Photo: Jim Lee and Scott Williams/DC Comics and Warner Bros. Pictures

Photo: Jim Lee and Scott Williams/DC Comics and Warner Bros. Pictures

We’ve wrote before on studies discussing some of the effects of gaming might have on real life behaviour. In a most interesting study, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign  found that even the avatar you choose greatly influences behaviour later on when interacting with real people.

The researchers recruited 194 undergraduates to participate in two supposedly unrelated studies. Participants were all asked to play the same game, the only thing that was different was the avatar- each person was randomly assigned to play as Superman (a heroic avatar), Voldemort (a villainous avatar), or a circle (a neutral avatar).

Hero or Villain?

In the game, which lasted for only five minutes, the players had to fight various 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 chili sauce to a future participant, with the important consideration that the said participant would have to all of the food provided.

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Participants who played as Superman poured, on average, nearly twice as much chocolate as chili sauce for the “future participant.” They also 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 chili sauce than they did chocolate, and they poured significantly more chili sauce compared to the other participants.

A subsequent study which followed 125 participants confirmed the findings and also found that playing the avatar had a more dramatic effect on real life behaviour than just watching some one else play the avatar. What about the innate connection people have with their characters? People might act like Superman or Voldermort because they have pieces of these heroes or villains inside of them already. The study, however, suggests that the degree to which participants actually identified with their avatar didn’t seem to play a role.

 “These behaviors occur despite modest, equivalent levels of self-reported identification with heroic and villainous avatars, alike,”  Gunwoo Yoone. “People are prone to be unaware of the influence of their virtual representations on their behavioral responses.”

“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.”

So what does the fact that people change their mood and behaviour towards other people after playing a video game for just five minutes? To me, at least, the message is that we human beings are a lot more prone to external stimuli and influence than we’d like to admit. How we’re dressed, what lights are in the room or, most importantly, what mental image we carry of ourselves will have a profound effect on our relations with other human beings. Let’s not forget the Stanford prison experiment – what a powerful demonstration that was!

The findings, published in a paper in the journal Psychological Science , could have potential applications in social behaviour.