Computer games are good for you, say researchers who studied the complex social interactions in the popular shoot-em-up Counter-Strike.
To people who do not play computer games shoot-em-ups such as Counter-Strike and Quake look very straightforward.

You log on, you shoot everything that moves with a frightening arsenal of weapons, you log off.

But studies of players and teams are showing that these games are much more complex than many people suspect.

They are revealing the deep community and complex culture surrounding the games, as well as some of the reasons why people find them appealing.

Group shot

Since Counter-Strike was released in March 1999, the online modification, or mod, for the Half-Life computer game has been a huge hit.

Its simple premise pits terrorists against counter-terrorists and has become the most popular online multiplayer shoot-em-up.

But this uncomplicated premise masks a complex culture that social scientists are uncovering.

It's not just about guns
Professor Talmadge Wright and colleagues at Loyola University, Chicago, have spent hours studying Counter-Strike culture by taking part in games, interviewing players and reviewing text files of in-game banter.

Prof Wright said that the research shows that Counter-Strike is about much more than grim gunplay and racking up kills.

The strategy and tactics used by many regular players and teams, or clans, often makes it seem like a game of chess, he said.

The importance of the social side of Counter-Strike was revealed in the constant banter, in-jokes and insults that people exchanged during play, said Prof Wright.

To outsiders this game talk can be impenetrable and lead people to misinterpret what is going on.

Players tended to bring their offline culture with them when they play, said Prof Wright.

It was often obvious when teenage boys were playing, he said, because there was much more trashtalk and sexist or homophobic insults flying around.

But, said Prof Wright, it was a mistake to think that this meant that gamers were misanthropists.

"The most common emotion when people are playing is laughter," said Prof Wright.

The only reason that people can get away with insulting friends and foes was because they knew them so well, he said.

Collective play

Games such as Counter-Strike that rely on trust and co-operation give rise to strong communities and good friendships, said Prof Wright.

It gives people an option of actively participating in some kind of fantasy role they could not do in real life

Professor Talmadge Wright, Loyola University
As a result players prefer to game with people they know rather than strangers and they tend to tone down the bad language when those they do not know well are present.

As well as good tactics, players also like moves and tricks that are particularly elegant, well executed or exploit the quirks of the game.

The names that people adopt for their online alter-egos show just how playfully regulars regard the game, said Prof Wright.

The licence that the game gives people to experiment is part of its huge attraction.

"It gives people an option of actively participating in some kind of fantasy role they could not do in real life that allows them to play with their own feelings," said Prof Wright.

"It is an area that's bricked off from everyday life that you can enter and leave at will," he said. "It offers you a way to play with things you may be scared of in a safe way where there are very few consequences."

For this reason, and others, Prof Wright believes that gaming is undoubtedly good for players.

Before now, he said, many studies of game playing have been skewed by hidden agendas.

"There's a cultural motif that underlies the critiques that go on around this," he said, "the idea of mindless activity is given short shrift in culture where productivity is given the highest praise."