Casey Hart

Casey Hart, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of Mass Communication at Stephen F. Austin State University. His current research examines video games as interactive platforms for self-expression and experimentation. He also examines advertising and marketing dynamics related to the video game industry.

Getting Into the Game: An Examination of Player Personality Projection in Videogame Avatars

by Casey Hart

Abstract

This paper examines how humans project aspects of their personalities into created avatars as projections of their physical being in the digital environment. Expanding on research in the area of identity theory, and applying aspects of personality construction, the study explores the interaction between players' personality dimensions, as an expression of their self-concept, and their perception of ideal personality traits, in the creation and use of avatars within a largely open-world videogame. The study sampled 54 subjects (27 females; 27 males) who played the game Skyrim for a prolonged period, then compared five-factor personality inventory scores of actual self, ideal self, and projected self through bivariate correlation analysis. The five factors tested were: extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, emotional stability, and openness to experience. Results indicate that while strong correlation exists between subjects' actual self scores and ideal self scores in four out of five tested dimensions, indicating low cognitive dissonance and discrepancy regarding personality, moderate to strong levels of correlation only exist between ideal self and projected self in the dimension of openness to experience. Similar results were found between actual self scores and projected self scores. This indicates that players may be more likely to experiment with alternate self constructs in most aspects of personality, than to build and play avatars according to either actual self or ideal self constructs. A discussion of the greater implication of the results, mitigating factors, and future research opportunities is included.

Keywords: videogame; personality; identity; ideal self; actual self; avatar; projection

 

Introduction

In surveying the landscape of contemporary mass media, videogames stand as somewhat of an oddity. This is not to say that they are not successful. Indeed, 2015 saw the videogame industry generate record revenue and engage a more demographically diverse audience than ever before (Entertainment Software Association, 2015). It is instead the way that videogames engage with their audience that differentiates them from other forms of media.

Contrary to many other forms of media which passively or actively engage their audience and are essentially self-contained, videogames are completed through interaction with the player (Papale, 2014). Books and movies invite the audience to come along with their protagonists on an adventure that is the same regardless of space, time, or consumer. Videogames invite players to embark on an adventure as the protagonist, where their choices and skills play an important role in how the story unfolds. While early games like Super Mario Bros. (Nintendo, 1985) and The Legend of Zelda (Nintendo, 1986) achieved very rudimentary levels of interaction with players through dyadic control of the main character, or perceiving the avatar as an object to be controlled rather than something or someone with whom to relate, modern games have refined this process significantly and engage players along multiple dimensions of interactive experience (Banks & Bowman, 2016). Many contemporary games provide players with the ability to not simply play with a pre-constructed character as a child might play with a toy, but instead to create characters that allow monadic interaction with the game environment (Lin, 2013). Monadic interaction, in this context, refers to players experiencing more intimate levels of identification or relatedness with the avatar they use to interact with the digital environment. Perhaps the ultimate in monadic interaction with an avatar would be the feeling of actually becoming the character, that the player and the avatar are one (Jin, 2009; Li, Liau, & Khoo, 2013).

Over the years, perspectives on avatar-player interaction and relationships have changed dramatically. In simplest terms avatars are primarily the means by which players interact with game environments (Papale, 2014; Taylor, 2002), manipulating objects and overcoming challenges. In recent years, however, many have argued that for some players avatars can be much more. Klimmt (2009; 2010), for example argues that some players shift their self-perceptions to avatar characters over time thus creating strong bonds of identification and shared values with the character. Others argue that avatars serve as digital extensions of self, allowing for multimodal interaction between the digital and physical world (Banks, 2015; Banks, 2017). From this perspective, the digital self should not be considered a construct or an affectation, but rather an externalized projection of one's self. Still others argue that many players use videogames, and the avatars therein, as a form of escapism or as a means by which to experiment with alternate forms of self (Kwon, Chung, & Lee, 2009; Przybylski, Weinstein, Murayama, Lynch & Ryan, 2012).

It is with this latter concept of projected or externalized self versus escapism or experimentation in mind that I conduct this study. The goal of this study is to explore what aspects, if any, of a person's self construct they write or project into a constructed game avatar. While there are numerous perspectives on the concept and construction of self, in this study I will focus particularly on how an individual perceives himself or herself with regard to their personality construct as defined by the five factor model (FFM) developed by Fiske (1949) and refined by Goldberg (1992).

