Video games, a relatively new form of visual and sensorial media, have been an area of much academic exploration and significant strides in studying virtual worlds have been made since the early 1990s. This article argues that video game studies is an important area of inquiry for several reasons including the popularity of video games, the forms of escapism they can entail, their social dynamics, the role of cyberbullying, and more.
Video game playing is now a very visible part of today’s culture and this has raised many questions concerning its influence on consumers. This article brings to the surface several areas of recent academic exploration into video games and the various reasons researchers consider their analysis important. This article makes reference to the massively online multiplayer role-playing game (MMORPG) called World of Warcraft (WoW). WoW was created by Blizzard Entertainment, first launched in 2004, and is still very popular today. It is from WoW that we derive a number of our insights.
We will say something about virtual worlds since they are the sites players enter and about which many relevant concerns and points of discussion emerge for scholars studying virtual worlds.
WoW has been the most popular MMORPG on the market to offer players a virtual world in which to get lost. This virtual world is “a separate world from that of the daily living, clearly defined in its spatial and temporal borders” (3) in which designed are several land masses, ecosystems and terrains, multiple cities and smaller communities with their attendant economies (both cash and barter), and a wide variety of non-player characters, both human and other. Players can create a virtual identity (a character of a particular race, sex, class, and appearance) in the game and adventure across this world, alone or together, “forming friendships, slaying monsters, and engaging in epic quests that can span days or weeks” (4).
Virtual worlds are inhabited (5) and, despite their strong fantasy component, are realistic in paralleling the real world through the consumption of various objects and abilities like money, play, weapons, characters, storytelling, etc. They are “laboratories” where players can safely try out different identities, freely express deviant emotions, and play with the controversial, forbidden, and subversive through role-playing (6). As complex simulations, the virtual world is “an alternate world in which players can do anything they want and have a vacation from their everyday lives” (7). Virtual worlds are open to analysis because they are “places” and legitimate research locations for academic fieldwork to be conducted.
The Mass Appeal of Video Games
Video games necessitate investigation because so many people find them appealing. The game design professor Edward Castronova explains how more people are choosing meaningful virtual gaming worlds over the actual, real one, “[T]he exodus of…people from the real world, from our normal daily life of living rooms, cubicles, and shopping malls, will create a change in social climate that makes global warming look like a tempest in a teacup” (8).
Many video games are “time-based” in that built into them is the notion of the player investing time in the game, leveling, and acquiring equipment. A major pull in WoW, for example, is its design allowing for anyone to engage it and become good, just as long as they invest enough time. Research shows that on average, the MMORPG player spends at least 21 hours a week taking part in the game (9).
Another pull of games like WoW is that their virtual worlds immersive. They mimic the “real” world while also incorporating a strong fantasy element: “virtual worlds are immersive because they look and sound (and perhaps one day will taste, feel, and smell) like ours” (10). This raises questions on the relationship of virtual worlds to the other lifeworld contexts in which gamers find themselves.
Researchers are interested in who and why people are attracted to video games. Nick Yee, a specialist in virtual environments, outlines five types of people who are attracted to MMORPGs (11): socializers, achievers, explorers, escapists, and grievers. Socializers are attracted to the social interaction elements; achievers enjoy attaining goals, accumulating items, and/or gaining power; explorers are driven by the game mechanics and the desire to understand everything about the game; escapists play for stress relief, to escape their everyday world, and/or to role-play different identities; and griefers like to manipulate, dominate, exploit, deceive, annoy, and/or taunt other players.
Narrative is important to most gamers as 95% of them, according to one researcher, “commented on how much a good story line matters. Narratives, allegories, and fables are essential to the gaming experience” (12). These include narratives found in questing and about companionship, social problems, judgment day, post-apocalyptic, heroism, and victory.
