Deindividuation + Character Creator = Stab Them in the Face

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

Dragon Age Character Creator

As you can see, the addition of ...well, actually this one does kind of look like me, so maybe it's a bad example.

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.


1. Watson, R.J. (1973) Investigation into Deindividuation Using a Cross-Cultural Survey Technique. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 25, 342-345.
2. Or anyone, really
3. And killed; don’t forget killed
4. And, of course, nobody means disrespect to our (or your) men and women in uniform; this study looked at acts far beyond donning simple Army fatigues.
5. Froming, W. J., Walker, G. R. & Lopyan, K. J (1982). Public and private self-awareness: When personal attitudes conflict with societal expectations. Journal of Experimental Social Psychoogy, 18, 476-487.

19 thoughts on “Deindividuation + Character Creator = Stab Them in the Face

  1. Very interesting. I hadn’t thought about it this way, but I think I know what you’re saying. On more than one occasion, I have played through a game for the first time with a female character, making all the morally “good” decisions that I would make if given the choice in real life. Then, for my second playthrough, I made a male character and chose all the “evil” options. And I know my brother has done the opposite (first playthrough with a good male, second with an evil female). Generally when I play games, even though it’s just a computer game, I still feel bad about killing innocents, betraying allies, etc. But when I’m playing a male character, I’ve kind of established that this character isn’t really me, so I can more easily make him do things that I wouldn’t do myself.

    Dragon Age character creation took me so long! So many choices… But it’s nice to have a unique face that I’m happy with.

  2. I can offer a sort of corroboration for this theory from my days as a civil protestor.

    When you go on a peaceful demonstration veterans will often encourage people in the crowd to talk to the police. What’s their name, do they have pets (for animal rights protests). The experienced demonstrators know that if the police respond as individuals they’re less violent if the situation turns ugly.

    In MMOs I think we see this in the guild v pug behaviour. Often you can group with people in a pug you know that their poor behaviour is something they’d never do in a guild run. Messing up pulls for a laugh, ninja pulling, etc. They do it because you don’t know them and they feel no social ties.

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  4. I enjoy making my avatars look as much like me as possible because it allows for me to gain fulfillment in performing extreme acts within the game. Whether I’m fighting off hordes of darkspawn or rocking out, it is I, Ashley Lynch, who becomes the hero of the hour and it makes me feel good.

  5. Interestingly, I was having the exact conversation last night. The dude was saying that he normally makes an avatar that looks as much like him as possible, but then feels stymied because he can’t make himself not make the “good guy” choices. Then recently in Dragon Age he made a female avatar and was able to go hog wild. The other person in the conversation agreed, but from the opposite gender’s point of view– she exclusively makes female avatars, but then in Mass Effect 2 made a male avatar and felt like it was “expected” that he would be an “asshole,” so she went around punching people.

    I always make an avatar that’s as little like me as possible (either a female or a black male) and then do all the same moral choices I would as myself anyway… so I don’t know what that says about me.

  6. Hmm… I’m not sure about this one way or the other.

    For one thing, most English-based MMOs (and even games, really) don’t offer much in terms of Asian faces. (I won’t talk about Black folk, because I don’t know enough to do *that* part of the discussion justice. =) )

    Because of that, I don’t think I’ve ever attempted to make an MMO character that looks anything like the ‘real’ me. Or the physical me anyway!

    So while there may be something about deindividuation being linked to ooky behaviour where avatars are concerned, many more factors probably need to be present at the same time.

  7. Well,i actually do these things!
    When im playing a good character i spent some time to make the character look like the way i want it (not necessary me by the way)but when im playing an evil character i just push random and play with what ever the game chooses for me!

  8. Well, the closest thing to war I could consider in the game I play (World of Warcraft) is the PvP scene. There are player-versus-player “seasons” and “tournaments” that net winners several times a year. The winning teams are visible in the WoW Armory along with the characters in each team.

    So I took the top three teams in each PvP category and found 42 characters. While I suspect the huge majority of winners are young men and boys, the male/female ratio is almost 50/50. There were 24 males and 18 females. Most of the female characters were of the attractive humanoid type, humans and blood elves mostly. This gender changing could be a way of putting on a game mask.

