Cognitive bias towards WoW-related words among WoW players (Decker & Gay, 2011)

Seamus A. Decker and Jessica N. Gay (University of Massachusetts) are multi-disciplinary anthropologists whose focus is on human psychophysiology and human adaptation. That’s quite interesting and I don’t often see publications from anthropologists in journals such as Computers in Human Behavior. Their study is on the cognitive bias toward gaming-related words among WoW players and videogame addiction.


This study investigated cognitive biases toward gaming-related words and differences in cognitive performance among twelve World of Warcraft players (WWP) and thirty non-players (NP). We measured response to valenced common English and WoW jargon words using a computer-based go/no-go task. Sometimes positive valence words were the targets for the ‘go’ response, with negative-valence words as the distracters, sometimes the reverse. Target discrimination (d′) and response disinhibition (C) were calculated using a signal detection analysis. Based on questionnaire responses, there were no differences between groups in depression, anxiety, smoking or drinking, but WWP reported significantly more screen and gaming time (17.31 h/week versus 4.12 among NP). WWP had faster reaction time (RT) and better discrimination of targets from distracters (high d′) but also showed higher disinhibition (low C). WWP also showed cognitive-bias toward game-related words in the form of higher d′ for WoW jargon than common English and more disinhibition to positive-valence WoW jargon. Similar to past studies which have found alcoholics to have cognitive biases toward alcohol-related words, WWP who play frequently showed cognitive biases toward words related to the World of Warcraft game.

If I ever hear someone equating alcoholism with videogame addiction because of this study, I will send the original paper to whoever makes such claims.

Their theoretical ground is on implicit cognition, the concept is based on the idea that addicts are attuned to specific stimuli (usually anything related to their addiction) without their knowledge, and this extends to their behaviours as well. They become sensitized and focused towards certain stimuli (i.e. attentional bias) and they tend to act upon whatever impulses these stimuli produce (i.e. action tendency). However, if they have the motivation and ability, they can consciously suppress these urges. Some examples, when alcoholics see a beer while having a conversation, they are likely to grab a beer and start drinking. Or something I heard in my under grad addiction class. When a cocaine addict visits a crack house or a place that he/she usually gets high, his/her reactions change as if anticipating an injection high, even though he doesn’t want to. Some anecdotal stories I heard was that some people dealt with their addiction through cold turkey by uninstalling the game, selling their accounts and actively avoiding areas that might expose them to the game (e.g. friends’ house). I guess this might bear some relevance to the implicit cognition theory. Bear in mind, as the authors did, that most of the research on implicit cognition and addiction are done with traditional forms of addictions, such as alcoholism, cocaine, marijuana, tobacco, gambling and even food addiction.

The authors went into two pages about implicit cognition that I just lost attention and interest, something about neurobiology and conceptualizations of implicit cognition. I skipped it.

So what does implicit cognition has to do with videogame addiction? Well you see, alcoholics are more responsive to beer-related stimuli, including words, right? What about videogame addicts being more responsive to videogame-related stimuli, in this case WoW jargon? The authors’ objective in this study is to examine such theory, with habitual WoW players, “habitual” as in non-addicts (IMO). With that in mind, they hypothesized that WoW players would have a faster reaction time with WoW jargon, especially to positive words than negative ones; they also hypothesized that WoW players will have a slower reaction times, lower discrimination and higher disinhibition to common English words, but not particularly to WoW jargon.


Participants: 42 male participants. 30 of them are non-players and 12 of them are WoW players with at least 6 months experience. Oh, I can see the imbalance right now. But the study is still ongoing as of this writing. Their age and GPA are on average, 21 years old and 3.0, respectively. Both groups are not significantly different.


Gaming and screen time: three questions on their tv viewing, internet surfing and game play on likert-type answers.

They also adapted two questionnaires taken from alcoholism research, the T-ACE and AUDIT, for assessing addiction or “excessive computer game playing” as they wrote in their paper. Here are some questions they used: “Does it take more than three hours of computer/video gaming to make you feel satisfied?” “How often during the past 6-months have you played a computer/video game first thing in the morning to get yourself going?” (I’d answer that everyday).

Smoking and drinking: asked how often they smoked or drank alcohol per week.

Depression: used the Beck Depression Inventory, 21-items and the Beck Anxiety Inventory. The Beck Depression Inventory has its own Wikipedia article.

Go/no go task:

To measure implicit cognition among WoW players, the go/no-go task is used. The authors described this task in plenty detail in the paper, so I’ll try to cut it down.

So, participants will be shown words, there are two categories, common English words or Wow jargon. Each category has “good” and “bad” words. Examples in common English are trust, friend, power, couple, achievement, versus betray, poverty, jealousy, rude, addict. Examples for WoW jargon are Legendary, XP bonus, Purple (?, I’m not a WoW player), Level up versus deserter, botting, kill steal, Noob, etc. In total, they picked 33 common English words and 25 WoW jargon out of 119 words they gathered from an online survey.

The task is run by ten blocks of nine trials. Each trial consists of a word being shown and a reactive response by the participant. In total, we have 90 trials. Each block has a target category; participants are told to respond to a target category. For example, in one block participant are to respond to good English words (called target) and not to respond to other categories (called distracters). Hitting a target word is a ‘hit’ and hitting a distracter word is a ‘false alarm’. They must respond as quickly as possible (measured in the milliseconds), this is one of the key in assessing implicit cognition, reaction time.

