The Psychology of Avatars
The future will see the coming of interactive full-body, full-sense virtual reality systems. We will represent ourselves in these systems as avatars. Avatars can be accurate depictions of ourselves physically and in personality traits they also stand as proxies for our idealized selves. Males most often choose avatars that are fierce, strong and hold positions of social power such as military leadership. Females typically choose avatars that are physically attractive and that entertain or provide nurturance.
Identification with an avatar can influence our behavior in the real world. Users assigned attractive avatars were more likely to walk closer to an interaction partner and to disclose personal information (Yee & Bailenson, 2007). In this study those with taller avatars also negotiated harder in a task involving the division of money. Users viewing self-resembling avatar getting thinner while exercising worked out more (Fox & Bailenson, 2009). Participants viewing ideal body avatars were also more motivated to engage in preventative behaviors like not smoking or not drinking (Kim & Sundar, 2012). In these cases the avatar is serving as a self-representing role model.
These studies demonstrate the Proteus Effect, which is that we tend to act like our avatars. This can be for good or bad. Players who designed their own avatars and played them in a violent video game were significantly more aggressive than those using a generic one (Hollingdale & Greitemeyer, 2013). White participants who played a violent video game as a black avatar displayed stronger implicit and explicit attitudes towards blacks (Yang, et. al., 2014). There are several “take home” lessons here. We identify with an avatar’s characteristics, especially if we designed it ourselves. If avatars are perceived as good, they tend to promote pro-social behavior. If those characteristics are perceived as aggressive or maladaptive they tend to promote negative or anti-social behavior.
We must not let research like this however justify the regulation of virtual worlds. People should be free to choose the avatars they want and to act as they want in virtual worlds even if those avatars and their actions correlate with undesired real world behaviors. People should be accountable for their actions in the real world where those actions have direct and actual consequences but not in virtual worlds where users understand the environment is simulated. The arguments here are similar for those wishing to ban violent video games. This type of policy is consistent with a transhumanist philosophy that promotes freedom as well as individual expression and choice.
Yang, G. S., Gibson, B., Lueke, A. K., Huesmann, L. R., & Bushman, B. J. (2014). Effects of avatar race in violent video games on racial attitudes and aggression. Social Psychological And Personality Science, 5(6), 698-704.
Hollingdale, J., & Greitemeyer, T. (2013). The changing face of aggression: The effect of personalized avatars in a violent video game on levels of aggressive behavior. Journal Of Applied Social Psychology, 43(9), 1862-1868.
Yee, N., & Bailenson, J. (2007). The Proteus Effect: The effect of transformed self-representation on behavior. Human Communication Research, 33(3), 271-290.
Fox, J., & Bailenson, J. N. (2009). Virtual self-modeling: The effects of vicarious reinforcement and identification on exercise behaviors. Media Psychology, 12(1), 1-25
Kim, Y., & Sundar, S. S. (2012). Visualizing ideal self vs. actual self through avatars: Impact on preventive health outcomes. Computers In Human Behavior, 28(4), 1356-1364