Empowering virtual identities: empathy in role-playing games

Stefan Makkus | 0891001 | June 8th, 2020

Skyline of the virtual city of Los Santos. Screenshot by FreezIn.

The potential of digital role-play based on empathic behavior.



This research document discusses the issue of identity, empathy, and social behavior within the roleplaying setting of Grand Theft Auto. The goal of this document is to provide a clear argument on how digital role-play can lead to stronger feelings of empathy.


To fully understand the gaming and role-playing community, the main research was conducted by initiating virtual interviews based on a nethnographic approach. These virtual interviews are presented in the form of videos and display the importance of including the gaming community. Those who participated in the interviews provided additional insights.

This research has been conducted on a modified version of Grand Theft Auto, called FiveM. The game is set in a virtual city named Los Santos where players can communicate by using voice chat.


A role-playing game (RPG) is a game genre where players act-out the roles of self-created characters in a virtual setting. The player takes responsibility for acting out these roles within a narrative created by social interactions between players. When a player is fully immersed in a virtual character, all decisions are made from the perspective of this character. This results in the player using empathy in order to fully understand and motivate their actions (Grouling, 2010).

This document intends to showcase the potential of the role-playing gaming community
in relation to on,- and offline behavior. The virtual research is providing new insights about digital stereotyping, feminism, and racism in a digital role-playing context.

Gaming terms
MMO | Massive Multiplayer Online
MMORPG | Massive Multiplayer Online Role-playing Game
RPG | Role-playing Game
MUD | Multi-user Dungeon, an online text-based RPG
MOO | MUD, Object Orientated, an online text-based RPG
D&D | Dungeons & Dragons, a tabletop RPG
LARP | Live-Action Role-playing Game


Role-playing terms
IRL | In real-life
OOC | Out of character

Terms and abbreviations



The internet has revolutionized the communications world in a way we haven’t seen before. Since the development of the internet which was created from the ARPANET plan, first published in 1966 by Lawrence G. Roberts, and the introduction of the World Wide Web by Tim Berners-Lee (Leiner, Cerf, & Clark, 1997), traditional boundaries between societies all over the world faded and raised new opportunities and risks for how people would communicate to each other. (Parks & Floyd, 1996)

The effect of digital communication on its users has been an interesting topic for many studies throughout the years which resulted in contradicting outcomes. For example, a study conducted by Adam N. Joinson states that anonymity in digital chatrooms can be associated with higher levels of self-disclosure, which may encourage intimacy and friendship (Joinson, 2001). While on the other hand online anonymity can also be linked to a lack of accountability, which may result in impolite behavior (Kiesler, Zubrow, and Moses, 1985).

The outcome of studies conducted around digital communication includes a wide range of results, either positive or negative. Jane McGonigal, Director of Games Research & Development at the Institute for the Future, promotes a more positive outlook on virtual and digital communication.

In her book, Reality is Broken published in 2001, she states: 
“Prosocial emotions—including love, compassion, admiration, and devotion— are feel-  good emotions that are directed toward others. Most of the prosocial emotions that we get from gaming today aren’t neces­sarily built into the game design; they’re more of a side effect of spending more time playing together.” (McGonigal, 77)

This leads us to a different form of communication, namely communication inside video-games. Games add a visual element to communication in the form of virtual worlds and avatars. Massive Multiplayer Online games (MMO) introduced a large open 3D world where hundreds of players in the same digital space can interact with each other.


Role-playing Games (RPG) take this a step further and focus on the creation of digital identities inside a specific narrative and setting.

Since every user can fabricate a new identity that only exists inside a digital world, it is important to look at how we define identity. Shelly Turkle states: “You can be whoever you want to be. You can completely redefine yourself if you want.” (Turkle, 184). In Life on the Screen written in 1997, she asks herself “to what extent we ourselves have become cyborgs, mixtures of biology, technology and code” (Turkle, 1997).

With these digitally created identities comes a variety of expressions and emotions. Digital communication can encourage intimacy or create new friendships but also result in a lack of accountability and impolite behavior. In times of xenophobia and selfishness where groups of people confront each other without space for any discussion, it is important to look at ways how to bring these people closer to each other.

Empathy can be a good way to combat this on,- and offline form of xenophobia and selfishness. Empathy is the ability to share and understand what another person is thinking and feeling (Oxford dictionary, 2017). By using the experience of digital environments and the creation of virtual identities in Role-playing games, it is possible to transform feelings of empathy into something that connects people.

Since empathy is such a complex and personal human emotion and feeling, it is important to research this from a fitting perspective. Being visually present and interacting with the online role-playing community inside Grand Theft Auto V allowed this document to present an honest and personal outlook on online social behavior. This resulted in a collection of virtual interviews based around personal experiences and opinions by the role-playing gaming community.

In order to fully understand the context and importance of virtual research and interviews, I will go through the history of games, the educational aspect of serious games, the importance of role-playing, and the complexity of digital identities.



What is a game
In the 21st century video-games and games in general consist of a wide variety of genres, gameplay mechanics, technical platforms, and virtual environments. A game can be defined in many ways, but in general, there are four different aspects: a goal, a set of rules, a feedback system, and includes voluntary participation (McGonigal, 77).


Those who play a game get motivated by a common goal since this provides a sense of purpose. A goal also allows multiple players at once to have the same objective, this results in teamwork. The rules of a game present limitations to how a game is played but also make sure everyone is playing by the same set of rules. It allows players to explore their own creativity by finding ways on how to navigate within these fixed set of rules.


Every game has some sort of feedback system. This system is designed to notify the player of his or her progress within the game. A system like this motivates the player to keep on playing since the progress is made visual on the screen.


The final aspect of what defines a game is called voluntary participation. This means that everyone who is involved in the game accepts the same goal and rules (McGonigal, 2010).

Bernard Suits is a professor and philosopher at the University of Waterloo and defines a game as “a voluntary attempt to overcome an unnecessary obstacle” (Suits, 2014).

Social elements inside video games
Video games can be played in two different ways. You can play it solo (singleplayer) or with other players (multiplayer). In this document, we focus on the multiplayer aspect of video-games.

Before the introduction of a worldwide communications network, people met, and then get to know each other. This is completely different inside virtual communities since these digital locations already have a specified group of players who are having similar interests. A virtual space becomes a space where a player has to look for someone who is sharing the same passion. Howard Rheingold summarizes this as: “the topic is the address” (Rheingold, 1987).

As mentioned before in the previous chapter, digital communication can encourage intimacy or create new friendships. (Joinson, 2001) A multiplayer game is designed to focus the attention of a group of players on a common goal. This gives them the motivation to pursue that goal with others, even if they were planning to play the game without interacting with other gamers (McConigal, 2001). A community or friendship can be formed from these player encounters, but that doesn’t mean that community always last long. Some communities last as long as the game match itself, while others add each other to their in-game contact list so they can message them afterward.


Gamers can experience feelings of togetherness, solidar­ity, and social connection within a community. These digital communities have a positive impact on its members since it is a place where people can participate in social interactions when they feel excluded from it. 
Experiencing a sense of community transforms these spaces into something where people want to be pro-active in improving that community.


Virtual interview: Connor

This virtual interview took place inside FiveM, a modification of Grand Theft Auto V. Conversation topics include sense of community, anonimity and the social aspect of
video games (Subtitles are available inside video player).

Serious games
The positive effects of social interactions within multiplayer games combined with the interactive features and endless creative design possibilities has lead to the development of many educational games. These games are called serious games and are a medium that focus on education, training, and social change. Serious games are intended to provide deep and sustained learning (Lee & Hoadley 2007).

The term itself can be seen as a contradiction. ‘Serious games’ implies that these games may not be fun, while games have the tendency to entertain the user (Newman, 2004). I have experienced this myself during my job as a student assistant at VU Amsterdam. Ph.D. researcher Mark Opmeer and scientific director Henk Scholten were working on research regarding serious games in a classroom setting.


