Drop those stereotypes about people who play online role-playing games — chances are they're more physically fit than the average American.
That's just one of several new survey findings that explode the popular image of video gamers as socially awkward, overweight teenage males. Or at least, researchers have now found this among players of EverQuest II, an online fantasy game centered on group quests and other social activities.
"Games have pretty much been on the defensive for the past 20 years by being attacked as unhealthy and culturally destructive," said Dmitri Williams, a communications researcher at the University of Southern California. "That's been changing in the past few years, but it's still the prevailing wisdom."
Girls got game
More EverQuest II players were in their 30s than in their 20s, and those older players put in more gaming hours. The hardcore players who spent the longest time exploring the virtual world of EverQuest II also tended to be women, even though females made up just 20 percent of players.
"There are very few women playing, that's not surprising," Williams told LiveScience. "What's surprising is that they're so satisfied with playing, and they're playing more intensely."
Broader video game surveys show that females make up a far larger proportion of video gamers than ever before, although game populations vary.
Williams and his colleagues used a virtual game item as a reward for players to complete a 25-minute survey, and quickly received 7,000 responses within just two days. They also got unprecedented access to player data from Sony Online Entertainment, which runs the EverQuest II game servers.
The server data showed that EverQuest II players typically spent almost 26 hours gaming each week, with females playing more than 29 hours on average as opposed to males playing 25 hours. Players of both genders made ballpark guesses of their playing time, but consistently underestimated.
Health and games
Still, players scored well on physical health compared to the rest of the nation. They reported exercising vigorously once or twice a week, as opposed to 62 percent of American adults who don't exercise for more than 10 minutes at any time.
Players were also 10 percent leaner than the average American, according to their height and weight reports. Williams and his colleagues used the same self-report questions used in common national health surveys.
Unfortunately, mental health was another matter. EverQuest II players were 50 percent more likely than the average American to have been diagnosed with depression, and reported a 20 percent higher rate of substance addiction. However, the researchers said the survey could not tell if depressed or addicted people were simply more drawn to such games to begin with, rather than the game causing ill mental health.
Trading TV for online interaction?
No one can say why the players appear physically healthier than many Americans, but Williams speculated on a connection to TV viewing habits. Everquest II players in the new survey reported watching 10 fewer hours of television per week than the average American. That's consistent with earlier research that showed people replace TV and movie watching with gaming time when they first start playing online role-playing games.
Staring at TV screens is often linked to couch-potato weight gain and other unhealthy results, and video games have gotten lumped in. Yet Williams pointed out that TV watchers get bombarded by messages about "buying, consuming and eating," while video gamers get messages about "taking action" within the game.
"I think a part of it is that the culture of video games is not necessarily a culture of consumption, whereas the culture of television clearly is," Williams noted, although he said that the issue needs more study.
Better research for better games
The researchers plan to continue monitoring EverQuest II players using anonymous data from game servers. One of several upcoming papers will focus on gender differences in the player population.
"We have a lot of data, so this is just the tip of the iceberg," Williams said, referring to the current study, detailed this month in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication.
Williams praised Sony Online Entertainment for providing the unusual and "fantastic access" to EverQuest II game servers. He added that no one knew if the recent findings apply to other player populations in similar games, such as World of Warcraft, but expressed interest in getting similar access to those games.
Sony Online Entertainment is also getting something in return — a wealth of knowledge about its player demographics, not to mention their behavior in-game. The highly social nature of online role-playing games means that game developers are constantly looking for ways to improve the interactive experience.
"R&D (Research and Development) isn't just better graphics," Williams pointed out. "It's also what makes people happier and creates better communities."