Me and My Avatar

Article, Shan Lakhmani No Comments

Shan Lakhmani | May 1, 2012

In a computer game, one must not only have some control over the environment, but one must also be able to leverage this control to accomplish a goal set by the game (Garris, Ahlers, & Driskell, 2002). While there are a number of ways to implement this control, one of the more popular ways of doing so is to establish a digital representation of the self so that one can manipulate objects in the games virtual space. This digital representation is called an Avatar (Lim & Reeves, 2008).

Character Creation Screen from Aion Online

Image property of NCSoft, from Aion: Ascension

In successful games, the user feels engrossed with the material on the screen, in a process known as immersion (Jin, 2009). To try and increase this sense of immersion, game designers do a number of things, including encouraging users to identify with their avatar; this identification process shifts the user from the role of an audience member to an acting member of the game (Bailey, Wise, & Bolls 2009). Being given a choice in terms of an avatar’s appearance has been shown to increase a player’s identification with that character, assuming the avatar is seen (Bailey et al., 2009). Consequently, many games offer avatar customization as a feature, an activity in which many players indulge (Ducheneaut, Wen, Yess, & Wadley, 2009). In fact, one can make the argument that, in the game Second Life, avatar customization is the point of the game (Ducheneaut et al, 2009). One’s identification with what is essentially a tool allows for the establishment of a curious relationship.

An avatar has the peculiar distinction of being both an externalized representation of the self and a tool that one uses. When we use a tool, we cognitively imbue it with properties of ourselves in a process known as disembodiment; the usage of tools, including avatars, is associated with the activation of the PTO junction, which is an area of the brain that encompasses parts of the parietal, temporal, and occipital lobes (Corradi-Dell’Acqua, Ueno, Ogawa, Cheng, Rumiati, & Iriki, 2008). So, because one sees their tool, the avatar, as an extension of the self, when your avatar does something, the individual takes responsibility for it. When you hit a nail with a hammer, you don’t think that the hammer embedded nails in wood; you did. The same principle applies in games, where one has an avatar, rather than a hammer.

Now, a particularly interesting part of this relationship is that not only do individuals project aspects of themselves onto their avatars, but that the relationship may in fact be reciprocal. There is evidence that a user’s mental model of the self, how one sees oneself, can actually be altered by one’s avatar when one is embodied in an avatar, albeit temporarily (Bailey et al., 2009). For example, on a dating/social networking site, when users were represented by more attractive avatars, they were more willing to approach members of the opposite sex (Vasalou, Joinson, Banziger, Goldie, & Pitt, 2008).

Comparison of user and avatar

It’s like they’re twins!

While much more empirical research is necessary before one can make any conclusive claims, the implications of this potential reciprocal relationship are far reaching. If one wishes to go down the route of commercialism, this research would have consequences in the development of advergames. Advergames are advertiser sponsored games with branded content and they already make use of player customization to increase a user’s engagement with the game (Bailey et al., 2009). If one could establish this relationship, as well as a consistent means of establishing it, then one might be able leverage this relationship to increasing product sales. However, increasing sales is not the only reason to research this relationship further.

The potential for pro-social behavioral modification is also apparent. There is already research trying to use avatar design in exercise games as a way of keeping people on an exercise regime (Jin, 2009). People with poor self-image may be able to use specially designed games with avatars to help them establish a healthier self-image. Perhaps using an avatar to accomplish energy-conscious tasks in a game will yield slightly more “green” behavior amongst players. Further research in this field may give us another tool we could use to design games that can help players accomplish goals other than passing time in an enjoyable manner.


Bailey, R., Wise, K., & Bolls, P. (2009). How Avatar Customizability Affects Children’s Arousal and Subjective Presence During Junk Food–Sponsored Online Video Games. CyberPsychology & Behavior, 12(3), 277–283.

Corradi-Dell’Acqua, C., Ueno, K., Ogawa, A., Cheng, K., Rumiati, R. I., & Iriki, A. (2008). Effects of shifting perspective of the self: An fMRI study. NeuroImage, 40(4), 1902–1911.

Ducheneaut, N., Wen, M.-H., Yee, N., & Wadley, G. (2009). Body and mind: a study of avatar personalization in three virtual worlds. Proceedings of the 27th international conference on Human factors in computing systems, CHI ’09 (pp. 1151–1160). New York, NY, USA: ACM.

Garris, R., Ahlers, R., & Driskell, J. (2002). Games, motivation, and learning: A research and practice model. Simulation & Gaming: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 33(4), 441–467.

Jin, S.-A. A. (2009). Avatars Mirroring the Actual Self versus Projecting the Ideal Self: The Effects of Self-Priming on Interactivity and Immersion in an Exergame, Wii Fit. CyberPsychology & Behavior, 12(6), 761–765.

Lim, S., & Reeves, B. (2010). Computer agents versus avatars: Responses to interactive game characters controlled by a computer or other player. International Journal of Human-Computer Studies, 68(1–2), 57–68.

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