We set up a pilot study in which students of the Gymnasium in Apeldoorn had to create solutions to combat local flooding inside the digital 3D environment of the building game Minecraft (van Opmeer, Mark, 2015). While the topic was urgent and serious, the students did not experience this as a dull experience. They enjoyed turning their sketches into digital 3D representations of their ideas.


The project of a student during a pilot study at the Gymnasium school Apeldoorn, in Minecraft.

Render by Stefan Makkus.

The technology of games allows all sorts of serious topics to be embedded in a digital setting and narrative. As a result, serious games are becoming a genre within the world of interactive media. Some researchers claim that any digital game may provide learning opportunities even though the game isn’t classified as a serious game (Ritterfeld, Ute, et al, 2009).

One example which supports this claim is the Uncensored Library; a digital library made in Minecraft by Blockworks, in collaboration with Reporters without Borders. Minecraft is one of the world’s most successful computer games, with more than 145 million active players every month. Communities can build entire worlds out of blocks inside an open world. In countries where websites, blogs, and free press are limited, this game is still accessible by everyone therefore allowing its citizens to get access to these forbidden media (Reporters without Borders, 2020). While Minecraft wasn’t designed to be an educational tool, the possibilities of this game stimulate creativity and encourage players to learn new things.


Overview of the Uncensored Library build in Minecraft. Render by Blockworks.



Definition of role-play
In 1987 Gillian Porter Ladousse wrote a book called Resource Books for Teachers: Role Play. In the introduction he defined role-play by putting it into the context of a classroom setting:

“When students assume a ‘role’, they play a part in a specific situation. ‘Play’ means that the role is taken on in a safe environment in which students are inventive and playful as possible. Both are unselfconsciously creating their own reality and, by doing so, are experimenting with their knowledge of the real world and developing their ability to interact with other people. None of the risks of communication and behavior in the real world are present.” (Ladousse, 1987)

Role-play or a role-playing game can therefore be seen as a safe environment where people can act out their own imagination within an already existing narrative or storyline. A role is played out with attention to physical appearance, owned items and gear, acting and reacting to other players and the virtual game environment (Rokowski et al, 2008).

Virtual interview: Fadi

This virtual interview took place inside FiveM, a modification of Grand Theft Auto V. Conversation topics include the advantages of identity exploration in a virtual environment and gained skills (Subtitles are available inside video player).


Role-playing games
The role-playing game industry is heavily inspired by the tabletop game called Dungeons and Dragons (D&D). Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson first started to distribute the game in 1974 and turned this fantasy and adventure tabletop game into a cultural sensation.

With the development of the internet and personal computers, new opportunities arose to create D&D inspired games within a digital setting. Programmers began to think of ways to incorporate these kinds of games with the new global network that was emerging around them.

In 1978, Essex University student Roy Trubshaw wrote a text-based adventure game that combined elements of D&D and other text-based adventure games and allowed the users to play together through the internet. The game was named Multi-User Dungeon (MUD) and it is the precursor of modern roleplaying games. In a MUD, a character performs tasks and defeats enemies and gets rewarded with experience points to increase its rank (Bell, 2013).

The early MUD games focussed on the adventure aspect and were not adjustable by the players. Around 1983 Pavel Curtis, a researcher at Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, developed a MUD that would be programmable by its users. This MUD would be a recreational digital space instead of a game. It ended up being the focus of a different research topic: online social communities.

It was a text-based virtual environment that the player could manipulate with commands like an adventure game, but you were sharing that environment with other people in realtime. These tabletop and early text-based role-playing games were the basis of the visual 3D, open-world, and multiplayer games we see today on multiple consoles and personal computers.

One important aspect of role-play is the sense of immersion a user gets when participating in the role-play, whether this is offline (such as LARP or D&D) or online. Immersion can be defined as “the degree of involvement that players have with different aspects of the game leading to a move of attention, awareness, and thoughts of the player from the real world to the events happening within the game” (Cairns at al, 2014).

