Isolation & Gaming: The Escapes of Leveling Up in the Virtual World

Hello, we are from the ArtSciLab’s Esports Player Development (EPD) team! We understand that while gaming culture has acquired a stigma of sorts over time, it has also served as a healthy escape and a source of interaction in dire times such as the COVID-19 pandemic. Two of our members, Semra Zamurad (Research Fellow) and Lauren Bernal (Project Manager), who both had a B.S. in Psychology, have written this blog as examples of how COVID-19 has impacted their lives and how gaming allowed them to restore mental health and their social relationships.

Semra is a co-design and research assistant on the EPD team that graduated from Texas Woman’s University in May of 2019. An avid gamer herself, she spends much of her free time playing JRPGs (Japanese Role-Playing Games) and watching streams. Her relationship with gaming started when she was young, and while it has changed plenty over time, she admits that nothing quite prepared her for the way it would be impacted by COVID-19 and how that would help her relationships continue to flourish in spite of the pandemic.

Gaming has always been a part of my life, serving as the happy medium between TV shows I wish I could play a part in and books that were thrilling but not as engaging. Such games gave me the chance to play an active role in stories that were meant to help my character realize their true potential, something I struggled to do in my real life, especially while growing up. Eventually though, I did grow up and out of that mentality, and as a result, games became less of an escape from my reality and more of a fun pastime whenever I was not busy. I still quite enjoyed the plot twists and gameplay, but I was no longer dependent on it to build my confidence in real life, something I do believe was a positive development. I had grown to combat negative emotions by going to my favorite boba cafe or rendezvousing with friends at the mall. However, with the drastic shift in lifestyle caused by stay-at-home orders and safety precautions brought on by the onset of COVID-19, I suddenly found my hands tied, and for the first time in a while, I had too much time and not enough to do. In an attempt to fill my days with more than napping and despairing about the situation, I once again found solace in gaming.

It is important that I mention, though, that gaming felt very different now. As I live at home with my parents, I was so used to complaints from my family about how much time I spent playing and how that time could be better spent on other activities. However, as of late, the home has been fairly quiet; even more surprising is how often different members of the family will come into the room I am playing in to ask about how it is going and what the story is, conversations that have seldom taken place before because there was little interest for gaming on my family’s part outside of myself. It is certainly a welcome reaction, but shocking nonetheless.

And it is not just their views on gaming that have seemed to change; I have noticed it in myself and my friends as well. I am frequently engaging with friends via discord, often joining in general calls to converse at various times in the day. Many of my friends are from all over the world, but we share common interests such as gaming; the divide comes in the form of the types of games we prefer to play. Interestingly enough, in an effort to move the conversation away from the constant gloom brought on by the state of the world, game suggestions, invitations, and streams have become a daily occurrence. Many of us have become much more open-minded about the series and the types of games we normally play in an effort to connect with each other more; as new releases continue to happen on time, more and more of us have started playing the same games, which often come with online connection features that allow us to play with each other in real time. Fire Emblem: Three Houses, Persona 5, and Animal Crossing have become household names, and we continue to play outside of discord calls via iMessage games, effectively closing the mental and emotional distance between us. And still, we endeavor to find new games to play, bringing new things to talk about, new characters and stories to share, more advice to exchange, and discussions about strategies to implement.

The feeling of being active in a virtual world with different circumstances is contagious and has lifted our spirits immensely, and I believe it has a lot to do with embodied cognition. In many of these games, we each play a character that is given choices on how to respond to the world around them, and we are encouraged to respond in the way we would if we found ourselves in the same situation. Seeing those choices bring about change and ultimately progress the story rewards the players themselves by giving them a sense of hope. Each plot presents obstacles that often seem insurmountable at the beginning, but little by little, the player earns experience, builds rapport with other characters, and takes on challenge after challenge to ultimately succeed against all odds, and although it is the character in the game that is executing each action, it is the player who thoughtfully plans out each move and sees the fruits of their efforts.

