Role Playing and Ill Mental Health

There was an article on Ars Tenchnia the other day regarding a colloquium given by Dmitri Williams of USC using data provided by SoE on its Everquest 2 servers. Buried about two thirds of the way down was the following alarming quote:

Buried among those happy, average players was a small subset of the population—about five percent—who used the game for serious role playing and, according to Williams, “They are psychologically much worse off than the regular players.” They belong to marginalized groups, like ethnic and religious minorities and non-heterosexuals, and tended to use the game as a coping mechanism.

I found the characterization of “serious sole-play” as indicative of having psychological problems off base somehow. Since Nick Yee’s latest iteration of his player motivations work puts role playing as the primary motivator for 4% of the playing population the knee jerk reaction would be to put two and two together and come to the conclusion that serious role players are deranged. Sure, there are phychologically unstable roleplayers, just as some achievers are achievers in-game because they are utter losers in real life.

Tobold brought up an interesting point; that the researchers involved were conflating the term “role player” as the general society uses it and “role player” as the subculture that plays on MUDS, MMOs and PWs uses it.

The 5% minority of people who think that role-playing means theatrics, background stories, and speaking in character, did achieve one important victory in insisting that their activity was called “role-playing”, and was the only true way of role-playing. They even got their own “role-playing servers” in some games. Unfortunately for them, their triumph ends there. Many people still regard them as weirdos or at least geeks, and those scientists attesting to their “psychological problems” aren’t helping. But in reality most of the self-styled true role-players are pretty normal, and just enjoy the added creativity. It isn’t much different from people doing improvisational theatre, and few people think those have psychological problems (except those who think that all artists are weird).

So there you have it, the problem is simply a badly defined term. “Role-playing” means different things to different people, and there is no one true definition, as much as some people might disagree with that.

From what Raph Koster had copy-pasted from the article into his comments on it and from not seeing the paper itself; my impression is that the authors correlated high levels of play with mental health issues. This would roughly correlate with the fact Nick Yee’s most recent primary motivations paper puts the population of those with escapism as the primary motivation at 2.5%. Considering that I’ve not seen the error bars on either number, but I do recall escapism correlating with play time. Then this would mesh. So it’s escapists with high levels of play, not the roleplayers doing improvisational theatre and writing bad fiction that Dr Williams was referring to.


About Dave

I’m a 38 year old American who has lived the past 9 years in Germany and India.
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