I recently started playing the massively multiplayer role-playing game Guild Wars 2. The character creation process is extensive, letting you mix and match 5 races, 8 professions, and 2 genders. According to my math, that’s like more than five different possible combinations. Maybe a lot more.
After trying many combos, I settled on the Necromancer class since I liked its use of pets, debuffs, and damage-over-time effects. Since I had been semi-randomly combining races and classes, this character happened to be a human female. Not too unusual for me, but the thing is that the armor skins are unique to each race/gender combination and after 40 levels the female Necromancer garb has ended up looking a bit …saucy. Like to a ridiculous degree, as if my character was part of a Mardi Gras parade that took a detour through the clearance rack at Victoria’s Secret:
A long line of research around self-perception that has shown that people’s attitudes will change to match their behavior, not just the other way around. One famous study1 showed that National Football League and National Hockey League athletes were more likely to earn penalties when they wore jersies that were black –a color associated with villany and unscrupulous cat burgalers everywhere. And it wasn’t just that referees reserved harsher judgments for them. A follow-up study showed that participants wearing black gravitated towards more violent games when given the choice. The researchers argued that these behaviors could be traced back to self-perception theory: I’m wearing black → I’m expected to be aggressive → I’m aggressive → I’m picking the game where I get to shoot the other guy in the face with a dart gun. Even if that whole chain of thoughts wasn’t conscious, the results were there.
In a way, video game avatars are like uniforms that we slip on. Researchers looking at self-perception theory’s implications for video games and virtual reality avatars have coined the term “the Proteus effect” to describe how players will make inferences about their expected attitudes and beliefs based on their in-game avatar’s appearance, and then act in accordance with those expectations. For example, one study2 found that subjects controlling more attractive, taller avatars were more outgoing and more assertive in a bargaining exercise, and another3 found that people were more likely to help clean up an accident after playing a game as a super hero.
So what about my sexy necromancer and titillating avatars in general? The degree to which this kind of character design is acceptable and/or harmful is the focus of much debate in video games and other discussions about popular culture, but it’s also been the subject of research by psychologists studying the Proteus effect and self-perception theory in the context of virtual reality. My Necro’s attire reminded me of a paper I had read about on VGResearcher by Jesse Fox, Jeremy Bailenson, and Liz Tricase, entitled “The Embondiment of Sexualized Virtual Selves: The Proteus Effect and Experience of Self-Objectification Via Avatars.”4 The researchers were interested in the effects of sexualized avatars on women’s self-objectification and what they called rape myth acceptance (e.g., believing that a rape victim shares responsibility for an attack because she was drinking or flirting would show acceptance of a rape myth). They were also interested in what effect it would have if the avatar’s face resembled the player’s own.
The setup was pretty simple. Subjects (all college age women) wore virtual reality gear and used a female avatar wearing either sexy attire that showed skin, or non-sexy attire that did not. In addition, for some subjects the avatar’s face was made to resemble their own using a digital photograph. Here are some examples from the study:
Participants then completed a simple task with the aid of another person (a male) within the VR environment. After the task, the subjects were asked to write down their current thoughts and complete questionnaires measuring rape myth acceptance. Results showed that those using a sexualized avatar were more likely to include thoughts about their real body (as opposed the avatar’s body or anything else) in the “write down your thoughts” task. Furthermore, those who were using the sexualized avatars with their own faces superimposed on them were more likely than other subjects to accept rape myths. That is, they were more likely to agree with statements like “In the majority of rapes, the victim is promiscuous or has a bad reputation.”
Now, I think this is preliminary research. The increase in body-related thoughts can probably be accounted for by a simple priming effect –if the subjects had used chickens as avatars they probably would have written more about barnyards and sandwiches for the same reason. But the fact that use of these avatars causes increased thoughts about body image seems clear regardless of the cause. The rape myth acceptance seems more troubling, and the authors note that this is “a dangerous attitude for a woman to have as a potential juror, confidante, voter, family member, or even victim.” 5 I’d love to see more research that teases out the reasons for this, as the authors don’t really offer a solid one.
So what do we make of this? I’m not going to wade in and say that these kind of avatar options shouldn’t be available. After all, I continue to play my Necromancer. But it’s worth noting that people are doing real research on what effects these self representations have on the people who use them, and you should be aware of it as you play, design, and interact. Video games are unique relative to other media in the amount of interactivity and customization they offer and the ways that people use them.