Most games, if not all, are designed to give one a sense of hope and accomplishment, something that is missing from many of our lives currently as we guess and check new ways of surviving all that COVID-19 has thrown at us. With successful attempts to ride out this pandemic being far and few in between, it makes sense that many feel hopeless and trapped. But so did our characters at the beginning of each game; they too had to seek support from others, just as we rely on each other now; they too faced a long and arduous journey that tested their resolve, just as ours is being tested day by day; and they still succeeded, just as we will. If we can survive what these games put us through, we can get through this as well.

Lauren is the Project Manager for EPD. She received her B.S. in Psychology May of 2019 from UT Dallas’ Behavioral & Brain Sciences school. Her background in research is diversified from Music Perception in Cognition to Couples’ Daily Lives. She joined UTD’s ArtSciLab January 2019 and has launched this project since March of 2019. With the help of her EPD team, she has been able to lead its emergence. The EPD team worked together to publish an Annotated Bibliography: The Emergence of Esports (PDF available for download) and the 2nd Edition to be published June 12th, a recorded an interview with the ArtSciLab’s podcast Creative Disturbance: Bold Roast, launched its website www.esports-epd.com, and submitting grant proposals with UTD’s Center for BrainHealth, Center for Vital Longevity, Mavs Gaming, and Complexity Gaming. Though she mostly handles managerial tasks for the project, she recognizes the increased acceptance of gaming in times of the pandemic and the affects it has made on her team.

Personally, I have felt lethargic, apathetic, and depressed over the past few weeks. It (COVID-19) has affected my regular work schedule by making my hours less consistent than usual. On the other hand, it has helped me to see how important EPD is. Our pitch: “How do we reform the 21st century sport in a way that does not harm the players mentally or physically?” really holds during this time of crisis. Some differences I have noticed it has made for my team and being a Project Manager: 1) We have been able to stay well connected on professional and personal levels, and 2) As a PM in the UTD ArtSciLab, it has strengthened my trust in the members for my team to deliver and take initiative on their ideas. I have been thoroughly impressed by their commitment to affirm our goals with EPD.

In a sociocultural perspective, I have seen gaming bring people closer together. With confinement, virtual realities are all the more enticing. Members on the EPD team (Semra, Peter, Kristen, and Cris) have each reacted differently to the pandemic with what they can produce within EPD and online. For instance, Kristen has started streaming her gameplays on Twitch.tv, Cris has created our EPD website, www.esports-pd.com, and Semra and Peter have been more engaged with esports communities than before by communicating with friends through Discord servers and following streams.

The community in general has shown impressive acts for adaptation. One example of this is a professor used Animal Crossing: New Horizons to create a simulation of his classroom (post shared from Instagram, but message from professor was communicated through Discord). The students were offered the opportunity to journey with their avatar to the professor’s land, sit in the classroom, while they took a real-life exam. Another example of how people are exercising their creative abilities is using Minecraft for virtual dates! Love is in the air, even when we have to wear face masks, so why not indulge in a novel way to meet someone?

Times are hard right now, but we will persevere – one simulation at a time.

Local Esports Gaming Hubs!

by Semra Zamurad

As an avid gamer myself, I was drawn to the Esports Cyberathlete Development (ECD) co-design group’s mission: to gain a better understanding of how gaming supports positive social and cognitive growth in cyberathletes. My educational background is rooted in psychology and I am interested in how technology can be used to benefit psychological background and research. To learn more about this, I am lending my expertise in studying human behavior from a biopsychosocial standpoint to the efforts of the ECD team.

As we move forward on our academic journey, we have discovered the necessity of operationally defining the behaviors we seek to understand and making sure that those definitions remain consistent across raters. To operationally define a behavior essentially means to define a behavior in a specific, concrete, and measurable way. This is especially important when more than one researcher will be taking part in an observation. For example, if we were looking for signs of exhaustion, one observer may consider rubbing eyes to be a sign of exhaustion while another observer does not. High levels of inter-rater reliability (referring to how similar the data collection is between the observers) are imperative to the success of study that has key qualitative components. As such, I was tasked with looking into places that the ECD co-design group could practice observing gamers in their natural environment, as well as compiling a list of non-academic resources members could use to supplement their general knowledge of gaming culture.

The following list refers to several locations within the DFW complex that offer gamers and those interested in learning more about Esports a site to gather at and to take part in the experience there.

