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Online role-playing can zap marital happiness, survey finds

Researchers say the biggest problem when such gaming enters a relationship is not so much the time spent on the game, but rather the resulting arguments and disrupted bedtime routines.

Cupid, according to World of Warcraft.
Blizzard Entertainment

Online role-playing games, typically of the massively multiplayer variety, have a reputation for wreaking havoc on real-world relationships.

Now, researchers can back up that notion with survey results and can pinpoint the problems that result from such gaming. The survey, from researchers at Brigham Young University, is set to appear tomorrow in the Journal of Leisure Research.

The findings confirm what many gamers know all too intimately--perhaps having heard the message delivered loudly in words with four letters. Three-quarters of spouses of online gamers wish their partners would put more time and effort into their marriages than they put into their avatars.

"This study really does verify that gaming has an effect on marital satisfaction," Neil Lundberg, an assistant professor of recreation management and youth leadership, said in a news release. "It's not just a random occurrence that a few couples are dealing with."

With graduate student Michelle Ahlstrom, Lundberg sought out volunteers via Facebook and MMORPG forums. In the end, they studied 349 married, heterosexual, English-speaking couples from across the country where at least one spouse played games such as World of Warcraft, Final Fantasy XI, Guild Wars, Everquest, and City of Heroes.

Among the couples they found who were willing to be studied (they say many dedicated gamers weren't), the researchers found that the biggest problem when gaming enters a relationship is not so much the time spent gaming, but rather the resulting arguments and disrupted bedtime routines, which in turn can lead to less time spent doing shared activities or engaging in serious conversation.

The average age of the respondents to their national survey was 33, and the average length couples were married was seven years. Of couples where only one spouse gamed, 84 percent were the husbands, and of couples where both gamed, 73 percent of those who gamed more were husbands.

When both spouses play, by the way, 76 percent actually said that gaming has a positive effect on their marital relationship. So it's not all bad news.

As the wife (of seven years) of an occasional gamer (who is 33), I used to think we non-playing spouses were just not trying hard enough to understand the allure. But every time I attempted to play Dark Age of Camelot with my then-boyfriend, I was too busy designing my character and teaching it to play the flute to engage in anything resembling strategy, and the differences in allure were immediately clear.

Fortunately for me, my partner figured out how to clock in a bit of time in Hibernia while still engaging in "shared activities" and "serious conversation." So to all those gamers suffering through rants and ravings, I'm going to go out on a very long limb this Valentine's Day and suggest: if a partner cites the "interruption of bedtime rituals" as a problem, that's as clear a clue as any I've heard that you'd better give your spouse more than a box of chocolates this year.