Award Abstract #2035064

RAPID: Natural experiments with online games: Support, impact and mitigation during the Covid-19 Pandemic

NSF Directorate:
CSE - Directorate for Computer and Information Science and Engineering
NSF Division:

Division of Information and Intelligent Systems

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Program Manager:

William Bainbridge

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Dmitri C Williams [email protected] (Principal Investigator)
Emilio Ferrara (Co-Principal Investigator)


University of Southern California
University Park
Los Angeles CA 900890001

NSF Program:
HCC-Human-Centered Computing
HCC - Human - Centered Computing
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This research examines whether the surge of participation in online games triggered by the social distancing response to the COVID-19 pandemic is mitigating or magnifying the harm caused on the wellbeing of those kept away from their fundamental sources of social support, stimulation, and affection. The world is facing an unprecedented crisis as people have suddenly and dramatically moved away from physical contact and into mediated spaces, with largely unknown costs and benefits. The objective of this research is to discover mitigation strategies by leveraging existing and ongoing large data sets from multi-player games to provide a longitudinal window on the net effect of these changes on socialization, support, community, physical and mental health. Are those changes different as new cohorts come online, and how do the dynamics also shift as these new groups mix with the previous ones? Are online games a balm against this growing crisis, or part of the problem? Answers will have broad and potentially immediate impact on the social and psychological health of the very large numbers of people for whom such games are a major platform for friendship and socialization, both veteran players whose real-life situations have changed and new cohorts of players who may bring new needs and behavioral problems to this very significant social medium.

Prior to the pandemic the research team had already begun to collect very extensive anonymized data through collaboration with the corporation managing a highly popular team-based game, thus having good comparison statistics to analyze the effect of the pandemic over time through constant collection of new data. Geographic location measures are included, so it will be possible to integrate official statistics on the spread and intensity of the pandemic, and investigate probable cause and effect relationships. Understanding of the deeper meaning of the pandemic will be derived from a questionnaire and interviews administered to representative samples of players, and also through analysis of the in-game text chat. This research is sufficiently innovative that unexpected new discoveries are likely, but the three main research questions serve the development of processes and actions to address the global challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic: (1) In what ways are existing and new players acquiring social support across different game environments, mitigating the harmful effects of social distancing? (2) In what ways are existing and new players experiencing social harms, increasing declines in overall wellbeing? (3) What are the new and emerging patterns of social interactions that are positive, and can be used by game designers to improve their platforms?

This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.