The broad age range often found in groups of online players means “teenagers who may feel a lack of control and agency in their everyday lives are suddenly able to work with adults as equals or supervisors—something that almost never happens in the physical world,” as Yee writes. “The stereotypical association of video games and teenagers is not only false, but hinders our ability to understand how online games can be positive social spaces for younger players.”
Preconceptions about addiction or antisocial behavior in the players of online games also aren’t borne out by the research; there’s not much difference between studies of the investment of time in online games and Nielsen data on time spent watching television. According to Yee’s research, 70 percent of online gamers play with someone they know in the real world: “It is also worth noting that a family sitting together silently in front of the television is deemed socially acceptable, but if they chat and collaborate in a virtual world, this is stereotyped as being antisocial,” he writes.
There exist, of course, a lot of (arguably necessary) defenses, many of them well-researched, of various kinds of video games, and plenty of experts ready to talk about how people who don’t like gaming are wrong, that gaming is actually quite good for you. In fact, there’s never been a better climate for gaming advocates: The “gamification” movement has corporations interested in using game elements to motivate and reward workers, while charismatic author and designer Jane McGonigal’s book, Reality is Broken, is widely cited both in and out of the traditional game space because of its accessible assertions that gamers are actually the world’s best problem-solvers.
And because the social-media climate naturally lends itself to sharing achievements—successful recipes, exercise regimens, family milestones—there is a wealth of apps and gadgets designed to make your average couch potato feel more motivated and playful. Everything around us is becoming increasingly game-like, and it’s getting harder and harder to be game-negative.
Happily, Yee’s book is far from yet another takedown of Luddite bias. The Proteus Paradox applies its research most thoroughly to the fascinating way online game worlds are not living up to their potential. Given a highly influential and relevant medium whose appeal is supposedly about limitless possibility, even the chance to reinvent one’s self, we bring an unfortunate amount of human baggage into virtual spaces, Yee finds. Serious online players describe their commitment to their chosen game as a “second job,” full of friction and repetition.
One of the most pervasive myths about online games is one that’s gone unexamined even by the gaming industry: They aren’t the utopias of freedom, fluidity, and determinism we hoped for, but rather spaces where humans re-enact superstitions, gender and race biases, and where we end up destined not to escape the constraints of reality but to dutifully imitate them.
This is the “Proteus Paradox” Yee describes: Given infinite possibility, we loyally gravitate to the familiar—nearly every game or online world contains chairs, for example, even though virtual bodies never tire of standing. Just as it’s simpler to click a familiar text interface than to inhabit a new one, human beings, it seems, are most comfortable experiencing humanity with all its limitations. “Even when we believe we are free and empowered, our offline politics and cognitive baggage prevent us from changing,” writes Yee. “And where we think we are fully in control, unique psychological levers in virtual worlds (such as our avatars) powerfully change how we think and behave.”