  • EZ Gaming Café
    • Vibe: minimalistic; snacks and drinks offered from deep freezer, metal shelves
      • Hosts local tournaments
      • Offers PC gaming and consoles (Nintendo Switch, PS4)
  • Nerdvana
    • Vibe: “Games with your coffee” kind of place; café/bar first, with games you can play while eating/drinking
      • Café and board games
      • Bar and videogames
      • Free to play with minimum $10/person purchase
  • Geekletes
    • Vibe: grassroots Esports competitions that serves as a training ground for aspiring gamers
      • Host local tournaments
      • Provide courses on how to navigate and excel in the industry
      • Recruiting and exposure
  • Java Gaming Café
    • Vibe: minimalistic but luxurious
      • Serves drinks to players at their PCs
      • Two floors
      • Hosts local tournaments
      • Offers PC gaming and consoles (PS4, Wii U, Xbox One)
  • PLAYlive Nation at Stonebriar Centre
    • Vibe: social gaming lounge housed in Frisco, powered by Simplicity Esports (merged); high-tech aesthetic (blue neon lights, generally dark, leather seating)
      • Specializes in Xbox One and popular table games (e.g., Magic the Gathering)
      • Offers VR gaming
  • AK PC Gaming Café
    • Vibe: similar look to an office building; identifies as an Internet café
      • PC gaming, web browsing, workstation
      • Offers food and drinks (snacks, soft drinks, coffee, fries)
  • Esports Stadium Arlington Gaming Center
    • Vibe: largest dedicated Esports facility in North America
      • Offers PC gaming and consoles (PS4, Nintendo Switch, Xbox One)
        • Must bring your own controllers and headsets, or rent some from them
      • Hosts local tournaments
      • Offers food, drinks, and merchandise

However, simply being aware of the existence of these places may prove to be insufficient in supplementing our comprehension of gaming culture even if we were to visit. In order to effectively supplement our collective knowledge on Esports and gaming in general, I also put together a list of non-academic resources that are easily accessible and may explain cultural concepts in a simpler fashion. This list includes apps, attractions, and movies to gain a better understanding of Esports’ evolution.

  • WEBTOON: No Scope by ZOYANG
    • A webcomic about a fictional Esports game called PSI BOND and high school players attempting to become pro players
    • Gives insight into player housing, recruiting, team building, basic aspects of Esports, women in Esports, Esports in Korea
  • WEBTOON: Let’s Play by Mongie
    • A webcomic about a game developer whose game is given a bad review by an Internet celebrity (“lets-player”).
    • Gives insight into different types of games and gamers, impact of a gaming-centered career on mental and physical health, skills necessary to excel in a gaming-centered career (mainly game development)

  • BBC documentary: The Supergamers/Rise of the Supergamer
    • Looks into the lives of select teams and players as they train, live together, and learn to play together, striving for the common goal of making it big as a cyberathlete
Preview

  • Netflix documentary: League of Legends Origins
    • Details the rise of the popular MMOBA game League of Legends, its start as a free demo to an Esport game
Trailer

If you or someone you know enjoys visiting any of the aforementioned gaming points or is aware of more non-academic resources that can help explain gaming culture, please feel free to contact the Esports Co-Design Group Project Manager, Lauren Bernal, at Lauren.Bernal@UTDallas.edu.

Esports Cyberathlete Development (ECD): An Annotated Bibliography

The Initiative to Enhance the Esports Player Cognitive Performance & Wellbeing.

This Esports Cyberathlete Development (ECD) project launched by the University of Texas at Dallas’ ArtSciLab aims to contribute to design one of the first new sports of the 21st century.

Our efforts aim to:
(1) Promote positive values obtained from participating on an Esports team;
a. Investigate the enhanced cognitive abilities through the strategically-complex gameplay of Esports
b. Investigate the positive social developments that occur in and out of the Esports environment
(2) Focus on relieving the stigmatized universe of Esports concerning gender stereotypes and effects on intellectual performance;
a. Our research aims to increase overall inclusivity among various demographics and how its benefits are not discriminatory towards any gender
(3) Help to integrate the skills learned by the Esports players into their lives during and after their Esports careers;
a. Analysis of cognitive skills acquired by gamers during their gameplay, how such skills can generally transfer to real-world application, and to increase their executive longevity.