Role playing in video games and real life relationships

Published 20 Feb 2017


People often wonder what one gets from computer role playing games (RPGs). They think it ruins one’s life values. Well, you can say that if you are addicted to it, for it will really cause problems. Often times, RPG players are caught up in the web of things to attend to, actions and characters to play that they do not keep track of time, so the people they love and care about, family and friends think they are so very into it. There are so many topics of interest along this field, but this paper will look into how RPG affects real life relationships.

Computer Role Playing Games

Computer role playing games (CRPGs), often shortened to RPGs, is a type of video or computer game that uses traditional gameplay elements found in pen and paper role playing games (wikipedia p1 line 1-5). In these games, players are given the freedom to improve their characters in various settings; often travelling long distances and having encounters and combats along the way. Some critics say that most RPGs focus on combat and statistical character management rather than story telling and character development (wikipedia p6 line 48-49). Examples of modern RPG games are Diablo, Pokemon, Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest. They can also be culturally classified as Western (American/European) and Japanese (East Asian) games (wikipedia 4-6)

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Computer role playing games situationer

Computer/video games, in general, have generated interest since its birth. According to Squire in his introductory paragraph in an article in the international journal of computer game research, these games have “both fascinated and caused fear in politicians, educators, academics and the public at large” (1). He cited that “some advocates of digital game-based learning imply that developing educational games is a moral imperative, as kids of the “videogame generation” do not respond to traditional instruction” (See Katz, 2000: Presnk, 2001). He also reported that Provento (1991, 1992), an educator, worry that games is inculcating children with hyper competitive or warped sexual value (1).

Subrahmanyam, Greenfield, Krauf and Gross conducted a review of researches on the impact of computer use on children’s and adolescents’ development on several aspects including cognitive skills, academic development, social development and relationships, and perceptions of reality and violence behavior. Their research review suggested that spatial skills were related to video game playing (14). In a cross cultural study carried out in Rome and Los Angeles, Greenfield, Camaioni et al. (cited in Subrahmanyan, et al. 14) said that in playing a computer game style shifted from verbal to iconic skills.

The same authors cited Cole (16) experiment on use of electronic communication and games with children in classroom and after school settings for nearly 15 years. The after school programs are called the Fifth Dimension, and include use of educational software, computer games, Internet search and multi-user dungeons (MUD) activities. His findings indicate that well designed games and Internet activities for home use can have lasting impact on children’s academic performance.

Computers, RPGs and real life relationships

As the child grows into teen and adulthood, his sphere of relationships became bigger, from the parents and relatives this expanded to friends and peers. This is part of growing up. However, the solitary nature of most computer activities raised concerns on the child forming “electronic friendships” (Subrahmanyan et al 17) with the machine than friendships with peers, thereby hindering development of interpersonal skills. In a study by Mitchell (cited in Subrahmanyan 17) done in 1980s, 20 families with new home computer game sets were interviewed on the benefits and dangers of playing games. Results suggest that computer games brought the members of the family together for shared play and interaction. Does this finding still apply today considering that computer game sets at home have increased and are usually located in respective bedrooms indicating solitary play. This area can be a subject of further study.

In RPGs, the personal knowledge of players outside of the game can contribute to the evolution of the game story. Liz Henry mentioned that in a Vinland game, she knew about a player and his real relationship with his father. So she maneuvered her character to let the story play with father-son relationships. Likewise, she said that the game master knew of her life ambitions and conflicts being a poet, so the game master explored how Norse Vinlanders viewed poets and poetry. Although Liz Henry discussed the relationships from the game viewpoint, this can be taken from the persons’ view on real life relationships. The player’s life is brought into the game. If conflicts in the relationship exist, these are explored in the game. It is good if these conflicts are resolved in the game, and somehow resolved also in real life relationships.

Liz Henry also cited other ways wherein game play can cross story/real life boundaries (17-18), as follows:

  • players use characters to explore aspects of their own personality
  • current events or issues such as war, became central to the story
  • players’ real life relationships influence events or understanding of the story
  • players get to know each other better in real life through analysis of each other character
  • players use characters who are unlike themselves to explore different identities or ethical systems
  • players use a game to deepen their understanding of a particular history or culture
  • players game in a fictional world such as Tolkiens, and deconstruct it

Children, teenagers and young adults can use the characteristics in the RPGs to explore their own personality. For example, in Pokemon, the best selling RPG series worldwide which sold 91 million units across 11 different titles as of 2004 (wikipedia P8 L48), children and teenagers can explore what they wanted to achieve and where do they want to go. Their sense of competition with peers, the desire to achieve, go places and have adventure can come to fore. They can also find out whether they have the desire to take care of pets and other things from this RPG. This can also mirror how they relate to other people in their lives such as cousins and friends.

In Final Fantasy, the second best selling series worldwide which sold 60 million units in 2006 (wikipedia P4 L49-50), the players can see explore their own personality in terms of good traits that they see from the characters such as being humble, and desire to protect people from harm. In this RPG, the values they learn in real life can be affirmed too. However, for children, there should be processing of what they see and hear from these games so that the real and reel life can be distinguished, and thus not cause blurring of reality.

The gender issue and relationships can also be seen in the RPG games played. Liz Henry quoted from a Hong Ooi, “The easiest way to tell a Real Man from the rest of the role playing crowd is by the game he plays. Real men ply Dungeons and Dragons. Quiche Eaters play GURPS and Story Teller” (P16 L27-28).