 

Avatars, Actorialization and Interaction

In discussing how humans interact with and in digital spaces, it is first vital to come to an operationalized understanding of the concept of the avatar. As previously stated, from a basic functional level, avatars provide the means by which individuals can interact with a game environment (Taylor, 2002); bridging the gap between physical spaces and digital spaces. From this perspective, however, it is easy to think of avatars as simply tools to manipulate the digital space, or what Papale (2014) referred to as a digital prosthesis. This line of thought becomes complicated however, when considering the myriad of control schemes and game mechanics that are currently employed in game design. While many games do utilized visually present avatars that can be controlled or manipulated (actorialized control), others utilize control schemes that are more directly immersive and urge the player to directly interact with the digital environment (unactorialized control). This is particularly the case with many mobile games and virtual reality games.

Recognizing that in contemporary culture, the line between player and avatar is at times fluid and interactive, some scholars have argued that avatars are far more than tools or objects to be controlled by users, but rather can serve as interactive, visual, and often social representations of the individual within the digital space (Banks & Bowman, 2014; Jin, 2009; Meadows, 2008). Avatars are not just digital dolls for the player to interact with in electronic space, but rather cultivated projections of the user. That is not to say, however, they are necessarily objectively accurate representations.

Even as early as the 1980s and 1990s, scholars recognized that individuals had the tendency to experiment with alternative self-constructs within digital environments. Early studies found that in digital spaces like online chat rooms, message boards, and even Multi-User Dungeon games (precursors to MMOs of today), users often adopted and cultivated different self-representations (Dominick, 1984; Turkle, 1994; 1995). Users were more likely to engage in discussions of controversial topics and even represent themselves as different races or genders. Observing these dynamics led some to suggest that digital spaces would be an environment in which traditional gender and identity lines would begin to blur and where concepts of self would become more fluid (Danet, 1998).

More recently, scholars have theorized that player-avatar relationships may be even more complex than previously thought, and have attempted to examine these relationships along numerous lines of immersion, identification, presence and functionality (Banks & Bowman, 2016; Lewis, Weber & Bowman, 2008; Rigby, 2004; Rigby & Ryan, 2011). Lewis et al. (2008) suggests that contrary to forms of media like television where audience-character interaction is generally one-way, and exists as a parasocial, non-dialectical construct of the individual's imagination, player-avatar relationships contain a certain degree of real interaction. The gamer controls the avatar, reacts to and with the avatar, and responds to changes in the avatar's conditions and environment. This creates what Lewis et al. (2008) refers to as character attachment. Banks & Bowman (2016) have attempted to expanded on the idea of player-avatar interaction by suggesting that the relationship is two-way and dialectical since more contemporary games provide an avatar that can be distinct from the player and behaves as a unique social actor within the game space (Banks, 2015; Banks & Bowman, 2014). By extension, the role within which the player perceives the avatar to fit can make difference in how deep or shallow interaction with that character may be.

 

Projection of Self vs Experimentation

The idea that audiences use the media as a vehicle for exploring alternate self-concepts or personality constructs is not new. Cohen (2001) argued that viewers of television and movies often experiment with social possibilities and consequences through a process of increasingly deep identification with characters. Others have expanded his work into the realm of videogames by arguing that the medium provides an ideal venue for experimentation and psychological relief (Bargh, Mckenna & Fitzsimons, 2002; Przybylski, Weinstein, Murayama, Lynch, & Ryan, 2012, Yee, 2006). Players are able to try on different characteristics, experimenting with them and exploring their benefits and possible repercussions. The idea that players can in someway exist, or project aspects of their physical self or character, into the digital environment is referred to as multispatiality (Banks, 2017). Some would argue that the ubiquitous nature of digital environments, from social media to videogames, have changed how the concept of self is experienced and performed (Banks, 2017; Cover, 2012; Pringle, 2015), and that the experiences of an individual in a digital space are as legitimate expressions of self as those which take place in the physical world.

