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2015 - Empathic Features and Absorption in Fantasy Role-Playing

by Administrator published May 29, 2016 12:20 AM, last modified Jun 21, 2017 09:26 AM
Rivers A1, Wickramasekera IE 2nd2, Pekala RJ3, Rivers JA4. Am J Clin Hypn. 2016 Jan;58(3):286-94. doi: 10.1080/00029157.2015.1103696.

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This study examined the levels of empathy and absorption of individuals who regularly play fantasy and science fiction role-playing games. A hypothesis was developed that higher levels of empathy would be found in individuals who fantasy role-play based upon previous research in hypnosis such as J. R. Hilgard's (1970) imaginative involvement hypothesis, research into the "fantasy prone" personality type (Wilson & Barber, 1981), and the empathic involvement hypothesis (Wickramasekera II & Szlyk, 2003). The participants in the current study were 127 fantasy role-players who volunteered and completed the Davis Interpersonal Reactivity Index (empathy) and the Tellegen Absorption Scale (absorption). The results demonstrated that those who play fantasy role-playing games scored significantly higher than the comparison group on the IRI scale of empathy, confirming the hypothesis that fantasy role-players report experiencing higher levels of empathic involvement with others. Correlational analysis between the measures demonstrated a significant positive correlation between empathy and absorption (r = .43, p < .001). These results collectively suggest that fantasy role-players have a uniquely empathically-imaginative style. The results also confirm and extend previous findings on the relationship between empathy and absorption as predicted by the Empathic Involvement Hypothesis (Wickramasekera II & Szlyk, 2003).

To cite this article: Anissa Rivers, Ian E. Wickramasekera II, Ronald J. Pekala & Jennifer A. Rivers
(2016) Empathic Features and Absorption in Fantasy Role-Playing, American Journal of Clinical
Hypnosis, 58:3, 286-294, DOI: 10.1080/00029157.2015.1103696
To link to this article:


Empathic Features and Absorption in Fantasy Role-Playing

Anissa Rivers
Regional Mental Health Center, East Chicago, Indiana, USA
Ian E. Wickramasekera II
Naropa University, Boulder, Colorado, USA
Ronald J. Pekala
Coatesville VA Medical Center, Coatesville, Pennsylvania, USA
Jennifer A. Rivers
Elms College, Chicopee, Massachusetts, USA


This study examined the levels of empathy and absorption of individuals who regularly play fantasy
and science fiction role-playing games. A hypothesis was developed that higher levels of empathy
would be found in individuals who fantasy role-play based upon previous research in hypnosis such
as J. R. Hilgard’s (1970) imaginative involvement hypothesis, research into the “fantasy prone”
personality type (Wilson & Barber, 1981), and the empathic involvement hypothesis
(Wickramasekera II & Szlyk, 2003). The participants in the current study were 127 fantasy role-
players who volunteered and completed the Davis Interpersonal Reactivity Index (empathy) and the
Tellegen Absorption Scale (absorption). The results demonstrated that those who play fantasy role-
playing games scored significantly higher than the comparison group on the IRI scale of empathy,
confirming the hypothesis that fantasy role-players report experiencing higher levels of empathic
involvement with others. Correlational analysis between the measures demonstrated a significant
positive correlation between empathy and absorption (r = .43, p < .001). These results collectively
suggest that fantasy role-players have a uniquely empathically-imaginative style. The results also
confirm and extend previous findings on the relationship between empathy and absorption as
predicted by the Empathic Involvement Hypothesis (Wickramasekera II & Szlyk, 2003).

Keywords: absorption, empathy, hypnosis, role-play

Empathy can be defined as the ability to understand another’s perspective and to share in their feelings to some extent (Davis, 1994; Wondra & Ellsworth, 2015). Empathizing with
another person can be a kind of imaginative activity in which one puts himself or herself in someone else’s shoes to understand his or her journey in life. Some have argued that the very act of empathizing with another person can create hypnotic-like experiences (Krippner, 2004) as one becomes interpersonally absorbed within another person’s embodied phenomenology (Wickramasekera II, 2015). Many definitions of empathy include elements of understanding, perspective taking, and validation of another’s feelings (Davis, 1994). People with high levels of trait empathy have been shown to engage in more frequent prosocial and helping behaviors (Happ, Melzer, & Steffgen, 2013). Mark Davis, the author of the Interpersonal Reactivity Index (IRI) measure of empathy used in this study, has identified four subtypes of empathy in his research, which are known as perspective taking, personal distress, fantasy empathy, and empathic concern (Davis, 1980, 1983, 1994). Some forms of empathy appear to be relatively automatic while others are more deliberate and cognitive in nature (Davis, 1994). In this study we pursue a hypothesis that individuals who play role-playing games (RPGs) may be higher in trait empathy similar to the population of individuals that are highly hypnotizable (Wickramasekera II & Szlyk, 2003; Wickramasekera II, 2015).

