This article is part of our new women in gaming series Makers of Now.
Dr. Rachel Kowert is a busy woman. The video game research psychologist is currently in London, where she’s set to give a talk on the fostering of terrorist cells and extremist beliefs in digital game spaces, a project she’s working on with the Department of Homeland Security (no, she can’t really talk about it). She’s also the research director of Take This, the oldest mental health nonprofit serving the game industry and its communities, and the creator of Psychegeist, a YouTube series where she tries to make heady, scientific stuff palatable for the masses.
But while she talks to me from her London hotel room (which she just barely made it to from the airport before our video chat) you can’t tell that she’s a woman juggling multiple, high-level, uber-important projects at once—she’s incredibly cheery, no sign of jetlag, and eager to talk about psychology, video games, and more. She’s been doing this for 15 years, she says, but you almost get the sense that she’s just getting started.
Back when Dr. Kowert first started working towards her PhD, though, the concept of marrying psychology and video games was a foreign one. “It wasn’t really a thing. There were one or two people in Stanford studying it. And now there’s literally over 100 game studies and programs—not even counting design, but also psychology, sociology, anthropology, communication science, and more,” she says. “I’ve seen a change in the perception of the value of studying games as an entertainment medium, and the ways that it impacts us in our day to day lives. And I’ve definitely seen a change in not having to justify that value.”
After all, video games are a “billion dollar industry” that courts people of all ages, backgrounds, and beliefs—of course it’s deserving of thoughtful research and thought-provoking conversation. But when society is faced with acts of violence, it’s instead historically been a scapegoat for other, harder-to-nail-down psychological concepts.
In 2018, after a deadly weekend of shootings in Texas and Ohio, then-president Donald Trump suggested it was video games that were to blame, not America’s proclivity for owning and brandishing guns. “We must stop the glorification of violence in our society. This includes the gruesome and grisly video games that are now commonplace. It is too easy today for troubled youth to surround themselves with a culture that celebrates violence. We must stop or substantially reduce this and it has to begin immediately,” he said.
“Violent video game research is really interesting because people really just desperately want to hold on to an easy solution to all of the world’s complex problems like mass shootings, juvenile delinquency—they just want to blame something.” Dr. Kowert explains. “We’ve been studying it for 20 years, and there’s been no consistent findings that would suggest at all that they’re in any way directly linked, whereas we have a whole wealth of research linking, like pure delinquency, and low frustration tolerance, and previous exposure to violence, and all of these things that are very well established in the research as predictors of violent behavior, but we ignore that because those are confusing societal problems.”
Dr. Kowert is often approached at industry dinners or after talks at conventions by concerned parents whose “kids play Fortnite” and are worried about the effects it has on them. “It’s funny, when I go into a room it’s like the questions are: Violence, addiction, loot boxes. You know, loot boxes are certainly what Celia Hodent calls ‘a shady practice, a dark design’ because it’s not serving the player, right? It’s serving the bottom line…Especially if parents make the mistake of putting their credit card on the console,” she says, grimacing.
But despite predatory transactions, Dr. Kowert and others in her field believe video games are a net good for society and its future. “The effects of playing games are by far more positive than negative just like across the board,” she says. “Peripheral vision is one—the ability to notice small changes in your peripheral vision is something that is being trained from shooters…then there’s increased stress relief, mood management—taking you from a negative mood to a better mood, social connection and friendship, team building and leadership skills. We’re learning skills that are translatable.”
The biggest thing video games offer us, according to Dr. Kowert, is something she calls “unintentional learning.” “When you talk about games and learning, people tend to think of the games I had as a kid like Math Blaster—that’s not what games are anymore,” she explains. “Now you play games like Civilization and you learn about world history and world leaders and city planning and that sort of stuff. And there’s a wealth of information and skills you can learn from playing Zelda. Tears of the Kingdom is a perfect example, right? Engineering.”
Yes, some of that engineering means players are making a lot dicks, but they’re also figuring out how to launch themselves into space, and helping each other learn how to craft mechs, cannons, and carriages. Japanese Zelda players are showing off builds that look like they’re from 400-level Engineering college courses.
“You’re learning how to tinker, you’re learning how to try and fail, you’re learning how to be persistent, you’re learning how to create machines.”
Dr. Kowert hasn’t done much research on improved literacy in games (something I brought up to Reading Rainbow host LeVar Burton during a Kotaku interview), but she has noticed how games teach her own child. “Anecdotally, when Animal Crossing came out, I had the thought this is a great game for my daughter because she has to do math and figure out how many bells something costs and figure out money management—that kind of stuff…But it seems like such an obvious connection.”
Though games aren’t widely used in schools as a teaching method (outside of things like Math Blaster), studies point to the positive impacts they can have for learning. The University of Pennsylvania has a graduate-level course on games as teaching tools, a Texas A&M professor specializes in game-based learning and implores other schools to consider using video games in classrooms, the Entertainment Software Association has a report on the benefits of video games in K-12 education. The proof is there, and Dr. Kowert is one of the people contributing to its research.
Funnily enough, Dr. Kowert’s efforts to present important research in a fun, palatable way on her YouTube channel have had an unintended, but interesting effect: Burgeoning game researchers are using it for their studies. “I thought I was creating a resource for parents. But what I was actually creating was a resource for people who study games, which is great, but not what I thought I was doing,” she laughs. Those young researchers represent the future of psychological research in gaming, a future that Dr. Kowert believes isn’t just rooted in advocating for the benefits of games or disproving lazy false equivalencies between gaming and societal violence—but in diversity and community.
“I’d love to see the conversation around diversity continue. I’m now working on a project that’s funded by the Department of Homeland Security, looking at the really dark side of games, how it’s being leveraged by extremists and terrorists, to disseminate propaganda. And while I think that is really important work that we cannot ignore, I also want to kind of pivot that work and look more at community resiliency and how we build from the bottom up rather than kind of like moderate from the top down,” she explains.
“Because I think if we can build the infrastructure of a more resilient community, not only will that help the problems we have with like extremism and terrorism, it will also mitigate a lot of the problems we have with like, harassment and hate and you know, all the other wonderful things that kind of lurk in gaming spaces.”
“In the future, I think community resiliency and community management is the way forward for me, but really, it’s just to make games a better place. That’s always been my goal. I started on my soapbox of like, games are good for mental health, I swear, look at the work. And now I’m pivoting more to practical applications of how to make them even better.”
Update 6/08/23 at 4:04 p.m. PT: Updated to correct the spelling of Celia Hodent’s name.