The playing style of girls and women in RPGs show that they are less competitive than males. They are more concerned on “The process by which a goal is reached, not the goal itself” according to Elizabeth B. (Henry P6 L37 and P7 L1). This also manifests in the way the females relate with the people around them. Women are known to be nurturing creatures, so they are more on to processes than end results. Although focused on the outcome, importance is placed on the steps or procedure how to relate to people and achieve tasks and/or goals.

Achieving peace and harmony in relationships at the individual, family and community levels can also be one area of research for individuals interested on the effects of RPGs on the players. One fear about games with violence portrayed is its effect on the player. Will he or she get to have that quality of being violent in real life? Will she adopt it in his or her relationships Kurt Squire has this to say, “Despite (and perhaps because of) the hundreds of hours I’ve spent playing war games, I’m pretty much a pacifist. I love Return to Castle Wolfestein, yet I’d never own a gun” (P2 L34-36). The concerns on the effects of “violent” video games, according to Kurt Squire, drew attention away from the broader social roles and cultural contexts of gaming (P2 L40-41). These contexts are yet left unexamined and maybe this can be another area of research. Squire gleaned from “anecdotal evidence from teachers that the impact of gaming on millions of players who grew up playing best selling games such us SimCity, Pirates or Civilization is starting to be felt” (P2 L59-60 and P3 L1).
There also cultural differences in the RPGs, mainly the Western (American/European) and the Japanese (East Asian). In the Western RPGs (good examples are Baldur’s Gage, Fallout, Planetscape: Torment, The Elder Scrolls and Neverwinter Night), the personalities of the characters are more varied than the Japanese counterparts and avoid any real absolutes in morality. They feature ancient struggles for power that never end with any given faction (wikipedia P5 L1-9). These are also reflective of their society and the relationships at the community and individual levels.

The Japanese family of graphical RPGs (good examples are Dragon Quest, Final Fantasy, Phantasy Star, Suikoden, Grandia and the Lunar series) are inspired by Japanese comics Manga and animation Anime. They are more into epic, ultimate battle of the forces of good and evil, and players often end up fighting for a good cause (wikipedia P5 L20-29). In these RPGs, the players can carry over the sense of good and evil outside of the game and into real relationships. There is a need for de-processing the game (or de-briefing as used in a Bond movie) in the mind and emotions of the children and teener players so as to situate them in real life. And in this de-briefing the parents and the elders should play a major role.

Sobrahmanyan et al reported that some research analyses focused on Internet have shown that the use of computer is associated with declines in social involvement and the psychological well being that goes with social involvement (P18 L40-42). They gave as an example the analysis of a longitudinal data on HomeNet study (Kraut et al.) wherein they found out that as participants spent more time online; they experienced greater declines in social and psychological well being. In particular, I quote “greater use of the Internet was associated with small, but statistically significant, declines in social involvement as measured by the communication within the family and the size of people’s networks, and with increases in loneliness, the psychological state associated with social involvement. Greater use of the Internet was also associated with depression. Among teenagers, greater use of the Internet was also associated with declines in social support” (P19 L1-8).

An interview with a player

To provide a reflective insight on the RPG and the player, I have interviewed an avid player who is a graduating student in college in a prestigious university. He said it has two effects on the real life relationships. One is the negative effect, that is, on budgeting of time. More often, “I forgot about time as I pursue the game. I spent more time than I should on it, so I forgo my time for studies and even duties at home. My parents are upset since I usually go home late. Being immersed in the game even outside of the game, my personal relationships with the family suffered”. Furthermore, he said, “I became lazy, not doing my tasks at home and even my studies’ requirements, and it made me stubborn”. He spent more than the required years to finish his course. The positive effect of the game, according to the interviewee, is the release of stress RPGs it offers, the bonding between and among friends who play common games, and even among boyfriend and girlfriend relationships.

Comments and Recommendations

Studies have been conducted on the impact of computer use on children and teeners, on role playing games and how it affects relationships. However, there are few studies on how exactly RPGs fit into the lives of the children and teeners as well as their parents and friends. Questions on why do the prefer to play games and role play, rather than engage in real life relationships, and pursue deeper and closer relationships among families and friends are also good pursuits for study. In the discussion, some small areas for study have been raised. From the personal interview I conducted, I suggest a cross sectional short research on the effects of the RPGs on the lives of teenagers and young adults can be made, especially high school college students. Likewise, parents of these students can also be studied in terms of the behavior of their children, and their relationships with them. This could provide interesting results that can help the field of study on RPGs, students and relationships that would be helpful in the field of digital games and education and social sciences.

Works Cited

  • Cole, M. Cultural psychology: A once and future discipline. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996. (cited in Sobrahmanyan, et al., 2001)
  • Greenfield, P, Camaioni, L., Ercolani, P, Weiss, L, Lauber, B and Perucchini, P. Cognitive socialization by computer games in two cultures: Inductive discovery or mastery of an iconic code?
  • Henry, Liz. “Group Narration: Power, Information, and Play in Role Playing Games”.
  • Katz, Jon. “ Up, up, down, down”. Originally published November 30, 2000.
  • Kraut, R, Scherlis, W, Mukhopadhyay, T, Manning, J and Kiesler, S. The HomeNet field trial of residential Internet services.
  • Mitchell, E. The dynamics of family interaction around home video games. Special Issue: personal computers and family. Marriage and Family Review 8 (1985): 1-2, 121-135. (cited in Squire, K, 2002)
  • Prensky, M. Digital Game-Based Learning. New York: McGraw Hill, 2000. (cited in Squire, K, 2002)
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