You Are Who You Play? Part 2 – Avatar Empowerment

Do you make your avatar a better person or does it make YOU better?

Building a Better You

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Continuing into the MMO psyche, we take a look at another theory into the motivations behind the choices players make for character creation and game play.

Numerous studies on this topic were performed by Nick Yee of the Palo Alto Research Center, who is also a gaming consultant.Getting beyond avatars created; merely for advantage in-game play (like chosing a particular race due to their magic ability, or another based on their skill with a favorite weapon), why do we make the choices we do?

“Studies have shown that, in general, people create slightly idealised avatars based on their actual selves,” says Yee.

Idealized in the sense that the avatar is us – but how we see ourselves at our best or perfected. He also noted there is a compensation effect happening the farther one gets from their avatar actually representing themselves.

“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 idealized traits, [such as being] more gregarious and conscientious.”

Out of Character Experience

There is also science to show that your avatar make actually affect you.

Yee spent the last decade observing players in Second Life and World of Warcraft, noting the effects that avatars have on human behavior and interaction. Not just in-game, but right after playing or even well beyond.

One interesting experiment involved having participants wear virtual reality headsets and stand in a room together with a virtual mirror. The twist was that the reflection they saw was not their own, but one of several pre-determined looks. They were either an average, attractive or unattractive face.

Curiously, the unattractive-faced people were less confident, keep more personal space and revealed less of themselves in conversation. And this was based simply on how they saw themselves in relation to the others in the room.

“People unconsciously conform to the expectations of their avatar’s appearances. We’ve termed this phenomenon the Proteus effect, after the Greek god who could change his physical form at will” – Nick Yee

This effect is similar to psychological tests where people were given various uniforms to wear and subconsciously changed their behavior based on what they were wearing.

This idea was played to the comedic hilt in the classic Bugs Bunny cartoon where Bugs and Elmer’s behavior changed radically based on what hat they were wearing.

So, in terms of a game avatar, if you’re playing a handsome, bold warrior in-game you could be more likely to exude confidence, tenacity and determination. Your avatar can actually alter your identity.

A different group study from Yee’s had participant look at ads featuring real products and then fictional ones using their avatar as the spokesperson. Can you guess which products were found more attractive?

Projection vs. Disconnection

Unlike the previous study in Part 1, Yee found that players view their avatars in different manners. Less than 45% of players polled saw their avatar as an idealized version of themselves.

This result dipped for young adult players vs. kids and teens, but rose again in older adults. Also, it is curious to note that women felt more strongly than men when it came to idealizing themselves through their avatars.

Conversely, about the same number of players saw their avatars as mere pawns or pieces to control on a playing field. Men outnumbered women in this mindset, nearly two-to-one in young adults; but women were less connected to their avatars in their late teens and older adulthood.

This feeling of attachment to an avatar also seemed to affect how much time and energy a player was willing to invest in their character. Overall, the more connection a player felt, the more willing they were to play longer.

Another interesting statistic has to do with age/gender and in-game vs OOC (Out of Character) behavior. Yee’s study found that the older a player was, the more likely they were to behave in-game and OOC similarly as opposed to younger players.

This result is also seen in which players are more likely to exhibit bad social behavior in-game. Following the statistics for instance, a griefer or troll is more likely to be a younger male teen or adult while older players and younger females are more likely to experience game drama due to avatar projection.

Social Motivations

Though questing and achieving are high on the game goals in most MMOs as well as competitive and co-op aspects, according to Yee’s studies socializing scored even higher.

When he broke down game experience into categories Social, Immersion and Achievement had the highest results with Social scoring 23% of player motivation. This score included activities like chatting, being in a guild, being in a crew or group, and socializing with in-game friends.

This factor may indicate why avatar creation, development and attachment plays such a strong part since it affects socialization which is large part of the average MMO gamer’s experience.

Jumping to Conclusions

Nick Yee has dedicated many years to his studies and worked with various universities, think tanks and research groups around the world. His expertise has been sought out by gaming companies to help them better develop MMORPGs that will be successful.

The volumes of his work cannot begin to be approached in this series, and I highly recommend you go to if the idea of game psychology interests you. It is very eye-opening (like a study of gender roles in MMOs for instance or game economies).

More studies and more reading to go as we continue to delve into your avatar’s psyche.

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Capt. Eliza Creststeel
Amazon, Pirate and Gator 'Rassler who terrorizes the seas aboard her frigate The Crimson Widow in the original Pirates Online and now in The Legend of Pirates Onlines ( Also an administrator of the Pirates Online Wiki ( Have swung a hammer in Guild Wars 2, slung a S.A.W. in Defiance and winged across the galaxy in Star Wars: The Old Republic.