Psychotherapist Weighs in on Pros & Cons of Seraphine's Social Media
Why transparency and connection are key to the how Seraphine's unique introduction into gaming will be remembered.
Seraphine may have only reached live servers a week ago, but the League of Legends champion has been making waves for months now thanks to her pop star branding. For the first time, Riot created a full social media profile for this new champion, formulating a personality for players across the world to latch onto in an effort to build excitement for K/DA’s upcoming performance at the 2020 LoL World Championship.
At the time of writing, Seraphine’s twitter account boasts 345.6k followers, many of whom are passionate fans who regularly interact with her every tweet. But her reveal has been met with a wide range of controversy surrounding the character’s use of language mimicking those struggling with mental health issues. The result is perhaps the most polarizing video game character release in recent memory.
In a recent interview, Unikrn spoke with Darrin S. Bronfman, LCSW, Psychotherapist and Partner at the Pathway Center for Psychotherapy in metro Atlanta — who specializes in therapy with adolescents — to learn more about the positives and negatives that come with Seraphine’s unique entrance into the gaming world.
Seraphine and Artificial Parasocial Relationships
From the very onset, Seraphine was able to establish a passionate fan base among League of Legends players and fans of Riot’s k-pop group K/DA. Players’ ability to connect with this virtual character as if she were a real person demonstrates a sociological phenomenon known as parasocial interaction.
“Parasocial Interaction (PSI) was coined in the 50’s by sociologists to describe the illusion of closeness or connection between audience members and characters on TV,” said Bronfman. “Of course, it’s a much different world now. The advent of video games and social media has intensified that phenomenon.
Working with as many teens as I do, I see many examples of the impact that such encounters have on my client’s mental health, some negative and some positive.”
These parasocial relationships are everywhere in the modern age. People are able to engage with their favorite celebrities, streamers and personalities from around the world with unprecedented ease, for better and for worse.
“Developmentally, teens are struggling to form their identities amidst societal, family, and peer pressures. They are susceptible to the downsides of PSI, because they are looking for any port in the storm amidst their chaos.” - Bronfman
This is especially true during the current COVID-19 epidemic, which has led to what Bronfman calls “a period of increased disconnection.” While stuck inside, socially distancing from their loved ones, many have turned to their favorite streamers, content creators or online personalities for a sense of community and emotional connection.
This isn’t inherently a bad thing. Bronfman was quick to point to the connection and inspiration that can come from these kinds of connections:
“I often say that chaos is an antidote to depression. Having someone or something to focus on, especially if it’s dramatic, tends to distract the individual in a sometimes positive, healthy way.”
Seraphine’s story has undeniably connected with many players due to the emotional journey Riot has carefully constructed for the character. Seraphine has ‘grown’ in front of fan’s eyes from a simple cover artist to performing at the League of Legends World Championship Finals with the (virtual) k-pop superstars K/DA. She gets to travel the world and crash fashion week events while being photobombed by an adorable cat.
But Seraphine’s account remains sufficiently grounded in relatability. These moments of grandeur are interspersed with tweets about how she’s not a morning person or how her dad can’t take a good screenshot. And unlike brands that used their social media accounts to emulate these emotions, Seraphine has a name and a face that people can see and connect to.
“Faces are important,” Bronfman noted. “A human face being attached to an account adds to the illusion of closeness, as teens can imagine that face showing emotion as they might themselves.”
When Riot or Seraphine fans point to her positive impact, it’s this closeness and connection in a time in which those relationships are limited that they’re pointing to. These factors should not be discounted or ignored. However, there are significant dangers posed that Riot must keep in mind to ensure Seraphine’s marketing campaign ultimately does more good than harm.
Seraphine Lacks Transparency
One of the biggest dangers Bronfman circled back to repeatedly throughout the interview was the importance of disclosure.
“Transparency and full disclosure are important,” Bronfman explained. “Teens in particular need to know that what they’re investing in is temporary and fabricated, even if it meets a need for them.”
According to a Statista report, 21% of all video game players are below the age of 18. This audience is the most susceptible to forming parasocial relationships, making them a prime target for this kind of advertising campaign. They are also, critically, the most resistant to traditional advertising.
As a Temple University study found, “disclosure leads to a more affective process in which the understanding that the content is created to sell products leads to lower advertised product desire. Thus, via understanding of the selling intent of the influencer video, the disclosure seems to lead to resistance among children which is characterized by lower product desire.”
