Virtual Worlds, Real Feelings

When psychotherapists begin working with gamers and exploring their in-world experience, it can be a bit overwhelming.  So much new language, trying to imagine virtual worlds that you’ve never seen.  What’s a raid?  Why would someone go on quests?  And aren’t guilds something that artisans used in the Middle Ages to control the market?  I’ve often encouraged therapists to take the time to use the free trial membership on WoW or other games in order to immerse yourself in the virtual world (and hopefully have fun!) for a little while.

But one thing that can get overlooked in the exploration of the technology is the exploration of feelings, and one reason that this gets overlooked is because therapists inadvertently trivialize the experience of feelings experienced in-game or in social media.

Let me give you a real-life, non-game example to start.  I went to Connecticut College with my friend and colleague Susan Giurleo (she’d never say this, but Susan was definitely the more organized one in college 🙂 ) and we went on to live the next two decades with no real contact.  And then Twitter stepped in, and we resumed contact.  When I read her blogs and posts I was happy to discover that we had a lot of similar and overlapping interests.  We made a time to meet for coffee via email, and I was excited and nervous to see her for the first time in a long while.  Those feelings, of happiness, discovery, excitement and nervousness were all real feelings happening in real time to a real person via a virtual world.  We’d reunited virtually and this has had a real and positive emotional impact on me.

You may still be inclined to dismiss the emotional impact of virtual worlds.  “Sure, Mike, you had real feelings, but Susan was a real person that you have had real face-to-face contact with in the past.”  So let me give you another example.  I recently had the opportunity to email Chris Brogan, and in the course of that mentioned my knowing Susan.  Shortly after that I “heard” them talking about me on Twitter:

from @susangiurleo @chrisbrogan So glad you met my friend, @MikeLICSW ! RT Gamers meet therapy –

@ chrisbrogan @susangiurleo – yep, loved what he shared. That @MikeLICSW is a nice fellow.

Two lines of Twitter, and as I read them I noticed myself smiling, well actually beaming.  That’s real pleasure I was feeling, from feeling recognized and introduced.  And I’ve never laid eyes on Chris in the virtual world.

So virtual worlds create real feelings, and we need to remember that when working with gamers.

I’ve written before about the face behind the screen but it bears repeating.  Gamers are people, and they have feelings.  Even if the stereotypes were true (and they’re not) that gamers are autistic, people on the spectrum have feelings too.  Gamers get excited when they down a boss, upset when someone says something racist in guild chat, and happy when someone whispers them that they did a good job or tells them a joke.  There is a world of real feelings in those virtual worlds, and we need to pay attention to them.

So do you ask adolescents about their facebook friends as well as their classmates?  Do you ask gamers about how they get along with their guildmates as well as their roomates or partners?  Do you explore their relationship to their raid leaders as well as their parents and other authority figures?  If not, you are missing a whole lot of significant information, and it is only an ask away.  Gamers may be reluctant to talk about their in-world feelings and relationships because of past disinterested receptions, but don’t imagine they don’t have them.

The next time you are checking out Facebook and see an old friend, or read a political post, notice if you are feeling happiness, excitement or anger.

The ask yourself, can I tell the difference between this and a “real” feeling.


  1. Nice post, Mike, and happy to find your blog tonight! Looking forward to diving in and following you on RSS.

  2. I agree completely and have made the same point to colleagues. I’m waiting to see the research (it may already be out there and I’ve missed it) that identifies that compares neurotransmitters involved in our feelings and connections in virtual interactions are similar to (in type and intensity) those released in physical world interactions. I know that I have had full-fledged fight or flight physical responses (Epinephrine flowing!) at those times that I was ganked by gatecamping space pirates in Eve.

    And I suspect that Oxytocin is strongly present in those online attachments that occur. Have you seen anything published on this?

    • I must try EVE out soon, it keeps coming up. Sorry you got ganked, the same thing happens to me when I’m fishing in Wintergrasp all the time. 🙂

      I haven’t read any research like that, but methinks its worth a trip to the Harvard eCommons to see what I can find. I’ll keep you posted.

  3. Thanks for sharing this Mike, you really opened my eyes to a new area. I hadn’t considered gaming as a type of social media, per se. Your point was well made.

    • Renee, every time I hear from a therapist that I helped changed their perspective on gaming, an angel gets its wings. But seriously, I do this to raise awareness as much as to get business, so the fact that you took the time to say thanks means a lot to me. ML

  4. I really appreciate your understanding and explanation. I agree with you in many ways; however, I work with addiction issues and “gaming” can become an addiction for some, impacting their lives negatively rather than having a positive effect. Although “a drug is a drug is a drug,” this has become an increasing challenge in my practice. Thanks for your blog. I love it!