Concerns have been raised regarding addiction. The high frequency of gaming is sometimes likened to the phenomenon of compulsive gambling, leading some private companies to offer services to people who feel they are playing video games too often. Some commentators refer to the compulsive video game playing as computer game addiction, suggesting it to be an established clinical diagnosis, although there currently is a lack of scientific consensus in this area (13). A study did conclude that there is a secretion of dopamine during the playing of computer games, which could explain addiction (14). Also part of WoW’s appeal is its carefully crafted progression system and process that is reminiscent of behavioral conditioning principles in which incentives and rewards are distributed to maximize player commitment (15). As many as 40% of gamers consider themselves to be “addicts” (16).
In WoW, players admit that the game demands a great deal of time and considerable commitment which leads to issues of eating habits being disturbed, bad hygiene, experiencing problems at school, and having arguments with parents (17). Some players spend extensive time in WoW that they leave no or very little time for other activities. Arguments with parents include who has access to a shared computer and neglecting spending time with family. The result of spending late nights playing WoW has led to problems at school. As one player explains,
“Sometimes Wille and me would stay up till two or three in the morning doing daft things like fishing and suchlike. It was nothing serious and not really worthwhile because you need your sleep if you’re going to cope in school. A lot of the time I felt too tired” (18).
The result of late night and early morning gaming is often academic underperformance at school and a lack of being able to raise one’s grades. Eating habits become problematic as an investment in WoW, such as joining friends and fellow gamers in raids, demands complete attention and makes it difficult for a player to leave to eat, which can become a health problem. Some gamers take to eating unhealthy take-away food or eating only TV dinners. Hygiene is often neglected leading to subpar personal hygiene and neglecting cleaning one’s room.
Escaping “Real” Life
Many gamers immerse themselves in virtual worlds to escape the problems in their lives and avoid thinking about their real-life concerns (19). The literature is not clear on what exactly escapism is, but Kuo, Lutz, and Hiler define it as “a unique form of experiential consumption that engages fantasy and role-play as a means of coping… active escapism provides consumers with the opportunity to directly interact with mediated realities, whether constructed in a virtual space (e.g. a video game) or the real world” (20).
Fantasy is a powerful element in escapism: “To have a central role in escapism is fantasy, generally understood to entail the creation or engagement of fiction for the purpose of pleasure and often has the consumer projecting himself into the role of a story’s protagonist by identifying similarities with his self-concept” (21).
In fact, no less than 95% of MMO games are based on the fantasy genre (22). There is a mix between these being both extremely realistic and distinctly otherworldly (23). Theorists notice how fantasy can have a real impact on the consumer’s experience of the real world through re-enchantment: “Fantasy has this ability to open our eyes to the enchantment of our world, and to view real things with more wonder” (24) One player remarks how fantasy fulfills a “nostalgic longing for the past when all these things were not there yet. In the old days everything was better. The countryside, sunny summers when everybody was happy. If you walk through the world of World of Warcraft this is all there. And you are not constantly confronted with high-tech” (25). One WoW player explains that gaming can be a form of escapism from bullying,
“It might be that this is how you escape real life. It wasn’t like that for me because I was too strong mentally to go for that. But there can be loads of kids who are bullied in real life but online aren’t judged for their appearance or what they’re capable of doing. If they perform well they can be real celebrities online. Small wonder they find that nicer than the real world” (26).
Engaging in escapism is not difficult. Any person with a reasonably adequate personal computer and an internet connection can disappear for hours into vast realms of fantasy (27). Escapism in video games can have both positive and negative outcomes. On the negative side, excessive gaming can point to maladaptive coping strategies, but can also serve to support mood management, coping, and recovery in players (28). Researchers highlight how escaping into a video game can be a healthy pursuit (29). Questions do, however, emerge as to what real-world problems gamers are trying to escape from, whether such problems share commonalities, and what in gaming makes it such an appealing form of escapism.
The Social Dynamic
MMORPGs have a strong social component because they offer virtual, fantasy worlds in which millions of players can join together for a plenitude of reasons (e.g. questing in PvE, raiding together, PvP battles, dungeons, communicating, trading, etc.),
“Massive, multiplayer online role-playing games foster rich social environments. Within the game, players can interact with other players, make friends, create and cultivate new online forms of community… Massive, multi-player, online, role-playing games enable enormous numbers of people to simultaneously play, interact, and socialize in an evolving virtual world by means of the Internet” (30).
Multiplayer video games today connect people from all over the world for the sole purpose of playing a game together… Online gaming brings people together to participate and communicate together in the game world, whether it is as simple as killing the enemy team or questing through the World of Warcraft, online gaming brings people together in different ways” (31).
Blizzard routinely refers to its subscriber base as the WoW community. It is a social community in which exists a strong desire for recognition and status. Social recognition is majorly attained through the player having the best equipment applied to his character. Often such equipment is difficult to obtain in the game and its presence on the player’s character gives him status and reputation. Social recognition in the game reveals information about the player’s status in the “real” world (32). For example, a strong desire for social recognition in a virtual world can be the result of a “player [who] has a low social status outside the game” (33). As one gamer explains,
“What’s great about World of Warcraft is that it is extremely personal. Lots of people who play do so because they want to have a certain status, or whatever you call it. I think that is the difference with this game – that the character can gain in status on the server” (34).
The social dimension to WoW is visible in players and the connection they have with others in the game. Husbands and wives play WoW together and some have even met their future spouses in the game (35). Friendships are also generated, such as in the case of Edward who made friends with a group of university students through playing WoW. Some player World of Warcraft because their boyfriend enjoys playing it,
“It has been much influenced by what the other friends have been playing and I started to play WoW because my boyfriend played it and I was curious what is this kind of game where people are spending so much time… And because of social pressure or spending time with friends (in-game) but I have had a desire to succeed on it but it is that kind of game that I would not play it alone” (36).
Sociologist Thomas Brignall identifies in WoW “tribalism”, which he defines as the occurrence of groups and subgroups within existing social structures that divide into smaller subgroups, or tribes (37). In WoW, the guild is an example of tribalism as it is composed of players with similar interests and provides opportunities for social interaction, assistance with quests, and protection from rival factions (there are some guilds specifically made for certain groups such as gays, lesbians, Christians, evangelicals, males, etc.).
Tribalism breaks down the gaming population into smaller, isolated groups and results in competition, power struggle, and a “we” versus “they” mentality. This tribal, social structure has groups become openly hostile towards other tribes. This structure also engenders negative aspects of tribalism, such as prejudice, harsh judgments, and stereotyping. This tribalism could be suggestive of primitivism in humanity’s social roots and environment “rooted in the small, rural village of the past”, returning to which some theorists think is desirable and a necessary “new tribalism” (38).
Tribalistic behavior is difficult to avoid in MMORPGs because they are baked into their design. These games strongly encourage groups of people to form, organize, and compete against other similar groups. In WoW, players are required to choose between two major factions: “Horde” and “The Alliance”, both of whom are at war with each other. It is impossible for players to communicate or interact with rival players, other than fighting them. The rivalry between the two groups has perpetuated harsh and hostile perceptions, such as rivals being stereotyped and considered stupid. The game implements a reward system in which players can attain honor points when killing players from the rival faction. This tribalism can strengthen and reinforce community bonds, as well as the separation between the two groups.
Gaming can strengthen relationships when played with people the player knows outside the video game, for example, fellow schoolmates (39). Groups of school pupils meet in WoW after school, which makes it fulfill the function of a kind of virtual youth club. Gaming also becomes a topic of conversation that breaks away from recurring themes in daily discussions which can serve to strengthen friendship bonds.
But all is not necessarily well. Problematic to some is that video game social relations can become a substitute for real-life relations. This can result in the suffering and neglect of friendships and important relationships with other people. The gamer Peter says that “For a time I felt more at ease with the other guys in World of Warcraft than with my friends in real life” (40). In Brignall’s study, 25 of 34 interviewees said that they preferred socializing in WoW to offline socializing (41). Some players report feeling more important in video games, felt more able to freely express themselves, and that their online friends often understood them better than their offline friends. For these gamers, playing WoW becomes the primary source of social interaction.
