker 2002), leading them to overlook robust explanations of video gaming phenomena. Of relevance to the current article, video games are seldom studied from an evolutionary psychological perspective (but see Cherney & Poss, 2008; Kock, 2008; Mazur, Susman, & Edelbrock, 1997). On a related note, Stenstrom et al. (2008) find evidence for sex-differentiated strategies in navigating websites, with these results being potentially applicable to the video gaming context. In the current paper we demonstrate how an evolutionary psychological (EP) approach could elucidate why this entertainment choice has increased in popularity, and how it is related to our evolved human nature. We begin by describing relevant video game genres, to illustrate the latest developments and trends in the industry. Subsequently we highlight links between some of these genres and EP principles.

Different game genres tend to attract players with highly heterogeneous demographics, personalities, and motivations to play. Whereas the industry has developed numerous genres, we restrict our discussion to two major genres that are highly distinguishable from one another: Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games (MMORPG) and First Person Shooters (FPS). MMORPGs are based on the classic pen-and-paper role-playing games. These games were originally played in a setting similar to that in which one might play a board game (i.e., around a kitchen table, with friends and family). The RPG was created during the 1970s and since then has quickly evolved. Traditionally the RPG is an interpretive game in which the participants create characters and role-play as their character in an imaginary world. Players aim to become powerful entities in that world, and typically cooperate in that pursuit. The objective of traditional RPGs is vague. There is no end-point (as in most games); one simply ‘adventures’ until one dies or gets bored. Killing monsters and saving princesses are common threads, however.

RPGs established a style of game play that MMORPGs inherited. Central to this style is the notion that an avatar grows in power over time. This concept was formalized by implementing ‘experience points’ and ‘levels.’ As characters slay monsters or complete quests, they are awarded ‘experience points.’ When they have accumulated a sufficient amount of experience points, they ‘level up.’ Characters begin at level 1, and each subsequent level up requires more experience points than the previous. By digitizing the rules of traditional RPGs, MMORPGs have obviated many of the problems native to the pen-and-paper format. Players of MMORPGS do not have to keep tabs of their own experience points, levels, or calculate damage, for instance. Aspects of the game which required rote computation are now handled by the computer.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Savanna Principle: Hypotheses regarding human behavior that do not account for Homo sapiens’ evolutionary history in African savannas will, in time, be falsified.

Handicap Principle: A theory that explains the evolution of costly traits (e.g., peacock’s tail) via sexual selection.

Virtual World: An online/digital environment such as Second Life wherein individuals simultaneously interact, typically through the use of self-chosen avatars.

Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game (MMORPG): A video-game genre in which players assume the role of a fictional character through which they interact with an immense number of players through the Internet. In MMORPGs, the scenario (world) in which the game takes place continues to evolve even when the player is away from the game.

Sexual selection: The evolution of morphological traits or behaviors as a result of intersexual wooing (e.g., plumage coloration in some male birds) or intra-sexual competition (e.g., moose antlers used for combat).

Signaling theory: The study of how animals including humans typically communicate their value along unobservable traits (e.g., risk-taking proclivity or dominance).

Ultimate causation: The adaptive reason behind a particular phenomenon of interest. For example, the greater proclivity for men to engage in violent forms of intra-sexual competition is rooted in the evolutionary force of sexual selection.

First Person Shooter (FPS): A video-game genre in which the player views the scenario from the eyes of the protagonist and wherein the challenge is based mostly on shooting a wide range of enemies.

Evolutionary psychology: The study of the human mind as consisting of domain-specific mental capacities, as forged by the dual forces of natural and sexual selection.

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