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by Hawke Robinson published May 09, 2011 12:00 AM, last modified May 14, 2018 03:57 PM
Analysis and commentary by W.A. Hawkes-Robinson - RPG Research Document ID:


Analysis of the report



Psychological Report, 1990, 66, 1219-1222. O Psychological Reports 1990

Analysis and commentary by W.A. Hawkes-Robinson

RPG Research Document ID:

Original version 2011-05-09

Revised 2011-12-09

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The report was written based on research undertaken to determine if there was any empirical evidence supporting or refuting the media's various negative claims about the supposed harmful effects on those who participate in the cooperative, social, recreational activity of role-playing gaming using the Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) game system, and if playing the game leads to players having higher levels of alienation.



Among other claims, the media has published repeatedly the belief that participating in the recreational game of D&D causes participants to become increasingly detached from “real life”, distanced from family and society, and even claims that it can lead players to become suicidal or even homicidal. If the claims by the media were true, proper evaluation techniques using industry standard questionnaires should find a strong correlative difference between players versus non-players in their levels of alienation. At the time of this 1990 study, there had been only a handful of studies, and none of them found any significant correlations supporting any negative effects of D&D participation that would substantiate the media's claims, and only a little hard data available to refute these claims. Though this type of study would be unable to determine causality, potential correlative results could generate guidance on relevant variables to test for potential future research studies to attempt determination of causality.



The research study selected 70 volunteer participants. Half of the volunteers had never participated in Dungeons & Dragons, so were used as the control group. The control group members were from the general psychology course at the university participating in the study for credit towards their class. The other half of the research subjects were recruited from the local campus role-playing game club.

Research subjects completed a series of questionnaires attempting to determine their levels of alienation and other factors using a series of different established tests; the Strole 1956 Anomia Scale to test overall levels of alienation, the Middleton 1963 Alienation Scale to measure six types of alienation, and the Rotter 1966 Internal-External Locus of Control Scale used to determine how much control the subject has over events that have an effect on them.



Most of the data did not find any significant correlation in differences between gamers and non-gamers and the relevant tested variables, though there were a few significant exceptions in the areas of meaninglessness and cultural estrangement, and some correlation between commitment level to D&D and these two specific variables.

On the one hand a moderate correlation relating to meaninglessness was found in the opposite direction of the media claims. 46% of the non-players (16 subjects) scored high on meaninglessness feelings, whereas only 17% of the players (6 subjects) indicated such feelings. The other variable with correlative significance was on specific cultural estrangement based on how much the participant reported interest in mainstream media from television, magazines, movies, etc. 49% of gamers versus 23% of non-gamers indicated a lack of interest in such media. However the test was unable to determine if this difference was because of participation in the game, or because of being previously uninterested prior to ever participating in the game, and if any changes in interest level occurred after becoming regularly involved with the game.

Gamer commitment level did show some correlation to increased general alienation, money =.47, and a slightly stronger correlation with meaninglessness, money = .61, time = .42, level = .45. However the study was unable to determine if the subject reporting these higher levels of estrangement and meaninglessness had different levels prior to involvement with the game, or if they may have had higher levels previously and were drawn to the social interaction of playing in a group to attempt to alleviate previously high levels of alienation and meaninglessness.


Conclusions of the paper

The paper concludes that there is not any solid empirical evidence supporting the media claims that D&D is harmful to those who participate in this cooperative, social, recreational activity. It does point out some possible areas to consider for further research to determine if the correlations between the narrowly defined areas of meaninglessness and alienation, versus commitment levels, shows any causality from game participation.



Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) is a game product series used for the cooperative, social, recreational, shared narrative, activity known as role-playing gaming (RPGing) first created in 1974. Participants typically sit around a table using paper, pencil, dice, rulebooks, and optional maps with miniatures representing their imaginary “player characters” (PCs), while using verbal communication for the advancement of the game.

