Over one third of all gamers are married, many with kids. Since the prime hours of play occur during the evening, traditionally the peak time for family interaction, tensions may arise if that time doesn’t involve shared activities.
In a new study of 349 couples, Brigham Young University researchers explored the effects of Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPG) on married couples. They concluded that while there are positives to gaming, behaviors associated with online play lowered marital satisfaction.
“It’s common knowledge that many couples experience challenges around gaming,” said Neil Lundberg, one of the primary authors of the work. “Particularly when husbands are heavy gamers, it clearly has a negative impact on their marriages.”
According to researchers Michelle Ahlstrom and Lundberg, 75 percent of spouses who did not play reported gaming hurt their marriage. The study revealed, however, that the problem isn’t the time the other spouse spent with an avatar playing the game. It is the impact of that choice that causes dissatisfaction, by disrupting bedtime routines and provoking arguments. Marital problems include decreased time spent together, less serious conversation, and poorer adjustment skills.
This might be expected when only one spouse participates in the gaming activity, but Ahlstrom and Lundberg found these same problems even in the couples who gamed together. However, shared gaming produced a positive effect on the marital relationship for 76 percent of the couples playing together (which constituted 62% of the study participants). The key factor appears to be that both people in the relationship need to feel their participation in the game mattered, regardless of time played. This doesn’t necessarily happen when the couple participates in the same guild; in fact, differences in skill level between the spouses can produce less satisfying experiences due to expectations for high ability in-game.
Marital dissatisfaction is also mitigated when the couples started playing prior to marriage. That’s potentially good news for Alan Gerding and Crystol Shelton, if that insight applies to non-digital games, too.
“Not all video games are bad,” said Ahlstrom, a graduate student at BYU. “With any type of gaming, consider the content of the game. Consider what you are doing in the game, how much time it is taking, how it is affecting you, your schooling, work, sleep, body and especially how it is affecting your spouse and marital relationship.”
Marital satisfaction is a well-defined concept: the degree to which spouses perceive that their partners meet their needs and desires. Important predictors of marital satisfaction include the quality of interpersonal interactions, stress, the economy, and children. Gaming isn’t unique in providing marital challenges. Prior studies cited by the authors show similar effects in couples where one spouse is a runner. The choice to participate in leisure activities independently of a spouse may also be more of a symptom than a cause, a possibility the BYU study doesn’t specifically tease out.
“Certainly the issue of causality is important,” Lundberg said. “It is very possible that some couples in poor relationships were using gaming to escape.”
In the BYU study, game play was primarily a male activity. For couples with only one gamer, 84 percent were men, while in 73 percent of shared-gaming relationships the husband clocked more time. The pool of participants were limited to heterosexual, English-speaking married couples and had an average marriage length of seven years.
Coauthors of the paper — which appears in the Journal of Leisure Research — include Ramon Zabriskie, Dennis Eggett, and Gordon B. Lindsay, also professors at BYU.