Dungeons and Dragons between empathy and absorption

Dungeons and Dragons between empathy and absorption

What skills are involved while playing Dungeons and Dragons? How come and to what extent is it customary to play a first character very similar to ourselves? Why do you get better at roleplay over time? How demanding is this activity from a cognitive point of view?


In the experience of the authors of this article, some phenomena related to the games of Dungeons and Dragons are quite recurrent and, also given our skills as doctors in psychological sciences, it seemed appropriate to deal with certain aspects in a more scientific way on which we had the opportunity to compare ourselves first. For example: how come and to what extent do we usually play a first character very similar to ourselves? Why and to what extent do you become better at roleplay over time? How demanding is this activity from a cognitive point of view? What skills are involved while playing D & D? Why do some people seem to have more difficulty getting into the mechanism than others? What does a reversal (or even a change) of the dynamics between players inside and outside a D&D game imply?

These, and many other doubts, prompted us to conduct a little research in the literature just to satisfy our curiosity and look at the game we love so much with a critical as well as benevolent eye. However, before going into the focus of this article, it is better to clarify some terms and ask yourself other questions …

Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) is a Role-Playing Game (RPG), that is, a cooperative, improvised, structured game and a free form of “interactive stories” (Phillips) that take place in the imagination of the participants, generally gathered at a table while using pen and paper to track events and make personal notes.

The players are therefore in a shared imaginary environment in which they can play a character-protagonist who can also be very different from them (a bit as if they became actors in some ways), therefore they choose aspirations, personality characteristics , past history and shape its destiny through the choices they make during the story exposed by the Dungeon Master (or game-master).

The Dungeon-Master (DM) is usually a sort of narrator who describes the environment surrounding the other players, is often called to describe the outcome of the actions or events triggered by the players as well as to interpret all the Non-Player Characters ( NPC) that the group of players has to deal with.

In the last 30 years there has been a huge growth in the gaming industry (Global Games Market Report, 2015), both table games and those involving technological means that allow remote communication (i.e. internet). We can say that they have had and continue to have a strong impact on people and it is therefore interesting to ask ourselves how this “impact” is and if there is something to learn from this phenomenon.

Regarding D&D and RPG games (or MMORPG when it comes to talking about those that take place online, via computer or console), psychology has addressed them with numerous questions about the effects they can have on players. Before moving on to the main theme of this article, it is therefore advisable to take a peek at other important topics that concern him and that touch psychology very closely.

Going a lot backwards and talking about evolution, as well as ethology, it is interesting to note that human beings are not the only ones to stage certain types of behavior or to lend themselves to games of “fiction” where there are more or less defined roles (Owens and Steen 2001). Without disturbing adult lions who pretend to be knocked down when bitten by their puppies, an example closer to everyday experience concerns for example the playing position assumed by dogs (front legs resting on the ground and very raised hind legs, as if to show the sit) which invites the other to undertake a series of usually harmless activities in which they often chase or run after each other. This game mode would actually give you the opportunity to experiment and practice very important survival skills, as well as stimulating the brain only through the famous mirror neurons (Rizzolatti et al., 1998) which are brain cells that are activated involuntarily when we see an action performed by others, rather than when we take it ourselves. These same mirror neurons in turn are involved in apparatuses that do not differ in RPG (or MMORPG) related activities, acting in a movie, or imagining the emotions of a D&D character (Lieberoth, 2013). In fact, the brain recruits these evolved neural networks to do (or experience) these things in real life, which could also be a reason why watching a movie or fiction could lead to an increase in skills such as empathy, understanding and ability to take the perspective of others (Mar et al., 2009; Kaufman and Libby, 2012).

Taking into consideration what has been said and inserting it in the context of clinical practice and of some specific types of therapies (if not of schools of thought regarding therapy in general), the possibility of staging (even only through the imagination) can become central ) what can be a person’s painful situations or their fears, especially when you are in a safe place to deal with them.

A concrete example of types of therapy related to “staging” can in fact be found in Psychodrama (in which participants explore emotions and personal experiences through theatrical dramatization) or as a typical technique of Gestalt therapy (in which there is the consideration of the person as a “whole” and there is also a great consideration of the non-verbal), where for example in the “empty chair” the patient is invited to imagine an interlocutor to talk to and also receive answers from, or even in the expressive technique of “exaggeration and development”, where it is given the task of exaggerating and repeating a certain type of gesture, sound or action performed by the patient.

