Don’t leave me this way: researcher explores barriers to gaming

White gaming console on wooden surface

Kelly Bergstrom holds undergraduate degrees in both visual arts and communications, so it should come as no surprise that her professional research focuses on gaming, which blends stories and graphics.

By Elaine Smith

Bergstrom, an assistant professor of communication and media studies at the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies at York University, explores: participation in various types of massive multi-player online games (MMOGs); why gamers abandon this pursuit; and the barriers to participating in the first place.

Kate Bergstrom
Kelly Bergstrom

Her work helps to debunk stereotypes. Previous research indicated that women are more drawn to casual, social network games (SNGs) – played on their phones or on Facebook – given a lack of leisure time, and Bergstrom wondered if that was partly because casual games were more collaborative and friendly. Her own research found that such games are “just as competitive as hard-core games” – those often played on consoles and requiring hours of time.

“If casual games are only ever seen as docile spaces of collaborative play, it reaffirms the gendered and stereotypical assumptions underpinning who plays SNGs and for what reasons,” writes Bergstrom in her paper published in Critical Studies in Media Communication.

Bergstrom says those who are curious about social network games will be exposed to the same backbiting and bullying that exist in the hard-core gaming world, so it is important for novices to be aware of these possibilities and to have the necessary tools to respond. Otherwise, such a negative experience may turn them away from gaming altogether.

Bergstrom is particularly interested in barriers to participation and reasons for abandoning a particular game or gaming in general.

“In game studies, we look at games as if they are a static point in time, but we don’t think about why people come to them or why they leave,” Bergstrom says.

As a post-doctoral researcher, Bergstrom was embedded at Big Viking Games, creators of YoWorld, an SNG. In studying people who had left the game, she discovered that many of the players planned to return in the future; often, quitting isn’t a final pronouncement on the game itself, but a function of other challenges in life: workloads, changes in life circumstances or, for many women, additional family responsibilities.

Time for leisure activities can also serve as a barrier to trying particular games, as Bergstrom’s research has indicated. Some of the MMOGs are very complex and women with children, for example, tend to have less leisure time than their male counterparts and can’t necessarily devote it all to learning an online game with a steep learning curve.

There are also structural barriers to playing games, Bergstrom notes. Not everyone owns a laptop to use for gaming and others may live in regions without the high-speed internet that some games require.

This summer, thanks to a research grant from her Faculty, Bergstrom will be focusing her efforts on studying Pokemon Go, a game played on a cellphone that requires gamers to seek clues in the physical world. Gamers must be outdoors, moving through the city or the countryside. She is interested in who is free to play the game and the external assumptions about who is free to do what in public. For instance, women may feel the need to always be aware of their surroundings and unable to focus completely on the game.

“In addition to its leisure opportunities, there’s a lot we can learn from gaming, such as learning about people and cultures you might not encounter daily, as well as algebraic thinking,” Bergstrom says, “but if you’re being shut out from even opening the door, you get left behind.”