Fantasy RPGs involve a shared fantasy environment in which players create their own
characters and the fictional worlds the game occurs within. These fictional worlds are
often based upon science fiction and fantasy novels and role-players take great care to
create social systems, economies, and backgrounds for the characters that they play. This
is particularly important in traditional tabletop or in-person RPGs such as Dungeons and
Dragons (D&D). The development of a fictional character usually includes deciding on
the background and origin of their characters. The player decides on their character’s
personal style, ethical beliefs, skills and abilities, and even their religious practices. These
choices are more constricted in console games or computer games but the player is still
allowed to make many strong choices regarding important actions in the game that result
in their unique co-creation of a character that results from a significant investment of time.

The last 30 years have seen tremendous growth in the gaming industry (Global Games
Market Report, 2015). The first popular RPG is called D&D. D&D was created in 1974,
taking traditional tactical and war games into a fantasy setting for the first time and starting a
style of game that has persisted and grown tremendously with the advent of computer and
mobile gaming. Online MMORGs (massively multiplayer online RPGs) like World of
Warcraft (WOW) have millions of subscribers alone. The difference between role-playing
and creating your character may have different impacts than first person shooter games,
which usually have pre-created characters. Increasingly, consumers are interested in parti-
cipating in their media, taking a more active than passive role in their entertainment through
gaming, cosplay (the act of creating costumes, makeup and extensive props to represent
characters from games, comics, or movies) and attending live competitions and conventions
which as many as 50 to 70 thousand people attend at a single convention (Superdata
Research, 2015). Games are claiming a growing share of revenue in key entertainment
markets second only to cable and broadcast television in earnings and ahead of the music
and film industries (Superdata Research, 2015). While this study focuses on fantasy RPGs,
there is no doubt the number of people gaming regularly has grown tremendously over the last 30 years, and can now be considered mainstream. This creates an opportunity to study questions about the types of people that seek out different types of games and the effects of playing these games on their cognitive, emotional, and psychological states.

There have been relatively few studies looking for the potential positive effects and
benefits of gaming. However, some studies have demonstrated findings that indicate
that prosocial behaviors and thinking can result from playing games with prosocial
themes (Gentile et al., 2009). Greitemeyer and Osswald (2010) noted that spontaneous
helping behavior as well as low-cost and high-cost oriented helping behavior could be
seen to increase in both genders while playing games.

The current study was created to look at some personality characteristics of individuals
who regularly play fantasy RPGs. Our hypothesis was that higher self-reported levels of
empathy might exist in individuals who fantasy role-play. We hypothesize that frequently
playing a character may potentially increase a role-player’s perspective taking skills since
role-playing requires a person to alter their perspective to some degree in order to play the
part of his or her character accurately since most players do not play themselves in RPGs.
Perspective taking skills are some of the most highly researched aspects of the multi-
dimensional construct of empathy in social psychology (Davis, 1994).

Focusing on playing a character for long periods of time may also have an impact on the
person’s ability to remain completely attuned and absorbed with their experience of playing
his or her character and his or her character’s perception of the fantasy environment in
which he or she is interacting with others. Research on absorption has discovered that
people who possess high levels of it often report experiencing a special type of empathic or
interpersonal absorption with characters in books, movies, and theater (J. R. Hilgard, 1970;
Tellegen & Atkinson, 1974). Previously, Wickramasekera II and Szlyk (2003) found a
moderate correlation between measures of empathy, absorption, and hypnotic ability.
This type of empathic absorption may be so strong that the highly empathically absorbed
person finds that he or she can lose himself or herself in the experiences of the character that
he or she is identifying with while feeling as if he or she were a part of the story. This type of
interpersonal absorption would seem to require a high degree of openness to the experiences
suggested to the player of the RPG by the gamemaster in the in-person versions of fantasy
RPGs. It may be that the gamemaster functions in a way similar to the role of the hypnotist
in hypnosis. The gamemaster in fantasy role-playing serves a number of purposes including
describing the consequences of the players’ choices and actions in the game and enforcing
various rules and pre-arranged plots that may enfold during gameplay. The gamemaster
must therefore describe many visual scenes to the player while also describing the player’s
physical experiences in the game as he or she make choices. For example, a gamemaster
might describe what a player can see when he or she opens a door and what physically
happens to him or her when he or she step through the door and accidentally stumble into a
trap. We hypothesize that the way in which the gamemaster describes the visual imagery
and physical experiences of a player in an RPG may be quite analogous to how a hypnotist
uses imagery, experiential language, and suggestions in hypnosis.



