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Do you play as Voldemort or Superman? Study shows virtual roleplay affects behaviour

Test subjects were asked to play as various avatars and then dole out either chocolate or fiery chilli sauce to anonymous individuals

The alter-egos that players adopt in online games can affect how individuals act in real life, according to new research published in the latest issue of the journal Psychological Science.

"Our results indicate that just five minutes of role-play in virtual environments as either a hero or villain can easily cause people to reward or punish anonymous strangers," says lead researcher Gunwoo Yoon of the University of Illinois.

According Yoon and his co-author Patrick Vargas, virtual environments provide them with “a vehicle for observation, imitation, and modelling” as well as offering individuals the chance to act and feel in a way they cannot in real life.

The pair recruited 194 undergraduates for a pair of ostensibly unrelated studies, first placing each student in a virtual game world and asking them to fight enemies. Each individual was assigned an avatar representing an ethical stance; Superman for heroism, Voldemort for villainy, and a circle as neutral.

Then, a second study asked the same students to participate in a blind taste test of either chocolate or some fiery chili sauce, and told that the next participant would have to eat whatever they had been assigned.

The results showed that undergraduates who had played as Superman gave nearly twice as much chocolate as chili sauce to the “future participant” while those who had spent time in Voldemort’s virtual shoes gave out twice as much chili  sauce as they did chocolate.

A second round of tests with a fresh batch of 125 undergraduates confirmed these findings while also showing that playing as a certain avatar didn’t have nearly as great an affect as watching some else take on a role.

Yoon and Vargas noted that individuals’ behaviour was affected even if consciously they reported not identifying with their avatar: “These behaviours occur despite modest, equivalent levels of self-reported identification with heroic and villainous avatars, alike,” said the pair. “People are prone to be unaware of the influence of their virtual representations on their behavioural responses.”

In the paper, titled ‘Virtual avatars may impact real-world behaviour,’ the researchers suggested that the degree to which individuals were affected was influenced by how involved they were in the gameplay.

This is not the first time that psychologists have studied the transference of behaviour from video games to real life. A study carried out earlier this year by Nottingham Trent university found that regular players reported seeing elements from video games such as menus, displays or music appearing in their vision.

Yoon speculates that his research could have implications for social behaviour: "In virtual environments, people can freely choose avatars that allow them to opt into or opt out of a certain entity, group, or situation," he said. "Consumers and practitioners should remember that powerful imitative effects can occur when people put on virtual masks."

The effects of this sort of roleplay and imitation have long been commented upon by writers and thinkers - as well as psychologists. As George Orwell wrote in ‘Shooting an Elephant’, his essay on the pressures and expectations facing colonial troops in India: “He wears a mask and his face grows to fit it.”