Cyberbullying in Virtual Worlds and Gender Concerns
Researchers notice how with the increase in technology use, cyberbullying has risen (42). It is particularly a problem experienced by and between young people (43). Cyberbullying is the “willful and repeated harm inflicted through the medium of electronic text” (44), or “any behavior performed through electronic or digital media by individuals or groups that repeatedly communicates hostile or aggressive messages intended to inflict harm or discomfort on others” (45).
Cyberbullying is common in online games. It is a common experience in WoW and many other MMORPGs (46). In WoW, a player reports that “Cyberbullying is systematic and long lasting…” (47). 52% of MMORPG players have reported that they have been cyberbullied with over half experiencing profanity and name-calling (48).
Types of cyberbullying include social exclusion, sexual harassment, and threats. Victims are often female gamers. Males tend to engage in cyberbullying more than females and gender-related harassment has led to many women having negative experiences while gaming (49). One female gamer says that “there has been some kind cyberbullying against female players, because I am a woman, I have seen it, so other players are expecting that women do not know how to play the games” (50). These concerns have caused a proliferation of literature studying gender in video games, especially of the female gamer (51).
This literature focuses on how female gamers are treated, how the topic of gender harassment might be related to cyberbullying, how female characters in games are displayed and created, gender stereotyping, and what can be done to make the online gaming experience more inclusive. Often female players fear revealing their female gender identity because the fact they are female can often result in unwanted attention with negative outcomes. Recurring issues include sexual harassment, sexism, and sexist imagery (52).
Brignall suggests that cyberbullying is evidence of tribalism in which “players can continually taunt and harass players they do not like” (53). The method of bullying is vast and includes one’s use of rude, vulgar, and threatening language made to other gamers. Harassment occurs through sending messages to the victim and the intent to harm the reputation of a targeted person through spreading rumors, gossip, or false information. Social exclusion is also noted, especially in MMORPGs in which the social dimension is pronounced.
Developers build into their games measures to prevent cyberbullying. WoW allows players to report harassment during gameplay at any time, which allows for an admin to review the complaint and possibly provide a suitable punishment. WoW has Rules of Conduct as part of the Terms of Services to which players are required to agree when they start to play. Breaking these rules can lead to the cancellation of the offender’s account. The game also includes a profanity filter that can be turned on or off in the settings. The filter censors all general forbidden words by displaying stars in place of that word. But some commentators argue that these measures are not sufficient since the player who is banned due to cyberbullying can always come back with another account (54).
Cyberbullying is a serious matter. It not only takes away enjoyment one can have while playing, but it can also, like traditional bullying, last a lifetime (55), cause serious problems for mental health (56), issues in school performance, and even suicide (57). Research shows that bullying can lead to self-injury, eating, social anxiety, depression, substance, and alcohol problems (58). These real-life consequences have generated serious repercussions for perpetrators involving litigation and criminal prosecution (59).
Strong reasons show why video game studies is important. Video games and immersion into virtual worlds are meaningful for innumerable people and thus deserve to be taken seriously by researchers for that fact alone.
Video games also touch on multiple issues ranging from the law (e.g. cyberbullying) to professional counseling (e.g. video game addiction and real-life bullying sometimes lying behind one’s escapism into virtual worlds) and academic scholarship (e.g. the role of virtual worlds in human experience, positive and negative aspects of video games). These areas will surely always invite further study and reflection.
Video game usage cascades into the player’s real life. Some gamers might make friends while playing a video game and meet them in real life, which can include sharing personal information. For some, virtual worlds can become a preferred space for one’s everyday social interaction. These raise important questions as to what a player’s immersion in a virtual world tells us about him and his real-world life. One might be interested in how gaming can have positive benefits and negative consequences.
This article has but barely touched the surface of video games studies and why it is an important field to engage. Many other areas exist in which commentators and scholars have engaged. There are the areas of racial representation, cultural adaption, colonialism, warfare, and even religion in video games that ask for further analysis.
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7. Brignall, Thomas W., and Van Valey, Thomas L. 2007. Ibid. p. 6.