The feeling of being fully immersed can be achieved by a realistic narrative that is related to the current social and visual environment. For example, a user role-playing as a policeman who suddenly starts to rob a bank will break the immersion and creates an unrealistic narrative for other users. In role-play, users stick to the values and beliefs of their created identity and character.

Virtual interview: Miha

This virtual interview took place inside FiveM, a modification of Grand Theft Auto V. Conversation topics include the desire to act, dealing with immersion and showing emotion during role-play (Subtitles are available inside video player).


Digital identities

The most important aspect of online role-playing, is the creation of the online identity, embodied inside an avatar. Originally the term avatar came from Hindu mythology and is the name for the temporary body a god inhabits while visiting Earth. (Damer, 2001).

Players design an avatar which is a digital representation of their online identity. They are able to customize various features, such as gender, skin color, age, genetic makeup, facial features and body structure. They have full control over the avatar's aesthetic characteristics and behavior, while other players in the game don’t know who that avatar is in real life.

Within a role-playing environment, the avatar behavior and speech may still cause stereotyping, prejudice, and preferential treatment (Kolko 1999). Female characters for example, often receive more assistance, gifts, and handouts compared to male characters (Yee 2003; Griffiths, Davies, and Chappell 2003). This is not always the case, since females experience hate and sexism. An example of this is shown in the virtual interview with David.

Virtual interview: David

This virtual interview took place inside FiveM, a modification of Grand Theft Auto V. Conversation topics include personal experience of sexism towards female characters and gender roles (Subtitles are available inside video player).


Safe environment
Furthermore, avatar creation and then acting out this online identity is a great opportunity for adolescents who are in search of their own identity. Creating an avatar can be done in a safe virtual environment and allows the user to experiment with possible selves (Dunkel and Anthis 2001).


Since it is relatively easy for players to create and modify a virtual identity, players think of themselves as "fluid, emergent, decentralized, multiplicitous, flexible and ever in process" (Turkle 1995, 263-264). A role-playing game can therefore be used as a virtual playground for identity exploration. The flexibility of role-play in combination with online social interactions, stimulate learning by experiencing.



In this research document the world of gaming, role-playing, digital identities and digital behavior has been explored. The aim of this research was to identify if virtual role-play could contribute to developing more empathy among people. Throughout the process, this topic revealed itself to be way more diverse and valuable than expected.

First, this document discussed the creation of the World Wide Web therefore allowing people to communicate with each other through new ways such as by email, chatrooms or video games. This changed the way how people were communicating and also raised questions about anonymity and digital behavior.


Games and video games were discussed, games were described based on the theory of Jane McGonigal and included four elements: a goal, rules, feedback system and voluntary participation. Within the set of rules defined by video games, players use their creativity to reach their goals. According to the virtual interview with Mike, these goals and challenges aren’t always present in real life but would be a great way to motivate people to solve problems. The social elements of video games allowed its player base to meet new friends in a digital context, achieve a sense of community and have the ability to encourage intimacy.

Additionally, serious games focus on education, training, and social change. Every game has the potential to become an educational experience even if that game is not designed to be educational. It is the creativity of its user base that can transform a game into a learning experience by using or modifying the features of a game.

In order to create an immersive experience, role-playing can be an effective way to achieve this. Role-play can be seen as a safe environment where people can act out their own imagination within a pre-defined narrative or storyline. Those who role-play as someone else, can experience stereotyping, sexism or hate towards their digital appearance. Since these people are fully immersed in a role-playing context, they get affected by these actions on an emotional level. It is possible these people develop feelings of empathy towards the group of people they represent through their virtual identity.

Virtual interview: Mike

This virtual interview took place inside FiveM, a modification of Grand Theft Auto V. Conversation topics include the challenging aspect of games and getting emotionally involved with role-play (Subtitles are available inside video player).


