Role Reversals

In past survey results, we've seen that many MMO players play with people they know face-to-face (friends, romantic partners, family members, etc.). And we've also seen hints that role-reversals can occur. For example, a father may be a member of a guild where his son is the leader. In this article, we'll take a look at whether and how MMO role-reversals impact existing relationships.

Given the contextual constraints of the scenario, it's not surprising that the question elicited only a handful of respondents. 46 players described their role-reversal experiences. Most of these came from parent-child (17) and romantic partner (18) pairs. The remainder came from friends (5), siblings (4), and boss-employee pairs (2). Of the 46 players, 24 felt that the role-reversal did not change the existing relationship at all. Of the remaining 22 responses, half felt the role-reversal had a positive impact on the relationship while the other half felt it had a negative impact on the relationship.


Types of Role-Reversal

We'll start by going through some of the kinds of role reversals players described, and then we'll take a look at some of the consequences.

Power Reversal

Players referred to a variety of role-reversals. The most common scenario involved a reversal or change in a long-standing power/authority dynamic.

I play with my father a lot. I'm a Guild Leader on the Tribunal Server and he's a member of my Guild, so our roles are somewhat reversed. We have a good time and what I've found is that he uses it as a way to support me. When things blow up within the Guild (and they do) he comes out in support of me. [EQ, F, 37]

My boyfriend of 8 years have started a guild together. He is the guild master and I'm one of the officers. So that in game he outranks me but we are equal as partners. Sometimes this leads to clashes when we don't see eye to eye. However this has no impact on our relationship because we are used to having different opinions. [WoW, F, 25]

Knowledge Differential

Other times, the reversal involved knowledge and experience rather than a direct power relationship. This knowledge differential was more obvious to parent-child pairs.

My son and husband are both much more experienced gamers and are both better at WoW, especially in PvP, than I am. They are also much more interested in stats and gear than I am. My son frequently gives me pointers and suggestions about how to improve my game play. It is somewhat of a reversal from our real life roles, but it isn't a problem and hasn't adversely affected our relationship. [WoW, F, 53]

Personality Flip

In some cases between romantic partners, a very noticeable personality flip occurred. For example, the less outgoing person would become more outgoing in the MMO. Thus, the more extraverted person in RL may find themselves being the more introverted person in an MMO, and vice versa.

My husband and I play together, and it is a bit of a role reversal because he is usually the outgoing one. But in a lot of ways, I play more than he does and work harder at it. I am also much more outgoing in game than he is. Being in the form of a character helps me to drop my insecurities about myself. My husband has never been a 'group joiner' and that holds true in the game as well, so it is usually me bringing him to social situations, which never happens in RL. [WoW, F, 33]

Financial Differential

And finally, some players commented on a flip in financial resources.

In real life, I make more money than my husband and he stays home....In Second Life, my husband is a very successful real estate agent (yes, he makes a lot of real life money there) and I shop and go dancing. I think that it has given him more confidence in himself and has helped improve his RL business in that way as well as make him feel like he is a more equal partner in our marriage. [Second Life, F, 39]

My room mate and I play together. Usually in real life I am broke and she has money. In the game it is totally reversed. I usually have a lot of money and I am always loaning her money. [WoW, F, 29]


Positive Impacts

Let's turn now to how these role-reversals can affect existing relationships. We'll consider the positive impacts first.


Some players talked about how the in-game experience led to a better relationship face-to-face, typically via the bonding experiences. While the first narrative below gives an example of how the role-reversal created a salient bonding experience, it's less clear in the second and third narrative whether the role-reversal itself contributed to the bonding above and beyond interacting in an MMO together.

I have one more story - about the snow-covered mountains of AC (and I've still got the screen cap) - my son, in his avatar, standing over a resting me, in my avatar, while I rest. We'd been in heavy battle and we'd each stood guarding for respawns while the other laid down to rest, (remember AC had that feature). It has been a story my son and I still enjoy telling about the screen cap of the virtual 'child is father to the man' moment. I have to be honest and say it has always stirred a deep fatherly thing deep in my soul this image of us protecting each other on the side of that mountain. [LOTR, M, 56]

I have played with employees, and they had different needs from the games than I did. Did it affect our relationship? In a way in that as fellow gamers we had a better relationship than others around me. We had a lot to talk about. We talked about the game and other things. It opened us up to a friendship that otherwise may not have been possible. [Eve Online, M, 45]

The experience was generally positive (team or relationship building) and -so far- results in a much better real-life relationship. [WoW, M, 50]

Rebalancing of Power

In other cases, the role-reversal in the online environment helped to rebalance the power structure in the existing relationship in ways perceived as positive by the respondents.