There have been hundreds of other RPG systems and companies since D&D, but it was the first and continues to have the best selling single RPG product series with an estimated market share between 10-20 million people in the United States alone. D&D specifically, and role-playing games in general, experienced exponential growth through the 1970's and 1980's, peaking around the mid to late 1980's, then began a steady decline possibly due to the media's ongoing unsubstantiated claims creating a social stigma against those who participate in such games. Meanwhile competing products such as card games like Magic the Gathering, and improving computer-based RPGs and online Massively Multiplayer Online Games (MMORPGs) like World of Warcraft (WoW) and Dungeons & Dragons Online (DDO) have generally grown.

In the late 1970's and early 1980's, D&D specifically, and role-playing gaming in general was an increasingly mainstream activity without social stigma, as illustrated in the 1982 Steven Spielberg movie E.T. The media in its complicity with Patricia Pulling, who blamed her son's participation in D&D as the cause for his committing suicide, along with others began developing in the early 1980's a negative narrative about players of D&D that reached the zenith of media hype in the late 80's and early 90's in conjunction with much of the “satanic panic” of that time period.

The study “Alienation and the Game Dungeons & Dragons”, as most other studies on this topic, still does not establish causality, at best only some correlative information, most of it actually indicating possible positive benefits, which directly refutes the media hype. Based on the results of this study it may be that those who already feel alienation were drawn to D&D as a means to improve their social connections and reduce their feelings of estrangement.

If there is any causal relationship to playing D&D and increased feelings of alienation, it may be from the media distortion and cultural acceptance of the media distortion, leading to people condemning gamers, rather than anything to do with the social recreational activity itself causing alienation. The previous causal theory could be tested over time with a longitudinal research project, but might not be able to factor out the latter issues of external social condemnation having an effect, unless a cultural group or locale could be found where their peers, parents, teachers, media, etc. did not have any established predisposition towards a negative view of D&D and role-playing gaming. Then a longitudinal study could be performed to see if alienation levels increased, decreased, or remained the same.


Personal Perspective

I was first introduced to RPGs (through D&D) in 1979 by a cousin (I was 9 years old). I played it intermittently until I met a new friend in the neighborhood around 1983 or so, and we began gaming weekly. Later I advertised and developed multiple gaming groups, join the Role-playing Game Association (RPGA), and hosted some gaming conventions myself.

Prior to my regular involvement with RPGs, I spent a lot of time working various labor jobs during school holidays, engaging in various physical hobbies like skiing, hiking, martial arts, swimming, archery, horseback riding, etc, and also enjoying writing software programs. Most of these hobbies were usually solo activities. All of these activities continued to various degrees when I began to game more, especially taking on the role of DM/GM (Dungeon Master/Game Master), was an extremely social activity, that developed stronger skills in social relationships, dispute resolution, learning to “read” people better, etc.

I have participated in scores of recreational activities in my lifetime, but none has provided a better sense of reducing feelings of social alienation than participating in role-playing games, except for the stigma that later developed from the media and misinformed non-gamers. Even as an adult I sometimes still feel hesitant to mention to anyone my enjoyment of RPGs, if I do not think they are already a gamer.

Prior to 1981, I do not recall feeling alienated at all about playing D&D and other RPGs, it was “just another game”. But by 1982 or so, people started harassing me and my friends, especially other students at school and at those who attended local religious institutions. These people claimed that D&D caused people to go insane, commit suicide, become homicidal, that it was the tool of Satan, and other ridiculous accusations. This only worsened over the years. For years we used to have many game sessions at libraries, but some of the librarians began banning D&D groups after the Donahue show and 60 Minutes perpetuated these ongoing myths, directly quoting those shows as the reasons why they banned the gaming groups from using their facilities anymore.

In the long run, I think it became a somewhat self-fulling prophecy that only “freaks and geeks” play role-playing games. I suspect the alienation is artificially induced by individuals like Patricia Pulling and the media providing them with a megaphone to spread their misinformation, and not because of the game itself. Since the game is by nature a purely social cooperative activity, alienation would be the complete opposite effects of participation in the activity.

Some other points on the research report, noting the demographics information on the ratio of men to women for the experienced gamers, 30 men and only 5 women, a ratio of 6 men to 1 woman. This actually seems about typical in my experiences of RPG groups, there is definitely a noted dearth of female participants.


