Posted by: Jess Riley | February 24, 2009

Roleplaying Disorders: Depersonalization

For a start, I would like to point out that today is my birthday. I would be declining to post as a result, but Blogatelle informs me that my update schedule has been so erratic lately that I can’t use that as an excuse – nor any other excuse.

So, instead, I’m going to take a slightly lighter approach to the subject of roleplaying disorders. I don’t mean lighter as in that the subject matter is any less serious than any other disorder… except insofar as that when I hear or read about it, all I can think of is the film American Psycho, which makes it difficult to talk about without smirking, or imagining certain celebrities wearing only very few clothes.

No, I’m not perverted. What makes you say that?

The ‘disorder’ in question isn’t necessarily a disorder so much as a symptom – and it can be a symptom of a number of things. Depersonalization is the condition wherein the perception or experience of the self is altered, so the person feels detached from their mental processes, body, or world around them. When experienced chronically, it is referred to as depersonalization disorder; outside of that, it can be experienced as a symptom or side-effect of depression (bipolar and unipolar), anxiety, epilepsy, sleep deprivation, migraine headaches, alcohol, caffiene, or drug withdrawal.

The experience has been compared to a metaphysical dolly zoom – and no, I’m not making that up or being flippant.

And incidentally, I’m not being at all strange by drawing on the film American Psycho as an example of depersonalization – it’s one of the most identifiable solid examples of chronic depersonalization in modern media. Consider this short excerpt from the novel:

“There wasn’t a clear, identifiable emotion within me, except for greed and, possibly, total disgust. I had all the characteristics of a human being—flesh, blood, skin, hair—but my depersonalization was so intense, had gone so deep, that the normal ability to feel compassion had been eradicated, the victim of a slow, purposeful erasure. I was simply imitating reality, a rough resemblance of a human being, with only a dim corner of my mind functioning.” (American Psycho, Bret Easton Ellis.)

Now, this isn’t necessarily indicative of how everyone would experience depersonalization – certainly, not everyone would experience a complete loss of compassion – but the general gist is fairly correct. In particular, the sensation of feeling emotionless, and of ‘imitating’ reality while a part of your mind stands by and watches, is quite typical of chronic depersonalization.

In roleplay, any character who has experience with certain kinds of substance abuse, or an anxiety disorder could potentially experience depersonalization. In terms of chronic depersonalization, I would suggest that there are two obvious candidates – druids, who shapeshift so often that they may find it difficult to identify the experience of being ‘human’ (or elven, or tauren, but you see my point), and the Undead, who have been separated not only from the physical characteristics that marked them as human (or elven, etc), but also their families and friends – the things that mentally mark them as human.

In actual play, it can be difficult to show the period of depersonalization, short of actually telling people. However, I believe in showing rather than telling whenever possible. Granted, someone suffering depersonalization is more likely to tell than show, but how else can it be done?

There is the American Psycho approach of identifying it through a complete lack of human emotion. Someone who seems cold, collected, distant and – at the worst end – sociopathic could be identified as suffering from chronic depersonalization.

Alternatively, consider that depersonalization frequently causes, or is co-morbid with panic attacks, bouts of tears, and other dramatic shows of emotion.  While the actual depersonalization can hardly be shown, these associated feelings can be displayed easily enough.


  1. I have a character–a blood elf mage–who has depersonalization disorder severe enough that he’ll often go into “blank” periods during roleplay where he just doesn’t respond to the outside environment, or responds inappropriately. I’ve described it as his just going “absent” from everything going on around him, with a blank affect, lack of attention to people he was talking to, etc.

    It provides a convenient cover for when I need to go AFK during an RP session. 😉 But unfortunately it sometimes seems too subtle for people to pick up on as being particularly “wrong” with him; but then, I imagine other roleplayers are more used to mentally disturbed characters trying to kill themselves or other such nonsense.

    It’s an interesting disorder, all that aside. I’ve experienced–extremely rare–bouts of depersonalization myself, and I can see how people with the actual disorder would be unable to function while living in that state.

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