Gaming, Narcissism, and the Cult of Me

By Karen Hertzberg -
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In gaming, and on the Internet in general, there are people who suck. Trolls and flamers and griefers abound. It’s difficult to pin down the ratio of jerks to nice people, but in our daily online lives we seem to bump into a significant population of the former. Or maybe we just notice them more, because that’s their thing—getting noticed. Online gaming seems to breed (or at least intensify) narcissism.

Narcissism and the Cult of Me

Narcissism is a personality trait defined by a grandiose self-image. Self-confidence is one thing—it’s great to believe in yourself, especially when you base that belief on your own proven capabilities and experiences—but the narcissist’s sense of self is inflated. And, as with any personality trait, there’s a spectrum that runs from the guy who can’t pass a reflective surface without checking his look to the teenage girl who posts thousands of selfies to Tumblr to the businessman whose eyes glaze over unless he’s talking about his number one priority—himself. At the furthest end of the spectrum lies a true clinical diagnosis—Narcissistic Personality Disorder, or NPD.

A significant portion of the population (an estimated 6.2%) suffers NPD, and studies suggest that this number is on the rise in teens and young adults. I could list the criteria for diagnosis, but this article does that if you’re interested. Instead, I’ll personalize things a bit.

Someone I love is a narcissist. Well, let me clarify that—someone I love suffers from a mental illness in which narcissism can, and often does, play a supporting role. My life with him has been a constant onslaught of, “Me, me, me!” I’m frequently regaled with stories trumpeting his achievements, and telling me how highly people regard him, which displays a key characteristic of the narcissist—inflated self-importance. But he couples that with feigned humility. “I’m just a man,” he’ll say. “I’m nothing special. I did what anyone would do.” That demonstrates another narcissist’s trait—manipulation. When he’s talking about himself or his own experiences he’s fully animated and engaged, but when he’s listening to anyone else, his eyes glaze over and he tunes out, then dismisses the other person’s contribution by switching the topic back to himself. I’ve pointed out to him that on both business and personal phone calls I’ve overheard (he has no qualms about chatting away on his Bluetooth headset while in my company, or anyone’s for that matter; he would never miss the golden opportunity to appear in-demand), he rattles on about his own issues excessively, but when the other party talks for any length of time, he dismisses them with the same verbal tick: “Yeah. So...” After “Yeah. So...” the conversation inevitably points back to him.

Most of us have narcissistic traits to some degree. It’s the rare person indeed who has never been self-absorbed at one time or another. But whatever the reason we humans become problematically narcissistic, it’s clear that we’re noticing narcissistic traits now more than ever.

Narcissism and Our Gaming Lives

A 2008 study on narcissistic behavior’s relationship to social networking sites showed that those with narcissistic traits express them in spades online. The more narcissistic you are, the more likely you are to have a vast number of “friends” on Facebook—some of them superficial acquaintances at best, and many of them people you don’t even know except online.

A 2012 article in The Guardian suggests toxic levels of narcissism on Facebook. The more narcissistic you are, the more likely you are to have lots of friends, change your profile picture frequently (share those selfies!) and respond aggressively to negative comments about yourself posted online.

So, social media activity seems to reflect, or even amplify, narcissism. Breaking: Water is wet! And bears actually do shit in the woods.

Yes, he does. And he'd like some privacy, damnit. 

A 2008 study pointed out a correlation between aggression and narcissistic personality traits and incidences of online gaming addiction—in other words, if you have issues with those things you’re more at risk of becoming addicted to your favorite online games. But is the inverse true? It’s a chicken-or-the-egg sort of question: are some of us online gamers in part because we’re narcissistic, or does gaming increase our narcissistic tendencies, making them more apparent? The latter makes sense when you think about it, even if no study (at least none that I can find) has managed to prove causation. Online games tell us that we’re the hero. We have things like leaderboards, server firsts, and competitions—a variety of ways to show off, if we’re able to achieve greatness. Our forum signatures trumpet our achievements. We work hard, playing many long hours, to get the best gear so that when we strut around in game people are impressed by us. A great deal of the gameplay in MMOs and other online games is centered on that “me, me, me” mentality. We love to earn bragging rights.

In my column last week, I wrote about Gaming and Shaming and talked about how this culture, the anonymity afforded by online communication, brings out the inner asshat in some of us. Narcissism almost certainly plays a role, because the narcissist can’t see past his own face—another of the key traits of the narcissist is an inability to empathize. When we’re out there in a virtual world trying to prove what a badass we are, we might be less aware that other players are human beings with emotions.

Fortunately, while gaming seems to make assholes even more... assholey, it can also highlight the generosity and cooperative spirit of players. Communities are formed where players band together and help one another. Very often, we enjoy the company of friends in a virtual world. Like the character Narcissus from Greek mythology (for whom the term narcissism is named), those me-centered players can lead their lonely existences staring at their own reflections. Maybe they’re worthy of our sympathy. After all, Narcissus died while staring into the pool at his own beautiful self. And we know that being a part of a community—cooperating with and enjoying the company of others—is where the fun truly is.

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About The Author

Karen "Shayalyn" Hertzberg
Karen is H.D.i.C. (Head Druid in Charge) at EQHammer. She likes chocolate chip pancakes, warm hugs, gaming so late that it's early, and rooting things and covering them with bees. Don't read her Ten Ton Hammer column every Tuesday. Or the EQHammer one every Thursday, either.