Videogame players commonly report reaching deeply “immersive” states of consciousness, in some cases growing to feel like they actually are their characters and really in the game, with such fantastic characters and places potentially only loosely connected to offline selves and realities. In the current investigation, we use interview and survey data to examine the effects of such “dissociative” experiences on players of the popular online videogame, World of Warcraft (WoW). Of particular interest are ways in which WoW players’ emotional identification with in-game second selves can lead either to better mental well-being, through relaxation and satisfying positive stress, or, alternatively, to risky addiction-like experiences. Combining universalizing and context-dependent perspectives, we suggest that WoW and similar games can be thought of as new “technologies of absorption”—contemporary practices that can induce dissociative states in which players attribute dimensions of self and experience to in-game characters, with potential psychological benefit or harm. We present our research as an empirically grounded exploration of the mental health benefits and risks associated with dissociation in common everyday contexts. We believe that studies such as ours may enrich existing theories of the health dynamics of dissociation, relying, as they often do, on data drawn either from Western clinical contexts involving pathological disintegrated personality disorders or from non-Western ethnographic contexts involving spiritual trance.
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In World of Warcraft, “Azeroth” refers to one of the three continents of the Eastern Kingdoms. It also sometimes refers generally to the planet as a whole on which this continent is found, as well as to the world as a whole, which includes both Azeroth the planet and other planets like Outland.
In fact, Butler (2006) terms commonly experienced forms of normal dissociation in naturalistic settings “normative.” Although the kind of dissociation of interest here is like that described by Butler, we prefer and use the phrase “normal dissociation,” to avoid connoting that these experiences are normatively expected or required in some setting.
As Lynn (2005, p. 20) analogizes the situation, “Think of an office space comprising cubicles separated by partitions that can be moved around in a variety of configurations, interspersed with several dedicated offices that have more permanent walls. Information flows over, around, and through these separators, with various degrees of ease. The partitions can be unconsciously moved to divert or block streams of information.”
Choices related to race and class determine, to a large extent, a character’s attributes like intelligence, stamina, and agility, as well as a player’s style of play and strategy. For example, warriors make good defensive “tanks,” who effectively absorb damage; mages can unleash large amounts of offensive damage; and priests make good healers and, thus, effective support characters.
In the interest of keeping down the number and complexity of control variables, we dichotomized the education variable (college education or more versus anything less) and the age variable (over 27 years versus younger). Both of these cut-points are approximately at the median. Although using age as a continuous variable would have been possible, we had no reason to suspect a linear relation, so simply entering age, for example, as a linear predictor seemed unwarranted.
For the reader unfamiliar with ordinal logistic regression: Like an ordinary least-squares linear regression model, this analysis involves using an equation to produce a predictive model for an outcome variable. However, a special approach is taken that does not assume the outcome is measured as a continuous variable, and treats it strictly as an ordinal variable. The particular model fitted is used to describe how the various explanatory variables are related to the odds that a respondent scores in category 2 or above as opposed to category 1, category 3 or above as opposed to anything lower, category 4 or above as opposed to anything lower and so forth. With this approach, there is no need to assume anything about the relative closeness of different scores in these categories. There is a simplifying assumption, though, that whatever relations each explanatory variable has to the outcome is the same across all category splits: 1 vs. 2, 3, 4, 5 and 1, 2 vs. 3, 4, 5. Thus, the coefficients we have reported here, for example in Table 2, show how a one-unit change in an explanatory variable is predicted to multiplicatively increase the odds of being in the higher versus lower location of any category split. Odds ratios >1 thus show positive relationships between an explanatory variable and the outcome, while those <1 indicate a negative association. For more detail on ordinal regression models, see, e.g., Long (1997).
Indeed, dissociation is so strongly associated with addiction (R = 0.72), it almost seems on the surface that it measures the same psychological tendencies. However, the Appendix demonstrates that these two scales, and thus these two measures, are in fact quite distinct.
For each outcome, we present a final regression model in Table 6, having started with a base model for each, containing the demographic control variables (as chosen for that outcome) and the Dissociation Scale, and added the relaxation/stress reduction variable, the increases stress variable and terms for the interactive effects of those variables with dissociation in relation to the outcome. The final model for each outcome includes those variables that improved the fit as determined by hypothesis tests on the overall model.
For example, it can be calculated that, at low values of the relaxation variable (e.g., 2, or “disagree,” approximately the 10th percentile), the odds ratio for a 1-SD increase in dissociation is approximately 1.0, no relationship at all, but at higher values of the relaxation variable (e.g., 4, or “agree,” the mode and approximate median), the predicted odds ratio for dissociation is 1.7. Regarding the relaxation variable, the interaction is such that a respondent who was 1 SD below the mean in dissociation (a score of −1.0), would have an odds ratio of 1.9, but for a respondent at 1 SD above the mean on dissociation, the same odds ratio would be 3.4.
At low values (2) of relaxation, the predicted odds ratio from dissociation to life satisfaction is 0.90, a slightly negative relationship, while for a more typical higher value (4) of relaxation, the odds ratio is 1.7. The odds ratio for relaxation’s relation to life satisfaction, though interactive with dissociation, is consistently positive, ranging from 2.0 when dissociation is −1 (1 SD below the mean) up to 3.9 when dissociation is +1.
The issue is slightly more complicated, and the pleasures of WoW stress emerge from the fact that monsters seem simultaneously real and fantasy. On some level, even when the monsters temporarily feel real, players know that WoW is, after all, only a game, a fantasy, and not real. Players surrender some degree of control over the game’s fantasy dangers in order to be stimulated, but it is easy to snap back into a view of WoW as “only a game.”
It is not clear to us why WoW’s being judged to be relaxing, rather than positive WoW stress, is revealed by our survey to be more clearly implicated in “interactions” connecting dissociation with positive mental wellness outcomes like happiness and life satisfaction. Our observations, interviews and own experiences reveal the importance of both relaxation and positive stress in such interactions.
We also cannot entirely explain why the perception that WoW is stressful, which we read as “positive” stress, rather than relaxation, is most clearly implicated in our statistical models related to dissociation and WoW addiction. Again, our interviews belie in part such an observation, pointing to how gamers might become “addicted,” so to speak, to relaxing states themselves.
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We thank the organizers, presenters and individuals at the 2008 Cultures of Virtual Worlds conference, April 25 and 26, at the University of California, Irvine. We especially thank those who gave us useful feedback on our presentation, “Internet Addiction or Restorative ‘Magical Flight’?: A Report on Collaborative Ethnographic Research in the World of Warcraft,” and later, at the 2008 American Anthropological Association meetings in San Francisco, on our “Internet Addiction or Restorative Magical Flight?: ‘Cultural Dissonance’ in the World of Warcraft.” We are also grateful for the research help of other student participants in the collaborative ethnographic research and teaching laboratory, taught in Spring 2008 by this article’s lead author: Michael Blank, Lahoma Howard, Chad R. Kershner, Gregory Krambeer, Alissa Leavitt-Reynolds, Adam Reynolds, Jessica Vyvial-Larson, Josh Whaley and Benjamin Wintersteen.
See Table 8.
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Snodgrass, J.G., Lacy, M.G., Francois Dengah, H.J. et al. Magical Flight and Monstrous Stress: Technologies of Absorption and Mental Wellness in Azeroth. Cult Med Psychiatry 35, 26–62 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11013-010-9197-4