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The pain of rejection: an easy game for three players

February 14, 2013
Above: An example of a Cyberball game (Credit: Anthony Delli Paoli)

It’s Valentine’s Day – the worldwide festival of roses and romance. Not feeling warm and fuzzy? Unlucky in love? Fed up of being the third wheel? The sensation of being left on the sidelines, or worse purposefully excluded, while others enjoy themselves is almost invariably unpleasant. So why would anyone create an online game especially designed to recreate those feelings?

It may be all too familiar to most of us, whether from sports lessons or society parties, but scientists investigating the experience of social exclusion need a way of reproducing the pain of rejection in the lab. One solution is Cyberball.

Cyberball is a virtual ball game between three players: the participant and two virtual players. It is simple in design and easy to play (just click on another player to pass them the ball). At first, the games progresses normally, with the participant and the two virtual players passing the ball happily between them. But at some point during play, things take a darker turn. Without reason or regret, the two virtual players stop passing the ball to the participant, and continue the game as a happy team of two. The participant has been excluded from the game.

Originally developed by Kip Williams, Christopher Cheung and Wilma Choi, the game has been used by researchers across the globe to investigate the effects of ostracism. Studies have monitored the reactions of excluded participants for insights into their psychology and scanned their brains to map the activity associated with emotional distress.

The findings of some Cyberball studies might seem somewhat hollow, most of us don’t need a brain scan to tell us that rejection can sting, but others are more pertinent. A 2011 study from researchers at the University of Kent, for instance, used Cyberball to examine the effects of online ostracism on children compared to adolescents or adults – a sensitive point of enquiry at a time when the threat of cyber-bullying against vulnerable young Internet users looms large.

Whatever your use for this callous catch-and-throw game, if you want to have a go yourself it’s available to play online on the New Scientist website, or you can download it for free from the wikispace.  The new version also works on mobile devices –so you could even share it with your friends…!

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