February 22, 2024

Social anxiety makes young women more susceptible to developing romantic relationships in play with video game characters

A study focused on women otome Video game players in China found that people with social anxiety were more likely to form romantic relationships with the characters within the game. It turned out that players who had stronger one-sided relationships, known as parasocial relationships, with characters were also more likely to form romantic relationships with them in the game. The research was published in Computers in human behavior.

Parasocial relationships refer to one-way interpersonal connections that individuals form with real or fictional characters they encounter through the media. These relationships serve as the foundation through which many people develop feelings of intimacy with celebrities they have never met or interacted with in person, and only know through their appearances on television or in films.

The advent of video games has added a new aspect to parasocial relationships. In video games, people spend time interacting with fictional characters in deeply immersive contexts, develop in-game bonds, and can often develop feelings similar to those you would develop for a real person. Research has shown that players often develop intense feelings about their game avatars, in-game companions, or other game characters. Some of these relationships can be romantic.

Being a particularly fertile basis for developing romantic parasocial interactions with game characters otome games. Otoom Games are a genre of story-based video games aimed primarily at a female audience. The condition “otome‘ itself means ‘girl’ in Japanese and reflects the games’ focus on romantic storylines from the perspective of a female protagonist. Players navigate complex stories and make choices that affect the outcome of the storyline and their relationships with various characters, usually male love interests. These games typically use novel-style visual storytelling, with detailed art, character development, and sometimes voice acting.

Study authors An-Di Gong and Yi-Ting Huang wanted to explore the links between social anxiety, real-life social interactions and parasocial relationships – romantic or otherwise – with game characters among young female gamers. They noted that there were 317 million female mobile game users in China in 2020 otome games are the most popular female-oriented mobile gaming genre in the country. Because of this, otome games provided a unique, useful basis for this research.

The researchers hypothesized that socially anxious women are more likely to form intense parasocial relationships with game characters, while having fewer social interactions in real life, both online and offline. They also expected that gamers with stronger parasocial relationships would be more motivated to keep playing and more likely to plan to make in-game purchases.

The study involved 615 female gamers who mainly played other games, were under 30 years old, and were single. These participants came from 28 Chinese provinces and had varied educational backgrounds. Of these, 61% were between 21 and 25 years old, and a further 25% were under 20 years old.

Participants completed assessments of social anxiety (the Social Interaction Anxiety Scale), real-life social interactions and online social interaction (the Social Interaction Scale), parasocial interactions (the Parasocial Interaction Scale), romantic parasocial interactions (the Romantic Parasocial Interaction Scale) , the intention to continue playing (e.g. ‘I intend to play this mobile continuously otome game in the future”), and in-game purchase intentions (e.g., “I plan to continue purchasing mobile otome game-within-game apps”).

The results showed that participants with stronger parasocial interactions with game characters were also more prone to developing romantic parasocial interactions with them. More socially anxious players tended to have fewer social interactions in real life. However, social anxiety was not associated with online social interactions. Participants with stronger social interactions in real life also tended to have more parasocial interactions, but fewer romantic parasocial interactions.

Participants who experienced stronger parasocial and romantic parasocial interactions showed greater intention to continue playing and make future in-game purchases. Gamers under the age of 20 were more likely to form stronger parasocial relationships than older participants, and those with a high school education or less tended to have more intense parasocial relationships.

“The evidence from this study suggests that PSI [parasocial interactions] and romantic PSI had a positive influence on female players’ playthrough intention, among which PSI had a stronger effect on playthrough intention. Based on the above results, we believe that the PSI and romantic PSI between female players and game characters can promote the continuation of the game. Romantic PSI has had a positive impact on in-game purchase intention, and strengthening the romantic PSI between users and game characters can have a positive effect on increasing game revenue. Furthermore, this study found that there was a strong link between intent to continue playing and in-game purchase intention,” the study authors concluded.

The study sheds light on the psychological mechanisms underlying parasocial relationships with video game characters. However, the design of the study does not allow cause-and-effect conclusions to be drawn from the results. Furthermore, all participants were Chinese young women. Research on other age and cultural groups may not yield similar results.

The article, “Finding Love in Online Games: Social Interaction, Parasocial Phenomenon, and In-Game Purchase Intention of Female Gamers,” was written by An-Di Gong and Yi-Ting Huang.

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