Role-playing games:
Bridge or barrier to object relationships in socially isolated teens

The author examines the idea that Internet technology and role-playing games have invalidated human relationships with some individuals now seeking “techno-intimacy” rather than the “real thing”

By Ronald C. Naso

“Ain’t nothing like the real thing.” Perhaps Marvin Gaye and Tammy Terrell’s soulful rendition of the Ashford and Simpson lyric put it best.

I play the game, a fantasy
I pretend, I’m not in reality

The need for close affectional bonds is presumed universal in humans. It is experienced most acutely in circumstances of danger, separation, and loss. For Bowlby (1973), the primary affectionate attachment is a form of social relationship that admits of no substitute. It might therefore follow that the other’s presence and proximity is nonnegotiable, intrinsically linked to what it means to have and to be in a relationship.

Has Internet technology invalidated this most basic intuition? Has “techno-intimacy” (Dryer and Lijtmaer, 2007) replaced the need for the “real thing”? It is doubtful, to say the least. In the end, an exclusively virtual relationship necessarily falls short. It mimics, but is never identical to, an in-person, mutual, embodied relationship. However, posing the question in this way presumes that in-person relationships are the standard against all relationships, and this must be re-evaluated. It wrongly dichotomizes the real and the virtual. If one suspends this assumption and instead interrogates virtual relationships as such, their “shortcomings” turn out to be neither regrettable nor pathological.

With these qualifications in mind, I wish to advance the hypothesis that virtual relationships can be as legitimate, meaningful, and real as any other. I shall argue, first, that role-playing games (RPGs) express the uniquely human capacity for multiplicity. Once sundered from any direct connection to the body, identity becomes an amalgam of ever-present possibilities, something that may be fashioned and customized in accordance with one’s wishes. Second, although particularly appealing for those on the autistic/schizoid spectrum, these relationships should be evaluated in terms of how they are used to negotiate conflicts between closeness and separation, contact and distance. It is their quality and character, as well as the unconscious purposes they serve, that matter most. Especially important is the degree to which they embody the capacities for trust, compassion, sincerity, and responsibility.

This paper is inspired by my clinical work with several isolated, socially awkward teenagers who are properly regarded as occupying the highest levels of the autistic spectrum. It describes the disclosure and exploration of a period of apparent addiction to an RPG called Second Life that occurred in the third year of a twice-weekly psychotherapy with a seventeen-year-old young man. For those unfamiliar with this game (as I was at the start of my work), Second Life provides a three-dimensional virtual world in which users interact in real time via self-designed human or nonhuman characters. Residents freely explore this world, socialize, participate in individual and/or group activities including cybersex, gambling, and trading of virtual property and services. In other words, they engage in a full array of distinctively human activities. According to recent estimates, there are approximately twenty million registered users worldwide (Second Life, 2011).

RPGs as a Unique Relational Form

Early psychoanalytic accounts of RPGs were decidedly negative, focusing on the degree to which any significant involvement with them was pathological. Their reasoning was straightforward: RPGs are nothing more than fantasy; they promote forms of mentation closer to reverie than to that which fully takes account of reality. Whether emphasizing projective identification, disinhibition, avoidance, detachment, or regression, these evaluations were unified by the view that one interacts with one’s fantasy rather than a real other. For example, Steinberger (2009) described the psychoanalytic treatment of a twenty-five-year-old woman who used RPGs to enact sexual fantasies in the safety of anonymous virtual identities. She played out numerous roles, some self-aggrandizing, others permitting her to triumph over persecutory objects. RPGs provided a safe haven because they blurred the boundaries between fantasy and reality (Gabbard, 2001; Goldberg, 1999); they reflect “speech without any voice, gestures without any trace of a human hand, where both participants may well be strangers…people are falling in love with their fantasies, with their own projected images” (Hanlon, 2001, p. 567). Some analysts went so far as to describe virtual communication as a lower form of cognition (Gibbs, 2007).

Certainly, the exclusive reliance on the Internet for one’s social interactions would seem to be problematic, no different than any other preference that is rigid and compulsive. If one’s evaluation of interpersonal integrity stands on the ideal of transparency, computer-mediated relationships necessarily fall short. One creates an identity that is decidedly not one’s own, but rather based on split-off or partial aspects of the self that interact with the partial identities of other users. RPGs offer a dramatic example of the multiplicity thesis, in which one inhabits a world populated by dissociated, idealized, and/or forbidden selves.

Guntrip’s (1971) study of the schizoid problem offers one reason for the special appeal of RPGs: For one who struggles with an inner sense of isolation, RPGs provide a means of connecting to others with minimal interpersonal risk. Through them, one may find and share one’s “natural, spontaneous, creative, and friendly self ” (p. 150). Although one can argue that this possibility exists for all players, it is particularly compelling for the individual dedicated to preserving inner continuity and cohesion at all costs. This observation stands regardless of whether one agrees with Guntrip’s etiological hypotheses. These individuals struggle with unformulated yearnings for closeness, fears of impingement, and the desire to exercise hidden capacities despite lowered thresholds for sensory overload (Tustin, 1990). Hence, at bottom, RPGs provide safety and solace.

Perhaps most appealing about RPGs is they can be played at any time, from any place with a computer and Internet connection, and with anyone of one’s choosing. They are metaphoric “extension[s] of the body,” distinctively human, embodied in human speech, yet spatially untethered (Pertierra, 2005, p. 25). Although frequently played with friends, they do not require the other’s physical presence. They exploit the simultaneous possibilities for proximity and distance as well as the inherent malleability of the self in a universe of ever-changing appearances. Who among us does not enjoy putting aside reality considerations temporarily to play, perhaps even do, what is otherwise forbidden? Because one is anonymous, one is free to be whomever one wishes, without limits or constraints. One is tempted to say, therefore, that RPGs are more like collective fantasies than dreams and other forms of reverie. They are at once socially constructed and myth like as well as strictly governed by conventions, rules, and standards. They frequently involve the user in a mission or quest, offering limited set of strategies and resources to users in their effort to negotiate it. It is especially important that, in Second Life, there is always a person with whom one interacts, however much various aspects of self are hidden beneath the masks of one’s characters.

Case Material

My work with Carl1 began when he literally fell apart in middle school, both friendless and failing all of his classes. He was as discouraged as he was disorganized and impulsive, unable to get any work done. Not that he was particularly inclined to do so. He bridled with resentment at the demands being made on him and avoided any and all school-related responsibilities until he was literally on the verge of being expelled. As a result, the initial phase of treatment involved a great deal of intensive individual work as well as parent guidance and school consultation. Carl desired success, but could not sustain effort or organize his behavior in a way that was likely to fulfill his goals. As academic expectations were gradually aligned with his cognitive strengths and weaknesses, his grades improved and he established a small but reliable circle of friends.

Much of our sessions focused on Carl’s relationships with his peers. Their behavior puzzled him, and he frequently did not understand why they reacted so negatively to him. Although intellectually capable of taking the other’s perspective, he seemed rather oblivious to the impact of his behavior. For example, Carl frequently made lewd comments to his female classmates, comments he found funny. Predictably, the girls were horrified, while the boys roared with laughter. He was confused by what he perceived as simultaneous encouragement and censure. He thought about sex all the time and was desperate to “hook up” with a girl. He was devastated by how completely he was rejected by the girls. In sessions, he nervously laughed out loud when I, as tactfully as I could, suggested that his requests for fellatio might explain why they reacted as they did. While reluctantly acknowledging the point, he had difficulty taking perspective in moments of extreme conflict or need, unable to say or do anything other than what immediately came to mind.

He first disclosed his involvement with Second Life at a time that he felt most hopeless about having a girlfriend. He assured me that he only played with friends from school or summer camp. Several months later, he proudly announced that he had a girlfriend and would be attending her sweet sixteen birthday party in another state. Fortunately for Carl, his parents planned to vacation nearby and, after speaking to the girl’s parents, agreed that he could attend. Unfortunately, after only about an hour, the girl insisted that he leave, screaming that she never wanted to see him again. More puzzled than hurt, Carl could not explain her behavior. He literally had no idea of what had made her so angry. “I just can’t figure out girls. I have no idea why they do what they do.” There was no further talk of girls or his sexual interests. Both topics had been driven underground—or so it seemed.

Just after his seventeenth birthday,Carl reported to his school counselor that he was involved in another romantic relationship online. Omitted from his account was the fact that his new love interest was a teenage boy living somewhere in the western United States. Following this conversation, Carl told his parents that he was bisexual. In his mind, the rejection by his girlfriend had been decisive in his turn away from heterosexuality; it also prompted his withdrawal from relationships at school. He no longer felt he had anything in common with his peers and relied exclusively on Second Life for his social life.

Carl revealed that his relationship with Eli was the most recent of over twenty “relationships” in an eighteenth-month period. Interestingly, after several months, the relationship was no longer primarily sexual—which is to say, one defined by mutual masturbation—but had developed into something more intimate. Gradually, the two boys dropped their virtual masks and communicated face-to-face via Skype, as well as texting frequently. While cybersex continued on a lesser scale, the nonsexual aspects of their relationship blossomed. Carl enjoyed talking to Eli. Indeed, he seemed to know everything about him. He was concerned about Eli’s family problems—specifically, his father’s refusal to accept his son’s sexuality. Carl listened as much as he talked during these conversations, offering advice and support as best he could. He told me he loved him and was worried that Eli’s parents did not understand. Although handling his disclosure with remarkable calm, Carl’s parents blocked all electronic access upon learning of their plan to meet, fearful that Eli was a sexual predator. They restored his privileges only when they learned Eli’s real identity, which Carl had known for some time. Carl returned to Skyping and Xbox, reluctantly agreeing to forgo Second Life. He was happy simply to maintain his relationship with Eli and, after a time, expressed no interest in returning to the game.

Transitional Phenomena

RPGs are transitional phenomena precisely because they deeply engage fantasy without giving it free rein. They occupy an intersubjective realm where reality and its symbols are personalized, neither completely independent of mind nor fully under one’s control. It is a universe that defines what can and cannot occur. That this universe also is unlike one’s own is its primary appeal. What is sacrificed in terms of omnipotence is more than compensated for by an intensification of pleasure.

In Second Life, one interacts with others via an identity of one’s choosing. Because this choice is available to all, one must confront the other’s unique individuality, however much these identities may reflect only partial aspects of the self. As in any relationship, interactions can inspire thought, touch one emotionally, alter values, and prompt action. RPGs poignantly affirm the social constructivist claim that reality is a product of mind, rendering any distinction between the virtual and the real less sharp and, perhaps, less significant.

Second Life offered Carl a protected realm in which he discovered and explored aspects of self unavailable to him in his day-to-day life. Disinterested and disconnected from his peers, he related to others on the basis of a false self. Of this, he was very much aware. In Second Life, he fashioned himself into something unique and, at one level, decidedly different from how he was otherwise seen. Through a virtual creation, he formed relationships that recognized and respected him for the person he felt (and wished) himself to be. His desire to connect with these characters in real life, however clumsily implemented, was an attempt to bridge the gap between the transitional and the real. He wanted something beyond what the virtual offered: the “real thing.”

Motives and Values

RPGs attract individuals who struggle profoundly in the social sphere. They feel isolated from others, but, more significantly, from themselves—from their most basic wants, needs, and capacities. They grapple with boredom and ennui, take little solace from engagements, and gravitate naturally to electronic media for stimulation without relational demands.

That they are isolated does not mean they do not yearn for closeness. Because those at the highest end of the autistic/ schizoid spectrum are vulnerable to compromises in their sense of reality and struggle to make sense of perspectives different from their own, engagement with others is at best problematic. One of the most difficult aspects of working with these individuals as children and adolescents is witnessing the disappointment and hopelessness they feel socially. Rejection is an ever-present possibility, often a reality. For this reason, however much dependency is desired, it is fraught with danger. For Carl, it provided comfort so long as it did not demand mutuality. He was hungry for contact, but easily overstimulated and overwhelmed. He could not make use of social opportunities at school, fearful and uncomfortable in the presence of others. There always seemed to be good reasons to avoid in-person interaction. Yet, he could not resign himself to isolation. He wanted others in his life, and found a means of relating to others in Second Life that did not threaten rejection or engulfment.

The quality of the relationships Carl formed through Second Life is not accurately depicted within a perspective that dichotomizes experience according to whether it is real or virtual. Indeed, one of the most striking developments in the burgeoning telecommunication technology is that it permits “face-to-face” contact between people separated by vast distances geographically. More important from a clinical perspective is the fact that Carl’s relationship with Eli was no longer exclusively virtual, nor primarily sexual. Through his initial, compulsive engagement with Second Life, Carl developed new capacities for commitment, compassion, and responsibility. He respected Eli’s feelings and empathized with the pain of “coming out,” always relating to him as a real, embodied subject. This is not to diminish the defensive functions this form of engagement served, nor their unconscious meanings. Carl was fearful of real, in-person engagement because it placed him in situations that offered no exit, no way to extricate himself if overwhelmed by anxiety. Profound social skills and social communications deficits remained. At the same time, he empathized with troubles that mirrored his own, raising the question as to whether, in the end, his compassion was little more than disguised self-interest. After all, he had just revealed his own bisexuality and knew his parents were upset and worried. These are legitimate concerns not easily disproved. But my sense was that Carl’s interest in and commitment to Eli transcended pure wish fulfillment and that, in a compromise struck between his desires and fears, he discovered and exercised new capacities. While not fully mature, they nevertheless reflected a reworking of values, ideals, motives, and defenses into an interaction that demonstrated concern and care.

Through Second Life, Carl entered the ethical sphere, evidencing respect for others and concern for Eli as a person in his own right. The mark of ethical life is the unmistakable presence of an internalized other who no longer merely expresses one’s wishes and needs. This other becomes “the locus of genuine social expectations” (Williams, 1993, p. 98), a development that transforms one’s relationship to others as well as to one’s self. No one influence is decisive in this transformation, although early identifications and attachments obviously play a central role. Second Life afforded Carl a means of reworking these influences without fear. In this transitional space, he actually discovered the capacity to act nondeceptively, in accordance with values consistent with his identity.


An amusing adolescent diversion, RPGs provide a conduit to others for those who are vulnerable, socially awkward, and isolated. They allow one to engage in relationships insulated from the shattering impact of rejection. It is a compromise or provisional solution to the schizoid problem so insightfully described by Guntrip. That RPGs are often used defensively to diminish fears associated with being oneself does not preclude their usefulness in promoting greater interpersonal comfort. This is particularly true of newer technologies that involve “face-to-face” interactions in real time, such as Skype. Increasingly, the degree to which these technologies offer opportunities for deep, mutual relationships undermines any sharp distinction between virtual and real.

From a psychoanalytic perspective, one must be attuned to the depth and qualities of character revealed in virtual relationships. It is the quality of relationships that permits one to distinguish health from pathology. More importantly, quality reflects how one engages with others and the degree of coherence that exists among one’s desires, emotions, and ideals. Authenticity should not be confused merely with what is objectively real or concretely embodied. Equally vital is the degree to which relationships of any kind mirror or transform linkages between one’s past and one’s present in an enriching way (Mitchell, 1993). That Second Life helped Carl develop new capacities for relating to peers and to establish relationships that were no longer exclusively virtual does not mean that his fears and attachment difficulties were resolved. On the contrary, his participation should be regarded as the beginning of a dialogue about relationships and sexual identity, as well as about his desire to conduct himself in accordance with the products of his deliberation and the values that count most. How much mutuality and contact he can comfortably tolerate remains unclear. But for the first time, Carl found himself in a relationship that was not motivated exclusively  by self-interest; he was interested in everything about Eli and demonstrated an increasing capacity to see the world through his eyes.

  1. The name and details of the case have been changed.


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