Videogame and symbolic game. Psychological aspects and health implications

Videogame and symbolic game. Psychological aspects and health implications

Call of Duty – WWII

“Man is truly man only when he plays” -Friederich Schiller
“You can find out more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation” -Plato

Getting to know each other through play . When one thinks of the game, the mind immediately evokes pleasant images and sensations of many genres. It is no coincidence that the etymology of this word finds its roots in ‘iocum’, which in Latin means, in fact, joke. The game is, in fact, any activity to which children, adolescents and adults devote themselves to have fun, have fun, recover their emotional and emotional energies , develop new physical and intellectual skills. (Zingarelli, 2006).

It is a constant in the life of each person, creates symbolic dimensions , and is able to evoke deep emotions . In other words, not only is it able to bring each of us to different places and times, with different shapes, sizes, stories, but it is also capable of bringing out conscious and unconscious emotions that sometimes could not be easily narrated in words. . What is unreal becomes real in the game, as do the emotions and affections that come with it . (Di Matteo, 2018).

The symbolic game

It is very normal and obvious for a child to resort to symbolic play more or less daily; during that age, each of us plays different roles in different contexts to shape our emotions , to know and shape our emerging ego, to get in touch with our own ideals of reality , of ourselves, of others, of relationships, and with the desires connected to them (ibidem).

For adults, however, this is often not the case. With the arrival of maturity, the human being is led to respond responsibly to all the needs of the society in which he lives, with all the duties and obligations that derive from them. A relational style that involves a noticeable expenditure of energy that is not indifferent (ibidem). For this reason, it is clear that everyone has recourse to different kinds of activities to release the tension of daily life .

Often, a playful activity that adults use, characterized by an equally high symbolic power, is storytelling . Whether you take on the role of reader, listener, or narrator, stories are able to transport individuals into as many real, surreal, imaginative dimensions, with plots of all kinds, and evoke real emotions directly connected to their own unexpressed inner world . The narrative is also able to establish a relational network made up of exchanges of opinion, moods, sharing; it is therefore, like play, an activity capable of connecting to oneself and to others (Lo Verso, Di Blasi, 2011).

When the game meets the narrative: the role-playing game

It is a playful activity in which the player plays a player character, with his own story, his personality, his physical aspect that is expressed by an Avatar. The avatar of the character has a physical appearance and characteristics which, inevitably, differ from those of the player to varying degrees.

In most classic role-playing games, the player moves his pg (playing character) simply by narrating and describing his actions and behaviors by linking his narration to that of the other players, thus creating an interactive dimension made of relational exchanges, emotional and social.

Each RPG also has its own setting, which may or may not be realistic. You can also play a role by acting in flesh and blood to interpret someone else, or yourself, in an imaginary context different from the real one.

Death Stranding

This typology is, among other things, used often and willingly in the clinical and organizational psychological field , since the simulation in the here and now of a real behavior , in an imaginary place and time, allows you to explore and express emotions related to ‘hypothetical, likely, and sometimes surreal (Andolfi, 2003). Just like it happens in the symbolic game of children, who explore their emotional and relational resources by creating imaginary contexts and acting as if they were real (Di Matteo, 2018).

However, as already explained, it is rare for adults to take on the role of actors in a symbolic game outside a well-defined psychological setting .

They can also use narrative role play, both on paper and online. In this type of games, the characters played, and their roles, are nothing more than the fruit of their own personal propensities, of their own interpretations. The character comes to life from the personal and social characteristics that the player projects into it, making it in effect a virtual reflection of himself .

The same temporal evolution that a character can go through is determined by the way in which the player adapts to the changing history and events (Santovecchi, Furnò, 2014).

“We are not more fully alive, more completely ourselves, and more deeply absorbed in something, than when we play” -Charles E. Schaefer

Life online and offline

Online role-playing games, in particular, do not take place in a concrete physical space, but in a virtual social dimension that takes shape thanks to innovative communication technologies, which allow you to contact other people in real time, eliminating the perception of physical distances.

As in any symbolic game in which identification prevails (“playing pretend …”, or “playing to be …”), whether it is an online role-playing game, on paper, or physically impersonated by the player himself, it is It is important to remember that there is a difference between the role you play in the game time and your own person in flesh and blood , with a real story and a real personality.

In web platform role-playing games, this difference is often enshrined in the terms online and offline. Conventionally called, to simplify, On and Off.

The On concerns everything that happens within the game plot, in which the player is involved in the moment in which his character moves, with the consequences in the plot and in the relationships that are articulated in the development of the story. The Off, on the contrary, concerns all exchanges of opinion, relationships, and interactions that occur between players when they are not playing (Simoncelli, 2014).

It is common for a player to find himself involved in game dynamics in which his player character is injured, attacked, put in difficulty, removed from other characters for various reasons. The boundary between On and Off allows us to remember that, if something negative happens in the On game, it does not mean that the hostility is real even in the Off dimension. Yet, it often happens that a player loses sight of this difference , with the most disparate possible consequences that affect both play and health (Pieragostini, 2014).

“The way people play shows something of their character. The way he loses shows it in full. ”-Harvey B. Mackay

Are there any risks?

As already explained, the strong identification with one’s character is normal and plausible, given the wide range of emotions that the symbolic game is able to evoke in each individual (Di Matteo, 2018; Andolfi, 2003). However, it often happens that a player feels pervaded on an emotional level by what happens to his character , thus coming to no longer perceive the border between On and Off (Pieragostini, 2016).

