The Psychology Behind Online Role-Playing Games

min read
A person wearing headphones plays a fantasy game on their computer.
BetMGM Aug 30, 2023, 3:04 PM

Everyone loves to escape from reality once in a while. Whether through your favorite online slots, a great spy film, or a paranormal romance book, there are many different ways for people to slip into new and exciting worlds. 

For many people, this escape takes the form of online role-playing games. They sit at their computers or sit back on their couch in front of their TVs and video game consoles and enter fantastical worlds where they can be whatever they want. 

Keep reading to learn more about what online role-playing games are, the psychology behind why people enjoy these games, and the pros and cons of this particular type of game.

What Is a Role-Playing Game?

Many people may have heard of the term “role-play” in various contexts, but what exactly is it? Merriam-Webster defines role-play as “to act out the role of.” In other words, to pretend to be something or someone else. 

An extract from the book “Role-Playing Game Studies” titled Psychology and Role-Playing Games delves deeper into role-play and what it is, highlighting its inherently psychological roots:

“The act of immersion into a character and a fictional world is psychological at its core. The participant must accept a new set of precepts about reality, personal goals, and identity.” 

The study also highlights:
“Role-players often report having psychologically transformative experiences as the result of aesthetic doubling, a similar concept in which they perceive their own identity existing alongside that of their character’s, a phenomenon also observed in drama therapy contexts (Østern & Heikkinen, 2001.) Players’ primary sense of self or identity remains present while a new self emerges and acts within the fiction of the game world. This alter ego represents the identity and the goals of the character. In their study on the power of narrative fiction, Kaufman and Libby (2012) describe this as the process of experience taking: temporarily adopting the emotions and concerns of a fictional character in lieu of one’s own. Role-players often refer to this identity shift as immersion (see Chapter 22.)”

In short, role-play allows people to adopt another personality without giving up their own. This can take many forms, including role-playing games. 

What Are Online Role-Playing Games?

Many readers may have heard of role-playing games, also known as RPGs, like Dungeons and Dragons, or perhaps even seen people taking part in real role-playing by dressing up and participating in fictional battles at a local medieval fair. But what are role-playing games that you can play online?

An online RPG is a video game genre where people take on the role of different characters. Online role-playing games are further divided into specific sub-genres, including action RPGs, massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs,) and Japanese RPGs (JRPGs.) These games typically take place in a fantasy world, but their stories can also play out in other environments, including sci-fi, historical, and modern settings. 

This genre of online games is incredibly popular, with millions of players worldwide logging on to participate in games like World of WarCraft, Star Wars: The Old Republic, Final Fantasy XIV, Eve Online, and The Lord of the Rings Online. 

But what about these games draws so many people toward games with role-play online?

The Psychology Behind Why People Enjoy Online Role-Playing Games

Many video games have exciting graphics and incredible soundscapes, so what about online RPGs make them so appealing?

They Allow You To Escape

As mentioned, RPGs take you out of your own life and place you in the life of another. Many RPGs begin by allowing you to adopt a new body and personality. Whether you want to be an intellectual ogre, a suave dwarf, a seductive alien, or a former soldier-turned-gangster, a wealth of new characters are available to players.

Whatever body or character you choose, you can leave your real-life worries behind to experience the stories or take on the challenges of a fictional being. These could be as mundane as fetching a tool for the local blacksmith to as epic as slaying a powerful monster that’s been terrorizing a local town. It might even include romancing the beautiful elf who recently joined your party of adventurers. 

Online RPGs also allow players to gain higher social status in their virtual worlds. Whether a player finds a one-of-a-kind epic sword, slays a powerful alien creature, or solves a mind-bending puzzle with other online players scratching their heads for months, an ordinary person could become somewhat of a celebrity in these alternate realities.

Players might even enjoy the opportunity to decide how they approach life in these online RPGs. Some people might feel like others get to make the decisions in their real lives, and online games give them greater autonomy than they get to experience in the real world.

Whatever the world of the game offers you, many people embrace the chance to get away from the difficulties in their real lives, even if it’s just for a short while.

They Address Social Needs

For many people, socializing is not just a matter of spending time with your social circle offline. Perhaps your closest friends live far away, or you have a physical disability or social anxiety that makes face-to-face meetups difficult. Or maybe you just like hanging out with people and making friends in your favorite online RPG. For these individuals, online role-playing games can fulfill an important social need they would otherwise not be able to fulfill. 

They’re Fun

Games, including online RPGs, are fun. People play them for no other reason than that they enjoy it. You might prefer sports games, puzzle games, or shooting games, but for many people, playing role-playing games online is their favorite way of spending their free time.

Other Psychological Effects of Role-Playing Games

It has been well reported that role-play in psychology has numerous benefits, including as an educational tool for psychologists or to help individuals replace old negative responses with newer and healthier ones, but what are the psychological benefits of online RPGs? And are there any cons?

The Psychological Pros of Online Role-Playing Games

There are many psychological benefits to taking part in role-play online, including the following.

Develop Critical-Thinking Skills

Many of these games revolve around combat and puzzle solving and require players to develop plans and strategies to defeat the in-game characters or even other players, including playing mind games and leveraging psychology to help them win. Players will also need to think quickly to adapt to situations as they arise in the game.

Improves Resilience

According to the Forbes article, “How To Build Resilience With Video Games,” video games, including online RPGs, can help a person recover from traumatic experiences by keeping their mind off of the negative event. Another study they mentioned also specifically addressed how players could better regulate their feelings compared to non-gamers.

Provides a Space for Players To Engage Socially

As previously discussed, these games give players a space to engage with each other socially. Many players form friendships and even romantic relationships in these online game spaces.

Players Can Grow Their Social Skills

A key part of online RPGs and many other online games is that they encourage social interactions, whether it’s players engaging in trading, forming parties to complete game objects, or even taking part in sillier game events like virtual parties and weddings. For individuals who struggle socially, this can help them grow their social skills.

Help Relieve Stress

Many video games are very good at rewarding the player. Each in-game success can trigger dopamine release, making the player feel good. This can help lower a player’s overall stress levels.

The Psychological Cons of Online Role-Playing Games

In some instances, online RPGs can lead to problematic play with adverse psychological effects.

Can Be Addictive

Any experience that a player feels is more important than their real-life risks becoming an addiction, with players’ prioritizing the game world over the real world. Additionally, some games may feature specific design choices that are intended to keep the player engaged for as long as possible, the same way some casinos are designed to encourage certain behaviors. Unfortunately for some, this may also lead to addiction.

Can Have a Negative Impact on Relationships

Online RPGs feature a strong social element that might have a negative impact on real-world relationships and can even lead to social isolation and depression. For example, a friendship may take strain if one of the friends spends too much time playing online and not talking to their friends. Some players who are already in offline romantic relationships might even find themselves becoming romantically involved with people they meet through online games, which can lead to break-ups and even divorce.

Can Induce Stress

For players who are heavily invested in these games and their worlds, issues such as online bullying, frustration with losing, or other negative experiences can lead to an increase in stress. Just like when you forgot to double-check your hole cards in a poker game, RPGs can bring their own version of tilt.

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Our BetMGM editors and authors are sports experts with a wealth of knowledge of the sports industry at all levels. Their coverage includes sports news, previews and predictions, fun facts, and betting.

Our BetMGM editors and authors are sports experts with a wealth of knowledge of the sports industry at all levels. Their coverage includes sports news, previews and predictions, fun facts, and betting.