The block sequence is also a factor, which measures participants’ mental flexibility meaning the ability to shift attention away from one category to another. They used two terms, non-shift block and shifting block. Non-shift blocks are blocks are where the target category remains the same as the previous block. Shift blocks are where the target category has changed from the previous block. As you can imagine, when there’s a shift block you might be tempted to respond to a previously target word, now a distracter, from the previous block when you should turn your attention to the actual one. The authors argued that a lack of mental flexibility is an indicator among substances abusers since they can’t switch their attention from one thing to another.

Target discrimination (d’) is a measure of the participants’ distinguishing the target words from the distracter words measured by the ratio of false alarms with target hits, this is another key in assessing implicit cognition. Another key is called response disinhibition (C) which is a measure of the participants’ general tendencies to responses to both targets and distracters is measured by the rates of false alarms and hits. So, a low target discrimination is indicated by a high ratio of false alarms with low hits and high disinhibition is determined by high rates of false alarms and hits. I have hard time digesting how these two measures are conceptually related to implicit cognition. But the take-home message was that addicts have lower target discrimination and higher disinhibition.

The task gets more complicated for my poor brain, they added feedback, in case that participants’ anticipating or trying to guess the words by giving a loud tone for responding to a distracter word, but not to withholding responses to a target word.

Okay, I think I got the gist of the task covered.


Their results with group differences between WoW players and non-WoW players in regards to well-being (i.e. GPA, smoking, alcohol consumption, depression) revealed no significant differences. There are some differences in that WoW players had higher play time (M = 12.17 hours vs. M = 4.12 hours), higher scores on the T-ACE and AUDIT which the authors interpreted this as indicative of excessive computer game play and I find it simply an inherent group difference. The average WoW player scores for the T-ACE is 1.67 (SD = 1.07) and the AUDIT is 14.92 (SD = 8.01) versus the average non-player scores is 0.48 (SD = 0.83) and 4.2 (SD = 3.95), respectively. The scores are greatly influenced by the small sample size which may not be representative of their intended population. The authors addressed this concern and used several statistical technique I never heard of, but it looks like the reviewers are well aware of them.

Reaction  time: A three-way between-group ANOVA (group X target X shift) revealed the WoW players were faster than non-players to English words and positive WoW jargon. Interaction effects were found that WoW players’ reactions were much faster in shift-blocks compared to slowing among the non-players.

Discrimination: using the same ANOVA, WoW players were better able to discriminate common English words and WoW jargon. Further analysis revealed they were better discriminators for WoW jargon than common English words.

Disinhibition: WoW players were found to be more disinhibited towards common English words and WoW jargon, the effect is stronger for WoW jargon. Further analysis in the WoW jargon blocks showed that WoW players showed more disinhibition towards positive WoW jargon than negative ones.


Their results did not support their hypotheses that WoW players would have cognitive deficits which would be reflected in the go/no-go task’s scores in slower reaction times, lower discrimination scores and higher disinhibition scores.

The authors interpreted these results that college age WoW players experience enhanced cognitive function which is faster and accurate, albeit impulsive at the same time. There is a theoretically revelation from this study in that WoW players are more responsive to WoW jargon than non-players which is an indicator of a cognitive and attentional bias and a still potential cognitive pathway in addiction. This is particularly telling when players are more responsive to positive WoW jargon which are rewarding and pleasant stimuli. This could be the results of “positive videogame training”, but they argued that WoW players who spend too much time could experience both positive and negative effects (e.g. impulsiveness) from “videogame training”.

Their implicit cognitive theory doesn’t seem to fit in well among videogame addiction, but they are still not out of the woods just yet. First, their sample composition which consisted of twelve seemingly healthy WoW college student-players limits the interpretation of the study on clinical population (i.e. actual videogame addiction population). Second, the authors discussed a whole paragraph on the go/no-go task limitations that I just blacked out. Nevertheless, this study introduced and applied an addiction theory (e.g. implicit cognition) into videogame addiction and I still some good potential research that could come out of it.

There is a related concept which is called the Tetris effect, according to Wikipedia, where individuals who played tetris long enough are apt to look at the world in terms of the game. This is generalizable to other games, like Katamari Damacy and, of course, World of Warcraft where I heard that someone looked at a plant and tried to collect it thinking it was a useful herb in the game.

Decker, S. A., & Gay, J. N. (2011). Cognitive-bias toward gaming-related words and disinhibition in world of warcraft gamers. Computers in Human Behavior , 27 (2), 798-810. doi: 10.1016/j.chb.2010.11.005


7 thoughts on “Cognitive bias towards WoW-related words among WoW players (Decker & Gay, 2011)

  1. Hmmm….good point there. I think it’s more of a subconscious way of reacting to things.

    If you’re used to something, you’ll react to it even if you’re not aware that you’re body is moving towards it. Call it awkward moments but it happens.

    I’m not an alcoholic and I don’t drink a lot. But when I sit down with friends that are drinking and a bottle gets put in front of me, I’d subconsciously drink it.

    In video gaming, when a favorite game of yours gets played while you’re watching, you tend to have that craving to play. So…best way to take down the craving would be throwing out or selling the game. Right?

    • Not necessarily, you can distract yourself by engaging yourself with something else. Here’s a bad example, when I see a gamepad, I go on facebook, instead of playing.

  2. Pingback: Three studies on attention bias and its relation to online videogame addiction « VG Researcher

  3. Oh my goodness! Impressive article dude! Many thanks, However I am experiencing difficulties with your RSS.
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  4. Pingback: Biases toward alcoholism

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