    Sara Fackelman, LMHC, CAP

    • Hi Sara, thanks for weighing in. I think we could have a lively debate about addiction and whether it exists. Currently there is no Dx in the DSM for online or internet addiction, but that doesn’t matter in a lot of ways. What I would say is that the work I have read on online and gaming abuse such as Lance Dodes and Kim and Haridakis (2008) indicates that if their is such a thing as addiction to gaming then it is has substantially different in many ways from chemical abuse. I am sure you might not agree with this, but what I imagine we both agree on is that some people who use online gaming do so to the point where it takes away from their life, relationships and functioning, rather than add to it. And that’s where we come in! 🙂

      • Mike,

        Thanks for your response. Yes, I do agree with your statement, “… Currently, there is no DSM dx for internet addiction,…some people who use online gaming do so to the point where it takes away from their life, etc….” That is my concern, because my clients forget that there must be a balance in one’s life and finding that happy medium can be a real challenge. I love this dialogue. Thanks for letting me participate.


  5. Mike, these are important points – the more I think about this issue, the more I feel it boils down to “relationships.” The concept of relationship is changing.

    We now have relationships with people we may never meet in in real life- whether this is via social media or in a game. The online world brings people together (or back together in our case – for which I am extremely grateful for Twitter) in ways we couldn’t even fathom a decade ago.

    So,not only do therapists need to be aware of this when it relates to gaming, but also when working with younger people who have relationships via Facebook, Twitter, communicate via text message as opposed to voice to voice phone calls.
    I work with adolescents and ask them to bring in their cell phones so we can look at the text messages they send and receive.
    Psychotherapists need to become adept at helping people navigate relationships online and off.

  6. I agree with the point you are making that gamers are regular people with the feelings, needs, joys, and disappointments that we all share. I do, however, think there is a case to be made for discouraging excessive gaming. As Dr. Preston of Alliant University explains, it has been associated with some health risks and even has some factors in common with addiction.

    By all means, I’m not saying to take the gaming away from a kid if it’s the only thing he or she has got, but I think it’s important to encourage them to build up the brick-and-mortar part of their lives as well.

    Debra Stang
    Alliant Professional Networking Specialist
    A Great Source for Online CE

    • Hi Debra, thanks for calling my attention to this particular blog. I read the abstract and was left with a couple of thoughts. First, as it is a workshop advertisement for the company you work for, it is best practice to disclose that in the post. I don’t tend to censor comments for my blog because I relish discussion and debate, but disclosing a dual relationship I think is important here. But the main thought I have is that just because Bupropion activates the same brain areas as gaming does does not mean that one should substitute an antidepressant for gaming.

      You post specifies “kid,” and although a large cohort of gamers are adults into their 70s, the idea of games as the only thing someone has, implies that something else is more important in terms of leisure activites for example. So if I am reading Dickens’ Bleak House 2 hours a night do I have a literary addiction? And if we discovered that Bupropion activated the same parts of my brain as Dickens, would I be better off taking that? My point is that it is not an either gaming or brick and mortar part of their life, but not privileging certain culturally sanctioned activities over others. Many adult males in real life engage in homosocial activity for hours on Sunday, ignoring their families and children in order to watch the projection of a football game on a television screen. If this is a weekly part of their life, and their spouses complain, do we call that an addiction? My main point is that we need to be careful of what we consider “excessive,” and not impose our values on a patient that may have different views.

      There are some interesting articles that suggest that exposure to online gaming on a regular basis is actually preparing children and young adults for the global work environment of the future, where grouping up via technology, understanding and coordinating team member roles to solve problems, and cooperating with a diverse human group will be the norm. You can find one such here:

      Also, there is research to suggest that playing video games improves the visuomotor skills of children preparing them for a range of careers including surgery:

      And lastly a recent study showed that playing the video game Tetris was helpful to Vets with complex PTSD in dealing with their Sx:

      Again, thanks for weighing in on this issue, I like it when people take the time to do that.

  7. Hi Mike,

    Great post and discussion! If I may join in, here are a few links/articles that may be helpful:

    Virtual world, real emotions: Relationships in Second Life

    (illustrating the depth to which people may develop real connections in virtual worlds)

    Video Games in Psychotherapy
    Ceranoglu, T. Atilla 1
    Review of General Psychology. 14(2):141-146, June 2010.

    Virtual reality: A survival guide for the social scientist.
    Fox, Jesse; Arena, Dylan; Bailenson, Jeremy N.
    Journal of Media Psychology: Theories, Methods, and Applications, Vol 21(3), 2009,

    Both of the above articles discuss how real emotions and/or physical reactions are evoked through gaming and/or engagement in virtual reality.

    Take care,


  1. […] Virtual Worlds, Real Feelings Article written by Mike Langlois […]

Speak Your Mind


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.