Psychological Studies on Role-Playing Games

         This is a reference to some psychological studies that have been done on the effects of role-playing. There is a more complete and international list of studies at the German site www.rpgstudies.net. This list has capsule descriptions of the results for many of the studies, however. See also the bibliography at Geek Culture: An Annotated Interdisciplinary Bibliography Many of the references were provided by Jennifer Wilkes of the CAR-PGa organization.

         Some mass-media sources have suggested a link between role-playing games and suicides, criminal behavior, or social withdrawal. However, I cannot find any psychological studies which substantiate this. There have been individual cases of role-playing gamers who have committed suicide or crimes, certainly. Given any large number of gamers, however, this is to be expected. However, no study has found any increase in suicide or criminal behavior in gamers compared with the average population.


Psychological Studies in Order of Date

         The following (in order of date) are psychological studies on correlation between playing role-playing games and particular psychological or social tendencies. In general, there appears to be no significant correlation with any negative traits. Some small correlations have been noted in limited samples (such as Douse and McManus' study of 38 play-by-email gamers), but none of these appear to be substantiated by other studies. If you know of other studies not listed here, please email me with the reference(s) at jhkim-at-darkshire.net.

Holmes, John Eric. "Confessions of a Dungeon Master"; Psychology Today, November 1980, pp. 84-94.
An overview of the Dungeons & Dragons game and its basic workings, meant as an introduction. Dr. Holmes was an associate professor of neurology at the University of Southern California School of Medicine and one-time editor of the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set RPG rule book.
 
Zayas, Luis H. and Lewis, Bradford H.; "Fantasy Role-Playing for Mutual Aid in Children's Groups: A Case Illustration"; Social Work with Groups, vol. 9(1), Spring 1986, p. 53-66.
An account in which the game was used for a few months to help socially maladapted boys aged 8-9 with social problems develop skills in mutual cooperation.
 
Simón, Armando. "Emotional Stability Pertaining to the Game of Dungeons & Dragons." Psychology in the Schools, October 1987, p. 329-332.
This is the first and the most rigorous study of several hundred persons from all backgrounds and of varied ages. He used the Cattall 16 PF test to measure a number of personality traits. The test was weighted for number of years played. No significant deviation from the control personalities was found, with the slight exception of an increase in factor Q1 ("Experimenting; liberal, freethinking").
 
Hall, Alex (1988, April 27). "Investigation into the value of FRPGs as a strategy in developing children's creative writing." Unpublished honours paper at University of Nottingham.
Study demonstrated improvement in both high and low level students in writing ability, vocabulary, structural organization and incidentally increased socialization on the part of some shy students.
 
John Hughes (1988). "Therapy is Fantasy: Roleplaying, Healing and the Construction of Symbolic Order." Paper presented in Anthropology IV Honours, Medical Anthropology Seminar, Dr. Margo Lyon, Dept. of Prehistory & Anthropology, Australian National University. Available at http://www.rpgstudies.net/hughes/therapy_is_fantasy.html
Primarily a psychological case study of a woman suffering from endogenous depression, and the positive effect that role-playing had in dealing with the disorder.
 
Carroll, James L. and Carolin, Paul M. "Relationship between Game Playing and Personality". Psychological Reports, June 1989, pp. 705-706.
Essentially a repeat of the Simón study done with upper-level students at a Michigan university, with similar results.
 
Pulling, Patricia with Cawthon, Kathy. "The Devil's Web" Huntington House, Inc. (1989)
A book which suggests a link between role-playing games and occultism, suicide, and various criminal behavior. It does not contain any controlled psychological studies. Written by the founder of B.A.D.D.
 
DeRenard, Lisa and Manik Kline, Linda. "Alienation and the Game Dungeons & Dragons." Psychological Reports, 1990, 66, pp. 1219-1222.
Researchers administered a questionnaire containing the Anomia Scale to 35 members of a campus role-playing club and to 35 psychology students who had never played the game -- investigating claims that the game causes its players to become detached and alienated from family, friends, and society. In most respects, there were no significant differences between the results of the two groups. Fewer game players reported feelings of meaninglessness than did the control group; DeRenard and Kline hypothesize that the club itself may have given its members a sense of purpose. Game players were also slightly higher in the area of "cultural estrangement", which is essentially awareness of and interest in popular entertainment. The study did find that those relatively more involved in Dungeons & Dragons, evaluated as such by the amount of money they spent on game materials, reported more feelings of alienation.
 
Abyeta, Suzanne and Forest, James. "Relationship of Role-playing Games to Self-reported Criminal Behaviour." Psychological Reports, December 1991, 69, pp. 1187-1192.
Used questionnaires and personality factor test to rate gamers and non-gamers, with results cross-checked twice. No differences were found except for a significantly higher score among non-gamers in Psychoticism (correlated with criminality). However, this trait is not reliably measured and the correlation with criminal behaviour is unconfirmed, so no conclusion can be drawn about gaming's possible beneficial effects. The researchers speculate that the persistent negative image of D&D comes from hearing nothing but scare stories in the press.
 
Douse, Neil and McManus, Ian. "The Personality of Fantasy Game Players" British Journal of Psychology (1992), 84(4), 505-509.
This study is of 38 players of an English Play-by-Email RPG ("Serim Ral"), primarily male (35 of 38). It found that compared to matched controls, the players were, in order of significance: less feminine, less empathic, more scientific, and more introverted. The introversion and scientific is perhaps not surprising given that the sample is of Play-by-Email rather than face-to-face roleplaying.
 
Ascherman, Lee I. "The Impact of Unstructured Games of Fantasy and Role Playing on an Inpatient Unit for Adolescents", International Journal of Group Psychotherapy, Vol. 43 (3), July 1993, P. 335-344
Researchers brought a role-playing game into a severe psychiatric inpatient setting. Their results found that unstructured playing in a fantasy world reinforced pathologies and resistance to therapy.
 
Phillips, Brian David. " Role-Playing Games in the English as a Foreign Language Classroom" Proceeding of the Tenth National Conference on English Teaching and Learning in the Republic of China, Taipei: Crane Publishing, Ltd., 1994, 625-648.
A study in use of RPGs in a classroom situation to teach English to Chinese students. It introduces the nature of the games and then gives an overview of techniques to use them in conversational lessons.
 
Leeds, Stuart. "Personality, Belief in the Paranormal, and Involvement with Satanic Practices Among Young Adult Males: Dabblers Versus Gamers" Cultic Studies Journal, Vol. 12, No. 2, 1995, pp. 148-165.
This was a study of 217 adult male subjects: a control group of 125 non-involved, 66 fantasy role-playing gamers, and 26 satanic dabblers. It measured psychoticism, extraversion, and neuroticism using the Eysenck Personality Questionnaire (EPQ-R); beliefs in paranormal phenomena using the Belief in the Paranormal Scale (BPS); and for involvement in gaming and satanic practices using the Satanic and Fantasy Envelopment (SAFE) survey. It found major personality differences between the gamers and the satanic dabblers. It concludes: "The evidence is not consistent with the hypothesis that fantasy role-playing games are precursors to satanic practices." However, the gamers did have higher occult interest ratings than the control group (6% of the control group had "a fair amount of occult related objects" vs 23% of the gamers).
 
Carter, Robert, and David Lester. "Personalities of Players of Dungeons and Dragons." Psychological Reports 82 (1998): 182.
The abstract reports: "20 men who played Dungeons and Dragons did not differ in mean scores on depression, suicidal ideation, psychoticism, extraversion, or neuroticism from unselected undergraduates."
 
Rosenthal, Gary T., Barlow Soper, Earl J. Folse, and Gary J. Whipple. "Role-Play Gamers and National Guardsmen Compared." Psychological Reports 82 (1998): 169-170.
The abstract reports: "Scores of 54 fantasy role-game players and 64 National Guardsman were compared on a neuroticism scale and demographic variables. While the Role-gamers reported daydreaming and sleeping more than the Guardsmen, the popular stereotype that game players are withdrawn, emotionally immature adolescents was not confirmed. The typical game player was male with as many close friends as the guardsmen. Mean neuroticism scores did not appear to differ between the two groups and were not high enough to be considered clinically significant."
 
Mulcahy, Jennifer. "Role Playing Characters and the Self" Unpublished anthropological study at Brandeis University (1997)
An anthropological study for a Brandeis University undergraduate class. An original 22-question survey was done of respondants from the internet (the number is not reported), and the results were evaluated subjectively with an interest in the relation between introverted/extroverted subjects and role-playing behavior.
 
Waskul, Dennis and Lust, Matt. "Role-Playing and Playing Roles: The Person, Player, and Persona in Fantasy Role-Playing" Symbolic Interaction Vol. 27, No. 3 (Summer 2004), pp. 333-356
A study of ninety hours of role-playing and forty interviews with thirty role-players, focused on how role-players carve out meaning between the persona, player, and person.
 
Yee, Nicholas. "An Exploration of the Interplay between player and character selves in Role-Playing Games" Unpublished psychological study at Haverford College (1999)
A psychological study for a Haverford psychology class. This used two rounds of studies. The first survey had 100 respondants; the second had 225 respondants. The first survey compared the respondants to a control sample on 3 of the Goldberg five-factor domain scales (Extroversion, Agreeableness, and Openness). The only significant difference was a higher rating for Openness among the roleplayer sample. The second survey used Myers-Briggs personality types to correlate role-playing behavior with personality, but did not compare to a control sample.

         Again, if you know of other studies not listed here, please email me with the reference(s) at jhkim-at-darkshire.net.


CAR-PGa

         CAR-PGa (The Committee for the Advancement of Role-Playing Games) is an old organization which attempts to fight attacks on role-playing games by mass-media and other organizations. Their major focus seems to be against the rumors of links to satanism or suicide attempts. They have a number of news articles and links concerning the popular image of RPGs and RPG players. While there are many opinion articles from either side, there is not much on scientific psychological studies.


B.A.D.D.

         B.A.D.D. ("Bothered About Dungeons & Dragons") is a small organization founded by Patricia Pulling following the suicide of her son Irving Pulling in June of 1982. She also became involved in the murder trial of Darren Lee Molitor in 1984. The organization appears to be inactive following Mrs. Pulling's death of cancer in 1997.

         There appears to be no active site for these claims, which have been thoroughly investigated and debunked in "The Pulling Report" (1990), written by Michael A. Stackpole.


Other Links

         This is a small set of links to other sites on the web related to the psychological effect of RPGs.


Related Psychological Studies

         The following are a set of psychology articles referring to the concept of "role-playing", but not about published role-playing games.


John H. Kim <jhkim-at-darkshire-dot-net>
Last modified: Sun Mar 16 10:58:20 2008