Without dwelling too much on these aspects we only add that exploring one’s own problems, without suffering the consequences of making a “mistake”, or being able to stop and not getting involved by the dynamics / emotions / reactions that lead to harmful consequences, has an undoubtedly very wide value that certainly deserves a description that goes well beyond the purpose of this article.

Based on what has been summarized so far, it is therefore clear how much potential the world of Dungeons & Dragons has, where since the creation of the character the player has the opportunity to explore new ways of being and put emphasis on some aspects of himself more that others, or even interact with the people around him in a different way than usual, thus opening the doors to possibilities that he would hardly afford to give himself.

The creation of characters who act and think differently from their own (fact that in the experience of the authors of this article occurs practically every time you play D&D, even just because of being placed in a different context from one’s own reality) simultaneously needs and stimulates the ability to understand ways of acting, motivations, emotions, beliefs, even up to interpretations of what can be in the mind of someone other than us, a construct that in psychology can be assumed and summarized in terms of Theory of the mind, definable as the ability to reflect on mental states, beliefs, desires and intentions, as well as the ability to understand mental states to explain and predict the behavior of others (Apperly, 2012).And if this is true for the players-protagonists of the story, it is even more so for the DM who in the course of a single game session could find himself playing more than one character (depending on the social interactions that the protagonists want to undertake during the game) thus multiplying the level of concentration (and difficulty) to keep in mind the mental states of individuals different not only from their “actor”, but also among themselves.it is even more so for the DM who during a single game session could find himself playing more than one character (depending on the social interactions that the protagonists want to undertake during the game) thus multiplying the level of concentration (and difficulty ) to keep in mind the mental states of individuals different not only from their “actor”, but also among themselves.it is even more so for the DM who during a single game session could find himself playing more than one character (depending on the social interactions that the protagonists want to undertake during the game) thus multiplying the level of concentration (and difficulty ) to keep in mind the mental states of individuals different not only from their “actor”, but also among themselves.

Going to the heart of the main topic of this article, a study that deals directly with the levels of empathy of individuals engaging in role-playing games is that of Rivers et al. (2016), in which the authors hypothesize how assiduously playing a character can lead to an increase in the perspective taking skills of the players, as they must alter their point of view with respect to the reality to better interpret the character they are playing.

The tool they used to analyze participants’ empathic abilities was the Davis IRI (1983, 1994); this questionnaire requires you to answer each question through a 5-point likert scale with which you express the degree of agreement or disagreement on how representative the phrase is of your person or experience. The questionnaire is divided into the following subscales:

As mentioned above, the authors also hypothesize how interpreting a character for long periods of time can also affect the player’s ability to be completely absorbed in their gaming experience, supporting this hypothesis with the fact that those who have high levels of absorption are even more inclined to experience particular types of empathic or interpersonal absorption with characters present in books, films and theatrical performances.

The authors report how this feature is traceable in people who get lost in the experiences of the characters with whom they identify. This type of interpersonal absorption also seems linked to a high degree of openness to experiences.

The second questionnaire used in the analyzed study by Rivers et al. (2016) is therefore the Tellegen Absorption Scale (TAS), which aims to measure the absorption levels in role-playing games with responses of the true / false type. The questionnaire was therefore constructed in order to investigate absorption conceptualized as a disposition to meet episodes of total attention which require the total use of one’s own representational resources (representations of perceptions, ideas, actions etc.).

Often you will have a vision of the average D&D player as a person “isolated in his world”, far from social and emotional aspects of real life, perhaps without even a great understanding of the dynamics between people or of the reality that surrounds him.

In reality, based on the results of the study mentioned above, there is a trend that favors the theory of the authors, who found that the participants obtained an average higher than that of the general population as regards the subscales regarding empathy, without there was no difference between men and women participating in the study. It also emerged that the “absorption” variable (analyzed by the TAS questionnaire) correlates and is associated with higher levels of empathy.

So, contrary to the stereotype of the boy with the “head in the clouds” or “closed in his world”, a higher involvement by the players could be what contributes or is necessary to develop those same empathic abilities discussed so far.

Finally, we want to remember that D&D and therapy are quite distinct things, although they have points in common and affinity (in some respects), their purpose is very dissimilar. While the therapy deals with mental illness or difficulties encountered in daily life, D&D is rather intended as a means of entertainment and (we would add) social gathering. In any case, participating in D&D sessions seems to be an activity to be encouraged as it seems to show that it has multiple positive effects, including that which affects the levels of empathy of the participants.

The authors of this article therefore invite you to arm yourself with D20 (20-sided dice to play D&D), leaving you with this quote: