Webs of Influence

The psychology of online persuasion

Sex, Love, and Gaming—What Games Reveal About Relationships

Insights with Dr Esther MacCallum Stewart on sexuality and love in games.

This week marked a first for The Good, The Bad and The Dirty – with our first ever female guest, the incredibly smart and prolific Dr. Esther MacCallum Stewart.

An author and senior lecturer at Surrey University, Dr. Esther’s research centres around gaming and players, with an emphasis on virtual narratives, gender and sexuality (which, if you joined me for our panel on seduction and persuasion, you’ll know is an area I find absolutely fascinating).

She also looks at representation, roleplaying and the ways that players understand games, and when our conversation moved away from persuasion and more towards matters of the heart (and the loins), I thought it best not to interrupt… ; )

You can find her academic profile here, and her myriad books and publications here.

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Sex, love and holodecks

One of the elements I find particularly compelling about the wonderful world of online gaming, especially when it comes to role playing games (or RPGs, as they’re known), is the ability they give us to live out experiences we otherwise wouldn’t get to explore in ‘real life’.

I know we’re not yet at the point of holodecks (I’m still waiting for that fantasy to come true), but one of the many elements that online gaming does permit us to play with, is our gender and sexuality.

You might not think that the way romantic relationships develop in computer games might be that exciting, but it can tell us a lot about the human desire to explore, relate and connect, and how these desires manifest themselves outside of the constraints of normal life.

Let me put it to you this way – if I gave you the chance to drive off-grid, even just for a short while, where do you choose to go?

 

It’s a diverse world

I asked Dr Esther MacCallum what most surprised her when she started conducting research into love and games, and her answer was intriguing.

Of nearly 50 submissions she received from avid gamers on the areas they wanted Dr Esther’s research to investigate, she said that

“the diversity of what people wanted us to look at was absolutely astonishing…”

For instance, if you’ve ever played something like Skyrim, BioShock Infinite or Super Mario, you’ll know that in gaming terms, the heart can symbolise a multitude of things – from your energy level and life, to excitement and romance.

When it comes to meaning and emotion, games are full of symbols and semiotics.

Another area her gamers were interested in looking at was how romantic relationships develop in computer games. For the ‘non-gamers’ among us, we may think this a strange topic to explore – after all, gaming is virtual, so what could it possibly tell us about real life?

Well, not so fast.

 

The rise of parasocial relationships

In psych research there’s such a thing as ‘parasocial relationships’, a powerful form of relationship that I write about in my book as,

“the sense of connection we develop with our favourite fictional characters…”

The reason these relationships are interesting is because they

“follow a similar pattern of growth that you’d expect to find in a normal relationship”

And it’s not just gamers who experience this. In fact, most parasocial relationships tend to be completely one-sided and develop when we watch TV, which is one of the most passive forms of entertainment we’ve got going.

So imagine what happens when you’re interacting in a virtual world, free of many of the societal restraints to which we’re so accustomed, with characters with whom we can really interact.

The possibilities are endless.

 

Gender blender

Which is why it wasn’t surprising to hear the outrage that Dr. Esther’s gamers voiced with a particular male character in one of the games, Dragon Age II.

Their main gripe was with the fact that the bi- and homosexual characters simply weren’t complex or developed enough,

“In the second Dragon Age game, there is a male character who, even if you say that you’re not interested in him, will aggressively pursue you – because he’s designed to do that – and it doesn’t matter if you’re a male or a female”

The concern here was that this was a very bad representation of bi- and homosexual men – and it caused quite a furore.

It turns out that we recognize, on a deep and powerful level, that humanity, in its myriad forms of relationships, sexuality and genders, is a rich, nuanced and diverse spectrum about which we’d be foolish to make assumptions.

And it’s precisely this kind of debate, that games and their characters create, that prove it to be such a rich, emotionally engaging medium. Not only can these virtual characters give us the space and dynamic to play, they can also provide an arena in which to discover and learn more about our deepest selves.

Which makes me wonder – when you strip away the hardened societal rules and the limits that our physical world places upon us, do our real selves come out to play?

Nathalie Nahai is a Web Psychologist and best-selling author of Webs of Influence: The Psychology of Online Persuasion.

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