In gaming we are often (if not always) tasked with taking on the role of someone else. We put ourselves into a virtual representation, an avatar. Sometimes we're forced into a certain avatar and other times we're left alone to decide what kind of avatar we want to be in. According to a recent study the avatar we choose to play as both says something about us and can also affect how we act.
Jorge Pena, a University of Texas communication-studies professor, conducted a study called “The Priming Effects of Avatars in Virtual Settings” and concluded that if you're avatar is negative then your actions become negative as well. After having a group of gamers play Jedi Knigh II, some on the dark side and others on the light side, he also had them play in a virtual museum with some dressed as KKK members and others as doctors. After the gameplay he asked participants to write a story about an ambiguous picture or to make decisions with virtual team members dealing with problems that arose during the game. Those who played with negative avatars "consistently exhibited negative, aggressive and antisocial behaviors."
The fact that these avatars were randomly assigned means that even people who aren't normally showing those kind of negative behaviors do when they play with negative avatars. Pena is hoping that his study helps game designers make smarter decisions when creating avatar options, especially in children's games where cooperation can be taught. He also notes, quite fairly, that it isn't just videogames that can prime people like this, but all sorts of environments.
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