The Two-way Street of Player-Avatar Relationships

by Hap Aziz

When dealing with the subject of avatars, we can think of identity in at least two ways: there is the non-virtual form of identity, in which the player thinks of him or herself in the traditional sense of self. That is, “I am me.” This concept of identity predates any thoughts of the modern avatar, and is not at all technology dependent. Then there is the virtual identity, perhaps most commonly thought of the identity of a player-character within a game environment (also more broadly thought of the identity an individual has built for him or herself through all manner of computer interaction: through social media, online communications, interactions through online courses, and so on. My blog entries have helped me shape my virtual identity in the education space, for example). For the context of this discussion, we want to examine virtual identity as that which facilitates the player-avatar relationship.

In addition to virtual identity and non-virtual identity, Zachary Waggoner identifies a third type of identity—projective identity—which he frames as the transitional state between virtual and non-virtual identities. That is, it is the phase during which the game player makes the mental leap from his or her own non-virtual natural behavioral state and the state that the player adopts for the game environment. It appears that the required amount of transition time is related to the level of identification the player has with the avatar character—back, again, to the concept of ego-investment.

I find this exchange between Waggoner and one of his study subjects (identified as Shiva) to be of particular interest (pp. 150-151):

Shiva: You get so much control over that character. I got to do whatever I wanted. I felt very connected with that character I guess and it was just, I don’t know, that’s what’s with you the whole time, the character. You kill things, you wander, you’re stuck in the wilderness, and you have to talk to people, but you’re always with your character so that is what stuck out to me.
Waggoner: Who was [Shiva’s avatar] in your mind?
Shiva: I guess mostly an extension of me.

The game Waggoner chose for his study (Morrowind) is a large, open-ended environment that allows players a tremendous amount of freedom to act in either ethical or unethical ways. It even distinguishes between (and appropriately rewards or punishes) similar actions, such as murder (not a good behavior) and killing in self defense (an acceptable behavior). Waggoner found that his study participants made some efforts to determine the limits of the ethical engine within the game so they knew what their boundaries would be within the game.

In this context, it was the avatar’s environment that modified the non-virtual behavior of the game players, at least during the time period of game play. I am very interested in going a step further and determining if in-game ethical boundaries ever have an effect on player behavior in non-virtual situations. In other words, does a player’s existing sense of self always trump his or her avatar’s identity?

In a practical sense, this behavior modification could take place; after all, if a player learns a fact of history inside a game environment, that bit of knowledge sticks with the player regardless of any game play participation. It is entirely possible that an attitude or behavior acquired in-game could just as easily stick with the player after the game situation is over.


Waggoner, Z. C. (2007). Passage to Morrowind: (Dis)locating virtual and “real” identities in video role-playing games. Ph.D. dissertation, Arizona State University, United States — Arizona.



Filed under avatars, ego-investment, games, simulation, virtual identity

2 responses to “The Two-way Street of Player-Avatar Relationships

  1. I love this kind of thinking. Before avatars, there was “table-top” role playing games (Dungeons and Dragons from Gary Gyax in the ’80’s). There was a tremendous amount of ego investment in the character development because it was a sharred narrative (i.e. fantasy chain). In fact, whenever a character (the predecessor to avatars) was eliminated from the narrative, there was always a tremendous sense of loss accompanied by serious emotional experience.

    Like avatars, “characters” could align themselves with virtually any value system they chose (evil, neutral, good, etc.) and as an exercise in role-playing, the character would act and make decisions based on those value systems.

    It has been my experience, however, those value-based decisions were always within the scope of the game. Meaning a character/avatar can act in evil ways, but the player always knew the boundaries of the narrative and how to act outside that narrative.

    There were several alarmist groups in the ’80’s that made fearful arguments that such practices were impairing young people’s ability to know right from wrong because young people would no longer be able to tell where the narrative ended and where the real social construct of our society began. It was then just a minor leap for people to argue the value system that was utilized within the narrative/game would be come the value system utilized in the player’s real community. Thus, players would then act “evil” in real life. (Mazes and Monsters starring Tom Hanks (1982) was a terrible movie built on this premise).
    What needs to be understood, however, is that value systems are complex flow charts that are built over years of cultural and social interactions. Only in the case of an mentally unstable individual would such an entrenched process be replaced by a temporary virtual environment.
    That being said, the question the author asks (behavioral modification as a result of an avatar’s interaction with a virtual environment) is a good one. But one needs to first categorize the questions to know the answer. For example, I believe that regarding decisions based on questions of value (should I lie? Should I steal? Should I kill?), such modification would not take place. Remember values are culturally and socially instilled through years of maturation. However, regarding questions of fact (how do I drive defensively? Can I utilize historical military strategy in this environment? Or other fact-based questions) where pieces of data can be used as they are accumulated; that is where the exciting stuff happens.

    That’s where your player learns from its avatar.


    • Very thoughtful comments, Tim. I agree with your point of decisions being based on value (the “should I?” questions).

      Tom Hanks would have benefited himself by asking, “should I take this Mazes and Monsters role?” I saw that movie. Oof.


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