8. Castronova, Edward. 2007. Exodus to the Virtual World: How Online Fun is Changing Reality. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. p. xiv-xv.
9. Yee, Nicholas. 2006. “The Labor of Fun: How Video Games Blur the Boundaries of Work and Play.” Games and Culture 1(1):68-71.
10. Golub, Alex. 2010. “Being in the World (of Warcraft): Raiding, Realism, and Knowledge Production in a Massively Multiplayer Online Game.” Anthropological Quarterly 83(1):17-46. p. 18.
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12. Corliss, Vander I. 2011. “Gaming with God: A Case for the Study of Religion in Video Games.” Senior Theses and Projects. p. 16.
13. Linderoth, Jonas., and Bennerstedt, Ulrika. 2007. Living in World of Warcraft – The thoughts and experiences of ten young people. Göteborg University Department of Education. p. 12.
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17. Linderoth, Jonas., and Bennerstedt, Ulrika. 2007. Ibid. p. 27-29.
18. Linderoth, Jonas., and Bennerstedt, Ulrika. 2007. Ibid. p. 29.
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20. Kuo, Andrew., Lutz, Richard J., and Hiler, Jacob L. 2016. “Brave new World of Warcraft: a conceptual framework for active escapism.” Journal of Consumer Marketing 33(7):498-506.
21. Lindzey, Gardner., and Kalnins, Dagny. 1958. “Thematic apperception test: some evidence bearing on the ‘hero assumption.’” The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 57(1):76-83.
22. Brignall, Thomas W., and Van Valey, Thomas L. 2007. Ibid. p. 1.
23. Woodcock, Bruce. 2009. An analysis of MMOG subscription growth. Available.
24. Corliss, Vander I. 2011. Ibid. p. 18.
25. Schaap, Julian., and Aupers, Stef. 2015. “Beyond Belief Playing with Pagan Spirituality in World of Warcraft.” In Religion in Digital Games Reloaded: Immersion into the Field, edited by Simone Heidbrink, Tobias Knoll, and Jan Wysocki, 190-206. p. 198.
26. Linderoth, Jonas., and Bennerstedt, Ulrika. 2007. Ibid. p. 50.
27. Castronova, Edward. 2007. Exodus to the Virtual World: How Online Fun is Changing Reality. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. p. 4-5.
28. Kosa, Mehmet., and Uysal, Ahmet. 2020. Ibid. p. 68.
29. Wood, Richard., Griffiths, Mark., and Parke, Adrian. 2007. “Experiences of time loss among videogame players: An empirical study.” CyberPsychology & Behavior 10(1):45-56; Hussain, Zaheer., and Griffiths, Mark D. 2008. “Gender swapping and socializing in cyberspace: An exploratory study.” CyberPsychology & Behavior 11(10:47-53.
30. Brignall, Thomas W., and Van Valey, Thomas L. 2007. Ibid. p. 2.
31. Corliss, Vander I. 2011. Ibid. p. 17-18.
32. Linderoth, Jonas., and Bennerstedt, Ulrika. 2007. Ibid. p. 49.
33. Linderoth, Jonas., and Bennerstedt, Ulrika. 2007. Ibid. p. 49.
34. Linderoth, Jonas., and Bennerstedt, Ulrika. 2007. Ibid. p. 49.
35. Nardi, Bonnie. 2010. Ibid. p. 18 (Location: 373).
36. Valanne, Ville. 2020. Ibid. p. 25.
37. Brignall, Thomas W., and Van Valey, Thomas L. 2007. Ibid. p. 1.
38. Zerzan, John. 2002. Running on Emptiness: The Pathology of Civilization. Los Angeles: Feral House; Quinn, Daniel. 1992. Ishmael: An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit. New York: Bantam/Turner Books.