Further Analysis

The paper takes a little time defining some very rudimentary mechanic variables of D&D, without very well defining how the game is actually played. The paper also provides some odd extraneous statements about having their player character (PC) needing to reach certain levels before the player can become the Dungeon Master (DM - referee and story teller), that really has nothing to do with how the game is played, and how different people assume different roles in this shared narrative. It is true that you want someone experienced with playing the game to act in the role of Game Master (GM), but there are no hard and fast rules to when someone is allowed to become the GM/DM. It appears the researchers gathered that misinformation from one of the rule books suggestions, without ever actually experiencing the game themselves, or else having a strange approach to playing the game if they did.

As the article indicates, the gaming participants tested showed significantly more “meaning” than the non-gamers. Only 17% (less than one-fifth) of the gamers showed a “meaningless” result, compared to 46% of the non-gamers (nearly half). The article conjectures this may be a result of the selection method they used by recruiting these gamers from the local gaming club. It could be argued however, since the very nature of D&D is a cooperative social group activity that it would be very likely for similar results from other gamers recruited elsewhere. Of course this should actually be tested for validity. The very nature of D&D participation is playing as part of a group and working together and supporting each other through trials and tribulations, so it would seem very possible that this may not be an anomaly for D&Ders in general.

49% of the gamers did however experience CULTURAL estrangement, compared to only 23% for the non-gamers. Again, see my argument about that being because of the media-based impact on cultural misinformation about the game and those who play it, and not a result of the actual game participation itself. One possible explanation is avoidance of the negative media “bashing” their activity. But what would be more interesting to ascertain is if the players already would score this way before they ever started playing. As the paper suggested, it is possible those who scored with stronger feelings of meaninglessness and alienation, may have had high levels prior to engaging in D&D and sought the social activity as a means to reduce those high levels. This research did not establish causality, only correlation. I also wonder if the media cultural estrangement testing took into account less mainstream sources like hobby magazines, alternative media, etc., or if it phrased the questions in such a way as to negate those other sources as being of interest.

There are currently documented to be nearly 100 studies on various psychological aspects of role-playing gamers and gaming, many of them D&D specific, with results that are almost all correlative. The few that attempt to ascertain causality are very small in scale and duration. All of the empirical studies come to much the same conclusion as this project did, that the media's claims about the harmfulness of D&D specifically, and role-playing gamers in general, are unfounded.

The report rightly points out that all the data is just correlative, does not establish causality, and that further research should be undertaken to ascertain if the higher meaningless correlations for level, game time, and monetary commitment were for individuals who previously had higher levels of meaninglessness prior to the game, and that engaging in the game activity helped lower or increase those feelings of estrangement and meaninglessness, or if there is a “sweet spot”, as has been recently found with video game participation, where participants achieve the maximal benefits of stronger meaning in their lives, while minimizing the feelings of alienation by avoiding exceeding a certain level of commitment. This could be done with trials of different commitment levels of participants and comparing their scores over months or years between more and less intensive gaming time, monetary investment, or other measures of commitment level, to see if any causality could be established and set some recommended maximum healthy guidelines. By adjusting the independent variables of hours game time per week, and dollars spent, then observing any changes in the dependent variables of meaninglessness and estrangement (since the other areas did not show any significant variance in this study), then more useful judgments could be made about the ideal amount of game commitment level on average for maximal benefit and minimal deficit, thereby establishing how much game commitment time and money equates to the lowest levels of meaningless and alienation.

It should also be noted that the study did not use a very diverse selection method for test subjects, using mostly just college students in a narrow age range and location, providing very little in the variety of demographics.

Since the publication of that 1990 study, there have been a number of other studies, also pretty much unable to substantiate the media claims, and finding some correlations to some potential beneficial possibilities that call for more research. One theme that does recur, as with almost any activity, is a theme of balance being the best approach, and that taking role-playing gaming too far, as with most other recreational activities, could have some detrimental effects similar to reading too much, watching too much television, sleeping too much, and other activities.

Again, not showing causality, but rather probably personality distinctions in those drawn to the activity initially, that likely would have shown up in other activities in similar manner if RPGing had not been available to them. It is also possible that due to the social and interactive nature of the game, that they were actually far better off participating in RPGs than if they had retreated to excessive “escapist” material like books, TV watching, etc.


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