I was sliding shells into my 500 Tactical shotgun when I turned around and noticed my dad was still wearing the default armor. "Dad," I said, exasperated, "you could look so much cooler." He shrugged. We were hunting terrorists in Rainbow Six: Vegas 2; who cared what his onscreen avatar looked like? Apparently, a lot of us.

While the most robust customization options tend to appear in RPGs like Skyrim or Dragon Age: Inquisition, character creation exists in a surprising number of games. From sports franchises like Madden and WWE to shooters like Brink and the aforementioned Rainbow Six: Vegas 2, we often devote significant time to designing characters within the limits of a video game editor. Last generation this feature gained so much popularity that even Microsoft and Nintendo jumped on board, with both companies offering user avatars on their respective consoles.

So how do players approach character creation? According to Nick Yee, a former research scientist at Palo Alto Research Center, most create idealized versions of themselves, minimizing their physical flaws while maintaining the illusion of him or herself as the game's protagonist. However, the extent to which someone romanticizes their avatar depends on their self-confidence. "For people who are less happy," Yee says, "whether they're depressed or they have lower self-esteem, the delta [space] between that idealistic buffer gets bigger." Although Yee's insights explain why a bald gamer might play through Bloodborne as himself plus hair, they fail to explain those people who opt to play as the opposite gender or a different race.

For insight, I turned to Dr. Mark Coulson, a psychology professor at Middlesex University in England. During a YouTube series with GameSpot, he notes more men than women like to switch genders when designing an avatar. Though Coulson primarily attributes this disparity to how some men prefer looking at an attractive figure over creating an accurate avatar, he also acknowledges the lack of female protagonists in gaming. With such limited opportunities to play as a woman, Coulson suggests some men select female avatars to inject variety into a medium dominated by male characters.

A desire for variety may also come into play when choosing a character's race. Regarding racial changes, Coulson asserts that, "As a middle-age, middle-class white man, I have very little experience of prejudice, but if I play as a stigmatized race in Dragon Age...I can start to understand what it feels like." The professor's quote more or less pinpoints a core reason for character creation; in roleplaying, we can be ourselves or enter into new experiences. As he notes, however, not all of those experiences are necessarily positive.

Between these two experts, I understand some of the reasons we make our avatars the way we do. Nonetheless, I remain puzzled by a different question: Does our in-game avatar affect how we play? If playing as myself, for example, do I become more invested in my character and therefore avoid dangerous situations that might result in his death? Does playing as the opposite sex affect how we interact with our teammates in online multiplayer? Will creating a character covered in scars encourage us to act recklessly?

Up next: two studies that shed light on the answers