    I was not surprised that the huge majority of teams were Horde side. Horde characters are all human sized or larger, while Alliance side characters are mostly human sized or smaller. There were 32 Horde characters to 10 Alliance characters. There was only one each of the extra small dwarf and gnome Alliance side characters.

    When WoW originally came out, there was no PvP. In the brief period after PvP existed in the original game, Horde dominated that area even more strongly than today. With the Burning Crusade expansion, Blizzard evened the character creation bias somewhat. They added a pretty humanoid race to the Horde with blood elves. For the Alliance side, they added the first beefy looking race, the vaguely demonic looking draenei.

    Though I don’t know how to prove it, I’ve seen anecdotally that this has changed the game atmosphere. There are more women and more raiding guilds Horde side. There are somewhat more able PvPers on Alliance side. However, there remains a faction gap. Since the game literally pits the factions against each other, this is a less than ideal situation from a game balance viewpoint.

    The next expansion should further narrow the gap. The Horde side will get their first smaller-than-human race with the goblins. The Alliance side will get the large and furry worgen race. I have already heard that Horde players are considering switching factions for the first time to try out the worgen. Nobody seems terribly interested in the goblins. I’m not surprised.

    I play a female gnome and don’t PvP competitively. I occasionally do battlegrounds where players never get rated. I talk to other players who PvP on occasion. So while I’m an insider to the game, I’m an outsider to the PvP mentality. Hence me trying to stick to statistics.

    You can examine them further here:

  9. @ EmmJay
    Huh, cool. Thanks for that link. I’m going to print out the article and take a closer look, but it seems like a similar concept. Not sure how much they’re using the deindividuation angle, though.

  10. Wouldn’t it all be a matter of role playing and experimentation? If you make your avatar look like yourself, then you’re committing yourself (maybe subconsciously) to playing as yourself. If you make your avatar look differently you open the door to experimentation and role playing. And the “evil” choices are often the most attractive in that as they are not accepted in real life.

    I wanted to link to the Nick Yee’s Daedalus Project here but the site seems offline. He has a lot of info on this that I found useful for my own research as well. He seems to be the only really. So if you see a chance to research this topic more, please do!

    By coincidence I wrote about this topic last week on my blog. I don’t want to spam, but if you would have a look at the article on the web page mentioned in my login data, I’d be really honored 🙂

  11. Stabs : I can offer a sort of corroboration for this theory from my days as a civil protestor.
    When you go on a peaceful demonstration veterans will often encourage people in the crowd to talk to the police. What’s their name, do they have pets (for animal rights protests). The experienced demonstrators know that if the police respond as individuals they’re less violent if the situation turns ugly.

    Similar effect with violent protestors and anarchists (see Greece and G20 protests), they dress in black and do not talk to police, instead dehumanizing the police. Before you know it they are preparing molotov cocktails before every event and are addicted to violence, not realizing that the stones and molotov cocktails are potentially lethal weapons that can hurt bystanders too. They ruin the day for peaceful protestors. War in all its forms requires a sort of regression into manichean fundamentalism for both sides.

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  13. It’s role playing.

    …and it’s not just games or soldiers or police too. Let’s not forget corporate culture. Our Corporate Executive can don a suit and make some decisions that might hideously effect real people, but he/she does so because of the share prices. Because they are “expected to”.

    When that appearance (and the role) – be it the suit or the uniform or other changes in appearance – become routine to the person and part of their normal identity, well, that’s when we have properly frightening people.

    I’ll let you guys decide if they’d qualify as psycho or socio-paths or whatnot.

  14. I’m kind of the opposite. I’m a bookish sort and not very interesting looking, but I tend to make characters that are also female, but very sinister and evil looking, favouring black, heavy makeup and sinister armour where possible and the like. However, the character will be a total goody-two-shoes, despite appearances.

    As for me, well, I do try, but I’m only human…

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  16. I see games as a creative, intellectual, and emotional outlet- a substitute for real social interaction. And I treat it as such; I don’t pretend I would hold onto my extensive video game experience if I could have better real friendships instead. This means that video games make me feel ashamed that I am not more socially developed.

    And therefore, the escape games give me would be reduced if the character looked like me. But on the other hand, having the character look really different makes me feel a bit lonely and detached, and anything in between is boring.

    I don’t know how more customization would work out for me, I might just prefer being given a fake and artificial identity which I can understand and appreciate over personal choice.

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