Our appearance changes every day. When we get up each morning, we decide what clothes and jewellery to wear, which hairs to shave and which to style. All of this varies by occasion, and some of us make more radical alterations as well, such as getting tattoos, piercings or cosmetic surgery. In real life, though, we’re often limited in the changes we can make to appear taller, say, or more prosperous. Videogames and virtual realities, on the other hand, are more flexible. They can let us be a hulking brute, a sultry minx or a fleet-footed athlete. We might even choose to be a different species altogether. Or we can just be ourselves, but with flawless skin or huge pectoral muscles.
Researchers have been studying the reactions to our real appearance in others for a long time, but they’ve also started to seriously study the psychology of our avatars. At first they used models of human behaviour relevant to appearances in real space, but have gradually built up new concepts to understand how people behave when they adopt different types of in-game form. It’s a topic that interests academics in fields as diverse as psychology, political science, communications, sociology and marketing because of its ever-growing potential to impact lives. So why do we choose the avatars that we do? How do different avatars change our behavior in games? And how does the experience affect us when we select ‘quit game’ and re-enter the real world?
Explaining why we adopt some the avatars we do is easy: it’s down to the demands of the game. We decide to look like an elf because we want to max out our mage build, for example. But what about virtual playgrounds where we have options that aren’t constrained by the game’s mechanics? An emerging line of research says that when the choice is ours, it’s often about building a better version of ourselves.
“Studies have shown that, in general, people create slightly idealised avatars based on their actual selves,” says Nick Yee, a research scientist at the Palo Alto Research Center. He should know: Yee has spent the past ten years studying the effects of avatars on human behavior in settings such as Second Life and World Of Warcraft. “But a compensation effect has been observed. People with a higher body mass index – likely overweight or obese – create more physically idealised avatars, [which are] taller or thinner. And people who are depressed or have low self-esteem create avatars with more idealised traits, [such as being] more gregarious and conscientious.”
Palo Alto Research Center research scientist Nick Yee and Boston College assistant professor Seung-A Jin
Other researchers have found that the ability to create idealised versions of ourselves is strongly connected to how much we enjoy the game, how immersed we become, and how much we identify with the avatar. Assistant professor Seung-A ‘Annie’ Jin, who works at Boston College’s Communication Department, did a series of experiments with Nintendo Miis and Wii Fit. She found that players who were able to create a Mii that was approximately their ideal body shape generally felt more connected to that avatar and also felt more capable of changing their virtual self’s behavior – a fancy way of saying that the game felt more interactive and immersive. This link was strongest, in fact, when there was a big discrepancy between participants’ perceptions of their ideal and actual selves.
“I would definitely recommend that developers allow players to design and don whatever kinds of avatars they like,” states Jim Blascovich, a professor of psychology at the University Of California in Santa Barbara, and co-author of the book Infinite Reality: Avatars, Eternal Life, New Worlds, And The Dawn Of The Virtual Revolution. Doing so tends to make the game more appealing and lets us connect more with our avatar and the world he or she inhabits. But what then? Once we’ve adopted an avatar, how does its appearance affect how we play games and interact with other players?
This research has its roots in what’s called self-perception theory, a watershed concept in social psychology pioneered by physicist-turned-psychologist Daryl Bem in the 1960s. Essentially, the theory says that we observe ourselves and use that information to make inferences about our attitudes or moods, as opposed to assuming our attitudes affect our behaviours. For example, someone who hurls themselves out of an aeroplane with a parachute might think, ‘I’m skydiving, so I’m the kind of person who seeks out thrills.’
In one clever study of this theory by Fritz Strack and his colleagues, subjects were given a ballpoint pen and told to hold it in their mouth in one of two ways. Some were asked to use pursed lips and others were told to hold it between their front teeth, with their lips drawn up and back. The former approach tricked the subjects into frowning, while the latter got them to smile. When asked to rate the amusement value of a cartoon, those who were being made to smile thought it was far funnier than those who were forced to frown. Their appearance was affecting their mood.
This kind of ‘first behavior, then attitude’ effect has been widely replicated in other studies. In one, researchers hooked male participants up to a monitor that beeped in time with their heart rates while they perused centrefolds from Playboy magazine. When the researchers used their control over the machine to fake an accelerated heartbeat, subjects decided that they must have a thing for the particular model they were viewing.
So first we perceive what we look like or what we’re doing, and then we draw conclusions about our attitudes and identity. And it turns out that we may continue to act in line with that presumed identity. In fact, Yee started his career by taking the precepts of social identity theory and using them to understand how people behave depending on the virtual avatars they assume. In one of his earliest experiments, Yee had subjects don a head-mounted display that let them perceive and move around in a simple virtual environment. There was just a virtual room, another person controlled by someone else, and a virtual mirror. The mirror was important, because it obviously wasn’t a real mirror and the researcher could use it to show whatever ‘reflection’ of the subjects’ avatars he wanted. In fact, Yee randomly showed subjects one of three types of avatar reflection: ugly, normal and attractive.