While doing research for an article on the effects of anonymity on player behavior, I came across a fascinating study that I couldn’t find a place for in that piece, but which I wanted to share somewhere.
In an article appearing in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology1 cultural anthropologist R. J. Watson considered the question of what makes it easier for young men to kill enemies2 while at war. Deindividuation theory holds that people who lose their sense of self-identity are more likely to lay aside internally held morals and look to the situation or the dominant morality of a crowd for guidance. You see this kind of thing most starkly in people who become anonymous and blend into groups.
Think about it: soldiers and warriors throughout history have changed their appearance when they go into service, especially when they prepare for active battle. At a minimum, they change their clothes, hair style, and mannerisms. Obviously, there are various benefits to such standardization, including making it easier to outfit an army, build group cohesion, and tell friend from foe. But at the more extreme ends, warriors apply war paint, piercings, masks, or make other drastic changes to their appearances. Watson wondered if soldiers and warriors who most radically change their appearance were more likely to not only get on with the killing, but be more willing to engage in more brutal acts like mutilation and torture. To test this hypothesis, he looked at archival data about world cultures compiled by anthropologists, missionaries, and other first-hand observers.
The results were pretty stark and pretty clear: in 90 percent of the cultures where wartime opponents were mutilated or tortured3 the acts were done by warriors who radically changed their appearance before going into battle. One could see this as support for the supposition that when you make a person feel less like an individual and more like a faceless part of a group, they’re more likely to go whole hog when you sic them on the enemy in a combat situation. Then, when peace time comes, they can step out of that identity by reverting their appearance.4
This got me thinking about character creators in video games. A lot of games allow extensive control over the appearance of your in-game identity, letting you adjust eye size, nose position, cheek height, chin prominence, and many frankly ridiculous other factors. Some of these are so extensive that you might be able to create, if you wanted to, someone that looks quite a bit like YOU instead of applying all kinds of fierce tatoos, face paint, piercings, or bowler hats. (If you actually do have fierce facial tattoos, then, well, that’s cool. That’s cool.) Other games even let you use photographs of yourself to virtually put yourself in the game.
So, given Watson’s findings above, would you expect people who made in-game avatars to look like them act differently, on average, from those who make savage looking avatars that look nothing like them? I think so. This is one of those times when I wish I had an awesome research lab complete with computers and a popcorn machine, because I’d love to do this study. Deindividuation theory suggests that playing as someone who looks like you would lead you to pay more attention to your internal moral compass (whatever that may be) in the same way that losing your identity behind a costume would make you more likely to adopt the morals of those around you or the ones implied by your environment or even the costume itself. Heck, one study5 even showed that simply placing a mirror in front of subjects led to this kind of effect, so it make sense. Maybe you’d have a harder time playing that “evil” character in the latest Bioware RPG.
So, anyway, somebody get out there and do this research. Then when you publish it I’ll settle for being listed as the second author.