Is Online Gaming Messing Up Your Marriage?

Video gaming can impact marital satisfaction by upending the routines of daily life. But for those couples in which both partners play, it may not be such a bad thing

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Role-playing games like World of Warcraft allow players to become buff, sword-yielding warriors online — which helps explain why dedicated gamers can while away hours in front of their computer screens. But a new study shows that players’ commitment to virtual reality has real-world consequences: it can negatively affect marital satisfaction.

Of course, it’s hardly surprising that excessive video gaming might make your partner unhappy — but it’s not for the reason you’d think. Brigham Young University researchers found that it wasn’t necessarily the long hours spent online that spouses had a problem with. Rather, they got upset when gaming caused offline arguments and particularly when a spouse’s excessive gaming interfered with the couple’s bedtime routine: couples who did not go to bed at the same time reported less marital satisfaction.

“It’s not the hours that make a difference,” said Neil Lundberg, one of the researchers and a recreation-management professor at Brigham Young, in a statement. “It’s really what it does to the relationship — whether or not it creates conflict and quarreling over the game.”

(MORE: Brain Changes in Video Gamers: Addiction or Just People Having Fun?)

For the study, published in the Journal of Leisure Research, researchers surveyed 349 married gamers: in 132 couples, only one person gamed — 84% of the time it was the husband. In the other 217 couples, both partners gamed, but in cases where one person played more than the other, it was again the husband 73% of the time. On average, the study respondents were 33 years old and had been married seven years. (Previous research has found that more than a third of players of multiplayer online role-playing games are married; 22% have kids — how they have the time to game is beyond us.)

Overall, researchers found that 75% of gamers’ spouses wished they would put more effort into their marriage, and when one person spent a lot more time gaming than the other, it usually led to dissatisfaction and arguing. Like any other activity that gets in the way of couples’ intimacy and family time, gaming had the same effect.

Researchers were surprised to discover, however, that for couples in which both partners played, 76% reported that gaming was actually good for their marriage. Interacting with one another’s avatars online led to higher marital satisfaction in real life, the study found — as long as both people were happy with their mutual participation. Interestingly, couples who gamed on the same team were less likely to report being satisfied than those who played on separate teams — possibly in part because more advanced gamers got frustrated when their less skillful spouses couldn’t keep up.

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“We didn’t realize that there was a whole group of couples who game together,” said Lundberg. “In those gaming couples where the marital satisfaction was low, the same issues existed. For example, if they argued about gaming and bedtime rituals were interrupted, even though they gamed together, they still had lower marital-satisfaction scores.”

The researchers also suggest that gamers’ marital dissatisfaction could potentially be a bigger problem than the study found, since many gamers declined to participate in the study.

“This study really does verify that gaming has an effect on marital satisfaction,” Lundberg said. “It’s not just a random occurrence that a few couples are dealing with.”

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