Multispatial self projections can range from simple fantasy play, in which players quickly experiment with possible digital constructs and experience little emotional investment or cognitive connection to the avatar, to more in-depth and pervasive forms of escapism (Kwon, Chung, & Lee, 2009; Li, Liau & Khoo, 2013; Turkle, 1994). This is particularly salient in cases when the subject is struggling with a facet of self or a personality characteristic that is either socially stigmatized or carries potentially negative consequences (e.g. embracing one's homosexuality, transgender, or acting on violent thoughts or sexual fantasies) (Olson, 2010; Przybylski et al., 2012). Avatars provide a conduit through which players may explore these characteristics with relative anonymity. Avatars also provide the opportunity to act out fantasies with little lasting repercussions.

Over the years, there has been a significant amount of research discussing how similar or different digital projections may tend to be to physical reality or self-concepts, and why individuals may choose to create alternative or idealized versions of themselves online (e.g. Bargh, Mckenna & Fitzsimons, 2002; Bessière, Seay, & Kielser, 2007; Jin, 2009; Pringle, 2015; Przybylski et al., 2012; Yee, 2006). While there is an entire school of recent scholarship discussing potential evolutions in how we perceive the concept of self, this study is chiefly concerned with exploring what aspects of a person's self-concept they are likely to project into the digital environment. Broadly, are certain aspects of the self-concept, as defined herein in terms of dimensions of their personality, generally more likely to be consistently projected into the digital world than others?

 

Actual Self vs. Ideal Self

While the concept of self may be difficult to define within the modern, evolving technological and philosophical landscape, in this study the term refers broadly to an internalized self-concept, or how a person perceives themselves in relation to others and their environment (Baumeister, 1999). Even within this definition there is room for numerous perspectives and forms of self from the more physical perspectives, to the existential, moral, or ideal. This study, however, will limit the discussion to what could be described as the actual self and the ideal self.

Actual self-concept is the self-representation of attributes that a person believes himself or herself to actually possess (Higgins, 1987; Erikson, 1963). While this may be a skewed perception of reality and may not mesh with how others perceive the individual, it is nonetheless valid and of great importance to that person. Ideal self is the "representation of the attributes that [a person] would like... ideally, to possess" (Higgins, 1987). Ideal self could also be described in terms of a matrix of characteristics a person identifies as ideal or preferable in themselves or others (Argyle, 2008; Jin, 2009; Pringle, 2015). It is often constructed from social expectations or personal insecurities. Conflict can occur when there is a great discrepancy between a person's actual self and a person's ideal self. The friction between these and other self-concepts can cause uneasiness, internal conflict, cognitive dissonance, and a variety of other potentially negative issues that most individuals attempt to avoid in their daily lives (Epstien, 1980, p. 82-132, Festinger, 1957; Higgins, 1987). In order to avoid cognitive dissonance or discrepancy, individuals tend to modify their ideal self expectations and aspirations to better suit their actual self-perception (Higgins, 1987). Consider an introvert who views extraversion as ideal, but in order to avoid dissonance, tempers their ideal self by suggesting that many extroverts are too brash or loud. By doing so, their ideal self-concept would then favor extraversion, but be moderated by a desire to avoid discrepancy and maintain internal consistency. Conversely, in the modern digital landscape, others may cultivate digital personas that represent their ideal self-concept as a means of expressing themselves or coping with cognitive dissonance.

In this study, self-concept was analyzed via five personality dimensions and participants were evaluated on how they perceived themselves, their general disposition toward each of the five analyzed dimensions, and how they perceived and avatar they created and used during gameplay. The study used the Five Factor Personality Inventory (or "Big 5 Personality Dimensions") originally developed by Goldberg (1992). The inventory examines the dimensions of extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism, and openness to experience. While there has been some criticism of the Five Factor Inventory (see Boyle, 2008; Clark, 1993), the inventory has been used and tested in a variety of subjects across different cultures (Boudreaux, 2016; Chiaburu, Oh, Berry, Li, & Gardner, 2011; Lodhi, Deo, & Belhekar, 2002; Poropat, 2009). Within the inventory, the personality dimensions can be broadly separated into two categories: proactive and prosocial. The dimensions of extraversion and openness are associated with proactive tendencies like the individual's dynamism or desire for power, status, and agency (Digman, 1997; Hogan & Holland, 2003; Paulhus & John, 1998). Within game, this could take the form of the player's willingness to find alternate solutions to presented problems, to interact heavily with NPC characters, or to explore the game environment to greater degrees than their counterparts. The dimensions of conscientiousness, agreeableness, and neuroticism are generally interpreted as prosocial tendencies and are associated with the individual's desire to function as part of a group, get along with others, and respect or dogmatically adhere to social conventions (Digman, 1997; Hogan & Holland, 2003; Mount, Barrick, & Ryan, 2003; Paulhus & John, 1998). In the game space, this may take the form of a character who is more friendly and helpful toward NPC characters or who fastidiously completes quests and missions as they are assigned. The inventory is evaluated on a spectrum, however, so each of the listed categories could be reverse coded for their diametrically opposed characteristic (i.e. extraversion versus introversion).

