Yes, it is possible to get a PhD while playing games, at least if you're studying at the University of Southern California. In "A PhD in Mortal Kombat" (free registration needed), the Los Angeles Times reports today that a "pioneering USC group tries to get into the heads of players to learn if the pastime harms or can help." The Annenberg Studies on Computer Games is a 20-person multidisciplinary group which studies "the impact of computer game-playing on individuals, groups, and society at large." The group wants to understand how some players become "addicted" to gaming. The students will also investigate why some gamers develop "anti-social" behavior while others see an improvement of their interpersonal skills.
Here is the background of the project.
Created through the Annenberg School for Communication, the Annenberg Studies on Computer Games is a multidisciplinary, multigenerational, multilingual research group dedicated to the study of computer games. The year-old group is one of several game-related projects springing up at universities around the country. MIT, Stanford, the University of Michigan and Northwestern University have various projects researching different aspects of interactive media. But USC's computer games project is probably the largest and most diverse collection of professors and students studying the vast yet mysterious world of video games. The research at USC focuses on the gamer rather than game design or development, and much of what they are doing is groundbreaking.
How did the project start?
The project is the creation of Peter Vorderer, who heads the school's entertainment studies program, and Ute Ritterfeld, a German research associate professor with a background in health sciences and psychology. "We are trying to find out not only what is bad but what is good," Ritterfeld says. "Every new technology is met with fear and criticism. When picture books first came out, people said they would ruin children's imaginations; with radio it was the same; movies, television the same. We are trying to find out what is real and what is just fear."
Ritterfeld says the topic itself is polarizing. "The nongamers consistently criticize the games, the gamers defend them. They honestly can't imagine any harm in them. What's really needed is more research."
"When we started, we thought, 'Well, games are cool and under-researched so this will be a good area,' " Vorderer said. "But the more work we do, it is so striking how everything is connected to games. The military, the movies, education, everyone is doing games."
Here is the current status of the ASC Games group.
The 20-person USC group is an international lot, including members from Germany, China, Ukraine, India and Korea as well as all over the U.S. In the past years, it's developed or launched studies into areas as diverse as the effect of violent games on brain activity, the motivation of gamers, the benefits of interactive learning, and the role of narrative and character development in the games themselves.
Here is the link to the list of their current projects and to the one named Games & Aggression, which focuses on the effects of violent games on male adolescentsí aggressive attitudes.
Ritterfeld and Vorderer, who are married together, came to USC in 2002 from Germany, where they started their first fascinating experiments with gamers.
One of the first studies Ritterfeld and colleague René Weber initiated involved doing MRI brain scans on 14 gamers while they played Atari's Tactical Ops. (Because the study was conducted by the neuroscience department at the University of Tübingen in Germany, Ritterfeld had to send for the American version of the game, the German version being markedly less violent.)
The brain impulses of the participants, all young men, were recorded for an hour, a length of time unheard of in MRI research. Typically, Weber says, people who are not being tested for a life-threatening disease can withstand the loud and claustrophobic MRI machine for a maximum of about 20 minutes. But the gamers, who were asked at regular intervals if they would like to stop, were so focused on the game that they not only made it through the requested hour but almost to a person agreed to do another hour for comparison purposes.
"It was just amazing," says Weber, who, as the group's methodologist, has been analyzing the data by comparing, in 24-second intervals, exactly what was on the computer screen with what was going on in the participants' brains. "It was like they were unaware of anything but the game."
The group will continue to focus on the gamers, not game design or development. And even some students are here primarily for the games, other are more interested in child psychology or entertainment theory.
Sources: Mary McNamara, Los Angeles Times, June 26, 2004; and various University of Southern California web pages