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Are you Superman or Voldemort? Avatars may affect the real you

Researchers use chili and chocolate to determine how your virtual avatar may affect behavior after a game is over.

Michael Franco
Freelancer Michael Franco writes about the serious and silly sides of science and technology for CNET and other pixel and paper pubs. He's kept his fingers on the keyboard while owning a B&B in Amish country, managing an eco-resort in the Caribbean, sweating in Singapore, and rehydrating (with beer, of course) in Prague. E-mail Michael.
Michael Franco
3 min read
Could playing a Superman in a game lead to more heroic real-world choices? DC Comics

Video games have long provided a safe way for players to try out different personalities. In the land of pixels and pretend, we can try out the role of lithe, attractive do-gooder elf or become a hideous orc who leaves a trail of havoc (and dead elves) in our wake.

Most of us probably assume that after the game is over, we return to being simple boyfriends, moms, teachers, or accountants operating according to our own moral principles, regardless of the virtual personas we took on. New research, however, indicates that this just might not be the case.

Gunwoo Yoon and Patrick Vargas at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have just published new research in the journal Psychological Science that suggests just how much our virtual personas may influence our real-life behavior. The researchers got 194 undergraduate students to play a game in which they were assigned either a heroic avatar (Superman), a villainous avatar (Lord Voldemort), or a neutral avatar (a circle).

"It was a very simple, two-dimensional computer shooting game," Yoon told Crave. "Participants were asked to play the game for 5 minutes by using their avatars -- with Superman fighting against some villains and Voldemort fighting against some heroes."

Afterward, the students were asked to take part in a different study, which, they were told, was unrelated to the first.

In this second study, the students first had to taste, then dole out, their choice of either chocolate or chili sauce to a future participant. They were told to pour the item into a plastic dish and that the future participant would consume all of the edible provided.

The players who'd had a Superman avatar in the study overwhelmingly chose to pour the sweet chocolate sauce -- nearly twice as often as they chose chili -- and gave larger servings of chocolate than the dastardly Voldemorts. And just what did those assigned the "He Who Must Not Be Named" avatar serve up? The spicy chili sauce, nearly twice as often as chocolate, and again in larger servings than the kindly Men (and Women) of Steel. (Of course, if you had a lightning-bolt scar on your forehead, you were excluded from the study results.)

The power of virtual masks
While you might think people behaved the way they did in the chocolate/chili part of the study because they were consciously identifying with their avatars, it turns out the results held regardless of whether the player personally preferred Voldemort or Superman. "These behaviors occur despite modest, equivalent levels of self-reported identification with heroic and villainous avatars, alike," Yoon and Vargas said. "People are prone to be unaware of the influence of their virtual representations on their behavioral responses."

Yoon added: "In virtual environments, people can freely choose avatars that allow them to opt in to or opt out of a certain entity, group, or situation. Consumers and practitioners should remember that powerful imitative effects can occur when people put on virtual masks."

So the next time you're choosing to be a goodly elf or a devilish orc in your favorite MMO, remember: It may not just be a game. There's probably at least a small part of your virtual persona that will cling to you in real life, kind of like that fiery chili sauce clings to those chicken wings that are so bad for you but taste so good.