Theories of Games and Interaction for Design (6: Putting Ourselves in the Game)

Approximate Reading Time: 4 minutes

These are public postings of my writings for the first course of the Graduate Certificate Program in Serious Game Design and Research at Michigan State University.

Please note: these posts are not intended as any kind of commentary on or assessment of the course I’m taking, or its instructor, OR of Michigan State University or the College of Communication Arts and Sciences, or the Department of Telecommunication, Information Studies and Media. They are solely my thoughts and reactions that stem from the readings.

Feel free to comment, disagree, or what have you.

Week 6

These are the readings for the week (Topics: Theories of Behavior Part 1: Health Belief, Model, Stage of Change, Theory of Planned, Behavior, Social Cognitive Theory):

  • Kelly, H., Howell, K., Glinert, E., Holding, L., Swain, C., Burrowbridge, A., & Roper, M. (2007). How to build serious games. Communications of the ACM, 50(7), 44-49.
  • NIH Theory at a glance (pg. 9-21 – USE PAGE NUMBERS IN DOCUMENT, NOT THE ONES IN ACROBAT) National Institutes of Health (2005). Theory at a glance: A guide for health promotion practice. Retrieved August 15, 2010 from
  • Lieberman, D. (2012). Designing digital games, social media, and mobile technologies to motivate and support health behavior change. In R. E. Rice & C. K. Atkin (Eds.), Public Communication Campaigns (pp. 273-287). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  • GAME: Immune Attack

This week I was particularly taken by the discussion in Lieberman about the “Proteus Effect”. People identify with their avatars, and they do so more strongly when they have control over how the avatar looks, but it still resembles them to an extent. It doesn’t surprise me that this would be so, and it makes perfect sense to me that an avatar that presents an idealized or inspirational version of the self would have a strong effect in connecting us to the game. It also makes sense that being able to actually see your avatar (i.e. 3rd person perspective) would have a greater effect than if you play the gave “looking out through the avatar” but never seeing her.

Many games and websites allow players to choose an avatar to represent themselves, and it seems to me that too many of them have either not read the research on this phenomenon, or have chosen to ignore its impact. Doing this badly can negatively affect the whole experience.

When we first got our Wii, my kids spent hours and hours making up Miis. It was great fun. They made quite a few known characters: science heroes, cartoon, anime, film, and TV characters, etc., but they also created some completely made-up characters as well as numerous variations of themselves. Each one had a specific personality and when they were messing around with them it was clear that some invited more silliness than others. I will admit that I am not up on the full body of research into the Proteus effect, but I can easily see how the appearance of our avatar will affect the way we identify with it, and that in turn will of course affect our connection to the game itself.

It seems intuitive that we would tend to do things differently depending on the appearance of our avatar – good, evil, sympathetic vs unsympathetic. I normally behave online in much the same way I would in real life (IRL), so for example, I have never walked away from an NPC that wanted to talk to me in Animal Crossing. When they ask a question I usually respond in a way that I think will “please” them – and they’re only bots! I suspect I might be more willing to act differently if my avatar did not appear to represent me.

I came across a very recent study that suggests that the virtual embodiment of the self may have real effects for personal identity and offline behaviors, which has important implications for health games especially. That same study also suggests that the effect was stronger in the positive direction than in the negative. “Overall, self-presence emerged as the dominant antecedent of the influence of the virtual on offline health and appearance behavior change. Though spatial and social presence initially appeared to be predictors the influence of these dimensions of presence were rendered statistically non-significant once self-presence was accounted for in the model. Thus, self-presence has unique effects on offline behaviors and should be considered and measured as a construct independently from social and spatial presence” (Behm-Morawitz, 2012).

This means there is yet one more thing we need to consider carefully when we are designing a serious game. First, should we allow the player some sort of avatar, either in game or as part of the community surrounding the game? It seems that this choice is likely to have an effect on how people engage with the game, and therefore it will also have an effect on the manner in which the game’s message is taken up.

Then, if we have decided to include an avatar, we now need to consider how we are going to do it:

  • Should it be customizable or should they choose from a list of pre-defined characters?
  • If customizable, is there a way for them to create themselves, or merely create variations on some characters they are given?

While all of these things have implications for entertainment games and can positively or negatively affect the success of a game, I think it has even more critical implications for serious games because serious games have a message to impart.

Behm-Morawitz, E. (2012). Mirrored selves: The influence of self-presence in a virtual world on health, appearance, and well-being. Computers in Human Behavior, in press(0). doi: 10.1016/j.chb.2012.07.023

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