In order to examine the relationship between players' actual self-concept and disposition (or what personality characteristics they perceived as ideal) the question was asked:

RQ1: In what areas, if any, will correlation occur between subject disposition toward the five separate personality dimensions and the respective subject personality scores?

Considering the previous research in avoidance of cognitive dissonance, I suspected that participants would show positive correlation in many if not all of the five personality dimensions analyzed. This would support the idea that the subjects largely had become internally consistent in their perspectives regarding the personality characteristics.

The next phase of the study examined the relationship between the subjects' concept of ideal and how they create and utilize an avatar in digital space. In order to examine this, the question was asked:

RQ2: In what areas, if any, will correlation occur between subject disposition toward the five separate personality dimensions and the respective avatar personality scores?

In answering this question, a positive correlation in a personality dimension would indicate that players projected that particular aspect of their personality into their character. Conversely, a negative correlation or no correlation could indicate some level of anti-projection. In terms of this study an anti-projection character is defined as an avatar that features oppositional versions of the player's personality (e.g. an agreeable player creating a disagreeable avatar). Anti-projection results would support arguments concerning the use of avatars as a means of experimentation or escapism.

The final phase of the study examined the relationship between the player and their avatar by analyzing correlation between the player's personality scores and how the players evaluated the avatar they created and used. The study asked:

RQ3: In what areas, if any, will correlation occur between subject personality scores in the five separate personality dimensions and the respective avatar personality scores?

Positive correlations in the results here would suggest projection of that specific personality dimension from player to avatar while negative correlation or no correlation could indicate experimentation or anti-projection. In answering each of the three enumerated questions it is important to note that since each question examines each of the five personality dimensions outlined in the five factor personality inventory, it was possible and even expected to find projection in some dimensions, no projection in others, and anti-projection in others.

 

Method

Apparatus

This study used the game The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (Bethesda Game Studios, 2011) on Microsoft's Xbox 360 console platform. The game was chosen because of its highly-detailed and dynamic character creation system, as well as the open-world, non-linear game dynamic. It was important to choose a game that granted players a large degree of freedom to explore and experience the game environment while refraining from actively prompting them toward or away from any particular morality. Thus, players could theoretically create characters which cross the spectrum between projection and anti-projection of actual self-concept. Many games were considered as potential tools for this study including World of Warcraft (Blizzard Entertainment, 2005) and Fallout 4 (Bethesda Game Studios, 2015), but Skyrim (Bethesda Game Studios, 2011) was ultimately chosen because it met more of the desired criteria than other games that were considered.

Sample

This study sampled 54 students (27 females, 27 males) from a mid-sized Texas university. There was an almost even distribution of participants who self-reported as either "Casual" or "Non-Gamer" (n=30) and "Moderate," "Heavy," or "Very Heavy" (n=24) videogame players. Students were asked to provide informed consent before participating, and all elements of this study were approved through the Institutional Review Board prior to sampling. Students were provided course credit and a monetary incentive for complete participation in the study. While 121 subjects took the pre-game survey, many either failed to attend their scheduled experimental time or dropped out due to fatigue during gameplay. The final sample of 54 represented subjects who completed all phases of the study.

Design

Subjects participating in this study were asked to complete a pre-experiment survey, an experimental gameplay period, and a post-experiment survey. In addition to basic demographic and psychographic questions, the pre-experiment survey consisted of a version of the 50-question, "Big 5" five-factor personality inventory originally developed by Goldberg (1992). The inventory is designed to test and examine five personality factors: extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism, and openness to experience. These factors were first introduced by Fiske (1949) and have since been refined, verified, and reexamined by numerous studies in a variety fields. In this study, the factor of neuroticism was reverse coded for what is sometimes referred to as emotional stability because the testing questions for emotional stability were considered more connotatively neutral than those for neuroticism. Each subject answered 50 randomized questions. Each of the five personality factors were tested by 10 questions scored on 5-point Likert scales which asked subjects to identify if certain statements ranged from "Very Inaccurate" (1) to "Very Accurate" (7). Upon completion, a subject's score was averaged for each matrix of questions, resulting in a mean score between 1 and 5 for each of the five personality factors.

