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Can avatars bring out the good in gamers?

By Kathleen Raven

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Taking on the role of a game avatar like the benevolent Superman or villainous Voldemort may influence a person's behavior after the game is over, according to a new study.

Games might even be designed with "prosocial" behavior modification in mind, the researchers suggest.

"The biggest finding of the paper is that virtual representation of your avatar can profoundly affect real world behavior," lead author Gunwoo Yoon told Reuters Health.

"And the fascinating thing is that the participants did not perceive these effects," said Yoon, a communications doctoral student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

For the study, Yoon and co-author Patrick Vargas recruited 194 college students to play a game fighting enemies for five minutes. Each student was assigned the role of one of three avatars: Superman, Voldemort or a neutral circle for the game.

Next, the researchers asked the men and women to participate in a supposedly unrelated blind taste test. The college students could decide which food and how much of it to give to future participants. The researchers used chocolate sauce as a stand-in for "good" behavior and chili sauce for "bad" behavior.

Those who had played the game as Superman avatars poured nearly twice as much chocolate onto the plates as chili sauce. Voldemort avatar players did the opposite and selected about twice as much chili as chocolate sauce. The neutral circle avatar players poured less chocolate and chili sauce overall.

Yoon and Vargas repeated the experiment with a different group of 125 college students, but this time they asked some participants to merely watch - and not play - a game demonstration through the perspectives of Superman or Voldemort avatars. Their results mirrored the first experiment. However, game players appeared to be more strongly influenced than game observers.

Possible explanations for these effects might be related to the lasting influence of total immersion in a virtual environment or being excited enough by a gaming experience to unconsciously act on this excitement later, the authors write in the journal Psychological Science.

The study has implications for people beyond online, mobile or video games, said Jonah Berger of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

"It also sheds light on human behavior more generally," Berger said.

"Whether you are online or not, the subtle sights, sounds and smells in your environment can impact your behavior," he said.

Berger studies and has written about why ideas go viral online, but he was not part of the current study.

In 2012, nearly one third of all computer games sold fell within the "role-playing" genre, according to the Entertainment Software Association. The same organization estimates that 58 percent of Americans play video games.

"We are spending more time online, with social media and games. We work remotely and have virtual meetings online," Berger said.

"That said, we still spend a lot of time offline. This study speaks to the broader question of how our behavior can be influenced, and not just through avatars," he said.

"Human social responses can be altered by how virtual-self representations are implemented," Yoon and Vargas write in their report. So, they conclude, designing games with more heroic avatars could encourage gamers to engage in "more prosocial behavior" in the real world.

SOURCE: http://bit.ly/1iRSVKP Psychological Science, online February 5, 2014.

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