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Character Creation: Why We Make Avatars And How They Affect Us

by Hershall Cook on Jun 12, 2015 at 01:49 PM

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

I ask these questions after realizing how aesthetic differences have affected my playstyle in certain video games. I min-maxed the Paragon/Renegade system in Mass Effect when playing as standard male Shepard, but not when playing as my customized alternate. My first few hours of Skate 3 revolved around jumping off buildings and landing on pedestrians, activities made more hilarious by my obese and flamboyant character Pooty Geewhiz. Yet when I bored of assaulting civilians, I restarted so I could beat the campaign with someone less ridiculous. My most recent identity crisis occurred in The Witcher 3, an RPG that features a set protagonist. When playing as Geralt of Rivia, I never know whether to act as myself or him. As a result, my version of the grizzled hero suffers from a personality disorder; sometimes he slays monsters for free, and sometimes he scalps his customers for money.

That said, some gamers wouldn't bother with a new character in Skate 3. Many would play Mass Effect the same regardless of their avatar. Others would view Geralt as a tabula rasa, using him as they would a character constructed from scratch. Anecdotal evidence cuts both ways.

According to a study conducted by the University of California, Davis, in January, avatars may affect our in-game engagement. In the experiment, researchers assigned 96 women an obese or thin avatar in Virtua Tennis 2009. Those given an obese avatar did not work very hard, physically exerting themselves less than those given a slim avatar. With the exception of weight, all other variables - clothes, hair, and facial features - remained the same, thus suggesting that different avatars affect play style. Those playing as an overweight character took the game less seriously than those who used an athletic tennis player.

Sample avatars from the study.

These findings extend further into what Yee calls "The Proteus effect," a phenomenon that occurs when someone is assigned an avatar that looks different than him or her. "They conform to that avatar's stereotypical behavior and attitude," Yee says. He then provides an example, explaining how one of his experiments demonstrated that taller avatars negotiate more aggressively than shorter ones. Yee's research focuses on social interaction, and one of his most interesting findings comes from World of Warcraft. In WoW, men who play as female characters use more emotional phrases and exclamation points than men who play as men. This would make sense if men are intentionally pretending to be women, but in most cases they are not. Instead, they act based on offline stereotypes.

Although the psychology of character creation merits more research from the scientific community, the available information suggests that the act of character creation gauges an individual's confidence and that the subsequent avatar may influence his or her playstyle. Does my avatar's jawline affect whether I fight with a sword or cast magic spells? From a coding standpoint, of course not - yet if I subconsciously believe it does, perhaps it will. Either way, I plan to pay more attention when I next create an avatar.