The participants were 128 volunteers (90 male, 27 female) from large groups of fantasy
gamers who were notified of the experiment through several methods including
announcements on electronic bulletin boards whose topics included gaming, mailing
lists for groups of gamers in several geographic areas, and flyers at locations that focus
on RPGs and supplies. Several groups that play tabletop RPGs based near large
Midwestern universities agreed to participate and complete the survey. One participant
did not fully complete all the items, and those data were removed from all analyses.

The Davis IRI (1983, 1994) was used to measure the empathic capacity of the respondents.
The IRI is a survey composed of 28 items and is divided into four subscales. The four
subscales are derived from seven items each measuring fantasy empathy, empathic concern,
perspective taking, and personal distress (Davis, 1994). Fantasy empathy was designed to
measure an individual’s capacity to identify with fictional characters and settings in various
mediums such as books, plays, and films. The empathic concern scale was designed to
measure an individual’s propensity to respond with compassionate feelings of concern to
another person’s difficulty and distress. The personal distress scale examines anxiety and
other negative affect resulting from experiences with other persons’ suffering in difficult or
crisis situations. The perspective taking scale was designed to measure an individual’s
tendency to see things from another’s point of view when relating with him or her. The
questions were designed in a self-report format that asked for participants to rate how well
each statement describes them on a scale of 0–4. The instrument has been utilized with a
variety of populations and has been found to possess good internal reliability, test-retest
reliability, and validity (Davis, 1980, 1983, 1994).

The Tellegen Absorption Scale (TAS) was utilized to assess absorption levels in role-
playing gamers. The TAS was designed as a brief measure that has 34 true or false
items. The internal (r = .88) and test–retest reliability (r = .91) was reported to be good
(Tellegen, 1982). Previous research has found absorption to be a reliable correlate of
hypnotic ability although some controversy exists about the degree to which context
effects influence the magnitude of the correlations observed in these studies (Council,
Kirsch, & Hafner, 1986).


The surveys were completed online through a secure Web site designed by Psychdata.
com staff, Ed. (2001–2005) to assist psychological researchers to safely collect data from participants ( The instruments were typed into a PsychData template and the participants answered questions by clicking on a small box next to the appropriate answer. In order to move forward in the test, the participants each read and signed an informed consent form and completed a demographic data form. The site provided a location to safely and securely host online research.


Respondents were requested to categorize their game playing medium (platform) by
whether they played online/by computer only (n = 19), mostly online (n = 16),
mostly tabletop/in-person gaming (n = 44), or both online gaming and tabletop
(n = 48). Most individuals who completed the exams were between the ages of 27
and 46 (n = 99). For educational level, 60 individuals had either an undergraduate or
graduate level of education, with another 41 stating that they had some college or
technical training. Table 1 presents the means and standard deviations for all
measures and the demographic surveys that were given to respondents. The means
for the demographic data are for the category label numbers (1–2 for gender, 1–6 for
education level, etc.).

Table 2 presents the inter-correlations for the TAS and the IRI. The TAS is sig-
nificantly correlated with the IRI and its subscales with the exception of the Personal
Distress subscale. There was a positive correlation (r = .43, p < .001) between the total
TAS score (absorption) and the total IRI score (empathy).

A series of t tests were conducted on the subscales of the empathy scale to compare
the results of this study to the normative sample from the original study (Davis, 1980).
Table 3 presents the results of these analyses. All t tests were significantly supporting
the hypothesis that the participants of this study scored higher than the general


population on all empathy subscales. Essentially, there were no statistical differences
between the men and women gamers in this study.


The current study has replicated and extended earlier research on the empathic involve-
ment hypothesis of hypnosis (Wickramasekera II & Szlyk, 2003; Wickramasekera II,
2015) while also demonstrating the empathic nature of fantasy RPGs. Empathy and
absorption are correlated in our findings (r = .43, p < .001) and the observed correlation
is very similar to the results found in previous studies with very different populations
(Wickramasekera II, 2015). Empathy thus appears to be a trait that can be found in those
who are high in absorption in accordance with the empathic involvement theory (EIT)
of hypnosis (Wickramasekera II, 2015). It may be then be that high-hypnotizables may
use their empathic talents to adopt the attitudes, body language, expectations, social
roles, and suggestions presented to them in hypnosis.

