Wednesday 18 May 2016

Research Bulletin: Empathy and Fantasy Role Playing Games

Negative stereotypes about “gamers”, those who play all kinds of games (e.g., videogames, boardgames, etc.), are everywhere. Indeed, those who “game” are often thought of as lazy, nerdy, or even out of touch with reality. Yet while we often clump gamers together as one big group, the act of gaming can actually encompass countless different types of activities appealing to a wide variety of different people. One particularly interesting type of gaming is the fantasy role-playing game (RPG), in which players create their own fictional characters as well as develop the fictional worlds where those characters exist.
Playing a fantasy RPG, then, is a little bit like doing improv in drama class: players create characters (deciding upon the characters’ qualities, attitudes and beliefs) and play “make believe” with others embodying their own characters. And just as drama classes have their benefits (Schellenberg, 2004), research is beginning to show that there may be some positive aspects to playing fantasy RPGs, which so far seem to have flown under the radar. Specifically, because this type of gaming requires players to take another’s perspective, it has been suggested that people who play fantasy RPGs may have a higher capacity for empathy: the ability to share in someone else’s thoughts, feelings, and perspective on the world (Davis, 1994; Wondra & Ellsworth, 2015). 

Recently, a study was conducted that examined this very possibility (Rivers, Wickramasekera II, Pekala & Rivers, 2016). Researchers measured levels of four distinct types of empathy in a group of self-proclaimed fantasy RPG-players, as well as how “absorbed” (i.e., “lost in the story”) they tended to feel while playing. When the authors compared these levels to the general population, they found that fantasy RPG-players scored significantly higher than average on every facet of empathy. In addition, the more absorbed a player reported being, the higher their self-reported empathy and vice versa. Intriguingly, the authors note that this association between engagement with stories and engagement with people is found not only in the “gamer” population, but also in the general public. So, gamers tend to be more empathic the more they become immersed in the game, and the same is observed among those who have a tendency to become highly immersed in other types of fictional stories. These results are correlational, of course, and so it is not clear whether the act of playing fantasy RPGs improves empathy, whether more empathic people gravitate toward these types of games, or some other factor plays a role.

Of course, the stigma behind gaming remains, but it’s time to pay attention to its advantages. Although many of us are quick to dismiss gamers as out of touch, we may in fact be the ones missing out on a crucial skill of human connection. 

Posted by Shaina List.

Davis, M. H. (1994). Empathy: A social psychological approach. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Rivers, A., Wickramasekera II, I. E., Pekala, R. J., & Rivers, J. A. (2016). Empathic features and absorption in fantasy role-playing. American Journal of Clinical Hypnosis, 58, 286- 294.

Schellenberg, E. G. (2004). Music lessons enhance IQ. Psychological Science, 15, 511–514.

Wondra, J., & Ellsworth, P. (2015). An appraisal theory of empathy and other emotional experiences. Psychological Review, 122, 411–428.

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