This immersion aspect during role-play makes gamers feel connected to their digital avatar. These virtual identities are not only formed by someone's personal dreams and imagination but also get influenced by bias, stereotyping, culture, media and the environment someone is living in. The virtual world is therefore an accurate representation of real-world social structures since stereotyping and bias are still present.

It is also important to note that virtual appearance offers a wide range of visual possibilities. This is questioning existing power structures and introduces a new perspective on how people perceive each other in a virtual setting. This research opened doors to exciting fields of research regarding virtual power structures, digital stereotyping and utilizing digital empathy to bring people closer together.

Virtual interview: Ross

This virtual interview took place inside FiveM, a modification of Grand Theft Auto V. Conversation topics include stereotyping, bias and feeling empathy within a role-playing game (Subtitles are available inside video player).



To support the insights and theory derived from the desk research, I've conducted field
research based on nethnographic methodology. This resulted in a series of virtual interviews
performed inside the virtual world of Grand Theft Auto. The people I've approached were
chosen at random and were all participating on a role-playing server named Goodlife. Before each interview, I've asked their permission regarding the screen recording of the conversation.

The interviews revolved around topics such as why people role-play, what their motivations
are and how they behave differently compared to their real-life identity. The second phase of the interviews was focussing on the empathic feelings of gamers, stereotyping and gender roles during role-play interactions.

Research method setting
The interviews were recorded by using the GeForce Shadowplay screen recording software.
All interviews were held on FiveM, a heavily modified and server-side version of Grand Theft Auto V.


On this server named Goodlife, all of the narrative and interaction between players take place in the virtual city of Los Santos. Within this narrative players can act out a selection of jobs and careers in order to make money which they can spend on cars, weapons, clothes and other items.


The transcription of the interviews published on the analysis page are the exact words, tone and language used by the participants during the interview. It is posted as an aid to understanding the proceedings of the research, but should not be treated as an authoritative record. Their word choices and grammar are an exact extraction from the interview and not my own interpretation.



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Joinson, A. Self-disclosure in computer-mediated communication: The role of self-awareness and visual anonymity. European Journal of Social Psychology, 31(2), 2001. pp 177-192. 

McGonical, Jane. Reality is broken. Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World. 2001. p 77.

Turkle, S. Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet. New York: Simon & Schuster Inc. 1997. pp 21-184.

Suits, Bernard. The Grasshopper: Games, Life, and Utopia, 3rd edition. Peterborough: Broadview Press, 2014. p 192

Rheingold, Howard. Virtual communities - exchanging ideas through computer bulletin boards. Whole Earth Review, 1978.

R. Parks, Malcolm and Floyd, Kory. Making Friends in Cyberspace. 1996.

Turner, Victor. Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors: Symbolic Action in Human Society. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1975, p 45 

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Ladousse, Gillian Porter. Resource Books for Teachers: Role Play. Oxford University Press, 1987

Rokowski, Patricia & Domínguez-Gómez, Eva M. & Rico, Mercedes. A Second Look at Second Life: Virtual Role-play as a Motivational Factor in Higher Education, 2008    

Michaud, Jon. The Tangled Cultural Roots Of Dungeons & Dragons, 2015.


Cairns, paul, Cox, Anna, Nordin,  A. Imran. Immersion in Digital Games: Review of Gaming Experience Research, 2014 Virtual Worlds Populated by Avatars of Real People Interacting with Each Other, Bots, Agents, and Exotic Life Forms: Is This the Future Face of Cyberspace? DigitalSpace, KurzweilAI, Jan. 2001,

Mark D. Griffiths, Mark N.O. Davies, and Darren Chappell. CyberPsychology & Behavior. Jan 2003.

Dunkel, Curt S., and Kristine S. Anthis. “The Role of Possible Selves in Identity Formation: a Short-Term Longitudinal Study.” Journal of Adolescence, vol. 24, no. 6, 2001, pp. 765–776., doi:10.1006/jado.2001.0433.