Our Avatars, Ourselves

laura croft

After a little hiatus from blogging, this article about how digital avatars influence our beliefs got me back on the wagon. In particular, it got me thinking about the amazing, good ol’ fashioned power of storytelling – that the stories we tell shape our beliefs about who we are, what we can become, and what is possible or impossible.  This idea is an old one, but its prosaicness lulls us into thinking that the power of stories is an abstraction, not a reality.

This article highlights the very real power of stories – in the form of digital avatars. An avatar, from the Sanskrit word origin, means an incarnation. More commonly, we think of avatars as representations of ourselves in virtual environments. When we represent ourselves digitally we are expressing some aspect of ourselves. That is, we are telling a self-story, real or imagined, that we want to explore. This psychological experience of an embodiment or “incarnation” of self goes a long way in explaining the research findings described in this article.

The research shows that using a “sexy avatar” in a video game influences women – and not for the better.  For example, women who played a game using sexualized avatars – especially those that looked like them – were more accepting of the rape myth (rape is a woman’s fault) and more likely to objectify themselves sexually in an essay. Other studies document the “Proteus effect” in which embodying a character in virtual environments like a game influences behaviors in  in the real world, such as eating patterns, brand preference, and physiological arousal. This effect is strongest when people actively engage with an avatar as compared to passively watching the character. While many of these studies have flaws (e.g., small sample size which makes it hard to generalize that these findings actually apply to people in general) they also have strengths such as strong experimental methods. So, these studies should be given serious consideration.

This article might lead some to demonize video games; but I think that is a mistake. We can bash video games all we want, but this black and white view misses the point that one can tell stories that sexualize women to the exclusion of individuality, intelligence, or competence in all sorts of media: books, movies, cosplay, the news we follow, and the conversations we have. It also misses the point that if avatars are so powerful, they can be used in positive ways.

So, is there something special about video games besides the fact that a single game can make billions of dollars in two weeks? Is actively engaging in a story rather than passively watching it the key to the effects that avatars can have on us? As a society, we need to have this conversation. But it will be crucial for science to weigh in and help interpret whether and how the stories we tell in virtual worlds transform what we do, believe, and become.

12 thoughts on “Our Avatars, Ourselves

  1. Personally, I think you’re onto something with the active-vs-passive engagement idea. It feels very different to play a game than watch a movie (to pick things that are similar in all other respects), and I’m willing to bet that the game will carve itself, and whatever it teaches you, into your neural pathways more quickly or deeply than the movie will. That’s pure intuition, of course, and I too would love to see some serious science on the subject.

    Great post!

    1. Thanks! Yes, this active-vs-passive distinction is gaining momentum in research as an important idea as the field tries to puzzle through whether and how video games exert their influence. Intuitively, I think, we all know something is unique when we have an experience of “embodiment.” And that’s what video games provide on many levels.

  2. Really a very interesting interpretation… I have never imagined that avatars could have such an impact in ourselves … The virtual reality… What else?!…

    Cheers, Aquileana 😉

  3. You make very interesting points, and they remind me of a nice book by Gottschall I read this summer (The Storyteliing Animal) in which is he dives into the physiological and sociological underpinnings of story telling. First, he thinks the demarcation between role playing (as in video games and life-action roll-playing games) and story telling is artificial. Second, we learn through stories. Instead of enjoying stories where everything is peachy we are actually suckers for stories laden with conflict, challenges, etc. Not that we mind the occasional happy end, but the protagonists have to solve puzzles, to grow, before they deserve to chill and harvest.
    Gottschall believes that we use stories (and thus roll playing) for learning, for playing through different avenues to the same problems, and that they are at the core of what defines us as being human.
    So, if you see the world as Gottschall does the findings you relay are not surprising at all. Of course we hyper-identify with the protagonists in stories, because it’s the learning us.
    To be fair he admits that there is not too much research yet backing the long-time effects of stories (viz. that they really change our behaving due to the lessons learned), but I find his thesis fascinating.
    Thanks for sharing.

    1. This is one of those brilliant set of concepts that is hard to research, and thus doesn’t have a lot of empirical backing. But if we get clever enough, I think these ideas could spawn some fascinating studies. I haven’t read Gottschall so thanks for bringing him to my attention!

  4. Hello,

    I’ve just stumbled upon your blog and have read a couple of your most recent posts. I’ve been highly interested in this topic for a while, and have recently started peeking into it a bit again. I recently read an article by Sherry Turkle that you might enjoy: http://web.mit.edu/sturkle/www/pdfsforstwebpage/ST_Always%20On.pdf

    This article explores a lot of your ideas (even the avatar post, which is why I’m commenting on this one!) so it might be worth checking out if you aren’t already familiar with her work. I’ll have to go back and read some of your older posts as well! Great stuff.



  5. Great final question: how do the stories we tell about ourselves (in virtual worlds, or our own world) transform what we do, believe and become?
    Much food for thought! Thinking of a fiction writing workshop I took on how to create strong characters. Characters = what we say, what we think, what we do, what we look like, who we spend time with
    Who do we choose to become in our real lives, and how?
    How do our fantasy lives impact our real worlds?

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