Additionally, the pre-experiment survey contained a question set which examined the subject's predisposition toward each of the five personality factors through three questions featuring dichotomous elements on a 7-point Likert scale (e.g. talkative/quiet, social/reserved, diplomatic/brutally honest). While many elements were chosen specifically because they appeared in Goldberg's (1992) original study, they were slightly modified in some cases and placed in dichotomous pairs to dissuade subjects from skewing the test based on negative contemporary connotations (e.g. high-strung, impractical, sloppy). Each of the pairs was created to be as connotatively neutral as possible, and each individual term was independently evaluated prior to testing to confirm their neutrality.

Approximately one week after completing the pre-experiment survey, subjects played three hours of Skyrim (Bethesda Game Studios, 2011) while in isolated lab environments. The gameplay generally consisted of character creation, a brief introduction sequence, and approximately 2 hours of free play. Gameplay was recorded for later observation. Though there was a great deal of subject mortality due to the length of the play period, the final sample consisted of 54 subjects who all actively completed the full three hours of gameplay.

Upon completion of gameplay, subjects immediately took the post-experiment survey which contained questions related to the subjects' gameplay experience and character creation, as well as a modified version of the five-factor inventory which asked the subjects to answer the questions as their characters would answer (e.g. "My character is the life of the party.", "My character is always prepared.").

Measures

Bivariate correlations were run between subject scores (actual self), disposition scores (ideal self), and avatar scores (projected self) for each of the five personality factors. For each subject, subject and avatar personality scores ranged between 1 and 5 for each of the five factors. Disposition was scored similarly, but a final score between 1 and 7 was calculated for each personality dimension for each subject. Correlations were then tested with the bivariate of subject/disposition used to examine RQ1, disposition/avatar to examine RQ2, and then subject/avatar to examine RQ3. Due to the fact that five personality factors were being tested under each of the research questions, it was expected that correlation may be found in certain areas and not in others. Discovering uniform correlation across all five personality dimensions in one of the bivariate analyses would have been surprising and would have demanded further investigation.

 

Results

In response to the first research question, "In what areas, if any, will correlation occur between subject disposition toward the five separate personality dimensions and the respective subject personality scores," examining the results of the first correlation test (subject/disposition) revealed four of the five personality dimensions showed significant correlation. As Figure 1 illustrates, extraversion (r(52) = 0.680, p < .001), agreeableness (r(52) = 0.583, p < .001), conscientiousness (r(52) = 0.498, p < .001), and openness (r(52) = 0.593, p < .001) all showed strong positive correlation. The factor of emotional stability, however, did not show a significant correlation between subject personality score and subject disposition toward that factor (r(52) = 0.249, p > .05 (0.069)), but was approaching a base significance of p < .05. These results suggest a strong positive correlation between an individual's own personality, and what they perceive as ideal.

 

Figure 1: Correlation scatterplots of Subject versus Disposition. Scatterplots show correlation in all personality dimensions except Emotional Stability/Neuroticism (click to expand).

 

In response to the second research question, "In what areas, if any, will correlation occur between subject disposition toward the five separate personality dimensions and the respective avatar personality scores," examining the results of the second correlation test (disposition/avatar) revealed strong correlation was only evident in the personality factor of openness (r(52) = .372, p < .01). Even this correlation was weaker than the significant subject/disposition correlations. Figure 2 illustrates that in all other factors, no significant correlation was seen. The fact that openness did show moderately strong correlation is worth further analysis.

 

Figure 2: Correlation scatterplots of Avatar versus Disposition. Scatterplots only show correlation in Openness to Experience (click to expand).

 

Finally, in response to the third research question, "In what areas, if any, will correlation occur between subject personality scores in the five separate personality dimensions and the respective avatar personality scores," examining the results of the third correlation test (subject/avatar) revealed moderate significance was again only evident in the personality factor of openness to experience (r(52) = 0.270, p < .05). This was slightly weaker in both correlation and significance than the similar correlation between the variables of disposition and avatar, but does suggest that all three variables may be linked and may warrant further examination. Additionally, as Figure 3 illustrates, most of the dimensions examined do not approach statistical significance. This is also the case in the disposition/avatar bivariate.