It seems that defensive processes (or defense mechanisms) such as projection and dissociation operate at the basis of such behavior . The first, in short, is a process that consists in reviewing in someone else some characteristics and inclinations that actually belong to one’s own person; the second, on the other hand, is a defensive process that works at different levels and that, in general, leads to a detachment from reality (McWilliams, 2011).

The projection

These mechanisms are not necessarily to be understood as pathological processes , on the contrary, in many cases, and within certain limits, they are rather adaptive, and allow a sufficiently healthy emotional and social functioning. A projection used in a non-pervasive way, for example, can be useful to tune in with others and learn more about their inner experiences.

Just the projection, as already mentioned, seems to allow you to review parts of yourself in your playing character , which comes to life thanks to these projected contents, thus interacting with the other characters and with the imaginary world.

Presumably, when the player has sufficient ability to regain possession of his own projections (and therefore, to distinguish the difference between himself and the character), there is less risk that he will confuse online with offline. On the contrary, when the projected contents are not recognized as such, it is plausible to think that the player may feel personally attacked or offended for something that, on balance, is happening to his character.


Dissociation also contributes to these dynamics. It is reiterated that dissociation can be configured as a process with normal and adaptive functioning. Detaching yourself from reality for a few moments, whether it’s a simple distraction or being absorbed in your own fantasies or thoughts, is a rather common and frequent event in everyone’s life, a type of healthy dissociation that allows you to recover and / or save one’s own cognitive energies (Bucci in Moccia, Solano, 2009; McWilliams, 2011).

Dissociation also comes into play in the role-playing game, to the extent that the player, thanks to the simulation of the symbolic game, catapults himself into the here and now of what is happening in the On plot (Santovecchi, Furnò, 2014).

It is clear that the interpretation of the character can be retracted or interrupted at any time, assuming an attitude of distancing from the role (Goffman, 2003).

Nevertheless, in some cases, the dissociation that is activated is more pervasive , and the player character replaces the player’s consciousness, and sometimes his Avatar (the character’s virtual body) is perceived as more important than his physical body. In other words, there is a strong desire to completely transform into one’s own playing character (Santovecchi, Furnò, 2014).

Trance Dissociative from VDT

In the most serious cases, with regard to role-playing games on the web, the strong dissociation can lead to a Dissociative Trance from VDT . It is a real alteration of the state of consciousness, in which the player loses contact with himself (depersonalization) and the perception of the boundaries of his personal identity.

This condition, to be understood as one of the most serious implications encountered in the role-playing game , is certainly facilitated by the connection possibilities offered by the internet; the cancellation of distances, the absence of particular space-time constraints, anonymity, create a safe dimension in which the player finds himself enveloped as if he were dreaming, to the point of no longer having control over himself or his situation (Caretti, 2000).

Obsessive-compulsive gambling

In role-playing games on the web there is also the risk of incurring obsessive-compulsive gambling or, in more serious cases, an online gambling addiction disorder (for further information, it is redirected to ” Gambling addiction , psychological implications”) .

The competition, the progression of the levels, and all the other game strategies that make your character stronger, can overstimulate the mechanisms of motivation and the search for reward in the player, leading him to play solely to prove that he is a skilled player.

Thus, the pleasure of playing for pure pleasure is lacking , being reduced to conducting a game deprived of its positive emotional and relational connotations, in favor of a more competitive one (Santovecchi, Furnò, 2014).

“The real winner of a game is not who comes first but who has more fun” -Alimberto Torri

Prevention and health

Clearly, the aforementioned risks do not apply to every player and are not simply due to the inherent nature of RPGs, which in themselves serve the simple purpose of entertaining and entertaining . Everyone reacts and adapts to situations in their own way, so it is questionable why only some players experience dysfunctional game dynamics .

At the moment, it seems that this trend occurs in conjunction with other clinical problems , including:

  • anxiety disorders,
  • mood disorders,
  • substance use disorders,
  • social anxiety,
  • some personality disorders.

Furthermore, feelings of loneliness and difficulty in channeling one’s emotional energies into real life may recur (La Barbera, 2001).

For some people who experience one or more of the aforementioned discomforts, resorting to the game could be an attempt to control them by compensating with the behavior of his character. The identification could thus come to the aid, dissociating the subject from a reality experienced by him in such a problematic way . The game thus becomes a constraint, a comfortable area in which to withdraw to escape one’s problems.

Those who have difficulties of this type, on the other hand, should be motivated to strengthen their social network in real life , to develop a greater sense of autonomy, of effectiveness. In the most serious cases, it should be followed in the clinical setting by a mental health professional, who could thus help the user to channel his energies even in real relationships and to discover a greater sense of autonomy.

To conclude

“Life is more fun when you play” -Roald Dahl

It happens to everyone to want to escape the difficulties of their life, and allowing themselves a “getaway” for a short time can be normal and healthy. From those who allow themselves a simple trip, to those who resort to recreational activities, and to those who recharge their energies with the game. Like all other activities that allow you to “switch off”, play is not the solution to the problems of everyday life, however, it can be a powerful tool to increase one’s interpersonal skills and adaptation strategies . It should be configured as a resource, not a limit; something to talk about, a pleasant activity to use to enrich an emotional life already rich in itself.