2011 - RPGR-A00005 Analysis of the Report “Alienation and the Game Dungeons and Dragons”

by Kristin Ziska Strange published 2019/06/30 19:12:00 GMT-7, last modified 2022-11-12T09:28:53-07:00
Contributors: hawke
This is an analysis of the report "ALIENATION AND THE GAME DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS" by Lisa A. Derenard and Linda Mannik Kline. Psychological Report, 1990, 66, 1219-1222. O Psychological Reports 1990. The Analysis and commentary on the report is written by W.A. Hawkes-Robinson.

Also available in presentation mode…

Original version 2011-05-09

Revised 2011-12-09 - PDF version available here: http://rpgr.org/documents/rpg-research-documents/RPGR-A005-Personalities-and-Alienation-of-Dungeons-and-Dragons-Game-Players-long-commentary-version-Ver-2-20111209c.pdf/view

Web version posted & revised 2012-11-29 http://rpgr.org/documents/rpg-research-documents/web-version/analysis-of-alienation-and-dungeons-and-dragons

Analysis of the Report

The Report's Purpose

     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 the 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 and 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 totest overall levels of alienation
  • The Middleton 1963 Alienation Scale to measure six types of alienation
  • 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.


Based on these results, for the demographic studied, role-playing gamers are 2.7 times less likely to have feelings of meaninglessness than non-gamers.


     The other variable with correlative significance was regarding 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.

     Based on these results, for the demographic studied in 1990, role-playing gamers are 2.1 times more likely to experience cultural estrangement from the mainstream interests in the main stream popular media, than non-gamers.


     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 alleviation of previously high alienation and meaninglessness levels.

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.



What Are Role-playing Games?

     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 (more likely thousands) of other RPG systems and companies since D&D, but it was the first and until 2012 (1), was always the best selling single RPG product series with an estimated market share between 10-20 million people in the United States alone (2). 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. This decline may possibly due to the media's, initially intense, but still to a lesser degree, ongoing (though dis-proven) claims, creating a social stigma against those who participate in such games. Meanwhile competing products such as card games like Magic the Gathering, Pokemon, and Yu-gi-oh, as well as improving computer-based "Role-playing Games" (1) and online Massively Multiplayer Online Games (MMORPGs) like World of Warcraft (WoW), Dungeons & Dragons Online (DDO), and Lord of the Rings online (LotRo) have generally grown. This trend has seen some reversal in both the hobby gaming versus computer gaming industries from 2009 through 2012, showing role-playing game sales growing, while computer game sales slowing, for the past 3 years (1).

     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. In the United States, 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 mid-to-late 80's and early 90's in conjunction with much of the “satanic panic” and "moral 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 possibly 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.

     Most notable, are the following two points (for the demographic studied):

  • Role-playing gamers are 2.7 times less likely to have feelings of meaninglessness than non-gamers.
  • Role-playing gamers are 2.1 times less interested in the mainstream "pop culture" than the general populace.

     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, that has lead to many 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 view of D&D and role-playing gaming. Then a longitudinal study could be performed to determine 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, joined 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 the school basketball team (center), skiing, hiking, martial arts, swimming, archery, hacky sack, horseback riding, skateboarding, biking, etc, and also enjoying writing software programs (also starting in 1979). Many of these hobbies were usually solo activities. All of these activities still continued to various degrees when I began to game more. 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. Many of the activities that I had previously participated in as solo recreation, became increasingly social as gamer friends offered to join. We even took breaks from longer gaming sessions to take physical breaks as a group playing hacky sack ("we won't go back until we get a triple hacky!", very difficult with 8 people), swimming, 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, it was always a very positive social experience. That external scorn slowly turned into feelings of wariness to admit to others that I enjoyed role-playing gaming. Even as an adult I sometimes still feel hesitant to mention to people 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 because of playing D&D and other RPGs, it was “just another game” like monopoly, card games like "Fish", poker, etc. But by 1982 or so, people began harassing me, and my friends, especially other students at school, and 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 the local public libraries. In the mid-80s this changed when some of the librarians began banning RPG groups after the Donahue show and 60 Minutes perpetuated the negative 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” played role-playing games. More people believed that only certain types of people played RPGs, and so increasingly those not fitting those stereotypes would shy away from the game. I suspect the alienation is artificially induced by individuals like Patricia Pulling, her Bothered About Dungeons & Dragons (B.A.D.D.) movement, 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, participation in this activity would be expected to have the opposite effect from increasing feelings of alienation.

