As a scholar, gamer, and participant in online worlds, my major research interests revolve around how we interact with various technologies, especially those that house online communities. There is a burgeoning interest in technology as a dramatically growing area of human activity over the last decade for people across demographic groups. In particular, I am interested in understanding how technologies influence communities, the self, and health behaviors. I utilize my training both in community and social psychology to inform my research, and am increasingly involved with efforts for a more open, transparent science, including an effort to preregister studies and share data on the Center for Open Science’s Open Science Framework.
Technology and Community
Community psychology research on online communities has been informed primarily by studies on community development and maintenance, social support, advocacy, and communication patterns. I am interested in exploring how technology can be used in community development and maintenance, conflict resolution, and advocacy. My work with Map Evansville, an asset mapping project, highlights the strengths of the Evansville, IN area, making it easier for individuals who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans to find resources relevant to their needs. Asset mapping is an increasingly useful tool for building community among marginalized populations and shifting away from deficits-focused perspectives.
I have also become interested in studying the fighting game community (FGC). The FGC is simultaneously lauded as arguably the most racially diverse gaming community (due in part to its roots in arcades), but is heavily male-dominated. The apparent demographic makeup (and invisibility of some characteristics like disability) of the community, in addition to the ways FGC members interact with one another both online and offline, makes the FGC a fascinating group to study.
My community and social psychology lab, the Online Technologies Lab, designed and conducted an online mixed-methods survey to examine FGC members’ perceptions on a variety of issues. This is one of few studies in any discipline that looks at FGC members and their community, and shows the nuance that exists with a community’s perceptions of others’ understanding of their community. We wanted to create a broad-based measure (with consultation from FGC members) examining a number of topics relevant to the FGC. Several key members of the FGC, as well as GameStop’s magazine Game Informer, shared the survey, resulting in a deluge of high quality data and are working on manuscripts which examine sense of community, meta-stereotypes, and community values. We also conducted qualitative interviews with FGC members at an anime fighting game tournament, asking them how tournament experiences affect their sense of community and their reactions to community members’ helpful and harmful behaviors. We anticipate this work will open a path to understanding gaming communities in particular, as well as hopefully stimulate interest in online and hybrid (online and offline) communities.
Technology and the Self
In addition to understanding how individuals interact with one another via technology, I am also interested in how individuals interact with technology itself. I developed a video game for use in an experimental study which has been submitted to the Center for Open Science’s preregistration challenge. This social psychological study explores what aspects of video games can affect self-avatar representation. We are looking at agency in terms of whether the player has control over the character’s decisions and actions, and ownership in terms of whether the player controls the character’s identity and shares the character’s name. Of additional interest is the exploratory question of whether agency or ownership is more important to identification. This study can help us to understand the effect video games can have on our conceptualization of ourselves and may lead to interesting interventions regarding, for instance, increasing players’ empathy towards those who are different from themselves.
Technology can also be a distraction. Recent data on distracted driving has found that we are more distracted than ever by our cell phones and voice-based interfaces in our vehicles. I recently received a grant for an experimental study grounded in cognitive psychological theory that aims to identify the specific perceptual and control mechanisms that produce driving impairments while using text messaging and voice-based interfaces. For example, it is possible that people respond slower because they are being more careful, or it could be that they are responding slower because they are distracted. Understanding these mechanisms may help us design better voice-based interfaces and reduce the risk of vehicular accidents. The data for this study will also be made available on the Open Science Framework.
Technology and Health
Technology can be an important ally in the push to help people improve their health behaviors. For example, age-related differences in motivation and emotion may influence how people approach health-related information. As we age, we shift from future-oriented goals, such as attaining knowledge, to present-focused goals, such as maintaining social bonds. In focus groups grounded in developmental psychological frameworks, we examined older and younger adults’ motivation to exercise, facilitators and barriers to exercise, and preferences about when, where, and with whom they exercise, we have seen differences emerge in how older and younger adults conceptualized the importance of social interaction in their exercise motivations. We found that younger adults tended to separate active social experiences from goal-directed exercise and prioritized being alone for goal-directed exercise. Older adults, however, did not differentiate between types of exercise and preferred social engagement during exercise. Understanding these preferences for social engagement with exercise can help us tailor motivational messaging—including messaging on social networks like Facebook—to facilitate exercise initiating and maintaining an exercise routine.
In addition, I recently completed data analysis for a pilot study of Breathe California’s anti-smoking campaign STAND (Sacramento Taking Action Against Nicotine Dependence), which features a street team initially composed of high school students working within the community, using time-limited motivational interviewing to encourage community members to quit smoking. My work examining the feasibility of this program may have applications online as well, particularly around intervention work. In addition, we have given some attention to the concept of empowerment with regard to the street team members themselves, which may have implications for online advocacy.
There are many opportunities to examine technology and its strengths and weaknesses in multiple contexts. For example, it would be beneficial to study how online communities can operate as alternative support settings for people with orphan diseases such as Mastocytosis, or what happens when people on social media feel empowered to engage in negative social behaviors. Additionally, there is much potential for understanding online learning environments, especially with the popularity of massive open online courses and other distance learning options. I have found a valuable and underdeveloped research niche that I can fill with a research agenda focused on these topics, especially given my several years of non-academic experience with technology and various online communities.
Important to this effort, however, is a dedication to open science, which involves making our study methods and materials freely available, preregistering when possible, and sharing data. I also firmly believe that scientists have a responsibility to clearly explain their findings to the general public, which is why I have spent time learning about data visualization, including attending a data presentation course by Edward Tufte.
In addition to publishing manuscripts on the data I have already collected, my research agenda focuses on expanding our understanding of how technology affects us through quantitative and qualitative research designs. I am also interested in how we can utilize various technologies to improve the lives of community members. I especially look forward to mentoring students and collaborating with faculty at my university and across the various universities at which I have developed contacts.