When comparing the participants’ results from the original study to this study, gamers
scored significantly higher than the original population in the fantasy empathy, empathic
concern, and perspective taking subscales (Davis, 1980). It is possible that the higher
educational level of our participants may account for these differences since previous research
has demonstrated that empathy is correlated with higher educational levels in general (Davis,
1994). However, we are not able to assess this statistically in our study. It is also possible that
other factors, such as the overall length of time in gaming, and type of gaming may have also
had an impact on what skills or personality characteristics are reinforced through the gaming
experience. We recommend that future studies of the empathic characteristics of fantasy role-
players may wish to follow up on these important alternative hypotheses.

Players of fantasy RPGs have been perceived for many years as a potentially
unhealthy and disaffected group of people who are lost in their own imaginary world
(Gentile et al., 2009). However, this view is not supported by the results of the current
study. Fantasy role-players are actually higher in empathy than the general population
although the reasons for this may not necessarily have to do with playing fantasy RPGs.
In any event, gamers may therefore not be that lost or isolated from reality as was
previously thought. Instead, players of these RPGs may be stepping in and out of other
people’s view of the world (be it fictional or not) in what can best be described as an
empathically absorbed act. It would be interesting to study in future research the real-
life relationships of participants to examine for differences with their in-game playing
style. Furthermore, players of face to face RPGs may even be having hypnotic-like
experiences of interpersonal absorption with their gamemaster. This would be very
much in line with role-taking, expectancy, and social cognitive theories of hypnosis
(Kirsch & Council, 1992; Sarbin, 1950, 1997; Silva & Kirsch, 1992).

Further research could be enacted to determine if fantasy role-players are more
cognitively “flexible” than the general population and how that correlates with levels
of empathy. Their experience of creating an online or imaginary “self” may mean that
they have less rigidity in their views of self and other based identities. Like many traits,
high levels of empathy and frequent perspective taking may be used in prosocial ways
or perhaps more aggressive behaviors in practice. Some games can encourage aggres-
sive cognitions and behaviors, but the context of the violence matters (Anderson, 2010).
If that violence is perceived as unjustified, gamers may feel guilt and dissatisfaction
with the game (Hartmann, Toz, & Brandon, 2010). Meanwhile, if the violence is
perceived as justified then the game is reported as more satisfying, particularly in
those with high levels of empathy (Hartmann et al., 2010). Players can greatly increase
prosocial and helpful behaviors in games where the game has prosocial goals (Gentile et
al., 2009, Happ et al., 2013). RPGs and simulations could be an effective way to
encourage cooperation, teach improved skills for diplomacy and communication,
build teamwork, and prepare individuals to manage complex and crisis situations.
The utility of role-playing for both learning and for creative expression could also be
potentially useful for clinical purposes (Blackmon, 1994). If the characteristics of individuals who participate in role-playing on a regular basis includes empathy and absorption then they might benefit a great deal from hypnosis and biofeedback (Wickramasekera II, 2005). This has been demonstrated by other groups with fantasy prone personalities such as those that were involved with acting and drama at a young age (J. R. Hilgard, 1970). De Freitas (2006) further hypothesized that role-playing may be particularly effective with underserved learners, learners with skills needs and informal learners, as well as supporting collaborative learning practices (De Freitas, 2006).

This study focused on self-report data but an important area for further research
would be to look at empathic behaviors. A future study could identify fantasy role-
playing gamers who score higher on the IRI’s perspective taking scale and evaluate their
prosocial behaviors on a more long term basis. There may also be a relationship to the
measures of emotional desensitization to the personal distress scale on the IRI.
It may be that the relatively high levels of empathy observed in the players of RPGs
in this study are not just an inherent trait of those that play these games. It could be that
fantasy RPGs encourage, train, and develop empathic skills in perspective taking and
other empathy related processes. It may be that the satisfying hypnotic-like (Krippner,
2004) quality of this kind of role-playing experience encourages the development of
empathic abilities acquired while playing RPGs. Similarly, it may even be that training
in hypnosis may increase a person’s empathic capacity as well as being correlated with
hypnotic ability (Wickramasekera II, 2015).



The content of this presentation does not represent the views of the Department of
Veterans Affairs nor the U.S. Government.


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Address correspondence to Ian E. Wickramasekera II, Psy.D. Naropa University, 3285 30th St., Boulder, CO 80301,
USA. E-mail: