Talking Games with Psychologist Laura Crawford

Laura Crawford, academic psychologist, consults and lectures within the Australian games industry. basically embodying or playing certain types of characters within videogames, specifically within their RPG Riders of Icarus. I’ve been asked to come in and discuss player psychology.

She has recently worked with Nexon on their MMO Riders of Icarus, providing insight into player psychology for the team and explaining the processes of embodiment that players experience with their chosen characters. An understanding of player psychology can lead to a deeper understanding of how games are played, and what attracts players to them. I caught up with her to discuss how psychological concepts explain the ways we play.

I’m keen to have a general discussion on what you do/your background. What is your research background, and what led you to what you’re doing right now?

I’m an academic psychologist, and my main area, when it comes to media, is attraction to screen violence. I look at the processes that people go through to come to playing a violent videogame or watching a violent film. I’m also a lecturer at a very well-regarded game design course here at Swinburne, where I lecture everything from first to third years, starting from theories of play and then getting into psychology of design subjects, specifically. I’m also kind of an industry liaison for my degree too, so I do quite a lot of public profile stuff. Hosting industry people, talking at PAX, those kinds of things. 

When you’re talking about how people arrive at violent content, what are you looking into there?

I’m looking into what attracts people to violence, or the concept of it, or certain elements of it. It’s actually a very complex phenomenon. Firstly, we need to acknowledge that we are drawn to it in droves, it happens a lot; millions and millions of people every day are engaging with various violent forms of media. It’s often what people see as socially-acceptable violent narratives, like ‘gangster’ narratives, which I focused on in my PhD. But we don’t really know why. We haven’t focused on this problematically; we just look at what happens when they get there, and even then we don’t know much about that. So what I’ve come up with is that obviously we engage with it a lot, but on the other hand, it’s a very complex phenomenon, and it has to do with the psychological and social processes that get you there. Sometimes, biological too. I guess an example of that would be someone who’s quite young, who is full of energy, and they need a psychological outlet for whatever is happening to them – or it could be anyone really, you’ve had a bad day, you need an outlet. Context factors in as well.

Let’s explore the idea of embodiment, then. First I want to talk about choosing gender – what can you say about the psychology behind choosing your gender in a game? I’m not always sure why I make female avatars in some games and male avatars in others.

I think it depends on context, and it depends on the game. A lot of people choose to play female characters for one-on-one combat games just because they’re quicker, for instance. Generally, the female characters are quicker in one-on-one fighting games. Then if they’ve started with that, they’ll stick with it. In an RPG, it’s a different experience, you’re embodying the character in a different way. I imagine that there is a myriad of reasons why a player might make their character the opposite gender – it can be to experience something different, or because you’re well-reconciled with that part of your personality even, that something in them can be fulfilled through that exercise. Or it could just be that you like the way one gender moves through the game.

Do you think an individual’s personal politics play into these choices?  I think that sometimes when I choose to play as a woman in a game, it’s because I want to see more playable women in games, and it feels like a way of communicating that message to the developer.

I think personal politics play into everything we do. And games are very personal things, especially if we look at the notion of embodiment. When you’re looking at the idea of identification, where people identify with characters in various forms of media outside of games, we have this sense of attachment to them, and we perceive that we share certain traits with them, but we don’t embody them. In games, though, we have this notion of embodiment, because you’re controlling the character. We feel like we have a presence.

We might talk about a digital character using the pronoun ‘I’, I did this, I did that, which you don’t do with a film. When it comes to embodiment, and a shared identification, if you think these characters have traits that you possess or desire, personal politics are going to feed into that. You’re probably not going to play a character that you find politically or personally reprehensible, if you can avoid it. There is a theory in psychology that we can be attracted to things that repulse us, but it usually doesn’t mean that we identify with them.

Choosing to play as a female avatar can be a fantastic thing to do, by the way. We don’t have nearly enough female, and certainly not enough trans and LGBT characters, in games. To choose that personally to send a message, rather than because of identification, is an interesting thing to do, I think.

I want to talk about how players will use create-a-character options to make characters they consider either attractive or ugly. What is the psychology behind these sorts of choices? This is another thing where I personally find myself changing on a game-by-game basis without ever being sure of my motivation.

I think the mood and context of the game is important. If you’re playing a game where you perceive that all the characters around you are going to be shiny and attractive, you’re probably going to want to match them. In MMOs, which are usually competitive environments, you’re often going to want to make the shiniest, most attractive character. But when you’re making a hideous character, that might just be what you feel like embodying. If you’re playing a wizard or a warlock, for instance, it might make more sense for them to be ugly.

In terms of the different roles or classes players can take on – and we can talk about Riders of Icarus directly here – choosing your role as a warrior or a healer or a mage is a big deal, because it determines how you’re going to spend the rest of your time with that character. What are some of the psychological reasons behind the choices people make here?

A lot of it comes down to self-perception as well as playstyle. How do you see yourself, right? Do you see yourself as being a hero? Are you a kind, generous person? Are you the one who always wants to go in and help other people? Do you like to hang back? It might be that you perceived someone as a loving person, who will hold a group together, whether your friends or family, and that’s going to be your alliance guild as well.

Then there’s playstyle – if you choose to be the healer, you’re obviously making the choice not to be right in middle of battle. That can have a lot to do with how you feel about confrontation, or perhaps you just don’t like to be directly in conflicts. So being a healer isn’t always entirely altruistic in the way it might seem. You choose it for certain reasons – you want to help and hold the group together, but you also don’t want the responsibility of confrontation.

So there’s overlap here between your ideas of who you are and how you’d like to play?

Absolutely. Your self-perception – not necessarily who you are, but who you see yourself as – is important. When you launch into a fantasy world in a game, the traits about yourself that you want to try and amplify in the everyday are certainly going to be amplified in there. All the things that you like about yourself, or you want to change about yourself, even – this is where you do it. I think that’s one of the reasons why MMOs are so popular. You get to be the person you always kind of imagined you could be, or perhaps even imagine you are. Your self-perceived traits are definitely going to come out. Your gameplay style is going to be influenced by your psyche and your personality, as well.

I’m always the assassin, myself. I prefer the stealth characters.

There’s a lot of different ways to play stealth, as well. I don’t know if this says a lot about me psychologically, but I feel like my play style in stealth games is focused on lowering the ‘stress’ of the experience by taking out as much opposition as I can, without necessarily being brutal about it.

That’s quite a formulaic way to approach it, to say ‘I need to take these guys out, but I don’t necessarily want to kill them’, instead of just going in and shooting everyone in the head or running away. That’s a very methodical way to play a game, which is interesting.

Have you looked into how players react to NPCs, or the guilt a player might experience when they mistreat them?

I’m more stunned by the amount of attachment some people have to NPCs! Maybe because of what I do, you can get a bit cynical about human nature, but it amazes me how attached some people get. Like Tess in The Last of Us – I personally found her to be a hyper-annoying NPC, but I have friends who are really attached. If we’re talking about MMOs, that can be quite different. In MMOs, you’re constantly talking to other people. There’s differentiation between a player character that is controlled by a real person, who may be your friend or not, and a character who is controlled by the computer. The NPCs there become like second-class citizens, to some extent. I think when you’re playing a single-player game, the NPC characters, you need them; they become like your village. In an MMO, your village is already there, it’s other people. They’re facilitators. In terms of how people treat them, it can depend on the individual again.

Does much of your research involve looking at games with explicit morality systems, that say ‘here’s the good option, here’s the bad option, here’s the one that’s sort of in the middle’?

Not necessarily, but I have written about it in the past. I wrote a book chapter I did for Oxford not long ago about levels of morality, and asking where morality comes into violent gaming, in particular. I was looking at Kohlberg’s stages: psychologically we believe that we move through various stages of morality as we educate ourselves about the world around us. The ways in which we engage with videogames doesn’t necessarily mean we aren’t attaining these stages of morality, even when we do immoral things. It was basically in response to all these arguments that if we do engage with this stuff, we’re not morally developed. Perhaps morality doesn’t have everything to do with the idea of us engaging with stuff.

But in terms of moral choices or ethics in games, I don’t really look into that. My research is much more player-centric.

Is this a fairly standard thing for an MMO to do, to bring a psychology expert in to talk to them?

From my point of view, not enough. I’d love to do it more often. I have a lot of friends in the industry and I advise on their games, but there aren’t many formal opportunities. I think this might be a better question for Doug.

(At this point Doug Johns, Business Director for Double Jump Communications and the PR liaison for this interview, jumps in)

JOHNS: I’ve been working in PR for games for a long time now – probably about half my life, about twenty years. And I’ve had virtually no engagement with people looking into the psychology of games at all. People talk about it – when I did some stuff with BioWare, they have really in-depth games, but I never saw anyone who was an actual leader in the psychology of what the characters were going to do, or what the story was going to do. They had people leading on sound, and how the game looks, but no one there who could say ‘I have a Masters in psychology, this is what I’m adding to the project’. I can only speak on the people that I’ve dealt with, but I’ve dealt with a fair few, and I haven’t seen much talk about psychology.

That’s interesting, because it’s a fairly major part of the academic discourse around games

CRAWFORD: For sure. I’ve been headhunted for various roles in the industry – I can’t say by who, but fairly well-known studios…but every time, the reason I stayed in academia was because most of these teams don’t actually want my expertise. If it’s an MMO developer, for instance, they want me to be able to moderate player behavior, or do stats on which characters players will play, and then interpret them…they don’t want me involved in designing these characters in the first place, or making them more attractive to players. Often it’s about controlling player behavior. This isn’t the case at Nexon, but most big game companies that do employ psychologists get them to look more at what the players are doing rather than what they might be attracted to. Which is a shame, because I’d love to do more of that kind of work, but it’s not really a thing yet.