The Psychology of Online Role-Playing Games

Man sitting on hotel bed with laptopWhile traditional video games typically require only brief periods of investment from players and don’t involve developing a new persona, online role-playing games tend to be much more time-intensive and require a strong emotional investment. These games encourage players to become a character—often one who is very different from a player’s real-life persona—and often have no end point. They can be played for hours, days, or even years, with characters networking with others to develop a virtual world that may feel more comfortable than the real one. The games can prove addictive and may interfere with real-life responsibilities, but they also offer several benefits, with some people finding that they master new skills online.

Adopting a New Persona
The hallmark of a role-playing game is that players adopt personas for their characters rather than playing as one or several pre-established characters. Depending on the game, players may be able to write their character’s life story, choose their character’s specific appearance, and take on a wide variety of personality traits. Some players view this as an opportunity to experience what it’s like to be a completely different person. Men might become women, for example, and young people might choose to be elderly.

This investment in the new persona can, however, be problematic for some players. A player who feels isolated or who is unsatisfied with his or her life might become more invested in the character and the character’s friends than he/she is in real life. Players who spend too much time on the game might abandon their own personal development and friends in favor of developing their characters and making friends for their characters.

Effects on Relationships
A Brigham Young University found that 75% of people involved in a relationship with a role-playing game player wish their partner spent less time playing the game. The intense nature of these games and the fact the time commitment is limitless means relationships can take a hit. Some players may even develop romantic relationships for their characters while playing the game, and these relationships can disturb real-life partnerships.

However, all is not lost when it comes to RPGs and relationships. The same BYU study also found that 76% of couples who played role-playing games together believed that it strengthened their relationship. Working together in this new, mutually experienced environment can make a relationship feel new and fresh, and gives couples a shared pursuit.

Addictive Nature
Role-playing games, like many other behaviors, can become addictive. Successful players generally have to spend a lot of time on the game and may spend hours networking with other players. This time commitment increases the likelihood that a player may become addicted, and the pressure from other players to keep playing the game can make it difficult to pull away.

Benefits of Role-Playing Games
Although many parents are concerned about their children playing RPGs and despite a significant amount of negative press coverage, RPGs also offer some important benefits. These include:

  • Improved spatial reasoning skills, particularly for female players.
  • The ability to establish new friendships and practice social skills. This can be particularly helpful for people who feel awkward or lonely.
  • Increased empathy toward people with different lifestyles or appearances. By adopting a new persona, a player may be able to learn what life could be like for another person.
  • Developing strategy and critical-thinking skills as players develop complex solutions to ongoing challenges.

References:

  1. Billieux, J., Chanal, J., Khazaal, Y., Rochat, L., Gay, P., Zullino, D., & Van der Linden, M. (2011). Psychological Predictors of Problematic Involvement in Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games: Illustration in a Sample of Male Cybercafé Players.Psychopathology44(3), 165-171. doi: 10.1159/000322525
  2. Dupuis, E. C., & Ramsey, M. A. (2011). The Relation of Social Support to Depression in Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games. Journal of Applied Social Psychology41(10), 2479-2491. doi: 10.1111/j.1559-1816.2011.00821.x
  3. Feng, J., Spence, I., & Pratt, J. (2007). Playing an Action Video Game Reduces Gender Differences in Spatial Cognition. Psychological Science18(10), 850-855. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2007.01990.x
  4. Online role-playing games hurt marital satisfaction, says BYU study. (n.d.). Brigham Young University. Retrieved from http://news.byu.edu/archive12-feb-mmorpgs.aspx

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  • lucy

    May 27th, 2013 at 1:57 PM

    left my boyfriend years ago because of his gaming addiction.he had absolutely no time for the relationship or even to go out together for a meal.all he wanted to do was sit in front of his computer,believe he was that strong character in the game and base his life around it.that did it for me.I did not want to continue making food and serving it to someone glued to his screen and did not even want to look at me and say thanks while I was putting up with it all!

  • Creighton

    May 28th, 2013 at 3:57 AM

    Yeah, this doesn’t sound like something that is too safe for any amount of time to be involved in.
    I think that this kind of “reality” for some is going to be very enticing, very addictive in some ways.
    It is a whole lot easier to escape into fantasy than it is to function in the real world for a whole lot of people.
    I don’t understand why you would want to get so emotionally involved in this over real relationships but there are people who get completely sucked in and lose a whole lot in life as a result.

  • runninfast

    May 29th, 2013 at 3:58 AM

    not good, not good.. . what are you trying to hide from when you get lost in an online world like this?

  • jose

    July 19th, 2015 at 7:41 PM

    I roleplay alot because life beats down on me sure I play a ton but it also helps me cope with life and for me ik when to get off lol

  • Klas W.

    August 22nd, 2015 at 2:54 AM

    You miss the point and the joy of rpg. Its not about gender roles or mental issues. Its more about a complicated hobby for hobbyists with a lot of free time who likes the creativity and intellectual stimulation.
    Rpg is a male dominated community and kind of an masculine escape from a female oriented society.
    It seems like the article have no experience with this subculture or the social life of roleplayers
    Escapism is of course a part but so is the need to experience a story.
    Rpg is also about a story that you can decide the ending of. The hero can die for example.
    The escapism is related to how much time on your hands and if you want to sacrifice football or going to the pub.
    Is it really so much better to go to some boring party and get drunk to stand each others company?
    Most role players just come back from school or their job and spend some time and some money
    on role playing games and their communities instead of spending it on the other activities.
    As for reality and society, well society sucks big time.the real world and society something everyone just wants to ignore or forget. Rpg is often non-political or politically neutral since it allows you indulge in things that in other media would be political incorrect without any consequences.