 

Figure 3: Correlation scatterplots of Subject versus Avatar. Scatterplots only show correlation in Openness to Experience (click to expand).

 

Figure 4 and Figure 5 illustrate the distribution of player and avatar subject responses. Figure 4 illustrates how many subjects created avatars that were lesser projections of their own personalities, more extreme projections of their personalities, or anti-projections. Lesser projections were categorized as avatars that were characterized as being on the same side of the neutral midpoint of the five factor inventory as the subject's personality score, but fell between the subject's score and the midpoint of 3. This could be on either side of the midpoint. For example, if a subject scored as an extravert with a value of 4.2, and they created an avatar that they perceived as extraverted with a value of 3.6, this avatar would be considered a lesser projection of the subject. Consequently, if a subject created an avatar that they scored identically to their own personality dimension score this was considered a lesser projection as well. Extreme projections were categorized as avatars that were characterized as being on the same side of the neutral midpoint, but were beyond the player personality score. For example, if a player scored 4 in the area of agreeableness and created an avatar that scored 4.25, this would be considered an extreme projection. Similarly, if a player scored at 2 and created an avatar that scored 1.25, this would also be categorized as an extreme projection as it would be a more extreme point on the agreeableness personality spectrum away from the neutral midpoint of 3. Finally, anti-projections were categorized as any avatars that were characterized on the opposing side of the midpoint from their player creator. As an example, if a player scored 2 in the dimension of emotional stability, but created an avatar that scored 4, this would cross the neutral midpoint of 3 and be considered an anti-projection of the subject's personality. Figure 5 is a graphic representation of the distribution of how many subjects fell into each of these categories and on which side of the neutral midpoint they fell.

 

Figure 4: Distribution of Player-Avatar Lesser and Extreme Projections and Anti-Projections. Lesser projections and No Change columns are considered grouped, as are both Extreme Projection columns and Anti-Projection columns. Represents number of subjects present in each category (click to expand).

 

Figure 5: Graphical representation of distribution of Player-Avatar Projections and Anti-Projections. Graph shows an approximate balance between Lesser Projections and Anti-Projections in most categories. Represents number of subjects present in each category (click to expand).

 

Additional Result

As a part of the post-gameplay survey, subjects were asked to rate various aspects of their gameplay experience. These were generally ranked from 1 (Entirely Negative) to 7 (Entirely Positive). When examining the full correlation results, a surprisingly strong correlation was observed between the variables of subject openness and openness disposition and overall gameplay experience. The bivariate correlation of subject/experience showed the strongest correlation (r(52) = 0.424, p < .01), but the disposition/experience correlation for openness was also quite strong (r(52) = 0.389, p < .01). This result was very conspicuous considering this level of correlation was not seen between any other personality dimension and overall game enjoyment.

 

Discussion

Broadly, the results of the current study contribute to the larger discussion concerning how individuals construct and interact with avatars. Specifically, the data informs the discussion concerning how humans use avatars as vehicles by which to express themselves or experiment with alternative self-concepts. The data seems to suggest that it is much more common for individuals to use avatars as facilitators for experimentation than for vehicles for direct projection. Even when compared to a subject's perception of what is ideal, in most cases it does not appear that individuals are uniformly likely to create avatars that represent their own personality characteristics. The one personality dimension that does seem to be projected consistently is that of openness to experience. This proactive personality trait is often associated in research with the desire to seek out opportunities and an inclination toward growth and self-actualization (Digman, 1997; Hogan & Holland, 2003; Paulhus & John, 1998). Perhaps in videogames, this personality trait lends itself particularly well to projection because the game environment may be perceived as either a space where self-actualization or exploration can be experienced to a great degree, or where such things are impossible due to the limited nature of the medium. In either case projection could occur as projection is possible for those who score either high or low in the personality dimension.

