Study: Don’t assume a MMORPG gamer’s avatar reflects his or her offline personality

New research suggests that a gamer’s offline personality isn’t always the starting point for their avatar customization.

The study in Computers in Human Behavior examined a specific genre of computer games known as massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs), in which a large number of players interact with one another in a virtual online world.

A survey completed by 845 people who played MMORPGs revealed that the personal avatars created by players sometimes reflected their actual offline self and sometimes reflected an idealized version of their personality. But the avatars can also be an alter-ego that is completely divorced from the player’s offline self or the antithesis of a player’s offline personality (e.g. an “evil” version of the player). These latter two types of avatars “seemed to give expression to the desire to break free from the constraints of the offline world,” the researchers noted.

PsyPost interviewed the study’s corresponding author, Tiziana Mancini of the University of Parma, Italy. Read her responses below:

PsyPost: Why were you interested in this topic?

Mancini: My main research interest focus on the study of self and identity in the post-modern society. Cyberspace is a relevant context for the study of this issue. Moreover, thanks to the possibilities to customize more or less humanoid avatars and to the relational dynamics of these virtual worlds, MMORPGs are privileged contexts to study the characteristics of self and identity processes in the post-modern era.

What should the average person take away from your study?

This is an interesting question. We think that an average person should take away the fact that playing with MMORPGs could be fun, a nice way to spend leisure time and to relax; not a way to solve the inconsistencies between who he/she is and who he/she wants to be in the offline life. In simpler words, our study supports the idea that customizing a simulacra avatar –i.e., an avatar customized without having the offline personality as a starting point–is not only possible, but it could even be protective for the psychological well-being of the players.

Are there any major caveats? What questions still need to be addressed?

In this article we are unable to draw a conclusion about the predictive utility of having or not having the offline personality as a starting point for the customization of the avatar with respect to players’ psychological well-being. Yet, data from the same study not presented here, seem to suggest that players who construct an avatar that is distant from their offline personality are better protected against the gaming addiction. Further research is needed to consider the potential effects that different avatar customizations could have not only on presence or on flow, but also on psychological well-being.

Our sample is relatively big and international that attend primarily five MMORPGs – e.g., Age of Wulin/Age of Wushu, EVE Online, Star Wars: The Old Republic, Guild Wars 2 and World of Warcraft. Therefore, the generalizability of the conclusions we reached to other types of MMORPGs is limited. In addition, we think that deeper analyses of the possible features of customization and of specific gaming mechanics of each type of gaming world, could be useful to understand the players customization choices.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

I would like to emphasize the explorative nature of this study, whose results seem to suggest the gaming industry to provide players with tools and customisation features that do not encourage players to create avatar that simulates their offline characteristics.

The study, “Offline personality and avatar customisation. Discrepancy profiles and avatar identification in a sample of MMORPG players“, was also co-authored by Federica Sibilla.