When faced with something they know is an ad, teenagers are more likely to be skeptical of the content and the people pushing it. This is an important consumer protection in the digital age, and one that the FTC stresses to all influencers that want to endorse products.
Neither Seraphine nor K/DA include any mention of League of Legends or Riot Games in their profile description, separating them from other digital idols such as Hatsune Miku that put their corporate connections front and center in their description.
Lilmiquela is a digital Instagram influencer with 2.8 million followers and “change-seeking robot” clearly displayed in its profile.
If someone was unaware of the game or the ongoing World Championship, it would be easy for him or her to mistake Seraphine for an up-and-coming digital artist rather than a video game character designed to draw in players and sell cosmetics.
By removing this disclosure, Riot is able to circumvent much of the skepticism that keeps players from engaging in branded content. This effect is exacerbated when media outfits maintain the illusion by failing to provide that critical context, further blurring these lines and becoming willing participants in free advertising.
By encouraging this parasocial relationship without presenting Seraphine as an advertisement, the character has built a rabid fan base that has pushed back against any criticism. For example, cartoonist and YouTuber TBSkyen’s recent video criticizing the character’s lore was met with accusations that he was trying to “cancel” her. It’s a personal defense of a product that would never have gotten this response if it wasn’t for the emotional connection at the foundation of their marketing campaign.
None of this is lost on Riot Games. As Seraphine’s creative director Patrick Morales recently told Bloomberg News, “being fictional doesn’t make an influencer like Seraphine any less relatable to this audience.”
By ignoring traditional disclosure policies, Riot have been able to reap the positives of the parasocial relationships without potentially alienating certain users from their product. However, they have done so by encouraging relationships that may now serve critical roles in the minds of a vulnerable teenage audience during this pandemic.
The Dangers of Closing Seraphine’s Account
While fans can argue over the positives and negatives associated with Seraphine’s account, she’s now here to stay, and the responsibility Riot now carries for their young and impressionable audience is undeniable. Seraphine’s account has regularly used language associated with those who struggle with mental health issues, encouraging engagement with those most likely to be vulnerable during these tough times.
A recent study found that the number of tweets discussing mental health issues (anxiety, depression, stress and suicidal ideation) increased by 14% in the first three months of the pandemic. Statements expressing support for those struggling also increased by 5%, and it’s this dynamic that Riot is capitalizing on with these kinds of tweets.
With a potential vaccine still in the indefinite future, and growing political unrest across the world, these issues are still very present, as is the need for an escapist fantasy that Seraphine provides many young fans. Bronfman stressed that with proper disclosure, Seraphine could be a safe space for teenagers to engage with these issues.
“Talking about mental health issues of this character could cause the teen to to further identify with her,” said Bronfman. “However this will lead to more disequilibrium if/when she goes away.”
Therein lies the big unknown that threatens to undermine any positivity and cause real harm: what happens when Riot no longer needs Seraphine?
After all, Seraphine’s account takes the hard work of a social media team that’s carefully crafting this artificial personality and determining which other accounts to engage with (without disclosing whether their RT is an ad or promotion). Once her release and the corresponding K/DA in-game events across Riot properties are done, there are few financial incentives to maintain that level of engagement until they’re ready to release new music or cosmetics down the line.
This potential account closing is Bronfman’s biggest concern:
“If there isn’t enough transparency, teens could feel abandoned and left by the closure of an account, and therefore an emotional connection. I have often said in therapy that all that therapists or loved ones can do when a client is suicidal is to strengthen the connection. Abruptly taking away such a connection could have a very negative impact on the mental health of a teen.”
Even before the COVID-19 epidemic, teenagers were experiencing a rise in mental health issues. The Kaiser Family Foundation reported that from 2016-18, over 3 million adolescents from ages 12-17 in the United States reported symptoms of either anxiety or depressive disorder. Those numbers have likely only increased during this time of disconnection.
By using mental health as part of their advertising campaign and reducing the barriers of their parasocial relationships, Riot has opted into this responsibility. If Riot wants Seraphine to be remembered as the motivational pop star they designed her to be, it is imperative that they take care of the young audience that has grown attached to the character and maintain a connection with those who need one most right now.
Article originally conceived for Unikrn. I reached out to interview Riot Games for this story and received no comment.