Specifically, the results of the first test (subject/disposition), showed an expected correlation in most of the five personality dimensions, indicating that for most subjects, there was a link between how they saw themselves and what they perceived as the ideal. This wasn't terribly surprising and falls in line with research on coping with cognitive dissonance (Epstien, 1980, p. 82-132, Festinger, 1957, Higgins, 1987). The dimension of emotional stability, which was the reverse coded dimension of neuroticism, did not show significance, but was approaching the p<.05 minimum significance requirements (p=.069). In analyzing the results further, the lack of significance in this category could stem from the small sample size. Another explanation of the lack of significance could be that the category of neuroticism (or emotional stability) may be cognitively volatile. Neuroticism is often associated with worrying, getting stressed and being easily upset (Henrique, 2012) and the questions and terms associated with it are sometimes vague. How much worrying is too much versus and appropriate amount? The disposition scores show that subjects abstractly are drawn to more emotionally stability, but when rating emotional stability (or reverse coded neuroticism) in their own personalities inventories, subjects may have found some of the questions vague or confusing. In replications of this study it may be beneficial to further test each individual set of questions for internal validity and subject reaction prior to administration of the inventory.

The results of the second and third test were surprising. While variable levels of correlation were expected across the five dimensions of personality, I expected more than one of the dimensions to show significant correlation. Finding no such correlations does not contradict previous research, but rather suggests that instead of using avatars as vehicles for projecting their personality into digital space, players use avatars as a means by which to explore alternative versions of themselves or even anti-projections of their personalities. It is interesting to consider that there were almost equal numbers of individuals who created lesser projections of themselves as there were who created anti-projections in the dimensions of extraversion (lesser = 23, anti = 20), conscientiousness (lesser = 22, anti = 22), and emotional stability (lesser = 19, anti = 20). In fact, in all five personality dimensions extreme projects were the vast minority, suggesting that to some degree most of the subjects created characters that were opposed versions of themselves. This supports and illustrates the idea that players do not have a uniform strategy or desire to project their personalities into the avatars they create to interact with the digital world. To the contrary, a large number of subjects in this study created avatars that were anti-projections of one or more of their personality dimensions. Even those subjects who did create avatars that were reminiscent of themselves, were likely in all areas to be moderated versions of their own personality dimensions. The avatar was likely to be a reflection of the player within the digital space, but was not uniformly likely to be a projection or anti-projection. Comparatively few subjects created avatars that were extreme versions of their own personality dimensions even when those personality traits were perceived as ideal. This lends support to the argument players use digital spaces as realms for experimentation rather than pure projection (Bargh, Mckenna & Fitzsimons, 2002; Olsen, 2010; Przybylski, et al., 2012).

 

Limitations and Future Research

The primary limitation of this study was the potential for subject fatigue. While 121 subjects took the pre-experiment survey, only 54 completed the full experiment. A three-hour gameplay period was used for two primary reasons. First, in order to provide an opportunity for players to create a character and experience the virtual gameworld with that character, an extended gameplay period was chosen. The goal was to provide players with ample opportunity to build a relationship with their character over time. Second, Skyrim (Bethesda Game Studios, 2011) has an abnormally long character-creation and introduction sequence that players must complete before entering the open world environment that is present through the majority of the game. In the pilot study, subjects (n = 20) could complete this sequence in 32 to 57 minutes (M = 46.1, SD = 8.15). In observing a sample of subject gameplay (n = 20), this seemed to hold true, with players entering the open world environment slightly slower than in the pilot study (M = 56; SD = 10.11). Some of the players that dropped out of the study did so before completing this initial sequence. As a point of comparison, however, many of the other games considered also suffered from very long introductory sequences so Skyrim (Bethesda Game Studios, 2011) was not unique in this characteristic.

In replication of this study, three major changes would be suggested. First, instead of choosing subjects from a general pool of students, it may be preferable to choose subjects that self-identify as videogame players. This would potentially limit the difficulty some subjects had with general control interfaces and gameplay dynamics. This would also provide a subject sample that would be more representative of the population of regular videogame players. Second, either reducing the gameplay time commitment or extending the testing period over several days could potentially help with subject retention. Finally, Skyrim (Bethesda Game Studios, 2011) was chosen because it provided both an in-depth avatar creation process and gameplay dynamics that encouraged players to experience the world from a monadic control perspective. Several subjects, especially those who dropped out, expressed difficulty identifying with the fantasy nature of the game. In replication of this study, it may be beneficial to use a game that provides a more contemporary, identifiable setting in order to connect with subjects.

 

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