My two best friends play in the same guild as I do, and while they tend to be more active and the center of attention in the physical world, they are much more subdued in the gaming world. I am an officer and quite active on our guild forums and in chat, whereas they only post or speak occasionally and hold no 'rank' within the guild. This has led to me being the 'expert' on all things that are happening relative to our guild and in the game. As a result, we have had more of an equalizing of power in the physical world between the three of us, in that my opinion on a major topic of discussion is now more respected and asked for than it was previously. [WoW, M, 25]

I started playing WoW before my older brother. He has always been the domineering one in our sibling way, he was always the boss whenever he deemed me worthy to play with. When I started playing WoW, and he got interested in it too, at first he was playing on my account and he had to ask me for permission before he could play and, occasionally, it was he who came to me for help in certain things. When he got his own account and transferred his character over, things started shifting back into old ways but, at least now, he's a lot more friendly about it. When we were really young, we did somewhat get along but he was 'boss' and, as we grew older, it developed into a true hate-love relationship where most of our time together was through screaming and yelling at each other ... Now, we're almost friends. [WoW, F, 24]


Negative Impacts

We'll now turn to how role-reversals can negatively impact existing relationships.

Emphasizes Personality Differences

For some players, the in-game role-reversals led to conflicts and arguments. In many of these cases, the conflicts seemed to stem from existing power struggles and personality differences that the role-reversal highlighted. In other words, one party wasn't willing to relinquish the power that the other party was trying to take on.

I played Final Fantasy with a friend/boyfriend and he was guild leader & very much a strong leader in the game. In our relationship that was never really the case. I was usually 'in charge' in deciding what we did, where we ate, etc. I usually even drove him around in his car. It was hard for me to take his leadership in the game context and I resented it. It made things difficult IRL because I was bugged by him assuming a role that I was not used to. I think it bugged him too cuz I wouldn't submit to his authority and I think I made him look weaker to the other guild members. [F, 30]

My husband and I play together. We do seem to reverse roles in MMOs. I tend to lead IRL and am kind and friendly. He tends to quietly follow my lead. However, in MMOs he usually is deciding what quest we are on and what's next, while I'm more interested in checking out some distant object. This does sometimes affect our relationship, mostly when he gets mad at me because I'm wandering off in game or stopping to fight everyone, while he just wants to get to point A and collect B and take it to NPC C, without stopping. It is hard for me when this happens, because it is the reverse of our normal IRL relationship. [LOTR, F, 26]

A friend from the Dorm I lived in sophomore year in college played guild wars with me on occasion. In all other games that we played together, like Guitar Hero and Super Smash Bros. he was my obvious superior. He always won competitions and was the instructor and I was the student. However, in guild wars it was the opposite. I was immensely more knowledgeable in the game than him. Especially in competitive matters. It occasionally caused some abrasiveness in real life as he was not used to me taking the leadership and instructional role. [GW, M, 19]

New Power Spilled Over

Other players felt that the role-reversal in the game led to an adoption of an inappropriately condescending attitude face-to-face.

The only thing I can think of was when I was playing WoW with my ex a couple of years time ago. He was very needy in real life and I was typically very independent. He was also a very arrogant guy and was used to people not being as knowledgeable as he was. Oddly enough, he'd met his match as far as IQ goes when he met me. I started WoW because I saw how much fun he had with it ... and I was a newbie and didn't know anything about it. Suddenly, rather than being intellectual equals and him being the needy one, the roles were reversed. I had no idea what was going on and needed him for pointers, and he found himself more knowledgeable than I in one arena. He prided himself on being in the best guild and one of the most powerful/experienced/best gear on the server. And he didn't want to play with me because I was a newbie and apparently my lack of experience was embarrassing. In real life, it caused our relationship to deteriorate because he started thinking he was better than me and deserved better. I started feeling unappreciated because he carried his 'superiority' from the game into real life and became distant. [Vanguard, F, 23]

I joined WoW to play with my best friend. He had been playing for 6 months and had a character I thought was established. By being at the right place with the right people at the right time, I became a founding guild officer. Later, my friend joined the guild. My guild seniority, as well as the advantages I had through character building advice from guild mates led to my adoption of a condescending attitude toward my comparably ineffective best friend. [WoW, M, 24]


Work and Play Don't Mix

We'll end with a narrative that has a mix of positive and negative impacts. This narrative is fascinating as it lies at the intersection of work and play, and in particular, possible consequences of playing games with your bosses.

I have not played in MMOs where I have experienced this; however, that may be due to prior experiences in playing games (FPS) with my boss. In those games, I was responsible for organizing the 'play dates' and encouraging the team to get together. Initially, this was a fantastic way to showcase my leadership and organizational skills. My management promoted those skills as positive teambuilding and rewarded me sufficiently. However, as time wore on, the same manager was not able to continue improvement in the game, and lost interest as the other players became significantly better. When he stopped playing altogether, the expectations that I would set up the games became a liability in that I was spending 'too much time' with organization, and the impression that my manager had of me was that all I did was game. This was reflected in my work performance review for two years, even after we disbanded the group that was playing. Some of us have moved on to the MMO genre now -- but it is much more secretive. We have not invited management back for the same fears of making them feel inadequate or feeling like they need more of a leadership role. [WoW, M, 32]

One interesting theme that ran through many of the narratives is how the gaming environment highlighted the existing power structures in a relationship. It is of course in role-reversals where the power structures are upset that they become most salient and thus available for examination and reflection.

A lot of times, we talk about MMOs as places where we get to play with our own identities and learn about new roles, but these role-reversals suggest that MMOs can also be places where relationships "come into play".