     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 in tabletop role-playing gaming groups, though what the actual amount is, no one actually knows.

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 in an unusually rigid fashion, 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, 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, as was stated earlier, it could be argued this is 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.

     What would be more interesting to ascertain, is if the players would already have scored with those results 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. As stated before, 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, since "geek culture" has a very robust version of media culture.

     There are currently documented to be approximately 70 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 is there 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 determined with trials of different commitment levels from participants, and then comparing their scores over months, or years, between more and less intensive gaming time, monetary investment, or other measures of commitment level, to determine if any causality could be established and set some recommended maximum healthy guidelines (as is recently being recommended by research on video games, recommending no more than 1-2 hours per day for maximum benefit, and minimal deficit) (3). By adjusting the independent variables for hours of 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 as would reading too much, sleeping too much, and other activities.

     Again, the study does not determine showing causality, instead showing what may be personality distinctions in those drawn to the activity initially, with distinctions that 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.



About the Author

     The author, Hawke Robinson, is nearing completion of an Interdisciplinary bachelor's degree through Eastern Washington University (EWU) with a focus on Therapeutic Recreation, Music Therapy, and Research Psychology. He plans to continue on towards masters and doctoral programs in these related disciplines. One of his goals is to build a comprehensive body of scientific work useful towards creating an effective set of tools implementing recreation and music as modalities for therapeutic benefit. In relation to the RPG Research project it is hoped the research data will indicate methods for developing effective therapeutic modalities using role-playing games for treatment of diverse populations and needs including but not limited to the Deaf Community, depression, PTSD, Autism, ADD/ADHD, Alzheimer's, traumatic brain injury recovery, and other areas.

     More detailed information can be found here: http://rpgr.org/staff/hawke-robinson

Process & Peer Review

     While some of the original, shorter versions, of these papers (including the shorter version of this one) have typically undergone iterations of some (student) peer review, and some professor(s) review as part of a course, the longer versions have not undergone the same editing and paring down to meet the classroom page count restrictions. The longer versions of these essays are posted to help the community increase awareness of projects and information growing in the studies related to the therapeutic and educational aspects of role-playing games.

     The News and Blog postings do not undergo any sort of review process, and are generally just postings of information that seemed relevant and interesting to those curious about the role-playing game industry, and other topics.

     These papers do not (yet) undergo formal peer review process, however, useful feedback is always appreciated as the RPG Research Project slowly gains momentum, and continues to "debug" the process.


(1) Dungeons & Dragons was the very first commercially produced role-playing game, first released in 1974. It has always been the number one selling role-playing game system until 2012, when Paizo Publishing's Pathfinder exceeded the sales of D&D 4.0 according to the quarterly reports of the game trade magazine Internal Correspondence. It could however be argued, since Pathfinder uses a modified version of the open d20 3.x D&D rules, that D&D as a system is still very much the number one selling RPG product.

(2) Wizards of the Coast, current owner of the D&D line, does not generally publish their sales information, so everyone has to extrapolate a lot of information regarding market share. While tabletop RPG's were in decline from the 90's and 2000's, the last 3 years have seen significant growth in hobby gaming and role-playing games, while video games sales have been inversely down. D&D is also known to be very popular in Israel and other countries, but it is unknown how many people in those countries role-play, and how many are specifically using D&D.

(3) Report on optimal time spent on video games, benefits versus deficits. _____________________________ <citation pending>

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