39. Linderoth, Jonas., and Bennerstedt, Ulrika. 2007. Ibid. p. 45.
40. Linderoth, Jonas., and Bennerstedt, Ulrika. 2007. Ibid. p. 44.
41. Brignall, Thomas W., and Van Valey, Thomas L. 2007. Ibid. p. 3.
42. Wolak, Janis., Mitchell, Kimnerly., and Finkelhor, David. 2006. “Online Victimization of Youth: Five Years Later.” National Center for Missing & Exploited Children Bulletin.
43. Valanne, Ville. 2020. Ibid. p. 6.
44. Hinduja, Sameer., and Patchin, Justin. W. 2007. “Offline consequences of online victimization: School violence and delinquency.” Journal of school violence 6(3)89-112.
45. Tokunaga, Robert S. 2010. “Following you home from school: A critical review and synthesis of research on cyberbullying victimization.” Computers in human behavior 26(3):277-287.
46. Mark, Lauren., and Ratliffe, Katherine T. 2011. “Cyber worlds: New playgrounds for bullying.” Computers in the Schools 28(2):92-116; Fryling, Meg., Cotler, Jami. L., Rivituso, Jack., Mathews, Lauren., and Pratico, Shauna. 2015. “Cyberbullying or normal game play? Impact of age, gender, and experience on cyberbullying in multi-player online gaming environments: Perceptions from one gaming forum.” Journal of Information Systems Applied Research 8(1):4-18; Qing, Li. 2015. “When cyberbullying and bullying meet gaming: A systemic review of the literature.” Journal of Psychology & Psychotherapy 5(4):1-11; Valanne, Ville. 2020. Ibid.
47. Valanne, Ville. 2020. Ibid. p. 25.
48. Ballard, Mary E., and Welch, Kelly M. 2017. “Virtual warfare: Cyberbullying and cyber-victimization in MMOG play.” Games and Culture 12(5):466-491.
49. Shaer, Orit., Westendorf, Lauren., Knouf, Nicholas A., and Pederson, Claudia. 2017. “Understanding gaming perceptions and experiences in a women’s college community.” Proceedings of the 2017 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, pp. 1544-1557.
50. Valanne, Ville. 2020. Ibid. p. 26.
51. Rosier, Kady. 2011. “Of Humans and Avatars: How Real World Gender Practices are Brought into World of Warcraft.” Masters Diss.; Gregory, Clairellyn R. 2011. “Who Gender-Bends and Why? A Qualitative Study of World of Warcraft.” Masters Diss.; Braithwaite, Andrea. 2013. Ibid; Brehm, Audrey. 2013. Navigating the feminine in massively multiplayer online games: gender in World of Warcraft. Available; Gray, Kishonna L., Voorhees, Gerald., and Vossen, Emma. 2018. Feminism in Play. New York: Springer; Pearce, Alyssa M. 2017. “Exploring Performance of Gendered Identities through Language in World of Warcraft.” International Journal of Human-Computer Interactions 33(3):180-189.
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53. Brignall, Thomas W., and Van Valey, Thomas L. 2007. Ibid. p. 5.
54. Coyne, Iain., and Gountsidou, Vasiliki. 2013. “The role of the industry in reducing cyberbullying.” In Cyberbullying through the New Media. Psychology Press.
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56. Srabstein, Jorge C., Berkman, Benjamin E., and Pyntikova, Eugenia. 2008. “Antibullying legislation: A public health perspective.” Journal of Adolescent Health 42(1):11-20.
57. Chibbaro, Julia S. 2007. “School counselors and the cyberbully: Interventions and implications.” Professional School Counseling 11(1); Mason, Kimnerly L. 2008. “Cyberbullying: A preliminary assessment for school personnel.” Psychology in the Schools 45(4):323-348.
58. Mitchell, Kimberly. J., Ybarra, Michelle., and Finkelhor, David. 2007. “The relative importance of online victimization in understanding depression, delinquency, and substance use.” Child maltreatment 12(4):314-324.
59. Beale, Andrew. V., and Hall, Kimberly. R. 2007. “Cyberbullying: What school administrators (and parents) can do.” The Clearing House: A Journal of Educational Strategies, Issues and Ideas 81(1):8-12.