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
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
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
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
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(Picture: Video-game from Shutterstock)