If you're spending this Valentine's Day building camaraderie in your guild, leveling up, or slaying a dragon, you may want to watch out: A new survey by researchers at Brigham Young University has linked online gaming with marital dissatisfaction.
The researchers surveyed 349 couples with at least one spouse who plays a massively multiplayer online role playing game (MMORPG), such as World of Warcraft or Eve Online, about their marital satisfaction. World of Warcraft, by far the most popular MMORPG, has more than 12 million subscribers worldwide, about a quarter of them in North America. The median age of players is about 26, and more than a third are married.
The results confirmed what Neil Lundberg, one of the study's authors, already suspected: "Gaming widows," spouses who lose the attention of their significant other to gaming, aren't happy with their marriages.
More than 65 percent of spouses who don't play video games said they fight with their husband or wife about gaming, and 75 percent of respondents said that their spouse's habit has negatively affected their marriage.
Lundberg says he believes the problem is even worse. Survey respondents were culled from MMORPG message boards and Facebook, and he believes people whose marriages are completely falling apart due to excessive video game usage weren't willing to participate.
"There's a group of people out there we weren't able to tap into," he says. "Interested spouses would say things like 'I would love for my husband to take this survey, but there's no way he'll get off the computer long enough to take it.' ... You don't want to take a survey on marital satisfaction when you're on the verge of divorce."
On the other hand, it seems like couples who play together, stay together: 74 percent of couples who played MMORPGs together reported gaming as having a positive effect on their marriage.
"The take-home message is that doing things together, whether you're video gaming or doing something else, is better than doing something apart," Lundberg says. "This confirms the idea that doing things that create interaction and bonding is obviously going to strengthen a marriage."
Nick Yee, a research scientist at the Palo Alto Research Center who focuses on social interactions in virtual environments, says the findings aren't surprising—relationships where one partner is obsessed with a solitary activity often fail.
"When one of the couple is engaged in a solitary activity, it always causes strain," he says. "It'd be interesting to see if something like playing an MMO causes more strain than someone who's playing golf all the time."
Lundberg's research backs that up. On average, MMORPG gamers play about 22 hours a week. Fitting video games in after work can be impossible without disrupting dinner, bedtime routines and spending time away from one's spouse.
Yee and other experts on Internet addiction say that excessive gaming is often a symptom of another psychological disorder, such as depression. Gamers don't have any of the messy problems that come from everyday life while they are marching around virtual worlds online.
"Regular life is hard, and here, you're offered a simpler alternative. It starts to feel gratifying," says Sherry Turkle, a social studies of science and technology professor at MIT and author of Alone Together, a book about humans' interactions with technology. In games, life's "edges are smoothed out. Nobody is overweight and you don't have to go to the gym. Things are simpler and you can log out when you have a problem," Turkle says.
Yee says the games' designs are also meant to encourage addiction. Games like World of Warcraft have an "engineered social system" where people are often felt needed for a new quest. With subscribers paying anywhere from $13-15 dollars a month, Blizzard Entertainment, the developers of World of Warcraft, have an incentive to bring gamers back.
"That kind of social validation is incredibly powerful for people who don't have it in their real lives," he says. Anecdotally, Yee says that validation can sometimes lead to greater confidence in the real world, but it's tough to say whether online gaming will be a positive or negative force in someone's life.