  • mending-wall

    June 14th, 2017 at 8:50 PM

    Years too late on this, ran on this article out of curiosity for professional opinions on what can be at times a pretty toxic subculture, but…

    Male dominated community, as the latest poster put it (albeit two years ago)? Lol no. Maybe where he runs. There are hordes of female rpers online, they’re just less likely to be found in something like D&D and more often in something fandom-centric or wholly freeform.

    There can be benefits to rping for young people too though, I think. For those who don’t have strong social skills, donning another persona could be the sandbox they need to gain experience. Freeing from their own perceived insufficiencies, as well as anxiety about long-term effects that an inadvertent misstep might have to their actual life, maybe. Once they get better at it, a bit of that confidence can carry over into real life.

    If you have a stable full of characters with different backstories and mental architecture instead of hyperfocusing on one persona? There’s a potential for cognitive empathy development there. What /would/ someone with far different experiences from me think or feel in this situation or that? The world could use people who are more elastic in that regard, in my opinion.

    There’s also learning how to tell a story, if the player is interested in one of the many crafts that involve that. You’re not setting out to write a novel or a screenplay or what have you by yourself right out of the gate. Instead, you’re in a flexible environment where, if you hit a dead end, others are there to pick it up and give you something to react to. You start learning how to orchestrate the peaks and valleys, where to put the details and what to flesh out, how to look for loose threads to either tuck in or spin a whole different arc off off.

    And one bit that’s fascinated me about it? I’ve watched people who, without even seeming to realize they’re doing it at all, seemed to be working out their real-life feelings to difficult life situations via allegory through their characters. Frustration at their boss transposed onto a villain with similar characteristics. Grief for one thing vented on an in-character tragedy. It can let someone get a handle on something real that feels too big to deal with, let them rehearse, or just offer a vent that could help them head off saying something they might regret. And maybe controversially, let them experience joy in a period of their lives that feels desolate and hopeless… because sometimes that can get you a little further down the road, and we as humans need that. A lot of these are reasons people seem to compulsively consume fiction in general, but roleplaying offers a more direct window in and an element of control that passive consumption doesn’t.

    These games CAN turn into toxic little social nests. They can lead to some people neglecting their real lives. They can amplify uglier personality elements in people by providing them a mask– playing a villain can be therapeutic if you hang up the character afterwards and keep a tight boundary between them and yourself and use it as an exercise to contemplate why you wouldn’t do that, but it could embolden some people towards negative impulses as well. BUT… the key in most of these situations is balance. And one thing I’ve seen repeated in every RP community I’ve ever been part of or encountered? The universal rule that Real Life Comes First Over RP. If that isn’t brought up regularly, find somewhere else to be, for sure.

  • calzoncillo c

    August 15th, 2017 at 5:05 AM

    I have read so many posts regarding the blogger lovers except this paragraph is truly a pleasant paragraph,
    keep it up.

  • rather not

    October 8th, 2019 at 2:57 PM

    I am a teen and i recently had my RPG game limited by my parents.
    After they left for the day i had a flood of emotions i didnt know I could bc of the limitation in not being able to play with my friends online.
    I cried.
    That is when i realized I had a problem and started looking for ppl that had the same problem.
    Now that i realize im not the only one i dont know what to do.
    Going to my parents will get the game removed forever, and i dont want that.
    However i ccant keep going with this problem bc it has effected my schoolwork very heavily.
    I think posting this and writing it down has helped me realize more of what my problem is.
    Reading this also helped me realize that i can still play this but just limit myself.

  • Sportsbook

    December 6th, 2021 at 8:10 PM

    Thank you so much for this article! This was exactly what I needed.

  • Sam

    May 19th, 2023 at 2:01 PM

    I had a couple friends and my fiance had a friend. They got so obsessed with their dnd that they completely abandoned their responsibilities. My one friend who lived with my fiance and i when i got very sick, abandoned us out of the blue, with zero warning and left us in a very bad spot. We had been friends for almost 8 years, met in highschool. He became so obsessed woth the game that he has lost touch with reality. I know why he did it. For years he tried his hand being a writter with my fiance and i on our building indie company, but he began to show problematic behavior. (This is coming from the perspective of an actor and writer mond you, and i use acting to build my story organically.) In scene, we call it, He would get almost too focused on his characters and if one of either my fiance’s or my own character would argue with his, he would take it VERY presoanlly, almost as if arguing his point to me or my fiance. It led to the degredation of his relationship as our writter, as it hindered the bigger planed story. And shortlt after he turned to DnD with some old friends of ours. He lied to them, turned them against us, and isolated them because my fiance and i, were desperatly trying to get him to get a grip on reality. Her and i roll played to create stories for a company, to build shows. We acknowledge our characters are fiction however and thats as far as they go. He would argue as if they were real. When he turned to DnD with our old friends, he wanted to stop paying rent at the place where we all lived, and didnt seem to understand that there was a legally binding contract in adult life. Then theres what DnD did to him mentally and physically. He ignored the fact he is a prediabetic, he had a VERY codependant relationship to his father due to their history and his mothers abuse (he would cry when his father, an out of state trucker of 5 years, would leave the state. My friend was in his 20s), he cannot handle even remote conflict, and there is a slew of other issues. I wosh for his sake, that he would break the cycle of this DnD spell and actually live his REALLITY before its too late. Im a fellow nerd, but i think DnD at this level is a disease, because it socially impares you to funcion outside of your DnD group, and it causes the people in it to immerse so hard in this world of propogated lies, that it causes them to ignore and run away from the conflict in their real lives.

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