10 February 2014

Virtual world may impact real-world behaviour

Research suggests that how you represent yourself in the virtual world of video games may affect how you behave toward others in the real world.

How you represent yourself in the virtual world of video games may affect how you behave toward others in the real world, according to new research published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

"Our results indicate that just five minutes of role-play in virtual environments as either a hero or villain can easily cause people to reward or punish anonymous strangers," says lead researcher Gunwoo Yoon of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

As Yoon and co-author Patrick Vargas note, virtual environments afford people the opportunity to take on identities and experience circumstances that they otherwise can't in real life, providing "a vehicle for observation, imitation, and modelling".

Heroes or villains

They wondered whether these virtual experiences specifically, the experiences of taking on heroic or villainous avatars might carry over into everyday behaviour.

The researchers recruited 194 undergraduates to participate in two supposedly unrelated studies. The participants were randomly assigned to play as Superman (a heroic avatar), Voldemort (a villainous avatar), or a circle (a neutral avatar). They played a game for 5 minutes in which they, as their avatars, were tasked with fighting enemies. Then, in a presumably unrelated study, they participated in a blind taste test. They were asked to taste and then give either chocolate or chilli sauce to a future participant. They were told to pour the chosen food item into a plastic dish and that the future participant would consume all of the food provided.

The results were revealing: Participants who played as Superman poured, on average, nearly twice as much chocolate as chilli sauce for the "future participant". And they poured significantly more chocolate than those who played as either of the other avatars.

Participants who played as Voldemort, on the other hand, poured out nearly twice as much of the spicy chilli sauce than they did chocolate, and they poured significantly more chilli sauce compared to the other participants.

Identification with avatar

A second experiment with 125 undergraduates confirmed these findings and showed that actually playing as an avatar yielded stronger effects on subsequent behaviour than just watching someone else play as the avatar.

Interestingly, the degree to which participants actually identified with their avatar didn't seem to play a role:

"These behaviours occur despite modest, equivalent levels of self-reported identification with heroic and villainous avatars, alike," Yoon and Vargas note. "People are prone to be unaware of the influence of their virtual representations on their behavioural responses."

The researchers hypothesize that that arousal, the degree to which participants are "keyed into" the game, might be an important factor driving the behavioural effects they observed.

The findings, though preliminary, may have implications for social behaviour, the researchers argue:

"In virtual environments, people can freely choose avatars that allow them to opt into or opt out of a certain entity, group, or situation," says Yoon. "Consumers and practitioners should remember that powerful imitative effects can occur when people put on virtual masks."

Read more:

Avatars help schizophrenics silence voices

Avatars may help ease depression

Avatars help real-life weight loss

(Picture: Video-game from Shutterstock)



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