New research suggests you are what you avatar

As my recent article, “The Dark Psychology of Internet Trolls,” seemed to generate quite a bit of discussion, I thought that this research on avatars might prove interesting as well.

Researchers Gunwoo Yoon and Patrick Vargas wanted to see if the nature of an avatar, assigned to individual video game players, had an effect on their subsequent behaviors.

An avatar is simply an image you choose to represent you online, particularly in a video game.  For example, many of the people who comment on AMERICAblog have chosen avatars, images, to associate with their online profile.  Or when you play a video game, and choose between an image of an elf and a dwarf to represent your character, that’s your avatar.

In order to investigate avatars, Yoon and Vargars enrolled about 200 college students. The students were to play an online action/combat game for a short period. The students had to fight off enemies in the game scenarios. Each student was assigned an avatar. Some got Superman (good), some got Harry Potter villain Voldemort (evil), and some got a circle (neutral).

Two of the lead characters from the 2009 movie "Avatar."

Two of the lead characters from the 2009 movie “Avatar.”

After playing the game, the volunteers were then told that they were taking part in an unrelated experiment. They were given the choice to decide how much and what type of food to give future players in the game. They could select chocolate (good), or hot chili (bad), and also select how much of each would be given to the future game players.

What they found was that those who had the Superman avatar gave twice as much chocolate as hot chili. The Voldemort avatars did the opposite, giving future players much more chili than chocolate. Those who had neutral avatars (the circle) used less of both chocolate and chili.

Later, they repeated the experiment with a different group of participants. But in this group, some of the students who were Superman and some Voldemorts were just asked to WATCH the game after getting their avatars. Others were assigned avatars and participated. Then they were all asked to select chocolate or chili for subsequent players. The results were basically the same. Those with Superman avatars selected more chocolate, and the Voldemorts chose more hot chili. Those who merely watched did the same, but they chose less of the chocolate or chili as their player-avatar colleagues did.

So, at least in the short term, it seems like assigning someone a positive image, or role mode,l produces a positive effect on his behavior. Conversely, giving someone a negative role model causes him to respond more negatively.

It would be interesting to see just how long these positive or negative behaviors last after the game ends. And if making the game longer might extend those behaviors temporally.

It also leads to other questions that spring from this research. Could surrounding people with positive role models in daily life increase their positive behaviors? Could reminding people to be good, through videos, commercials, etc. cause more positive behaviors? Do these same things happen in children? And if so, does the positive (and negative) benefit last the same amount of time as it does in college students? If so, perhaps these techniques would be useful in education. Or in group therapy for people who are criminal offenders.

And what might this say about television, and movies, and even political blogs?  Are we unintentionally reinforcing certain aspects of the culture that we might otherwise wish to de-emphasize?

What do you think?


Mark Thoma, MD, is a physician who did his residency in internal medicine. Mark has a long history of social activism, and was an early technogeek, and science junkie, after evolving through his nerd phase. Favorite quote: “The most exciting phrase to hear in science... is not 'Eureka!' (I found it!) but 'That's funny.'” - Isaac Asimov

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